From the August 2003 issue of Car and Driver.
Maybe your ship came in. Or your divorce came through. Or your final house payment went out. Or your last kid finished college. Or your stock portfolio still hasn’t slipped beneath the waves. Or, what the heck, maybe you’re just embarrassed by those untarnished credit ratings.
May we tempt you with a sports car?
A sports car is a celebratory choice, the auto equivalent of champagne. Nobody needs either one; no vitamins in either and no essential nutrients. You go with them purely because they make you feel good.
As Aristotle once observed, “Fun is fun to have.”
Since you’re looking to celebrate (play along, we fill these pages for food), how about something in the semi-scandalous range? Something that will make your friends arch their eyebrows and say, “How does he afford that?”
In all the neighborhoods we visit, any price over 40 large would get that reaction. So let’s have fun in the $40,000-to-$50,000 range. BMW and Porsche play in that class, or you could choose the chic little Audi TT roadster with all the pulse-quickening equipment, including the 225-hp turbo-four and Quattro all-wheel drive.
BMW would be represented by the new-this-year Z4, which continues the long-nose, short-tail proportions of the Z3 in a package sculpted like nothing ever seen before under the Bayerische Motoren Werke label. Once you step into the $40,000 class, you leave behind the 2.5-liter, five-speed version and say hello to three liters and six speeds. How about 18-inch wheels, too?
In theory, you can buy a base Porsche Boxster for about $43,000 as well, but in the real world they’re always more precious. With 18-inch wheels ($2920) and the stability-control system ($1235), plus a few sundries such as paint ($825), our test car weighed in at $50,840.
The spunky-looking Mercedes-Benz SLK would fit right in here, too, except that a replacement is due by autumn. Let’s wait for the next generation.
So far, we’re talking runabouts in the semiprecious class, but what if we could find the same jaunty sensation and celebration for a little less? Do you mind?
Just in time for this gathering, Nissan turned loose a convertible version of its mail-slot-window 350Z. The coupe earned top marks in our “Hot Tin Roofs” comparison last December. It has a strong 3.5-liter V-6 backed by a refined six-speed gearbox. Such credentials, at a price that ducks under $40,000, certainly raises the stakes for the German brands.
And let’s raise them one more time. You’re open to the idea of spending even less, right? Honda, when it has chosen to play, has run with the best on the Eurocentric Formula 1 circuit. Let’s throw a wild card, Honda’s S2000, the most intense open two-seater you can buy south of Ferrari prices. So what if it lists for only $33,060? Its flick-quick reflexes and hummingbird metabolism earn a special place in every enthusiast’s dream fleet.
There you have the roster, five wind-in-the-hair sports cars with personalities ranging as widely as the guest list of any Hollywood party. We could go on savoring the possibilities here, but driving is more fun.
As Socrates once said, “Get your motor runnin’.”
Fifth Place: Audi TT Quattro
Cute. Mondo perky cute. Meg Ryan on four wheels. The Audi TT looks like a car you could grow old with and never have a dull day.
HIGHS: So “Museum of Modern Art” to the eye, so cockpit roomy to the shoulders, so unconstricted inside for all but the tall.
LOWS: Handling gets iffy when you hustle, as do the brakes, and the turbo breathes in asthmatic wheezes.
And when you buckle into the cockpit, the dimples really kick in. Dimples everywhere, on the bezels and rings and buttons and door latches, even on the roll-bar flanges behind the seat. Cute little dimples, so round and smooth and perfectly symmetrical and precisely placed to keep the broad expanses of rubbed aluminum from ever looking ordinary. You could drive this Audi to New York the back way—that is to say, going west around the globe to get east—and you wouldn’t be tired of the cockpit’s clever detailing. Or of the custom-car mood that encapsulates you. Just the way the top of the windshield cuts low across the view, in the manner of those classic Porsche Speedsters, and keeps you feeling like a celebrity.
No question, the look is flawless. It’s also skin-deep, and it’s just pleasing enough to loft the TT up to a solid fifth place in this comparison. We can’t go higher for a cutie that doesn’t dance. The TT never feels the sports-car music, just as the Ford Thunderbird doesn’t and the Buick Reatta and the Cadillac Allanté never did.
The TT is a passably fast car in a test-numbers sort of way—zero to 60 in 6.9 seconds and 0.81 g of neck-bending cornering force in our skidpad test—but it can’t begin to keep up with the others here. And now the bottom line—it doesn’t want to.
Sports cars have a sort of Reebok sure-footed quickness about them that is completely absent in the TT. No surprise, really. This two-seater is built on a VW-sedan platform, your basic all-wheel-drive Golf togged out in designer duds. And that’s the way it dances, with too much pitch and dive following throttle changes and too much wait-for-me when you steer. It’s always a step behind the beat.
