Audi TTS v BMW 135i v Mazda RX-8 GT v Nissan 350Z

The doom-doctors say that car costs and petrol prices are climbing, sales are down, taxes up, 'safety' cameras mete out rough justice, speed limits are whittled beyond sensibility and rules and regulations multiply faster than rabbits with a Viagra stash. Whatever happened to the joy of driving?

Well, take heart. Thankfully, some stellar bright spots are beacons for enthusiasm. And here are four of them - the Audi TTS, BMW 135i Sport, Mazda RX-8 GT and Nissan 350Z Track. The blues simply can't persist within the glow that these four deliver.

You'll notice this quartet doesn't add up to a typical four-car comparison. Yes, they're exclusively coupes, but of very different kinds. And very different prices. However, we're at pains not to try comparing apples with oranges. Hell no, we've raided the peach and pear bins as well.

For an inkling of the variety on offer, check the engines. Two are naturally aspirated; one a zing-along rotary, the other a hard-hitting V6. Elsewhere there's a sophisticated turbocharged four, and a brilliant twin-turbo straight-six. Each of 'em has what it takes to keep pushing your starter buttons.

These cars' cabins also display the gamut of coupe possibilities. Of the two-door liftbacks, the 350Z is an undiluted two-seater, while the TTS adds a plus-two jump seat for (small) kids. Of the two conventionally booted 'coupes' the 135i Sport will accept four average-sized adults, while the RX-8 is an even more dinkum four-seater, but differs fundamentally with superior rear seating accessed via clever rear doors.

Drivetrains? BMW, Mazda and Nissan agree on the longitudinal layout and rear drive, whereas the TTS favours a transverse powertrain and all-wheel drive.

While each model tested has a slick six-speed manual gearbox as standard, the 135i Sport and TTS list optional six-speed autos. The RX-8 GT and 350Z Track do not. Mazda's six-speed auto is optional only for the RX-8 Luxury model, and then with noticeably less power than the manual, while Nissan's alternate five-speed auto is specific to the 350Z Touring.

The disparities are no less marked between the respective price points. The RX-8 GT sets the ball rolling from $57,265. The standard RX-8 asks just $49,720 with the Luxury version from $55,520. As the sportiest rotary, the GT is distinguished by 19-inch wheels, upgraded suspension, bodykit and race-style Recaro front seats.

Find another 10 grand or so and you're on target for the $68,990 350Z Track. The manual Touring version is $5000 cheaper, but lacks the Track's switchable ESP system (making do just with traction control) and larger Brembo super stoppers.

The admission ticket jumps to $72,230 for the stock BMW 135i Sport, which the test example levered to $79,698 via an electric glass sunroof, metallic paint and navigation system. Although not in the 135i Sport's performance class, the smaller-engined 125i Coupe holds plenty of appeal at $54,401.

Finally, the manual TTS Coupe clearly tops the bill with a $92,900 list price. From there, the test TTS drove the ante beyond $100K by dint of metallic paint, 19-inch wheels, navigation/TV system, two-tone full leather interior, premium sound system, adaptive headlights and more.

As a footnote, very rarely in our long experience has any car turned as many heads, dropped as many jaws and drawn such high wow-factor scoring as the ocularly riveting Solar Orange TTS. Anyone would rate this a colour/car combo for those keen to be seen.

There's a noticeable spread in these models' performance potentials. Unavoidably, an abbreviated test session allowed each car only two or three standing start runs, preventing enough practice to guarantee maximum lunge from the all-important launch. Even so, the BMW 135i Sport shoots to 100 clicks in just 5.6 seconds and needs merely 12.7sec to spear 160km/h. It celebrates by nailing the 400m mark in 13.8 seconds, at very near 170km/h.

The way the 135i Sport reels off such sprints with consummate authority is hugely impressive. So, too, the sheer exhilaration of the twin-turbo 3.0-litre's spine-tingling wail as it continues welling way beyond the revs where you might expect its intensity to soften. Every irrepressibly pulse-racing dollop of the 135i Sport's performance is dispensed with impeccable sophistication and refinement.

There's a hint of perspiration, too, knowing the TTS is wedged up close and personal. Game on!

