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Sports cars

Sports car buying guide

Last updated: May 2014
Getting started

Getting started

The sports car category ranges from models that have merely sporty styling or appearance packages to performance-focused coupes, sedans, hatchbacks, and roadsters that can accelerate briskly and tackle corners with agility and sure-footed competence. Often, the high-performance quotient comes at the price of a hard, noisy ride, and limited passenger or cargo space. Compromises are common, but these cars exist to entertain the driver.

Key things to consider

With a wide range of body styles, performance, and price, it can be tough to choose a sports car. Because many sports cars are not driven every day or very far, fuel economy is not a primary factor for many shoppers, though there are models that provide relatively good mileage; we're seeing even muscle cars make notable gains. For a daily driver, you'll probably want to consider a sedan or coupe: a sedan for its four doors, or a coupe for sportier styling and performance-oriented model selection. But for a pure sports car, the type many owners reserve for sunny Saturdays, a small roadster, such as a BMW Z4, Mazda Miata, or Porsche Boxster, epitomizes the genre. Many would include coupes with a tiny rear seat, such as the Audi TT and Porsche 911, in that category, as well.

For any sports car you consider, it's important to check out the view. Coupe designs tend to severely restrict the view to the rear, and other styling considerations could compromise the view to the sides or even straight ahead. The Chevrolet Camaro is a notorious example of a car that compromises visibility for styling. If you plan to drive briskly on twisty roads, the ability to see other traffic or obstacles clearly is important.

What you'll spend

Prices start around $20,000 for cars such as the Mini Cooper and Scion tC, and they reach past $80,000 or more for cars such as the Porsche 911. But many of the sporty cars we recommend are priced in the mid $20s to $40s.

Types

Sports sedans


These are agile cars made for high-performance handling, often with powerful engines, strong brakes, and dressed-up exteriors. A major benefit to choosing a sports sedan is that the four-door configuration allows transport for four or five passengers and provides cargo space in the trunk. It is a wolf in sheep's clothing. BMW helped popularize the concept, but there are many appealing alternatives, from Audi, Cadillac, Infiniti, and Mercedes-Benz, to name a few. Sizes vary widely, from small models such as the Subaru Impreza WRX to larger cars such as the BMW M5 and Cadillac CTS-V.

Coupes


Two-door coupes often have swept-back rear styling and a lower ride height than some equivalent sedans. In this category, the coupe group ranges from fixed-roof two- and four-seaters to two-door versions of cars that also exist as sports sedans (like the Cadillac CTS-V coupe) or two-door convertibles, such as iconic cars including the Chevrolet Corvette and Ford Mustang. Due to short wheelbases and sweeping body lines, sporty coupes often provide compromised rear accommodations.

Roadsters


By definition, a roadster is a two-seat sports car with a removable, retractable, or convertible top. These are often highly entertaining to drive, but rife with compromises for daily and year-round use. Some convertibles have 2+2 seating, providing room for four, but these often are not as engaging to drive and the rear seats are typically best suited to occasional use, and even then, for children.

Hatchbacks


The hatchback body design brings built-in practicality, with a large rear lift gate and folding rear seatback to provide cargo-toting versatility. Sporty hatchbacks are often on the less-expensive end of the spectrum. "Hot hatches" have long been a favorite in Europe, where the combination of flexibility, entertaining driving dynamics, and miserly fuel economy has special appeal. The Mini Cooper S and Volkswagen GTI are good examples.

Features


Below we highlight important features for you to consider when purchasing a sports car.

Engines and fuel economy

The powertrain (the combination of engine and transmission) is a major consideration with sporty cars, as power delivery is a big part of the fun-to-drive equation. Enthusiasts often prefer a manual transmission, because a stick shift gives the driver more control. Shifting the transmission further engages the driver in the experience and helps complete the man-machine interface. But modern-day automatic transmissions have developed beyond the gearboxes found in pedestrian commuter cars. Sequential gearboxes, or automated manuals, allow for rapid shifting without the use of a clutch. They can shift as fast as a manual transmission, or even faster, and some enthusiasts feel they minimize the driving enjoyment compromise inherent with an automated transmission.

Many sports cars have a high-revving engine that may get a horsepower boost from a turbocharger or supercharger”devices that force more air into the engine than a "naturally aspirated" engine can draw in by itself. The more air that's available to mix with the fuel, the more power the engine can produce.

