by DOUGLAS KOTT
photos by GUY SPANGENBERG
Not just any car gains admittance to the 300-Horsepower Club, a place where 10W-30 flows freely from the tap and everybody knows your name (and model designation).
Its atmosphere is friendly and laid-back, where riffs of Springsteen, Jackson Browne and Eric Clapton soothe the soul and there's not a mirror ball, narcissistic deejay or light-up dance floor to be seen or heard.
But a certain tension does hang in the air because the regulars--Chevrolet Corvette LT1, Mitsubishi 3000GT VR-4, Nissan 300ZX Turbo and Toyota Supra Turbo--each fancies himself as the life of the party.
That's all well and good, but which is the car you'd like to hang around, to be seen with? And which car, heaven forbid, might don a lampshade as the evening wears on?
Searching for answers, we took all four patrons on a daylong road trip for driving impressions, ending up at a favorite high-performance dance floor, the Streets of Willow in Rosamond, California.
There, with the safety of an open track, we were able to probe and discover the good traits and nasty habits that reveal themselves with 10/10ths driving, as well as get some comparative lap times with Senior Editor Joe Rusz at the wheel. In addition to our normal 5th-wheel test data, Road Test Editor Kim Reynolds fitted a g.analyst accelerometer to each car, which generated plots of lateral and longitudinal acceleration to augment our normal bank of objective data. Further, he delved into quantifying the response and noise level of each powerplant too.
Time's a-wastin'; let's get started and let the rubber dust fall where it may.
The players Briefly, let's recap our four cars. Though they're no strangers to these pages, enough has changed to prompt a second inspection. Take the fat-tired, hunkered-down Corvette, for instance, introduced in its current configuration in 1984 and augmented in 1992 with its lusty 5.7-liter 300-bhp LT1 V-8 engine and ASR traction-control system that works hand-in-hand with its anti-lock braking system.
America's sports car for 1994 receives an interior update that includes a passenger-side airbag (which resides where the glovebox used to), a mildly reworked dash and center console, smoothed-over door panels with storage compartments in their armrests and new seats, designed with help from Lear.
From the Corvette's Bowling Green, Kentucky, birthplace to across the Pacific, we find the Mitsubishi 3000GT VR-4, whose power comes from two small proprietary turbochargers packing air into a transversely mounted 4-cam 3.0-liter V-6. It makes 320 bhp this year (up from 300), thanks to a boost-pressure increase from 9.7 to 12.0 psi, and applies that prodigious force through a full-time all-wheel-drive system that normally apportions torque 45/55 front to rear.
A sixth speed is added to the Getrag gearbox this year, and the brake rotor diameters grow to 12.2 in. up front, 11.6 in. at the rear, an increase of about a half-inch in both cases.
Quit poking around the brakes and face the Mitsu head-on, and you'll be confronted by the most visible changes. Ancient Japanese warrior masks were said to inspire the 3000GT's new visage, which comprises four projector-beam lamps behind modified teardrop-shape polycarbonate covers, flanked by more audacious running-light clusters.
The car's myriad openings and vents have a softer, rounder appearance, and those hideous blisters that used to provide clearance for the tops of the front suspension's struts now appear as integrated sheet-metal bulges in the hood. And to better show off the brakes' big aluminum calipers (4-piston fronts, 2-piston rears), there are new, more spiderlike 5-spoke wheels.
Next up is the Nissan 300ZX Turbo, its tapered nose and arching greenhouse pillars looking especially attractive. Nissan's stylists swatted an upper-deck home run back in 1990 when the current Z was introduced and had the good sense not to change the design--much.
Their one concession to new-model-year freshening? A new rear spoiler that stands up off the bodywork.
Under the Z's hood lies an engine of nearly the same configuration as the Mitsubishi's: a 4-cam, 24-valve 60-degree V-6 with twin turbos and intercoolers, though here it makes 300 bhp, is mounted longitudinally (with a pleasing symmetry to its intercooler ducting and intake manifolds) and drives the rear wheels through a 5-speed gearbox and a viscous limited-slip differential.
Other changes of note? An electric motor replaces hydraulic actuation of the rear-wheel steering for more precise control, and the dash now houses a passenger-side airbag at the expense of most of the glovebox's volume.
Last (but only in the alphabetic sense) is Toyota's Supra, the upstart, with a controversial look all its own and the power to back up its high-test styling statement. A full 320 bhp issues forth from the flywheel side of the engine, a 3.0-liter dohc inline-6, mounted longitudinally and endowed with a sequential twin-turbocharger system.
