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Monday, October 27, 2008

War of the Worlds- the 4 baddest rigs on the Planet go at it!

Supercars are like castles: the best ones come from Europe. Right?

For sure, it's long seemed that way. The Euro stars have always played in a price and performance stratosphere that makers from other continents simply couldn't (or wouldn't) attempt to match. Sticker price, schmicker price: In the spirit of the old adage "speed costs money, how fast do you want to go?" the premier machines from rarified houses like Ferrari, Bugatti, Porsche, Lamborghini, and Aston Martin cost hella big. But they also run unlike anything else on the road.

Uh, just a minute. Scratch that. For 2008, Nissan launched its ceiling-busting GT-R, a twin-turbo manga-robot on wheels with a price under $80K but an exhaust boom that rocked ears from the Nordschleife to Maranello. And now Uncle Sam is also strutting in the white-hot spotlight all oiled up and pumped: For 2009 comes the all-new Chevrolet Corvette ZR1, the most potent GM production automobile of all time, the best Vette ever, a star-spangled, supercharged sledgehammer in aluminum and carbon fiber with brakes lifted from the fastest road Ferraris ever built. Yes, it wears a base sticker that's difficult to utter in the same breath as "Chevrolet" -- more than $106,000 -- but the ZR1 also brandishes performance hardware straight from the parts shelves marked "No Compromises."

Motorhome courtesy of Fleetwood
Industries, Riverside, CA

Clearly, the two new upstarts are begging to crack open a can of whup-ass in the hallowed halls of European-bred speed. Naturally, we're only too happy to help. We rounded up a GT-R and a ZR1 and headed off to the test track and five-mile high-speed oval of Chrysler's Arizona Proving Grounds with two of Europe's bona-fide superstars: the Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano ("the finest all-around Ferrari ever," we said in July 2006) and the Porsche GT2 (which, in our May 2008 issue, we dubbed "one of the greatest sports cars the world has ever seen"). Along with us was former IndyCar driver and 24 Hours of Daytona winner Didier Theys (pictured below); he'd be our man at the wheel for a series of breathless, flat-to-the-floor top-speed runs, plus timed laps on the infield road course at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

For three unforgettable days in the Arizona and Nevada deserts it was War of the Worlds. And NORAD didn't even notice.

Let's Do Launch

When you're dealing with an arsenal whose "weakest" member makes 480 horsepower, you know you're in for sound and fury worthy of a Force Five tornado. And, at the dragstrip, our four entries didn't disappoint. The only four-wheel-drive member of the group, the heady GT-R not surprisingly more than made up for its power disadvantage, blitzing from 0 to 60 mph (using its catapult-like launch-control system) in just 3.2 seconds -- tying the mighty, 612-horsepower V-12 Ferrari and leaving our test team shaking their heads in disbelief.

The ZR1 requires a skilled driver for maximum blastoff; too much throttle and you'll simply sit still while 604 pound-feet of torque transforms the rear tires into cumulous clouds. Do it right, though, and the Vette is gone in just 3.3 seconds (and you're still in first gear). Despite the traction advantage of its rear-engine layout and sticky Michelin Pilot Sport Cup tires (and its group-low 3270 pounds), the 530-horsepower Porsche GT2 trailed the group, reaching 60 mph in a ponderous 3.4 seconds (hey, with such a splendiforous surfeit of speed at our beck and call, we're already getting as picky as the judges at Miss America).

Past 60 mph, though, traction fades in importance and the physics of horsepower and aerodynamic drag rapidly change the game. By the century mark, you could pick the finishing order based on engine output alone: The 480-horse GT-R is trailing in last place, needing 8.0 seconds to reach 100 mph, versus just 7.3 for the GT2, 7.1 for the 599, and a mere 6.9 seconds for the power-ruling ZR1.

By the quarter-mile the big guns are leaving the GT-R further in their wake. While the Nissan is formidable indeed (11.6 sec at 120.0 mph), the others are unearthly. The GT2 trips the lights in just 11.4 sec at 127.9 mph, the 599 in 11.3 sec at 126.4 mph, and the mighty ZR1 in a blazing 11.2 sec at 130.5 mph. Translated from numbers into English: The ZR1 simply spanks the pricey European bluebloods.


