Which one you like best?" The question came from one of the locals in southeast Ohio who'd stopped to check out our quartet of silver and red sports cars. He wasn't the first to ask, and he wouldn't be the last.
We were having a hard time coming up with a definitive answer. It would have helped to pick a clear winner if we'd had an obvious loser. Unfortunately, with the BMW Z4 3.0i, the Honda S2000, the new Nissan 350Z roadster, and the Porsche Boxster, there wasn't one in the bunch. So, over three days of driving, our answers kept changing, as one car and then another nosed briefly into the lead.
It also would have been easier if we'd stuck to one venue: the skidpad, the racetrack, the back roads, or the Interstates. But we'd hit 'em all, and what we found was that all four cars excelled in at least a few areas, that none was best in all, and that differences in personal preference were as strong as differences in the cars' relative merits.
The S2000 is nearly as old as the Boxster, yet its creased-Miata styling is none the worse for it. Just as when it was new, the S2000's design is as unlikely to set hearts pounding as it is to offend anyone-how Honda-like. Despite its minimalist vibe, the S2000 does come with a standard power top, but it's saddled with an old-fashioned soft boot, which is a pain to install and takes up much of the trunk space when not in use. Toss it in the garage, and drag it out when it's time to sell.
The 350Z roadster is the newcomer here, and it springs from an acclaimed source: the 350Z coupe, a powerhouse sports car, a compelling performance value, and our 2003 Automobile of the Year. That the convertible version is arriving less than a year after the wildly popular coupe is a testament to the hyperdrive speed of new-product launches by a resurgent Nissan.
The Z alone among our assembled roadsters started life as a hardtop, and, to our eyes, the design suffers for it. Although we're generally enamored of the coupe's looks, the roadster doesn't work as well.
"Hatchbacks never translate well into convertibles," opined design director Darin Johnson. Associate editor Joe DeMatio characterized the problem as "too much sheetmetal, carved into too high of a mound." The high beltline and round butt made the Z look a lot bigger and heavier than the other cars-an appearance that's not exactly deceptive. On the positive side, the Z is the only one of the group to incorporate a hard boot, which whirs into place automatically (the front passenger needs to lean forward a bit while the top and the tonneau do their mechanical pirouette, as the power seatback moves forward a few inches to give clearance).
The other three cars here are already familiar sights, although the Z4 still sparks tensions between the glassy-eyed disciples of BMW design chief Chris Bangle and those who think the Z4's festival of creases and slashes is as overdone as the chrome on a '58 Buick. At least we were all able to agree that the BMW's extra-long-hood, cab-way-back proportions were suitably rakish. The Z4 is the only one of the four with a fully automatic drop top (no latching or unlatching required), for the suavest possible stoplight transformations.
The Boxster received a subtle primping for 2003, with restyled front and rear fascias and a new glass rear window, but overall the look has changed very little since its debut six years ago. Just as the BMW's proportions emphasize its front-engine layout, the Porsche's hint at its mid-engine placement. The Boxster's top stows neatly enough that no boot is needed, an arrangement that BMW also uses for the Z4.
As we headed out of town on our crumbling local freeways, the 350Z immediately impressed us with its solidity, although all four cars were commendably free of cowl shake. The firm foundation helps give the Z a comfortable ride no matter what the road. Our long highway flog was no problem for the Nissan, which was also very quiet with the top up. The roadster comes in only two of the coupe's five iterations: Enthusiast and Touring (which leaves out the base, Performance, and Track models). We had the less expensive Enthusiast model, which at about $33,500 is not much more than the bargain-basement Honda and makes it a solid sports car value. All versions of the 350Z come with the same brawny, 3.5-liter V-6, whose 287 horsepower dwarfs the next most powerful (Honda's VTEC four!) by 47 ponies and whose 274 pound-feet of torque betters the second-best, the BMW, by a significant 60 pound-feet. Good thing, since Nissan's little pork chop carries 500 to 700 pounds more weight than the other cars here. Nonetheless, the V-6, mated to a six-speed stick, makes the Nissan an effortless highway cruiser with plenty of passing power.
Hopping from the 350Z into the S2000 is a study in contrasts. The Honda is the smallest, lightest car here, and it feels like it. Climbing in, tall drivers often bang their shins on the wraparound dashboard; once inside, though, space is adequate. Honda's digital instrument cluster was a curious anachronism when the S2000 was new; now it's about as futuristic as Intellivision. Some of the lesser controls suffer a bit of a scattershot layout (we won't even tell you where the fuel-door release is). The major controls are much better, for the most part. The S2000's shifter, with its ultra-short throws and positive action, is a jewel, and both the clutch and the brake pedals came in for praise. The Honda's electric power steering suffers an on-center dead spot, and the ride can get choppy.
The S2000's overachieving VTEC four wrings 240 horsepower from just 2.0 liters but needs 8300 rpm to do it (with the redline at 9000), and it makes just 153 pound-feet of torque. So, naturally, it requires constant flogging, but the reward is a sound that's pure racing car, or sport bike-that and some very brisk acceleration, as the S2000 was (just barely) the quickest car to 60 mph. Still, even our staunchest S2000 fan, road test coordinator Tony Quiroga, admitted to wishing for more torque: "S2200 or S2400 would be nice."
The BMW's highway persona shadowed the Nissan's in many ways. Its torquey, 3.0-liter six is always ready to respond. Its shifter is a joy, although its clutch and brake pedals were less so. And the ride, even on the optional eighteen-inch run-flat tires, is pretty good. The cabin is accommodating and good-looking, even if the deeply hooded, Alfa Romeo-esque instrument binnacles are angled strangely skyward.
