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Nashville Scene My Coupes Runneth Over

High times and cheap thrills in new performance coupes

By Marc K. Stengel

AUGUST 2, 1999:  Call it an occupational hazard. When an auto writer has an opportunity to evaluate two purpose-built sports coupes that, between them, produce 616 horsepower, it can leave him speechless. And that makes it hard to compose the essay meant to describe what it's like to drive Porsche's new 911 Carrera on the one hand and Chevrolet's Camaro Z28 SS on the other.

Silence has its own eloquence, however. Particularly over the last few weeks, it has been especially instructive just to listen to what these two immensely talented cars have to say for themselves. Their willingness to please and entertain is unstinting. But their personalities, behaviors, even their ambitions could hardly be more different. As much as any two cars available today, their "numbers" tell a story; but what the 911 and the Camaro SS really mean cannot be interpreted rationally. They must be felt, experienced--driven.

Porsche 911 Carrera

Arguably the biggest story of the 1999 model year--for enthusiasts, anyway--is the appearance of Porsche's new old 911. Despite the conscious homage to the famed teardrop styling of the 911 that debuted in 1965, the present Carrera coupe is blank-sheet-of-paper new. It shares not a single component with any of the three generations of air-cooled 911s that preceded it. Even its "real" name is different: Aficionados know it as the Porsche 996. How ironical, then, that this new car is one of the most subtle (some might even say unsung) automotive stories of the year.

After all, here is a car that has been calved right out of the technology responsible for some of the world's premier road-racing sports cars. The result is undiluted performance: 4.8 seconds zero-to-60, propelled by a water-cooled 3.4-liter "boxer" six making 296 horsepower; massive braking power equivalent to 2,000 horsepower of stopping force, thanks to giant knuckles of machined aluminum in the form of "monobloc" calipers at all four wheels; and balletic handling, the product of independent front strut-type suspension and Porsche's masterly five-link "Weissach" setup in the rear.

Available in a coupe version (as tested here) or a drop-top cabriolet, the 911 Carrera is so capable at all of the disciplines that comprise the sport-driving experience that it actually understates its prowess to the driver. When suddenly it dawns that your speedometer is registering three digits, it simply does not compute that the six-speed shifter is comfortably parked in third gear. When you crest that infamous off-camber downhill left-hander that has challenged you all your driving life, the new 911 doesn't wig-wag its engine-heavy tail in incipient oversteer. Instead, it tracks obligingly neutral. An articulate suspension manages each wheel's ideal geometric relationship to the road, while sophisticated, optional traction control doles driving and braking power with savvy discipline.

Due to Porsche's first-ever installation of a water-cooled powerplant in the 911, the Sturm und Drang of wicked acceleration is muted discretely into whisper-jet thrust. When the driver passes 75 mph, a little flip-tail spoiler rises silently at the rear. Otherwise, the Carrera keeps her skirts demurely smoothed in strict avoidance of all ostentation. Only the taut musculature lurking beneath a flowing drape of creaseless sheetmetal suggests her Olympian performance potential.

The cockpit is perversely invigorating--it's a Formula One or GT1 racing cockpit that has been but thinly adapted to civilian use. Conditions are cramped, appointments are Spartan. But the leather feel and smell are magnificent. The placement and selection of controls are paradigms of efficiency. The lack of a luxury sedan's sybaritic frills only serves to whet the appetite for an undistracted drive to the limits of Newton's physics.

The 911 Carrera Coupe can become the apple of your eye in yet another regard. She is a tormenting temptress who beguiles your attention away from a price as-tested of nearly $72,000. She proffers her charms discreetly. Take one bite, however, and there's no turning back.

Chevrolet Camaro Z28 SS

I have to confess that it was an unexpected--and probably unduplicable--visit of Fate that snapped me out of my recent Porsche reverie. How could I have known what to expect with the arrival of Chevy's archetypal muscle-car, the Camaro Z28? And not just any Z28, but one "massaged" to 320 horsepower and to tauter limits of handling and visual taste by the aftermarket firm SLP Engineering.

Unlike a traditional new car, the Camaro SS is ordered at a Chevy dealer, modified by SLP, and fully backed with GM's new-car warranty protection of three years/36,000 miles. SLP installs and warrants its own raucous exhaust system, trick Bilstein suspension, Auburn high-torque differential, 17-inch chrome wheels wearing Z-rated Goodyears, and a snarling, snorkel-sculpted hood delivering functional ram-air induction. It's a $3,700 package, attachable either to Chevy's Z28 coupe or, as in this instance, to the convertible. As tested, my SS rig stickered to $32,900, compared to a base price of $28,115 for the "basic" Z28 convertible.

Mind you, there's nothing basic about Chevy's Z28, whose stock 305 horsepower and six-speed manual derive from the powertrain of the famed Corvette. The SS experience, however, is unique. The combination of 15 more horses, a truly musical if snarling exhaust note, and the feral pose effected by the hood snorkel and rear spoiler transform you into a rolling public spectacle. Whether you want them or not, you will be cheered with thumbs-up every time you leave your driveway. No matter how steely-eyed you're determined to remain, you will dissolve into cozy smiles and friendly winks by the time you reach the first stoplight.

And suddenly, you become the SS. Suddenly, you're the raspy, snarling one with flared nostrils. It's your prowess that's turning zero-to-60 in 5.1 seconds--and you'll find yourself reemphasizing that fact at every intersection. With top down, 200 watts of Monsoon stereo blaring, and exhaust note on-the-pipe at 4,000 rpm, you're suddenly a poster boy for joie de vivre.

Behind the wheel of Porsche's stunning 911, you may have been free to carve every road with serious, stealthy, surgical precision. But as SS-Boy, you're the ham-fisted backslapper, everybody's friend, Performance Dude At-Large. In place of the 911's considerable personal indulgence, Camaro SS exacts a selfless sort of automotive public service. It's ultimately a matter of how high-minded--or how lowbrow--you envision yourself to be.

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