Vmax . . . and Near Disaster

Winds gusting past 25 miles per hour threatened our top-speed runs (You ever been shoved by a stiff breeze while driving on the highway? You should try it at 200 mph). But the Indy-experienced, ever-cool Didier Theys was unfazed. "Hey, no problem," he offered with a smile. "Let's go."

Theys first strapped into the ZR1, and within four laps on the banked APG oval (check out our ZR1 videos to hear the cactus-rattling blare of that blown V-8 at full cry), he'd pushed the maximum Chevy to a wind-adjusted top speed of 200.4 mph. "I was flat going into Turn One," said Theys with Belgian-accented nonchalance. "Very nice. No problem." Then he added: "On the first lap I saw a coyote in the banking, but he see me and very quickly he run away!"

What was immediately obvious after the Vette's awesome blitz, though, was that even the five-mile APG circuit might not be grand enough to let the cars breathe fully. Our computer traces indicated that the ZR1 was still pulling (albeit with a tailwind) when Theys had to lift slightly for a bump entering Turn Three. And as the car blasted off Turn Four, the strong headwind pushed against the speedo needle all the way down the front straight. Given no wind and several miles of smooth, straight asphalt, the ZR1 might well have reached 203 mph. Maybe even 205. Still, we saw a verified 200-plus. The ZR1 is clearly a member of that most exclusive of performance clubs.

Next up: Ferrari 599 GTB. Coming off of the APG oval's Turn Four onto the main straight, Theys was visibly carrying more speed than in the ZR1 -- though the Ferrari was all but silent until it had rocketed past, the sonic splendor of its blazing V-12 only then scorching our ears. "The Ferrari is so planted, I was driving around the banking with just my left hand," Theys said later (he credits the downforce of the 599's elegant rear diffuser for aiding in stability). Yet barely into his third lap, Theys' voice came over our radio network. "Pirelli is gone," he said calmly. "I am coming in."

A minute later the 599 rolled into the pits, an ugly smear of rubber marring its left flank. The left-front tire -- bearing the brunt of the load on the clockwise track -- had delaminated in the banking at more than 190 miles per hour. The outside edge of the tread looked like it had been gnawed on by a Great White. Fortunately, Theys' skill had helped prevent disaster. Also fortunately, before the incident he'd already recorded a wind-adjusted top speed: 201.5 mph. Our test team began cleaning up the Ferrari as intern Carlos Lago immediately set off for Phoenix -- three hours away -- to pick up a replacement Pirelli.

For Theys, though, it was just another day in the office. As if nothing had happened, he strapped into the Porsche GT2 and again roared off on a perilous quest for maximum velocity. Four laps later, we had our number: 199.8 mph. The Michelins had remained intact, but as he pulled into the pits Theys wasn't happy. "The Porsche moves around a lot at speed," he said. "Kind of does a pogo front to back to front. The big rear wing is not as good as the Ferrari's underbody diffuser -- which, of course, Porsche can't use because there's an engine back there. Even though I lifted a bit before the Turn Three bump, when the GT2 went through there it really got unsettled. I didn't like it. Scary."

Finally, "Godzilla's" turn. The GT-R blasted out of the pits and vanished into the wind. Soon it reappeared in Turn Four, Theys gunning for glory, the twin-turbo, 3.8-liter V-6 screaming near its redline. Theys completed the lap, disappeared into the Turn One banking a third time, and a moment later came yet another ominous crackle over the radios. "I have lost a tire," said Theys, stoic as ever. "And some bodywork."

When the GT-R limped into the pits, the damage was shocking. The left-rear Bridgestone had delaminated catastrophically at more than 180 mph, completely shedding its tread and blowing out the rear bodywork as if it'd been hit by a mortar shell. Eerily, Theys had almost predicted just such a failure. "The rear end is walking around quite a bit on the banking," he'd said earlier after a practice lap. "The left-rear tire is working hard."

