What’s Hot for 2004?

2004 Volkswagen R32
Volkswagen’s new R32 comes standard with a 240-hp V-6 engine and all-wheel drive; it’s the latest entry in the “pocket rocket” category.

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Unlike some vehicle categories, sports cars are stable — in sales totals as well as on the road. Dealerships sold nearly as many sports cars during 2003 as they did in the previous year. These kinds of automobiles still attract plenty of enthusiastic customers these days — even as pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles continue to capture most of the attention.

More than a dozen new sports cars have been unveiled for 2004. Mazda launched its new rotary-engined RX-8 last summer. Cadillac has a new XLR convertible. Chrysler introduced its Crossfire early in 2003 and will add a roadster version this year, as a 2005 model. Audi has reintroduced the high-performance S4, Bentley has a new Continental GT, Ferrari offers the new Challenge Stradale, Lamborghini adds the Gallardo and BMW brought back the 6 Series for the U.S. market, in coupe and convertible forms.

2004 Pontiac GTO
Pontiac’s legendary muscle car, the GTO, returns for the 2004 model year and is equipped with a 350-hp, 5.7-liter V-8 engine.

Porsche has introduced two new limited-production models — the 911 GT3 and Carrera GT — and Volkswagen has a new R32 performance hatchback. The eagerly awaited Pontiac GTO is about ready to emerge, and Morgan now has a modern roadster named the Aero 8.

No sports cars have been fully redesigned for 2004, but several manufacturers have introduced new versions of existing models. Only four sports cars have disappeared: BMW’s Alpina Roadster V8 and Z8, the Ferrari 456M and the Mazda Mazdaspeed Protegé. Several new sports cars are forthcoming for 2005, including the Aston Martin DB9, Ford GT, Lotus Elise, Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren and Ferrari 612 Scaglietti. Redesigned versions of the Chevrolet Corvette, Ford Mustang and Mercedes-Benz SLK-Class are also slated for the 2005 model year.

How the Brand-New Sports Cars Compare
2004 Audi S4
If your sports car has to pull double duty as a daily driver, Audi’s all-wheel-drive S4 sport sedan is one option.

Audi S4: After a brief absence, Audi revived its high-performance S4 for 2004. An offshoot of the compact A4 sedan and Avant wagon, the S4 holds a 4.2-liter V-8 engine that produces 340 horsepower. Either a six-speed-manual gearbox or a six-speed Tiptronic transmission with paddle shifters may be installed. Audi’s quattro all-wheel-drive system is standard. The S4 is one of the few sports cars offered in wagon form.

Bentley Continental GT: The Continental GT is the first new Bentley model to go on sale after Volkswagen took over Bentley. The gracefully stylish four-passenger Continental GT was “conceived to be a sporty coupe without rival” and yield “supercar performance,” according to Bentley. The twin-turbo 6.0-liter W-12 engine generates 552 hp and is connected to a paddle-operated six-speed sequential automatic transmission.

BMW 6 Series: For the first time since 1989, BMW has a 6 Series coupe — as well as a convertible — in the United States. Related to the 5 Series sedan, the rear-wheel-drive 645Ci features lightweight construction that uses aluminum and composites. The 325-hp, 4.4-liter V-8 engine works with a choice of three transmissions, including a sequential manual gearbox. Dynamic Driving Control is standard.

Cadillac XLR: Serving as Cadillac’s first two-passenger car since the Allante, which expired after the 1993 model year, the new XLR is an elite luxury roadster with a retractable metal roof. An all-new 4.6-liter Northstar V-8 engine produces 320 hp. Magnetic Ride Control and Keyless Access are among the many technical features of Cadillac’s latest model, whose design is said to have been inspired by stealth fighter planes.

2005 Chrysler Crossfire Roadster
A soft-top version of Chrysler’s Crossfire joins the coupe during the 2005 model year.

Chrysler Crossfire: Chrysler’s low-slung fastback sport coupe simply exudes modern sophistication. Essentially the first product of the merger of Daimler-Benz and Chrysler, the Crossfire benefits from considerable German technology. Hard edges blend with subtle curves to create a graceful exterior design. A 215-hp, 3.2-liter V-6 engine mates with either a manual or automatic transmission. A roadster version debuts as a 2005 model.

