• BY JOHN PHILLIPS
  • PHOTOGRAPHY BY KEN HANNA

    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.

    Continued…

  • BY JOHN PHILLIPS

  • PHOTOGRAPHY BY KEN HANNA

    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.

    1990 Chevrolet Corvette Z51 FX3 5.7-liter V-8 engine.

    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.

    1990 Nissan 300ZX Turbo 3.0-liter twin-turbocharged V-6 engine.

    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.

    Continued…

  • BY JOHN PHILLIPS

  • PHOTOGRAPHY BY KEN HANNA

    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.

    Continued…

  • BY JOHN PHILLIPS

  • PHOTOGRAPHY BY KEN HANNA

    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.

    1990 Chevrolet Corvette Z51 FX3 interior.

    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.

    1990 Nissan 300ZX Turbo interior.

    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.

    Continued…

  • BY JOHN PHILLIPS

  • PHOTOGRAPHY BY KEN HANNA

    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.

    Continued…

  • BY JOHN PHILLIPS

  • PHOTOGRAPHY BY KEN HANNA

    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.

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    By JOHN PHILLIPS