Yet again, Theys emerged unscathed and unshaken. And yet again he delivered the goods: a wind-adjusted top speed of 195.0 mph. We rolled the GT-R into the APG garage, where Chrysler's ever-helpful mechanics conducted a terrific improvised body-repair job. We also got on the cell phone to intern Lagos: "Say, after you pick up the Pirelli, we need you to swing by the Bridgestone store . . . "

During his post-runs debrief, Theys expressed plenty of praise for the ZR1 ("Very nice. Moved around a bit, though much better than the Porsche and the Nissan"). But he was clearly most enamored of the Ferrari. "By far the most poised on the oval," he said. "Effortless to drive fast." And, it should be noted, the fastest of the four to drive.


Laps of the Gods

Still reeling from the merriment of watching 50 percent of our field suffer near-catastrophe at speeds high enough to rotate a 747, our band packed up and hit the road for Vegas. No nickel slots or Cirque du Soleil for us, though: instead, we set up our own acrobatic show at Las Vegas Motor Speedway's road course.

Theys first hit the circuit in the ZR1. And right away he was on the limit, the big V-8 bellowing down the straights, standard carbon-ceramic brakes (borrowed from the Ferrari FXX and Enzo) clawing deep into the turns. "Balance is quite good," said Theys after his run. "I think the brakes need more cooling, and there's so much power you have to be very easy with the throttle. Also, I'd bet this car would easily be two seconds a lap quicker if it had paddle shifters. As it is, you have to fight to keep your hands on the wheel." We couldn't help noticing, though, that Theys was sure smiling a lot.

ZR1 lap time: 56.9 seconds.

The Porsche GT2 both looked and sounded fast, in every turn the traction-control computer firing to keep the rear tires in check, the turbo flat-six spitting and hissing until the straightway allowed full power. (We ran each car with its traction/stability settings turned on in their sportiest modes, the way most drivers would use them in the real world.) "Very nice steering feel," said Theys in debrief. "A bit pointy into turns. Can be tricky at high revs when the boost comes on hard. Lots of oversteer. But the grip level is high and the Porsche is quite predictable."

GT2 lap time: 57.5 seconds.

On the circuit, the Ferrari looked bigger than the other cars, perhaps because it tended to roll more through turns. Theys later verified that observation: "The balance is excellent, but you really need to anticipate the apex. Managing the weight [second-heaviest at 3750 pounds] is a big issue. But the traction control is really refined; it steps in just enough to be helpful, but doesn't cut your speed. And the engine is just wonderful. The powerband is so wide, I was running in third gear the entire way around."

599 GTB lap time: 58.0 seconds.

All eyes were on the stopwatch when the GT-R left the pits. Would the Nissan's techno-marvel four-wheel-drive system and punchy turbo mill push it past its considerably more powerful rivals on the tight, twisty LVMS infield? Would Godzilla vanquish the titans? Post-laps, Theys had this to say: "With the other cars you can control understeer with the throttle. But in the GT-R, more throttle means more understeer. When you reach the limit, though, it suddenly goes into snap oversteer. Engine response is very nice. Linear torque. Steering and braking feel are quite good. But mostly it understeers like a pig."

GT-R lap time: 58.1 seconds.

The GT-R finished a mere tick behind the Ferrari, but well off the pace of the Porsche and the ZR1. And while Theys had mostly good things to say about the handling of the top three, in general he was critical of the Nissan. "Lack of power is a reasonable excuse," he said, "but lack of handling is not."


Inside Info

The cockpit of the Ferrari is as stylish as a Milan fashion runway. Only the Italians could produce a driving cocoon so chic and sensual: brightly colored, expertly executed stitching; the aroma and rich patina of exquisite leather; more than $12,000 worth of optional carbon-fiber trim. You expect something very, very distinctive for more than $300 large, and you get it. Add supermodel and stir.

The ZR1 cabin, in contrast, reeks of plastic and adhesives. The odor hits you hard the moment you enter but soon dissipates as either your nose simply adjusts or your brain becomes intoxicated by the fumes. Nothing about the space says "special" -- even though our test car had the optional, $10,000 3ZR package, which adds a custom leather-wrapped instrument panel, ZR1 embroidery, and perforated-leather buckets, among other niceties. Sure, you enjoy fine Bose audio, dual-zone climate control, and a useful head-up display, but you could be riding in any Corvette. All the money is in the go-fast stuff -- and perhaps rightly so -- but given the ZR1's "swing for the fences" mission profile you'd think customers would be wiling to spend, say, another $5K or so for VIP digs.