The Porsche feels its age most on the freeway, particularly over beat-up pavement, where the ride-again on optional eighteen-inch wheels-can get harsh. The base Boxster's engine is a little slow down low; it doesn't wake up until the tach needle crosses 3000 rpm or so. When it does, the flat six speaks with a voice both exotic and seductive. We found the Porsche's shifter pretty floppy, but its clutch and brake pedals offer ideal travel and effort. The steering is also perfectly natural, something that cannot be said of the BMW's electric power steering, whose low-speed efforts are feathery enough to allow one-finger wheel spinning and which still felt overboosted on the highway.
Despite its age, the Boxster interior doesn't look at all dated. Just as when it was new, there's too much hard plastic, but the design and space are good. Porsche has done a good job of carving out little niches of stowage here and there, and, of course, the Boxster's two trunks (the front one is particularly deep and well shaped) provide unmatched utility.
Of course, no one buys a roadster based on its trunk space or its Interstate aplomb. So we sought out the twistiest, hilliest, emptiest blacktop in southeast Ohio. When the road deviates from the straight and flat, the Nissan shows it's far more than some boulevardier. The Z is easy to drive, with fine steering efforts and loads of torque. It's not at all fussy about what gear it's in, although if you're up for a change, you find that shifts are short and positive, with clutch travel and take-up spot on.
Like the Nissan's powerplant, the BMW's 3.0-liter straight six is also very torquey and has great engine presence (piped from the engine bay to the firewall, lest you miss it). But the Z4's chassis let us down a bit here. Hammering through quick curves over wavy pavement, we wished for more body control. "Perhaps to compensate for the stiff run-flat tires, the front springs feel a little soft, which can create a pitching motion," observed Quiroga. We might have felt more confident in the Z4's abilities had BMW's steering spoken to us more clearly.
The S2000 has its lightweight engine located behind the front axle, which keeps it from feeling nose-heavy and which, together with the ultra-quick steering, helps it jump at the chance to turn in. But uneven pavement will toss it around a fair bit; call it more lively than composed. And having to keep the revs way up in the 6000-to-9000-rpm range isn't always easy, particularly when the sun washes out the digital bar-graph tach.
The Boxster comes beautifully alive in the upper half of its rev range, and with that flat six growling in your ears, staying within its optimal rev range comes more easily than keeping the S2000 in its sky-high power band. The Porsche's chassis feels as young and spry as ever. With its mid-engine placement, the Boxster seems almost to pivot around its own axis, yet it's never darty. "Chassis is unflappable; steering is alert and accurate," said DeMatio. "Over the same stretch of road, this has it over the Z4." But one more big test was still to come.
The limits and abilities of our foursome were so high we needed time on a racetrack to really wring them out. A day on the 1.6-mile road course at BeaveRun Motorsports Complex near Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, provided redemption for two of our contestants but cast a shadow over a third.
The BMW was most strongly redeemed. "After disappointing me somewhat on the road, the Z4 made me a believer again on the track," reported DeMatio, who continued: "Very composed, great turn-in, superb grip. Engine comes on strong and is so smooth it's easy to find yourself bouncing against the rev limiter." A well-balanced chassis and grippy rubber, abetted by a helpful, two-stage traction control, made this car a happy camper at BeaveRun. The Z4's brakes, however, needed a respite after a morning of track work, although at the test track they tied the Boxster's for shortest stops.
The S2000 emerged as the real track darling. Not surprising, perhaps, as it's the lightest, the highest-revving, and also the most immediate in its responses. Although the wee Honda proves very sensitive to weight transfers, the car is endearingly tossable, with oversteer front and center on the menu. The purity of the track experience makes it easier to keep the revs up where they need to be, and coming down, the brakes proved strong and fade-free. The tires, however, lose grip quickly when hot.
The Boxster's rear weight bias gave some drivers pause, but the car is, in fact, very well balanced, has tons of grip, and never snapped at us. With the boxer six usually spinning at 3000 rpm or better, thoughts of the 33-horsepower-more-powerful Boxster S left our consciousness. But we did find too much of a gap between first and second gears, a reminder that the Boxster was the only five-speed here (the others were six-speeds). As mentioned, the Porsche's brakes tied the Z4's for shortest stop from 70 mph, and on the track they felt as if they'd never get tired.
As happy as it is on the road, we couldn't help getting the feeling that the Z roadster just grits its teeth and puts up with track work. The engine is still torquey and strong, and the chassis grips well, but its understeering ways toss a wet blanket on the good times. Also, the Nissan's brakes were waving the white flag after a hard morning of flogging (here's where we missed the Track model's Brembos).
So, to Answer Your Question
The most powerful but also the heaviest, the smooth-riding, easy-driving 350Z roadster is the grand tourer of this hardcore group. It's no Thunderbird, but it felt a little less like a sports car than the others.
Lithe, buzzy, busy, and quick, the S2000 is the race car of the foursome, utterly unconcerned with comfort and usability. With its somewhat hyper personality, the S2000 isn't easy to master, but it's perhaps the most rewarding. Still, the S2000's star shone much more brightly on the track than on the road, making the little Honda a specialized car for specialized circumstances.
The BMW and the Porsche are harder to separate. Both excelled on the track. The Z4 was more polished on the highway; the Boxster had the edge in the twisties. The Z4 is quicker and cheaper and boasts a better gearbox. The Boxster counters with purer steering, more robust brakes, and better body control. DeMatio: "Although this car is old, the combination of a mid-engine chassis and the Porsche boxer six is still mighty alluring." Quiroga: "The Z4 is good in many regards, perhaps all regards, but it's not the best at anything." So, in a photo finish, the judges give the nod to the Porsche. There, we said it. We like the Boxster best. But not by much.