The last time we brought together these otherworldly muscle machines, former editor Brent Romans wrote that it was as though the heavens had opened up, snatched him from the clutches of office boredom and deposited him directly into horsepower nirvana.
Although it seemed like all our prayers had been answered when the call came down from above to conduct another American exotic grudge match, it quickly became apparent that Señor Romans might have used up all our good graces the last time around. From the minute the test started (or should we say almost didn't start?), the press car gods were not looking down on us favorably.
First, the Viper threatened to not participate at all. Since it's built in limited numbers, Dodge isn't too keen on letting its 500-horsepower flagship loose on journalists hell-bent on proving that it can in fact run an 11-second quarter-mile. We begged and pleaded and even offered up our associate editor as collateral until permission was finally granted. We would get the car, but when it finally showed up, the ABS warning light was already glowing before we even laid a hand on it.
A call to our friendly reps over at Chevrolet regarding a certain Torch Red Corvette resulted in some disheartening news as well. Apparently they had a Z06 with our name on it, but it was in dire need of some new rubber - imagine that. A set of replacement tires was found, but it would take a couple days to get them mounted. So once again, it would show, but two days later than we expected.
Naturally, we hesitated before calling the folks at Ford, half expecting them to inform us that the 2003 SVT Cobra we had scheduled had been lost in a sinking transport ship from Detroit, but to our surprise and relief, it was in good shape and ready to go. We were fully prepared to nix the Acura NSX should it be delayed, but a quick call confirmed that it too was ready and waiting.
Were our misfortunes now behind us? Not exactly. Although performance testing went off without a hitch (a few locked-up Viper tires aside), our planned day at the Willow Springs road course was far from perfect. Testing conditions were hardly ideal as temperatures hovered in the mid-30s all morning with random sprinkles thrown in for good measure. Granted, it was December and all, but we hadn't seen rain in Southern California for months; surely, it wouldn't decide to start right then?
Well, not right away. We were able to get in a few quick sessions in each of the four cars, but then the sky opened up and dumped the biggest load of water SoCal had seen in a long time. It was virtual bumper cars on the freeway as we crawled home in the slow lane, desperately trying to avoid the numerous accidents occurring all around us.
Thankfully, all the cars were returned in one piece, but it seemed like we had just picked them up only a few days before. Our normal schedule of editor test-drives had been pretty much tossed out the window in a vain attempt to secure some much needed track times. In light of this, we dispensed with our normal routine of evaluations and calculations to determine the winner and instead went with a more subjective evaluation method. It doesn't have a very scientific air about it but then again the decision to buy one of these cars is rarely a rational one, either. We kept that in mind as we selected the finishing order in the hopes of choosing the car that best exemplifies that theory.
When all was said and done, we once again had ourselves a winner, and although we would have liked to have logged a few hundred miles more in each car we're confident in our choices. We may not have reached the exotic car nirvana we were hoping for, but when you get the chance to drive cars of this caliber, any mile is worth smiling about.
Third Place - 2003 Ford SVT Cobra
The SVT Cobra may be the least "exotic" vehicle in this test, but don't let that fool you into thinking this is just some pumped-up Mustang GT. Any vehicle that wears the SVT badge is a force to be reckoned with even in the company of high-dollar sports cars like the Corvette and Viper, the Cobra was no low-budget pushover.
The 2000 Cobra R that competed in our last American Exotics test was more of a ringer than this year's SVT entrant. Only 300 Cobra Rs were produced (all in 2000), each one stripped of anything that added weight and each employing a dual-overhead cam 5.4-liter V8. You couldn't find one if you tried, and even if you did, the sticker price started at $55,000.
