The Porsche wins. The Boxster S is the very best roadster you can get for the money. Everything else you see on these pages competes for second place. Unless you’re interested in reading about the first, second, and third losers, the story ends here.
Not used to seeing one of our multivehicle sagas laid out quite so succinctly, are you? Well, to be honest, neither are we. But in this contest of speed, style, and top-down dominance, it wasn’t even close. Unlike the convertibles we compared last month, these roadsters represent the most sporting incarnations of the breed. Though they all have two seats and tops that drop, each vehicle pursues the roadster ideal with a completely different formula.
The Z4 sDrive35i and 370Z Roadster both offer front-engine, rear-drive layouts with six-cylinder engines and six-speed manual transmissions, though the BMW opts for a turbocharged 300-horsepower, 3.0-liter inline-six (the 2011 sDrive35is was not available when we went to press) compared with the Nissan’s naturally aspirated 332-horsepower, 3.7-liter V-6. Audi keeps the engine in the front, but takes a different path to powering the wheels. The TTS uses a high-tech approach by mating a 265-horsepower version of the company’s ubiquitous turbocharged 2.0-liter I-4 to an S-tronic six-speed dual-clutch gearbox and quattro all-wheel drive. Our winner eschews such complexities for a simple six-speed manual and 310-horsepower, 3.4-liter flat-six mounted behind the seats.
We took this quartet of sports cars in search of Southern California’s curviest canyon roads and ended up near the coast, just north of Los Angeles, among twisty ribbons of asphalt with names like Stunt, Schueren, Piuma, and Mulholland Raceway.
Before heading out, we established some ground rules. We wouldn’t count cupholders nor factor in legroom. We logged fuel economy for those who care, but didn’t count it in the final tally. Such practical issues are for practical cars. We put aside the stopwatches and calculators in favor of softer data collected by ours hands, feet, eyes, and ears. How can such a heart-and-soul approach so accurately and positively identify the Boxster S as the roadster that best fulfills the mission profile? See for yourself.
Of the three that did not win, it was the BMW that was guilty of outright betrayal. Given the Z4’s performance at our Car of the Year program last fall, every one in our crew felt the Z4 would battle for the top spot. Instead, it found itself in a fight for last place. What gives? While we had sneaking suspicions of a flinty ride and an indulgent chassis at COTY, we weren’t prepared for the shocking unrefinement we uncovered in numerous Santa Monica mountain sweepers. “The ride is too jarring-bumps should not unsettle a fine roadster, certainly one hailing from Bavaria. BMW usually nails the ride/handling compromise, but not so in the Z4,” says senior editor Ron Kiino.
“Can’t help but feel way let down by the Z4. Somebody stole the BMW magic from this one,” says editor-at-large Arthur St. Antoine. “The chassis is abysmal over patchy pavement. It jumps around and has issues putting down the power. Even clutch takeup feels off. It’s difficult to shift this one smoothly, though the shift lever itself still has that sweet BMW-spring touch.”
It’s not only the hands and feet that pick up this chassis dissonance. Flashing stability-control warning lights are a constant interruption to focused driving. Though the system rarely steps in, this manual Z4 always threatens in ways the automatic version never did, even with the chassis’ highest sport setting selected. It’s unsophisticated and annoying and reeks of lawyerly handwringing.
Only on the strength of its glorious engine and breathtaking style did the Z4 pull third place from the gaping maw of that other Z. Driven calmly, on billiard-smooth roads, the Z4 is capable of delivering a focused and exhilarating experience. Its turbo inline-six belts out a note sweet enough to make you forget about the many chassis foibles. It absolutely nails roadster chic as well, with an interior that rivals the Audi for top honors and hardtop style that is literally without equal (the Z4 was the only tin top in the test). Sophistication seeps from the seams of its classically proportioned silhouette. A damn shame the drive is nowhere near as sensual.
That the Z4 manages to push the other Z to fourth place with seductive styling and thrilling engine performance is no real surprise. Those two key components are completely absent in the Nissan. The Z Roadster’s VQ engine, now upsized to 3.7 liters, produces the most power in this test, but sounds coarse and feels rough while doing so. And it just doesn’t look the way a roadster should. Lop the roof off a burly, broad-shouldered Z and the result is a bulbous lump fitted with a face only a mako could love.
“It’s hideous to my eye. The front end looks like a nurse shark. Rump is a jumble of shapes and mass. Nothing about this machine looks elegant or attractive,” says St. Antoine. “Well, the wheels are nice.”
Kiino concurs, but finds the interior has some well-conceived touches. “Many of the pieces your knees, elbows, and hands touch are covered in soft suedelike material, just in case the top is left down on a hot day.”
