A Melting Pot of Performance

From the May 1985 issue of Car and Driver.

Think of this test as the answer to what to do when you’re caught between a rock and a hard place. The rock is your enthusiasm for things automotive: the tingle you feel in your gut when a Ferrari whistles by. The hard place is what you face each morning as your dreams fade and your baby blues pop open: mortgage payments, career goals, and a couple of yelping rug rats to feed. We know it’s hard to accept, but what you need in the garage these days is something practical.

Not to worry, bub. This is one of life’s headaches that can be resolved happily. You can have it all—and without huge out­lays of cash. Just listen closely to your friendly doctors at the Car and Driver auto­motive clinic.

Your prescription for over-the-road happiness comes from the amorphous market segment known as sports coupes. A sports coupe marries the élan and the inti­macy of a sports car to the practical attributes of a sedan—though the proportions of utility and gusto can vary widely. To us, “sports coupe” means a car that rolls off the assembly line with racy sheetmetal, ex­citing mechanicals, two doors, and at least a vestigial back seat.

As definitions go, however, that one’s got holes big enough to drive Mr. Davis’s Suburban through. For one thing, it de­scribes dozens of cars—large, small, ex­pensive, and otherwise. Second, it raises the knotty problem of distinguishing be­tween sports coupes and sports sedans. Is a car a coupe if your mother-in-law can squeeze into the back seat? Is it a sedan just because it isn’t a fastback? You’ve got us.

Since some of these distinctions are so blurry they’ll never be resolved, this is where we make two executive decisions. For the purposes of this test, we will focus on the best sports coupes you can buy for about $15,000—give or take a few grand. You can get sports coupes for less, but this kind of money will put you into some pretty impressive machinery. And cars that re­quire you to remortgage your house are definitely not in our program.

Parameter number two is that the cars in this test are all outfitted in the European tradition. In other words, no V-8s. As much as we love Z28s and Mustang GTs, this was not to be a test of the big thumpers. Sports coupes built anywhere in the world and sold here were eligible as long as they had fewer than eight cylinders.

Winnowing the vast array of candidates down to a manageable few was a matter of a simple staff vote supplemented by well-­timed personal threats. When the snarling and the baring of canines finally subsided, eight contenders emerged—three from America, three from Japan, one from Ger­many, and one German-American hybrid.

We had already had first-hand experi­ence with seven of the contenders: the Audi Coupe GT, the Chrysler Laser XE, the Ford Mustang SVO, the Merkur XR4Ti, the Mitsubishi Starion ESI, the Nissan 300ZX two-plus-two, and the Toyota Supra. The eighth, a Chevrolet Camaro Berlinetta V-6, was added as the promoter’s option because we suspected that this unknown quantity might have some hidden potential. Two cars that might well have made the cut, the Pontiac Firebird S/E V-6 and the Isuzu Impulse Turbo, were unfortunately not available at the time of this test.

The first step in coming to grips with this distinguished group was a thorough shake­down at the test track. Each contestant was put through the full spectrum of C/D accel­eration, braking, and handling tests by the tech department. The perfor­mance results are impressively close when you consider the great diversity of powertrain layouts, engines, and suspen­sion designs. As you can see from the charts, these cars are plenty athletic enough to entertain a serious driver.

If you really want to separate the wheat from the chaff, though, you’ve got to hit the road. We did, and with a vengeance. Seven editors, one photographer, and one able­-bodied assistant herded our eight test cars up and down the California coast for three long days. Our 700-mile excursion took us from L.A. to Carmel and back on every conceivable type of road, from mountain switchbacks to straight-shot freeways. We’re happy to report that everyone made it back safe and sound—sans speeding citations.

If only the cars had fared so well. We ex­perienced an annoying number of engine failures—more, in fact, than we’d seen in the past five years. The 300ZX expired sud­denly with a broken valve stem a few days after top-speed testing. Fortunately, it was replaced with a fresh two-plus-two a few hours before our road drive. The Starion ESI went into terminal rod knock just after the first leg of mountain-road thrashing and seized up moments later. Despite the heroic efforts of the Mitsubishi public-rela­tions department, the Starion’s replace­ment missed most of the hard-charging two-lane stuff.

