Donkervoort picks a fight

Any honest search for the planet’s best thoroughbred sports car will include a flight to Amsterdam and a 40-min train ride to the village of Lelystad.

This industrial hamlet on a flat swathe of land reclaimed from the ocean is home to one of the world’s most stubborn, independent and unconventional sports-car specialists. It is a little company that consistently takes mighty swings at automakers above its weight class, and it makes big-hearted cars that refuse to move to the right for any rival, no matter how prestigious or honoured.

Vital Stats

Donkervoort D8 GTO

  • Type: Two-seat, front-engine roadster
    Powertrain: Turbocharged 2.5-litre in-line five-cylinder gasoline engine, five-speed manual transmission, rear-wheel drive
  • Output: 340hp, 332lb-ft torque (Standard and Touring models); 376hp, 350lb-ft (Performance model)
  • 0-62mph: 3.3sec (Standard and Touring models); 2.8sec (Performance model)
  • Top speed: 158mph
  • Fuel consumption (combined): 24mpg (est)
  • Base price (Holland): 106,500 euros (about $143,000, exclusive of tax)

This is Donkervoort, and its car is the D8 GTO.

Founded in 1978 by Joop Donkervoort, a Dutch sports-car aficionado and admirer of Lotus Cars founder Colin Chapman, Donkervoort Automobielen got its start building a Lotus Seven-inspired buggy called the S7. You would be forgiven for not having heard the company’s name: in 35 years, only 1,100 cars have worn its red-winged emblem. Joop Donkervoort founded it in the 1970s to built Clubman-style cars. It has had its ups and downs since, but life looks to be all “ups” with the GTO.

The D8 GTO is a brutally quick car, capable of embarrassing anything, anywhere and making its driver feel like a track-day deity. And after the victory lap, it will ferry champion and partner home again – legally – in surprising comfort.

The GTO was engineered from the ground up to make use of a modified version of Audi’s already fearsome 2.5-litre turbocharged five-cylinder engine. Donkervoort says the engine and its components are 66lbs lighter in the GTO than in any Audi; in standard form, the unit punches out 340 horsepower and 332 pound-feet of torque. In the top-trim Performance model packs 376hp and 350lb-ft of torque.

These are not Ferrari numbers, but neither is the GTO’s feathery 1,533lb curb weight.

This GTO is fast – world-blurringly, mind-alteringly so. The car will sprint from a standstill to 62mph in 2.8 seconds, a feat the new McLaren P1 hybrid hypercar also accomplishes – but with 903hp.

Even if you’re unlucky enough to be picked on by a car that is fractionally faster in a straight line (a Bugatti Veyron, say), the lithe GTO will show its taillights as soon as the road bends.

As strong as the GTO’s Audi engine is, it is not the essence to the car’s brilliance. This turbo five fills the engine bays – and all but defines – Audi’s all-wheel-drive TT RS, RS3 and new RS Q3. The rear-wheel-drive Donkervoort is different; here, the engine is merely a supporting player in a show stolen by the chassis and suspension.

Donkervoort calls the GTO’s core a hybrid chassis. Designed by Mr Donkervoort and former Maserati chief chassis engineer Paul Fickers, it is an intricate scaffold of laser-cut and copper-welded steel tubing, abetted by stressed carbon fibre composite panels and aluminium double-wishbones at all four wheels.

The engine sits low, well behind the front axle line. It is matched to a Tremec five-speed manual gearbox and a Quaife mechanical limited-slip differential. There are high-tech pieces where they are needed, low-tech pieces where they work, and the result is a strong, light, cleverly engineered car that is quite simply the best in the world at what it does.

The door – which weighs all of 2.2lbs – opens up scissors-style, allowing the driver to slide down into the GTO’s tight but hugely supportive seat. The cabin is all business, with a fat-rimmed, removable steering wheel and a stubby, milled gear lever. There is a red cap over the start toggle and the dashboard’s largest dial is not an infotainment controller, but a brake-bias adjuster. There is a knob for variable traction control, launch control and a two-stage Sport mode. The footwell is race-car tight and the pedals are small, so a good pair of driving shoes is a necessity.

The seriousness of the interior helps to reinforce what your innards are already bracing themselves for, because once strapped into the GTO, there is no question that you are about to do something special – and, very likely, illegal.

Beneath the hoods of its Audi recipients, the turbo five sounds deep, rich and silken. This Donkervoort has different priorities; at idle, the engine fizzes, zings and wobbles. Under way, vibration comes fizzing through the pedals, the seat, the steering wheel and the gear lever. The cockpit is noisy, but the noise feels like an essential, highly orchestrated part of the experience.

The car moves off calmly enough. A stout-of-shoulder grandmother could drive it in a normal traffic flow. Stomp the throttle, however, and its character changes, with the engorged turbo shrieking like a Stuka bomber in a dive.

The GTO doesn’t punch you in the back like most very fast cars do. Launching the Donkervoort is more like surfing on the outer edge of an explosion. Under full throttle, the driver and an unwary passenger are brutalised, tenderised and squashed, struggling to breathe until the acceleration tapers off in fourth gear.

And yet, despite the GTO’s racer-like brutality, the car is surprisingly comfortable when not pushed. Aside from the wind buffeting (remedied by attaching the side windows or putting up the soft top), the GTO rides better than some very lofty cars, including the BMW M5 and the Audi RS7.

Square-edged bumps that can perplex air suspensions are treated with a gliding serenity that seems to defy everything the GTO projects. There is no crunching or thumping, and half a cup of water could be placed on the dashboard and not a drop would be spilt over a broken piece of cobbled road.

Lest one think such civility will leave the GTO wanting in the twisties, think again. It glows white hot. The steering rack and brakes are unassisted, and ABS is wholly absent, so assaulting corners requires more muscle than in most cars. But the Donkervoort was born for bends, changing direction with absolutely immediacy and remarkable flatness.

The steering accumulates weight and sharpness the harder the car is pushed. But you can see the front wheels turning beneath their mudguards, and you can place them within millimetres of where they ought to be, every time. Stated plainly, no road-legal car can shift its weight around as easily and willingly as the D8 GTO, nor to greater effect.

Is it perfect? Of course not. A five-speed gearbox feels one cog short, but six would have meant more weight, which is anathema to the company. Which is to say, to Mr Donkevort.

And cheap it is not, starting at 106,500 euros (about $143,000) for the base version. Opt for a fully loaded Performance model like the tested car and expect to part with at least 150,000 euros.

And yet, there are precious few cars at any price that go, turn and stop like the D8 GTO, and few that are as lovingly hand-crafted. And that combination of virtues may just make this Dutch treat not just a remarkable performance car, but a remarkable performance bargain.