[Introducing... Jonny Lieberman, Jalopnik's latest Man from Q.W.E.R.T.Y. — ed]
I just got back from Skip Barber's two-day High Performance Driving School, where four car-magazine all-stars were served in a pistonhead's dream buffet: Porsche's uppity Boxster and venerable 911, BMW's bantam bad-ass M3 and Dodge's sociopathic Viper. It was strictly a track-day outing, involving none of the practicalities of ownership (the Skip Barber course doesn't address grocery getting), so every second spent in these rides was on a skip-pad, cone-track or infield autocross circuit. How do the four car-mag stars stack up for sheer track-day pleasure? Let's see...
Summary: Gutless Wonder
Pros: The handling of a go-cart with twice the grip. The Boxster can make an average driver (hi mom!) feel like Dan Gurney at Le Mans. Is it the computer? No, switching off the PSM nanny only serves to embiggen your smile as the damn thing stays planted even without techno-assist. Perfect steering, perfect brakes, perfect balance, plus the top drops. Sounds the part, too, as if Slayer's having band practice in the trunk. Despite its diminutive size, feels carved from iron ore; only the sun visors flex. Relatively cheap.
Cons: Needs 100 more horsepower. May your autocross track have no straightaways. Not rewarding enough as a track car - it's too slow, too pretty and too easy to flog. Take a corner wrong and the Boxster does it for you. You are never penalized for bad behavior. Inspires a false sense of confidence, as you are still a hack. Has an anus.
Porsche 911 (997)
Pros: Challenging, yet is ultimately rewarding. Good technique makes you feel heroic. Snap-oversteer is, uh, a snap. Butch engine with a glorious soundtrack provides useful, rapid acceleration. Build quality feels as solid as the Bismarck. Ran cool all day — 110 degree Las Vegas heat didn't phase it. Features the same life-saving computer technology as the Boxster (PSM) and adds PASM, a stability control program. The latest (997) model's gotten more than just a refresh; a huge improvement over the older 996 — feels crafted rather than assembled.
Cons: Ass-engine means the 911 understeers constantly - don't dare budge the wheel while accelerating. It also means ham-fisted steering results in badonka-donk oversteer. Unless your daily driver has an engine behind the rear wheels, the handling characteristics are weird. Only turn off PSM if you have a friend with a body shop. Must be beaten and muscled; shamed by the Boxster's ease of use and simple grace. We can see your hair plugs, dude.
Summary: Too German.
Pros: Rottweiler of a mill provides grabbed-by-the-balls acceleration. Faster than the 911 for much less money. 50/50 weight distribution means informed, predictable responses. Handling-wise, can take more abuse than you can serve up. Powerful brakes are good all day. Looks upset, even hostile; scares the ladies in the Boxster.
Cons: Snore. Follows orders to the letter, but bureaucratically so. Lacks charisma, passion, nuance and build quality when stacked up against competing Germans. Cheap, flimsy shift-lever betrays the precision of the wheel and pedals. Vegas' sun made it overheat. Feels violent and drunk when DSC (the nanny) is switched off. Clarkson gives Bimmer owners a 5 on his cock-o-meter (out of five).
Dodge Viper SRT-10
Summary: The Car That Hates You
Pros: 8.3 liter, 505 horsepower V10 with more torque than a river. See Cons.
Cons: Professional racecar drivers and terminal cancer patients only, please. No computer and no ABS means you shouldn't go near it. Yes, you. Cramped insides mean the pedals are in a bad position — too far to the left, which makes heal-and-toe downshifts a contortionist's affair. World's most expensive toaster oven. Everything you've ever read about the Viper being hot inside is true. (And it was magnified in Vegas.) The metal "oh shit!" handles are only half a foot above the exhaust pipes - literally too hot to handle. And the transmission tunnel is worse. The metal speaker-grills burn your calves. Engine smoke pouring through vents into the cockpit is "normal." Too expensive and too much car for 99.9% of the population; therefore I want one. What's not to love/fear about a snarling, spitting snake?
A virtual dead heat between the Porsches. Since this is a track-day-only comparison, my hat tips toward the 911. The Boxster is a hoot, but it is slightly childish; more of an amusement ride than a serious instrument. (Plus, it's slower than my car and I'm poor.) The new-gen 911 is simply a better driver's tool. Push it hard, push it smart and the 911 performs miracles. You feel as if you are really accomplishing something, not just grinning like an idiot (see Boxster). Sorry about the M3, Bavaria; better luck with the next one. Yes, another victory for the 911. But, who knows? After a few more laps (and a few more cigarettes) I might change my vote to the Viper. [by Jonny Lieberman]
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