1989 Chevrolet Corvette Z51 vs. Porsche 911
From the September 1988 Issue of Car and Driver
The newest version of the Porsche 911 spells out its mission in crisp letters along the inboard side of its left front fender. From the driver’s seat you can take in the large, stylized “CS” logo and the words “Club Sport” at a glance, a message that’s all the more seductive because it’s hidden from other drivers by the soft curve of the 911′s headlight sheetmetal.
Club Sport. It’s a name that conjures up images of club racing, motorsport in general, the rigors of competition—and the glory of victory. Porsche has covered itself in racing glory, but it is not known for festooning front fenders with hype.
So what is this new fender inscription all about? “Porsche clubs all over the world hold competitive driving events at their meets,” explains Jim Ryan, executive V.P. of sales and marketing for Porsche Cars North America. “The Club Sport evolved from that, because it’s where a lightened version would be more competitive.”
The Club Sport, then, is a stripped-down, toned-up version of the aged but ageless 911, squeezed for yet another increment of speed and handling. Porsche expects it to be taken to the track and has revised it in several ways to improve its performance there. Still, says Ryan, the Club Sport package stops far short of the Porsche 934 IMSA racer of the mid-seventies. “Oh, it’s not like that at all. The Club Sport had to retain full streetability.”
More on that later. What’s most important right now is that the Zuffenhausen works has mailed a leaned-on 911 to this country, wearing a fender decal that boasts, “I’m a bad-ass, come and get me.”
Sounds to us like a high-noon challenge to the home-town gunslinger. The one wearing the famous bow tie.
So say hello again to the club-sport version of the Chevrolet Corvette, better known as the Z51. This car also has a reputation to uphold. During the three seasons it competed in the SCCA’s Showroom Stock endurance series, it never lost a race—and in the process it gunned down the quickest 944 Turbos that the Porsche factory could muster.
“The Z51 is as close to a competition setup for the Corvette as we can go, while still having the car be livable on the street,” says John Heinricy, the product-engineering manager for the Corvette and the Camaro. Heinricy, a winning Showroom Stock Corvette racer himself, tuned the Z51′s suspension on the racetrack. “The Z51 is the ultimate in performance,” he says. “It is not something we want for our high-volume model.”
It’s apparent that both the Z51 and the Club Sport come to this showdown with something to prove. Both are legendary grand-touring automobiles pushed as far in the race-car direction as their makers dared to push them. They are, in short, two tough hombres. And no matter which quick-draw artist owns your loyalties, you know that when these two meet, you’re going to see one hell of a shoot-’em-up.
Which brings us to the question of the hour: Who sells the hottest club-sport machine you can buy? Which company builds the Ace of Clubs?
To determine the answer, we challenged one 911 Club Sport and one Vette Z51 to face each other in four duels: our standard battery of performance tests, an autocross course, a lapping session on a road-racing circuit, and a two-day flog over some of Southern California’s most spectacular drivers’ roads.
We’ve run similar tests before, but crowning the Ace of Clubs required a shift of emphasis. In most of our comparisons, a car’s track performance is secondary to its over-the-road comportment. But the Club Sport and the Z51 are designed specially for extracurricular thrill rides. Their performance envelopes are so large, they require extra postage. Because both cars are supposed to be heroes on the track as well as on the road, we’ll give equal weight to each of our four contests.
Before the shooting begins, however, let’s take a close look at what sets these rivals apart from their respective bunkmates. The Porsche 911 Club Sport’s story can be summed up as “less is more.” Over the years the 911 has become increasingly luxurious; but luxuries add weight, and weight is the enemy of speed. The Club Sport is the Weight Watchers 911. For a base price of $45,895—the same amount you pay for a fully equipped Carrera—you get a car without the following items: A/C, a stereo, power windows and locks, sound-deadening insulation, rear jump seats, armrests, and a passenger’s-side sun visor. The benefit of self-denial is a saving of 155 pounds, according to Porsche.
And this diet comes with dessert: a helping of sporting stuff to spice up the 911′s performance. A chin spoiler and the famous Porsche whale tail increase downforce and improve high-speed stability. Stiffer sport shocks tighten wheel control. The 214-hp, 3.2-liter, all-aluminum flat six gets hollow intake valves and a new chip for its control computer to raise the rpm cutoff from 6520 to 6840. A shortened, quick-throw shifter allows faster gear changes. Deeply winged sport seats bear-hug you in the turns. Our test car wore optional, extralarge Dunlop SP Sport D40s, size 205/55VR-16 up front and 225/50VR-16 in the rear. The only tasty bit conspicuous by its absence was an anti-lock braking system, which is not available on any 911.