Six speeds channel the power to the rear wheels through a Torsen gear-type differential. The Supra seems elemental when compared with the others--there's no adjustable shock valving, no rear-wheel steering, etc.--but it's a case of less (complexity and weight) is more (quicker acceleration, higher cornering power, better braking). And as we've seen from previous experience, the Supra need not apologize for any performance deficiency.
Of course, we're not in the business of making snap judgments on cars based on technology-riddled specifications sheets.
What's needed is seat time--lots of it--and we covered 500 miles in a day with three of our group on a route that started at our Newport Beach offices, meandered north through the Los Padres National Forest between Santa Barbara and Ventura, then out to the coast on Highway 166.
A northbound stretch of Highway 101 allowed us to absorb the finer points of interior creature comforts. At Santa Margarita, we turned inland again on Route 58, an excitingly sinuous ribbon of road that wends its way past ranches, oil fields and a solar-electricity farm. Destination's end was Lancaster, an easy 20-minute drive from the Willow Springs race track.
The Corvette was an 11th-hour arrival, trucked in from Detroit on a flatbed too late to take part in the road trip, but present in time for the track portion of the test.
In driving subsequent to our track day, the Corvette felt impressive. Getting in a Corvette has never been easy, what with its high sills to negotiate, but once ensconced in the excellent new Lear seats, there's an increased sense of spaciousness, partly because the seats are less confining (though still wonderfully supportive) and partly because the revised dash and console don't separate the driver and passenger quite so much.
Instrumentation remains that strange mix of dials (for the tach, volts, oil temp, coolant temp and oil pressure), a digital display (speedometer) and a bar graph (fuel level), all set within a very (some would say "overly") theatrical pod.
Starting off from rest and at low speeds, the Corvette feels a bit clumsy and uncoordinated, and its low seating position coupled with its long, wide expanse of hood adds to the bull-in-a-china-shop feel. The Vette's chassis is the least rigid of the group's, and it flexes and quakes noticeably over bumps in the road. But the quicker the pace, the better the Vette feels.
Given a reasonably smooth road, that clumsiness gives way to the lateral bite of immense 275/40ZR-17 tires (part of the Z07 handling package) and a close-coupled, coordinated cornering feel. Steering is quick and direct, the shifter is rod-solid and mistake-proof, and the brakes easily summon the sort of deceleration that firmly pitches you into the webbing of the 3-point seatbelt.
Stomp the throttle and those eight 4.0-in.-diameter pistons respond, delivering satisfying lunges of acceleration as low as 2000 rpm, growing increasingly fierce on through the 5700-rpm redline, an engine speed that would have the old L98 wheezing for breath. "Far and away, it has the best engine," said Feature Editor Andrew Bornhop.
"You can call it crude because it still has pushrod-operated valves, but Chevy has retained the bottom-end grunt, and it revs pretty well." Amen.
In the cruise mode, the big Chevy is the noisiest of the group, even with the V-8 loping at not quite 1400 rpm in 6th gear; its gearbox is also the most vocal, with a whine most noticeable at low speeds. The Vette is also the easiest to see out of, with its big wraparound glass hatch. And with its 3-position Selective Ride Control switch set to Tour, its cruising composure is downright civilized.
Where the Corvette seems refreshingly elemental, the 3000GT VR-4 is sort of the Swiss Army knife of sports cars. Ponder this list of equipment: all-wheel drive, adjustable shock valving, rear-wheel steering, cockpit-adjustable exhaust restriction (!) and "Active Aero," which tilts up the rear spoiler by 14 degrees and lowers the front air dam by 3 in. at speeds of more than 50 mph, reducing drag and decreasing lift slightly. All this equipment incurs a weight penalty, of course; at 3810 lb. curbside, it's 260 lb. heavier than the Supra, 280 lb. heavier than the Z and 420 lb. heavier than the Corvette.
But let's keep in mind that with 320 bhp, there's no lack of power to haul it around. And all that sprung weight makes for a highway ride that's comfortable for long stints at the wheel.
As you hustle down a section of unfamiliar road, the overriding impression is one of security and composure. Said Bornhop: "I do think the 3000GT is the easiest car to get into and immediately go fast. It's pretty well-mannered, it's not going to snap one way or the other, and if you do something wrong, it will understeer." The twin-turbo V-6 is a willing cohort here, its small turbos spooling up quickly for a gratifying launch out of slow-speed corners. And the all-wheel drive allows you to get on the throttle just that little bit earlier--you can always be the first across an intersection, if stoplight holeshots are your thing.
