You know, most car builders go racing quite simply because it helps to sell cars. But there’s always been a very small cadre like Lotus’ Colin Chapman, or Carroll Shelby, who raced because they loved it. Nowadays those pure car building enthusiasts are rare but some are still around. One of them is Danny Panoz. Now we’ve driven, and very much enjoyed, his AIV Roadster. And here are the latest Panoz cars, ones we can’t wait to drive, a pair of all new Esperantes, one for the street and one for the track. So let’s go have some fun.
For us, it was a situation of double the fun when we were offered unlimited laps in both machines at one of our favorite tracks, the twisty two miles of Roebling Road Raceway outside Savannah, Georgia. We’ve been following the evolution of the Esperante with some interest since we saw the first styling mockup during a visit to the Panoz factory in 1997, and got our first slow ride in a prototype at this same track two years later. The idea of a more practical and elegant machine to complement the raucous AIV roadster not only appealed to us as enthusiasts, but would take Panoz to that next level as a multi- line car maker.
And this production 2001 Esperante convertible is a perfect fit for the Panoz stable, as it balances the passion of a hand-built custom with thoroughly modern mechanicals to make a world-class Grand Touring machine.
The cockpit is a tasteful blend of leather, hand-stitched by a father and son team, complemented by chrome accents and tasteful wood, carbon fiber or, in this case, body-color trim. The center-mounted gauge cluster, and most of the controls surrounding it, were originally designed for Ford by Visteon. Despite the familiar look, the interior design has an aura of upscale sportiness.
The well-balanced long-nose/short-deck exterior design was penned in-house and refined in California. Cycle fenders flank a bulging hood, and a graceful, arching beltline sweeps back to the high, muscular rear quarter. The minimal front air intake and tasteful side vents add flair and keep the look clean, a less-is-more approach that other car makers would do well to mimic.
The Esperante’s fully-lined, semi-rigid convertible top seals tight and operates smoothly through a combination of manual and power controls, but a hardtop is not yet available. All of the body panels are superplastic-formed aluminum, resting on an extruded aluminum chassis of Panoz’ own design.
For the running gear and major subsystems, like wiring harnesses, traction control and the like, Panoz has again wisely dipped into Ford’s vast parts bin. Not only does this help reliability, but it saves the tremendous cost of development and testing for these essentially hidden systems.
Hidden under the hood, yet mounted behind the front axle, is Ford’s 4.6 liter, 32-valve, DOHC V8. It’s good for 320 horsepower and a healthy 317 lb-ft of torque. Driving the rear wheels through a Tremec five-speed manual gearbox, that’s enough grunt to propel the Esperante to 60 in just 5.3 seconds. 1/4 mile runs are over in 13.6 seconds at 106 mph.
Out on the racetrack, the Esperante acts like what it is… an athletic middle-weight cruiser, quick enough to be enjoyable, but no threat for a purist sports car. The engineers have dialed in plenty of understeer to play it safe in most situations. The ABS-equipped brakes were flawless, lap after lap.
In all, the 2001 Panoz Esperante strikes us as a first-rate effort, offering exclusivity and hand-crafted elegance combined with modern design and the added luxury of proven, reliable mechanicals. Add it all up, and the base price of $79,950 is a reasonable one. Throw in a custom paint job and the exquisite carbon-fiber engine cover, and our tester rings in at $85,830.
This other Esperante costs quite a bit less, at $54,950; but includes none of the luxury features found in its droptop sibling, except for having doors that open!
What it does offer is the exhilaration you can only get in a purebred racing machine. Powering the Esperante GTS is a tried-and-true 5.8 liter 16-valve Ford Motorsports V8. It cranks out 385 horsepower and 377 lb-ft of torque. With a curb weight of just over 2,600 pounds, that means each pony is hauling a mere 6.9 pounds. While we didn’t run any formal acceleration numbers for the GTS, it handily beat the stock Esperante in this impromptu drag race.
But where the GTS really feels at home is turning hot laps around Roebling’s ten turns. Our car was set up very neutrally, meaning the driver has maximum control. And maximum grip was provided by our car’s Michelin racing slicks. The GTS suspension uses Penske adjustable coil over shocks at all four corners, tied to unequal length A-arms up front and a live axle with 4 trailing arms and a Watts link at the rear….A setup proven by Panoz Motorsports in the grueling 24 hours of LeMans and victory lanes worldwide.
One unique feature of the GTS is its body, made up of 15 acrylic-coated ABS plastic panels. They are more durable, less expensive and easier to replace than fiberglass.
The Esperante GTS is available now to compete in SCCA club racing, and to date, more than 30 have been delivered. Eventually, Panoz hopes the GTS will anchor its own spec racing series, much like the popular Barber Dodge or Formula Ford events.
So whether your venue of choice is a winding country road or a crowded pit lane, Panoz has an Esperante with a winning formula for you.
Engine: 4.6 Liter, Dohc, 32-valve, V8
Torque: 317 Lb Feet
0-60 MPH: 5.3 Seconds
1/4 Mile: 13.6 Seconds @ 106 MPH