Best Bets and Buying Considerations

2004 BMW M3
Top-notch handling helps make BMW’s M3 a cars.com Best Bet.

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Selecting the best bet within any consumer product category — be it automotive, household goods or electronics — is a daunting and ultimately subjective task. Still, when a number of experts give a thumbs-up to a particular vehicle, it’s likely a model worth considering during your shopping excursion. For vehicle recommendations, continue reading, or click here to see how cars.com selects its Best Bets.

Jim’s Picks, Based on Need
Because so many exciting sports cars are on the market these days, and each offers a unique set of attributes, picking the best ones is quite a challenge. Sports-car buyers tend to have discriminating tastes and specific desires that aren’t easily satisfied. Nevertheless, each of these models is worth pondering before heading to a dealership. Naturally, some of the expensive exotics would excel in certain areas, but their high prices tend to take them out of the running.

Acura RSX: Despite its relatively modest price, Acura’s four-passenger coupe ranks among the most exceptional for all-around driving. Behaving as capably as it looks, the RSX produces an undeniably sporty experience, whether you’re piloting the base model or the more potent Type-S. Pick the latter if really crisp handling and more spirited engine response is what you want.

BMW M3: BMW’s high-performance offshoot of the 3 Series is simply hard to match in terms of tight handling and vigorous performance. Both the coupe and convertible blend civilized comforts with supreme handling, though the ride tends to get harsh on rough pavement. Beware of the available sequential manual gearbox unless you’re a serious enthusiast, as it can yield neck-snapping gear changes.

2004 BMW Z4
BMW’s Z4 roadster is offered with a choice of inline-six-cylinder engines and can be fitted with a hardtop.

BMW Z4: BMW took a sizable step forward in 2003 when it debuted the Z4, a serious thoroughbred of a road machine and also the Z3’s replacement. Its fresh, sculpted styling might be controversial, but its performance and driving behavior are hard to beat. You can expect forceful acceleration even with the automatic transmission, crisp handling and a well-behaved ride — though harsh surfaces create some commotion. The seats are simply magnificent and feature satisfying cushioning for long treks.

Cadillac XLR: Once called the “Standard of the World,” Cadillac reached high to develop its new two-seater. Better yet, the company succeeded in creating a retractable-hardtop coupe that’s loaded with luxury features and technology. More than a mere boulevard cruiser, the XLR handles with confidence and its 320-horsepower V-8 engine yields impressive performance.

Chrysler Crossfire: Not many sports cars on the market look sharper than a fastback Crossfire coupe, and not too many exhibit such truly sporty behavior, either. Tight, precise handling is the rule, and the Crossfire clings avidly to the pavement. Big tires pay off in curves, and though it’s not gentle, the ride is less punishing than that of the Nissan 350Z or Porsche Boxster. Performance is vigorous enough, but engine power falls short of overwhelming. A roadster joins the coupe in mid-2004.

2004 Honda Civic Si
Unlike many cars, the five-speed manual in Honda’s Civic Si is mounted high on the center console.

Honda Civic Si: Honda’s sport hatchback is agile and exuberant and delivers high-revving performance, nimble moves and precise road behavior. The Civic Si ranks high in the four-passenger, compact sports-car segment, and it has a usable backseat. Its rally-style gearshift is a pleasure to manipulate, and the seats are terrific.

Mazda RX-8: It took Mazda a while to revive the rotary engine, but when it did so for the 2004 model year, the result was quite an achievement. Unlike RX models of the past, this sports car has four doors instead of two — though the rear-hinged back ones are half the size of normal doors. Offered with a manual or automatic transmission, the RX-8 combines an urbane driving experience with the vitality of rotary-engine power. If anything, this four-seater is a tad too easy to drive, delivering satisfying reactions from its well-behaved steering and suspension without excessive effort.

Mini Cooper S: Few recently introduced cars have attracted as much attention as the Mini, and most of its praise is well deserved. The base-model Cooper is full of fun, but the supercharged Cooper S adds an extra helping of zest. Other than a less-than-gentle ride and a modestly sized backseat, there’s little to criticize. A John Cooper Works tuning kit adds even more vigor, but a regular Cooper S is sure to satisfy most Mini fans.

