Two Seats the German Way: 1997 Convertible Comparo
From the Archive: It's time to hug a few curves in a trio of two-seat convertibles—BMW Z3, Mercedes-Benz SLK, and Porsche Boxster.
From the April 1997 issue of Car and Driver.
"In the spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love," wrote Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Easy for him to say—sports cars weren't much of a distraction in 1842. But this spring, we predict, love is in for tough competition from the niftiest class of two-seaters to come along in a beagle's age.
Sports cars had a good year in 1990, when, all by itself, the new Mazda Miata had the chattering classes wound up for about a year and a half. Remembering way back, 1970 stands out, too, for the simultaneous arrival of the fastback Datsun 240Z and the lump-shaped Porsche 914. But 1997's class of four outshines them all—three radically new models plus a celebrated yearling fresh from steroid therapy.
The yearling is, of course, the BMW Z3 2.8, looking all muscled up now that its rear fenders have been stretched over a wider rear track. What you don't see is the real muscle. The 189-horsepower six-cylinder from the 328 sedan fills the long engine bay (continued is the four-cylinder version for those under doctor's order to limit their cardiac excitement).
Topping the radically new list is the Mercedes-Benz SLK. This deftly engineered two-seater packs a supercharged four-cylinder up front and a single red button on the console that transforms the car from snug coupe to open roadster in one touch of one finger. So impressed are we by this SLK that we unhesitatingly voted it to a spot on our 1997 Ten Best list.
Radically new, too, not to mention long awaited, describes the Porsche Boxster. Twenty-some years later, Porsche finally makes amends for the unfortunate 914 with a middle-motor sportster that really works.
The terms "radically new" and "long awaited" apply equally well to the fourth member of 1997's sports-car class, the all-new Chevrolet Corvette. But does that magnum-caliber V-8 Detroiter belong in the same group with these compact Europeans? If price is all that counts—each one lists for about 40 large—then you'd have to say yes. But whether you're buying fine wines, politicians, or sports cars, price is never all that counts. The talent and swagger and thrust of the Corvette flow from a philosophy that is very much different from the others. Besides, the '97 Corvette is a targa, not a true convertible.
When the '98-model convertible arrives, we may toss it into the mix. Right now, we have a trio of German two-seaters seductive enough to lure Tennyson back for a rewrite of his famous line. Let's see how the test drivers' fancy turns as we put each one through a springtime romp.
We still admire the SLK every bit as much as we did when naming it to our 1997 Ten Best list at the beginning of the year. And for exactly the same reasons. "Does the SLK stand as the optimum realization of the concept?" we asked in our January road test. "Darn near," we answered. "But let's be clear. The concept isn't Sports Car. The SLK is more like the slam-dunk champ in a league of one."
HIGHS: Cheeky good looks, tremendous road grip, draft-free with the roof up, one finger puts the roof down.LOWS: The five-speed is a (groan) automatic, the grip reaches its limit with too little warning.VERDICT: Only an unreconstructed sports-car nut would find this machine lacking.
The SLK concept is this: a cockpit tightly sealed against weather and noise when the top is up; a fully automated one-touch, 25-second retraction of that top; and an exceptionally shake-and-rattle-free ride when the top is down. What you get is the best of both the coupe and convertible worlds, and a painless transition between the two, a tale of excellence no true sports car has yet to match. Oh, yes, and don't forget the hey-look-at-me styling that confers instant celebrity on its driver.
Still, any two-seater must inevitably be held up to the sports-car yardstick. When we put on our driving gloves and set out for fun in this group of three, the last guy to grab gets the SLK keys. The automatic transmission is part of the problem. Why turn over to automation one of the fun parts of driving? The supercharged four-cylinder is not quite aesthetically pleasing, either. The putt-putt-putt exhaust sound at idle is too close to a Farmall's, and power flow tends toward an abrupt on/off, depending on accelerator position and the automatic's inclination toward gearchanges. Too many important decisions are taken away from the driver and relegated to HAL or whatever silicon pseudonym is on duty.