As a convertible for staging dashing arrivals, yeah. The top drops quickly, as long as you don’t insist on finishing off the job by stretching the soft plastic cover over the stack. When the roof is down, the cockpit is drafty compared with the others, and putting up the side windows helps very little. A dash brace down to the tunnel keeps rubbing on your throttle leg. The structure is moderately solid with few rattles. The ride is smooth relative to the firmly muscled competition here, and wind noise over the top-up roof is low. All the tones and textures of the interior are first-rate. Everything you see stands up to the highest standards of owner’s pride. There’s a real glove box in the dash and a package shelf beneath. A pair of cup holders rises over the tunnel like a piece of metalworker’s art, not too handy back by your elbow, but they work.
The test numbers are all tail enders for this group, particularly the lengthy 192-foot braking distance from 70 mph. The brakes never measure up in feel, either, nor does the power delivery. Turbos make good zero-to numbers, but you always have to wait for them when your foot goes down, even if it’s only a beat. For those who’d never notice that hesitation, this TT is about perfect.
THE VERDICT: Audi’s answer to the T-Bird.
2003 Audi TT Quattro
225-hp turbo inline-4, 6-speed manual, 3485 lb
Base/as-tested price: $39,660/$41,960
Interior volume, seats/trunk: 51/6 ft3
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 6.9 sec
120 mph: 33.6 sec
1/4 mile: 15.2 sec @ 91 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 192 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.81 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 22 mpg
Fourth Place: BMW Z4 3.0
A BMW label is your guarantee of certain automotive qualities: robust power, a forgiving clutch, a slick gearbox, and a strong familial resemblance in the sheetmetal. The Z4 obediently plays to type right till you get to facial features. What’s with the spiky hair and earrings?
Some of us really go for this runabout’s kinky get-up, and for the interior that’s so bravely out of step it flaunts tea-stained metal grain against polished platinum gray and throws in metallic charcoal for door hardware just to keep the mix from being too predictable.
HIGHS: The chiseled bod (if you love it), the forgiving clutch, the bountiful flow of torque.
LOWS: The chiseled bod (if you hate it), the synthesizer sound of the engine, the nervous feel of the steering.
Sports cars are supposed to be individualists. This one never misses an opportunity. All the gauges are crammed onto two tunneled dials. The tunnels seem to line up with Uranus instead of your gaze. The numbers on the speedo are sized like the fine print on a leasing contract. The Ultimate Squinting Machine!
That said, the record shows that the Z4 makes bigger numbers on the test track than any of the others, if only by a shade. The 5.3-second zero-to-60 squeaked ahead of the Honda by 0.1 second and out front of the Nissan by twice that. The quarter-mile blurs past in 14 seconds flat, again 0.1 second ahead of the Honda, and this time, 0.3 up on the 350Z. All three clock an identical 99 mph in the distance. The BMW leads in top speed at 152 mph, with the Nissan and Porsche close behind at 148. The governed Audi hangs back at 125 mph.
Same story on the skidpad, where the BMW and the Honda tie at 0.92 g, a mere 0.01 behind the Porsche and 0.04 ahead of the Nissan.
The differences among the top-four finishers in this group are more qualitative than quantitative. The Z4’s 3.0-liter inline six is strong even as the tach shows revs in the teens. You needn’t work the lever much to keep up, and the revs drop to a loafing 2750 rpm at an indicated 80 in top gear. This is a car that never gets frantic.
It never gets endearing, either. The engine is quiet until the hammer goes down, which produces a blaring exhaust lacking any nuance or interesting harmonics. The steering cuts with little buildup of effort, leading some to complain of too-easy steering. Same for the brakes; pedal effort doesn’t rise much as you ramp up the retardation. In the twisties, most drivers brace against the wheel and complain of the loose-fitting seat.
On less-than-perfect roads, the Z4 has a nervous, darty feel. The wheel constantly steers itself if you hold it loosely, or fights you when you grab tight.
Subtle cockpit touches: Small pads on each side of the tunnel cushion leg contact; a soft horseshoe around the brake lever atop the console promises hospitality for the elbow. In fact, it usually misses, but it’ll probably fit a few drivers just right.
At just over $45,000 as tested, you could say the same about the Z4.
THE VERDICT: Provokes strong reactions, only half of them favorable.
2003 BMW Z4 3.0
225-hp inline-6, 6-speed manual, 3090 lb
Base/as-tested price: $40,945/$45,320
Interior volume, seats/trunk: 48/9 ft3
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 5.3 sec
120 mph: 21.6 sec
1/4 mile: 14.0 sec @ 99 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 158 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.92 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 24 mpg
Third Place: Porsche Boxster
The Boxster doesn’t yield itself to dissection very well. Everybody likes driving it, likes the way they sit down in the cockpit but not way down, likes the music of the engine. Well, why hold back on this point? We love the pipe-organ resonance in the duet of intake and exhaust harmonies that play in the background behind the cockpit.