This year's Cobra is a little more mainstream but certainly not any less potent. As John Coletti, chief engineer for SVT, put it, "This is a Cobra R with all the comforts and amenities included." And he's not exaggerating. A supercharged version of the standard 4.6-liter V8 cranks out 390 horsepower and 390 pound-feet of torque. Four-valve aluminum cylinder heads provide additional airflow, while an iron block shores up the bottom end to handle the increased torque. A standard six-speed manual transmission delivers the power via an aluminum driveshaft and 3.55 gears. The suspension received minor upgrades in the form of revised spring rates and upgraded bushings, while the brake system was beefed up with twin-piston Brembo calipers up front and larger rotors all around.
While the Cobra R ditched its radio, air conditioner and backseat to save a few pounds, the '03 Cobra is fully decked out with the latest amenities. There's a Mach 460 stereo system with an in-dash CD changer, a power-adjustable leather and suede driver seat and metal-trimmed pedals. The exterior isn't quite as outlandish as the Cobra R's, but this year's version does have a revised front fascia, reshaped hood and 17-inch cast-aluminum wheels.
Of the three cars in this test, the Cobra is the least compromised on the street. Drive it in everyday traffic and you'll hardly notice the firmer springs and bushings. The clutch is neither excessively stiff nor hard to modulate, and the take-up is progressive enough for lazy launches if you're so inclined. We still can't get used to the awkward shifter throws, though, as no amount of seat repositioning seems to put it within comfortable reach.
The instantaneous thrust of the supercharged engine makes jumping from light to light almost fun, as the rear tires lay tracks with even the gentlest application of the throttle. Gear whine from the blower at full boost can be intrusive, but if you don't like the sound then this isn't the car for you anyway. When the supercharger isn't packing full boost, interior noise is actually quite low measuring the lowest out of the three cars at idle, cruise and full throttle, according to our sound meter.
The SVT touch is hard to miss, as the gauges, seats, shifter and pedals all sport some kind of aesthetic enhancement. As sharp as the new detailing looks, however, the Cobra is still a Mustang at heart; this means lots of cheap gray plastic panels and build quality that's noticeably average. None of the cars in this group had particularly impressive interiors, though, so the Cobra's lack of cabin refinement wasn't a major setback.
As expected, performance testing unleashed an entirely different beast. Rarely have we driven a Mustang on the track that wasn't easy to maneuver, predictable and just plain fun to toss around. The Cobra was certainly no exception, as it took advantage of the wide-open straightaways to show off the added muscle of its supercharged drivetrain. The independent rear suspension adds yet another level of improvement to the Cobra, one that immediately becomes apparent the first time you push it hard through a high G sweeper.
With horsepower and torque numbers just shy of the Corvette's, we expected this to be the quickest Mustang to date, but when we ran the numbers, we were never able to find the kind of speed we expected. Straight-line performance was a little disappointing, as the Cobra barely dipped into the mid-13s in the quarter-mile and only managed mid-5s to 60 mph. Not exactly nipping at the heels of the Corvette - must be the extra 547 pounds it was lugging around. Both times are considerably slower than the stats we managed in the Cobra R, but comparing two different cars two years apart isn't exactly apples to apples (the Cobra R was also 75 pounds lighter).
On the road course, the Cobra exhibited the kind of playful handling we expected from a supercharged pony car. The flat torque curve of the blown V8 serves up tire-spinning power no matter where the tach needle happens to be, allowing for strong exits on even the slowest of turns. Body roll is noticeable when the Gs build, but the 29mm tubular roll bar (up 1mm over previous models), combined with the 17-inch 275/40 Eagle F1 tires, manages to keep the Cobra planted as long as you stay off the accelerator. With 57 percent of the weight up front, the car naturally understeers but dipping into the throttle will coax the tail around neatly to properly line up a corner.
Steering feel is the Cobra's major shortcoming. Wringing the lifeless wheel through the turns is like stirring cookie dough compared to the Viper and the 'Vette. Any information regarding the status of the tires and suspension is a guess at best, although there's a certain kind of fun in the ignorance. We also found fault with the vague shifter as it can feel a bit rubbery when running hard. Whether this is because of its awkward placement or just the mechanism itself wasn't apparent, but given the fact that the Cobra uses the exact same gearbox as the other two cars, we expected more precise action.
