Drawing the line on the definition of "sports car"
Once upon a time on a Topic Tuesday long, long ago, Todd and Paul discussed a subject near and dear to many of our hearts: “What is a sports car?” The conversation kicked my brain into proverbial high gear. Having experienced a wide variety of cars-- albeit nowhere near as many as the EDD crew-- and by analyzing endlessly from afar, I think I have a grasp on the subject of defining the categories into which certain vehicles fall. Shamelessly, I’m prepared to take a stab at working out the definition of “sports car” for everyone. Or, at least for myself.
Let’s get to it: What is the modern definition of the “sports car” nomenclature and what characteristics define it as such?
In my mind at least, it comes down to two main factors:
Intention, from conception to sale: the manufacturer places the act of driving above all else.
Priorities, in the eye of the engineers and buyers: interaction with the vehicle— not practicality, fuel economy, safety, or anything else— is paramount.
Put simply, the car cannot be solely a means of getting from place to place: it must have been designed with sporting intentions, placing fun over comfort, inherently compromised in its ability to do the mundane, transportation. It’s a vehicle that eschews practicality to the point that it’s not even a tertiary concern. Of course there are exceptions for cars that have reasonable usable space-- we’ll get to that-- but in short, a sports car is first and foremost about driving.
Whether at low speeds on local roads or high-speed sweepers on a Canyon run, a sports car's main intention is allowing the driver to focus on doing just that. Rural road or race track, a sports car exists for the improvement of the driver’s driving life. Think of the Cayman GT4. An extreme example, but a representation: It’s about the driver doing the work, and working every bit of the way.
People-movers like Honda’s CR-V occupy the opposing bookend. Honda’s CUV moves you and whatever can be packed into its confines from Point A to Point B. A CR-V and sports car arrive at the same destination but the manner in which they go about doing so is opposite. Whereas the Honda isolates its occupants from their surroundings, the sports car carries you and as little else as possible in an effort to maintain its attention to the road and the inputs required to skillfully get the vehicle where it’s going.
Todd suggests Googling “sports car,” which explains such as a “low-built car designed for performance at high speeds.” But that doesn’t delve into what true enthusiasts consider the definition to be. Google’s definition would classify a Bentley Continental GT as a sports car; we know that near-5000 pound weight means a sports car it certainly is not. Then again, as the guys also suggest, the common non-enthusiast thinks anything with two doors and a somewhat sleek shape is inherently “sporty.” The Challenger Hellcat is faster than anybody needs but it isn’t “sporty” in the way a driving enthusiast would think it needs to be to call it such.
Hellcat in mind, I tried to use weight and dimensions as defining factors. However, doing so requires drawing a hard line and that proves impossible. Take, for example, the Corvette and Viper. Based on what metric could they not be considered sports cars? The Viper is as purebred for the title as anything else. You drive it to drive it and for no other reason. And yet, at the end of its run the Viper weighed nearly as much as the average family sedan. Fortunately driving dynamics and compliance aren’t mutually exclusive. Cornering at the expense of comfort is no longer a mandatory compromise thanks to modern technology and engineering. The sports cars of yore are a thing of the past. Viper, sadly, included.
This evolution is present in the Porsche 911. In many trims it resides on the far end of the comfort spectrum, tailored to a luxury-minded buyer, but still tiptoes the line between livable and exciting. Nobody in their right mind would think the 911 to not be a sports car, but the level to which it coddles the driver and filters out the unpleasant pushes it concerningly close to Grand Tourer classification. Then what of the GT3, GT3RS, and GT2RS? Are they not dedicated to entertaining enthusiasts over being daily-driver capable? Of course they are. As is the 911’s younger sibling, the Boxster/Cayman (and 718). They’re picture-perfect representations.
Dig further and the definition becomes even more muddled. The Mustang and Camaro create difficulty, especially when most passersbys wouldn’t hesitate to think them sporty. While the duo’s weight and dimensions are sedan-like, their performance numbers reflect those of full-on performance offerings. Modern chassis and tires are capable of amazing things, helping a car weighing as much as a fullsize family hauler keep up with and in many cases outpace some single-focus, track-only vehicles. Of course a 3900-pound ZL1 can out-lap a 2350-pound Miata. Almost quadruple as much power and substantially more rubber putting the power down allows this. But, as we all know, numbers don’t tell the whole story. Are the Mustang and Camaro actually sports cars?
