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A 50-year power struggle

Debate over best mass-market sports car continues between fans of Porsche 911 and Corvette Sting Ray

It's a debate as contentious as any political discussion you'll ever see and one that's escalated wildly over nearly half an century, becoming the automotive equivalent of a global arms race: Which is better, Porsche 911 or Corvette?

The 2013 model year marks the 50th anniversary of what are arguably the two most iconic mass-market sports-car designs of all time: the original 1963 Porsche 911 designed by Ferdinand Alexander Porsche, a.k.a. "Bitzi," and the Larry Shinoda-penned 1963 Corvette Sting Ray.

Both designs stand as high-water marks in terms of sports-car esthetics; both would provide the foundation of much greater evolutions of their respective species in the decades ahead. While there had been Porsches and Corvettes well before 1963, the first 911 and the original Sting Ray were groundbreaking cars that have stood the test of time.

And there are still purists and proponents on both sides of the fence who will argue endlessly and contentiously about which is better.

The Porsche's claim to fame? World-class build quality, sophisticated engineering and handling prowess best appreciated by highly skilled drivers.

Corvettes, meanwhile, have always enjoyed brute power and a distinctly American optimism, even if the interiors and workmanship often seemed crude by comparison.

One a surgical instrument.

One a blunt instrument.

Two great and enduring designs that were tremendous fun to drive.

But what's really amazing is how far the 1963 Corvette and the 1963 911 have come in the last half century.

So here's a little history lesson. When the Porsche 911 - originally known as the 901 but renamed 911 because of legal threats from French automaker Peugeot - debuted at the 1963 Frankfurt Motor-show in Germany, it caused a sensation. The fact that it had a back seat was viewed by Porscheophiles with every bit as much disdain back then as purists view the Porsche Panamera sedan today. A proper Porsche, after all, has just two seats. Everyone knew that, or at least thought that.

The original 911 had an air-cooled 2.0-litre "flat" six-cylinder engine that produced 130 horsepower and breathed through a pair of Solex 40P1 carburetors. Zero to 60 mph (96 km/h) took 9.0 seconds, with a top speed of 132 mph (211 km/h). The 911 didn't go on sale in North America until 1965 and when it did, it carried a price tag of about $6,500, which was pricey back then.

Today's 2012 Porsche Turbo S? Well, suffice to say it has taken the original 911 premise to its logical extremes and then some. Carrying a U.S. base price near $200,000, the Turbo S is still powered by a flat six, with three cylinders positioned 180 degrees to the other three. But this one is turbocharged and water-cooled, and produces 530 horsepower, which is enough to rocket the car to 60 mph (96 km/h) in 3.1 seconds and not stop accelerating until it reaches 196 mph (313 km/h).

Apart from pure speed, though, the real difference between the two Porsches is handling. The combination of better weight redistribution and a whole host of computer-controlled and electronic aids allow the modern car to reach cornering limits the old one - in race trim - could never dream of.

The same could be said of the 2013 Corvette, which is light years ahead of the 1963 Sting Ray. Back then, there were four versions of the pushrod 327-cubic-inch V-8, ranging from 250 to 360 horsepower. Base price for the convertible was $4,037, with the desirable split-window coupe just $1 more. A three-speed manual transmission was standard, with options including a four-speed manual or a two-speed Powerglide automatic. With the 360-horsepower fuel-injected engine, the 1963 Corvette hit 60 mph (96 km/h) in 5.8 seconds with top speed near 150 mph (240 km/h).

Now flash forward to 2013.

The $60,000 base Corvette comes with a 6.2-litre 430-horse V-8. Step up to the $88,000 Z06 model with the 7.0-litre V-8 and horsepower goes up to 505. The top offering is the $128,000 ZR1, which produces 638 horses, has a top speed of 205 mph (328 km/h) and blasts to 60 mph (96 km/h) in 3.4 seconds.

So after 50 years of evolution, what's better today, the contemporary Corvette or the latest edition of the 911?

That's debatable. Just as it's been for almost half a century.

But the one thing that isn't debatable is that with every new model year, the bar is raised. And for that, enthusiasts on both sides of the fence can be glad.