What You Get for Your Dollar

2004 Acura NSX
Acura’s long-lived NSX sports car is among the leaders in the segment with regard to value retention; it’s expected to be worth 63 percent of its initial value after three years.

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Even more than some vehicle categories, sports cars span a broad price range. Models are made to suit a variety of household-income levels, from the seeker of a bare bones, fun-to-drive roadster to the well-heeled purchaser of a rarely seen “exoticar.” You can pay less than $20,000 for a sports car, or you can shell out close to a half-million dollars.

For comparison purposes, sports cars fall into three basic categories: sport two-doors, exotic cars and high-performance cars. The second two groups will likely cost more at the time of purchase, and you’ll pay significantly more to operate them. A few sport sedans also rank as serious sports cars.

Fuel economy in sports cars ranges from thrifty to terrible. Some of the worst offenders are the stratospherically priced exotic models. Insurance and repair costs are likely to be higher for sports cars than for vehicles in some other categories. Depreciation over the ownership time frame is another financial factor you should weigh. On the whole, though, most sports cars hold their value quite well.

As with all purchases, total value should be your primary goal. Being realistic, though, many sports-car buyers use a definition of value that reaches beyond mere monetary terms. With sports cars, owner satisfaction isn’t directly proportional to price. Paying thousands of dollars less for a Mazda MX-5 Miata, Nissan 350Z or Toyota MR2 Spyder than offerings from BMW, Mercedes-Benz or Porsche has its appeal, but not everyone would care to purchase a car up the price scale, even if funds were available for such a purchase.

Deciding between the three basic groups is probably the most important decision you’ll make when choosing a sports car. So let’s look at the benefits and drawbacks of each category.

Sport Two-Doors
Both the coupe and convertible body styles that fall into this category are sportier in shape than a sedan. Handling capabilities should also be significantly better than an ordinary automobile could deliver.

2004 Hyundai Tiburon
The Hyundai Tiburon is one of the most affordable sports cars on sale in the U.S. market.

Whether to choose a solid-roofed coupe or a convertible is a personal decision. For those who yearn for sun and wind while driving, no car can match a full-fledged soft-top. But bear in mind that when both body styles are available, convertibles typically cost significantly more. They also demand more care, especially if driven in wet or wintry weather. To read more about convertibles, click here.

Some sport coupes and convertibles are surprisingly frugal with fuel; others are not. Some handle well on all surfaces, especially if they have front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. But rear-wheel-drive models with powerful engines can be a handful when the going gets slippery.

Many two-person cockpits are snug, and most backseats in four-person models are cramped — intended mainly for youngsters. Storage space tends to be skimpy, though a hatchback coupe may have more luggage space than one with a trunk. In some convertibles, part of the available trunk space is devoted to the fabric top.

Will an inexpensive, relatively tame, lower-end sports car provide sufficient excitement? Style and enticing all-around performance can be obtained without a budget-busting outlay. When you drive around in a base-model Ford Mustang, Hyundai Tiburon or Mitsubishi Eclipse, you’re getting moderately spirited performance and above-average handling. To boost the thrill level a bit, and for only a few more dollars, you might want to consider something like the Honda Civic Si or Volkswagen GTI — two of several vehicles that promise greater zest than their more ordinary compact-car brethren.

Sport sedans form a distinct subcategory. Several of them rank as all-out sports cars by any definition, except for the fact that they have four doors instead of two. Consider, for instance, the Dodge SRT-4 and Subaru Impreza WRX STi. The sedans these vehicles are based on fall into other segments, but cars.com classifies these variants as sports cars.

More than other vehicles, sports cars have distinct personalities and promise very different experiences. Apart from cost, they have features that please some drivers but irritate others. The Nissan 350Z, for instance, looks sharp and delivers an exhilarating experience, but not everyone will appreciate its harsh ride.

2004 Ford Mustang GT
As of April 2004, Ford was offering qualified buyers $3,000 toward the purchase of a new 2004 Mustang.

The Mini Cooper S is hard to beat for moderately priced performance, but some shoppers might prefer a gentler ride or more backseat space. Most sports cars are two-seaters or have only a tiny rear seat, which rules them out for family travel no matter what their purchase price might be.