We don't love the handling, either, an assertion that surely requires some explanation since the Test Results panel gives the SLK top marks for cornering and braking grip—0.90 g on the skidpad and 170 feet to stop from 70 mph. The problem here is attitude. The SLK is secretive. Virtually no information comes back through the steering. Imagine a rheostat for dialing up cornering forces. Turn the wheel more; cornering force goes up. As for a sense of what the tires are doing, the steering answers, "What tires?" Experienced drivers, either consciously or unconsciously, rely on subtle changes in tire-slip angle to know where they're operating relative to the limits of the tires. Slip angles increase as cornering forces rise, and the increase goes nonlinear when you near the limit. Feeling for this nonlinearity enables you to drive on the edge without ever falling off. But this car gives no sense of the edge. Don Schroeder, who drove the track portion of the test, reports that the SLK's remarkably high lane-change speed—more than 4 mph better than the others'—was achieved with no sense of the tires slipping. And when slipping finally becomes apparent, "you encounter a spooky handling abyss," he says.
Of course, this abyss shows itself only at extremely high lateral forces, and one can usually keep up with the other cars in this test with little risk. But sports-car fun comes more from control than from speed, and the joy of controlling this machine is largely absent.
Truth to tell, when we think of sports cars, we never think of the vastly more expensive Mercedes SL two-seaters, either. The SLK shares with the SL line a family resemblance long on solid construction, comfortable appointments, serious engine power, and enduring styling. But none of these cars spreads grins across the faces of sports-car guys.
The SLK's acceleration times are slightly behind the others' here, largely because of the automatic. Zero to 60 takes 7.2 seconds, and the quarter-mile slips past in 15.5 second at 91 mph. On our comparison trip, the SLK outscored the others in fuel economy at 21 mpg, compared with 20 for the Porsche and 19 for the BMW. And on cold mornings, the heater of this SLK blew out plenty of BTUs, unlike the last one we tested.
Whereas we're firm in our conviction that the SLK comes up short as a sports car, we're also aware that the majority of wanna-owns prefer it that way.
1997 Mercedes-Benz SLK185-hp supercharged inline-4, 5-speed automatic, 3020 lbBase/as-tested price: $41,123/$42,095C/D TEST RESULTS60 mph: 7.2 sec1/4 mile: 15.5 sec @ 91 mph100 mph: 20.0 secBraking, 70-0 mph: 170 ftRoadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.90 g C/D observed fuel economy: 21 mpg
Maybe this runabout can't restore departing hair or shrink the bags under the eyes, but it sure brings to mind our younger days and the Triumph TR6. The snorty 2.8-liter six makes the same textural growl (though greatly muted compared with that old Brit), the narrow-atthe-elbow cockpit positions the torso upright behind the wheel, the long hood sweeps across the view as we turn, the rear suspension responds to power with that familiar demi-squat.
Good stuff? Wrong question. The Z3 delivers that rare car flavor, one that's been savored since Morgans were young, sought after by drivers who shun decaf and power steering with equal vigor. The flavor here is sports car, hot and black.
HIGHS: Smooth power from the six, amusing handling from the semi-trailing-arm rear, convincing sports-car mood in the cockpit.LOWS: "Amusing handling" isn't the same as correct handling, skimpy features list makes price seem steep (unless you value high-visibility BMW circle logos).VERDICT: Very much a traditional sports car, with all the joys and gripes that entails.
In fact, the Z3 has power steering and power brakes and power windows and a power up/down adjuster on the driver's seat—all niceties that have watered down the hearty flavor of sports cars over the past several decades. This is by no means the snow-in-the-cockpit experience that Triumph-MG-Healey drivers welcomed as proof that they were apart from the crowd of sedan-slogging weenies.