It seems a little pompous to dismiss the Cobra for posting mid-13s and showing a bit of sloppiness on the track. After all it's a $34,000 muscle car, not a six-digit dream machine. The Cobra's biggest problem in this test was that it ran next to a supremely talented Corvette and a Viper with an engine so big it can't possibly look bad.
That concession aside, the SVT Cobra represents one of the best values on the market in terms of bang for the buck. Where else can you get anywhere near 400 horsepower for less than $35K? Sure, the interior is all plastic and mouse fur and the steering feels like it was swiped from a Kia, but if speed on the cheap side is what you desire, this Cobra is king.
Stereo Evaluation - 2003 Ford SVT Cobra
Ranking in Test: Second
System Score: 7.0
Components: The Cobra comes standard with the Mach 460 sound system that is optional on lesser Mustangs. It includes an in-dash six-disc CD changer hooked to eight speakers and two external amplifiers for a total of 460 maximum watts (230 continuous watts). A pair of 2.5-inch midrange/tweeters stare at the driver and passenger from pods mounted near the side mirrors, and a couple more reside in the shelf above the rear seats. Two 5.5-by-7.5-inch subwoofers are mounted in the door panels with another two in back with the others. Pretty impressive, but too bad you can't get the Mach 1000 option that adds three more amps and bumps the max power to 1,140 watts.
Performance: The huge shift knob can get in the way of the head unit, but who cares in a car like this? Mustang enthusiasts will be familiar with the performance of this stereo it's been around for a while but that's okay, and so has the sound quality. Fans of classical music and folk songs may hear some bass flutters and splitting high notes, but not rock and rap aficionados. That's because it's easy to turn up the volume and drown out everything but the exhaust and the sweet whine of the supercharger. Bass response is strong enough to produce double vision in all mirrors, but not terribly accurate, with too many high notes seeping through. The tweeters near the corners of the dash distort sound at moderate volumes, but get loud enough to bring tears to your eyes. The stereo's performance issues can be reduced with use of the many digital sound settings on the deck.
Best Feature: Six in the dash.
Worst Feature: Other Mustangs can have more wattage.
Conclusion: Maybe Ford doesn't offer the Mach 1000 as an option on the Cobra because of the added weight. Regardless, this is a good standard stereo. Trevor Reed
Second Place - 2003 Dodge Viper SRT-10
A legend since its introduction a decade ago, the Viper still exemplifies the term "American exotic." The Corvette may have just turned 50 and the Mustang may be the original "pony car," but ask any 13-year-old boy what car poster adorns his bedroom wall, and he'll more than likely describe Chrysler's 10-cylinder speed king.
Fully redesigned for 2003, the Viper is now a more refined piece than the near-racecar that debuted in 1992. Despite the additional polish, the engineers at Dodge still adhered to the core philosophy of the original: make it a back-to-basics sports car that foregoes technical gadgetry in favor of mechanical simplicity. There's still no traction or stability control and the lack of cupholders was no oversight. The sole concession to practicality was the decision to ditch the clumsy targa lid of the RT-10 and replace it with a conventional folding soft top.
The resulting car is shorter than the original by a little more than an inch, yet it rides on a longer wheelbase (2.6 inches longer) and tips the scale 100 pounds lighter. The trademark V10 engine remains, although it now displaces 505 cubic inches (8.3 liters) and spits out 500 horsepower and 525 pound-feet of torque. The suspension was retuned for a more progressive feel at the limit, while larger Brembo brakes and a monstrous set of staggered Michelin run-flat tires improve the car's stopping ability and grip.
The previously primitive interior shows significant improvement in terms of ergonomics and overall design. It now looks like a Dodge (for better or worse) instead of a cobbled together one-off, and the convertible top only adds to the feeling that it's now a finished product. Before you get the impression that maybe Dodge went a little too soft, check out the side-exit exhaust, a feature of the original that was removed years ago but was reinstated at the behest of enthusiasts who wouldn't have it any other way. You'll need to stretch to climb over them without sautéing your leg when getting in and out of the Viper, but such is the price you pay for driving a racecar-turned-convertible.
