Seventy-odd years ago the United States and Japan were bitter enemies, embroiled in a titanic struggle that played out across vast expanses of the Pacific Ocean. Today, these great nations are on more-than-friendly terms, though there’s still a rivalry churning away beneath the surface. Instead of guns and incendiary bombs it involves pistons and suspension tuning.
High-Flying Dogfight: 2015 Ford Mustang GT vs. 2015 Nissan 370Z NISMO
The automotive industry is ground zero for this epic battle where Japanese brands tussle with the Detroit Three in nearly every segment of the market. To the benefit of us all it’s a much friendlier confrontation than Nakajima fighters squaring off against the latest products from Grumman or the USS Washington returning a salvo to the battle-cruiser Kirishima.
Nissan’s Z-Car and the Ford Mustang are sporty coupes and perfect rivals. They both feature powerful engines, offer manual gearboxes and are dressed to kill. Just like an air battle unfolding in the skies seven decades ago we’ve got a dogfight on our hands.
America’s National Park of Speed
And the best place to compare these thoroughbred machines is on a closed circuit where drivers are free from worrying about pedestrians or police. Road America is a premiere racing facility near Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Its four-plus miles of asphalt are frighteningly quick thanks to a pair of runway-like straights. Plenty of tight corners and elevation change keeps things interesting and makes lapping it a challenge, even for expert drivers.
Red, White and Glue
Ford’s latest ponycar is all new for 2015, gaining additional features, more power and extra refinement. But the greatest engineering upgrade requires a jack and creeper to get a good look at. For the first time in Mustang’s five-decade history mainstream models have dispensed with a chariot-grade live-axle in favor of something from the 21st century. Yes, a proper independent rear suspension is finally here, its outdated predecessor has at last been sent off to the adhesives factory.
GT versions of this car are powered by a muscular and technologically advanced engine. Even after several years of availability the blue oval’s 5.0-liter V8 is still a masterpiece. Fill the tank with 93-octane gasoline and you’re rewarded with 435 storming horses and an even 400 lb-ft of torque. Mat the accelerator and she pulls like a jet, providing torrents of silky thrust and a reedy-sounding intake rumble that’s as addictive as a bucket of popcorn chicken. Keep some napkins in the glove box; you’re going to need them.
Nissan’s answer to cars like the Mustang is their 370Z, the latest offering in a line of performance machines that dates back more than 30 years. Ratcheting up the sport factor is their NISMO version, which gains unique – and functional – aerodynamic enchantments, more power, special wheels and exclusive Recaro seats that hug your torso like a flight suit.
In typical American fashion more is always better and the ‘Stang has a two-cylinder, 1.3-liter advantage over the Z. But Nissan engineers have managed to do more with less and this car’s 3.7-liter V6 is heroic enough to win a chest-full of medals. It puts out 350 horses, 18 more than a standard 370Z, along with 276 lb-ft of peak torque.
Ensuring it can run like the wind this car’s engine spins to 7,500 RPM and can be paired with either a six-speed manual or seven-gear automatic transmission. Whether you want to row your own or let the vehicle take care of business, with the Mustang it’s six across the board.
Strapped into the Mustang’s pilot seat everything feels huge, like the car is just two inches narrower than your lane of travel. Visibility is also somewhat challenging thanks to an elevated hood and limited amounts of glass. Beyond all of this the optional Racaro seats ($1,595) don’t seem to adjust low enough, making the driving position slightly awkward, especially for lanky motorists.
Still, there’s plenty to like about the new Mustang. The car’s interior is stylish and built of mostly premium materials. Likewise, the manual transmission’s shifter is slick, gliding from gate to gate with the fluidity of water flowing down hill. And when you’re cleared for takeoff the clutch pedal is a joy to operate. It’s perfectly weighted with just enough heft and a broad engagement range. Factor in an engine that provides ample low-end torque you have a vehicle that’s extremely easy to drive smoothly.
Catching some Z’s
While the Mustang’s interior strikes a nice balance between retro and modern the Nissan’s cockpit is purely old-school, but not in a good way. The design looks outdated and some of its controls seem even more antiquated. In short, it’s noticeably cruder than the Ford.
And this rough-hewn feel continues when the car is in motion. The clutch for instance is heavy and grabby, especially compared to the ‘Stang’s, which feels much lighter despite having to contend with an additional 124 lb-ft of torque. The Z’s shifter also requires ridiculously high amounts of effort to use and there’s even a hint of gear whine at low speed.
Fortunately for Nissan fans it’s not all bad news. The 370Z is easier to see out of and has a better driving position, which helps build confidence. Additionally it has SyncroRev Match, a mind-blowing feature that automatically blips the throttle on down-shifts for PERFECT gear-changes every time.
Head to Head
But how do these similar-yet-different machines compare out on the track? Driving them back to back on Road America provided some interesting contrasts.
For starters the Nissan feels about half the size of the Ford, though in truth it’s only about 300 pounds lighter. The Z’s steering is more lively and chassis more playful; once again, it’s confidence inspiring.
Despite “only” having a V6 the Nissan is seriously fast. Its hopped-up VQ engine pulls brilliantly at high RPM and makes appealing sounds; the thrust it provides is real and addictive. However, accompanying all of that goodness is vibration, and lots of it. When driven in anger the powerplant shakes like a rock crusher, the shifter responding with a chorus of tingles. This lack of refinement is disappointing and a little annoying.
In comparison, the Mustang seems somewhat ponderous, even when equipped with the optional GT Performance Package ($2,495), which adds things like special chassis tuning, Brembo brakes, a Torsen rear end and more goodies. Still, the car is broad shouldered and seems a little heavy in lateral transitions; it’s not as eager to play as the 370Z, though it does start to feel smaller the more you drive it.
However, Ford’s reborn five-point-oh-my-God trounces Nissan’s powerplant in many ways, generating extra torque, more horses and better noise all without vibrating like a wand massager. It’s silky smooth yet still revs explosively, pulling extremely hard from about 6,000 RPM to redline, which is a grand beyond. Fuel consumption is even comparable, with the Mustang averaging 19 miles per gallon (15 city, 25 highway) and the 370Z, 21 (18 city, 26 highway).
|Vehicle||2015 Ford Mustang GT||Advantage||2015 Nissan 370Z NISMO|
|Engine||5.0-liter V8||-||3.7-liter V6|
|Torque||400 lb-ft||Mustang||276 lb-ft|
|Fuel Economy||15 MPG city, 25 MPG highway||370Z||18 MPG city, 26 MPG highway|
Wrapping things up with a pretty little bow, these two machines are probably more similar than different. They’re both rear-wheel drive, offer manual transmissions and have sporty styling. Even their as-tested prices were within spitting distance. The Mustang cost $45,885 out the door including $825 in deliver fees; the Z stickered for $46,425, a figure that also included $810 in destination charges.
But in spite of their on-paper similarities these two cars do have a number of differences. The Ford is larger, more refined and somewhat isolated. Nissan’s offering is lighter and more playful but cruder feeling. While well endowed, the 370Z’s engine is coarser than a bucket of spent shell casings. In comparison the Mustang’s brawny V8 is silky and sonorous.
Choosing a winner is like picking your favorite child; there’s plenty to love about both of these cars. The Mustang is a better all-around vehicle but if you’re a track junkie the 370Z definitely has an edge. In the end we’re inclined to give the nod to Ford because that 5.0-liter engine is just so damn addictive, but this win is by the narrowest of margins.
2015 Ford Mustang GT
2015 Nissan 370Z NISMO