– Motive Versus: Nissan 370Z vs. Porsche Cayman S

23 May 2015 | Author: | Comments Off on – Motive Versus: Nissan 370Z vs. Porsche Cayman S
Porsche Cayman

You didn’t used to be like this, Nissan. Up until the GT-R arrived this year, and with the exception of the 370Z’s predecessor, you’ve spent the last decade building modest SUVs, trucks, and sedans for the masses. Sure, there have been a few hot compacts in there, but your latest Sentra SE-Rs haven’t exactly set the enthusiast world ablaze. Now it’s all Porsche this, Nürburgring that.

It’s like we don’t even know you anymore. Then, just when it seems like GT-R-a-palooza is dying down, here comes the new Z. First, in spy photos, being trailed by a Porsche Cayman. Then, with Nissan’s own staff calling Porsche’s baby coupe out as a benchmark.

All right, we’ll bite.

Disregard the fact that the Cayman S you see here is a 2008. The revised 2009 model wasn’t available for our day of testing, but the dynamic changes are minimal and I drove the new car last week. My impressions of the new car are factored into the words, if not the pictures, below.

As similar as the intentions of the Nissan and the Porsche are, you’d never mistake one for the other. Their design commonalities include two headlights, two doors, four tires, and a sloping rear hatch. Actually, they also share polarization. Both are drop-dead gorgeous to some, but each has plenty of enemies. Cayman supporters will say the small Porsche has simple, classic curves that will remain timeless.

The hood is shorter and the butt is longer than the Nissan’s, a visual reminder that the Porsche’s flat-six engine sits behind the driver. Speaking of butts, the 370Z has a huge one, and the verticality of the taillights only makes it seem more ridiculous when the two cars are parked side-by-side. From any angle that isn’t straight on from the rear, the new Z has a dynamic flow to it, looking like it’s in the business of one thing: going fast.

I’d give it the edge on design, just because I’m used to the Cayman and its design seems more static. And small too, despite the fact that the Porsche is actually four inches longer and only a half-inch lower overall than the Z.

The same basic analysis applies to the interiors. The Porsche brings you carpeted door panels, simple shapes, and a centralization of just about every button. Without the optional navigation, it’s easy to wonder which decade this car is from.

Meanwhile, the 370Z’s cabin is one hologrammed reporter short of Wolf Blitzer’s Situation Room. Just as in the 350Z, there’s a bank of gauges front-and-center on the dash providing time, volts, and engine-oil temperature. Behind the steering wheel, you’ve got the speedometer, tach (center-mounted, as in the Cayman), a readout for the transmission’s current gear (even with the manual), and little bar graphs for coolant temp and fuel.

The engine start button, radio, climate controls, and optional navi are scattered about in a way that’s anything but coherent. While each car will certainly appeal do a different type of buyer, neither group will be able to use material quality as an argument. Both cabins boast excellent fit and finish. Both have nice, thick steering wheels and comfortable, supportive seats.

The Cayman’s are firmer, but the 370Z’s softer chairs proved better for the long haul and don’t surrender much in terms of lateral support. But enough about seats, because you’re probably wondering about the lone button sitting next to the 370Z’s shifter the one that activates SyncroRev.

In case you missed it, that’s the name Nissan has given to a system of sensors inside the six-speed manual’s shifter. They sense gear-lever movement and send that information to the throttle-by-wire controls, automatically matching engine speed to the newly selected gear during downshifts. I had my early doubts and, more than anything, was reluctant to embrace another system that takes the driver out of the equation.

Heel-and-toe downshifts are a hard-to-master enthusiast trick, not some algorithm in a computer chip. Or at least that’s how I did feel, up until I drove this Nissan. Let me tell you the satisfaction of hearing a perfectly blipped throttle each and every time you grab a lower gear is just as rewarding as trying to do it yourself.

There’s just one little annoyance, and that’s the fact that the engine will rev (right into the limiter) even if you’re not serious about that six-to-two downshift the sensors think you’re about to perform. If you like to flip the shifter around in neutral as you’re coasting down from a higher speed, yeah, you’ll want to stop that. Or turn the system off.

