Donkervoort GTO Premium review

Donkervoort GTO Premium Review (© Donkervoort)

We like: Eye-opening acceleration, brilliant handling, superb controllability, just plain fun
We don’t like: Compromised elbow room, too much wind in the hair

Donkervoort GTO: first impressions

This car is unbelievably light. If Lotus’s Colin Chapman hated weight, founder Joop Donkervoort needs to lie on a couch to talk about it. His GTO combines computer cut and welded tube steel and stressed carbon-fibre panels and the whole car weighs just 535kg more than its engine, including two seats and a luggage compartment. It’s also strong, with 350ft/lb of torque and, as a bonus, it’s capable of delivering 35.3 miles per gallon on the combined cycle. That’s crazy for a car that can do what this car does.

Donkervoort GTO: performance

Donkervoort will offer slightly heavier, slightly less powerful versions of the GTO than this one, but if you’re the underdog, why not punch your hardest when the bell rings?

It’s hard to imagine anybody will feel short-changed with the GTO, regardless of engine tune, but the Premium package is something special. The best home Audi has for this engine is the TTRS and that’s nothing like as convincing as the GTO.

For starters, the GTO will explode to 62mph in just 2.8 seconds and it will hit 124mph in only 8.6 seconds, even with its bluff aerodynamics coming into play above around 90mph. And it does all of this starting in second gear, because it’s just faster that way.

At Donkervoort, performance is first and everything else is a distant last

Plenty of half-million pound hypercars aren’t this quick in a straight line, at least to 60mph, and the Donkervoort does it all with a relatively simple five-speed Tremec gearbox and a mechanical limited slip differential on the rear axle.

Don’t expect the same cultured, sophisticated sound tuning out that Audi delivers out of the five-cylinder version. At Donkervoort, performance is first and everything else is a distant last, so the engine will sound exactly how it needs to sound to for maximum performance. And nothing more.

It’s still smooth, with every unwanted bit of harshness scrubbed away, but it doesn’t sound anything like an Audi engine. On full throttle, good vibrations come fizzing up through the steering wheel, the seat and the pedals and the turbo shrieks like a Stuka on a bombing run.

It doesn’t accelerate from a standing start as much as explode, as if it’s bent on making your spine mould to the shape of its tail lights. It’s an incredible, ferocious, brutal punch every time you attack its throttle and it happens in every gear, right up to fifth.

For all that, it has so much torque that it moves off calmly, effortlessly and strongly when you’re in a more sombre mood. It offers no histrionics and could easily be driven in traffic all day long.

Donkervoort GTO Premium Review (© Donkervoort)

Donkervoort GTO: ride and handling

For a seemingly simple, light machine, the underpinnings of the GTO are incredibly sophisticated. For example, it uses bronze welding for its chassis because its melting point is lower than the chromolly tubing, so it doesn’t weaken the tubes, so crash-damaged tubes can be easily replaced and so that it can act as an additional damper to soak up vibrations. And it was all designed specifically to house this engine.

It also has a double-wishbone front suspension and a five-link rear end and its layout and setup has had input from the inventor of the Focus RS’s Revo knuckle, former Maserati chief chassis engineer Paul Fickers. One of the real pieces of genius is the tuning of the Dutch Intrax dampers, which use natural forces to switch between the default damping chamber for normal driving and the firmer one for when things get aggressive.

There is no power assistance for either the steering or the brakes and the short, stubby gear lever does little to hide its mechanical nature. There are light alloy wheels inside the 255/45 ZR17 Toyo Proxes R1R tyres, plus a set of Italian Tarox six-piston brake calipers. Oddly, there are no carbon-ceramic brakes, but the GTO’s lack of weight means it can’t keep the lighter brake discs hot enough.

The GTO is white hot in corners

Despite its looks, one of the amazing things about the GTO is the sheer comfort of the ride when it’s not being pushed hard. It has greater suppleness than the BMW M5 or the Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG, which it clearly has no right to have. It treats square-edged bumps with a gliding serenity that defies its intended function.