Tooling around town was never the Viper's forte anyway. The original version was uncomfortable, hard to see out of and tended to overheat in stop-and-go traffic. The new and improved version has remedied many of the previous car's problems, but it's still not a car you would want to drive on an everyday basis.
Gone is the awkward seating position that forced your legs off to the side while your torso remained front and center. The footwell is still on the small side, but power-adjustable pedals and less intrusion from the center tunnel allow for a reasonably comfortable seating position. The seats themselves are heavily bolstered, with protruding thigh and side supports that require you to crawl up and over them just to get in.
The revised interior design puts all necessary information directly in the line of view thanks to a centrally located tachometer and vertically aligned auxiliary gauges. Simple three-dial climate control dials remain, while a corporate faceplate for the stereo does away with the aftermarket look of the old system. The overall design is considerably more modern and up-to-date, but for $80,000 the Viper's cabin could still use an upgrade to first class.
Aesthetics aside, the Viper's more rigid frame, longer wheelbase and revised suspension tuning yield a slightly more forgiving ride on rutted roads, but don't get your hopes up it's still a jawbreaker on city streets. Even more troublesome is the heat thrown off by the side-exit exhaust. Cruise around at residential speeds and you feel like you're piloting a 10-cylinder toaster oven. Thankfully, the improved climate control system works well enough to keep things bearable, but for the most part the Viper is still a fish out of water on city streets.
So it's still not much of a cruiser does anybody really care? When you're packing 500 horsepower, the last thing you want is to get stuck behind dawdling minivans and clueless SUV pilots anyway. The Viper needs room to stretch, and stretch it we did with impressive results.
Drag strip testing yielded a 0-to-60 time of four seconds flat and a quarter-mile time of just 12 seconds at over 120 mph. All three numbers represent the fastest times we've ever recorded in their respective categories.
Since electronic traction control would violate the Viper ethos of "keep it simple," Dodge used the more traditional method of adding monster meats instead. This time around they're 19-inch 345/30 Michelin Pilot Sport tires in the rear balanced by equally beefy 18-inch 275/35 tires up front. With contact patches the size of doormats, modulating the 525 lb-ft of torque off the line isn't the wrestling match you might expect. Our test driver was amazed with how easily the Viper ripped off 12-second quarter-mile times despite a shifter that didn't always want to give up the next gear without a fight.
We wish we could say that the new brakes turned in an equally flawless performance, but a bug in the ABS computer kept us from taking full advantage of the reworked system. Brembo calipers now grab 14-inch rotors front and rear in a setup that Dodge bills as world-class. Even without the aid of ABS, we were still able to haul it down from 60 mph in a short 125 feet, but that hardly qualifies as anything out of the ordinary, so we'll have to take Dodge's word on the "world-class" claim for now.
On a road course, the Viper still demands a skilled driver to exact its full potential. With almost no body roll, loads of grip and steering more akin to a go-cart than a production car, the Viper laid down some pretty impressive track times right out of the gate.
The revised suspension allows a little more leeway when it comes to pushing the limits of adhesion, but lose your concentration for even a second and it'll send you spinning. Moderate lift-throttle oversteer can be induced, but unless you really lay into the gas the rear stays firmly planted. Despite the malfunctioning computer, the brakes showed promise with a firm pedal feel that was easily modulated under heavy braking.
Our complaints from the track are few. A flimsy accelerator pedal makes heel-and-toe downshifts a little awkward and the high placement of the shifter never grows comfortable. For a car with a 500-cubic-inch engine, the Viper sounds unimpressively meager. Other than the thundering blast at full throttle, it's a bit tame for a V10.