Hurled from a standing start, the TTS uses the combination of lighter weight, shorter gearing and four-paw traction to storm ahead through the early increments. The exquisite thrill of the Audi's mighty thrust is equalled by the infectious enthusiasm of the revvy TFSI engine and its deliciously raspy exhaust.

However, the Audi's headlong impetus hiccups when the upshift to third gear comes right at the cusp of 100km/h, letting the 135i Sport drive home the advantage of its taller gearing and power-rich top-end. Although the TTS reduces the gap as the two charge ever faster, its next gear-change (into fourth, at just over 140) affects the 0-160km/h result, which the long-legged Beemer achieves in third gear.

The closeness of the duelling turbos shows in their identical 0-400m times, with the TTS clocking a slightly slower terminal speed. However, the Audi shades the BMW for rolling response in third, fourth and fifth gears, only to be eclipsed in sixth.

In terms of speedy performance, though, there's daylight between the turbos and the macho 350Z, with a further gap back to the RX-8.

By naturally aspirated 3.5-litre standards, the Nissan is well and truly on the pace. In spite of being very nearly as heavy as the big-boned 135i Sport, the 350Z has enough grunt to score the group's lustiest power-to-weight ratio, the dividends of which include 0-100km/h in just over six seconds, and the standing 400m in low- to mid-14s. Good stuff.

Rather less intoxicating is the Nissan's aural accompaniment. Even when exploiting the engine's very elastic rev range, the V6's gravelly snarl isn't at all tuneful and certainly brings no reminder of its smooth, sweet cousin Maxima.

The RX-8 is a total contrast. Unlike any other engine here, or in production anywhere, the Mazda's rotary spins like a turbine and sounds like a bumble bee that's high on fermented nectar.

Although you'll notice the dearth of mid-range torque, the Renesis engine is exceptionally smooth and tractable from middling speeds (albeit not very quick). You'll find its sweet spot on the high side of five grand, above which it gets pumping all the way to 9600rpm. When you're hurrying, the revs come so quickly, you ignore the tachometer and upshift by ear as the redline buzzer beeps like a microwave cooker signalling that dinner's ready.

Because the latest RX-8 makes seven kW less than its predecessor and weighs about 25kg more, it loses a little outright acceleration and rolling response. Before, it would do 400m in high 14s, for example, where low 15s now rule.

One thing unchanged is that for making short work of winding roads and overtaking, the action's dominated by incessant to-and-froing between third and fourth slots. You might reach gearshift stroke rates that qualify for the Olympic rowing squad, but that's part of what RX-8ing is about.

So is thirstier-than-average fuel consumption, as affirmed by our test results and the ADR81 drive-cycle numbers. The only (slight) offset stems from the rotary's acceptance of 95RON juice, where 98RON is the others' first preference.

Still, if you're the kind of person who craves the style and ability of a sports coupe, relative/comparitive fuel economy probably won't be a deal breaker.

What matters most are the high-calibre performance and driving dynamics, together with the feel-good sensory infusion that comes from piloting cars as exciting as these four.

For example, you're assured of a unique buzz whenever stropping the Mazda through the gears, regardless of its being slower than the other cars here. Overriding that, the GT lives up to its label because it takes a back seat to none of its nominally faster peers when winding roads shift the emphasis from simply speeding to proper driving.

Pardon stray superlatives, but even in the company of three outstandingly good sports chassis, the RX-8 GT's handling is unreservedly brilliant. In their own ways, the others are similarly accomplished corner carvers, of course. Yet, when fully engaged, the Mazda feels and acts just that tad lighter and more poised on its feet, just a shade better balanced and more responsive, just a heartbeat more alive in its handling's feel and co-operation.

Heaven knows, when our enthusiasm occasionally over-revs and we're inadvertently clumsy in corners that unexpectedly tighten or markedly roughen, or both, the chassis has every reason to get a bit narked.

But to its great credit, the GT is a car not easily unsettled by nerve-wracking situations. Even when you're hard on the picks and turning in later than is ideal, while dithering over downshifts, with the suspension dancing to absorb vindictive bumps, the GT remains superbly stable, unflappably balanced and finely directional.