HIGHS: The way the sun streams into the wide-beam cockpit, the song of the boxer six, the absolute rightness of the Lapis Blue Metallic.
LOWS: A little too short in the inseam, a little too quivery in the body structure, and, as the only one here lacking a six-speed, very darn pricey.
But then we go through the list of details and find a lot of niggling complaints. The five-speed’s throws are long and ropy. The cockpit is tight on the inseam dimension, partly because front wheels chomp a big bite out of legroom. The driver’s right leg will probably end up hard against the storage stack that fills the space between the dash and tunnel. Take 10 or 15 minutes with the seat adjustments, trading off between height and backrest angle (we’re always full tight against the bulkhead), and we can find a sweet spot. It is there after all. Then another driver takes a turn, and everything’s lost. If you owned this car, you’d want to weld the adjuster in your position and make anyone else on the favored list live with your setting. Oh, and get some silicone spray to kill the “scritch-scritching” from the back of the seat against the rear of the compartment.
The Boxster’s ride has a whole-grain roughness about it, and road impacts make the body quiver more than any of the others with the possible exception of the Audi. Sometimes you hear the body squirming against the mating edge of the top when it’s up. The attention to interior detail seems altogether lacking, too, compared with the designer gestures of the Audi, Nissan, and Honda. The armrests are hard against your elbows. The pedals are plain black rubber, and the every-Boxster pieces of the door-pull-and-armrest combination fit against the blue of the door panel with no contrasting trim between, just black meeting nearly-black blue. There’s no eye candy inside this car, and no evidence that Porsche ever thought it had any competition for your 50-thousand bucks.
Bad news, Porsche. The lower-price offerings from Nissan and Honda have star quality, too. Still, everybody likes driving the Boxster. The leather-wrapped wheel feels just right. The broad-beamed cockpit fills happily with sun. Wind currents are mild with the top down, although not quite the match of the Nissan. And the suspension has a natural athleticism that lopes over sports-car roads. Popping over rises always makes the Audi queasy—Where’s it going to settle down? The Boxster keeps its balance no matter how the pavement jinks and swoops. It’ll adjust its arc to the command of your right foot. The steering feeds back just enough of a road report so your hands always know what to do next. The Boxster knows it’s a sports car. If the backrests feel snug to those who are only slightly thick of middle, well, sports cars do that. If road impacts send interesting noises up through the structure, whadja expect from a Porsche?
As we said going in, the Boxster doesn’t dissect well, but that never gets in the way of its fun.
THE VERDICT: Still blue-chip, but priced for platinum.
2003 Porsche Boxster
228-hp flat-6, 5-speed manual, 3024 lb
Base/as-tested price: $43,365/$50,840
Interior volume, seats/trunk: 48/9 ft3
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 6.0 sec
120 mph: 24.3 sec
1/4 mile: 14.6 sec @ 98 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 161 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.93 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 23 mpg
Second Place: Nissan 350Z Touring
This new Z never stops trying to win you over. It’s a little off-putting at first, the way you sit down in the dark cellar, the beltline up around your ear lobes. With the top up, you learn to drive it like an 18-wheeler, always checking the mirrors because those over-the-shoulder glances get you only close-ups of blind spots.
But then you release the latch, and the roof quickly power-folds itself under a hinged lid, and the sun brings out details in the relentlessly black interior—hey, that’s not stair-tread covering on the door panels after all!—and you say, “Hmm, this is a bunch of sports car for $38 grand. Who needs the Germans?”
HIGHS: No waiting for the torque, and the sweet symphony of twin pipes that accompanies it; the refined ride; the feeling of enduring solidity.
LOWS: Basement seating in the deep cockpit, and too bad about top-up visibility to the rear quarters.
Frosty aluminum is the contrasting trim inside, formed into beefy, billet-style stalks behind the wheel and sheetmetal coverings for the pedals and footrest. You sit low, but you have space. This car fits drivers of all sizes better than the others. Legroom is fine. The seat seems a little hollow in the lumbar area, but it does a very nice job in the turns; shoulder support is just right.
This car has a low pulse rate and a sense of gravitas about it. Nothing flexes. The clutch takes up with indisputable authority. The steering is deliberate and trusty. The shifter glides through the well-oiled maze. The engine is hushed until you call upon it, and then it delivers seamless acceleration accompanied by the sweetest baritone song from the pipes.
Ride smoothness tops all the others. Interior noises are muted. Cockpit drafts are least bothersome of the group. The cluster adjusts up and down with wheel height, always centering itself in your view.
We found a few annoyances. Your radar detector’s power cord has to stretch all the way to the bulkhead behind the seats. All the cockpit storage is back there, too, save for one small compartment on the tunnel at your elbow, which also doubles as a two-holer cup receptacle. As for the digital speedo in the trip computer atop the dash, they’ve got to be kidding with those dinky numbers. At freeways speeds, the digits don’t agree with the needle reading in the cluster, either.