When it comes to raw power and eye-watering acceleration that leaves passengers wondering why they wanted a ride in the first place, the Viper has no equal. Unfortunately, momentary blasts into triple-digit speeds aren't something you can indulge in on a regular basis. What you're left with is a rough-riding convertible with a stiff clutch, balky shifter and an inescapable heater. The sharp-edged looks might be enough to make it worthwhile, but if that's what you're after, any number of European exotics can offer similar looks with pedigrees to match.
We like the fact that the Viper is now a more complete sports car rather than just a spec racer with a license plate. The fact that it loses points because its capabilities are beyond the reach of our driving skills might be a little unfair, but then again we're more the rule than the exception. The Viper may be an American exotic in the truest sense of the term, but when it comes down to picking the one car that puts it all together in the most impressive package possible, it just misses the mark.
Stereo Evaluation - 2003 Dodge Viper SRT-10
Ranking in Test: First
System Score: 8.0
Components: The slow-loading six-disc changer in the dash may look familiar because the same head unit is available for the Ram pickup. The rest of the stereo system is provided by aftermarket powerhouse Alpine. An amplifier pumping 310 watts RMS (more than 600 maximum watts) uses seven channels to power as many speakers placed throughout the cabin. Three-quarter-inch tweeters can be found on each side of the dash; both doors have a 6.5-inch full-range speaker; and two more three-quarter-inch speakers in the bulkhead are used to provide fill. A 6.5-inch subwoofer is mounted in the space between the seats and includes a large port near the top of the seats that's too close for comfort.
Performance: The output of this stereo system is impressive in such cramped cabin space. The tweeters mounted throughout the car provide plenty of highs that are clean and clear. The speakers in the doors provide lots of punch for vocals and guitars, but the sound can get muddy with complex arrangements. The small subwoofer is remarkably strong, although some tones sound boomy, and the large port at ear level whistles at times.
Best Feature: Powerful.
Worst Feature: Sub in your ear.
Conclusion: A good stereo system, but it would really benefit from an Alpine head unit and relocation of the bass box. Trevor Reed
First Place - 2003 Chevrolet Corvette Z06
The 2003 Z06 may not go down as one of the greatest Corvettes of all time, but it should.
Granted, when it comes to style, it's no '63 split window, and if you're talking engines, an injected small-block doesn't quite grab your attention like an L88 427, but take a couple hot laps on a road course or rip it down a drag strip a few times and you'll know this is one for the books.
Reincarnated in 2001 (it had first been offered in 1963), the Z06 took everything that was good about the fifth-generation Corvette and cranked it up a notch. With more power, less weight and an uncompromised suspension setup, the Z06 pushed the Corvette into performance territory occupied mostly by cars ending in "i." Just a year later, Chevrolet unleashed an even faster version that further bolstered its reputation as an affordable world beater.
Minor engine tweaks have pushed peak horsepower to 405 while torque tops out at an even 400 pound-feet. The suspension now features a larger front sway bar and a stiffer rear leaf spring along with revised shock valving and camber settings specifically engineered to enhance performance at high speeds. Aluminum stabilizer links, new brake linings and lighter cast-aluminum wheels round out the list of upgrades. The year 2003 brought along no further improvements, so consider our high praise applicable to any 2002 or later Z06.
Although it's no teeth rattler on city streets, the Z06 belongs on the racetrack. Free from the suffocating restrictions of public roads (and public drivers), the Z06 assumes its supercar status with jaw-dropping results. Whether you're smoking the massive 18-inch 295/35 rear tires down the drag strip or digging into a long sweeper under the watchful eye of its second-generation stability control system, the Z06 rarely fails to astound with its capabilities.
We say this with a bit of trepidation in light of the fact that our standard testing procedures turned in a few disappointing numbers in the acceleration department. The fastest 0-to-60 blast clocked in at 4.6 seconds while our quickest quarter-mile whizzed by in 12.9 seconds, both numbers are slightly slower than the last Z06 we tested. Chalk it up to different cars on different days, but either way you look at it, the Z06 is still a slingshot in a straight line. Credit the car's blistering pace to a deep first gear and a low curb weight of just 3,118 pounds. Brake testing yielded more customary results, with 60-to-0 stops in the range of 108-109 feet. This still ranks as one of the shortest distances of any car we've ever tested, so the Z06's supremacy in this area is sound.