Mechanical failures weren’t the only sur­prises, as you’ll see when you examine our voting results. Deciphering the numbers is easy. Each editor rated each car in eleven categories on a one-to-five scale. If, say, a car’s handling was great, it earned a five. If it was bad, it got a one. And so on. Ties be­tween cars were allowed. (Two or more cars could each earn a five for handling, for instance.) The results represent the total number of votes each car earned in each category. The scores in the “overall rating” column—our bottom line—were awarded in the same fashion, rather than by averag­ing the scores in the individual categories.

So, without further ado, it’s time to tell you what it was like out there and exactly how the King of the Sports Coupes came to earn its crown. The finishers, in reverse or­der, are:

8th Place: Chevrolet Camaro Berlinetta

It’s clear from our Berlinetta experience that Chevrolet’s interest in sporting Camaros stops with the Z28. The Ber­linetta V-6 proved to be a Percheron among quarter horses in this comparison, destined to go through life with too little motor, run-of-the-mill rubber, and an un­derachiever suspension.

We know how good Camaros can be, and we’ve seen how sweet GM’s port-­injected 2.8-liter V-6 is in other cars—but here the two make no music together. At 135 hp, the V-6 has about twenty percent less power than it needs to move the Berlinetta with authority, and it’s surpris­ingly coarse in the upper rev ranges. More noise comes up through the five-speed’s shift boot.

The Berlinetta’s ride isn’t bad, but on racer roads, the boulevard-soft suspension lets the car bob and buck enough to make even experts slow down.

There’s little salvation in the cockpit. The Berlinetta’s digital tach is impossible to read, and its electronic controls and computerized radio are annoyingly diffi­cult to operate.

We picked this Camaro for our test because we thought it had the potential to be tomorrow’s Z28. In spite of its lackluster showing, we still do. A punched-out 3.2-liter version of its V-6 with 165-plus horsepower, along with Z28-quality chassis pieces, would allow the Berlinetta to run with this herd. (On paper, some of this good stuff is already available on the Fire­bird S/E, but it too is saddled with the 2.8 V-6.) For now, a true driver’s Berlinetta is still off somewhere in the wings. Maybe next year…

1985 Chevrolet Camaro Berlinetta
135-hp V-6, 5-speed manual, 3180 lb
Base/as-tested price: $11,060/$13,741
60 mph: 10.0 sec
1/4 mile: 17.0 sec @ 81 mph
100 mph: 30.7 sec
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 242 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.74 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 21 mpg

7th Place: Chrysler Laser XE

The Laser’s seventh-place finish is a clear message to sports-coupe makers the world over: strong performance is no long­er enough to keep a car in the front ranks. It takes more.

There’s no arguing with the power pro­vided by the Laser’s 146-hp 2.2-liter turbo four-cylinder. It peels off 0-to-60 runs in 8.1 seconds and tops out at 117 mph. In real life there’s an abundance of power un­derfoot in the four lower gears and little turbo lag.

The Laser is more than a straight-line specialist, though. It grabs onto twisty roads, and it means business. The steering cuts well, and its good straight-ahead sense makes the XE very stable on the highway.

Still, the Laser has one glaring fault that is magnified in the context of this elite group. Its logbook is full of comments like “cheap,” “junky feeling,” and “crude.” The magic ingredient the Laser lacks is, in a word, refinement.

The most prominent offender is the drivetrain. What good is a willing engine if it drones all the time? On top of that, the fun of stirring your own gears is diminished by a clunky shift linkage.

There’s nothing sophisticated about the Laser’s suspension tuning, either. Around town the ride is stiff. Burning along on ser­pentine roads, it turns downright choppy.

The XE premium trim package does nothing but exacerbate the Laser’s prob­lems. The leather upholstery lets you slide around in the turns. The electronic dash is hard to read and contributes a lowball look that this car doesn’t deserve. The Laser may be a runner, but at this price ($14,399) there are other cars that treat you better.

1985 Chrysler Laser XE
146-hp turbocharged inline-4, 5-speed manual, 2800 lb
Base/as-tested price: $10,362/$14,399
60 mph: 8.1 sec
1/4 mile: 16.0 sec @ 84 mph
100 mph: 25.1 sec
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 206 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.77 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 24 mpg

5th Place (tie): Ford Mustang SVO

Body builders pump iron. Mustang SVOs pump boost—fifteen pounds of it, to be exact. That’s enough to make the once lowly 2.3-liter four-cylinder bulge with 200 hp, 25 hp more than last year. (These fig­ures may be revised slightly by the time you read this: we tested a prototype a few months before the beginning of produc­tion.) There are also some minor upgrades for 1985, like flush headlamps, but brute force is this year’s real story.

