April 16, 2024


Automotive pure lust

1991 American Performance Sedan Comparison

From the March 1991 issue of Car and Driver.

Webster’s defines “clipper” as a horse, sled, automobile, airplane, or other device that’s considered to be especially fast. Because you’re obviously not reading The Bluegrass Journal of Manure Avoidance or Supersonic Biplane, you will grasp that we’re treating the subject of especially fast automobiles.

Just look at these three speedsters. The least powerful among them bakes up 210 horsepower. The stickiest of them claws around the skidpad with 0.80 g of grip. The fastest rips from 0 to 60 mph in 5.8 seconds and reaches a top speed of 141 mph. Oh yeah, these are clippers.

What’s more, these clippers make few sacrifices for their speed. Each can carry four adults and all the camera gear needed to video­tape a night game of Wesson Oil Twister. Each can be loaded with options, ranging from power windows and locks to fine audio systems. Two offer anti-lock brakes and a driver-side air bag. And all three cruise down the Interstate with enough ride cushiness to placate the rumps of all but your most thin-cheeked friends.

Not only that, but…wait. Hear that? Sounds like the opening bars of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” doesn’t it? And right on time, too, because we were just about to add that these three clippers are Yankee clippers. Each is a front-drive, Married with Children-grade American sedan tweaked with a hero engine and a driver-tuned chassis.

Mark PrestonCar and Driver

Ford launched the Yankee-clipper category in 1988 when it stuffed a 220-horsepower 24-valve 3.0-liter V-6 into its wind­slippery mid-size sedan and created the athletic Taurus Super High Output. (Some of you flag-waving readers are probably already composing your nasty letters, because the SHO’s V-6 is made in Japan by Yamaha. But the Taurus SHO is still a Yankee sedan. Anyone who disagrees can also try to convince us that the Statue of Liberty is un-American because it came from France.) We immediately fell in love with the SHO’s peerless mix of performance, versatility, and value. Indeed, the muscular four-door has won a spot on our Ten Best Cars list every year since.

For 1991, the Yankee Clipper class is no longer a field of one: GM and Dodge have cut into the action with clipper ships of their own. The General offers its all­-new, 210-horsepower, “Twin Dual Cam,” 24-valve 3.4-liter V-6 in three of the GM10 sedans: the Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, the Pontiac Grand Prix, and the Chevrolet Lumina. Four-door versions will be available, but the only pre-production car ready in time for our review was a two-door Chevrolet Lumina Z34. Happily, the natty Chevy—like the other two cars in our matchup—arrived with a five-speed manual transmission.

Mark PrestonCar and Driver

Dodge enters 1991 with its potent new Spirit R/T, a Ward Cleaver four-door transformed into a Billy Idol bully by means of a flashy exterior makeover and a new, 224-horsepower version of the corporate turbocharged-and-intercooled 2.2-liter four-cylinder coupled to a standard-equipment five-speed.

To run through our usual battery of ruthless on-road comparison , we headed down to the sinuous country switchbacks of southeastern Ohio.

After three days of twisty-road dueling, highway loafing, and endless felonious chatter on our CBs, we learned a lot. Oh, sure, we learned which Yankee Clipper is the best. But we learned much more. We learned that the pumpkin pie at Hoover’s Country Kitchen in Laurelville is damn fine, and nearly a match for the hockingly large cream puffs. We learned that you never try to take a photo of a test car next to some backwoods lady’s clothesline—mostly because she doesn’t care if you think it looks expressive and she’s never heard of Henri Cartier-Bresson and she’s absolutely certain her husband and his shotgun will be home from Vern’s Star Lounge any minute. We learned that our managing editor had a friend who lived in a houseboat and bought himself a chimpanzee as a pet…but we digress. You’re probably dying to read about the cars, right? Here’s how they finished.

Third Place: Dodge Spirit R/T

Mark PrestonCar and Driver

What we have here is a Sugar Ray Leonard engine trapped in a Homer Simpson physique. The Sugar Ray part is amazing: Chrysler’s new sixteen-valve turbocharged-and-intercooled four (the maker’s first engine with four valves per cylinder) chums out a whopping 224 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 217 pound­-feet of torque at 2800. That’s from 2.2 liters, kids.

