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Amusement rides on wheels

Amusement rides on wheels

Last year, I recorded my impressions of three highly affordable, practical subcompacts with a combined 320 horsepower. This year, doing a 360-degree spin, I rounded up three world-class sports cars, America's two true sports cars and Japan's finest: the Chevrolet Corvette, Dodge Viper, and Acura NSX-T. The combined horsepower: 970.

Sensing a need for speed and staying out of trouble, I bought a radar detector and went through the Dodge/Skip Barber Driving and Racing School at Lime Rock Race Park, Lakeville, CT.(See sidebar.)

SPECIFICATIONS

Feature

Corvette Coupe

Viper RT/10

NSX-T

Wheel base (inch)

96.2

96.2

99.6

Length (inch)

178.5

175.1

174.2

Height (inch)

46.3

43.95

46.1

Width (inch)

70.7

75.7

71.3

Seating Capacity

2

2

2

Engine

pushrod OHV V-8

pushrod OHV V-10

DOHC V-6

Displacement (cu. inch)

350

488

181

[email protected]

300 @ 5,000

~400 @ 4,600

270 @ 7,100

Torque (lb-ft) @ rpm

340 @ 4,000

~465 @ 3,600

210 @ 5,300

Transmission

6-spd manual

6-spd manual

6-spd manual

Curb Weight (lbs)

3,203

3,534

3,142

0-60 mph (sec.)

5.0

4.5

5.2

HP/Weight Ratio

1:10.67

1:8.84

1:11.63

Price as driven

$42,419

$61,975

$81,000

Tasty trio. Worldwide, there are hundreds of thousands of Corvettes, under 5,000 Vipers, and nearly 12,000 NSXs. As driven here, an LT1 Corvette Coupe costs about $42,000, an RT/10 Viper $62,000, and an NSX-T $81,000. Engine types are V-8, V-10 and V-6, respectively. All had four-wheel independent suspensions, built mostly of forged aluminum components. All but the Viper came with ABS and dual airbags.

The Viper sports a semi-weatherproof softtop and side-window curtains, while the Corvette and NSX-T have well-sealed, removable targa tops and power windows. Based on my rain encounters, a Viper should be driven only in nice weather. For '96, a removable-hardtop Viper debuts with sliding access side-window curtains. With traction control, Corvettes and NSX-Ts are year-round vehicles.

Historical perspective. The Corvette debuted 42 years ago. The '95 model represents one of the last years of the once revolutionary C4 (fourth generation) design. By contrast, the Viper has no historical namesake. Chrysler took it from concept car into production in about three years at a cost of about $100 million. Any lineage it has derives mainly from Carroll Shelby's inspiration to make a "Cobra of the 90s," says Dodge's Roy Sjoberg, executive engineer for Team Viper.

While the renowned Shelby Cobra eclipsed Corvettes on the race track and won a world championship 30 years ago, no similar face-off makes headlines today. Nonetheless, the Viper in many ways remains true to the Cobra's mystique with its outrageous, almost cartoonish styling and its monstrous, cacophonic 488-cubic-inch Lamborghini engine.

Unlike the 'Vette or Viper, the NSX rose from a unique concept to build a livable exotic. In 1984, Honda began with a clean slate and left no stones unturned. The resulting NSX hit U.S. streets in 1990 and was dubbed Japan's Ferrari. It's also been called the best built car in the world.

Corvette cruising. With Skip Barber's class behind me, I welcomed the arrival of a '95 targa-top with Chevy's venerable 300-hp LT1 smallblock V-8, a 6-speed transmission, and a custom Bose sound system with CD player. For '96, a special Gran Sport LT1 jumps to 340 hp.

My car came with the performance-handling option: grippy P275/40ZR-17 Goodyear Eagle GS-Cs and Selective Ride Control (SRC). With SRC, you turn a rotary switch behind the shifter to select "Tour," "Sport," or "Performance" settings on the high-pressure Bilstein shock absorbers. Each turn to the right electrically dials in a firmer, more-controlled ride by varying oil flow through each shock's bypass orifice.

The way to drive any of these open-air coupes is top off. It took about 15 minutes to remove and carefully stow the Corvette's too-heavy targa top the first time. With practice, it dropped to five minutes. To Chevy's credit, the top is solid and bolts in securely. Once it's stowed under the hatch, however, it cuts luggage space considerably.

During my week of "borrowed time," I drove the 'Vette over 1,300 miles of city streets, highways, and backroads. It took me a few hundred miles to adjust to the car's width, and to get used to the extra strength required to work the steering, clutch, brakes, and shifter. After that, I had a ball with this all-American, big-boy toy.