And yet—is this a time machine hauling us back to the '60s?—the Z3's windshield shakes on bumpy roads, air currents roil into the cockpit from behind, the stubby gear lever pokes up out of a tall tunnel that might just as well be the Continental Divide for the way it separates the cockpit into two sides. And there goes the rear again, hunkering down as the clutch takes up.
No question that this Z3 is closer to the traditional sports-car definition than anything else in stores these days (the Miata excepted, of course).
New for 1997 is this six-cylinder version, the extra 51 horsepower accompanied by vented front brakes (the same diameter as on the four), a rear track increased by 2.5 inches, a limited-slip differential, and a new front spoiler.
The torque starts low in the rev range and pours on smoothly and sweetly as the tach swings upward. This is a disciplined powertrain, never raucous. It propels the Z3 to 60 mph in 6.3 seconds, 1.8 seconds quicker than the four-cylinder Z3, and just a tick behind the quickest of this group, the Porsche. Top speed is governor-limited at 129 mph.
Unlike the SLK, there's lots of communication here. The cockpit feels close, more intimate than the others. You're in touch. You have a sense of what the machinery is doing. The steering feels substantial—"meaty" in the words of one of our testers. You can grab hold of it. Road adhesion is about medium for this group at 0.87 g. Handling is exactly what you'd expect of a front-engine car with semi-trailing arms behind: predictable understeer. Yet lifting abruptly off the power in turns will step the rear out to heroic drift angles, even at relatively low lateral forces. Controlling same is easy and intuitive, however.
With the top down and the side windows up, we rushed along some high desert roads at speeds up to 110 mph. Drafty, yes, but not so much so that it wasn't fun, never mind that temperatures were in the 50s. Sports cars goad you into bursts of exuberance like that. With the top up, this car has considerably more wind-rush noise than the others.
Downing the Z3's top is a do-it-yourself project bereft of power assists—unlatch the header, push back till the stack drops into the well behind the seat, and then the cover, stored in the trunk, must be snapped into place. The details are well designed and simple. One of our staffers, by himself, did the job in 54 seconds.
Still, the manual top, along with a short roll call of features, a plainly appointed black cockpit, and the list of conventional BMW-sedan mechanicals under the skin, says that the Z3 is a rather short reach for its maker—certainly a far less imaginative concept than either the SLK or the Boxster. Yes, our as-tested car lists for about four large less than the others here, but the Z3 seems fully priced to us.
1997 BMW Z3 2.8189-hp inline-6, 5-speed manual, 2920 lbBase/as-tested price: $36,668/$37,423C/D TEST RESULTS60 mph: 6.3 sec1/4 mile: 14.9 sec @ 92 mph100 mph: 18.3 secBraking, 70-0 mph: 171 ftRoadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.87 gC/D observed fuel economy: 19 mpg
"Nosy" is the visual first impression of this car—the nose Pinocchios out in front of the wheels an astonishing distance. Let it be your warning that the Boxster does nothing the ordinary way.
We give it top marks in this group because it drives superbly and plies us with creature comforts to boot. It's a bold rethink of how a sports car might be configured—the long nose makes room for two radiators, one ahead of each front wheel. The rethink is incautious, too. All engine work—hell, all peeking into the engine room—must be done from the bottom. The trunk opens to reveal a corner devoted to service: dipstick, oil and coolant fillers. That's the rear trunk. The front trunk gives access to brake fluid and washer juice. The engine itself?
HIGHS: Two trunks, a power roof, slick moves in the twisties, and just enough traditional Porsche cues to remind that this company always does its own thing.LOWS: No engine access from the top? Is this an annuity for the dealer mechanics, or what?VERDICT: Thoroughly fun to drive, thoroughly unconventional, thoroughly Porsche.
Well, they say it's in that box behind the seats.