Ferrari Challenge Stradale: Created for the Challenge racing series, the Challenge Stradale is a limited-production offshoot of Ferrari’s 360 series. Built with aluminum and carbon fiber, the 425-hp V-8-powered Challenge Stradale can accelerate from zero to 60 mph in 4 seconds. Only 200 will be exported to the United States, and Ferrari says every feature that does not enhance performance or safety has been minimized or eliminated.

Lamborghini Gallardo: This exotic Italian automaker now has a second model on the market, which joins the more costly Murciélago. Produced as a joint venture with Volkswagen AG — Lamborghini’s parent company — the V-10-powered Gallardo has an aluminum body and space frame as well as permanent four-wheel drive.

Mazda RX-8: Rotary power returns to the Mazda lineup for the first time since the RX-7, which departed after the 1995 model year. With a four-person capacity, the curvy rear-drive RX-8 features two rear-hinged half doors to allow easier access to the backseat. The rotary engine comes in two power ratings: 197 hp with the four-speed-automatic transmission and 238 hp with the six-speed manual. Weight distribution is an even 50/50 front to rear.

Morgan Aero 8: Sales in the United States didn’t begin until the 2004 model year, but the modernized companion to the seldom-seen Morgan Plus 8 roadster could be purchased earlier in Europe. Distributed by Isis Motors in California, Morgans provide a driving experience that’s amazingly unchanged from the British company’s heyday back in the 1950s and 1960s.

Pontiac GTO: General Motors turned to its Australian subsidiary to obtain the foundation for the revived GTO, which is based on the Holden Monaro performance coupe. A 5.7-liter V-8 engine goes into the rear-drive GTO, which comes with a four-speed automatic or six-speed manual.

2004 Porsche 911 GT3
If you’re one of the fortunate few who can slide behind the wheel of Porsche’s 911 GT3, 60 mph can be yours in as little as 4.3 seconds.

Porsche 911 GT3: Produced in limited quantities, the 911 GT3 is the most powerful non-turbocharged Porsche ever offered in the United States. Priced at almost $100,000, it holds a 380-hp six-cylinder engine. Though a 911 GT3 could be driven daily, according to Porsche, it lacks a backseat.

Porsche Carrera GT: Shoppers with $440,000 to spend have a new choice at Porsche dealerships. The Carrera GT holds a midmounted 5.7-liter V-10 engine that generates 605 hp. The monocoque structure and subframe are made of carbon fiber-reinforced plastic, while the roof consists of two carbon-fiber shells that can be stowed in the front trunk.

Volkswagen R32: This high-performance variant of Volkswagen’s Golf hatchback delivers even more performance than the GTI. In addition to a 240-hp, 3.2-liter V-6 engine and a six-speed-manual gearbox, the R32 has 4Motion all-wheel drive and a true dual exhaust system. Special body components differentiate the R32 from other Golf models.

New Versions of Familiar Models for 2004
Audi TT with V-6 power: A new 250-hp V-6 engine is available in Audi’s curvaceous sports car, but it’s offered only with a new Direct Shift Gearbox, which is a sequential manual transmission.

Mercedes-Benz CLK-Class Cabriolet: Convertible equivalents of the classy Mercedes-Benz coupe, which was redesigned for 2003, have joined the lineup for 2004. Sensor-controlled roll bars are disguised as head restraints, and the top can be operated remotely.

2004 Mercedes-Benz SL600
Engine output from the V-12 in Mercedes-Benz’s SL600 can be described in one word: colossal — 493 hp and 590 pounds-feet of torque.

Mercedes-Benz SL600: After introducing a redesigned SL500 with a retractable hardtop and V-8 power in 2003, Mercedes-Benz launched an SL600 with a 5.5-liter V-12 engine that generates 493 hp. The brakes are borrowed from the high-performance SL55 AMG.

Mini Cooper S with John Cooper Works kit: The JCW tuning kit delivers 200 hp rather than the usual 163 hp by using a higher-speed supercharger and other special engine components. The kit is available for installation on earlier Mini Cooper S models as well as on 2004 versions.

Top-Selling Sports Cars
More than most vehicle classes, sports cars span a wide range — not only in price, but also in such attributes as performance, ride comfort, refinement and craftsmanship.

