1991 Chevrolet Corvette Z51 FX3 vs. Nissan 300ZX
From the February 1990 Issue of Car and DriverTESTED
“Ladies and gentlemen! In this corner, weighing 3380 pounds, with a 250-hp uppercut, the Kentucky killer, the mainstream mauler from Bowling Green, a squeaky-clean face we all know and love: the Chevrolet Corvette!
“And in this corner, weighing a chunky 3533 pounds, with a 300-hp jab, the Oriental challenger, the upstart built for the human race, the twin-turbo terror from Tokyo: the Nissan 300ZX Turbo!”
This fistfight was premeditated. Malice aforethought. Just look at the evidence. What do you suppose the gentlemen in Tokyo had in mind when they ram-loaded the 300ZX with two water-cooled turbos, a pair of intercoolers, variable valve timing, four-wheel steering, driver-adjustable shocks, 8.5-inch-wide rear wheels, Z-rated rubber, and—most important of all—a $33,000 base price? Hey, we’re adults. Let’s just say it out loud. Nissan has yanked off the gloves, and the body blows are raining mercilessly onto the fiberglass flanks of America’s favorite sports car.
Never has the Corvette faced a fiercer challenge. Last November, when we first tested the 300ZX Turbo, we said, “Finally, a Japanese sports car that can run with the big dogs.” What we really meant was, “Finally, a sports car, from anywhere, that delivers the styling, acceleration, roadholding, and top speed of the Corvette—at the same price as the Corvette.”
Our last such showdown, in fact, pitted a Corvette Z51 against a Porsche 911 Club Sport—a car that in September of 1988 cost half again as much as the Chevrolet. And the Porsche still didn’t win. Now we’re at it again, only this time—for the first time—the combatants’ dollar-to-speed ratio is dead even.
Let the hostilities commence.
Round One: The Racetrack
Both the Corvette, with its 5.7-liter V-8, and the 300ZX Turbo, with its 3.0-liter V-6, have speed and power like Tip O’Neill has TV commercials. It would have been nearly impossible, therefore, to plumb the handling limits of either car on public thoroughfares without endangering civilians—and, not incidentally, ourselves. So we rented Grattan Raceway, a scenic 1.75-mile road course smack in the heart of Michigan’s cereal belt. This track’s 3000-foot straightaway allowed both cars to reach nearly 120 mph before braking for Turn One, yet the blind brows and diabolically tight 45-mph turns proved a provocative test of at-the-limit handling.
The Corvette’s engineers have eaten a lot of lunches at racetracks across America, and it shows. At Grattan, the Corvette was Mark Spitz in water, Perry Mason in the courtroom.
The Corvette’s progressive clutch made for jolt-free upshifts and downshifts, and its massive brakes were much easier to apply smoothly than the Nissan’s—scrubbing off speed without disrupting the chassis.
Both cars felt well planted and secure, even when they were unweighted at the crests of Grattan’s three hills. But their cornering behavior, surprisingly, was very different indeed.
The Corvette was as neutral as a Swiss passport. Enter a corner too hard or apply a little too much V-8 and the Chevy’s tail oozed out a step or two. This movement, however, was so smooth and benign that a touch of opposite lock or a slight easing-of the throttle was all it took to restore order. When we wanted to play rough, we squeezed the throttle to point the Corvette’s nose. When we lost confidence mid-turn, we stabbed the brakes and said, “Oh, sorry, too fast.” The Corvette always obliged. Short of lapsing into a coma, you’d have a tough time crashing this car on dry pavement.
The Nissan, on the other hand, initially tended toward understeer, working its front Michelin MXXs so hard that we feared for their survival. It understeered, that is, until we kicked the tail out with a ton of throttle or with some determined trail-braking. And when the tail did come out, it didn’t exactly saunter through neutrality. The transition from under-steer to oversteer was abrupt, and it was slightly more difficult to control because of the turbocharged engine. Although lag was minimal, the Nissan’s V-6 still didn’t deliver the even response of the Corvette’s rumbling V-8, nor did it produce enough back pressure to work effectively as a braking tool—which raised another issue. After three flat-out laps, the Corvette’s brakes were muttering, “Come on, let’s go!” while the Nissan’s had faded noticeably and were crying for a cool-down lap.
When all was said and done, the Corvette turned laps in the one-minute 38-second range, at an average speed of 64 mph, while the Nissan was almost a second per lap slower. “No big deal,” you’re saying? On the contrary. It is a big deal in a two-hour race. Far more important, the Corvette—with its hip-hugging seats, smooth power delivery, and neutral handling—is far easier to drive for long periods at those speeds. To put the Corvette’s racetrack prowess into perspective, remember that the big V-8 produces 50 fewer horsepower than the twin-turbo terror.
