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.