For most people, buying a new car is a stressful, tedious process of dealership bargain shopping. For us performance junkies, it’s a thousand times worse. At first cross shopping is a blast, but as one car becomes more tempting than the next, making a final decision can be surprisingly stressful. Some suggest test driving all of your options back-to-back. Can that truly narrow the field? Yours truly decided to find out.
The list is probably pretty typical for someone shopping for a mid- to upper $30k sports car. In all, it includes the 2016/7 (will be 2017 when purchased) MX-5, 370Z, WRX STI, Mustang GT, Camaro SS, Evo X and certified pre-owned BMW E92 M3. After some basic research, two of those come off the table right away. The E92 M3, thanks to the sheer cost of maintenance, and Evo X, since there probably won’t be any new examples left by the time mid-2017 rolls around.
Which leaves a Mazda, Nissan, Subaru, Ford and Chevy. All in one day (sorta, wound up driving the WRX STI weeks earlier, so we’ll leave it out for now). For fairness, each car was from a different dealership, which due to scheduling, wound up being MX-5, Mustang GT, 370Z and Camaro SS in that order. From 10 am to 3 pm, Saturday was booked solid with intriguing test drives. Not a bad weekend if we’re honest.
With 40 degree temps and overcast skies, it wasn’t the greatest Miata weather. At the request of the sales person, the top stayed up (I’m more of the ‘top down and dress warm’ type). Considering the rest of the day’s cars had at minimum 300 hp, kicking the day off with a 155 hp roadster seemed like the right call. It was. As unabashedly fun as the MX-5 is, 155 hp is 155 hp. Even with a featherweight 2,300 lbs. to move around, there’s no escaping the power shortage. Slam the pedal down on an onramp and you won’t exactly be pushed back into the seat.
Having said that, the Miata was the most sheer fun out of every car I drove. From its surprisingly cozy interior to delectable steering feel and pronounced fender flares, this was the most confidence inspiring car by miles. With the top down, it might have even induced the most smiles. But, that just wasn’t the case. Absolute, unleaded fun? Yes. Did it make me yearn to own one? Not as much as I thought it would.
And now, because why not chase a 155 hp featherweight with a 435 hp bruiser, the Mustang GT. Unlike the Mazda dealership, the Ford sales guy tossed me the keys, said have fun, and went to assist other customers. Zero complaints from me, that’s how I prefer my test drives. Regardless of what you think of the 2016 GT, one thing is undeniably true: this pony moves. Though the steering position leaves the driver a little bit wanting (I mean, what did you expect, I just got out of a Miata), the power immediately makes you forget.
Any gear, any time, just slam pedal to carpet and the GT quickly makes itself known. That’s particularly true on second to third gear pulls. This thing absolutely hauls. But, let your initial excitement calm down, and there are a few draw backs. My test drive was in a bare bones GT. No Performance Pack, no Premium trim, no Recaro seats. I’ll put this gently: you probably don’t want a stripped GT. Body roll was noticeable, the seats lacked some lateral support and the base “infotainment” center resembles a tape deck. That’s a little disappointing when the base 2016 Camaro comes with an 8” touch screen.
At half time, here’s the score: MX-5 is crazy fun but lacks the power to be a serious performer. The Mustang GT is bonkers, non-stop laughter fast but lacked some refinement in the interior department. Considering I drive a BRZ, interior amenities are clearly not high on the list, so the GT had the lead by a pretty substantial margin.
Time for the 370Z. The bar for the Japanese Mustang was incredibly low. Everything I read ahead of time suggested this was going to be disappointing. Hello terrible interior materials, weird driving position, rubbery gearbox and no steering feel. I’m no full-time car reviewer, but seriously, ignore everything you hear about the 370Z. The interior was lovely (especially my $38k model with micro-suede accents), driving position very BRZ-like, engaging gearbox (smoother than the 86) and responsive steering. Think of the Z as a more powerful BRZ.
In every way, this two-seater was a huge surprise. Lots of power and a low-slung, engaging chassis generally make a great combo, and they absolutely do here. Chalk up both the Mustang GT and MX-5, this coupe had both beat. Nearly. This was a 2014 $38k car with no touch screen. What? That might be acceptable in the early 2000s, but we’re getting on at this point. Dolling out nearly $40k and not even having a basic screen is a little shocking. True, you can order one with nav, but you can also order a nicer Mustang GT, which would solve my only real problem with the Ford.
Tie ball game.
I started the day genuinely hoping to narrow down the field. Instead, I found three cars I could easily see myself buying. Only one was left, the 2016 Camaro SS. I was hopeful but starting to think I’d end the day even more undecided than when it began.
If you haven’t driven a 2016 Camaro SS with MPP exhaust, you haven’t yet lived. Good as the redesigned Mustang GT is, the Camaro has taken things to an entirely different level. Engine: totally obnoxious. All 455 hp and 455 lb-ft torque not only get you very quickly to very illegal speeds, but my goodness, do they sound epic. Just listen to this horribly shot iPhone video:
Even from my aging iPhone 5, the LT1 is an uncaged animal. But, that’s not what made the SS truly stand out. It’s the entire package. Interior, exterior, technology, power, handling, steering feel, driving position…they’re all bang on. Absolutely on point. Yes, visibility sucks. It’s a Camaro, after all. But if you’ve driven small coupes before, it’s honestly not that bad. Frankly, it felt reminiscent of my BRZ.
By miles the 2016 Camaro SS was the best car I drove. It also served as proof for why people recommend doing back-to-back test drives. In a vacuum, I likely would have loved each car equally. But put immediately in a row, the differences become much more apparent. So there it is, I made my decision, 2016 Camaro SS. Ready to order eight short months from now. Finally have my next car decided.
Until I crossed paths with an incredibly beautiful 2016 Mustang GT with Corsa exhaust today. Car enthusiasts deciding on your next car: heaven help us.