Like Sugar Ray, this engine is explosive: there’s a touch of turbo lag from rest, but before you can say “Where’s the boost?” the blower is screaming and you’re struggling to separate your cranium from the headrest. Indeed, with only 3162 pounds to propel (the R/T is by far the lightest of the clippers), the engine generates enough forward thrust to humiliate many of the world’s blue-chip sports cars. The R/T’s 0-to-60-mph performance even betters that of the last Nissan 300ZX Turbo we tested. Unless you’re piloting, say, a Corvette ZR1 or a cruise missile, you’ll do well to lay low if a Spirit R/T rolls alongside at a stoplight.

HIGHS: Sugar Ray Leonard engine, slick shifter, standard air bag.
Clumsy suspension, aftermarket add-on appearance.

Mark PrestonCar and Driver

The engine is commendably smooth for a four-cylinder, thanks in part to twin balance shafts. Still, four-bangers are by nature rough beasts, so calling one “smooth” is like calling the lightest member of the Fat Boys “slim.” The normally aspirated six-cylinder powerplants in the Taurus and the Lumina—nearly as powerful but far more refined—thus edged the R/T’s turbo four in the engine voting.

The R/T’s shifter took top honors, slotting into gear easily and accurately and generally making everyone feel all warm and fuzzy. Our logbook filled with raves: “It’s delicate and nicely weighted,” and “by far the best gearbox of the group.”

Alas, this Sugar Ray drivetrain cannot make up for the Spirit’s Clark Griswold disposition. Though Dodge beefed up the Spirit’s basic underpinnings for R/T duty (including increased spring rates and tighter shocks), the suspension quickly reveals its family-sedan lineage when the corners come up fast. Fitted with standard 205/60R-15 Michelin XGT V4 tires, the R/T recorded the group’s highest roadholding figure (0.80 g), yet out in the real world—where few turns are as steady and smooth as a skidpad—the R/T felt nervous, unsettled, even clumsy. Incredibly, despite the car’s grip and enormous straight-line speed advantage, whoever was driving the R/T inevitably fell behind the other two clippers through the challenging curves of Ohio’s southeastern quadrant. “It’s easily upset by potholes during brisk cornering,” one tester wrote. “And the steering loses precision above 70 mph.”

“Not enough feedback through the wheel for accurate cornering,” added another.

Mark PrestonCar and Driver

The Spirit R/T’s cockpit is like a bargain-brand kitchen appliance: It works just fine, but it’s so unfashionable that you’re glad to put it away when you’re done with it. Ditto for the exterior. Chrysler has dressed up the standard Spirit shape with cast-aluminum wheels, nose and tail spoilers, a few boy-racer graphics, and your choice of bright-red or blazing­white paint, but neither we nor any of the onlookers we queried along the route thought the result fetching.

By far the Spirit R/T’s best asset is its performance-to-dollar ratio. At a base price of $17,820 (including air conditioning and power mirrors), the R/T packs more wallop than any other four-door you can buy for the money. Its standard driver-side air bag and optional anti-lock brakes are also points in its favor.

Mark PrestonCar and Driver

Once again we find that outstanding test-track results don’t guarantee winning in a comparison test. The brilliant­ white Spirit certainly showed us speed: its awesome 5.8-second 0-to-60-mph performance left the Lumina and the Taurus gaping in its fumes. But the Dodge’s feeble chassis and Heathkit demeanor cost it at voting time.

We sincerely hope that Chrysler soon finds a more talented home for its impressive new engine.

THE VERDICT: A superstar powerplant banished to a pedestrian home.

1991 Dodge Spirit R/T
224-hp turbo inline-4, 5-speed manual, 3162 lbs
Base/as-tested price: $17,820/$20,503
60 mph: 5.8 sec
100 mph: 15.6 sec
1/4 mile: 14.5 sec @ 97 mph
Braking, 70­-0 mph: 207 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.80 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 20 mpg

Second Place: Chevrolet Lumina Z34

Mark PrestonCar and Driver

Okay, so close only counts in horseshoes and hydrogen bombs. But Chevrolet deserves a chorus of applause for its new Yankee clipper. The Lumina Z34 finished a mere two points overall behind our winner. And it’s a bargain to boot.

