Cardinal Coupe: A unique track machine that gets plenty right

J.G.
By J.G. Pasterjak
Mar 12, 2024 | Cardinal Coupe, Track Test, Florida International Rally & Motorsport Park, Fields Auto Works | Posted in Features | From the Nov. 2023 issue | Never miss an article

Photography by Chris Tropea

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Despite what half the ads in the back of those old issues of Popular Mechanics promised, building your own car is a complex, difficult process. There’s a reason the companies that do it are listed on the NYSE and have their names on 60,000-seat stadiums.

But those big companies face big compromises from demanding customers who insist on such trivialities as “door panels” and “bumpers.” And while those features are fine if you’re into that sort of thing, plenty of residents of our world certainly appreciate the more minimalist approach, where no quarter is given in favor of performance and engagement. 

Thankfully, a few companies out there have decided to leverage the economies of scale of series production for fun instead of for mass-market appeal. Recently, Fields Auto Works and its Cardinal Coupe joined the small fraternity of specialty manufacturers like Mosler, Panoz, Caterham and Ginetta that speak directly to the track enthusiast.

It’s Kinda Small but Not

Your first impression of the Cardinal Coupe is its smallness. It’s a tidy car, with little front overhang and the driver positioned in what appears to be the geometric center of the wheelbase. But yeah, it’s tiny. Early Miata tiny. But it seems even tinier than those NA Miatas, because the stretched fenders and taut bodywork give it lots of visual mass out toward the tires. The central section of the car seems extremely slight.

Then you hop in, and it all just magically opens up. 

The car’s a bit of a throwback to a time when doors didn’t have to be a foot thick and body panels didn’t have to hide air bags, miles of wires and plumbing, and pound upon pound of sound-deadening material. 

The Cardinal’s interior, admittedly a little tight on ingress and egress due to smallish door openings, seems like a great place to do some work. There’s ample room to throw your elbows and great visibility of the front corners, which seem almost impossibly close.

The vibe–in the car we sampled, anyway–is decidedly more race car than street car, with simple, smooth panels holding easy-to-read indicators, but the general layout inside is still roomy and hospitable. Throw in some carpet and padding and you’ll have a more than reasonable weekend cars-and-coffee machine that can still smoke a track.

But let’s get back to those first impressions, because the Cardinal, like so many low-volume specialty cars, can be a bit divisive when it comes to looks. Admittedly, it has a few awkward details–the grille comes to mind–but the more time we spent with the Cardinal on our test day, the more we liked the overall package. 

The design contains a lot of homages–a little Jaguar here, a touch of Ferrari 250 GTO there, maybe a sprinkle of Daytona Cobra Coupe in between–but the car comes off as a tribute to great details of automotive history rather than a poorly sampled remix. 

Underneath the fiberglass skin, the Cardinal features a space frame that uses bonded and riveted panels for additional center section rigidity and structure. The front and rear suspensions hang from tubular subframes. If that sounds like race car construction, well, it kind of is, but it also makes for a modular, easy-to-assemble package that works spectacularly. 

Suspension at all four corners is via A-arms with pull rod-actuated coil-over dampers, keeping the mass as close to the centerline as possible. Not that there’s a lot of mass to begin with. A track-specced Cardinal like our test car barely cracks 1800 pounds, which means the 295mm-wide Hoosier A7s mounted on our ride were free to just assault the pavement.

While the chassis and suspension designs are all bespoke, one of the Cardinal’s primary design goals was to keep down costs and complication by using as many off-the-shelf components as possible. Many of the suspension bits are repurposed from the catalogs of short-track chassis builders, and the entire driveline comes courtesy of the Ford Mustang.

A 300-horsepower, four-cylinder EcoBoost is mounted up front–although entirely behind the front axle to keep mass as close as possible to the center of rotation–and that sends power through a Tremec T-56 Magnum six-speed to a Ford Performance Super 8.8-inch rear with a limited-slip. Ford Severe Service CV axles then connect to the rear hubs, and a Ford Performance ECU and wiring harness run the whole thing. It’s a powerful, flexible, understressed combination that also happens to come with a warranty.

It’s Fast, Too

Light weight, big, sticky tires and ample power are great ingredients, but combining them in a way that produces a satisfying experience is not always a slam dunk. Thankfully, it’s clear from the first corner that the Fields crew did its homework.

The unassisted steering is a bit heavy–electric power steering is an option, and one we’d probably take–but the tradeoff is superb feel, especially just off center, where you’re doing the most important work. Ample feedback for those turn-ins and transitions across the center of mass makes the car feel even more nimble than its low mass already does.

Grip is predictably tenacious, although the Hoosiers on our test car had seen lots of heat cycles. Balance was still neutral, with a bit of bias toward understeer on power and oversteer off throttle. On-throttle oversteer was available, but the power delivery of the turbocharged EcoBoost engine isn’t exactly instant in the midrange. Power comes on a bit soft until the boost ramps, and then you can do whatever you want with those rear tires. While the boost is building, though, the more restrained power delivery can lead to a bit of push.

Realize, though, that we’re talking about fractions of a second here. This is not like an ’80s turbo car where your Domino’s pizza may show up before your 15 psi. It’s just that the initial tip in of throttle off boost takes a bit of patience to deliver all 300 horses.

Braking is pretty spectacular, with the unassisted racing-style system having surgical feedback and great action. At street speeds, the pedal feels a bit dead, mostly because you aren’t using much travel and force and, as a result, aren’t getting much feedback. 

But once speeds start increasing, the pedal feel and feedback are exceptional. The great brake feel and performance are even apparent on the data trace, where the transitions from acceleration to braking appear as razor-sharp peaks, and the turn-in to faster corners is gradual and progressive with no signs of overslowing.

