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Motoring: The kryptonite factor

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's a super-fast French supercar. But what do our readers think of it? By Michael Booth
o, it's not a Ferrari. Or a kit car. And it isn't a Lotus either. So that's your three guesses. This is, in fact, the new Venturi Atlantique 300, France's belated attempt at a mid-engined supercar. But does it cut la moutarde? I'm afraid not, but before I plunge the knife in, an introduction.

Venturi is a low-volume manufacturer based in Nantes, from where it has been building high-performance road and racing cars for over 12 years. So far it has made little impact outside the pages of the motoring press, and even if you know what a Venturi is, you are unlikely to have seen one as only a handful make it across the Channel each year.

That at least ensures exclusivity. But what else might lure the potential Ferrari or Lotus buyer? Well, for a competitive (in supercar terms) pounds 63,000 (Ferrari's 355 is around pounds 100,000), a Venturi owner gets to tootle around with 302bhp, courtesy of a twin turbocharged mid-mounted, three-litre V6 engine. That's good for 174mph and 0-60 in 5.3 seconds. Originally a Renault unit, Venturi has uprated this engine to such an extent that it is allowed to call it its own - and it is a blissfully free-revving motor with buckets of power.

In reality though, there is probably only one stretch of road in this country where you would stand a chance of really pushing this car to its limits. It's called Silverstone. As far as day-to-day driving goes, the Venturi is an unholy pain in the backside, often literally - and its faults obscure whatever potential may lie beneath its unarguably pretty fibreglass body. Sole UK importer, Nicholas Mee, however, stresses that the car we sampled was the hastily built London show car and that future Venturis will be more polished.

My first and probably most serious moan, one that Mee was already well aware of, concerns the clutch, which required a Herculean effort to operate. The throttle pedal, too, was stiff and jerky, and its travel far too short. That exacerbated an appalling judder when accelerating through the higher gears (a phenomenon known as axle tramp). The brake pedal, conversely, was too soft and travelled too far before the discs had much effect. The Venturi's long throw, rubbery gear change needs work to bring it up to TVR, let alone Ferrari standards. Throw in atrocious visibility, dire ergonomics (half of the instruments are obscured by the non-adjustable steering wheel), and the absence of airbags, satellite navigation or a CD player, and that pounds 63,000 price tag doesn't look like such a "bargain" after all.

When Honda introduced its user-friendly NSX nearly a decade ago it transformed the supercar market. Even Ferrari soon realised that it was going to have to start making cars that ordinary (albeit monstrously rich) people could drive along ordinary roads. The Venturi remains mired in the Eighties (check out those pop-up lights), a time when supercars were masochistic machines for hairy-chested inadequates. As an impressionable youth I would have been consumed by its obscure glamour, after all, there was no danger that anyone would actually let me drive one. But in the cold light of maturity, I invariably found myself choosing the train rather than labouring through traffic in this cantankerous superfrog

The verdict

Jill Fennell, 42, probation service officer and PA to local MP, from Gillingham, Kent. Currently drives a Vauxhall Astra

"This is built for people with longer legs than me, I needed a cushion. I like the styling and interior, it seemed good quality, I'd have no doubts about reliability. But it is disappointingly heavy to drive and I had problems with the clutch, especially holding it down at the lights. I like the fact that although it's a sports car it has a short bonnet, which is good for pulling out of junctions, and you can turn it on a sixpence. I don't think I'll put it on my Christmas list though, I'd prefer a nice Mercedes."

Graham Lock, 50, deputy headmaster, from Chatham, Kent. Currently drives a BMW 5-Series

"It's certainly got all the power you need, nice acceleration, good brakes, visibility OK. I liked the steering wheel and driving position but the handbrake was awkwardly placed. I hadn't heard of Venturi before and I don't think I'd buy one. It's not worth the money and it would be a bit impractical for me. I'd want something that wasn't so low slung and difficult to get in and out of. Personally I'd go for a Honda Accord or Mazda 626, this would be nice on long drives though."

Malcolm Auge, 49, hairdresser, from Aylesford, Kent. Currently drives a Vauxhall Cavalier

"I hadn't heard of Venturi before driving this. But it's a very exotic car with wonderful road holding. It has great mid-range speed and it's very comfortable, the leather was beautiful. If I had a lot of money I might like one. They are different, understated, not too flash. I had a problem with the windscreen misting up, reversing is difficult and the gearbox takes a while to get used to, but the finish is nice. You can't see some of the dials though, which in a high-performance car is a serious problem. I'm over six foot but there was plenty of room."

Malcolm Richardson, 44, chartered surveyor, from Eynsford, Kent. Currently drives a BMW 3-Series and a Mercedes 230SL

"I like its understated quality. It's really nice looking, subtle, it doesn't shout money. I'm not sure about the white leather interior though. It was quick but the gearbox was notchy. The clutch was heavy too but you soon get used to that and the throttle pedal was a bit all or nothing, it needed more travel. It's difficult to drive smoothly in traffic, but on the open road it is easy to do very high speeds. The steering was direct but on quick bends it wasn't so fluid. You wouldn't know it was French, it looks more Italian."

Road test If you would like to take part in a test drive, write to The Verdict, The Independent Magazine, One Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, giving a contact phone number, your address and details of the type of vehicle, if any, you drive. For most cars, participants must be over 26, and have a clean driving licence.