There’s a lot to like about the Z34, beginning with its new 60-degree 24-valve V-6. At 3.4 liters, this is the biggest engine of the group. It churns out 215 pound-feet of torque at 4000 rpm and 210 horsepower at 5200 (the horsepower drops to 200 at 5000 rpm with the optional automatic transmission). This is a flexible powerplant: It pulls strongly from rest, revs smoothly to its 7000-rpm redline, and makes the kinds of exciting mechanical sounds that immediately cause a first-time passenger to ask, “Hey! What kind of car is this, anyway?”

HIGHS: Smooth and torquey six, fail-safe handling, spiffy body.
Offbeat dash, dubious fit and finish.

Mark PrestonCar and Driver

A good five-speed manual transmission comes standard (it ranked second in the voting), but the engine is so torquey and tractable that it would undoubtedly also make a fine partner to the optional four-speed automatic. (The availability of an automatic may prove a big drawing card for buyers; the other two clippers offer manual transmissions only.) Our only serious drivetrain complaint: the throttle engages abruptly no matter how gently you press on the pedal, so driving smoothly away from a stop is all but impossible.

No lightweight at 3401 pounds, the Z34 nonetheless reaches 60 mph in just 7.1 seconds and tackles the quarter-mile in 15.5 seconds at 90 mph. Top speed, sadly, is curtailed by a speed limiter at just 113 mph.

The Z34’s fully independent “Sport” suspension is as adept as its engine. Wearing 225/60R-16 Goodyear Eagle GT+4s (which help deliver 0.79 g of grip), the chassis showed us nothing but impressive, predictable moves on the Ohio twisties. And it tracked down the Interstate so cleanly that we didn’t miss a joke on the Pryor tapes cackling away on the stereo.

The Z34 is an easy car to drive hard; the chassis signals its limits with lots of safe, steady understeer. And almost nothing upsets the suspension’s composure. Stab the brakes or lift off suddenly in the middle of a turn and the Lumina just tucks itself in neatly. (Such poise helped the Lumina win the slalom test decisively.)

Mark PrestonCar and Driver

You’ll note that the Z34 tied for first place in the handling ratings. But you should also note that the Z34 won the ride category. In the past, GM sports sedans have typically traded a lot of ride comfort for handling power; we’re pleased to note that this Chevy runs like a jock without requiring a kidney belt.

The Z34’s skin—with its rakish nose, hood louvers, rear spoiler, and, in our test car’s case, fire-red paint—drew lot of thumbs-up reviews. This is not a subtle car; it will not appeal to fans of muted Eurosedans. But the onlookers we encountered on our journey loved it. “Damn, that’s a beautiful car!” was a commonly heard compliment. Someone else said, “I like the Lumina’s arrogant look. The louvers and spoilers give it an anti­-BMW flavor that says ‘American’ all the way. I’m tired of all the boring aero-Euro cars. I like the Z34’s style.”

Nobody liked the Lumina’s interior, though. Full of strange shapes (take a look at the bizarre, scooped-out dash), the Z34’s cabin is a visual mishmash. Actually, the gauges are readable and the driving position okay, but the look is still aberrant somehow. What this car needs is a cockpit as simple and straightforward as Chevrolet can make it.

Mark PrestonCar and Driver

The Lumina could use a boost in the fit-and-finish department, too. The drivetrain feels stout, but many of the Lumina’s trim pieces and switches look and feel like parts from a hobby-shop model. The outside door locks, for example, turn with an unpleasant, gritty feel. Also, the Z34 doesn’t offer anti-lock brakes or an airbag—two big strikes against it.

Final prices had not been set at press time, but a Z34 like the one you see here—equipped with a five-speed, air conditioning, power locks and windows, and a good AM/FM/cassette system—is expected to sell for about $19,000. Putting our faith in that figure, we found the Z34 to offer far and away the best value in the Yankee-clipper class.

