At heart, this is a Lotus Seven – just one with 666bhp per tonne and Le Mans-grade materials tech

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Fancy a challenge? Try to categorise the car I’m about to describe. Trackday star, supercar, super-GT, roadster. Whatever you think fits the bill. 

You descend into its cockpit to find Sabelt harnesses but also, if specified, heated seats. At just 750kg wet, in theory it belongs firmly in the super-lightweight clique, yet the contact patch is almost to Ferrari 430 Scuderia spec. Then there is the power-to-weight ratio, which is a satanic 666bhp per tonne, though engineers on the project insist the car is capable of rewarding those of a more saintly disposition (or simply unable to take it by the carbon scruff).

They also say it’s fit for touring, with real ride quality, yet there’s little doubt this car would munch anything the sensible side of a McLaren 750S were you to unsheathe one at a track day, as many owners will do. It has racing ABS yet greater luggage capacity than a Porsche 911 GT3. It has no obvious aero to speak of but can apparently pull 2.15g when its semi-slicks are simmering. It is most enjoyable on sunny days but, with a carbonfibre top that takes up surprisingly little space when stowed, rainstorms are no problem.

Denis Donkervoort heads the company after his father’s retirement, but as a two-time Dutch karting champ and Dubai 24hrs winner he also understands what makes great drivers' cars

Lastly, and most confoundingly, although it’s at the cutting edge of materials technology, at heart this is a car from 1957, with roots behind a pub in Hornsey, north London.

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It all sounds a bit far-fetched. And, let’s face it, ultra-low-volume sports car makers are not exactly known for hard-headed analysis of their own product. Pride leaves them vulnerable to over-promising. Yet whatever category it slots into (need we invent one?), you’d expect the Donkervoort F22 to deliver. The Dutch are refreshingly no-bullshit and we know from experience that this attitude translates into the product at Donkervoort, whose Lelystad factory is noteworthy for being built on reclaimed land and sits 3m below sea level.

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In the 45 years since Joop ‘The Professor’ Donkervoort secured his country’s rights to the Lotus 7 and launched the S7, the company has mastered the cigar-tube-on-wheels format and taken it to ever more riotous levels, but always with method behind the madness in the form of pedigree engineering. In 2020, Matt Prior discovered as much when he drove the D8 GTO, the model that makes way for the wilder F22. It was “blindingly quick” and “thoroughly sorted” but also on another level to anything by Caterham in terms of weekend-away ability. The catch? An eye-widening price.

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Today, we’re back in Lelystad to see the new F22 in build. We’ll then head onto the road in chassis 001 (pictured above).

On the way here, quite naturally, I was preoccupied with the driving element. That power-to-weight ratio borders on the macabre and rain was forecast. However, once on the factory floor, the balance shifts. Passing through the double doors that connect Donkervoort’s showroom to the workshop behind, you begin to understand how Augustus Gloop may have felt when he found himself backstage at the Chocolate Factory: transfixed.

Machine polishers whirr, blue blasts emanate from the brazing bench where the F22’s thin-gauge tubular frame is made, and colour is everywhere: Audi’s red-headed engines, gold AP Racing calipers ready to install, colour-coded diffuser vanes and coil springs, and the flawless paint jobs of cars in build, with no two alike. One is done up in the colour scheme of Ayrton Senna’s helmet, another in Gulf livery. It sounds like over-egging the pudding somewhat but, honestly, both Donks look sensationally good.

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It’s enough to make you overlook the most important colour of all: grey. Or rather, the charcoal hue of carbonfibre. And not typical carbonfibre, which is laid up in strips then baked in an autoclave, though they have one of those too. This is the cutting-edge bit of the F22, because Donkervoort has spent 10 years developing what it calls Ex-Core – an ultra-strong composite made by filling shells of carbon with foam that expands when heated inside a mould. The foam solidies, giving the part immense resistance to deformity but incredible lightness.

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The Ex-Core hub is hidden away at the back of the workshop proper and isn’t only tasked with making F22 bits. It’s a charming quirk of the Donkervoort operation that in one corner of this tiny factory they might be restoring an S8T from 1985, while at the other end the Ex-Core team are constructing aero elements for overnight shipping and fitment to, for example, Toyota’s GR010 – the spaceship LMH car that currently leads the World Endurance Championship. Other clients include at least one Formula 1 team, which remains unnamed, but as the project grows, expect Ex-Core to crop up in all sorts of applications, not just automotive.

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The technology demonstrates Donkervoort’s ability to innovate and offers financial security. “We had some very difficult years in our history,” says Denis Donkervoort, who took over the family business when his father Joop retired in 2021. “We’re now doing better than ever, but we don’t want to have those difficult years again and, as a B2B product, Ex-Core is less economically sensitive.”