Next to Porsche’s lean, mean new kid in town, the Z51 Vette seems relaxed and friendly—perhaps too friendly for its own good. There is neither strain nor pain in the way it delivers its performance. Every standard Corvette comfort feature is present: air conditioning; a stereo; cruise control; tilt-telescope steering; power windows, mirrors, and locks; and a removable roof panel. And, yes, it has armrests and a full set of sun visors.
Ordering the Z51 package, however, triggers an important sequence of events as your car moves down the assembly line. The frame gets special reinforcements (shared with the Z52 street-suspension package). A version of the fuel-injected, 5.7-liter V-8 delivering 245 hp—that’s 5 hp more than the base Corvette enjoys—drops into the engine bay. The cooling system gets an oil cooler, a power-steering cooler, and a pair of pusher fans in front of the radiator. Every Z51 is equipped with a special version of the computer-controlled four-speed-plus-overdrive manual gearbox, including a shorter, 0.68:1 overdrive ratio. The final-drive ratio is 3.07:1, the shortest in the Corvette parts bin.
The Z51 chassis pieces include stiffer springs and suspension bushings, larger anti-roll bars, Bilstein gas shocks with tighter valving, and a quick-ratio steering gear. Like all Vettes, the Z51 gets Bosch anti-lock brakes, but the standard twelve-inch front rotors give way to new, thirteen-inch discs, the largest in Corvette history. For maximum adhesion, 275/40ZR-17 Goodyear Eagle ZR40 tires on 9.5-nch-wide alloy wheels steamroller the pavement.
Now that you know the dimensions of this disagreement, it’s time to find out whether the local hero from Warren, Michigan, can outdraw the wily newcomer rom Zuffenhausen, West Germany. Yankee ingenuity or German engineering? On to the first showdown.
The Test Track
As you can see from the C/D Test Results box, the 911 once again demonstrated that a superior power-to-weight ratio wins the drag race every time. The 911 showed its whale tail to the Vette in the 0-to-60-mph sprint, beating the Chevy 5.6 seconds to 6.0. It remained ahead at the quarter-mile stripe, posting a 13.9-second elapsed time at 99 mph, versus the Vette’s 14.2-second, 98-mph run. Only at the top end did the Vette pull ahead, reaching 152 mph-5 mph faster than the 911.
The 911 Club Sport surprised us in one respect, however: it was no quicker and no faster than the fully equipped, 200-hp Carrera we tested in 1984. For this we have no explanation. Nor does Porsche. The 911 went on to nip the Vette in the slalom run—another surprise, considering the Z51′s viselike, 0.89-g grip on the asphalt. (The Porsche held on until 0.85g.) For the record, we achieved these roadholding figures on a new, extra-sticky skidpad, and we suspect that both are a touch higher than we would have recorded on our regular surface.
The Vette countered the Porsche’s slalom victory with a 172-foot stop from 70 mph, 15 feet shorter than the 911 could manage. By the time we completed our first round of performance events, neither car could claim the lead.
There is not much point in buying either of these hot rods if you don’t drop in for at least a few of your local SCCA chapter’s autocrosses. For test purposes we set up our own tricky combination of twists, turns, and abbreviated straights. Our course required no gear higher than second and took just under a minute to thread through.
Whether you’re talking Corvette Z51 or 911 Club Sport, fun is never in question on an autocross course. Both cars offer enough sheer power, grip, and braking ability to entertain the most jaded competitors.
The way our two test cars went about their work, however, was as different as their color schemes. The 911 will teach your right foot a new way of living. Twenty-three years of development has removed some of the quirkiness from Son of Beetle’s handling but hasn’t tamed it entirely. The 911 demands that you do virtually all of your braking in a straight line or run the risk of entering a turn with the rear end slewing. Jerk your foot off the throttle in the middle of a corner and the tail-heavy 911 begins to pirouette. Mash your foot back down and it switches abruptly to heavy understeer.
The secret to getting through the orange cones quickly in a 911 and having a good time is to play its throttle the way Isaac Stern plays his violin: you caress it, you coax it, you squeeze it gently. No fiddling allowed. Blend in smooth steering motions and the 911 digs neatly into the turns, sliding its front or rear end as you see fit.
The Z51, in contrast, is what computer types would call user-friendly. Yank the wheel 90 degrees off center and the Vette will practically knock the wind out of you as it rams your shoulder into the door. Yet it’s so naturally coordinated it will make a rank novice think he’s a budding Alain Prost. Compared with the 911, the Z51 responds like an F-16.
In an autocross, the Vette acts like your best drinking buddy, as if it knows just what you’re thinking. It responds to your orders with “Hey, no sweat” confidence. The steering points with authority, and the ABS takes the worry out of late braking. You have to do something truly weird to spin out in this car.