Our quibbles are for the most part minor: We heartily recommend the Lumina Z34 to anyone searching for an affordable sedan with moves and moxie.

THE VERDICT: Value-packed. Lacks polish but nails the essentials.

1991 Chevrolet Lumina Z34
224-hp V-6, 5-speed manual, 3401 lbs
Base/as-tested price: $17,500/$19,000 (est.)
60 mph: 7.1 sec
100 mph: 20.8 sec
1/4 mile: 15.5 sec @ 90 mph
Braking, 70­-0 mph: 200 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.79 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 20 mpg

First Place: Ford Taurus SHO

Mark PrestonCar and Driver

This is familiar ground for the brawny bolide from Dearborn. In addition to its three Ten Best Cars victories, the SHO won our “Sensible Speed” sports-­sedan comparo in March, 1989. Its price has edged upward noticeably, but the Taurus SHO remains America’s best sports sedan—the pride of the Yankee clippers.

It’s all here: liver-twisting performance (0 to 60 mph in 6.6 seconds, a top speed of 140 mph), unflappable handling, a huge and handsome interior, and such standard equipment as anti-lock brakes and a driver-side air bag.

HIGHS: Seamless power, graceful suspension, handsome cabin.
Balky shifter, high price.

Mark PrestonCar and Driver

The SHO’s 24-valve 3.0-liter six is a wonder, living for the redline and smoother than Jack Daniel’s and Valvoline. It’s a peaky powerplant: Maximum power comes at 6200 rpm, so stirring the gearbox is a necessity for optimal performance. But for sheer on-the-­cam vigor and rev-forever spirit, the SHO’s V-6 leads the clipper pack.

The SHO’s five-speed gearbox, unfortunately, remains a notchy, at times recalcitrant brute that dampens some of the fun of revving the willing engine. It’s not a glaring flaw, but Ford could go a long way toward improving the SHO’s appeal by perfecting this transaxle.

Like the Spirit R/T, the SHO proves that test-track numbers don’t count for much in real-road driving. The SHO turned in the lowest roadholding figure (0.77 g) and the slowest slalom time of the group, yet out in the twisties it was the most satisfying clipper to drive. The chassis is always composed and confidence-inspiring—it never makes a wrong move. No test-track instrument can measure that, of course, but it pays off big in real-world speed. And the SHO’s suspension displays a trace of lift-throttle oversteer that makes the car tossable and easy to rotate in corners. Add in the Taurus’s steering, heavy but wonderfully accurate, and you have a car that can show its tail to just about anything in the twisties.

The SHO’s interior is in a class by itself. Deeply sculptured seats, handsome materials, and quality controls make this cockpit a palace for drivers. “Richest-­looking interior appointments by a long shot,” wrote one tester. The SHO’s ample headroom and enormous rear seats ensure that passengers are equally well treated.

Mark PrestonCar and Driver

Fully equipped with a slew of power amenities, the SHO checks in at an eyebrow-arching $24,716. Is it worth the premium over the Lumina Z34?

After hours, we pondered that one over cold beers at our Ohio HQ, the Burr Oak State Lodge (a dead ringer for the woody hotel in “Twin Peaks”). Yes, we agreed, the Chevy is the better value—anyone keeping a keen eye on the bottom line would do well to buy the Lumina Z34. But the Taurus SHO is the better car, a costly Yankee Clipper that pays back with unmatched skill and finesse. We sighed in unison as we wiped the last drops of brew from our lips and headed for bed. Yep, to get the things you want in this life, sometimes you just have to pay the freight.

THE VERDICT: A have-it-all sedan whose sticker is commensurate with its mastery.

1991 Ford Taurus SHO
220-hp V-6, 5-speed manual, 3459 lbs
Base/as-tested price: $22,071/$24,716
60 mph: 6.6 sec
100 mph: 18.2 sec
1/4 mile: 15.2 sec @ 93 mph
Braking, 70­-0 mph: 183 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.77 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 19 mpg

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