As impressive as its stats are on paper, feeling those numbers come to life on a challenging road course is the true manifestation of the Z06's brilliance. The Viper may be a tad faster, the Mustang a bit easier to fling around, but neither can even touch the Corvette when it comes to inspiring confidence to push the limits.
Much of the credit goes to its sophisticated stability control system that can alternate between motherly hand-holding or more finely tuned intervention. Keep it in standard mode and even the most inexperienced of drivers can revel in its high-speed capabilities knowing full well that, should they get in over their heads, a combination of individually applied brakes and reduced throttle will corral them back into proper form.
Even more impressive is the system's "competitive" mode that dials up a program more in tune with the aggressive tactics of more experienced drivers. Wheel slip is allowed, but the lateral G sensors still keep a watchful eye on your progress to help correct any temporary directional problems. Slide it through a turn and it won't reign you in until you've reached the very last shred of available traction. The system's ability to walk the fine line between help and interference is remarkable, providing enthusiast drivers with the kind of leeway they crave without sacrificing the safety they need.
Beyond its ability to scare you with its speed, the Z06 also impresses in more peripheral but no less important aspects. Its exhaust note trounces the Viper's rattling din with a near-perfect blend of mechanical reverberations and throaty gasps. Unlike the Mustang's and Viper's awkward sticks, the Corvette's shifter falls right to the hand and doesn't require second-guessing before you decide to go ahead and pop the clutch with 5,000 showing on the tach. Perfect pedal placement makes heel-and-toe downshifting a no-brainer, and forward visibility couldn't be better.
The steering isn't as razor sharp as the Viper's, but there's still enough communication through the wheel to give you a perfect picture of how the tires are faring down below. As with the Viper, body roll is nil, allowing you to concentrate solely on getting the Z06 pointed in the right direction and modulating the throttle to maintain traction. The brakes are flawless in terms of power, but the Viper's binders are easier to modulate under severe loads.
How a car with such unbelievable capabilities on the track can be so docile on the street is a testament to the Corvette's overall level of refinement. This isn't a car that reminds you of its track times with every ripple in the pavement, nor does it exact a workout on every trip to the drive-thru. There's a noticeably stiffer edge around town than the standard coupe, but the steering, clutch and gearbox all work with a relaxed ease that almost makes you forget that you're behind the wheel of one of the fastest production cars in the world.
Two overdrive gears allow reasonably quiet cruising on the highway but the ultrahigh-performance Eagle F1 tires emit their fair share of rumble, and the exhaust that sounds so good at full wail has a tendency to drone a bit at just the right speed. As usual, we found the 1-to-4 skip-shift feature a constant annoyance, but if that's the price we have to pay to assure that cars like this remain on the market, we'll gladly put up with the minor inconvenience.
The low-rent interior has been a criticism of the fifth-generation Corvette since its debut in 1997, and not much has changed. Although it feels almost sacrilegious to criticize such a car for not having soft-touch armrests or flashy metal trim, you can't help but feel that for over $50,000, you should be getting some higher-quality stuff.
New last year was the addition of a heads-up display (HUD) that projects vehicle speed and another gauge of your choosing onto the windshield. We'll admit that once you get used to having such information right in front of you, it seems natural, but with perfectly good gauges just below, the display seems like an overly complicated solution to a problem that no one was complaining about in the first place.
On a more positive note, the seats are more comfortable than they look and the gauge cluster is faultless in size and design. The stereo works great, but it still looks as though it came straight out of a Silverado pickup; same goes for the dual-zone climate control. With such a simple interior design, it wouldn't take much to make it look better, but until that happens, the Corvette will continue to carry its reputation as just another high-powered American muscle machine you decide if that's a bad thing or not.
