2007 Ford Mustang Shelby GT vs. 2007 Mazda RX-8, 2007 Nissan 350Z, 2008 Audi TT 2.0T

2007 Ford Mustang Shelby GT vs. 2007 Mazda RX-8, 2007 Nissan 350Z, 2008 Audi TT 2.0T 2007 Ford Mustang Shelby GT vs. 2007 Mazda RX-8, 2007 Nissan 350Z, 2008 Audi TT 2.0T
Comparison Tests

There's something special about coupes. For one thing, they sacrifice function - ease of entry, room for stuff - in the name of style. There's a reason why most of the best sports cars are coupes: It's because driving fast is supposed to look good. Choosing a coupe is different because it says aesthetics are important to you. In the past, midrange sticker prices - $35,000 in this case - could get you high style or outright speed, but rarely both, which brings us to the 2008 Audi TT.

The old TT was a triumph of design but lacked driver involvement. The new TT straightens out the rounded bulging shape of its predecessor and is now creased and pressed like a fine suit, as if to say, "This time I'm serious." The insides also dismiss the previous circle theme in lieu of a more straightforward, if less interesting, interior.

Does the zoomy new look of the TT equate with a corresponding improvement in performance? To find out, we rounded up three other coupes, all around a sweet-spot price of $35,000, and flogged them from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. Between the blackjack tables and sleep-deprived nights, we spent a day at Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch in Pahrump, Nevada, to see how each car works at its absolute limit (being careful to steer clear of any establishment with the words "chicken ranch" in the name). Then we toured the winding and heat-warped roads around Lake Mead to get an impression of how the cars perform in the real world. Like the TT, each entry here is a different take on the coupe formula, and each has its own style.

First up is the Ford Shelby GT. Similar to the Shelby GT-H [November 2006], the car starts life as a Mustang GT and then heads to Shelby Automobiles in Las Vegas where the upgrades are installed. On the outside, the Shelby GT gets a lower front air dam, an aluminum grille, dual exhausts, chrome wheels, and three scoops that have no performance mission: one on the hood and one behind each door. You can choose between a white or black paint job, both with the obligatory silver racing stripes. The inside is jazzed up with new floor mats and an authentication plate on the center of the dash.

The Shelby GT is almost mechanically identical to the GT-H car rented out for a big fee from Hertz, except this one has a standard manual transmission. The suspension upgrade over the Mustang GT is the Ford Racing Handling Pack, which consists of new shocks, stiffer springs that lower the car by an inch and a half, a front strut-tower brace, and special anti-roll bars. The engine is massaged with Ford Racing's Power Upgrade package, a cold-air intake, a new engine calibration, and a free-flowing exhaust. On premium fuel, power increases 19 horsepower to 319 and torque is up 10, to 330 pound-feet. The bill for this transformed Mustang, including leather seats, an upgraded interior, and a 500-watt stereo, comes in at a hefty $38,970, $500 more than the Audi TT.

Next is the Nissan 350Z. Fresh off some minor upgrades in 2006, the 2007 Z gets the latest edition of Nissan's 3.5-liter V-6 (the VQ35HR). Shared with the Infiniti G35 sedan, 80 percent of this engine's parts are new, and it has six more horsepower, better midrange torque, and a redline 500 rpm higher than previously. To accommodate the taller cylinder block, the 350Z also has a bulging new hood. Our test car was the base 350Z, which comes without stability control, a limited-slip differential, or even cruise control, but such frugal optioning keeps the sticker price to a low $29,485. The 350Z also lacks back seats, a luxury found in the closely related Infiniti G35 coupe, which we didn't include because the G35 is near the end of its run, and its replacement, the G37 coupe, wasn't yet available.

Rounding out our foursome is the Mazda RX-8, which is a sort-of coupe, owing to the tiny doors that open to the rear seats. Virtually unchanged since its 2004 introduction, the latest SAE standards rate the RX-8 at 232 horsepower. Our car came loaded in Grand Touring trim, which includes a sunroof and keyless ignition, and it was optioned with navigation and satellite radio. Still, the as-tested price was in the middle of the group at $34,095. Okay, open the gates.