The SVO is Ford’s Porsche 930 Turbo, an old design that’s kept vital with large doses of technology administered by dedi­cated engineer/racers. This strategy works well for the German firm, but it’s a double­-edged sword for Ford, where the engineers have had their hands full trying to make an old car act new.

Ford has certainly gotten the SVO’s looks right, and its performance is truly po­tent. It’s the hottest car in this test by far. Fire it down a test track and you’ll see 60 mph in 6.8 seconds, a top speed of 129 mph, and a 0.79-g cornering limit.

The SVO also handles itself well on both highways and byways. It likes to be driven briskly on meandering roads. The steering feels direct and sure when you bend into corners. The ride is taut but not too tight. The fat steering wheel feels good, and the short-throw shifter is racer-sharp.

But when you push deep into the SVO’s throttle—nothing. A second goes by, and still nothing. Then, whoosh! All of the horses wake up at once, and the SVO snaps your head back. That’s what is known as boost lag.

Keeping the turbo on the boil means keeping the revs up, and that translates into a ton of engine noise—all of it the wrong kind. Between the lack of power at low revs and the high-rpm assault on your ears, the SVO is never really happy. It’s enough to make you wish for the 4.9-liter V-8 from the GT.

Then there are the minor annoyances: a seat that felt subpar to some of us, a behind-the-times dash, and a silly 85-mph speedo. All this leaves us wanting more from the SVO. We’re glad Ford builds it, but we hope the company can give it the re­finement it so dearly needs. Big biceps just aren’t enough.

1985 Ford Mustang SVO
200-hp turbocharged inline-4, 5-speed manual, 3140 lb
Base/as-tested price: $15,000/$15,000 (est.)
60 mph: 6.8 sec
1/4 mile: 15.1 sec @ 90 mph
100 mph: 19.5 sec
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 197 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.79 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 19 mpg

5th Place (tie): Nissan 300ZX

The 300ZX two-plus-two is the polar op­posite of its fifth-place partner. Where the Mustang SVO is all aggression and rough edges, the 300ZX is civilized and polished. The Mustang is a charger. The 300ZX would rather cruise.

We’re of the mind that the 300ZX is a good car for people who are decidedly not serious enthusiasts. In most respects it’s quite pleasant. The three-liter V-6 is one of the slickest powerplants in this test or any­where else—wonderfully smooth and qui­et, with enough oomph to get the job done. The five-speed gearbox shifts crisply, mak­ing for a very refined powertrain.

In most day-to-day situations, the 300ZX drives well enough. When you start haring around, though, the ride gets pitchy, the steering goes vague, and you notice that the seat has let you down badly.

Worst of all, we can’t imagine why any­one would want to deal with the ZX’s wild­-and-crazy optional digitronic instruments and controls. It’s as if Nissan had said to it­self, “Since this car isn’t an all-out perfor­mance model, it’s gotta have a gimmick.”

Make that a couple dozen gimmicks, none of which work out too well. The radio and the climate-control switch gear look as if they were straight out of Mission Con­trol. You’ll need a thorough preflight checkout to operate them. The electronic instruments, which include a pulsating tach, are high on entertainment value but low on ability to deliver information at a glance. All of the other stuff, from the seat’s pump-up thigh support to the accelera­tion-and-braking g-meter, gets old fast.

None of this seems like much to fret about until you check the price sticker. The 300ZX starts at a whopping $18,399—gulp—and our test car went out the door for almost twenty-one grand. Now that’s some gimmick.

1985 Nissan 300ZX 2+2
160-hp V-6, 5-speed manual, 3210 lb
Base/as-tested price: $18,399/$20,799
60 mph: 9.2 sec
1/4 mile: 16.8 sec @ 82 mph
100 mph: 29.4 sec
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 188 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.77 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 21 mpg

4th Place: Mitsubishi Starion ESI

Good things have happened to the Starion since we last checked on it­—enough of them to push this car smack into the top echelon of sport coupes. The latest version looks better, handles better, and goes better. No doubt about it, Mitsubishi is really getting with the program.

Right off, the Starion looks tastier. Be­fore Chrysler started selling its version, the Conquest, it cooperated with Mitsubishi on cleaning up the design. Now the Starion has the tidy look and the classy detailing of a driver’s car.

