Two Legends Face Off
By Jason Kavanagh, Engineering Editor Email | Blog
Date posted: 03-10-2009
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When we last left the 2009 Nissan 370Z, it had just laid a drubbing on BMW's little 135i. We then proclaimed, "The 2009 Nissan 370Z raises the standard for the sport coupe segment to a new level of affordable excellence."
Time to get more serious. It's V8 time. Who's in? Let's see, no Camaro, and a Challenger is not available (don't ask), so that leaves the freshly updated 2010 Ford Mustang GT, a car whose very existence is predicated upon wallet-friendly performance.
Perhaps a reinvigorated veteran can take down the newly crowned king. The particulars might differ four seats versus two, V8 versus V6 but the mission is the same. And the 2009 Nissan 370Z and 2010 Ford Mustang GT are priced closer than you might think.
Line 'Em Up
We tested a 2010 Ford Mustang GT Premium Coupe outfitted with the Track Pack, which includes revised dampers, a shorter 3.73:1 axle ratio, a limited-slip differential, better brakes, 19-inch wheels, wider summer performance tires and a few suspension underpinnings pilfered from the Shelby GT500. Add in comfort items and other non-performance options and our tester rings up to $34,775.
As before, our 2009 Nissan 370Z Touring stands in the opposite corner, fresh from our long-term test fleet. It wears the Sport package, which adds bigger brakes, a manual transmission with rev-matching shifting capability, a limited-slip diff, and 19-inch wheels and wider rubber. Our 370Z is also equipped with a $1,850 navigation system that Ford offers but our test car lacks, and its MSRP just crests $40 large at $40,320.
Bottom line, we've essentially gathered the most expensive versions of both cars. Not by choice, it just worked out that way. But they can both be bought for less, much less, and with all their good go-fast parts. In other words, there are cheaper versions of these cars that will perform the same as these loaded examples, only without a few comfort extras. The base price on a Mustang GT Premium is $30,995, while a 370Z starts at $29,930. Add the Track Package to the Mustang and your MSRP is $32,494. Add the Sport Package to the Z and you're looking at $33,625.
But is the new 370Z really worth more than the new Mustang in an economy as brutal as this one? We aimed to find out.
The Light Goes Green
Go ahead; pick a car, any car. Both of them will reach 60 mph in 5.2 seconds (4.9 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip). Similarly, the Z runs the quarter in 13.5 seconds at 103.7 mph and the Mustang a nearly identical 13.5 at 102.9 mph. If their straight-line performance was any closer we'd have to start splitting atoms to measure the difference. And before you ask, we filled the Mustang with premium (91 octane) fuel, which Ford says fattens up the torque curve without affecting the peak.
The difference between the two lies in the power delivery. With better gearing and less weight, the 3,374-pound 370Z's speed sneaks up on you. The 7,500-rpm reach of its 3.7-liter V6 is far around the tachometer dial, and there are no flat spots in the power delivery all the way up to the 332-horsepower peak at 7,000 rpm.
However, the coarse sounds and vibration of this V6 mean you have to grit your teeth and force yourself to keep the throttle floored past 6,000 rpm. Like other Nissans equipped with this powertrain, the din is accompanied by a gearlever that sizzles frantically with high-frequency vibration. We're fans of earlier iterations of Nissan's VQ-Series V6, but the 370Z's VQ37HR could use some finishing school.
If you're cynical, the 2010 Ford Mustang's three-valve 4.6-liter V8 can be thought of as a weaponized version of an engine that dates back nearly a decade and a half (though not that much further than the VQ-Series V6, really). Yet this mill doesn't betray its age willingly. The benefits of continuous improvement are evident in its tractability and willingness to run happily on regular-grade 87 octane fuel.
The 315-hp Mustang's V8 doesn't two-by-four you in the chest when you mat the throttle off idle and then fall on its face, wheezing like some pony car of old. Instead, the torque is soft down low, stacking up progressively as the revs pile on. It needs to be above 3,000 rpm before the V8 starts cashing the checks written by its intake note.
And it is some intake note Ford has done a stupendous job of replicating the gloriously guttural bark of 1960s-era Mustangs, and it renders the Z's grating high-rpm warble that much more intolerable. The urge to scale and descend the Mustang's rev range just to savor it is irresistible.
A Bend in the Road
Despite the Track Pack's shorter 3.73:1 rear end, the 3,572-pound Mustang is still geared too tall. This dulls the V8's snappiness, an impression exacerbated by the Mustang's overly soft engine mounts. As a result, driveline lash is a companion at low speeds. Pay close attention and you can also feel the powertrain lurching about during quick transient handling maneuvers, such as rapid lane changes.
With that said, the Mustang's initial turn into a corner is immediate, almost disconcertingly so since the steering is lifeless and doesn't build effort commensurate with the movements of the chassis. The new car is an improvement over previous Mustangs, but it doesn't hold a candle to the way the 2009 Nissan 370Z responds to steering inputs.
