1997 Dodge Viper vs. Porsche 911 Turbo S vs. Acura NSX-T


From the July 1997 issue of Car and Driver.

Of the eleventy-seven themes and variations around which we regularly construct comparison tests, this one requires the least imagination: “Hey, let’s round up the world’s fastest cars and go for a ride.”

Easy to say. But now we come to the niggles. What does “world’s fastest car” mean? Here we play by the Red Queen’s rules: The words mean exactly what we say they mean. A “car” is a new automobile, legal for sale in the Unites States as a road car, available in stores in the spring of 1997. “Fast” means what it always means to Americans—raw acceleration; ET (elapsed time) is the referee. To avoid crowds, let’s say each car-­producing continent is entitled to one entry into this Olympics.

What’s the fastest street car made in North America? The new Corvette is quick, but Dodge’s swaggering, 488-cubic-inch V-10 Viper is quicker still. “After you” is not something this brawler says to anybody. Or anything.

Dick KelleyCar and Driver

The supercar from Japan that leaps first to mind is the Acura NSX, which, as if in anticipation of this runoff, has been pumped up 20 horsepower to 290 for 1997 and has gained a sixth gear in its transmission. The Toyota Supra Turbo can match the NSX-T’s 13.4-second quarter-­mile ET, but a higher, ungoverned top speed clinched an invite for the NSX.

Europe, on the other hand, has lots of fast cars from which to draw. But which are available in the U.S.? Not the ferociously quick Ferrari F50: “The North American quota is all sold out,” says Ferrari. Ferrari has other fast cars, of course, including the F355 and the 456GT, but they’re edged out by other brands in the race to be Europe’s fastest.

Lamborghini’s 523-hp Diablo SV would be a contender, except that it’s not available here. That leaves the 492-hp, rear-drive Diablo SE as a possibility (the similarly powered but heavier all-wheel-drive VT is slower).

Dick KelleyCar and Driver

Here we must make a judgment call. Porsche is closing out 30-some years of 911 production with a celebratory run of Turbo S models tweaked up to 424 horsepower, compared with 400 in the standard Turbo. Fewer than 200 S models will be sold in the U.S., says Porsche.

The Turbo S is a real car, not the four­-wheel equivalent of vaporware. It should be quicker in the quarter than the 12.3 seconds at 114 mph logged by our last 911 Turbo (C/D, July 1995), and we think it will edge the Lamborghini Diablo SE in a close sprint. So the Porsche 911 Turbo S gets the nod to represent Europe as the Continent’s fastest car.

That brings to the starting line a trio of wildly individualistic machines: one huge-displacement (nearly eight liters), front-engine rear-driver; one small-displacement, high-revving (8000-rpm redline ), mid-engine model; and one twin­-turbo, rear-engine, all-wheel-drive coupe. The prices are equally unrestrained: from $74,016 for the Viper GTS to $164,510 for the Porsche, with the NSX-T (targa) occupying the middle ground at $92,943.

Gentlemen, time to place your bets: cubic inches versus whistling turbos versus screaming revs. Let’s see how they run.

Third Place: Dodge Viper GTS

Dick KelleyCar and Driver

This is the 16-pound-sledge approach to g forces. At idle, the V-10 shakes and shudders like a Maytag trying to spin dry Mrs. Murphy’s rock collection. Sitting in traffic, the transmission input-shaft bearings are loud enough to compete with the radio. At creep-along speeds, even the gentlest motions of your throttle foot produce enough torque to make huge clanking noises as massive gears lash back and forth between the drive and coast sides of their teeth. The Viper’s outrageous act is all carefully contrived to make one simple statement—”mine’s bigger than yours”—and no Ferrari has yet to match this Yankee’s shameless leer.

HIGHS: The pure brazen excess of it—too much thrust, too much thunder, too much temptation for even a saint to resist.
LOWS:
Pounding ride, no left-foot rest, construction details look homemade.

“It ain’t bragging if you can do it,” Yogi Berra is said to have remarked. The Viper can definitely do it. Its acceleration flattens eyeballs and leaves in the dust cars that are merely fast. In this runoff, the Porsche’s four-wheel drive gives the German unbeatable traction off the mark, and therefore a big advantage during that first few dozen feet while flywheel energy is being dumped into forward motion. That gets the Porsche to 60 mph first. But now the Viper’s eight liters take charge. By 100 mph, they’re equal; that sprint takes only 8.8 seconds. Then the Viper pulls ahead and keeps widening the gap all the way to 170 mph, at which point we ran out of track. In case you’re interested, 0 to 170 mph takes only 35.1 seconds in this car.