This year’s new performance model is the ESL. The big improvement is inter­cooling, which bumps the power peak of the 2.6-liter four-cylinder turbo up to 170 hp—a 25-hp improvement. Best of all, this powerplant retains its torquey, big-engine feel. In most situations the throttle re­sponse is so sharp that downshifting is op­tional. When you call for full boost, it’s up in a flash. On balance, this is one of the sharpest turbo setups around.

Add suspension that works better than before, and this coupe’s fun-to-drive rating is up with the best of them. The Starion’s body movements are tied down tightly now, but not to the point where the ride gets miserable. The tuning makes it an ace in the mountains. The steering is secure, the cornering is stable, and there’s great power for digging out of the turns. All that’s left is to improve this car’s on-center steering feel and straight-line tracking.

We do have mixed emotions about the Starion’s accommodations, though. The driver’s seat is quite good, the driving posi­tion is comfortable, and the analog gauges are easily readable. On the other hand, the controls look and feel tacky. The black vi­nyl that covers most of the cabin is so shiny it makes the interior look like a proving ground for Armor All. We were split on how well the steering-wheel-mounted ra­dio controls work. The touch switches for the heater and the air conditioner can be recalcitrant as well.

Nevertheless, we like the latest Starion just fine. Mitsubishi has transformed it into a sophisticated driver’s car, and—more important—it’s a whale of a good time. That’s really what a sports coupe should be all about.

1985 Mitsubishi Starion ESI
170-hp turbocharged inline-4, 5-speed manual, 3020 lb
Base/as-tested price: $15,279/$15,279
60 mph: 8.0 sec
1/4 mile: 16.1 sec @ 85 mph
100 mph: 25.2 sec
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 184 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.80 g
C/D observed fuel economy: NA mpg

3rd Place: Merkur XR4Ti

A quick look at the ballot sheet will ex­plain how the XR4Ti nipped into third place ahead of the Starion: athletics took a back seat to aesthetics. The look and the feel of this car are intoxicating enough to balance its few mechanical drawbacks.

Don’t get us wrong. The XR4Ti is a solid performer in all respects. As our test re­sults show, it can turn on the speed. It also holds its own in the zigs and zags.

Its greatest strengths lie elsewhere, how­ever. As you can see from the voting, we think the Merkur’s futuristic shape looks terrific. To Ford’s credit, you can’t tell it from the European Sierra.

Inside, the Merkur earns high marks for its swoopy interior design and good ergo­nomics. Its seats are Germanically—and we think correctly—firm. They aren’t adjustable in twelve dozen ways, but you don’t miss that at all. The dash is busy, but the gauges are easy to read, and all of the important controls are easy to access. Even the soft-molded steering wheel feels just right. Sitting in this car is good for your outlook on life.

Driving it is no bad thing, either. The ride is supple, just the way you want it around town. The steering is accurate. The motor, a 175-hp nonintercooled version of the SVO powerplant, suffers only minimal turbo lag—though it doesn’t feel nearly as potent as the engines we sampled earlier in prototypes. Ford claims no power loss since our last test, but our sources report that the spark curve was dialed back after some durability questions arose. In any case, the production Merkur is almost a full second slower to 60 mph, and its top speed is down by 6 mph.

Although the XR4Ti suffers from no great inadequacies, there is room for im­provement in several areas. Our test Merkur’s engine was coarse enough in the midrange and above to buzz the shifter (previous examples were buttery-smooth right to the redline), and there was some full-throttle surging we hadn’t felt before. The steering lacks a strong on-center feel. Whereas the suspension tuning is excellent in most situations, it’s a tad floaty during canyon acrobatics. You SCCA racers in the audience will also notice significant lift­-throttle oversteer and nonlinearity in the brakes. Such traits take a little getting used to before you can really fly in an XR4Ti.

Just the same, there’s a whole lot to like about this car. Not only does it drive well and look great, but it also offers comfort­able seating for four adults, plus the versa­tility of a hatchback and a fold-down rear seat. Just because you’re an automotive aesthete doesn’t mean you have to leave your fam­ily behind.