All of that, and the GTO is white hot in corners, too, with the extra wheel loads forcing the dampers to switch to their harder valving and the brakes getting stronger and stronger as they get hotter and hotter.

Its front end bites so hard and so accurately that most drivers have to recalibrate their own processing speeds. If competition-standard drivers attack the same corner harder and harder, they may find some understeer at its very outer edges. Donkervoort has an optional rear anti-roll bar to counter this, but by then you are charging into corners a full gear higher than would be possible in anything else that carries this engine.

It corners with a remarkably flat body, as though it’s keeping its weight distribution exactly where it wants it, not where the road wants it to go. And, even when it finds its own front-end limits, it’s still progressive enough to let the skilled dial up any cornering stance they prefer with steering input, braking, lift off, added throttle… No road legal car can shift its weight around its stance as easily and willingly as this, or to greater effect.

The steering, also unassisted, is wickedly sharp but it’s best to have some upper body work before you get in or you’re going to feel your shoulders in the morning. But you can see the front wheels, turning beneath their mudguards, and you can place them within millimetres of where you want them to be, every time.

It’s happy on short, sharp corners, but its wheelbase is long enough to manage sweepers and double apex bends with the same aggressive authority. And you dive deeper and deeper into the Donkervoort and you get happier and happier until you arrive at a point where there is nothing else in the world that matters.

Donkervoort GTO: interior

It says everything you need to know about this car that the biggest button you can find on the GTO’s dashboard is not for a radio or a multi-media screen or an air conditioner, but for a brake-bias adjuster.

Still, with all its weight-slashing phobia, the leather-clad interior is luxurious in its own way. The door opens slightly upwards and you slide down and in, just like in an open-wheeled racing car. And you probably should do it with your narrowest wing tips or, better yet, a set of race boots on, because the footwell is tight. Everything is perfectly positioned, but all three pedals are small and unless you’ve come prepared, you’ll be tripping over your own soles when things get busy.

The seats are very tight, but incredibly supportive

Its driving position isn’t perfect for everybody and the seats themselves are very tight, but incredibly supportive. The steering and the pedals are both straight and its stubby, milled gear lever fits so naturally that you find yourself touching it instinctively. It’s not so perfect on the left side, though, because the seat base is below some of the side tubes and anybody who normally sits close to the wheel is going to foul their elbows on it. Better to compromise and sit a touch further back to retain control.

But even sitting still, the GTO promises action. There’s a red cover that you have to flick up for the start toggle and then there are other stand-out features like a variable traction control dial, a launch-control mode and a two-stage Sport mode.

Like all clubman-style machines, its cabin is narrow, but the workmanship in the GTO is superb. The headrests are integrated extensions of the carbon-fibre seat shells, the doors have little strips of leather that let you clip them open or closed and everything that looks like metal is metal. And every time you see this dashboard, you know you’re about to do something special.

Donkervoort GTO: economy and safety

Light cars often fare poorly on standard crash tests and Donkervoort doesn’t help the perceptions by refusing to fit airbags to the GTO.

It does deliver the option of five- or six-point harnesses, which increase occupant security enormously, but the car relies on its stupendous active safety so that it doesn’t need the passive safety. Even so, it passes every test it needs to pass to be legal.

The most surprising and most impressive sports car I’ve driven in years

Still, there is no skid-control system in the GTO, save your right foot, and no ABS, though there is traction control.

It is remarkably fuel efficient, given its performance, and is capable of delivering more than 35 mpg on the NEDC combined test, or 157 grams of CO2/km.

Astonishing. It’s not cheap, but the GTO is incredibly fast, civilised, easy to drive and exceptionally sophisticated. It’s probably the best clubman-style production car ever built.

As a bonus, it also had to pass all of the Volkswagen Group’s durability and validation tests before Audi’s Quattro division (which make its engine) would allow it on sale.

It’s easily the most surprising and most impressive sports car I’ve driven in years, and its coherence and sophistication caught us completely off guard, given its simple-formula looks.

This car is anything but simple in its engineering, but Donkervoort has avoided all possible traps that complexity brings to deliver something very, very special indeed. This is one for the ages.