As for F22 economics, it’s simple: one needs outrageously deep pockets. Or rather, one did. Despite an asking price of £210,000 before local taxes, all 100 cars are spoken for. Neither will there be any more build slots. Audi, which has worked surprisingly closely with Donkervoort since the mid-1990s, earmarked 100 of its 2.5-litre in-line fives for the project. However, this superb engine is now retired, so this will be it. The unit gets quite the finale in the F22, though, where it makes 500bhp and 472lb ft (up 99bhp and 103lb ft on the RS3 Performance) and is cosied right up to bulkhead.

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Much of the F22’s cost stems from the use of Ex-Core (pictured above). It’s bonded to the elegant frame to create a “halfway monocoque” with twice the stiffness of the D8 GTO. Off this hangs doublewishbone suspension. The ’box is a five-speeder that feeds a JLRsourced LSD between the 19in wheels and their 275-section Nankang AR1 semi-slick tyres. Get close to an F22 and you can also appreciate the design freedom Ex-Core permits. The windscreen rail is one piece, as are the artfully hinged butterfly doors and most of the panels that comprise the F22’s truly extraordinary cab-rear body. The side-exit exhaust, which sits behind exhibition mesh, is also the stuff of a 12-year-old’s imagination.

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Quality? High. High enough to justify the price? If that is even possible for this type of car, then yes. While 001 is an old campaigner, being the production prototype, the fit and finish on customer F22s appears infallible. Denis speaks highly of Koenigsegg and Pagani, but Donkervoort already inhabits a similar, if more earthy, orbit.

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Time to climb aboard, into filigree carbon buckets so slim they're barely there at all, and behind which gleam the remote reservoirs for the rear dampers.

The F22’s doors arc wide (GR010-style), the sill is narrow and, regarding ingress, this most unhinged Donk has mercifully little humiliation potential. The driving position is uncomplicated and comfortable, and is of course quite Caterham, but there’s a sense of ensconcement in something more protective and supercar-y. It’s a bit McLaren in here. Visibility over that lupine bonnet is excellent.

The cabin is spacious, too. In penning the F22 from scratch (not one bolt is carried over from the D8 GTO, they say), Donkervoort built in an extra 80mm of cabin width and 100mm of length over the D8 GTO. It means passengers no longer have to suffer a narrower berth.

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Denis says the F22 was “a gamble”. Being beefier than the D8 GTO, and with a Targa-style roof plus hard top for the boot, it’s more car-like than its forebears. It turns out owners were okay with this, so long as an underlying rawness was preserved.

Depress the clutch. It’s medium rare: hefty enough to convey a certain pedigree but not so much that it’d push you to the brink of madness in heavy traffic. The engine catches and, remarkably, might just be the least subtle thing about the circus that is the Donkervoort F22. Audi’s barrelchested throb suits this machine.

Now, to power assist or not? That is the question for owners. The F22’s front footprint is so colossal that your first thought is to wonder if someone put its boots on back to front. Duly, although castor trail has decreased compared with the D8 GTO (castor angle has increased to lift feedback and trim understeer), this car’s unassisted rack is beastly at low speeds and only when you really start to crack on does it truly unfurl.

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Admittedly, at this point, it’s pretty wonderful: crisp, resolute, chatty. The brake pedal is equally muscular, but equally transparent. Gearshifting is a short, sturdy but very smooth affair. The F22 is a physical car with a feral charm.

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Down on the transmission tunnel are two little dials, one for the six-stage TracTive dampers, another for the motorsport-style TC. Wet motorway? Go for softness and security. On circuit? The opposite.

Today, I’ve found a setting where the F22 is fluid but shows a laidback precision. It has a supple but energetic, arachnid-style gait and a touch of lean and squat imparts the confidence to first coax and then fully draw on that tractable, hissing, resonant and heroically powerful five-pot. Performance? Effortless. But also real, soulful, earned: an antithesis to binary, 2000bhp megaEVs that cheapen the entire process.

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Is the F22 as mischievous or agile as a Caterham Seven 620R? No. On the road you can’t progressively load up the front axle then tickle the rear wide with such ease. But the F22 will play and it has a lovely, almost stately balance at a canter. On track, I’m sure it’s completely addictive.

It’s also serious money, with a divisive aesthetic. But the F22 engages its driver like no trad supercar can yet covers ground with a civility similar lightweights can’t hope to match. It’s a jewel of a car in a niche of its own making.

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Richard Lane

Richard Lane
Title: Deputy road test editor

Richard joined Autocar in 2017, arriving from Evo magazine, and is typically found either behind a keyboard or steering wheel.

As deputy road test editor he delivers in-depth road tests, performance benchmarking and supercar lap-times, plus feature-length comparison stories between rival cars. He can also be found on Autocar's YouTube channel

Mostly interested in how cars feel on the road – the sensations and emotions they can evoke – Richard drives around 150 newly launched makes and models every year, and focuses mainly on the more driver-orientated products, as is tradition at Autocar. His job is then to put the reader firmly in the driver's seat. 

Away from work, but remaining on the subject of cars, Richard owns an eight-valve Integrale, loves watching sportscar racing, and holds a post-grad in transport engineering.