At 3453 pounds, this Z is on the heavy side, outweighed in this group only by an extra 32 Audi pounds; it’s a whopping 618 up on the Honda. A good part of the Z’s heft (and the Audi’s) is surely the result of its platform sharing, in this case with various sedans, coupes, and SUVs in the Infiniti family. But the Z wears its weight well. The feeling is deliberate rather than ponderous, self-assured rather than tentative. And the weight doesn’t ruin the sports-car feeling. The grip ramps up confidently in turns, and the suspension keeps its poise. No hip fakes, no stutter steps. The Z’s lap time at the BeaveRun Motorsports Complex in Wampum, Pennsylvania, was in the hunt with the big guys—a tick behind the BMW, a half-stride up on the Porsche. They’re so close you wouldn’t choose between them just for numbers.
The original 240Z made its mark as a lot of sports car for the dough. This one will, too.
THE VERDICT: Won’t quit till it wins you over.
2003 Nissan 350Z Touring
287-hp V-6, 6-speed manual, 3453 lb
Base/as-tested price: $30,000/$38,000 (2004, est.)
Interior volume, seats/trunk: 52/4 ft3
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 5.5 sec
120 mph: 22.6 sec
1/4 mile: 14.3 sec @ 99 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 174 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.88 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 20 mpg
First Place: Honda S2000
Sports-car fantasies always have you snugged into a form-fitting cockpit, your hands at 10 and 2, the engine on full boil thrusting the tail wide as you drift through a fast sweeper. Yeah!
Sports-car fantasies are never about interstate cruising and schlepping your mother-in-law to mah-jongg.
HIGHS: Sensual intensity right up there with grabbing a bare high-voltage wire, clutch and shifter as perfect together as Rogers and Astaire, cockpit fits like your favorite jeans.
LOWS: Freeway cruising, and resisting the impulse to rip off nine-grand shifts in bursts of five.
The Honda S2000 was born to star in those daydreams. It’s a tightly packaged two-seater, spare and smoothly muscled, rather like an Olympic swimmer. Everything about it is taut and athletic and purposeful. You don’t get in; you put it on as you would your best-fitting jeans. There’s plenty of room to move—well, any moves you’d make in the course of driving—but no room for wrinkles. You know how, when jeans fit, everything comes at the right places? The S2000 is like that. The tunnel is the perfect height for a center armrest. The wheel has that just-right, nearly vertical presentation, so you can straight-arm the wheel Stirling Moss-style and still have an easy reach over the top. And the gauges are close behind so parallax never dodges them behind the rim.
Okay, regulars at big-and-tall shops may be in for disappointment, but the S2000 fits most staffers just right.
Haring around is not the mandatory driving style in sports cars, but to qualify for the class they must be capable of it. And if you drive this Honda politely, you’ll never know about its other moods. Ride harshness is Boxster level, but the car feels much crisper. Weight is less by 189 pounds, and the controls are sharper. The clutch stroke is succinct. The stubby aluminum shifter travels in microflicks. Precision machinery, that’s the feel.
And if you keep the yellow graphic arc of the tach below, say, 6000, this Honda plays the sweet little zip-about roadster.
Above 6000, no more nice little Honda. The VTEC cams switch to HP max, and the sound hardens to combat steel and you’re in the full Formula 1 mode, hell-bent on a grid position at Monte Carlo. Default to fighting reflexes. Lead the arcing yellow as you would a low-flying clay. Don’t wait for it to touch the nine-grand redline; you’ll be into the rev limiter. Pull. Snick! Push. Snick! Pull. Snick!
Check the mirrors for flashing lights! Whew. How long can you keep living like this?
This is a scalpel-quick sports car when you keep it boiling, quickest of the bunch around the BeaveRun road course, barely behind the Z4 in acceleration, even though it gives away a full liter of displacement. Think intensity. Think fury.
Think…could I stand this as an only car?
For sure, only an extremist would love it as an interstate cruiser. And yet, and yet . . . so much excitement for a fraction of Porsche and BMW prices. Actually, the Honda’s interior details, particularly the leather wheel, look richer than the Porsche’s. The metal-trimmed pedals and footrest fit the racy personality exactly.
On the dash, to the left of the wheel, you’ll see a substantial red button. It starts the adventure. Ready to drive into your daydream?
THE VERDICT: A four-wheeler with crotch-rocket DNA.
2003 Honda S2000
240-hp inline-4, 6-speed manual, 2835 lb
Base/as-tested price: $33,060/$33,060
Interior volume, seats/trunk: 44/5 ft3
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 5.4 sec
120 mph: 23.6 sec
1/4 mile: 14.1 sec @ 99 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 161 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.92 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 23 mpg
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