So once again the Z06 comes out on top. Unlike the first go-around, it wasn't the cheapest contender of the three, but it didn't need to be. Its performance on the road course was nothing short of phenomenal. And although it didn't set any new personal bests down the drag strip, the fact that it still pulled 12s on a bad day is testament to its power. We'll carry our disdain for the cheesy interior until the next Corvette arrives in 2005. Hopefully the constant harping on the substandard materials by us and others will finally convince Chevrolet to pony up and give the Corvette a cabin equal in stature to its performance.
Until then, we'll just be happy that the Z06 even exists. Fifty thousand dollars might seem like a lot to pay for a car, but take one ride in a Z06 and you'll know what we know it's the bargain of the century (all three years of it).
Stereo Evaluation - 2003 Chevrolet Corvette Z06
Ranking in Test: Third
System Score: 6.0
Components: No factory CD changer is available for the Z06, so the familiar GM single-CD player is all you get. It's not bad, and has six sound settings you can adjust. Bose speakers reside in four enclosures, two in the door panels and a pair above the rear wheels. No mas.
Performance: This system gets very loud, but so do the engine and rear tires. Impressive amounts of bass come from the large door enclosures to compress air in the cabin and your ears. Unfortunately, the display of power and noise produced by the drivetrain often overwhelms vocals and other tones in the mid- and high ranges by interfering with the clarity and volume of sounds destined for the listener's ears. The multiple equalizer settings can each be adjusted to add more treble or less bass to compensate for this, but that just reveals that cymbals and other very high tones often cause the sound to split and "hiss."
Best Feature: Pounding bass.
Worst Feature: Can't get a factory CD changer.
Conclusion: A simple system that is quickly becoming outdated. Trevor Reed
Sidebar - 2002 Acura NSX
Let's dispense with the obvious: the Acura NSX is not an American exotic. Built by Honda in Tochigi, Japan, about the only thing the NSX has in common with the other three cars in this test is a lofty price tag, in this case around $90,000.
We decided to evaluate the NSX alongside the three American bruisers to see how Acura's philosophy of performance stood up against the classic American ideal. Could a lightweight V6-powered sports car with the engine in the middle be just as fun to drive as the American heavyweights?
First, a little background: Introduced way back in 1991, the NSX was designed to blend aluminum construction with the supreme balance of a midmounted engine in a package that was as comfortable to drive as any other member of the Acura lineup. The design was striking and the performance exemplary but with only minor changes since then, the NSX is no longer the world beater it once was.
Take for instance its engine. With 290 horsepower and 224 pound-feet of torque, the 3.2-liter dual-overhead cam V6 is hardly a match for the 400-plus horsepower V8s and V10s of the Americans. Then consider that you can now purchase a Nissan 350Z with a 287-hp V6 for less than a third of the price and the NSX's popularity looks even more imperiled.
In its defense, even with its relatively modest horsepower, the lightweight aluminum body allows the NSX to turn some pretty impressive numbers at the track. We clocked a 0-to-60 time of 5.2 seconds and a quarter-mile run of 13.6 seconds at a little over 104 mph. Not enough to outrun any of the American muscle, but still quick nonetheless. (It's also worth noting that despite extensive use of aluminum construction, the NSX is still 35 pounds heavier than the Corvette Z06.)
Drag strip runs were never the NSX's strong suit anyway. It was designed to perform its best while snaking through chicanes and pirouetting around apexes. During our rain-shortened track session, the NSX showed brief signs of brilliance as it attacked turns with its high-strung V6 wailing away at full song. Variable valve timing helps the diminutive six-cylinder spread its power across a wide power band that stretches all the way to a lofty 8,000-rpm redline. Although less shifting is required, you're almost happy to oblige as the short-throw shifter is a joy to run through the gears thanks to its slick, precise action.
The midmounted engine gives the car a distinctly different feel than the front-heavy American iron. The car pivots behind you instead of on its nose, a pulse-quickening realization the first couple times around. Like the Viper, its limits are high, but cross them and you better be prepared to gather it up in a hurry. A variable assist steering system dials out all the help at high speeds, allowing for the precise road feel necessary to keep it headed in the right direction.