Round Two: The Test Track
A day spent at Chrysler’s proving grounds, with test gear in tow, proved how evenly matched the 300ZX Turbo and the Corvette really are. Haul these cars to the drag strip and a good driver could climb into either and push it through the traps in front of the other. In fact, the acceleration figures are almost dead equal all the way to 130 mph.
We are a little disappointed, of course, that the Corvette couldn’t dip into the five-second range during its 0-to-60-mph runs, as did the Corvette convertible we tested last July. Alas, the lazier acceleration is a consequence of a taller final-drive ratio—now 3.33:1, versus the old 3.54:1 rear end.
In top-gear acceleration, the Nissan left the Corvette for dead. This, too, requires explanation. The Corvette’s ultratall 0.50:1 overdrive sixth gear simply cripples the car in this test. At 30 mph in sixth, the Corvette’s engine is burping and bucking at 678 rpm. Stomp on the gas down there and you can imagine the sort of milquetoast response you get.
Sixth gear also hobbles the Corvette’s top speed. Shift into high during a banzai run (after the V-8 runs out of breath in fifth) and the engine pulls only until it hits an atmospheric wall at 3350 rpm-148 mph—far short of the V-8′s 4400-rpm power peak. Not so the 300ZX Turbo, which rockets aggressively to 155 mph and hangs there like a bull terrier, eager to go faster but foiled by a speed limiter. We’ll never know what extra poke remains.
The Corvette proudly reasserted itself on the skidpad, however, rounding the 300-foot circle at a viselike 0.91 g, the highest figure we have ever recorded for a production car. And in our 70-to-0-mph braking test, both cars stopped within a few feet of our all-time record. Lotus and Lamborghini would kill for stats like these.
In our 1000-foot slalom, the 300ZX Turbo snaked through the pylons 4.8 mph faster than the Corvette. In fact, the Nissan’s slalom speed is the highest we have ever logged. The kudos, here, go in equal parts to the Z’s razor-sharp Super HICAS steering (which provides an initial dollop of opposite-phase rear steering), its predilection to understeer, and its astounding transient stability.
The Corvette, meanwhile, made like a pendulum, its tail wagging in ever-increasing arcs as it howled its way—admittedly at serious speed—toward the final three pylons. When the tail began to wag the dog, the Corvette took to punting pylons into Livingston County.
Round Three: The Road
Sterling on-track performance is dandy, but we also expect our cars—no matter their pedigree—to swallow long, boring stretches of freeway as gracefully as they tackle brief, spirited blasts to the 7-Eleven. In performing such day-to-day duties, the Nissan quickly nosed ahead of the Corvette.
The Corvette’s cockpit may be improved, but it’s still far from perfect. The hand brake remains between the driver and the door. The gargantuan rocker sills are still a major impediment to ingress and egress. The four ancillary analog gauges appear microscopically small, and they are devoid of gradations. Visibility is still marginal. And the dark-orange numerals atop the dull-gray instrument faces are difficult to decipher.
Compare that with the Nissan’s old-fashioned analog gauges, which are a paradigm of clarity. White numerals, black faces. A four-inch speedometer next to a four-inch tach. Simple. We are disappointed that Chevrolet could spend so much money on a whole new dashboard and still miss the mark by a mile.
Both cars offer spectacular steering, but the Nissan’s delivers surgically precise turn-in, perfect on-center feel, no kickback, and world-class straight-line stability—no matter the condition of the asphalt. The Corvette’s is equally good on smooth pavement, but it tends to tramline and dart when confronted by scabrous surfaces. Truck grooves, in particular, wreak havoc with the Chevrolet’s directional stability.
Despite their adjustable suspensions, neither of these muscle-bound cars can supply a luxurious ride. But the Nissan, even with spring rates twenty-percent stiffer than those of the normally aspirated 300ZX, is the more comfortable mount. In part, this is merely a function of isolation from road impacts. The Nissan’s body and cockpit remain composed as the multilink rear suspension takes the edge off blows from below. The Corvette’s body, on the other hand, tends to crash, bang, and shiver over ridges and potholes. The car performs a kind of belly dance, and its instrument panel groans and creaks. Through it all, the booming exhaust—even at idle—adds to the overall cacophony.
Not everything about the Nissan left us grinning. The first 300ZX Turbo we tested was reluctant to produce full boost. The second was felled by loose-fitting calipers. And the third (the car you see here) shed an eighteen-inch piece of interior trim, broke its heater, and then, under full acceleration, began intermittently to spit blue haze from its four exhaust tips—an ominous matter in an engine producing 100 horsepower per liter. Have we uncovered a build-quality problem? We’ll keep the maroon 300ZX for 30,000 miles and let you know.