Dick KelleyCar and Driver

A more informative number, we think, is speed at the end of the quarter-mile, which is an excellent indicator of a car’s power-to-weight ratio. The Viper’s 118- mph trap speed represents the high-water mark for volume production cars, easily overshadowing the muscle cars that made such a lasting impression in the late 1960s. A typical Mopar 426 Hemi in those days would run 105 to 107 mph in the quarter­mile.

Although the Viper’s swagger includes plenty of rude noises, it’s all business in the way it goes about making g forces. The huge Michelins have equally huge grip, enough to outscore the others on the skidpad at 0.95 g, although this achievement barely betters the Porsche’s 0.94 g. Braking falls behind the others by a modest amount, probably for lack of anti-lock, without which it’s impossible to repeatedly harvest the optimal grip at all four corners.

Surprising as it sounds, this car is easier to drive at racing speeds on the track than it is to hustle through the countryside. On the track, it understeers reliably though not excessively; more power brings more understeer; and it’s tolerant of bumps. Generally, its behavior is that of the classic front­engine, rear-drive roadster, albeit with Godzilla g forces you’d hardly expect of a road car. The Viper turned the quickest laps around the handling course at the Chrysler proving ground and was easiest to drive. The Viper’s margin over the 911 was more than 2.5 seconds, the racetrack equivalent of a romp. Home-course advantage? No, more like 490 pound-feet of torque and tenacious grip.

In the Viper’s quirky way, neither the torque nor the grip delivers exactly on its promises. The engine-­output curve is so full and flat that we could do credible laps at the track without ever shifting out of fourth gear. But on the road, the Viper wants more shifting than the others, thanks to the long fifth and sixth gears that put the engine down in its chugga­chugga range at normal speeds.

Dick KelleyCar and Driver

The grip is not easy to use on the road, either. Viper steering is quick on center, and the path wiggles in response to pavement irregularities. Moreover, the driver’s low view over the bulging hood makes it hard to place the car confidently between the ditches. Consequently, the machine feels about three feet wider than it is, hardly conducive to hustling through the twisties.

Although the Viper is capable of astounding speed, that’s not what comes up in everyday motoring. This is the primal scream—Hey, look at me! And the witnesses can’t get enough. It sets off CB chatter on the interstate, pulls office workers to their windows as it cruises Main, and Pied­Pipers all the little boys off the playground. People want to touch it, have their picture taken next to it. One 15-year-old persuaded his mother to drive him to our overnight parking spot, and wait till we returned from a dusk photo shoot, just so he could be on the same acre with this strutting barbarian.

THE VERDICT: The automotive equivalent of a great action movie—fun, but a few hours are all you can stand.

Sure, the Viper is a preposterously fast car. But that doesn’t seem to get in the way of its excitement.

1997 Dodge Viper GTS
450-hp V-10, 6-speed manual, 3410 lb
Base/as-tested price: $72,396/$74,016
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 4.0 sec
100 mph: 8.8 sec
130 mph: 14.8 sec
1/4 mile: 12.2 @ 118 mph
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 177 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.95 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 16 mpg

Second Place: Acura NSX-T

Dick KelleyCar and Driver

When the Viper and the Turbo S go fast, the driver sort of hangs on and lets the machinery do its thing. Not so in the NSX­T. In this car, you drive. The smallest, highest-revving engine in the group has a fraction of the others’ torque, so it’s up to you to keep it spinning in the sweet part of the curve. The narrower tires put far less rubber on the road, so you must rely on your skill to keep the g force up. For those who enjoy being partners in speed, the NSX-T provides the best seat of the trio.

HIGHS: A ballerina’s poise when on the move, exhilarating view of the road ahead, scalpel-sharp controls.
LOWS:
Not quite enough horsepower, not quite enough verve in the pedestrian cockpit appointments.