If autocrossing were a contest of fun alone, we’d have another draw on our hands. But it’s not. Speed counts, too, and on that score the Vette is the clear winner, posting a 53.1 second time through our course, versus the 911′s 54.3.
Now we raise the ante. Both Porsche and Chevrolet figure their club-sport models will see high-speed duty on road-racing circuits, so we put both cars to the test on one. Our venue was Willow Springs International Raceway, a gut-tightening, 2.5-mile serpent that climbs the side of a foothill in the Mojave Desert. High velocity is what Willow is all about: our speeds down the front and back straights exceeded 120 mph, and we took five of Willow’s nine turns in either fourth or fifth gear.
The balance of power between the Corvette and the Porsche tilted dramatically at Willow. The plastic Chevy remained stable and unflappable through the track’s white-knuckle sweepers, while the 911 was nervous and unsure. Its tail felt like the heavy end of a pendulum; we found ourselves avoiding braking in the turns at all costs, lest the 911 launch into a series of eye-widening feints and darts. In Willow’s diabolical Turn Nine, a high-speed, fourth-gear swoop, the Club Sport turned downright ornery, twitching its tail and sidestepping like a cabaret dancer. It was enough to make us back off.
Which is how the Vette blew the paint off the 911 on the racetrack. The Porsche’s best lap time was 1 minute 44.2 seconds. The Vette zipped around in just 1:41.0.
Because the Club Sport and the Z51 are both street cars at heart, it’s logical to assume that most of their lucky owners will get at least some of their driving jollies from taming long stretches of unruly two-lane. So just how good are these cars in the real world?
We based our assessment of their over-the-road capabilities on two days of varied driving, with extra emphasis on their behavior on challenging mountain roads. We conducted our canyon blasts on two of California’s most memorable byways: the Angeles Forest Highway (N3) and the Angeles Crest Highway (California 2), forming a route that shakes, rattles, and rolls from Palmdale to Pasadena. Both roads cling to ridges and mountainsides in the Angeles National Forest and are blessed with countless switchbacks, devilish changes in elevation, and breathtaking drop-offs. Rapid progress requires precise technique—and confidence in your equipment.
The Porsche closed the gap in our mountain-road runoff. Our racetrack experience with the 911 made us careful to burn off all excess speed before entering a turn. Driven according to the in-slow, out-fast philosophy, the 911 was agile, communicated well, and felt safe. No tail fakes, no untoward moves. Its unassisted steering was an upper-body workout but was pleasantly direct. Its brakes were sure. Treated with respect, the 911 never bit.
Once again, though, the Vette proved the more inspiring. It was almost insensitive to slip-ups in technique and seemed to have limitless grip. Knowing ABS was there to back us up was worth an extra 5 mph into every corner. Not only was the Vette easier than the Porsche to drive quickly, but its power steering and air conditioning made it more comfortable. Advantage, Z51.
The Checkered Flag
We have arrived at the moment of truth, and truth does not favor the 911 Club Sport. Don’t misunderstand: this Porsche is a delightful automobile, the nicest 911 we’ve ever driven. It has a sweet, mechanical disposition and a rev-me-forever engine. Its exhaust note is an exotic cross between the world’s largest Hoover and a Group C race car. But when you reach for the air conditioner, it’s not there. When you want some music, it’s not there. When you want to pop open the sunroof, it’s not there. The Club Sport is an interesting experiment, but it pales under the harsh light of common sense. Its performance advantage over a standard 911 Carrera is anything but clear, so what’s the point? Only an inside-out Porsche nutball would pony up the price of a Carrera for a 911 lacking major comfort items. That may explain why Porsche Cars North America has imported only twenty 911 Club Sports for sale.
We are left with the winner: the car that turned in the big numbers and handled the high pressure with maximum class. We hereby proclaim the Chevrolet Corvette Z51 the Ace of Clubs.
The trophy comes with a warning label, however: Beware of the ride. The Z51 will get by just fine in the Sunbelt states, where the roads are smooth as desktops. But our experience with Z51s in Michigan suggest that this car will pound your brain to mush on the winter-worn highways of the northern climes. (We suspect the 911 Club Sport wouldn’t be much better.)
And to those of you in the Corvette cheering section who are rushing to your typewriters to point out that the Club Sport costs half again as much as the Z51, consider this: the 911′s fit, finish, and solidity are so far superior to the Corvette’s that the price difference seems justified on that score alone.
But enough nit-picking. We came looking for rawboned gunslingers, and we found them. And now we have a winner. Kindly tip your Stetsons in the direction of Warren, Michigan, where the big gun in club sports sits with its back to the garage wall, waiting.
View Photo Gallery
By RICH CEPPOS