Or don’t order it in the first place (it’s part of the $3000 sport package).

The ’09 Cayman has a pretty slick transmission option, too, in its seven-speed automated dual-clutch unit called PDK. Today, though, it’s all about the manuals apples to apples and all that. Ignoring the downshift magic, the 370Z’s shifter feels much like the one in the 350Z. The throws are quick and short, but the gears are close together and it’s easy to pick the wrong one if you rush your movements. The Cayman’s throws are much longer, and the action is floppy and light.

It feels a bit old-fashioned, but at least all six gears are easy to find.

The two engines don’t have much in common. One’s a 3.4-liter horizontally opposed 6, the latest evolution of the same concept motivating Porsches for decades. For 2009, it benefits from a new direct-injection system that gives it more progressive power through the range and a higher peak at the top end 320 hp at 7200 rpm, 300 shy of the redline.

The 370Z’s VQ-series 3.7-liter is the newest and best of that familiar engine family, and just as in the Infiniti G37, it’s the first VQ with variable valve timing. It needs an extra 0.3 liters of displacement to get there, but the Z boasts a 12-hp advantage over the Cayman S at 200 fewer rpm. Torque 273 lb-ft versus 270 in favor of the Porsche is a closer battle, but the 370Z’s extra displacement gives it a fatter curve.

It may peak 450 rpm higher, but the Nissan feels like it plateaus long before that. Getting back on the throttle out of a slow corner, the big V-6 never seems short on energy.

That doesn’t concern the Cayman S, because it is able to carry slightly more speed through corners and, as a result, keep engine speeds higher. Credit this to a curb weight of 2976 pounds. That’s about 240 fewer than the 370Z, which uses weight-saving aluminum for the doors, hood, and rear hatch, along with front and rear subframes underneath. The Cayman uses the lighter metal for just the hood, along with many suspension components, but it is able to save the weight elsewhere.

The lower weight is just enough to cancel out the 370Z’s stronger bottom end, and the two are near-equals in terms of grip and neutrality. Through a few canyons north of Los Angeles, neither car is able to widen the gap over the other.

Steering feel in the Cayman is lighter and more playful than the Z’s, with a bit more feedback from the pavement. However, the ’09 model we tested last week felt a bit closer to the Nissan’s heavier but still sharp system. We’d call the Porsche’s change a touch less enjoyable, but the 370Z’s steering is among the best improvements over its predecessor, which felt a bit removed from the action at the tires.

The Cayman, though, does its work in quick, short motions, while the Z requires a bit more input for the same result.

The same is true of each car’s suspension. Over bumps and through undulating corners, the Cayman’s four-corner MacPherson struts get their work done quickly, returning the car to its neutral position in finger-snap motions, like the car is marching to a drum beat. You have to stay on top of it, but the quick reactions allow the Cayman to be ready for the next corner, no matter how close it may be.

It’s also what makes anyone driving the Cayman look like a hero if the chassis is always anticipating the next motion, it’s always ready when you screw up.

The 370Z is more likely to teach you a lesson after bigger mistakes. Fortunately, stability control is standard equipment. However, Nissan’s system cuts in earlier and more abrasively than the Cayman’s. Through quick switchbacks, it’s dialing back power at every corner exit.

The Z’s chassis responds more slowly but more fluidly than the Cayman it may be that quick applications of throttle, mainly during transitions in which the suspension’s still sorting itself out, can overwhelm the stability computers. When I turn it off, I discover the Z’s dirty secret: Those controls shut the car down before it truly gets good, and the harder the 370Z is pushed, the better it gets.

Porsche Cayman

Nissan engineers kept the car’s weight distribution at 53/47 front to rear, which doesn’t seem ideal for a sports coupe. The theory is that the car’s dynamic weight distribution the balance when the car’s accelerating out of a corner becomes dead even as the load shifts. I believe it.

With stability control on vacation, the car dives into corners without a hint of understeer and when I get back on the throttle earlier, the rear hunkers down, grabs hold of the road, and pushes out of the bend with tremendous grip. The transition between braking and getting back on the gas delivers just the right amount of rotation. Other than the seriously underpowered Miata, it’s hard to think of another front-engine car for normal-people money with this much balance.