Many models offer considerable variety within their trim levels by picking an alternate engine or having optional tires installed. The V-8-powered Mustang GT, for example, delivers a different sort of experience than does the V-6-equipped base model. The same holds true for the Nissan 350Z, which comes in quite an array of trims — from the relatively tame to track-ready.

Exotic Cars Command Big Dollars
When you consider what you pay for an exotic sports car, you expect something that’s high in quality and can deliver especially sizzling performance, expert craftsmanship and ultra-precise handling. But exotic cars promise something more: the opportunity to drive a motorcar that most people will never experience even for a moment and can only fantasize about. For some shoppers, that advantage is worth many thousands of dollars.

What makes certain cars so intriguing and sought-after that people are willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for them? Why do otherwise sensible people yearn for Ferraris and Lamborghinis, or save up their hard-earned dollars to drive home a Porsche or Maserati?

Limited availability is one reason. Exclusivity means a lot to buyers in the exotic league who don’t want to see duplicates of their automobile everywhere they turn. If the marque has an impressive heritage, all the better.

2004 Ferrari 360 Spider
Though it’s the least expensive Ferrari, the 360 (pictured here in Spider convertible form) has a six-figure list price.

High price itself is another factor. To some people, the fact that a particular sports car has a lofty sticker price is reason enough to covet one. Being seen behind the wheel of a Porsche 911 or Ferrari 360 Modena demonstrates that you can afford it — or at least it conveys that impression.

Performance matters, too. Those who pay big dollars like to get a few bragging rights with their purchases. Being able to claim that your two-seater can accelerate from zero to 60 mph in 4.8 seconds while the next person’s takes more than 5 seconds can become an attraction in itself — even if neither of you ever has a compelling need to reach highway speed that rapidly. Just as 20-year-olds like to brag about the performance of their hot sport compacts, older sports-car fans aren’t immune from the desire to one-up each other.

Appearance also is important. If you want to be noticed, pick a car that’s rarely seen and stands out from the crowd when it does turn up. Serious sports cars are supposed to be exciting, so they should look the part.

But you don’t have to reach into the six-figure price range to get plenty of comfort features for your money. Many of the offerings from BMW and Mercedes-Benz will pamper you with a level of refinement that isn’t available among most domestic models. High-tech features are also more common in many European sports cars.

Can a car priced as high as most exotics have legitimate drawbacks? Of course they can. Some are finicky and costly to service. Limited dealer networks may make it hard to get maintenance and repair work completed in a timely manner. High-end cars can attract an excess of attention, and not all are easy to drive.

High-Performance Cars
What do high-performance models offer for the money? That question provides its own answer. Those who seek cars that accelerate with ferocity, handle with tenacity and reach speeds far beyond the legal limit in a matter of seconds are looking for sheer performance.

2005 Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren
One of the highlights of Mercedes-Benz’s 2005 SLR McLaren is an adaptive rear spoiler that can act as an air brake for increased downforce.

Does anyone really need the performance offered by a BMW M3 convertible, Chevrolet Corvette, Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution or Subaru Impreza WRX STi? Hardly. It’s strictly a matter of personal desire. These buyers are the modern-day descendants of those who flocked to dealerships in the 1960s and early 1970s to drive home Hemi-powered Dodge Chargers and big-block Chevrolets. Yet the muscular sports cars of today are far more refined than those early machines.

Several of the high-performance models are available with four doors, which can make quite a difference in passenger space and ease of entry.

What drawbacks do these models have? Fuel economy is the big one. Rear-drive layouts can be a handling bonus on dry pavement, but they raise a potential danger when the roads become slick. Some high-performance models are noisy, too, and they may appeal to thieves. Many ride harshly at times.

Which Factors Affect Long-Term Ownership Costs?
Looking beyond the sticker price, you need to consider resale value, gas mileage, insurance-premium costs, and maintenance and repair expenses. Depreciation over the ownership time frame is a financial factor you need to weigh before making any purchase, and that varies immensely. You need to determine how much the car is likely to be worth secondhand, three or four years from now.