Wherever it is, it's a sweet contributor to this car's success. It makes whirring sounds, quite loud and clatter-free in a way foreign to Porsches. These whirs fade to background when you're driving. The cockpit is serene. Unless the top is down. Then, if the road is right, you hear organ-pipe resonances more beautiful than any since Bach when the intake and exhaust passages pass through their 5200-to-5500-rpm tuned frequencies as the flat-six rushes toward 201 hp at 6000 rpm.
The rush delivers 60 mph from rest in 6.2 seconds, and finishes the quarter-mile in 14.8 seconds at 93 mph, quickest of this group. Drat! The Boxster, in the lower gears, passes too quickly through its tuned peaks to even notice them. But the music that accompanies the labored acceleration up mountain grades is worth however many vacation days a flatlander's journey may take.
While in the mountains, enjoy the switchbacks. The Boxster's cornering behavior is first-rate. The steering stays lively and responsive at the limit, and the rear tracks reliably behind. Porsche brags of a new way of managing deflection steer in the rear wheels. It works. This is not a tail-happy handler, never mind the reputation of mid-engine cars. The low-profile Bridgestone Potenza S-02 tires deserve mention here. Their dramatic gatorback tread pattern is almost as notable as the Boxster's nosy profile. Their grip is surprisingly low, a disappointing 0.81 g on the skidpad, by far less tenacious than the other cars' Michelins. But their breakaway characteristics are wonderfully gradual, so the Boxster is easily controllable and steerable at the limit. We repeat: Control is the fun of a sports car, and if you have it, you can often outrun cars that produce better numbers in highly practiced test-track maneuvers. Would the SLK be more fun on these tires, we wonder?
In sharp contrast to the Z3's traditional approach, the Boxster seems devoid of all tradition save the occasional Porsche touch (the single, center-outlet exhaust reminds of so many 356 racers). The body is round-shouldered, the cockpit is wide, the instruments are marked in italic typefaces, plastic interior details are shiny black—this from the company that, in the early Seventies, originated the fashion of flat-black trim instead of chrome.
Porsche's rethink of the sports car shows in the power top, too. A single latch at the top of the windshield must be freed by hand. Then one button stows the roof under a hatch at the rear of the cockpit in just 12 seconds, less than half the time of the next-best Mercedes. Well, it almost stows the roof: A moon-shaped section of it remains visible behind the twin roll bars, a packaging necessity turned into an audacious design element.
Audacious describes the whole package. And fun. We expect that a rethink this radical, from a maker of such low volume, will devil early owners with a few bothers. Ah, but Boxster mechanicals come with a two-year unlimited-mileage warranty, something you could never say for springtime love.
1997 Porsche Boxster201-hp flat-6, 5-speed manual, 2850 lbBase/as-tested price: $41,284/$41,673C/D TEST RESULTS60 mph: 6.2 sec1/4 mile: 14.8 sec @ 93 mph100 mph: 17.5 secBraking, 70-0 mph: 179 ftRoadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.81 gC/D observed fuel economy: 20 mpg
1999 VW Golf GLS Tested: The Thrill Is Gone
1997 Infiniti QX4 Tested: Rolling Oxymoron
Tested: 1994 Cadillac Hearse Is Drop-Dead Cool
Tested: 1997 Caterham Classic SE Plays the Hits
1988 Panther Solo 2 Proves Second Time's a Charm
1998 VW Passat GLS Tested: Reaching Maturity
1999 Mercedes E55 AMG Tested: Do the Twist
Tested: Pontiac Hurst Firebird by Lingenfelter
1988 Mazda RX-7 Brings the Drop-Top Back
Tested: 1998 Lotus Esprit V-8
From the Archive: 1995 Audi A6 Quattro
Tested: 2000 Ultima GTR Is Absolute MadnessHIGHS:LOWS:VERDICT:1997 Mercedes-Benz SLKC/D TEST RESULTSHIGHS:LOWS:VERDICT:1997 BMW Z3 2.8C/D TEST RESULTSHIGHS: LOWS:VERDICT:1997 Porsche BoxsterC/D TEST RESULTS