It makes me wonder why Porsche went through all the effort of moving the engine somewhere so hard to get at.

Maybe it was for the sake of the brakes. Sure, the 370Z has more outright force (as it should with the optional sport package, which endows it with rotors measuring 1.5 inches greater in diameter up front and 2.1 inches wider at the rear versus the normal Z), but it shakes its big rump a bit under heavy pressure while the Cayman feels more confident. The Nissan has a better pedal feel, though, with the Porsche surrendering a bit of travel before going to work.

Neither car even jokes about brake fade after a hard day of driving.

At this point, the Cayman and 370Z seem like evenly matched foes. Power is almost even with a minor lean toward the Z. Weight is fairly close, but the Cayman is lighter. We didn’t run 0-60 times with our ’08 Cayman for obvious reasons, but Porsche is claiming the same 4.9 seconds Nissan claims for its car.

We couldn’t get our car under five, but the asphalt we picked as a drag strip was a bit slick. But that also speaks to the way the Nissan accelerates. It doesn’t take many revs to induce wheelspin from a stop and while the tires fight for traction the 3.7-liter continues to spew power in a heavy, unchanging wave.

The trip up to sixty and beyond is a brisk one, but it isn’t as entertaining as the Porsche’s run. That engine can stand to be revved higher before the clutch is dumped, making the initial launch a bit more shocking. The ’08 model runs up the tachometer in noticeable stages of energy that have been flattened a bit for 2009.

Still, it’s a more emotional ride up to speed in the Porsche, even if the two run neck-and-neck. Braking performance is a wash and handling couldn’t be much closer. Each car, however, scores a big win in one category.

As good as the engine might be in the 370Z. well, I’ll come right out and say it it just doesn’t sound good. From outside the car, it lacks the distinctive Chewbacca howl of the 350Z and from inside, it just sounds coarse. Its dull note sticks right up to the top of the tach before you shift and it starts over again with a new breath.

The Porsche’s boxer engine shifts octaves two or three times as it crescendos. And while exhaust notes might seem insignificant to some, these are two-passenger sport coupes. They run on emotion as much as gasoline, and the 370Z could stand to be more outspoken. I’m eagerly awaiting a run-in with the NISMO exhaust that’ll be made available for the Z sometime in 2009.

Hopefully it’ll be the aural equivalent of the Nissan’s in-your-face design.

The flipside of the 370Z’s subdued tone is that it knows how to cut the attitude and act like a normal car. Not only that, it’s a fantastic highway cruiser, as I learned after driving the car from the press launch in Las Vegas to join the Cayman in California. With the Porsche, you get exactly what you see. A small, loud, rough-riding sports car.

At highway speeds the engine buzzes in your ears and through your feet. It grows less comfortable as the hours wear on and doesn’t respond well to washboard roads, even with the sport suspension switched over to soft mode. The 370Z has just one mode, but it works miraculously in all conditions.

It’ll deliver lap after lap of solid performance then get you home in comfort and silence. The stout chassis soaks up harshness arguably, better than its more luxurious Infiniti G37 twin and the engine turns more slowly than the Porsche at interstate speeds. The seats are comfortable, wind noise is minimal, and the stereo’s pretty good.

Though the Z is classified as a sports coupe, it masquerades well as a grand tourer.

Nissan set out to build a better Z and publicly set the Cayman S as an early target. The 370Z doesn’t carry the Porsche’s swagger or the social status that comes with owning a sports car bearing the crest, but the two cars are near equals in practically every category.

Since its inception, the Cayman has been regarded as one of the most balanced sports car platforms ever designed, and for Nissan to nip so close at that car’s butt for half the price ($60,200 for a Cayman S, and about $33,000 for a 370Z with the sport package, which includes the bigger brakes, a limited-slip diff, bigger wheels, SyncroRev, and an aero kit) is quite a statement. The Cayman is a slightly better sports car, but the 370Z is a slightly better everyday car. And I don’t have to tell you it’s one hell of a bargain.

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