Nissan 350Z: Excitement seems to loom at every curve and corner when you’re behind the wheel of Nissan’s sports car. Available in coupe or roadster form, the 350Z should satisfy even jaded fans of the old Z-cars. Precise steering, easy maneuverability and confident behavior top its list of merits. Crisp automatic-transmission responses and a masterful manual gearbox could easily be added to its list of strong points. Nissan also earns credit for offering a variety of trim levels to suit various drivers. In any form, it’s a serious machine.

2004 Porsche Boxster
Porsche’s Boxster (pictured) also is available in S form, which comes with a larger, six-cylinder engine.

Porsche Boxster: For serious and enthusiastic driving at a price well below its more famous 911 sibling, the Boxster is almost in a class by itself. This is an ideal car for motoring around in good weather and worth keeping in the garage and fantasizing about when winter snow arrives.

Subaru Impreza WRX: Picking from the crop of hot sport compacts is no easy matter, with such competitors as the Dodge SRT-4, Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, and Volkswagen’s GTI and R32. Subaru’s WRX and even-hotter WRX STi accelerate with ferocity and corner smartly as a result of quick and easy steering. Their taut suspensions tame most bumps, too. With their rear spoilers, each WRX also looks the part of a compact performance machine.

Joe’s Picks for 2004 Sports Cars
Cars.com’s Vehicle Profiler Joe Wiesenfelder spends many of his waking hours with the vehicles he reviews. Not only does he subject them to hours of city and highway road tests, but he also makes sure that other attributes live up to his standards. For instance, are the cupholders handy enough? Does the interior cramp your style? And are the extra safety features worth their keep?

Here, Joe applauds seven sports cars. All prices are the starting manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP), and the destination charge is not included.
2004 Dodge SRT-4 Dodge SRT-4 $20,450
Best pocket rocket: When Dodge announced it would put more than 200 hp into a Neon, I knew they’d have the quickest affordable pocket rocket. I didn’t expect them to engineer a chassis to match the engine’s performance. The word “Neon” is nowhere on the SRT-4 and nowhere in your mind as you throw the surprisingly agile car into a tight turn and unleash the turbocharged 230 hp and 250 pounds-feet of torque. This much power for the price is unprecedented, and you can goose it up to 265 hp with Mopar parts (300 hp might follow). The ride is firm and the driver’s seat restrictive, but once you feel the rush and hear the intoxicating exhaust burble, you won’t mind. Get Prices and Specs 

2004 Mazda MX-5 Miata Mazda MX-5 Miata $21,868 – $24,673
Best non-sports car: Ask anyone what makes something a sports car, and the answer is likely to be power or speed. Despite recent output boosts — and a turbocharged Mazdaspeed variant — the regular Miata is not and has never been particularly quick. How can it be so fun to drive? Credit the steering, the handling and the rear-wheel drive with perfect weight distribution. It lets you go sideways all you want without ever becoming unmanageable. You have to drive it to believe it. Get Prices and Specs 

2004 Nissan 350Z Nissan 350Z and 350Z Roadster $26,370 – $36,220
Best sign there’s hope for the genre: From sedans to sport utility vehicles, everything is getting sportier, but whatever happened to the vehicle that is first and foremost a sports car? How about an affordable one? We’ve watched one example after another disappear. Then along comes the 350Z with its return to the tried-and-true formula: two seats; a big-displacement, normally aspirated engine; a manual transmission; and rear-wheel drive — and a ton of fun for less than $27,000. Now, around $7,000 more will buy a handsome convertible version, the 2004 350Z Roadster. Get Prices and Specs 

2004 Subaru Impreza WRX STi Subaru Impreza WRX STi $31,120
Best people mover: If you want to throw open four doors, load five occupants and blaze from zero to 60 mph in about 5 seconds, your options are few. The most affordable include the STi and its World Rally Championship nemesis, the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution. What tips the scales in Subaru’s direction? More displacement for more torque, one more forward gear (for six total), quieter tires, a more livable ride, and niceties like cruise control and driver’s seat-height adjustment. If they would tone down the hood scoop and rear wing, even us older folks would buy ’em. And to think I was impressed by the regular WRX. . . . Get Prices and Specs 

