Porsche, Ferrari, and BMW are marques commonly referred to when we think of exotic luxury or sports cars. The sports car market has seen a boom since the Mazda Miata hit showrooms at the summer of 1989. Porsche, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Honda
all have small, two-seat roadsters on the market. One of the names taking on the European roadsters is a small one located outside of Atlanta; and it’s taking them on with a formidable machine that has the grace to match anything from Maranello, and power that’s pure Detroit.
The Panoz Automotive Development Company was founded the same year as the Miata’s debut, a funny coincidence: 1989. Daniel Panoz had come to the States with chassis from the defunct Thompson Motor Company of Ireland. He wanted to build small, lightweight roadsters that folks could race without going broke. The Panoz Roadsters sold, and Daniel Panoz was able to move ahead with bigger plans. PADC started its motorsports division in 1996 and made an impressive showing the next year at Le Mans, France. It made the even bigger steps of bringing the Le Mans racing series to America and founding the country’s premiere racing school.
The big result of Panoz’s years of motoring was the Esperante, a luxurious two-seat, aluminum-bodied sports car with a European flavor and American power. The Esperante debuted in 2000 as a race car for the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) circuits. A production model was made the following year. The Esperante measures 14.7 ft. in length, with an 8.8 ft. wheelbase; it stands 4.5 ft. high and 6.1 ft. wide. Curb weight is just 3,280 lbs. thanks to the lightweight aluminum and carbon composites that make up the car’s body and frame. Standard equipment include a four-speaker, 200 wt. speaker system; a CD/MP3 player; and four-wheel ABS vented disc brakes. The real stuff is under the hood with the car’s Ford 4.6 L V-8 that makes a maximum output of 305 hp and 320 ft.-lbs. of torque. This power enables the car to pass 150 mph and reach 60 in around 5 sec.
Panoz offers the Esperante as a both a roadster and a hardtop coupe. Three trim levels are available: base, GT, and GTLM. The high-end GTLM is 10 in. longer and 180 lbs. heavier, but has its engine tuned to produce around 35% more output, with the addition of aerodynamic chin and rear spoilers. That kind of work may be why the Esperante beat out Porsche and BMW for class victory at Le Mans this year.
Don’t get your hopes up yet. This all comes for a price. A base Esperante roadster starts at $92,300. The GT starts around $97,400. The GTLM is a whopper at over $121,000. How does the Esperante stand up to the competition? Mixed. The Esperante drives with confidence and power. Handling is firm. Acceleration is smooth. This is a car you feel you’re in control of. That’s different from the similarly priced Dodge Viper ($82,000), its closest American rival. Keep in mind the Viper SRT-10 boasts over 500 hp and a top speed around 190 mph. But the Viper’s huge 8.3 L V-10 produces enormous torque that makes the ride dangerous if you don’t know how to tame the beast. The Panoz is the finer pleasure to drive by a mile, with an air of elegance and restraint. It doesn’t fare as well as some of German roadsters it’s directly taking on. A Porsche Boxster S runs for $55,000 and offers similar numbers; a Mercedes-Benz SLK55 AMG runs for over $61,000; and BMW’s new M roadster is just $51,000.
But Panoz proves America can build luxurious, small two-seaters. The Esperante is a noble effort from a small company without much in the way of history. It offers the speed, looks, and ride classy drivers want in their sports cars. If the Panoz were $40,000 cheaper, than it could be a real force in the market. But since that’s not the case, the Esperante will forever be limited. But the Panoz company is more than just a car – it’s an enterprise. A capable one at that.