Annual Ownership Costs
How much will it cost to own your favorite sports car? Depending on the model, that could vary considerably. IntelliChoice provides ownership cost data that includes, among other items, fixed costs such as vehicle depreciation and operating costs like fuel expenditures. Listed in descending order of sales are the annual ownership costs for the 10 best-selling sports cars from the 2003 calendar year. Ownership costs are based on the midrange trim listed.
Sports Car Annual Costs*
  1. Ford Mustang       convertible   $7,404
  2. Nissan 350Z       Touring   $8,517
  3. Chevrolet       Corvette       convertible   $9,744
  4. Mitsubishi Eclipse       GS   $6,233
  5. Acura RSX       Type-S   $6,783
  6. Hyundai Tiburon       GT   $6,320
  7. BMW Z4 3.0i   $9,446
  8. Mercedes-Benz       CLK500 Cabriolet $13,191
  9. Ford Thunderbird       Premium   $9,208
10. Mini Cooper S   $5,937
*Annual costs assume the vehicle is driven 14,000 miles per year for five years, at which time it is sold on the used-car market. Annual costs include fixed costs (depreciation, financing, insurance, taxes and fees) and operating costs (fuel, maintenance and repairs). All data is courtesy of IntelliChoice.

Even though fuel prices have remained low in the United States, they add up over the long haul. Except for models classified as compact cars, fuel economy is seldom a benefit of sports-car ownership, especially if the car is driven hard occasionally.

Likely insurance premiums make a difference in long-term expenditures because some sports cars cost considerably more to insure than others. Even if insurance costs don’t differ dramatically from sedans or sport utility vehicles, repair charges for sports cars could be higher because some components are costly — especially on low-production imported models.

Maintenance and repair costs have traditionally been higher for import-brand models, but the difference has narrowed in recent years. Still, it’s another factor to weigh. We still hear horror stories about long waits for parts, even for some relatively common European and Asian automobiles.

How cyclical is today’s sports-car market? Seasons make a big difference. As a rule of thumb, the best time to sell a sports car is in the spring, but the best time to buy is in the fall. The reason is logical. Two-passenger roadsters, in particular, become a lot more appealing as warm, sunny spring days become more frequent. In northern climates, the bloom of enthusiasm begins to fade in October or November when wintry winds begin to blow.

Sticker Prices Are Merely the Starting Point
Even though most buyers don’t pay the manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP) — also known as the sticker or list price — it’s one way to compare models.
2004 Ford SVT Focus
Ford’s SVT Focus hatchback (pictured) competes against other “hot hatches” like the Honda Civic Si and Volkswagen GTI.

Sticker prices for sports cars start near the $17,000 mark, which is about the cost of a Hyundai Tiburon. Toyota’s Celica is also in this price realm, and with either car you get sporty looks and a choice of engines and a manual or automatic transmission. For a few thousand dollars more, traditional “pocket rockets” like the Honda Civic Si, Ford SVT Focus and Volkswagen GTI are available. For $20,450, Dodge’s 230-horsepower SRT-4 gives you a lot of performance for your dollar.

The price range of a given model can be surprisingly broad. You can get a Ford Mustang for less than $19,000 or pay a little more than $39,000 for the SVT Mustang Cobra convertible.

Mazda’s MX-5 Miata — the car that launched the roadster phenomenon in 1989 — starts just under $22,000, but a more expensive Mazdaspeed version with a turbocharged engine is also available. For a few thousand dollars more than the standard MX-5 Miata’s price, a high-performance Subaru Impreza WRX, mid-engine Toyota MR2 Spyder, Mercedes-Benz C230 Sports Coupe or the least-costly Nissan 350Z model can be yours.

Moving into the $30,000 to $40,000 neighborhood, the entrants include the BMW Z4, Honda’s S2000 roadster, the stylish Audi TT and Ford’s retro-styled Thunderbird. Even though they fall within a given price range, it’s difficult to directly compare these models with each other because of their divergent purposes. Honda’s S2000 is for fans of high-revving deft-handling sports cars, while Ford’s Thunderbird — with its throwback styling — appeals to an entirely different buyer pool. The Thunderbird probably isn’t on the radar screen of people who are interested in the S2000, and vice versa.

2004 Porsche Carrera GT
Porsche’s mid-engine Carrera GT can blast from zero to 62 mph in 3.9 seconds and costs more than many houses.

If six-figure sums are burning a hole in your pocket, you might head down to the Aston Martin dealership to inquire about the $230,000-plus V12 Vanquish or ponder the $191,700 Porsche 911 GT2. Porsche’s new supercar, the Carrera GT, is priced at $440,000, while Ferrari’s 575M Maranello starts at $225,090.