2004 Audi TT Audi TT quattro $36,700 – $42,900
Most well rounded (no pun intended): Automakers are on a power trip, making their models more interesting by adding horses, which results in a lot of one-trick ponies. The TT offers a more well-rounded performance package. A successful sports car requires style as well, and the TT has loads, inside and out. Choose 180, 225 or 250 hp, but pass on the front-wheel drive and automatic transmission. It has to be quattro all-wheel drive and a manual. Did you ever play with slot cars as a kid and wonder what it would be like to drive one? Stop wondering. Drive this car. Get Prices and Specs 

2004 Chevrolet Corvette Chevrolet Corvette $43,835 – $52,185
Best sports car: Even though the C5 generation of the Corvette will be replaced this year, I still consider it the best pure sports car. It lacks the interior quality promised for the 2005 C6, but it combines plenty of performance with daily-driving comfort, especially when equipped with the optional Magnetic Selective Ride Control. The C5 Vette drives into history an astounding car. You could pay a lot more for a car that’s far less refined — the Dodge Viper SRT-10 — or one that’s arguably too refined — the Porsche 911. But why? You won’t find a world-class sports car for less, especially this year as dealers make room for the 2005s. Get Prices and Specs 

2004 BMW M3 BMW M3 $47,100 – $55,600
Best of the alphabet-souped: Suddenly all the automakers are creating souped-up versions of their cars and slapping extra letters on them: “S,” “AMG,” “R,” “V.” Hmmmm . . . where have we seen this before? Right here in the M3, which is still the best of the alphabet-souped set. An exaggeration of the near-perfect 3 Series coupe, the M3 delivers abundant, even power through fat rear tires, its brakes can detach retinas, and its handling makes a joke of competitors’ higher-tech suspensions. Option the paddle shifters if you must. I’ll take the conventional six-speed manual and a long, exceedingly winding road. Get Prices and Specs 

ByJoe Wiesenfelder, cars.com
Check out Joe Wiesenfelder’s in-depth reviews in Vehicle Profiles.
Your Needs Determine What’s Best for You
Picking the most suitable model depends on your personal needs and how you plan to use your new sports car. It’s important to remember that many sports cars hold only two occupants.

For everyday driving: If winter weather isn’t a problem, tamer versions of the rear-drive Ford Mustang are easy to live with for everything from commuting and household chores to long Sunday drives. In harsher climates, a front-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive coupe like the Mitsubishi Eclipse might be more prudent. Each of these sports cars has a backseat that can at least hold youngsters. A plush Volvo C70 convertible will please rear-seat riders even more, but it’s far less sporty than most cars in this category. Plenty of hot compact owners might consider their Mini Cooper S, Subaru Impreza WRX or Volkswagen GTI to be daily drivers, too.

2004 Mazda RX-8
Like many extended-cab pickup trucks, the rotary-powered Mazda RX-8 features rear-hinged half doors to aid rear-seat entry and exit.

For optimal performance and handling: Porsche’s 911 Carrera and 911 Turbo are the ones to beat here, though plenty of competitors come close. In a different league entirely, the Chevrolet Corvette — with its brawny V-8 — is reminiscent of the muscle-car era. Among the more recent gems, the Honda S2000 promises razor-sharp steering and high-revving performance. And on a smaller scale, don’t forget the Mini Cooper S. Many performance and handling advocates might lean toward such disparate possibilities as an Acura RSX Type-S, Audi S4, BMW M3, Honda Civic Si or Mazda RX-8.

For racecar-like qualities: Here, too, the Honda S2000, any Porsche and the Chevrolet Corvette lead the pack — especially if the Vette is equipped with a taut suspension and the hottest engine. Track-tuned versions of the Nissan 350Z also need to be considered. Members of the current group of compact sport sedans and hatchbacks can also yield racecar-like moves, if on a less-exuberant scale. High up on the price scale, you get into such race-bred supercars as the 2005 Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren and Saleen S7.