According to Automotive News, the top selling sports car in the United States in 2003 — by a wide margin — was the Ford Mustang (including the limited-production SVT Mustang Cobra) with 140,350 units sold. Nissan’s recently introduced 350Z came in second with sales of 36,728 units. Chevrolet sold 27,974 Corvettes during 2003, and though sales dropped sharply from the previous year, Mitsubishi moved nearly that many Eclipse coupes.

Acura’s RSX coupe took the No. 5 spot, followed by the Hyundai Tiburon, BMW Z4, Mercedes-Benz CLK-Class, Ford Thunderbird and Mini Cooper S.

2003 Sports Car Sales Leaders
Why do these particular models appeal to shoppers? In which areas do they excel? What are their drawbacks? Let’s take a quick look at the best-selling sports cars, listed here in order of sales:

Ford Mustang: Serving as one of the old-timers in the sports-car field, Ford’s pony car debuted as a 1964.5 model. After GM dropped the Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird, Ford stood alone in this segment of the market by offering sporty coupes and convertibles with potent V-6 or V-8 engines and rear-wheel drive. Brought into the modern era in recent years, the Mustang comes in many flavors, including a Mach 1 coupe, to suit a variety of tastes. Ford has redesigned the Mustang for 2005, but the current models continue to offer satisfying control, confident responses and passable ride comfort, depending on the type of engine and suspension installed. A V-8-equipped GT is the choice for performance and taut handling, while the V-6 is a wiser pick for economy-oriented driving with a touch of sportiness. Both are easy to live with for everyday motoring.

2004 Nissan 350Z Roadster
New for 2004, Nissan’s 350Z Roadster features an automatic soft top that retracts in 20 seconds.

Nissan 350Z: Nissan seems to offer a version of the 350Z sports car for every kind of driver, which is more than most automakers do. In any form, this is one sweet machine — so long as you don’t expect a gentle ride from the more performance-focused models. Steering could hardly be more precise, confident and satisfying, and maneuverability and stability are top notch. With its short throws and short lever, the six-speed’s gearshift snicks masterfully and positively through the ratios, and the clutch behaves in near-perfect unison. Nissan’s 287-hp V-6 yields plenty of power, especially when it teams with the manual shift. A soft-top 350Z Roadster joined the coupe in the summer of 2003 and is offered only in Enthusiast and Touring trims. Coupes, in contrast, have a wider trim selection.

Chevrolet Corvette: There’s nothing tame about Chevrolet’s two-seat sports car, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2003. Even the entry-level Corvettes are loaded with awesome power, assertiveness and impressive stick-to-the-road qualities. At the same time, today’s Vettes are a lot more refined than those of the past, and they can even be driven daily or on long trips without excessive fatigue. Except for those models with the tightest suspensions, ride quality is a lot less punishing nowadays. Engine sounds are of the exuberantly satisfying sort. Coupe and convertible versions have Magnetic Selective Ride Control, which provides variable suspension damping. But like all high-performance rear-drive sports cars, driving on snow and ice can be treacherous. A redesigned Corvette is coming for the 2005 model year.

Mitsubishi Eclipse: Another old standby, the Eclipse has been around since the 1990 model year but was last updated for 2003. Turbocharged engines of the past are gone, but capable V-6s have taken their place. Like the Mustang, the Eclipse can be obtained in tame form or with a more vigorous powertrain and suspension. Unlike the Mustang, the engine choices are a four-cylinder or V-6, and Eclipses have front-wheel drive rather than rear-wheel drive. The rear seats aren’t too spacious, especially in the convertible Spyder model, but that’s the case with most sports cars that have any type of backseat.

2004 Acura RSX
Acura’s sporty RSX features a 160-hp engine and 16-inch alloy wheels.

Acura RSX: Simply put, the RSX ranks close to exceptional in all categories, even though sales have fallen off lately. Alluring bodywork blends with well-behaved motoring in both the base model and the Type-S. You get crisper handling with the latter without paying much of a penalty in ride comfort. The base model’s performance is eager with the SportShift automatic transmission, but the engine gets noisy at high rpm. Acceleration in the Type-S ranks as significantly energetic, and it has a more appealing exhaust sound. The close-ratio six-speed-manual gearbox in the Type-S ranks among the best.