The feel of its controls could be better, though--we all noticed an unnatural, exaggerated on-center feel to the steering, and the brakes have an over-eager grabbiness on initial application, especially when cold.
The 6-speed's cable shift linkage also came under fire for its clunky feel, so out of character with the solidity of the rest of the car. The Mitsu's driver, though, will remain comfortable and well-informed--the seats are quite good, with their supple leather covering, great lateral support and effective electrically actuated lumbar support; and the instrument package is comprehensive, with what are possibly the largest speedometer and tach dials fitted to a modern sports car.
The Nissan--oh, the Nissan! The reborn Z-car wowed us when introduced in 1990; four years later, it still keeps pushing most of the right buttons, like the high-school prom queen who still makes hearts flutter at the reunion. Its exterior shape and detailing continue to be exciting with just the right amount of understatement, and its interior shines with a functional, esthetically pleasing design that features a contrasting band of upholstery encircling the lower extremities of both driver and passenger.
The Z's nose drops away so quickly that you can barely see it from the driver's seat, in sharp contrast to the bulky hoods of the other three cars. There just seems to be less mass here, and that impression is reinforced by the steering's excellent turn-in crispness and locked-down feel on center.
As you drive into a corner, the brakes require more pedal pressure than you'd expect, but exiting turns is pure entertainment with the twin-turbo V-6's powerband--there's a thrilling elastic-snap quality as the engine comes up on boost that makes the Z feel even quicker than its numbers.
Inside, the seats cradle various physiques comfortably with a minimum of adjustments, and controls are intelligently grouped on two pods that flank the instrument panel, leaving only the radio to occupy the center of the dash. Gauges have bold markings, and dials for boost and oil pressure are tidily inset in the tach and speedometer faces.
Gripes? The biggest one is that the Z is an incredibly rear-blind car, requiring studious use of the mirrors and lots of wheeling about and neck-craning when changing lanes. The new rear wing is smack-dab in the middle of your rearward field of vision too, making a bad situation worse. The ride's on the jiggly side, and it's made nearly unbearable when the shocks are switched from Tour to Sport; just the thing if you'd like your internal organs rearranged. Last, the engine deserves a much less agricultural sound to be consistent with its superb power delivery.
Newest kid on the block, the Supra, has followed a developmental path similar to the Z's: Its immediate predecessor was getting a bit unfocused, soft and flabby; the new version is trimmer, more coordinated and stronger.
And what a difference! This car devours canyon roads with a seamless transition from braking to turn-in to taking a set to a sweeping exit. At first the brake pedal feels a touch soft, but press harder and there's immense stopping power to be had without agitating the chassis. If there's any criticism to be levied here, it's that the steering feels somewhat overboosted, a quality that returns Tercel-like maneuverability in the city but a slightly willowy feel to the front end when in the high-speed attack mode.
Out of low-speed corners, there's a moment's lag from the turbos, followed by a very linear, very forceful rush of power--the Supra feels much stronger at its 6800-rpm redline than the other two turbocharged cars at elevated revs. And it sounds the best too, issuing forth the slightly angry, cloth-ripping song that only a properly tuned inline-6 can compose. Shifts are nearly second-nature, with a 6-speed whose action is as solid as the Vette's, though carried off with more finesse.
With so competent a mechanical package, it's a shame that the interior is something of a letdown. Functionally, the dash and instrument panel are masterpieces; everything from the ventilation controls to the rheostat for instrument brightness is easy to reach and in plain view.
Gauges are outstanding examples of the species, and huge eyeball vents deliver huge quantities of air wherever desired. But there is little art to the way everything is arranged in a black plastic panel sweeping down to form the console that's canted toward the driver.
If Toyota was trying to achieve race-car starkness, they succeeded, but it just looks plain when compared with its competitors' such as the 300ZX design.
At the track Here, on the challenging eight turns of the 1.0-mile Streets of Willow road course, luggage space means diddly, a cushy ride pales in significance and no one cares if the radio's buttons are hard to operate. What we're looking at is grip, balance, engine response, braking performance and the confidence level that a car returns to its driver. While it's not the environment most owners will subject their cars to, it is reassuring (and curiosity-satisfying) to see what happens when all the stops are pulled out. Let's click the traction control off, snug our seatbelts and have at it.
Supra Turbo 2-lap average: 1:05.3
Marginally quicker than the 3000GT and 0.6 sec. quicker than the Corvette, the Supra is so competent it's almost boring. Track performance was simply an extrapolation of how it performed on the road.
Very mild steady-state understeer, with a transition to gentle, easily controlled power oversteer. More body roll than the other cars. Excellent brakes exhibited no discernible fade, though pedal has an initially soft feel.