Dick KelleyCar and Driver

And speaking of the seat, the NSX-T earns top marks for its furniture, too, and for the arrangement thereof. The cockpit is superbly organized around the driver. Only a few adjustments are provided—the column tilts and telescopes, the seat slides back and forth, and the backrest tilts. Nothing else is necessary. We rated this car a 10 for ergonomics. This is a cockpit that provokes zero complaints. All the controls are exactly where they should be for driving. The windshield gives an IMAX view of the road ahead, exhilarating by itself, but also an aid when you’re trying to place the car exactly right on the road. This is a machine that gives you everything you need so that you can be fast.

Dick KelleyCar and Driver

And being personally fast is a pleasure greater than that delivered by mere g forces. The six-speed’s shifter is friction free and marvelously precise. The engine’s song escalates in fury as the revs rise, growing more feverish as the VTEC system switches from its torque cams to its horsepower cams, again as the intake rams shorten for the final sprint to the 8000-rpm redline. There’s no brute force here, no manhandling of heavy controls. You guide the NSX-T with your fingertips, and it rewards your finesse with textbook executions of cornering, braking, and passing.

Still, there’s no denying that the actual test numbers fall behind those of the other cars. Should we be disappointed by a 0-to-60 of 4.8 seconds? Are you troubled by only 106 mph showing at the end of the quarter-mile, with an ET of 13.4 seconds? Skidpad grip is a mere 0.90 g. Could an NSX owner still hold up his head if that news got around?

You ‘II have to decide for yourself. But we’re here to remind that cars don’t Iive by track numbers alone. The NSX-T’s precise responses to driver inputs makes it a pleasure when the others are a burden. This is the only car of the three that knows how to go straight down the road. The steering gives thread-the-needle path control, unlike the Viper, which darts and feints on its wide tires, and unlike the Porsche, which zags from wind gusts.

Precision translates to trust, and our confidence in the NSX-T shows in lap times—only one second behind the Porsche, this despite the German’s overwhelming 8-mph advantage at the end of the quarter-mile and clear superiority in cornering and braking grip. The point here is that a driver can use more of what the NSX-T has to offer. Understeer is mild. Of the three cars, only this one is free of the quirky steering feedback that warns you away from pushing harder when the car still has grip to spare. The NSX-T is the least troubled by bumps, too. You can drive it closer to the edge.

Remember, though, that this is a mid­engined car, which by design provides less flywheel effect in the plane of the road and therefore less inertial resistance to a spin. If you unload the rear tires by lifting abruptly off the power as you near the cornering limit, the tail will step out. We class this as a driver mistake, not a car mistake. But some maneuvers in low-inertial cars are inherently more difficult. The NSX-T was the least stable in our lane-change test and notably slower than the two other cars.

THE VERDICT: A razor for carving up the road.

In this discussion of speed, does comfort have any place? If so, the NSX-T scores again. Ride quality is the best of the bunch. The cockpit is intimate; it fits like a fine pair of Italian loafers. The controls all show Honda slickness—and Honda logic. The low silhouette and the track numbers say this is an exotic car, but it’s an exotic we’d happily choose as a daily driver.

1997 Acura NSX-T
290-hp V-6, 6-speed manual, 3136 lb
Base/as-tested price: $92,943/$92,943
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 4.8 sec
100 mph: 11.7 sec
130 mph: 22.5 sec
1/4 mile: 13.4 @ 106 mph
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 162 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.90 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 16 mpg

First Place: Porsche 911 Turbo S

Dick KelleyCar and Driver

Speed secrets aren’t the only thing Porsche has learned in its decades as a builder of high-performance cars. The company has also learned that some folks are just plain too rich to be satisfied with a sports car that costs only, say, $105,000. That’s the price of the 911 Turbo. So, for this especially needy group, in this last year of the old 911, Porsche has cooked up a “limited run” of $163,000 models called 911 Turbo S. Not a very limited run, either, since the lid doesn’t come down until 199 of these S models have been delivered to North America.

After the better part of 1000 miles in the Boxster Red bucket of the silver Turbo S that had previously graced the New York auto show, let us be the first to say that this is a thrilling automobile. It earns first place in this comparison by a clear margin.

HIGHS: Effortless thrust for passing, amazing refinement in the daily commute, enough designer details inside to semi-justify the price.
LOWS:
High-speed directional stability will make you a church goer again; so will the price, which raises tenth-commandment issues.

