Diving face-first into the 25-degree toilet bowl, the Porsche tortures its driver with 2.2 g's of lateral thrust. Hammering into turn 1 with its V-8 needling the redline, the Z51 Corvette's head-up display clocks 145 mph.
Two makers from the opposite ends of the earth are vying for the sub-$100,000 supercar crown. The new Chevrolet Corvette, standing on half a century of heritage, backs its bid with 400 hp. Porsche's sixth-generation 911 Carrera in full S armor is the fearless rival. One will be hailed the best sports car reasonable money can buy.
This is not a numbers game with arbitration by calculator. We'll crown our king by living with the contenders for as long as their makers can spare them, by assessing their vital signs, and by racing one silver Corvette Z51 against one yellow 911S around the western hemisphere's most taxing test track. Driving fun will be a critical factor.
In engineering terms, Chevrolet and Porsche agree on little but this: speed is good, the middle of the car is the right place for the transmission, and rear wheels work best for propulsion. Chevy sticks its potent pushrod V-8 way up front. Porsche hangs a smaller four-cam flat-six way out back. The Corvette rides on a wheelbase a foot longer than the Porsche's, yet the two cars cast like-sized shadows.
In spite of drastic engineering differences, the Corvette and Porsche performance-quiz scores are startlingly close. Drag coefficients and frontal areas are within a smidgen. Only four pounds of weight separate the two (score one for the Corvette). What the 911S lacks in power-to-weight ratio it makes up for in gearing, rpm range, and traction.
Piston displacement overrules lesser variables in the fight against inertia and the wind, so the Corvette wins both the 30-to-70-mph passing race and the sprint to 140 mph (by a mere 2.3 seconds). The riled Porsche parries with superior braking and cornering scores. Lower-profile tires and the rearward weight bias are factors, but don't discredit Stuttgart's persistence with a problematic chassis layout and its choice of extra-sticky rubber over the run-flat tires on the Corvette. (Neither warrior carries a spare.)
Cockpit environments are as different as night and noon. You're seated deep in the 911S's pointy nose, with knees toward the center line and toes mere inches from the front tires. The glassy cabin admits ample light, while years of polishing gauge design and control-stalk locations yield an office with driving as its primary business. Frustrating that mission are enough switches to confuse a 747 pilot, as if spending $33,000 more than the price of a Corvette buys you membership in an exclusive electronic flight systems club.
In the Corvette, your posterior cuddles up to the rear axle. The mood is darker because of thick pillars and a rear window so nearly horizontal that moisture or dust turns it opaque. The cut and quality of the trim are better than the C5's but still closer to Cobalt than Cadillac in the GM hierarchy. Seats lack the plug-and-play feel of Porsche buckets. Side bolsters are too softly padded and too roundly contoured to secure you laterally.
Around town, the tight-turn-circle 911 hustles like a cockroach on caffeine, though some of the steering tactility we loved in the previous generation is missing. The Corvette has a bigger, heavier feel. But mining the vast torque reserves reveals a true supercar's depth of character.
To probe the deep reaches of these two sports-car souls, we arranged for access to General Motors' new 2.9-mile Milford Road Course, a.k.a. the Lutzring. (GM product guru Robert Lutz wrote the $5 million check for the facility, which opened this spring.) Corvette engineer Mike Neal did an excellent job of distilling the essence of some of the world's most challenging race circuits, especially Germany's Nrburgring, into this ribbon of whoops, hollers, and deliciously long straightaways. No finer place exists on the continent for studying supercar strengths and shortcomings.
First finding: the Porsche 911S is quicker, but not by much. With only 0.35 second and 0.22 mph separating our best laps in the two cars, neither is able to stretch much of a speed lead. But in terms of driving characteristics, the two are worlds apart.
The Porsche's brakes are stunning. The pedal returns excellent feel, and the car is rock stable while shedding major speed. The shifter is delightfully light and quick-acting. The steering is accurate and communicative, though we miss the previous generation's weight and friendliness.
Even though the 911S feels neat, nimble, and as wieldy as a pocketknife, it's less involving than before. In some respects, the 911 may be evolving too close to perfection.
The one bug in an otherwise scrumptious soup is how the Porsche behaves at the fringes of its cornering grip. The 911S shows excessive understeer, requiring massive throttle lifts to revector the nose when it starts pushing toward the outside verge. But the back end lets go so abruptly that you have to jab the throttle immediately to tuck the nose back on line. This Porsche won't abide a smooth, stable power slide.
Sliding is the Corvette's specialty. The Z51's competitive driving mode tolerates remarkably large drift angles before the electronic nannies rein you in. The Corvette's steering has more heft than the 911's, and it commands a very faithful dynamic response, though reactions are slightly slower-witted.
After mild initial understeer, you can balance this car on the throttle like a ballerina. The Corvette slides comfortably (with the stability system disabled) through 80-mph sweepers. Lift in the middle of a bend, and the nose bites, but always in a controllable way. In spite of what the stopwatch says, the Corvette feels quicker because it's so manageable and predictable.
We wish the seats were as supportive as the Porsche's and the quality of the interior furnishings met a higher standard. The feel and power of the brakes are also a notch below the 911's. After half a dozen laps of the circuit, they were ready for a breather.
So the Corvette returned every volley the 911S fired its way. Some of the 2.3-second advantage the Chevy scored racing to 140 mph the Porsche won back at the Lutzring. But by any meaningful measure, the two are performance equals.
Even though the 911S is sheer joy on wheels, the Corvette also plays its power advantage like a pro to seize the fun-to-drive marbles. Factor in the BMW you could buy with the $33,000 price difference and the sex appeal of alfresco driving on a balmy day, and the Corvette takes that final ritual step up to the supercar throne.
But don't count on a long reign. In a few months, we'll be back at the Lutzring to see if the forthcoming Corvette Z06 can fend off the attack of Porsche's new 911 Turbo.