That data trace–particularly when lined up against a car that has generated a similar lap time in a very different way–really shows the advantage of low mass. The 382-horsepower (yeah, right) 2023 Toyota Supra ran a lap time within a tenth and a half of a second of the Cardinal–both ran lap times starting with 1:17–but the data traces clearly show where the lower-powered Cardinal has the advantage. 


1. The light weight and high grip of the Fields Cardinal Coupe is evident as soon as the first corner. Here you can see the Cardinal Coupe (blue trace) take a more aggressive turn-in and easily maintain a higher speed through this slower left-hander than the Toyota Supra (red trace). 2. But the Supra’s power advantage is real, and the Toyota pulls away from the Cardinal Coupe past about 75 mph. 3. The rounded bottom of the Cardinal Coupe’s speed trace through these two square, right-hand corners shows how it can maintain much more momentum and mid-corner speed than the Supra, which is more comfortable with a point-and-shoot approach. 4. Again, great, aggressive turn-in by the Cardinal Coupe. Its light weight and superior handling allow it to finish in a virtual dead heat with the Supra, despite the Toyota’s clear power advantage.

Even though the Supra uses its power advantage–particularly in fourth gear–to pull away from the lower-powered Cardinal, as soon as the twisties come up, the story changes. The Cardinal holds a multiple mph advantage through most corners and can take a much more aggressive entry into the FIRM’s tricky Turn8, which is a measure of not just grip but of how much confidence a chassis gives the driver. 

Does the Cardinal Fly?

So what do we have here? You’ll spend about $50,000 to buy a new Supra or put a Cardinal Coupe on track, and the lap times are similar.

But the Cardinal shouldn’t be faulted for what it doesn’t have, as the absence of those things is precisely what makes the car so special. Sure, it’s less “equipped” than a new Supra, but the driving experience is as different as a monochrome monitor compared with a high-definition display. Everything in the Cardinal Coupe is immediate, urgent and present but never nervous or edgy.

Even an intermediate driver has access to a huge portion of the Cardinal’s performance envelope, which is one of our favorite metrics for assessing properly set up track cars. It makes a true race car experience attainable, with easily available replacement parts and low wear on consumables due to its light weight. 

As a track toy–and even as a race car, as the Cardinal Coupe is now being adapted into NASA and SCCA competition classes–the Cardinal puts pointy-end performance with zero compromises within the reach of a big portion of the enthusiast community. 

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Comments
Colin Wood
Colin Wood Associate Editor
9/20/23 10:39 a.m.

I'd love to be able to afford a track toy like the Cardinal. Sounds like it's a lot of fun straight out of the box.

Turbo_Rev
Turbo_Rev Reader
9/20/23 10:54 a.m.

Kit car manufacturers always have one of these 3D render-only models tucked away somewhere, waiting for someone wealthy enough......brave enough......

spacecadet (Forum Supporter)
spacecadet (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand UltraDork
9/20/23 12:45 p.m.

In reply to Turbo_Rev :

 

Except it's not a 3D render only model.. 





Scioto is very real and the first cars are in production currently.

nocones
nocones GRM+ Memberand PowerDork
9/20/23 12:51 p.m.

They seem really cool.  I hope they are sucessful.  I would love to interact with one IRL and see what it is like and potentially drive one someday.

350z247
350z247 Reader
9/20/23 1:39 p.m.

I can appreciate the lap time per dollar, but it's just so ugly. Like, you have a blank slate requiring ZERO concessions for all the conflicting laws of the world for pedestrian safety and all that fluff, make something that looks cool!

Turbo_Rev
Turbo_Rev Reader
9/20/23 4:53 p.m.

In reply to spacecadet (Forum Supporter) :

They need to get those IRL pics on their website. That thing looks sick. 

jerel77494
jerel77494 New Reader
9/21/23 11:45 a.m.

To each their own, but considering all the Locost variants, Excocet, Catfish, all the single donor cars from Factory Five, I have to ask "Why?".

jeffbob
jeffbob New Reader
10/25/23 4:27 p.m.

I love the weight -- 1800 lbs. But it's fugly and now $80k. That's a long way from the original $50k price. Unfortunately, that's a lot of money for a turbocharged four-banger Ford. It needs better styling. And I don't understand the steering rack -- how is a car so light creating so much steering effort? Randy Pobst commented that it was very physically demanding to drive, ironic for an 1800 lb car. Love the concept as I believe the price of consumables would be very reasonable. But the door charge is steep. I guess they always are.

Rodan
Rodan UltraDork
10/25/23 6:53 p.m.

In reply to jeffbob :

$80k?  Is that a turnkey car?  I see they've taken the pricing info off their website, and I don't feel like getting spammed forever just to find out.

I saw one of these at a local trackday earlier in the year.  It was the first time out for the car, so still shaking down and I wasn't able to get any lap time info from him.  It's just as fugly in person as it is in pictures, though.  Great concept, I'm just not convinced by the execution.   There's a lot of cars I'd be way more interested in spending $80k on...  

Pete. (l33t FS)
Pete. (l33t FS) GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
10/25/23 7:18 p.m.

In reply to jeffbob :

I thought $50k was for a rolling chassis, never for a turnkey car.

 

I like the way these look, I like the "track day anvil" concept.  Unfortunately I am not in their market.

 

Look at it this way: It's cheaper than a new Ford Econobox.  IIRC, MST is getting $125-150k for a turn key "MST Mk2".  And it comes with a NON turbocharged Ford four cylinder engine smiley  (if a Millington Diamond counts as a Ford engine, anyway, but Duratecs certainly do, and those are both options)

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