Dick KelleyCar and Driver

At the same time, it’s also a fascinating exercise in the rare art of making a car cost more. This S packs more scoops than Baskin-Robbins. Inside, all the sundry trim plates and rocker switches, even the instrument-dimming knob, not to mention the ring around the alarm system’s winking LED, have been wrapped in tomato-bisque leather. Trim panels that used to be chrome in the old days, and more recently were black in high-fashion cars such as this, now show the textured pattern of resin-infused carbon-fiber fabric. Even where nobody thinks to look: The aluminum-tube brace across the trunk wears this shiny carbon-fiber upholstery. Price-inflating touches are everywhere. The brake calipers all wear some miracle coating that makes them glossy yellow, perhaps to better show off the black Porsche logo playing peekaboo through the wheel spokes. You get the idea.

On the serious side, the engine output has been upped to 424 hp at 5750 rpm, the highest-output production engine Porsche has ever sold in North America. The 18-inch wheels command attention, too, with 225/40 and 285/30 ZR­rated tires front and rear.

Once on the move, all the decorator touches are quickly overshadowed by the g-force envelope. Not by the machinery, though. This is a remarkably quiet car. The engine is relatively silent, even at full boost, and the gears and bearings throughout the all-wheel-drive layout draw no attention to themselves. On the road, you hear mostly the tires humming to road texture. And wind, of course.

This is an easy car to drive on the road. The power steering and the power-assisted clutch both have an agreeable feel. The brake pedal has no wasted motion. As in all 911s, you sit up in a chair-height seat, before a commanding view of the scenery.

Dick KelleyCar and Driver

Which you can bump into fast forward with a touch of your right toe. In the higher gears, turbo lag is noticeable, but hardly a problem. A change down to fourth makes short work of semis out on the blacktop. More like no work at all, actually, as the needle swings from 60 past 100 while clearing a rolling 18-wheeler.

From rest up through top speed, the Turbo S and the Viper wage a seesaw battle, with the Porsche’s greater grip putting it ahead initially, then the Viper surging past near the end of the quarter, only to have the Porsche ease by again as it tops out at 188 mph; the Viper’s substantial frontal area holds it back to 186 mph. A wind gusting to 12 mph during the top-speed runs unsettled the Porsche far more than the two others.

In the braking test, this Porsche’s 151-foot distance from 70 mph is truly supercar short. Road-course performance, however, didn’t live up to expectations. Driving hot laps is work. The high returnability of the steering pushes steering effort way up at the limit. The lack of lateral support in the seat means you must brace with your arms against the wheel at the same time. Understeer rises sharply as power increases, aggravated by tiny losses of traction as the front tires hit bumps. Lift too quickly, and the tail snaps out. Oh, yes, and did we mention the $164,510 window sticker? All together, these factors allowed the Viper to grow smaller and smaller in the distance ahead.

Dick KelleyCar and Driver

THE VERDICT: The 911 may be on its last legs, but they’re as muscular as ever.

There comes a point in every comparison when the rushing around is done, the time- and g-measuring equipment is all put away, and we get down to, “Well, whaddya think?” From its daffodil yellow brakes, to the leather-wrapped power-window rockers, to the full-boost shove in your back, this 911 Turbo S never stops trying to impress. It won us over.

1997 Porsche 911 Turbo S
424-hp twin-turbo flat-6, 6-speed manual, 3390 lb
Base/as-tested price: $162,754/$164,510
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 3.7 sec
100 mph: 8.8 sec
130 mph: 15.9 sec
1/4 mile: 12.2 @ 114 mph
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 151 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.94 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 16 mpg


Interior Positives and Negatives

Dick KelleyCar and Driver

PLUS+ Cup holders: Only on the NSX-T, and the two-holer is removable if you prefer to haul something else it its sliver of space.

PLUS+ Adjustable pedals: Viper standard equipment, unavailable in the other cars here, lets you have both your feet and your seat in good spots.

PLUS+ Windshield washers: A truly high-performance feature on the Porsche. Two jets on each side of the windshield gush instantly when you tug the column stalk.

Dick KelleyCar and Driver

MINUS- Adjustable steering column: Missing in the Porsche, never mind the $164510 as-tested price.

MINUS- Eye-catching, finger repelling: About five months a year, Porsche’s metal shifter will be like grabbing the wrong end of a Popsicle—or a soldering iron, depending on your climate.

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