The more you demand of the GT's handling, the more you appreciate how utterly predictable, controllable and exploitable it is.

Much the same is true of the others, the BMW 135i Sport especially. Extra weight ultimately means the Beemer hasn't quite the RX-8 GT's sheer agility. But, oh lordy, how it handles. Because its chassis/driving dynamics are just bloody terrific, and that's putting it mildly, the 135i Sport treats bends of all sorts as one swash-buckling adventure after another.

Although the 135i Sport leans more noticeably than the others when being directionally forceful, it keeps its composure and carries as much cornering speed as any of 'em. Its handling is just as predictable and forgiving as the Mazda's, but the 135i Sport's boundless squirt promotes exit velocities that the RX-8 can only dream of.

The 350Z is right on the case, too, as it consumes winding roads with immense zeal. Like the BMW, the Nissan feels a bit heavier on its feet than the Mazda, and hasn't quite the deftness of steering and turn-in. Still, it stays fairly flat, grips strongly at both ends, points obediently and is incisively responsive to the wheel and throttle.

While the Zedster tends to be a touch less communicative and involving for the driver in some respects, well-sorted handling keeps it well and truly in the hunt. And if the Z's more-machete-than-carving-knife cornering talents perhaps aren't always quite as fluid or tidy as the others, it's just as effective when and where it counts.

Then there's the TTS. To see the Audi rush into sight from a fast corner, or to follow it along the road, or sense its intimidation via a rear-view mirror, there's no mistaking its air of authority. Whether cruising the straights or bringing challenging corners into line, the TTS appears crouched to pounce, focused as acutely as a targeting carnivore.

That effect isn't illusionary. Featuring exceptionally broad track widths for a car of its comparatively compact envelope, the visually squat TTS always looks, and feels, particularly well hooked up to the road; regardless of whether the bitumen you find yourself on is dry, wet, slushy or whatever.

Although the Audi's quattro all-wheel-drive system hasn't the multi-skilling bells and whistles of Japan's latest, hottest road rockets, such as the Mitsubishi Evo, the TTS continually serves dynamic reminders that Audi has been at the forefront of sophisticated high-performance AWD chassis since 1980 and the all-conquering rally-championship-winning Quattro coupe.

If the Audi's steering isn't quite as tactile as some, it certainly is well weighted, well connected and not as pushy in corners as other, characteristically more understeery AWD models.

Like the rear-drive models assembled here, the TTS is distinguished not only by great handling, but also mighty brakes, slick-as gearshift and remarkably bump-blotting ride qualities, especially considering the disciplined body control and low profile tyres. Mind you, for comfort's sake, the TTS's ride quality depends on it being in the normal mode, rather than the push-button alternate Sport setting which is a teeth-rattler on anything but smooth surfaces.

So, now, after experiencing these four in their elements, which way goes the verdict? Four ways, actually.

There are no losers here, and it would be wrong to assume otherwise. The wide differences in prices are very influential of course, but so, too, the respective performance potentials, the accommodation/function aspects and also, far from least, the cars' discernibly different characters. After all, individuality is their most common thread; that and their irrefutable evidence that fulfilling driving enjoyment is alive and well and available for under $100K.

One solution lies with the Audi TTS. It's the most expensive car here and has a rear seat suitable only for kids or real shorties, however, it's also stunningly well designed, offers truly blistering performance and the surety of AWD.

If you have a mid-range budget, a preference for an uncompromised two-seat cabin, want the immediate strong response of a husky, naturally aspirated engine and the manly handling of a proven sports chassis, the nod could just as deservedly go to the honest Nissan 350Z.

Then again, besides its significant edge in price, the RX-8 GT comes up trumps for the uniqueness of the rotary engine, the unrivalled practicality of its accessible, accommodating four-door cabin with four adult-size seats, and the superb chassis dynamics.

If pressed, though, and while taking nothing from the TTS, the RX-8 GT and the 350Z, each of which has quantifiable attractions, the 135i Sport commands the widest appeal.

Combining keen pricing, thrilling performance, polished refinement and inspiringly accomplished handling with snug yet realistically adult rear digs, the 135i Sport answers the question about which coupe is hardest to go past as a born-to-drive all-rounder.

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