The alarm goes off at 5 a.m. and I fumble out of bed in the vague direction of a shower. As my minuscule brain comes to life, I wonder what might happen during the next 14 or so hours.
Is my journey to the Eurotunnel going to be a clear one? Will I get pulled over at customs again, as is often the case when driving a bright red sports car all on your lonesome? And is the new Nissan 370Z, which I’m due to meet outside Paris at 10 a.m., going to be anywhere near good enough to take care of the Porsche Cayman that’s sitting outside my front door?
Half an hour later and with the sun already beaming, I find myself on a largely deserted freeway heading north. I love driving any kind of car in good weather on quiet roads early in the morning, but the Cayman is something else again. It’s so pure and intimate in the way it responds to your inputs that it feels as if Porsche has designed it to fit you, and you alone. Always has.
Yet this new, second-generation model also feels more refined and smoother in everything it does. There’s less tire roar and a lot less suspension rumble than before, which is a good thing. But there’s also less interaction from the major controls, especially the steering, and that’s not perhaps such a step forwards.
Meandering toward the tunnel, an awful thought wanders into my head. Perhaps Porsche has done the same thing to the Cayman as it has just done to the 911: gone too far with making it civilized and torn some of the soul out of the car in the process. Or perhaps it’s still a bit too early to tell. If they have, though, it will hand this contest straight to the new 370Z on a plate. Unless Nissan has made the same mistake, of course.
True to form, I’m invited to turn left after passport control at the tunnel, towards the customs shed. They swab the whole car and ask me numerous questions about why I’m on my own, and where I’m going. Fifteen minutes later I’m on my way, having had to remove and replace anything that moves inside the Cayman, which includes all sorts of camera gear that’s not mine. It belongs to Stuart Price, our photographer, who’s flown to Paris to gather up the Nissan.
Inevitably I miss my allotted train beneath the sea, so I’m already half an hour late when I reach the other side. And then it starts to rain, so hard that I can’t do more than 50mph for mile after mile.
An hour later I reach our agreed rendezvous, just outside a town called Bapaume. Stuart is still 15 minutes away so I go for a recce to find somewhere to take the photographs. We have less than five hours to shoot, drive and assess these two cars, which sounds like a lot but isn’t.
I spot the Nissan heading towards me from a long way off – a shimmering white dot with wild-looking silver eyelashes for headlamps. It’s traveling all right, and the nearer it gets, the better it looks.
As the Z pulls up alongside me, with Stuart grinning from ear to ear behind the wheel, the huge new rear wheel arches are the only things I can take in. They make the 19in alloys nestling within look quite sensational, and I’m surprised by how different and how much more purposeful the car looks compared with the old 350Z.
Beside it, the Porsche looks tiny. The Cayman is a delicate-looking thing at the best of times, but it seems as if it’s cowering next to the 370Z. It’s very much a matter of personal taste as to which you prefer, but, being a bit of a thug at heart, I can’t help warming to the more brutal, one-dimensional styling of the Nissan, especially in brilliant white.
The Porsche has been quietly impressive so far, without ever removing my socks. Its new 262hp 2.9-liter engine definitely has more go than the old 2.7 and the optional PDK gearbox, silly buttons aside, has allowed the miles to pass away effortlessly. As has the more grown-up PASM “adaptive” suspension, another of our car’s options.
The moment I climb into the Nissan, I feel the exact opposite. The interior is a deliberate love it/hate it design, with bright orange seats, big, bold dials, a steering wheel festooned with buttons and an unmistakable view down that long, wide hood. And when I thumb the new starter button the 3.7-liter V6 delivers more drama in the first quarter of a second than the Cayman has during the past 200 miles.
The whole car rocks slightly and the noise, though not classic muscle car, is certainly enough to get your attention. The 370Z sounds and feels bonkers before you’ve traveled so much as an inch in it.
When I do move away, numerous things become instantly apparent. One, the ride is, like the Cayman’s, smoother and a fair bit quieter than of old. Two, the suspension is softer, especially at the rear. Three, the steering is heavier and more direct than the Porsche’s. Four, the engine spins more freely than before, though not as freely as the one that sits behind your kidneys in the Cayman. Nothing like as freely, in fact.
More obvious than any of the detail differences between them, however, is the stark contrast that exists in their overall characters. The Cayman is light, agile and precise on its feet, and surprisingly refined in its demeanor as a result; the 370Z is big, strong and noisy, with a kind of he-man quality to its gait. It puts its chest out and its chin up and saunters down the road as if it owns the show.
