Finding and Keeping a Reliable Sports Car

Up front, we'll gladly concede that most buyers in the market for a sports car are far more concerned with horsepower and styling than they are with long-term dependability. Still, those status symbols don't come cheap, so if you can find a big engine wrapped in a head-turning package with a side of reliability — what's not to like?

There isn't one simple way to secure a dependable sports car, but there are some things buyers can do to keep their wheels out of the repair shop and on the open road.

1. Learn From Your Peers
J.D. Power rates the Porsche 911 as one of the most reliable sports cars.

J.D. Power rates the Porsche 911 as one of the most reliable sports cars.

The best test of dependability is time. That's why reliability studies from organizations like J.D. Power and Associates and Consumer Reports are so valuable.

According to J.D. Power, the most reliable sports cars include the Honda S2000 and Porsche 911. Perhaps even more telling, J.D. Power lists Lexus and Porsche as the top two automakers overall in terms of long-term dependability, giving buyers in the market for something shiny and fast a number of models to choose from.

In Consumer Reports' 2005 reliability study, the S2000 also took top honors, ranking 60 percent more reliable than the average for all vehicle categories. It was followed by the Lexus SC 430; Subaru Impreza WRX and Impreza WRX STi; and Acura RSX.

Interestingly, Consumer Reports' analysis of the past year of Ford Mustang ownership shows that owners of the V-8-powered model have 15 percent better reliability than the industry average, while the V-6 model comes in at 82 percent worse than average. Those results are based on just the past year because the Mustang was redesigned for the 2005 model year.

J.D. Power's study is based on problems reported per 100 vehicles over three years of ownership, meaning results in the 2005 study are based on 2002-model-year vehicles. Consumer Reports surveys its subscribers and calculates reliability based on average scores for the past three model years, where available, so long as the vehicle remains substantially unchanged over those years.

2. Know When the Data Doesn't Apply

Obviously, it's impossible to know just how reliable a brand-new model will be, and the same thing is true for redesigned models.

Gabriel Shenhar, Consumer Reports' senior auto test engineer, said that when a vehicle is redesigned its reliability record usually takes a dip in its first year, no matter how reliable previous generations of the model had proved to be.

"Some manufacturers have it more severely than others, but even manufacturers with excellent reliability records are not immune to it," he said. "There's no way to project on a brand-new car or redesigned car."

In those cases, Shenhar said a buyer's best bet is to go with a manufacturer with a history of solid reliability.

3. Determine a Maintenance Schedule
For the Lexus SC 430, or any sports car, experts recommend following the maintenance schedule outlined in the owner's manual.

For the Lexus SC 430, or any sports car, experts recommend following the maintenance schedule outlined in the owner's manual.

That may sound a bit too empowered for comfort, but the proper maintenance schedule for your sports car will depend in large part on how you're using it. Most vehicle manuals include two recommended schedules, one based on normal use and the other on severe use, but what constitutes "severe use" can be fuzzy.

Denny Kahler, an Automotive Service Association chairman, said there is no formula to determine a foolproof schedule, so the best method is for owners to go to a full-service auto shop and consult with a technician they trust.

"If a person is using a repair shop and being forthright in how they're using their vehicle, they'll be able to get a recommendation," he said. "If [a technician] is working on the car, they'll be able to tell."

For starters, know that sports cars that log mostly stop-and-go, city-traffic miles will need maintenance much more frequently than those that are used mostly for freeway commutes.

Secondly, don't be too quick to think your vehicle use couldn't possibly fall into the "severe" category. Angie Wilson, ASA's vice president of marketing and communications, said use of few of the vehicles on the road today would be considered "normal."

"City driving, mountains and even temperature variations can move you from the 'normal' column to the 'severe' column," she said. "Be sure to also consider the number of hours your engine is running [and not just your mileage]."

Of course, your maintenance schedule and needs will also depend in part on your driving habits — did you get that Audi TT because of how fabulous you'd look in the driver's seat, or are you really putting it through its paces? The latter will obviously require a bit more TLC.

4. Do as You're Told

Many manufacturers recommend first-rate treatment for their cars, such as premium fuel or synthetic oil. It may seem a bit nose-in-the-air, but Kahler says the best rule of thumb in those cases is to "just do it."

"If they say synthetic oil, use it," he said. "If they say you have to run it on premium fuel, run it on premium fuel. Lesser fuel means lesser performance and lesser mileage."

Thanks to onboard computers, Kahler said, using lower-grade fuel won't ruin your engine the way it would have in the days before cars were so sophisticated. The computer will protect the engine by compensating for the lesser fuel, but drivers will see a dip in performance. Besides, if you're willing to pay up front to drive a sports car, the least you can do is give it what it needs to keep you a happy driver.

5. Treat it Right
If you plan to store your Acura RSX, or any car, for the winter months, a few steps should be taken to keep it in good condition.

If you plan to store your Acura RSX, or any car, for the winter months, a few steps should be taken to keep it in good condition.

For many sports-car buyers, their new set of wheels may be just a luxury purchase that has little to do with actual transportation needs. If you fall into that category, one of the best things you can do for your car is keep it safely tucked away during the days or weeks when you're using your more utilitarian ride to get around town.

If you aren't planning to use your car for a while, keep it in an enclosed garage that's dry and well-ventilated. Before storing your car, make sure it's clean, inside and out, with no leftover food wrappers or crumbs lying around the inside and no sap or bird-droppings left outside to damage the paint.

If you're planning on storing your car for longer than a couple of months, make sure the gas tank is full, as a low or empty tank may rust. Throw in a fuel-stabilizing additive to prevent the gas from deteriorating, and disconnect and remove the battery.

You should also make sure your radiator is protected by having at least a 50-50 mixture of antifreeze and water in the cooling system. Lastly, put the car up on jack stands to relieve the weight on the tires.

Posted on 2/14/06