Larger sports cars and sports sedans usually offer a six-cylinder engine, either a straight-six or more commonly a V6. On the whole, six-cylinder engines have a larger displacement (cylinder volume) than four-cylinder engines, so it's easier for the automaker to endow them with more horsepower and torque. While sixes are bigger and heavier, they are also inherently smoother-running than four-cylinder engines.

The largest sporty cars and American-style muscle cars, such as the Chevrolet Camaro, Dodge Challenger, and Ford Mustang, are offered with big-displacement, high-horsepower V8 engines. Acceleration tends to be effortless, and a brutally quick launch from a standing start goes with the territory, as does a very high top speed. Historically known more for cruising and straight-line thrills, muscle cars have seen ride, handling, and even fuel economy improvements.

Handling

Beyond the power delivery and sound qualities, a key to a fun car is its handling: how it reacts to the road and the driver. Minimal body lean, quick steering response, and steering feedback are the ingredients that separate poseurs from real sports cars. These qualities cannot be taken for granted and have nothing to do with style, number of doors, or engine size.

Drive wheels

Some argue that the best sporty cars must have rear-wheel drive. While that remains conventional wisdom, there are certainly exceptions, such as the front-wheel-drive Mini Cooper and Volkswagen GTI, and all-wheel-drive Audi TT and Subaru Impreza WRX. Rear-wheel drive takes its appeal from the balanced weight distribution and how the car reacts to power routed to the rear. A rear-drive car lends itself better to managing a lot of power, and it is easier to finesse with the throttle, enabling a skilled driver to rotate the back end of the car in a controlled, and entertaining, fashion.

Access

Low-slung sports cars, especially roadsters, can be challenging to enter and exit. Low, heavily bolstered seats, short doors, and arched rooflines favor youthful, athletic drivers. It can be a challenge to access the rear seat, if there is one. Some models have a convenient one-hand-operation for scooting the front seats far forward. With all body styles, consider access issues. Generally, sedans will be more accommodating, but even then roof design, door size, and seat can still bring compromises over a traditional family sedan. The trunk may be very small, too. Some hatchbacks have a high lift-over lip and the space may be compromised with a side-to-side brace added for rigidity.

Safety features

Some sports cars beg to be driven fast, but as speeds increase, the severity of any crash rises exponentially. Consequently, it makes sense to take all possible precautions to protect yourself and your passengers, and to practice good judgment and restraint. Just in case, it is important to have good brakes, and braking performance is one of the measurements we take on every car we test. Now standard on new cars, we consider antilock brakes (ABS) and electronic stability control (ESC) to be must-haves on used cars. Electronic stability control is a computer-based system that automatically and selectively applies brakes to pull a car out of an incipient sideways slide.

All new cars also have standard left and right front air bags, and lap-and-shoulder belts. Chest-level side air bags are common for front-seat passengers. Head-protecting side air bags, usually in the form of a side curtain that covers front and rear side windows, are common and we recommend them. It can be very difficult to install a child seat in the rear of a sporty coupe or convertible, and even sport sedans have present challenges due to the seat shape. (Check our road tests for an assessment of child seat compatibility.)

Size is another safety consideration. Other things being equal, a larger, heavier car is safer for its occupants than a smaller, lighter car. Check our safety Ratings for insights on how models perform based on crash tests, and our dynamic track tests. Bear in mind that because some sports models are low-volume specialty cars, there may not be crash test results available. (Learn more about car safety.)

Emerging safety technologies

The latest automotive safety advances include telematics systems that alert emergency personnel if an air bag deploys, lane-departure warning systems that sound an alert if you change lanes without signaling, rearview cameras to prevent back-over accidents, and blind-spot warning systems that indicate vehicles driving in the blind spots to the side and rear of you. Automatic-braking systems are also spreading. These collision-avoidance systems apply the brakes if you're approaching the car ahead too quickly and ignore an audible warning that sounds to alert you to the situation. Another emerging technology is lane-keeping assist, which centers your car in the lane if you start to drift. (Learn more about car safety.)

Entertainment and convenience

The latest mobile electronics enable cars to deliver the fidelity of home theater, along with cell-phone connectivity and navigation guidance. Factory-supplied systems usually offer voice-activated controls for audio, phone, and navigation with various levels of sophistication. You'll frequently find redundant audio controls on the steering wheel.