Hyundai Tiburon: Luscious looks aren’t everything, especially when it comes to the V-6-powered GT edition of Hyundai’s sport coupe, which was redesigned for the 2003 model year. Not only can the GT get bouncy over rough pavement, but it fails to deliver quite as much handling confidence as some rivals. The Tiburon GT maneuvers with some agility and is stable on the highway, but it falls a bit short overall. Road and tire noise are prominent, but the engine is unusually quiet. The six-speed gearbox is somewhat stiff. Headroom is meager inside, and the recessed gauges aren’t the easiest to read.

BMW Z4: Considerably different in appearance and size than the Z3 it replaced in 2003, BMW’s Z4 roadster ranks as a serious thoroughbred that takes full advantage of its German pedigree. Styling might be controversial, but the Z4’s road behavior and precision handling are beyond reproach. Acceleration in the Z4 3.0i is forceful even with the smooth-shifting automatic transmission. The Z4 2.5i, which comes standard with a superb manual shift, isn’t far behind. The Z4’s defiantly taut suspension manages to deliver a reasonably smooth ride on most surfaces, though big bumps may produce harsh responses. The seats are simply magnificent, though cargo space is modest.

2004 Mercedes-Benz CLK320 Cabriolet
Available with a choice of V-8 engines or a V-6, the redesigned Mercedes-Benz CLK-Class Cabriolet debuted in the 2004 model year.

Mercedes-Benz CLK-Class: Whether in coupe or convertible form, the solid CLK ranks close to flawless. In V-8-powered CLK500 form, it delivers fierce acceleration, superior stability and expert handling. A carefully controlled, neatly absorbent suspension ensures an appealing ride. Acceleration is less energetic with the V-6 engine in the CLK320, but it should satisfy most Mercedes-Benz buyers. Conversing is easy when the Cabriolet’s top is down, though visibility is impaired somewhat when the roof is up. Snug-fitting seats are especially enticing.

Ford Thunderbird: Piloting a T-Bird is the thing to do if you like to be noticed. But beneath the two-seater’s flamboyant body lies a relatively ordinary Ford chassis. Style and image are what count with this car. The seats are masterfully cushioned in a seriously plush cockpit, but blind spots with the top up make lane changes worrisome. Even though the Thunderbird handles with a fair level of agility and its ride comfort is pleasing on smooth pavement, its suspension is somewhat stiff. Energetic acceleration is a welcome bonus.

Mini Cooper S: Sheer driving fun is the byword for either the Mini Cooper or Cooper S. Few cars that come anywhere close to their inexpensive price range cling to the road as avidly or maneuver with such agility. Legroom in the rear isn’t the greatest, but spry adults can manage back there. Most drivers will be happy with a regular Cooper and its 115-hp engine, but the Cooper S with its supercharged four-cylinder is awfully tough to resist, even if its benefits are most noticeable at higher engine speeds. Both models’ manual gearboxes are excellent, but the six-speed manual in the Cooper S is sheer delight. Because ride comfort varies considerably according to the tire type, some buyers may prefer to avoid the run-flat rubber. Those who simply must have more power can have a John Cooper Works tuning kit installed on any Cooper S.

Coming in 2005 and Beyond
Some especially notable sports cars are on the horizon and scheduled for sale later in 2004 or during 2005. Aston Martin is introducing a brand-new DB9, in both coupe and convertible forms, as a successor to the long-lived DB7 Vantage.

2005 Ford Mustang GT
Ford’s redesigned Mustang has styling cues — like its forward-swept grille — that recall past Mustangs.

Chevrolet has a redesigned Corvette with a new 400-hp, 6.0-liter V-8 engine for 2005. Ford has redesigned the Mustang for 2005, offering a new 300-hp V-8 for the GT model. Also waiting in the wings is the raucous Ford GT supercar.

Mercedes-Benz also has a new supercar on tap. Named the SLR McLaren, it’s equipped with a 617-hp supercharged V-8 engine. Ferrari unveiled its new 612 Scaglietti coupe at the 2004 North American International Auto Show.

Lotus is dropping its longtime Esprit after the 2004 model year but is adding the Elise roadster for 2005. The Elise has been on sale in Europe for several years. A redesigned Mercedes-Benz SLK-Class roadster is coming for 2005, as are convertible versions of the Chrysler Crossfire and Mini Cooper S. A replacement for the Mazda MX-5 Miata is likely before long.

By Jim Flammang for cars.com

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Posted on 4/7/04