But here’s the thing: While the Z is the undisputed ugly duckling of this comparison, it’s a finer drive than its Bavarian counterpart. Ride comfort and confidence were rated higher in the 370Z, and the six-speed, while not slick, impressed with its tricky rev-matching ability on downshifts. Notes St. Antoine: “The Z actually felt like a better performer than the Z4. The chassis has tons of grip, steering is good, and the shifter is easy to stir. It didn’t get nearly as upset as the BMW over the rougher stretches of road.” Associate online editor Nate Martinez agrees, “The chassis isn’t as buttoned down or stiff as any of the German competitors, but it manages to feel very secure in the tight twisties.”
Despite our attempts to avoid the spec sheet, we couldn’t help but notice the Z Roadster’s strong value statement. Even with best-in-test power, a more sophisticated control arm front suspension system, and extras including forged 19-inch wheels, high-performance tires, and a massive brake package (with rear discs larger than the competition’s fronts), the Z was a whopping $20,000 less than the Boxster S. Drive both back to back, however, and you’ll find that’s a compelling argument only on paper.
On roads that set the BMW chattering and Nissan creaking, the Audi TTS responded with mere lift throttle exhaust burps as it rocketed from corner to corner. Its stiff chassis has all the rigidity of a solid billet of alloy. Combine that with a short wheelbase, overachieving engine and all-wheel drive, and the resulting sensation is not of driving, but of piloting a pinball through the tracks of a life-size arcade machine. “Extremely well planted and confident through the twisty bits. Resilient over the rougher stuff too. Really impressive how tenacious this chassis is,” says St. Antoine. “Decreasing-radius turn? Just dial in more lock, and the Audi bites more.”
Once used to the artificially light, but terrifically quick steering, the only breaks in concentration come from the runty, grunty powertrain. Even on short, uphill sections, it became abundantly clear that, despite fuel and air pressurized by direct injection and a turbocharger, two liters of four cylinders just doesn’t produce enough beans. The fantastic dual-clutch S-tronic gearbox does a good job of hiding the shortage by doling out perfectly timed bursts of power, but it can’t always prevent the powertrain from bogging down in certain situations.
“The turbo mill matched with S-tronic isn’t for me. At times, it shifted awkwardly, leaving me out of the power range,” says associate online editor Nate Martinez. “It was most annoying when exiting a corner, gas pedal to the floor, feeling no immediate reaction from the car.”
Kiino agrees.”The S-tronic is awesome, but during the especially twisty sections, I found manual mode with the paddles worked best. Sport mode left me waiting for downshifts out of turns.”
The TTS is an excellent roadster, second place with a billet bullet, but those key powertrain lapses make it a distant speck in the mirrors of the Boxster S. Especially when Porsche was lauded with such praise: “Sublime steering feel, alive with feedback. Chassis borders on brilliant; it’s balanced, powerful yet predictable, ready to flick out its tail usefully if you summon it with the throttle. Six-speed manual is just about perfect: light, precise, with right-spaced pedals and velvety clutch feel that make every shift — up or down — as smooth as it is effortless,” gushes St. Antoine. And he’s not alone.
“Given that this roadster is the best-handling and most confidence-inspiring of the group, it’s doubly impressive that it’s also the best riding-smooth, well damped, and downright plush compared with the Z4,” notes Kiino. “So engaging to pilot, this car epitomizes automotive euphoria.”
Weaknesses? Sure. Against the simple symmetric layout in the Z4 and the smartly styled controls of the TTS, the Porsche’s button-dominated interior gestalt leaves a bit to be desired. Our jurors balked at the price, though only before a canyon spin in the Boxster S. This just reinforces the idea that such practical considerations can’t compete with the powerful, visceral responses generated by a car as well-conceived and brilliantly executed as the Boxster S. “It’s the most expensive, but I’d miss a few meals to get it,” Martinez concludes. Any time a vehicle manages to touch a man’s heart, soul and stomach, it just has to be the winner.
But you already knew that.
1ST PLACE: PORSCHE BOXSTER S
Absolutely crushes the competition at the test track, but the gap is even greater on a canyon road. In a different league — of one.
2ND PLACE: AUDI TTS
Impressive grip and overall execution, but more power and steering feel are necessary before it can even begin to compete with our winner.
3RD PLACE: BMW Z4 sDRIVE35i
Shockingly unrefined ride and disconnected chassis nearly put it in last place. Sensual styling and engine note are its only saving graces.
4TH PLACE: NISSAN 370Z ROADSTER
Pleases the pocketbook and power hungry, but a proper roadster needs to satisfy the eyes and ears as well.
