Friday, September 16, 2005

Return of the real sports car

This is something I did for a project I was attempting to get off the ground - never happened, but there you go.

A car is the second biggest purchase you make in your lifetime, and it's only natural that you want your sparkling new ride to be enjoyable. Successful manufacturers understand this, and popular models are always in some way outstanding. Most people buy cars of outstanding value. Those of us that can actually afford to spend a little more, go for a luxury car or a sports car. If your dream machine is a Cadillac, the following will be of purely academic interest. We're going to be talking about sportscars.

The big problem with sportscars is that their functionality only matches the perceived requirements of the average buyer, not the true ones. When you don't need more than two seats or any sort of damping, you can't afford a sportscar. By the time you start earning enough, you have a wife, 2.3 children and a golden retriever, so at best you buy a station wagon, at worst a minivan or an SUV, equally horrid choices from a car nut's perspective. In his mind's eye, a 45-year-old upper middle class male sees himself in a Carrera, or at least a Miata, swooshing along the coast on the weekend. But it's the trusty ol' Explorer that gets him to work every day.

Relief comes from two directions. If you're hell-bent on retaining any self-respect when life forces you to finally abandon that rotting '67 Stang gathering dust in the garage with the drivetrain in five different locations, you get a sports sedan, or in the last decade and particularly in Europe an estate car with that little something extra. There is a good reason why the Audi RS6 comes with an autobox and a vertical tailgate, or why in the Old World the BMW 3-series outsells the vanilla Ford by three to one. Or, if you can't afford a bahnstormer, the Japanese are happy to oblige. The fact that both Mitsubishi and Subaru decided to give their mainstream sedans some reflected glory during their World Rally Championship effort has had a fortunate side effect for car enthusiasts in the form of the Impreza and Lancer rally specials - genuine performance and genuine useability. In fact, a fairly mature person I know uses a WRX as a daily driver while his modified Laser coupe awaits the weekend. It's a purchase you can justify. The US market for these cars is actually quite large, which drives prices down and - oh joy! - makes an Evo seem almost within reach of a schoolkid. Even though you are not going to see many Imprezas with hood scoops in the hands of people younger than 25.

So that's all good, but the problem with a rally special or a premium sedan is that it's not a sports car. Yes, in most real-life conditions a properly driven Evo VIII is the ruler of all it surveys, but for many drivers that is not the point. At the end of the day, you are still driving a four-door Mitsubishi, while your ego strives for a true sportscar.

But your choices are limited. The previous generation of Japanese supercoupes like the Toyota Supra and Mazda RX-7 have priced themselves out of existence. Affordable models like the current Mitsubishi Eclipse and Toyota Celica aren't much more than econoboxes in drag. The Miata and MR-2 have 140 horsepower, which by today's standards is laughable. The Honda S2000, you're not going to fit into. Audi's TT is outdated, BMW's Z4 is ugly, and both are too expensive. The American car industry can only offer wet dreams like the Pontiac Solstice (in showrooms Any Day Now) and Dodge Razor (rigor mortis). The obvious choice is the Ford Mustang, but everybody else has one, which kind of spoils the fun.

There's hope left, though.

Proper management has taken over at gaijin-owned Japanese car companies. Lo and behold! The Nissan 350Z. Two doors, nearly 300bhp and rear wheel drive! And best of all, you can get one adequately equipped for under thirty thousand dollars. Yes, the interior plastic could be better and baggage space is conceptual, but who cares? The great big strut brace/chassis crossmember with the Z logo is all in the spirit of the car. However if your significant other absolutely insists on your new pride and joy fiting more than two people and their CDs, there is always the Mazda RX-8. It doesn't actually look like it has four doors, and while it's not quite as fast as the Nissan, you can revel in the knowledge that the tazmanian devil rotary behind the front axle can just about hit 10,000rpm. And then there is the Chrysler Crossfire, which you don't really buy for the performance - it doesn't have any - but it looks amazing and doesn't make you feel ashamed for not using the performance potential. We've already established that it's the feeling that counts.

And the future is getting brighter as we speak. The Pontiac GTO imported from Australia and the Lotus Elise are both now on the US market and both have a price tag that approaches reasonable. The former provides a big V8 and genuine interior room, being a rebadged Holden Monaro, the two-door version of the global platform that briefely made an appearance Stateside as the Cadillac Catera. The latter will allow you to go around corners faster than, well, anything; the fact that it's mid-engined will impress those who don't know what an Elise is. Get it in bright red and you can tell people it's a Ferrari.

So it seems like the American sports car buyer is spoilt for choice. From the brilliant new Mazda Miata, to the 330bhp supercharged Crossfire that Chrysler is promising us, you have no more excuse to buy a boring car.

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