As capable as it is on the racetrack, the NSX is still relatively tame on the street. The low-slung stance takes some getting used to, but the expansive windshield affords excellent forward visibility. The clutch works as easily as that of any Japanese econobox, and the shifter glides through the gears with the greatest of ease.
If you've ever ridden in an early- to mid-'90s Honda or Acura product, you'll instantly recognize the interior design of the NSX. Big analog gauges surrounded by nondescript control buttons and an obviously dated climate control system. Much like the Viper, the layout is simple, but the quality of the materials is not quite up to the standard of a $90,000 car. The removable targa top is an appealing bonus, but with the Viper now offering a fully functional soft top, the NSX is once again showing its age.
Most forecasters agree that the NSX as we know it is on its last legs. Whether or not it will be fully redesigned or merely put out to pasture is still unknown at this point, but when you're in your 13th year on the market without a major redesign, the vultures start swirling and journalists start wisecracking just ask GM.
Our experience with the NSX as a yin to the Americans' yang proved that although it's a little long in the tooth and weak in the engine, by virtue of its precise steering, smooth power delivery and nimble handling, it's still an exhilarating sports car that any driving enthusiast would willingly covet. Would any of us choose it over the other three? Not for $90,000, but we hear you can snag a pretty nice one on the used market for half the price a tantalizing prospect for sure.
Stereo Evaluation - 2002 Acura NSX
System Score: 4.0
Components: "Retro" is a term used for something new that looks old. The AM/FM cassette deck in the $90,000 Acura NSX is not retro, it's outdated. There are only four speakers in the 165-watt stereo system. The self-amplified drivers include two midrange units in the doors, a similar driver between the seats and a subwoofer mounted near the passenger's feet. That's it.
Performance: What do you expect from a cassette player in a supercar? You expect it to work. Unfortunately, for reasons unknown, the few remaining tapes still in existence would not play in this NSX. The test vehicle did not have the optional CD changer, so radio was the only sonic medium available. The midtweets in the doors and behind the seats provide warm sounds and get moderately loud before distortion takes over. The subwoofer response is fairly accurate, but the speaker placement favors the passenger side and totally throws off the soundstage. Bass-heavy songs do not rumble and the origin of the sound is very distracting.
Best Feature: Large volume knob.
Worst Feature: Everything else.
Conclusion: Very disappointing. Trevor Reed
Once again, we came away dazzled by the Z06. It may not be the fastest or the cheapest, but when it comes to putting it all together into one package, there's no comparison. It not only gives you the raw performance you expect, it delivers the little extras you don't the sound, the confidence in the corners, the comfort around town. It's these kinds of intangibles that leave us shaking our heads every time we drive one, and so when it came time to choose a winner, the Corvette Z06 took the prize once again.
The Viper's move to second place (it scored third in our last comparison) was largely a result of the SRT-10's more refined nature. It hasn't gone soft by any means, but it has gained a measure of civility that renders it considerably more livable than ever before. When it comes to scaring the pants off unsuspecting passengers, the Viper reigns supreme, and the new look certainly maintains the car's unmistakable presence. If having the biggest and baddest car on the block is your chief concern, then the Viper is the hands-down favorite, but if you want a car that doesn't require an SCCA background to get a handle on, the Viper isn't the best choice. There will always be those who consider the Viper the only true "American exotic" but if that's the case then we'll stick with our good ol' American sports car.
The Mustang may have fallen to last place, but that doesn't mean it's any less of a contender. Like we said before, the fact that the '03 Cobra offers Z06-like power in a car that costs $20K less than the Corvette is a remarkable feat for SVT. With a price like that, it's hard to expect the Cobra to challenge cars like the 'Vette and the Viper in a head-to-head contest. Even without a comparable level of performance, the Cobra is one hell of a thrill ride that will satisfy all but the most discerning sports car enthusiasts.