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.