2003-2005 BMW Z4, 2000-2005 Honda S2000, 2003-2005 Nissan 350Z, and 1997-2005 Porsche Boxster

Ian Dawson

Back-Road Beauties

Overhead Interior View

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.

Overhead Interior View

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.

Big-Track Attack

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.

Overhead Interior View

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.

Overhead Interior View

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).

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