The LT1 has a throaty, full-bodied sound. The acceleration is fabulous. The GS-Cs dig in for great cornering; the brakes are tremendous. It's fun and fairly easy to drive, though the wide front tires wander on tire-rutted lanes. My only complaints: annoying rattles and the messy "1-to-4'' forced-shift gizmo that made me grind the gears in traffic and lug the engine.

The Corvette was happy on cloverleafs and during jaunts through the Berkshire hills of western Massachusetts and New York's Catskills. I gradually tested my limits, and came close, but never reached the Corvette's. The car loves to get up and go, and does so assertively.

Vixen Viper. Unquestionably, the Viper--like the Shelby Cobra--is a raw, untamed beast with an unpredictable personality. It doesn't like short people. It made a friend of mine call his Mercedes convertible an "oxcart."

Though a handful of supercars can out-accelerate the Viper, its acceleration is ungodly and its roaring sound demonic. I had never driven a car that pinned my back to the seat from 0-100 mph in about the time it took me to run 100 yards in high school. Once, with a mile of clear highway, I kept my foot in until I topped 140 mph to set a personal best. The speedometer was still climbing.

After 1,300 miles, I gained some level of comfort in the Viper. Its massive 335/35ZR-17 rear and 275/40ZR-17 front Michelin XGT-Z tires barely tame its beastly qualities. The car feels twitchy and loose because its handling is nearly neutral (no understeer or oversteer). It's easy to break the rear end loose with so much torque on tap. The suspension also doesn't communicate its intentions as well as it should. Be ready to countersteer, if you get overzealous with the throttle while turning. Fortunately for '96 buyers, the suspension has been refined.

As far as amenities go, forget them. The Viper is basically a big engine in an extremely rigid, rattle-free chassis set onto huge rubber tires. The "last-minute" stereo is barely adequate, and the trunk useless once you stow the soft top and side curtains. Wear your earplugs. This is a saber-shaker, fair-weather joy toy.

Toasting the NSX-T. Acura specified the NSX to perform as well as the best, but without the "quirky handling characteristics...and other negative attributes commonly associated with exotics."

Having spent about 275 miles in an NSX-T (targa version), I think Honda's engineers succeeded. It took only minutes to become confident behind the wheel. The car is tight as a drum, comfortable over bumps, and excels ergonomically. For instance, the lightweight targa top comes off and stows in about a minute.

HANDLING IMPRESSIONS

Feature

Corvette

Viper

NSX-T

Handling

Excellent

Very Good

Phenomenal

Ride Comfort

Good

Good

Very Good

Acceleration

Excellent

Outrageous

Very Good

Quietness

Good

What?

Good

Roominess

Good

Satisfactory

Very Good

Visibility

Excellent

Middling

Excellent

Overall Quality

Very Good

Very Good

Excellent

Fun driving means spirited driving. Dipping into the NSX-T's throttle unleashes a snappy, yet mellifluous sound from the VTEC engine's twin exhausts. The car rears back on its haunches, not nearly as greedily as the Viper or Corvette, but it rapidly passes telephone poles as you shift through its buttery, short-throw gearbox.

Like most small-displacement, DOHC engines, the power lives at higher revs. With the NSX-T, you hear the rpms rise and shift at the 8,000 rpm redline. You imagine you're in a Ferrari that won't let you down.

The NSX-T's handling and usable cornering power are truly remarkable. This car communicates its intentions best and forgives the most. Its mid-engine layout and 58/42 (rear-to-front) weight bias, when combined with its cleverly engineered steering and suspension geometry and Yokohama A-022 tires, place all of its 0.95 Gs of grip at your beck and call. The Corvette comes close to matching this feel, but not the Viper.

And the winner is? The Corvette easily wins the best all-around, thrills-for-bills ride award. The Viper wins the quickest, scariest, and most outrageous ride award. And the NSX-T wins for the "I can't believe I cornered that fast" award. You will have to be the judge as to which one best meets your lifestyle.


Classroom for drivers

Anyone can go fast in a straight line. It's the braking, cornering, and steering that separates amateurs from professionals. At the Dodge/Skip Barber Driving School, Lakeville, CT, you'll learn how to find and work with a car's handling and cornering limits, and how to handle dangerous situations, such as skids and emergency-lane changes and braking.

The instructors explain car-handling theory and immediately have you practice on the skidpad, lane change and braking straight, and autocross course. After two exhausting, exhilarating days, you'll have induced under- and oversteer, taken control of skids, stopped safely going backwards after spinning 180 degrees, threshold braked, changed lanes aggressively, heel-and-toe braked, downshifted and turned, and finally, combined all of these in a two-team time trial on the autocross.

Everything I learned helped me improve my driving. It made driving the Corvette, Viper, and NSX-T more fun, interesting, and safe.

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