The land of midpriced sports cars has a trio of roaring young lions. The BMW Z4, the Infiniti G35 coupe and the Nissan 350Z all have hit the road in the past year to take on the Audi TT and the Honda S2000, which qualify as the old lions of this vehicular species.
"Old" is a relative term here. The TT and the S2000 debuted in 1999, but this is a category of cars in which the new one is usually the hot one. And these newcomers have a lot going for them: The Z4's edgy styling and the 350Z's hefty horsepower per dollar stand out. Then again, the TT offers a combination of features none of the young lions can match. After testing all five cars, we picked a SmartMoney Award winner in the class, but it wasn't easy. Midpriced in this jungle means a base price from the low $30,000s to $40,000 or so; tack on a few thousand more for optional equipment. Here's how our five funmobiles stack up.
Honda S2000: Fifth Place
Honda's roadster sports a marvelous engine, producing 240 horsepower from just 2.0 liters and four cylinders without a turbocharger or other power-boosting device. But the car is cramped, with a choppy ride and a rough suspension. It's a rear-wheel-drive car, as are the others, with the exception of the Audi. The S2000 can be fun on a brief, fast ride, but the key word is "brief."
Infiniti G35 Coupe: Fourth Place
This car isn't shy; its sticker describes it as a "sensually designed authentic sport coupe." And with a 3.5-liter, 280-hp V-6, the G35 has no reason to be bashful.
This car is mechanically similar to the Nissan 350Z but with a significant difference in body style. The 350Z is a two-seater, while the G35 coupe has a diminutive backseat suitable for children or grocery bags. You can choose between a five-speed automatic transmission and a six-speed manual, with the six-speed the hands-down choice for fun. Shifting is smooth and easy.
I was really prepared to like this car, but wound up being a little underwhelmed. Acceleration is authoritative but not exhilarating. The ride and handling are smooth, but hardly crisp. The G35 coupe has a lot of horsepower, but also a lot of weight-at 3,435 pounds, it is more than 400 pounds heavier than the BMW Z4 3.0i. The extra pounds impair both acceleration and handling.
The biggest drawback: interior materials. The plastic looks and feels cheap, a disappointment only somewhat eased by a price that's $8,200 less than that of the BMW Z4 I tested. The cupholders are in the rear of the center console, so you have to reach almost behind you to grab your double latte. One wonders what the designers were drinking.
BMW Z4 3.0i: Third Place
Now the competition gets tougher. The Z4, heir to the successful Z3, has much to commend it. The curves of the Z3 are replaced by a chiseled, more masculine look.
The Z4 is both longer and wider than its predecessor. It has an extended front snout and a short tail, giving it an asymmetrical look that is quirky but appealing.
In contrast to the complex electronics of the BMW 7-series, the Z4 is simplicity itself, with an instrument panel that can be used without poring over the owner's manual. The Z4 is a two-seater, and while the interior is adequately comfortable, it isn't as spacious as the Nissan 350Z's.
The Z4 comes with either a 2.5-liter inline six-cylinder (the 2.5i) or a 3-liter version (the 3.0i). The latter, tested for this article, produces 225 hp and a zero-to-60 time of 5.9 seconds with the six-speed manual. That's only slightly slower than the 350Z, even though the 350Z boasts an additional 62 hp. The biggest reason: The Z4 is almost 250 pounds lighter than the Nissan. When this car accelerates, you feel it.
The one-touch convertible top is a breeze to operate, and the trunk can be enlarged when the top is up. This provides an extra 4 inches of vertical space, handy in a trunk that holds little more than three airline-size carry-ons.
The Z4 and the 350Z both rate four stars here. But the Nissan 350Z Touring is more comfortable and has a $7,000 price advantage. While it can't be said that the Z4 offers as much car for the money, it is a lot of car and a lot of fun.
Nissan 350Z Touring: Second Place
Why does the Z place ahead of its Infiniti cousin when Infiniti is the upscale marque?
For starters, an additional 7 hp and about 200 pounds less weight than the G35 coupe produce a noticeably sprightlier feel. A zero-to-60 time of just 5.7 seconds, fastest in this group, attests to that.
As with the Infiniti, you definitely should steer clear of the five-speed automatic on the 350Z. The automatic makes the car feel ordinary. The 350Z's performance isn't over the top because it too carries extra poundage, just not quite as much as the Infiniti. Comfort is superb. The materials feel nicer than the G35 coupe's, though not as nice as the Z4's. In this group the 350Z is hands down the best value. In fact, it is a great car for the money.
So the real question isn't why the 350Z places ahead of the G35 coupe, but why it finishes second behind the Audi TT coupe.
Audi TT Coupe Quattro (225 hp): First Place
Awarding top honors to the TT might be counterintuitive, and controversial as well. The TT isn't as expensive as the Z4, but with the 225-hp engine (as opposed to the base 180-hp version), it's the second-priciest car here, and the only one besides the Honda with four cylinders instead of six.
But the TT boosts the output of its engine by adding both a turbocharger and two in-line intercoolers. The result is a zero-to-60 time of 6.3 seconds. That isn't quite as fast as the 350Z or the Z4, but there are other compensations.
For starters the TT is the only car in this group with all-wheel drive, this in the form of Audi's Quattro system. It came in handy on my winter test-drives in the Northeast. What's more, the TT's hatchback design allows the rear seat to be folded down to create space. The 18.6 cubic feet of luggage capacity is more than twice the 350Z's.
The TT's styling isn't as fresh or edgy as the Z4's, but it has a classic, timeless appeal. The interior materials, with the brushed aluminum accents, are classy, the car is comfortable, and the six-speed manual shifts at least as smoothly, if not more so, than that of any other car here. The TT also gives you a choice between the hard-top coupe and the convertible roadster. So the TT remains the king of the hill, at least for now.