Audio system

The standard car-audio package is a stereo radio tuner and in-dash CD player with speakers left and right and fore and aft. An upgraded system typically has a more-powerful amplifier (so you can play music loud with minimum distortion), along with more and better-quality speakers to enhance clarity and sound separation. Top-level systems add digital sound fields, noise-canceling, surround sound, and DVD-Audio playback.

Cars at every price level have a jack for plugging in an MP3 device for playback through the car's audio system. Only stereos with a specific iPod connector or USB input, rather than a micro plug port, are able to control and recharge an iPod.

Satellite and HD radio

Subscription-only satellite radio (Sirius/XM) offers broad channel selection, catering to a variety of musical and information interests, much like cable TV. Most vehicles offer satellite radio readiness in some audio systems.

HD Radio allows conventional (or terrestrial) AM and FM stations to broadcast their content over digital signals with higher fidelity. It also allows stations to add more programming over several additional channels that can be broadcast alongside a station's main frequency. This function can be used for delivering traffic or weather information, or more diverse music content.

Navigation systems and connectivity

In-car navigation systems can be a valued featured if you often drive in unfamiliar territory. They typically retail for $750 to $1,500 when offered alone, but nav systems are often bundled with other features, such as a backup camera or a high-end audio system that can add another $1,000 or more. Built-in systems have large, clear screens that are in the center of the dashboard and have generally intuitive controls. They are integrated nicely into the car, and most systems use touch-screen displays that make it easy to enter destinations and scroll through menus.

Many can also respond to voice commands, giving you the added safety of keeping your eyes on the road and hands on the wheel. For a subscription fee, many systems can provide real-time traffic reports, which can alert you to congested traffic, accidents, or road construction. But small portable GPS units can offer most of the same capabilities for far less money. (See Ratings and learn more about portable GPS navigation systems.)

Bluetooth connectivity is becoming very widespread, enabling wireless devices such as a cell phone to wirelessly communicate with the car's audio system. This allows convenient, hands-free phone operation. Many new infotainment systems can interface with your smart phone using apps to stream music and other Internet-sourced data to the car.

Telematics systems, popularized by GM's OnStar, use a combination of cellular telephone and Global Positioning System (GPS) technology to connect drivers with a call center staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, at the touch of a button. For a monthly or annual fee, such concierge services can provide directions and other travel aids. They also have an SOS feature that automatically summons emergency aid following an air-bag deployment, using GPS technology to give first-responders your car's location.

Brands

Audi arrow  |  BMW arrow  |  Volkswagen arrow  |  Chevrolet arrow  |  Ford arrow  |  Honda arrow  |  Infiniti arrow  |  Lexus arrow  |  Mercedes-Benz arrow  |  Nissan arrow

Below we highlight the most popular and the most significant sport car brands, with a synopsis of traits common among their sedans.

Audi

Audi is Volkswagen's upscale brand and plenty of sporty cars fill the roster, from the TT roadster and coupe to sports-oriented "S" versions of other, larger models. Audis tend to have attractive, well-fitting interiors and good seat comfort. Handling is good but not as agile as competing BMWs. They can be fairly pricey, especially for the souped-up S versions, and reliability has often been iffy, though has improved of late.

BMW

BMW has long set the standard for European-style "driver's cars." The M badge denotes heightened performance, available on many BMWs, though the significant enhancements to appearance, powertrain, and chassis come with a significant price. We give BMW high marks for the cars' agility, handling finesse, smooth, punchy powertrains, sophisticated engineering, and impeccable fit and finish. We have criticized the lack of rear seat room in the smaller models and the over-complexity of some controls, as well as persistent small gripes such as inadequate cup holders. Reliability has not been BMW's long suit. Most models hold up well.

At a lower price, the Mini Cooper S is a charming and truly fun-to-drive machine.

Volkswagen

A specialist in small and mid-sized cars, Volkswagen can be counted on for excellent fit and finish, crisp handling, and good ride composure. Reliability has been spotty—good one year, poor the next. That's a shame since otherwise the cars are so good and fun to drive, especially the affordable and entertaining GTI.

Chevrolet

Chevrolet is an iconic, all-American brand. Chevy offerings include every size and type. On the sporty side, Chevy's major entries are the high-performance Corvette and the Camaro muscle car.