For summer and leisure driving: Just about anything with a fold-down top should be a strong candidate for summer fun, including the Mazda MX-5 Miata and Toyota MR2 Spyder two-seaters and the Ford Mustang convertible. For a larger dollar outlay, you might consider an Audi TT roadster, soft-top Nissan 350Z Roadster, BMW 645Ci convertible or Cadillac XLR. Don’t forget the 2005 Mini Cooper S Convertible and 2005 Chrysler Crossfire Roadster.

2004 Audi S4 Avant
The Audi S4 Avant lets you have it all: the performance of a sports car and the practicality of a wagon.

For passenger space: Not many sports cars have adequate space for more than two people, and some squeeze the front occupants rather snugly, too. BMW’s Z4 is among the roomier choices for two people. For four or more people, possibilities range from the Dodge SRT-4 and Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, through the Audi S4 and BMW M3, to the BMW 645Ci and Mercedes-Benz CLK-Class. Only Audi and Subaru offer wagons that qualify — due to their performance potential — as sports cars.

For price-conscious shoppers: In terms of lowest dollar outlay, the base-level Hyundai Tiburon, Mitsubishi Eclipse and Toyota Celica come out ahead. For not much more money, you can drive home a Ford Mustang, Honda Civic Si, Mini Cooper S or Volkswagen GTI. Though it’s a bit more costly, the Mazda MX-5 Miata still appeals to buyers who’d like traditional sports-car attributes at a moderate price. Acura’s tempting RSX and the Neon-based Dodge SRT-4 start above $20,000.

For buyers with money to spend: If you’re on a big budget, why not drive home something that not only delivers an exhilarating driving experience but also is seldom seen on American roads? The Italian marques — Ferrari, Lamborghini and Maserati — as well as the British-built Aston Martins stand tall in this category. On the other hand, a high-end BMW or Mercedes-Benz might be less troublesome if a breakdown occurs simply because more technicians are able to repair them properly.

2004 Mini Cooper S
Distinctive motoring can be yours with the Mini Cooper S, courtesy of its stand-out-from-the-crowd styling.

For frugal gas mileage: Toyota’s tamer Celica leads the pack in miserliness at the gas pump, but the Acura RSX, Mini Cooper S and Toyota MR2 Spyder come close. A base-model Hyundai Tiburon, Mitsubishi Eclipse or Volkswagen GTI probably won’t be very thirsty, either.

For traditional sports-car capabilities: Sure, it’s been around for almost 15 years, but Mazda’s two-seat MX-5 Miata continues to deliver plenty of smiles. Driving a Miata comes closer than most sports cars to the sensations felt in British roadsters of the distant past, which made compelling use of a relatively small engine and favored precision moves over an easygoing ride. Toyota’s similarly snug MR2 Spyder also yields super highway moves and a taut grip through curves. Traditional sports-car behavior at a loftier price point is yours in the Jaguar XK8 and Mercedes-Benz’s SL500 and SL600.

For unique styling and sex appeal: Most sports cars, including the curvaceous Audi TT, the sculpted BMW Z4, the fastback Chrysler Crossfire coupe and the sleek Honda S2000, rank high in this category. Few cars are as appealing as a Jaguar XK8 or any Aston Martin, not to mention the Italian exotics. Appealing lines are evident on cars as diverse as the Cadillac XLR and Mazda RX-8. The Ford Thunderbird scores high in flamboyance — it’s one car to drive if you want to be noticed.

For strong resale value: One is moderately priced and the other commands plenty of bucks, but the Mini Cooper S and Acura NSX are tied for the top spot in retaining their value. On the whole, premium models from the likes of BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche hold their value better than their less-pricey cousins, but most sports cars do well on this score.
2004 Lexus SC 430
The limited-production Lexus SC 430 Pebble Beach Edition (pictured) comes with special trimmings and even a golf bag.

The only serious exception is the Dodge SRT-4, which isn’t expected to retain its value very well.

For all-weather motoring: Obviously, a solid-roofed coupe is the choice here. If you like top-down driving in the summer but plan to drive the car year-round, look at the Cadillac XLR, Lexus SC 430, or Mercedes-Benz’s SL500, SL600 or SLK-Class; all feature retractable hardtops.