No review involving the 2010 Ford Mustang would be complete without addressing the live axle. It has its benefits for launching and on billiard-table-smooth road-racing tracks, yet makes its compromises known to you in the real world far too often. Years of development still haven't reversed physics, and you're reminded of this every time the Mustang's rear end encounters a bump and pitches you vertically like a toddler on a parent's knee.
Find a blemish-free stretch of tarmac and the Mustang is an engaging companion, though we expected the Track Pack to be a bit sharper in controlling roll and pitch. The balance is there, though, as long as you let the chassis take a set. Then you can easily transition between steady-state understeer and easily controllable throttle steer. It's fun in the hooligan way that Mustangs have always been, just with a bit more control than before.
Hard braking with the Mustang results in a lot of nose dive and some seriously rapid deceleration it comes to a halt from 60 mph in just 107 feet, which betters the performance turned in by the Z by just a foot. It's the Z's binders we lust after, though unlike the Mustang, the 370's pedal feel is consistently solid whether you're strafing the canyons or crawling in gridlock.
Stretching the Gap
If the 2010 Mustang proves a surprisingly capable handler, then the Z is nevertheless in another galaxy. You can see this in the way the 370Z grips harder on the skid pad at 0.94g to the Mustang's 0.91g, but the differences in capability are more prominently evidenced in the slalom. Here, the Z changes direction with more immediacy, returning a 72-mph slalom speed to the Mustang's 68.4 mph.
Putting aside the numbers, you get the first clue of the Z's sporting intent before you're even moving. The steering wheel's sculpted grips hint at what's to come when you bend the car through a chicane. The 370Z's helm is a revelation, quicker and far more precise than the Mustang, with a sporting heft and a chatty nature. Cornering loads build in direct proportion to the steering wheel input angle in a way that's intuitive and confidence-inspiring. You'd be hard-pressed to find better steering anywhere. Jump into the 370Z after wheeling the Mustang and you'll wonder why the Mustang is so sloppy.
The Z's responses are devoid of slack, yet this focus doesn't have the usual tradeoff of a jolting ride. This is a chassis that never needs to take a set the Z is always poised.
Then there's SynchroRev Match, a feature that every automaker ought to be scrambling to try to replicate. Not only does it let you focus on your braking points when you're driving with full commitment, it also aids in providing engine braking in the crush of traffic. Simply put, it's the most brilliant enhancement to doing it manually since the blow-up doll.
That's not to say that the 370Z's transmission does everything perfectly. Upshifts suffer from a slightly sticky gearchange and the clutch takeup could be more progressive. These aren't showstoppers, but nailing details like these would propel the Z to the sports car elite.
Living in Style
Noticeable improvements in materials quality and NVH were part of the 2010 Ford Mustang's design brief, and you can see it in the soft-touch dashboard materials and hear it in the lack of road and wind noise.
Yet certain aspects of the Mustang's cabin frustrate us its retro-style gauges belong back in the 1960s, as they're not only illegible but also are prone to being obscured by stray reflections. The cruise control interface was crummy a decade ago. Plus, the steering wheel is too large and its clunky spokes discourage optimum nine-and-three hand placement. But, hey, you can choose from hundreds of different interior lighting color schemes. Really, when it comes to design nuances in a performance car, this isn't what we had in mind.
On the plus side, there's a sense of spaciousness in the Mustang that the Z-car can't match, and the Ford's seats are more comfortable than the Z's, if not quite as supportive. And practicality is a no-brainer the Mustang has rear seats, and small as they are, this fact alone goes a long way toward daily-driver viability.
If you shied away from the plasticky 350Z, fear not the 370Z. The 2009 Nissan 370Z's cabin is finished to a much higher standard, with synthetic suede and high-quality trimmings. There are lots of gauges and they're all legible, the centerpiece being a huge tachometer that dominates the instrument cluster like the eye of Cyclops.
At the same time, the Z-car is a much more intimate place than the Mustang's cabin, so make sure you shower before picking up your date (don't ask how we know this). You'll also want to be careful when backing out of your beau's driveway, too that monolithic C-pillar could blot out a Brinks truck.
Large, gregarious and sporting a fan base of Americans millions strong despite its flaws, the 2010 Ford Mustang is the Rush Limbaugh of cars. It might be outclassed by the 2009 Nissan 370Z, but for many the charms of the Mustang cannot be replaced. At $35 grand, though, the Mustang GT is a tough sell. If you're willing to forgo some amenities, you could have a Mustang GT that performs similarly to our tester for a bit less money. That's the Mustang we'd prefer.
When it comes to delivering the best things about performance cars, the Z-car is a decathlete that leaps higher, throws farther and swims harder than the rest. If you can make the financial stretch for it, the 2009 Nissan 370Z will provide all the stimulus you need.
The manufacturers provided Edmunds these vehicles for the purposes of evaluation.