Like I said, it gets messy. Example A: Mustang. Things changed when Ford benchmarked the E90 M3’s lap time around Laguna Seca for Boss 302 development. It’s only spiraled from there. As Paul said, the Mustang GT350(R) is fully a sports car. Outright driving involvement consumes its focus and not much else. It rides semi-harshly, eats up consumables, and makes compromises for speed and excitement. But then there’s the regular Mustang GT and the models below it. They err towards Grand Tourer, with livability as or nearly as high on the priority totem pole as anything else. Split hairs further: How about the Performance Pack, PP2, and EcoBoost High Performance Package variants?
Maybe the sole defining factor to rule them all in defining a sports car comes down to compromise. Or, as we call it at EDD, the car’s position on the Spectrum or Sacrifice. Stepping up to the PP(2) level Mustang means brakes, tires, and a suspension that all bring about livability detriments versus even the base-level GT. Ride quality worsens, replacement parts are more expensive and require more frequent replacing, and the non-enthusiasts generally find the car to be less pleasant. In terms of cost of ownership and street-friendliness-- not to mention buy-in price-- the delta between a base-trim EcoBoost car and PP2 GT is massive. As is the delta between how they drive. Ticking the PP(2) option makes the Mustang a car you have to know the limitations of to accept living with rather than just owning a car that looks sporty.
Sticking with Ford: What about the Fiesta ST? Todd suggests that, due to its limited practicality and concurrent prioritizing of inputs and communicating with the driver rather than just get-you-where-you’re-going, the 5-door FiST available stateside is indeed a sports car. I’ll concede and agree that usable space is slim but dropping the rear seats turns it fairly cavernous. What can’t be ignored is the FiST’s underpinnings: basic economy hatchback bones of vehicles bought by many who don’t care about cars past that they make traveling convenient. I can’t agree on the FiST front. Hot hatch? Absolutely. Sports car? Not so much.
What of the Europe-only 3-door FiST? This might prove the toughest to classify yet. Deliberate intent on making a sporting vehicle wasn’t the Fiesta’s main reason for existence, but the tiny three-door FiST makes a case for itself in putting sportiness on par with if not above utility.
Looking around, things get even more complicated. For example, the Mini Cooper S is not a sports car but was the Cooper S Coupe? (Remember that?) Mini took the useful-and-fun Cooper S and by chopping the roof created a two-seat, hardtop coupe or roadster. It was heavier, more expensive, and less useful than the hatchback on which it was based. In turn that very well may have made it a sports car, but I’m still not sure; then again, I’m not sure they should have sold the Coupe at all.
Amidst all of this, one thing’s certain: the Mazda Miata is a sports car, pure as they come. Even the Grand Touring trim is focused on the drive and the driver’s enjoyment. The MX-5 exists solely for the purpose of making the driver do just that: drive. Short of a track-only weekend special machine, the MX-5 is as sports car as modern offerings get.
To summarize, we must make a simple acknowledgement: a sports car is developed by the manufacturer to be driven in an enthusiastic manner first and foremost. It has to lean very far towards the end of the Spectrum of Sacrifice that eschews practicality for fun. We could split hairs on this all day and I’m sure everyone has their own opinions. Do I have the definitive answer on the makings of a sports car? Absolutely...not. I implore you to point out where and why I’m wrong. But I leave you with one final thought:
Careful analysis, endless consideration, and first-hand experience has led me to define a sports car as one that allows and focus the driver to focus on the journey, rather than the destination.
Hi, my name is Ross. I write primarily for Hooniverse.com and co-host the Off the Road Again Podcast. As you can guess, I’m an off-road enthusiast/self-proclaimed expert and an ever-improving amateur autocrosser. My current car is an NC3 Miata Club PRHT but the joke goes that I’m perpetually looking for the next vehicle I will regret...
All images courtesy of the author, Everyday Driver, Chance Hales, and Thomas Hellmanzik.