Pros and Cons of Owning a Sports Car
Even though sports cars aren’t as popular as they used to be, they’re tempting choices for fun-filled motoring. They have some distinct disadvantages — some that are obvious, and others that are not. For practical reasons, some folks who lean toward a full-fledged sports car may be better off with a performance-oriented sport sedan or coupe instead. Still, most buyers are willing to put up with a few drawbacks in order to savor a sports car’s pleasures on winding roads and challenging terrain.

Interior space is a major drawback in most models and a serious obstacle in others. Only a few models have adequate rear-seat space for adults, and the majority don’t have a backseat at all. Storage space can also be a problem, especially in the tiny two-seaters. Entry and exit may be difficult if you or your usual riders are less than agile.

Steering and handling, as expected, are the most alluring benefits of owning a sports car. The driving characteristics of sports cars vary enormously, from, say, a truly tame base-model Ford Mustang or Mitsubishi Eclipse to the ferocious tenacity of a Porsche or Ferrari. Ride comfort also varies enormously, from well behaved — at least on comparatively smooth surfaces — to jittery and bouncy; the harsher rides tend to challenge bumps rather than absorb them.

2004 Lamborghini Murcielago
The front end of Lamborghini’s Murciélago would likely turn into a snowplow if driven in the white stuff, though most owners wouldn’t ever let that happen.

Driving a sports car in the winter can be a problem in northern climates, especially when it’s a rear-drive model. Rear-wheel drive oftentimes translates to greater slippage when the pavement is snowy or icy. Higher-powered sports cars, in particular, can become virtually immobile when the surface gets slick. They can also turn into quite a handful when driving through curves at any speed. These vehicles also tend to sit lower, which can make travel through snow next to impossible.

While sports cars can serve as year-round transportation in temperate regions, they’re not ordinarily a prudent choice in the Snow Belt. In fact, many owners store their sports cars through the winter. And because many sports cars come with performance tires, owners who decide to drive their sports car in the snow should consider a set of snow tires for improved traction.

Roadsters and convertibles often have rear-visibility problems when the top is up. Some sports cars are as quiet as sedans, and others emit sounds that range from sweetly alluring to almost painfully raucous.

Safety features in this vehicle segment range from minimal to plentiful. With a few notable exceptions, though, sports cars tend to have fewer safety features than some other vehicle categories. At the lower end of the price scale, some safety items may be offered as options rather than standard equipment.

How do full-fledged sports cars compare to other performance-oriented models, especially sport sedans? Riding lower to the ground, two-passenger roadsters and coupes are likely to remain more stable through curves, hugging the pavement with a greater degree of tenacity. With today’s advanced suspensions, though, larger sport sedans can come mighty close in handling talents.

Sports Cars Have Unique Virtues
The People’s Choice
The 10 most-sought new sports cars by cars.com visitors:
  1. Nissan 350Z
  2. Ford Mustang
  3. Chevrolet Corvette
  4. BMW M3
  5. Mitsubishi Eclipse
  6. Honda S2000
  7. Mazda MX-5 Miata
  8. Porsche 911
  9. Porsche Boxster
10. Ferrari 360 Modena
Source: Cars.com e-mail price-quote requests to dealers for 12 months (April 1, 2003 – March 31, 2004)

Fans of automobiles in this category don’t really have to be reminded of their strong points. Style, road behavior and taut control rank high on the list. Low-slung two-seaters, in particular, tend to impart a greater feeling of “oneness” with the road, yielding a highly involved driving experience.

Tradition counts in the sports-car segment, and marques that have been around for decades enjoy a certain edge. To many drivers, these cars are reminders of an earlier, less frantic time.

Sounds matter, too. Sports cars tend to have more exuberant exhaust notes than other vehicles, which add to the driving pleasure — especially if you’re in a roadster with the top down.

But most of all, sports cars are — or should be — fun to drive, whether they’re headed out on the open road or being used for daily commutes. If you don’t feel that special kind of satisfaction whenever you slip behind the wheel, you’re shopping in the wrong category.

By Jim Flammang for cars.com

Posted on 4/7/04