3000GT VR-4 2-lap average: 1:05.4
A remarkably easy car to drive, with slightly more power-on understeer than the others and a tail that can be aimed with lift-throttle, a trait we didn't associate with previous 3000GTs. Brake improvements really pay off--even after extended hot-lapping, pedal felt only a little soft; previous 3000GTs have experienced significant fade under similar conditions. And what was perceived as grabbiness on the street shines as immediacy on the track.
Corvette LT1 2-lap average: 1:05.9
No stranger to the race track, the Corvette's competition breeding shows through. Impressive grip, flat cornering stance and a no-drama ability to put the power down. Modest steady-state understeer. Tail stays planted in a lift-throttle condition, but gets nervous with trail braking. Brakes are quite good, though there's a strange flutter felt through the pedal on initial application and ABS intervenes more readily than with the other cars.
300ZX Turbo 2-lap average: 1:07.1
Trickiest car to drive on The Streets, a surprise considering its exemplary on-road behavior. Understeers slightly at first, then chassis pivots into oversteer if too much power is applied--entertaining and easy to catch with quick steering, but not the fast way around. Judicious throttle modulation is needed to keep the tail planted. Cornering stance is flat, and brakes require the most effort but showed no discernible fade.
Perspectives The target for performance in modern sports cars is a moving one, and it has moved at a dizzying pace. Ten years ago, the Corvette looked about the same, but had filling-dislodging Z51 suspension, Cross-Fire Injection (which sounds like something that should be fixed under warranty) and 205 bhp. Mitsubishi's top offering was the Starion, a sporty (but not sports) coupe with boxy strait-laced looks and 0.80g skidpad performance. Nissan? Its somewhat flabby third-generation 300ZX had just made its debut--"improved overall but unlikely to send any competing designers back to their drawing boards," we said, damning with the faintest of praise.
And the Supra shared its chassis with the innocuous Celica back then and was a tidy sharp-edged package whose inline-6 had exactly half the power the new Supra has. It sorely needed an identity all its own.
What a difference a decade makes. Here we have four serious sports cars from the same makers, bursting with individuality, that smoke down a quarter-mile in under 14.5 seconds, can all exceed 150 mph and feel right at home circling a race track, abilities only within the realm of stratospherically priced exotics in 1984. And more important, they all combine this sort of performance with hassle-free driveability and enough comfort to make driving on a daily basis an inviting proposition, rather than a semi-masochistic chore. Just what will the year 2004 bring? The mind reels.
Toyota Supra Turbo
Although the price of admission is a bit stiff, for me the Toyota Supra comes closest to being the perfect modern GT within the context of this comparison. Distinctive in appearance, impeccably turned out and mechanically near perfect, the Supra is a car that can be appreciated at many levels, not the least of which is performance. What could be better? A Supra powered by a muscular V-8 not unlike the Corvette's LT1 powerplant, which is what draws me to the Chevy--but only as a second choice dependent solely on the Vette's relative bargain price.
Chevrolet Corvette LT1
Here's a fun experiment: Open the hood of each car and pour in a cup of water. The only place you'll find a pool of water is beneath the Corvette. The other cars are so jam-packed with turbos, intercoolers and wide twincam cylinder heads that it's doubtful water will even reach the ground.
The Corvette represents simplicity; that's why I like it.
While I'm not wild about the Vette's image (or its crazy instrument panel), it's hard to argue with a small-block V-8 taken to new heights, mounted in a chassis that absolutely relishes curvy ribbons of asphalt.
Nissan 300ZX Turbo
Now comes my moment of truth.
In a four-car competition such as ours, loyalties are sure to be divided. Mine are split 90 percent in favor of the twin-turbo 300ZX and 10 percent backing the Supra Turbo. The Toyota was certainly the most talented car in our quartet, but its advantage--not to mention personality and character--didn't really surface until track day. The Nissan offers solid sports-car credentials, enduring good looks and full-time charisma. Give me a 300ZX Turbo and a three-day weekend in the Sierra Nevadas, and I'll come back with the meaning of life.
Nissan 300ZX Turbo
No one's pretending the 300ZX Turbo isn't a handful on the race track. But where it really counts--bipping along at a 7/10ths pace on the secondary road of your dreams--the Z shines with its knife-edge steering, slingshot acceleration and ability to change direction with great nimbleness. And to me, the Z's appearance, both inside and out, is the clinching factor; its exciting yet sophisticated looks will continue to attract the right kind of attention long after others lose their luster.