|2010 Audi TTS 2.0 TFSI quattro||2009 BMW Z4 sDrive35i||2010 Nissan 370Z touring||2009 Porsche Boxster S|
|Drivetrain layout||Front engine, AWD||Front engine, RWD||Front engine, RWD||Mid-engine, RWD|
|Engine type||Turbocharged I-4, iron block/aluminum head||Turbocharged I-6, aluminum block/head||V-6, aluminum block/head||Flat-6, aluminum block/heads|
|Valvetrain||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl|
|Displacement||121.1 cu in/1984 cc||181.8 cu in/2979 cc||225.6 cu in/3696 cc||209.7 cu in/3436 cc|
|Power (SAE net)||265 hp @ 6000 rpm||300 hp @ 5800 rpm||332 hp @ 7000 rpm||310 hp @ 6400 rpm|
|Torque (SAE net)||258 lb-ft @ 2500 rpm||300 lb-ft@ 1400 rpm||270 lb-ft@ 5200 rpm||266 lb-ft@ 4400 rpm|
|Redline||6800 rpm||7000 rpm||7500 rpm||7500 rpm|
|Weight to power||12.8 lb/hp||11.6 lb/hp||10.5 lb/hp||10.0 lb/hp|
|Transmission||6-speed twin-clutch auto||6-speed manual||6-speed manual||6-speed manual|
|Axle/final-drive ratios||4.77:1 (1-4); 3.44:1 (5,6,R)/3.00:1||3.08:1/2.69:1||3.69:1/2.93:1||3.89:1/3.27:1|
|Suspension, front; rear||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar||Control arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar|
|Brakes, f;r||13.4-in vented disc; 12.2-in vented disc, ABS||13.7-in vented disc; 12.8-in vented disc, ABS||14.0-in vented disc; 13.8-in vented disc, ABS||12.5-in vented disc; 11.8-in vented disc, ABS|
|Wheels, f;r||9.0 x 19-in; 9.0 x 19-in, cast aluminum||8.0. x 18-in; 8.5 x 18-in, cast aluminum||9.0 x 19-in; 10.0 x 19-in, forged aluminum||8.0 x 18-in; 9.0 x 18.0-in, cast aluminum|
|Tires, f;r||255/35R19 96Y; 255/35R19 96Y, Continental ContiSportContact3||225/40R18 90W; 255/35R18 88W, Bridgestone Potenza RE050A||245/40R19 94W; 275/35R19 96W, Bridgestone Potenza RE050A||235/40R18 91Y; 265/40R18 101Y, Michelin Pilot Sport PS2|
|Wheelbase||97.2 in||98.3 in||100.4 in||95.1 in|
|Track, f/r||61.2/60.9 in||59.5/60.5 in||60.6/61.6 in||58.5/60.2 in|
|Length x width x height||165.3 x 72.5 x 53.1 in||166.9 x 70.5 x 50.8 in||167.2 x 72.8 x 52.2 in||172.1 x 70.9 x 50.9 in|
|Turning circle||36.0 ft||35.1 ft||34.1 ft||36.4 ft|
|Curb weight||3401 lb||3481 lb||3498||3096|
|Weight dist., f/r||58/42%||49/51%||55/45%||47/53%|
|Headroom||39.0 in||39.1 in||38.7 in||37.6 in|
|Legroom||41.1 in||42.2 in||42.9 in||42.9 in|
|Shoulder room||53.2 in||53.3 in||54.4 in||51.5 in|
|Cargo volume||8.8 cu ft||8.0 cu ft||4.2 cu ft||5.3 (fr)+4.6 (rr) cu ft|
|Acceleration to mph|
|0-30||1.7 sec||1.6 sec||1.8 sec||1.6 sec|
|Passing, 45-65 mph||2.7||2.2||2.4||2.2|
|Quarter mile||13.7 sec @ 101.0 mph||13.3 sec @ 104.6 mph||13.6 sec @ 102.9 mph||13.0 sec @ 107.1 mph|
|Braking, 60-0 mph||107 ft||102 ft||103 ft||99 ft|
|Lateral acceleration||0.94 g (avg)||0.92 g (avg)||1.00 g (avg)||1.00 g (avg)|
|MT figure eight||25.2 sec @ 0.74 g (avg)||25.2 sec @ 0.74 g (avg)||24.8 sec @ 0.76 g (avg)||24.3 sec @ 0.80 g (avg)|
|Top-gear revs @ 60 mph||2200 rpm||2150 rpm||2300 rpm||2500 rpm|
|Price as tested||$56,320||$63,095||$46,205||$66,505|
|Airbags||Dual front, side/head, knee||Dual front, side/head||Dual front, side, curtain||Dual front, side/head|
|Basic warranty||4 yrs/50,000 miles||4 yrs/50,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles||4 yrs/50,000 miles|
|Powertrain warranty||4 yrs/50,000 miles||4 yrs/50,000 miles||5 yrs/60,000 miles||4 yrs/50,000 miles|
|Roadside assistance||4 yrs/unlimited miles||4 yrs/unlimited miles||N/A||4 yrs/50,000 miles|
|Fuel capacity||15.9 gal||14.5 gal||19.0 gal||16.9 gal|
|EPA city/hwy econ||21/29 mpg||18/25 mpg||18/25 mpg||19/26 mpg|
|CO2 emissions||0.81 lb/mile||0.94 lb/mile||0.94 lb/mile||0.90 lb/mile|
|MT fuel economy||15.6 mpg||16.1 mpg||14.8 mpg||16.8 mpg|
|Recommended fuel||Unleaded premium||Unleaded premium||Unleaded premium||Unleaded premium|