Some sports-car manufacturers offer cash incentives or special financing, but it’s predominately the high-volume producers as opposed to the low-volume ones. In April 2004, Chevrolet was offering $2,000 toward a 2004 Corvette (excluding the Z06 Commemorative Edition), while Ford was giving qualified customers $3,000 toward the purchase of a 2004 Mustang (excluding the SVT Mustang Cobra). Special financing was available for the 2004 Audi TT.

How Much Fuel Will It Use?
The Sippers and the Guzzlers
In terms of fuel economy, sports cars vary considerably, ranging from frugal to thirsty. The following is a selection of the five most and least economical 2004 sports cars, according to the EPA.
Most Economical City / Hwy. MPG*
Toyota Celica 29 / 36
Acura RSX 27 / 33
Toyota MR2 Spyder 26 / 33
Mini Cooper S 25 / 34
Volkswagen GTI 24 / 31
Least Economical City / Hwy. MPG**
Ferrari 360 Modena 10 / 16
Ferrari 575M Maranello 10 / 16
Porsche Carrera GT 10 / 16
Lamborghini Gallardo 9 / 15
Lamborghini Murciélago 9 / 13
*EPA estimates represent the highest (or lowest**) rating for each model. Fuel economy will vary according to a vehicle’s engine, transmission, drivetrain and trim level.

Source: 2004 Model Year Fuel Economy Guide, published by the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

With any vehicle, its size and weight tend to determine how much fuel is consumed. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which issues fuel-economy estimates for each vehicle sold in the United States, sports cars are all over the map when pinpointing fuel-economy estimates. Some sip fuel, while others guzzle it.

Among 2004 sports cars, the frugal-running prize goes to the Toyota Celica, whose highest EPA rating was 29 mpg for city driving and an appealing 36 mpg for highway cruising. Several other sports cars with four-cylinder engines and manual gearboxes have modest fuel appetites. That list includes the base Acura RSX and Toyota MR2 Spyder, which promise 27/33 mpg and 26/33 mpg, respectively. The Mini Cooper S gets 25/34 mpg, and the Volkswagen GTI is rated as high as 24 mpg city and 31 mpg highway. The four-cylinder Mitsubishi Eclipse promises as much as 23/31 mpg, versus 24/30 mpg for the Hyundai Tiburon.

An automatic transmission tends to demand more fuel than a manual gearbox, but the difference is only 1 or 2 mpg in some cases. A handful of cars are actually a bit more economical with an automatic.

Which exotic sports car guzzles the most gasoline? Ferraris are thirsty, rating no higher than 11/16 or 10/17 mpg, but this year’s “prize-winner” is the Lamborghini Murciélago, with it 9/13 mpg rating with a manual shift. The new Lamborghini Gallardo with a manual gearbox gets an EPA estimate of 9/15 mpg. In contrast, Porsche’s 911 Carrera gets estimates as high as 18/26. In real-world driving, your mileage might differ considerably from the EPA estimates.

Will a Sports Car Cost More to Insure?
Sports-car shoppers tend to believe that it costs a lot more to insure a sports car than it would a sedan or minivan. In most cases, that assumption is correct. But as is the case with other vehicle categories, premium costs vary considerably among models.

Theft rates have an impact on insurance rates, and sports cars typically tend to attract thieves. Based on 2000 – 2002 models, the Chevrolet Corvette and Honda S2000 had the highest theft losses, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). The Ford Mustang convertible and Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder fared markedly worse than average, while the Mazda MX-5 Miata ranked well below average in theft losses. Sports cars also tend to have above-average losses in terms of collision coverage. Many sports cars are not included at all in IIHS statistics.

Depending on their specific claims experience, insurance companies offer discounts on a portion of the premium for some vehicle models, while they add a surcharge to others. The difference can be considerable, so it’s one more factor to weigh.

2004 Ford Thunderbird
State Farm offers insurance premium discounts on collision and comprehensive coverage for the Ford Thunderbird, among others.

State Farm, the nation’s largest auto insurer, lists models that warrant either a surcharge or discount on collision and comprehensive coverage. For 2004, at least 22 sports cars are subject to a surcharge on the premium cost. Premium discounts are granted to six 2003 sports cars: the Aston Martin DB7 Vantage, BMW Z4, Chevrolet Corvette, Ford Thunderbird, Jaguar XK8 convertible and Mercedes-Benz SLK-Class. Other models are charged the standard rate.