1985 Merkur XR4Ti
175-hp turbocharged inline-4, 5-speed manual, 2920 lb
Base/as-tested price: $16,361/$17,105
60 mph: 7.9 sec
1/4 mile: 16.1 sec @ 85 mph
100 mph: 25.9 sec
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 208 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.76 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 19 mpg

2nd Place: Toyota Supra

This is becoming a pattern. We keep putting Supras in tests—a road test, a 30,000-mile test, a handling test, and now this comparo—and they keep doing re­markably well. The Supra was talented right at the start, and it hasn’t lost a step in four seasons.

The Supra hasn’t needed much help to keep pace, either. Last year, the power out­put was boosted to 161 hp. This year, there’s a new rear spoiler, a slight change in the gearing, and minor paint revisions, but that’s about it.

The Supra’s design—nothing you’d ever call stunning—has aged with surprising grace. Its interior layout remains one of the best in the sports-coupe division. The clean, simple analog-instrument cluster still gets rave reviews. The seat, the driving position, and the pedal placement contin­ue to rate high. We only wish Toyota would simplify the sound system’s controls and fit the Supra with a steering wheel commen­surate with its station in life.

The big reason we love this car is that it does everything elegantly and never seems to breathe hard. Around the burbs and out on the freeway it coddles you with a ride that’s cushy but never wobbly. Its straight-­line stability is laser-keen. Lane changes are sharp. The twin-cam six is pure velvet. There is some wind, road, and rear-axle noise, but it’s less than disturbing.

When you want to boogie, the Supra is right there to be your partner. The engine howls as if it believed it’s in a BMW. Come to think of it, the whole driving experience is what you’d expect from a big Bimmer coupe. The difference is that we mere mor­tals can afford the Supra.

This car’s footwork is nearly flawless. It’s absolutely at home clawing along the jag­ged coastal highways at go-to-jail veloci­ties. Its steering accuracy and feel rival the big-name brands’. And when you make a mistake, the Supra covers for you.

So once again we find ourselves crazy about this big Japanese coupe. Its virtues are great, and its vices are small—which sounds like the very definition of a winner. There is, however, one sports coupe that does it all a little bit better…

1985 Toyota Supra
161-hp inline-6, 5-speed manual, 3060 lb
Base/as-tested price: $16,558/$17,843
60 mph: 8.4 sec
1/4 mile: 16.1 sec @ 85 mph
100 mph: 25.8 sec
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 209 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.77 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 22 mpg

1st Place: Audi Coupe GT

Not only are we crowning the Audi Coupe GT the Best Sports Coupe in Amer­ica, but it also wins Biggest Surprise of 1985. The Coupe GT is this year’s secret car, folks. The masses don’t know about it. Even if they did, you’d never see Coupe GTs cluttering up street corners, because Audi brings in only about 4000 a year.

Driving this car is a rare treat. No matter what you throw at it—city traffic, mountain twisties, interstates—it never sweats. What we have here is the automotive equivalent of the natural athlete.

You wouldn’t know that by checking the Coupe GT’s performance stats. It’s not particularly speedy (0 to 60 in nine seconds flat and a top speed of 115 mph). Nor is it great on the skidpad (0.77 g) or in the sla­lom (57.0 mph, strictly mid-pack).

Nope, the Coupe GT’s magic lies else­where. When we leaf through the logbook we kept on this car, we’re almost embar­rassed. Supposedly hardened road testers bubble like wide-eyed kids:

“This must be the most expensive car here. It feels like money.”

1985 Audi Coupe GT
110-hp inline-5, 5-speed manual, 2490 lb
Base/as-tested price: $15,250/$16,125
60 mph: 9.0 sec
1/4 mile: 16.6 sec @ 80 mph
100 mph: 34.1 sec
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 209 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.77 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 24 mpg

Director, Buyer’s Guide

Rich Ceppos has evaluated automobiles and automotive technology during a career that has encompassed 10 years at General Motors, two stints at Car and Driver totaling 19 years, and thousands of miles logged in racing cars. He was in music school when he realized what he really wanted to do in life and, somehow, it’s worked out. In between his two C/D postings he served as executive editor of Automobile Magazine; was an executive vice president at Campbell Marketing & Communications; worked in GM’s product-development area; and became publisher of Autoweek. He has raced continuously since college, held SCCA and IMSA pro racing licenses, and has competed in the 24 Hours of Daytona. He currently ministers to a 1999 Miata and a 1965 Corvette convertible and appreciates that none of his younger colleagues have yet uttered “Okay, Boomer” when he tells one of his stories about the crazy old days at C/D.