Ford

The Ford logo, symbolized by a blue oval, appears on a full range of cars, trucks, and SUVs. In latter years Ford has made good use of its global resources to create great-handling cars especially those wearing the SVT badge. Currently, Ford's only entry in the sporty-car class is the Mustang coupe and convertible.

Honda

For years, Honda made a name for itself, and a good one, selling just two vehicles in the U.S., the Civic and Accord. Honda is justly known for high quality, reasonable prices, and excellent reliability. The Civic Si is a pleasant sporty sedan while the S2000 roadster is a highly entertaining "true" sports car.

Infiniti

Infiniti is Nissan's upscale brand. It long struggled in the shadow of Lexus, which was the class act among the Japanese luxury marques. Lately, though, we have been impressed with the driving qualities, powertrains, and interior design of such cars as the Infiniti G and Infiniti M sedans. Infiniti is placing more sporting character in all its vehicles.

Lexus

Lexus, a Toyota division, arrived in 1988 as the first of a wave of Japanese luxury cars. The flagship LS sedan was our top-Rated car or top-Rated luxury car for many years. Lexus is known for interior quiet, top-notch fit and finish, and refinement but lack of driver involvment. Sporty entries such as the IS and the SC, despite their impeccable finish, have not proved as sporty or engaging as competitors such as BMW. A new "F" line of performance variants promise more extreme performance, mirroring the strategy of its European competitors.

Mercedes-Benz

With a Mercedes-Benz model, you can expect an excellent powertrain at every level, crisp handling, and a composed and comfortable ride. Mercedes' seats tend to be very firm but comfortable and supportive on long trips. Some controls may be needlessly complicated. Reliability has been spotty in recent years, with the C- and E-class popping on and off our Recommended lists, but great improvements have been evident lately. Increasingly, Mercedes models have a sporty edge, though the highest-performance offerings are denoted by AMG badging. These exclusive, high-dollar versions feature upgraded powertrains, chassis, and cosmetics.

Nissan

Nissan has long been famed for its excellent engines, especially its V6s. In recent years, Nissan has made marked improvements in interior quality and packaging. Nissan made a name for itself with the Z-car series of sports coupes, and has had limited success with souped-up versions of the Sentra sedan. Nissan also makes the ultra-premium Nissan GT-R. Reliability for Nissan cars has usually been very good.

New vs. Used

When in the market for your next vehicle, the first consideration is whether to buy new or used. Buying a brand-new sports car certainly has its benefits. Most notably, new vehicles can have the very latest safety gear and engineering improvements. Plus, with a new car you know what you're getting, and it is backed by a comprehensive factory warranty. You don't have to worry about potential service problems, concealed collision damage, or unknown history of abuse, a particular concern with sports cars. Further, you can have your choice of color, trim line, and option level. And financing rates are typically lower than for a used vehicle.

The key drawback with buying a new car is rapid depreciation. A new car can shed half its value in its first two or three years on the road, likely just off lease. If you have financed the new car with a low down payment, you can easily find yourself "upside down" on the loan, where you owe more than the car is worth.

Used cars can be a welcome alternative. The used-car market is about three times the size of the new-car market, so there's certainly plenty of choice out there. One of the best strategies is to find a car you like that's only two to three years old. It's has already taken its biggest depreciation hit, which works to your advantage, but it should still have most of its useful life ahead of it. Modern cars, if soundly maintained, can stay on the road 200,000 miles or longer. Rust, for instance, isn't nearly the problem it was years ago. Solid-state electronics have eliminated the need for a lot of regular servicing that used to be necessary.

The key to selecting a good used car is to focus on reliability, even when a prospective automobile is still covered by its original factory warranty. Look for one that has done well in our Reliability judgments. The sports car reliability stars include models from Honda, Hyundai, Nissan, Scion, Subaru, and Toyota.

CR's reliability scores are no guarantee, of course, but they do carry the weight of probability. If you shop for a sports car with top-notch reliability scores, the odds are on your side.

Whether buying new or used, it is important to do a little homework to choose a good model, and to follow that up with effective negotiation. Remember, don't fall in love and blind yourself to otherwise obvious defects.

Learn more in our new and used car buying guides.

See upcoming sporty cars in our New Car Preview.

   

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