State Farm also offers Vehicle Safety Discounts of 10 percent to 40 percent, which are based on the company’s personal-injury claims experience. These discounts apply to the portion of your premium devoted to medical payments and personal-injury protection. Sports cars that qualify for the maximum, 40-percent discount in 2004 include the Audi TT, BMW’s Z4 and M3 convertible, the Chevrolet Corvette, the Mazda MX-5 Miata, Mercedes-Benz’s CLK430 convertible and SLK-Class roadster, and Porsche’s 911 Carrera and Boxster. Six sports cars get only a 10-percent discount, while four — the Acura RSX, Hyundai Tiburon, Mitsubishi Eclipse coupe and Toyota Celica — earn no discount at all. All other models get a 20- or 30-percent discount. State Farm’s ratings do not apply in every state.

Resale Value Is a Big Part of Ownership Costs
Residual Values
The ALG, a widely consulted publication that projects residual values for the leasing industry, gives estimates on how much a vehicle will be worth after two to five years, which is the end of a typical lease term. Though these figures are intended for use by the leasing industry, they also suggest a sports car’s likely resale value at that time on the used-car market. The five best and worst expected residual values for 2004 sports cars are listed below (assuming three years of ownership). Percentages are based on the vehicle’s initial value.
Best Residual Values Up to . . .
Acura NSX 63%
Mercedes-Benz CLK-Class 63%
Mini Cooper S 63%
BMW M3 61%
Porsche 911 GT2 59%
Worst Residual Values As low as . . .
Hyundai Tiburon 41%
Ford Mustang (except Cobra) 40%
Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder 39%
Mitsubishi Eclipse coupe 38%
Dodge SRT-4 34%

How much your sports car will be worth as a used vehicle a few years from now is another factor to consider before driving it out of the showroom. The table on the right highlights sports cars with the best — and worst — residual values.

For the most part, sports cars hang onto their value rather well. Several models depreciate fairly rapidly, however; they’re worth less than average as they age. For instance, the ALG estimates that eight specific 2003 models will be worth only 38 to 47 percent of their initial value after three years: the Ford SVT Focus, Ford Mustang, Hyundai Tiburon, Mazda MX-5 Miata, Mercedes-Benz C230 Sports Coupe, and Mitsubishi’s Eclipse coupe, Eclipse Spyder convertible and Lancer Evolution. The ALG predicts that the Dodge SRT-4 will be worth only 34 percent of its starting value after three years.

At the other end of the scale, the Acura NSX, Mercedes-Benz CLK-Class and Mini Cooper S win the value-holding derby. Each is likely to retain up to 63 percent of its value after three years, according to the ALG. Eight models should be worth at least 54 percent of their initial value after that time period has passed.

Will collectors be interested in your new sports car five, 10 or 20 years from now? Will it still be worth a tidy sum at that time, or is it likely to depreciate down to negligible value, like most other vehicles?

Collectibility isn’t easy to predict. Nearly all exotic sports cars may be considered collectible due to their exclusivity, heritage and appeal. If you tuck a Bentley, Ferrari, Lamborghini or maybe a Maserati into a climate-controlled garage for a number of years, it might be worth something when you drive it out again. But even here, it may or may not be worth as much as you imagine.

2004 Chevrolet Corvette Z06 Commemorative Edition
The latest special edition Chevrolet Corvette is the Commemorative Edition (Z06 model pictured), which celebrates the accomplishments of the Corvette racing program.

How about less-costly but intriguing sports cars, such as the John Cooper Works edition of the Mini Cooper S, the Ford SVT Mustang Cobra or Mustang Mach 1, or a special-edition Chevrolet Corvette? They may not depreciate close to the zero mark, but don’t bet that they’ll be worth a small fortune one day. Owners of seemingly worthy sports cars may be surprised and disappointed when their prized possessions wind up depreciating like normal vehicles and the collectors don’t show up waving stacks of dollars.

Don’t count on anything. Collectors can be fickle, and tastes change. To get an idea of what similar models from the past are worth today, check one of the antique and classic-car price guides such as Cars of Particular Interest (CPI). Publications International Ltd. (the publisher of Collectible Automobile magazine) and Krause Publications also issue price guides that may provide guidance.

By Jim Flammang for cars.com

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Last updated on 4/20/04