There’s nothing especially new, or wrong, about that. The 350Z was the same kind of car, and a very popular choice among sports coupe fans it was, too. But it succeeded because it got all the important things dead right. It looked good, it went well, it was reliable and it wasn’t overpriced. You’d be surprised how many car makers get at least one of those elements wrong when trying to produce contenders in this market.
Where the 370Z differs from the 350Z is in its execution but not, thankfully, its fundamental personality. Although it’s more powerful and torquier than before – it has 326hp and 269lb ft, up from 309hp and 264lb ft – it feels like a faster, slightly smoother version of its predecessor. Or at least it does until you show it a few corners, at which point a new, mostly good side to its character begins to emerge.
At seven-tenths the Z is really very sweet in its responses. It leans a bit, true, but whichever side is loaded at the rear absorbs whatever the road (or you) can throw at it without difficulty. There’s a real sense of compliance and comfort to the way it hangs on and just deals with anything that comes its way, but also a feeling that if you go much further, things could get a little out of shape.
Yet when they do, it happens so progressively that you can easily go to nine-tenths, throw a bit of lock at it or lose a bit of speed, and still go nowhere near the edge. Apart from a mild sense of corkscrewing in really high-speed corners, nothing the 370Z does will scare you. An awful lot of the things it does, in fact, might even make you laugh out loud, especially with the ESP switched off, which you do at the flick of a button to the left of the steering wheel.
Is it too soft to be a genuinely serious sports car? If you are really going for it then, yes, perhaps it does move around too much at the rear. If you swap back into the Cayman you’ll also realize how much understeer it has at high speed, and how relatively imprecise it feels during a committed direction change. It rolls and slides where the Cayman grips and goes.
You’ll realize, too, that while the Cayman doesn’t sound or feel as dramatic as the Nissan, it’s actually faster above 50mph in a straight line and can cover ground at a rate that the 370Z, no matter how heroically it is driven, can’t quite match.
But in reality we are entering the realm of the ridiculous, not to mention the unsociable, when it comes to splitting them on pure dynamic ability. The Nissan, compared with normal cars, is a massively capable and well-sorted machine. So the fact that the Cayman is on another level again dynamically almost seems irrelevant.
After four hours of driving and shooting, then yet more shooting, we’re running right up against it to get finished, at which point I realize that I’ve taken for granted the 370Z’s excellent new seven-speed paddle-shift auto ’box. It works so naturally and so well, in auto or manual mode, that I had completely forgotten it wasn’t there before.
Full-throttle upshifts are oily smooth and it gives a quick and accurate blip on downshifts, much like the GT-R system on which it is categorically not based. Although it’s an auto as such – unlike the GT-R’s double-clutch manual – it’s at least as good as the Cayman’s PDK in use. And it has regular paddles instead of buttons. No question, if you’re contemplating a 370Z, this is the transmission to have.
We finish the photography with at least 12 seconds to spare, having had minor run-ins first with the local gentry and then with a van full of local ambulance crew (don’t ask). I climb aboard the Cayman and head home.
Many questions have been asked today, and most of them now have answers. Porsche has not ruined the Cayman and the 370Z is a much-improved, entirely logical evolution of the already excellent 350Z. But the big one – which is the best car overall – needs more thought.
Some 20 miles outside Calais, I get pulled over yet again, this time by the gendarmes
. I know this is where they pinch people dashing back to the cross-channel ferry, which is why I’d been doing 78mph for the previous 10 miles. Turns out I was clocked at 53 a half-mile earlier, where the limit, apparently, is 44mph. Cost? 45 euros ($58). Mood? Ready to burst. Desire? Get home ASAP.
Moments after I walk through the door, the PR girl from Nissan calls. She tells me that the UK price for the 370Z hasn’t yet been set in stone but that the base model will cost just under £27,000 ($39,000), with the auto transmission adding $2,034 to that figure. The basic price for the Cayman we’ve been comparing it with is £36,101 ($52,471), but add all the stuff fitted to the test car, including its PDK transmission, and that rises to a whopping £49,783 ($72,357). A gap of $20k in the real world of sensible options, in other words.
Conclusion: the Porsche may well be the better of the two cars to drive – just – but no way is it worth an extra $20,000, not even when you factor in the intangible superiority of its badge.
Which means the answer to the big question has arrived. In today’s cost-conscious world the 370Z makes more sense, more of the time – albeit in an old-fashioned, old-world kind of way.Words: Steve Sutcliffe, Autocar
Pictures: Stuart Price, Autocar