The Checkered Flag
In our editors’ numerical ratings, the outcome is clear. The Nissan 300ZX Turbo wins a closely fought contest, sweeping to victory in the categories for styling, ergonomics, comfort, ride, room, fun to drive, and value. While the Corvette produces excellent performance figures, it thunders and pounds and approaches its business with all the subtlety of Mike Tyson. The Nissan, in contrast, is civilized and refined: the thinking man’s supercar.
To be fair, we must concede that the Nissan (the fourth generation of the Z-car) is all-new, while the Corvette is merely the latest iteration of a seven-year-old design. But until the bow-tie boys can reduce the price of the ZR-1 to, say, the mid-$30,000 range, a rematch will have to be postponed until 1995. That’s when the all-new Corvette is slated to appear.
The world’s best-selling 148-mph sports car has hardly been knocked flat on its back, but it has been dealt a blow. If this news leaves you reeling, we understand. Throughout the Corvette’s 37-year history, virtually nobody has laid a glove on its handsome, fiberglass beak. Perhaps GM didn’t see the punch coming. After all, the decisive uppercut came out of the rising sun.
You read all about the Nissan 300ZX Turbo in our November 1989 preview test, but you may not have heard much about the Corvette lately. For 1990, Chevrolet offers a spate of notable improvements on America’s favorite sports car.
For starters, output from the Corvette’s 5.7-liter engine has been marginally boosted: both horsepower and torque are up five points, the result of a new speed-density engine-control system and lighter pistons that decrease reciprocating mass.
Less obvious upgrades include a standard-equipment engine-oil cooler, an oil-life monitor, an optional Delco/Bose “Gold” stereo system (which seems to have scotched much of the old system’s boomy bass), and lighter, 9.5-by-17-inch wheels. A more efficient sloped-back radiator has also been added—a design originally wrought for the Corvette ZR-1. Similarly lifted from the King of the Hill is the Bosch ABS II-S anti-lock braking system (see Technical Highlights, October 1989).
We generally don’t turn cartwheels when a manufacturer introduces a new instrument panel, but the Corvette’s all-new dashboard, console, door trim, steering wheel, and ventilation system require a comment or two. Gone is the “exploding scoreboard,” the ugly trio of rectangles that displayed—in garish liquid-crystal digits—speed, engine revs, and oil/water/fuel status. That instrument panel, with which we have grudgingly co-existed since 1984, is replaced by a semicircular binnacle that contains a large analog tachometer and four small analog gauges for oil pressure, oil temperature, water temperature, and volts. Separating these two arrays is a liquid-crystal speedometer whose orange digits stand nearly an inch tall.
The wholesale interior overhaul was triggered by the need for air bags. The immediate effect is a fat new four-spoke steering wheel, an easy-to-grip design with neat thumb indents atop the upper spokes. A temporary side effect is a real glove box, the first in a Corvette since 1982. We describe it as “temporary” because the glove box will, by 1992, hold a passenger-side air bag.
While the interior stylists were at it, they substantially reworked the cabin’s ergonomics. The power window and mirror controls have been relocated to the door panel. The windshield-wiper control (previously absurdly situated on the driver’s door panel) has been moved to the turn-indicator stalk. And the new pictographic power-seat controls are now actually understandable at a glance. Thank you, Chevrolet.
To ensure that our Corvette was equipped to do battle with the current king of Japanese sports cars, we ordered it fitted with the Z51 performance handling package ($450). Once you’ve ticked that option, you are permitted to opt for the FX3 three-way adjustable dampers ($1695). The FX3 computer-controlled suspension system offers three driver-adjustable programs: Tour, Sport, and Performance. In each program, the system automatically switches between six damping levels based on speed. (Frankly, slogging through Chevrolet’s murky maze of option packages is a nightmare: “You mean, the illuminated vanity mirrors come only with the 3.33:1 axle ratio?”) Unfortunately, our Corvette was delivered with another $4429 of options—everything from a $1050 “articulating seat” to a $615 transparent roof panel that was infuriatingly difficult to remove. None of those add-ons affected the car’s performance, and not one, save the $325 low-tire-pressure warning, was an option that we would have ordered were the car ours.
The Z51 designation lays on an impressive bag of tricks and is intended for buyers who have serious autocrossing and Showroom Stock racing on their agendas. It includes thirteen-inch front brake rotors (rather than the standard twelve-inch versions), stiffer springs, stiffer lower-control-arm bushings up front, Delco-Bilstein gas shocks with more aggressive valving, and a power-steering-fluid cooler. Order the Z51 package alone and you’ll obviously degrade ride quality.
Thus, the Corvette that we—and the Corvette’s engineers—most earnestly recommend is the Z51 with the FX3 dampers. That combination gives you the best of both worlds: the more compliant springs from the base car and the aggressive shock control from the Z51—the latter on call, to be used only when needed.
View Photo Gallery