The GT-R and GT2 are the boy racers in the group. The Porsche is all-business: superb, Alcantara-trimmed sport-bucket seats; high-visibility yellow-colored instruments; Alcantara steering wheel and shift lever; optional Chrono Package Plus timing computer. Everything fits tight and operates with precision. You're riding inside a Rolex.

The GT-R is a rolling PlayStation (and that's not a stretch: Sony helped develop some of the car's advanced electronics). Dials and switches abound. Buttons glow. Twirl a knob, and on the big central display screen you can monitor everything from acceleration g-force to brake-pedal input, front/rear torque distribution, turbo boost, lap times, and the airspeed velocity of an unladen European swallow. Be sure to keep an eye on the road now and then.

The Chevy is comfy enough, and the Porsche and the Nissan look and feel every bit the performance studs they are, but none of them can touch the Ferrari for supercar drama and sheer specialness.


The Dust Clears

So? Who wins the War of the Worlds? For sure, each car in this field qualifies as a superstar. The Nissan GT-R delivers 21st Century electro-wonder and shattering performance at a base price ($77,840) that borders on the unbelievable. The Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano offers succulent styling, shameless hedonism, peerless refinement, and speed and handling matched only by a handful of cars on the planet. The Porsche GT2, which Theys dubbed "the raciest in the bunch," churns out effortless speed (the variable-vane twin-turbo engine feels naturally aspirated, so smooth is its power delivery) and seems utterly bulletproof. You know you could hammer on it all day long and it would never complain. The ZR1 has a few glaring flaws -- including a fade-into-the-traffic-flow exterior and a cockpit lacking almost any signs of flying first-class -- yet by nearly every objective measure (and most subjective ones, too) this new Chevy expands the performance envelope for premium supercars. And at a fraction of the price of the European thoroughbreds. In the supercar realm, the 2009 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 rules.

America still sucks at the castle thing, though.

First Place: Chevrolet Corvette ZR1

Class-shattering power, race-car handling grip, monster brakes, and sweet control inputs leave even the bluebloods in this Chevy's wake.

Second Place: Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano

Costs huge, but delivers huge, too. Still one of the planet's finest sports cars. And when it comes to sex appeal, forget it: The Ferrari is the only one you'd choose for a date with Gisele Bundchen.

Third Place: Porsche GT2

The Rolex of sports cars: brilliantly engineered and bulletproof. Unreal speed, hellacious grip, and superb controls -- everyday drives become laps at Le Mans.

Fourth Place: Nissan GT-R

That a machine this incredible finishes fourth shows you how spectacular the other three really are. At the price, nothing comes close. And if you think Nissan is resting on its 480-horsepower laurels, stay tuned for Act II: GT-R V-Spec.

Base Price $106,520 $317,595 $77,840$192,560
Engine 6.2L/638-hp 604-lb-ft supercharged OHV 16-valve V-86.0L/612-hp 448-lb-ft 48-valve DOHC V-123.8L/480-hp 430-lb-ft twin-turbo DOHC, 24-valve V-6 3.6L/530-hp 505-lb-ft twin-turbo, DOHC 24-valve flat six
Transmission6-speed man6-sp auto-clutch man 6-sp auto-clutch man6-speed man
Curb weight, lb33643750 38683270
0-60 mph, sec3.
0-100 mph, sec6.97.187.3
Quarter mile 11.2 sec @ 130.5 mph11.3 sec @ 126.4 mph11.6 sec @ 120.0 mph11.4 sec @ 127.9 mph
MT Figure 823.7 sec @ 0.87 g (avg)25.0 sec @ 0.79 g (avg)24.1 sec @ 0.86 g (avg)22.9 sec @ 0.90 g (avg)
60-0 mph 97 ft104 ft 105 ft 98 ft
Lateral Acceleration 1.10 g (avg) 0.95 g (avg) 0.97 g (avg) 1.10 g (avg)
Top Speed (observed)200.4 mph 201.5 mph 195.0 mph 199.8 mph
Lap Time 56.9 sec 58.0 sec 58.1 sec 57.5 sec
EPA City/Hwy Fuel Econ14/20 mpg 11/15 mpg 16/21 mpg 16/23 mpg