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Open-air motoring for only $15,000

Published April 15, 2010


Racing stripes, 18-inch subwoofers, scissor doors and rear wings as big as the SETI project radio dishes project do not a sports car make.

By definition it’s a lightweight two-seater with a performance-oriented engine. Specify a retractable fabric roof and you have a roadster, considered its purest form.

Sports cars adhere to that wonderful principle coined by Colin Chapman, the late founder of British sports-car maker Lotus: “To add speed, add lightness.”

At a time when most every new car today tips the scales at well over one tonne, it’s a treat to drive a responsive roadster that seemingly wags its tail every time you ignite the engine.

Here are four amenable, tossable and affordable second-hand roadsters you can find for around $15,000 or less. We’re including cheaper U.S.-sourced vehicles in this category since topless sports cars are thin on the ground in Canada (and importing one is an easy DIY project these days).

1990-2005 Mazda MX-5 Miata

When it appeared in late 1989, enthusiasts recognized it as the reincarnated 1962 Lotus Elan: a sprightly roadster that was a ball to drive, but failed miserably as reliable transportation. By contrast, the Japanese-built Miata exhibited none of the oil leaks, dripping ragtops, rampant rust and electrical snafus endemic to British sports cars.

Like the Elan, the Miata used a twin-cam 1.6 L four-cylinder, this one taken from the splendid Mazda 323GTX (sans turbocharger). The high-revving engine was good for 116 hp and 100 lb.-ft. of torque – small numbers, but pushing the flyweight Miata they were sufficient. Miatas offered a choice of a manual or automatic transmission.

In anticipation of new collision standards, the 1994 Miata gained better torsional rigidity, new seatbelt anchors and door beams, and a revised dashboard with room for a passenger airbag. The 32 kg weight gain necessitated a heart transplant in the form of the Protegé’s 1.8 L DOHC four, generating 128 hp and 110 lb.-ft. of grunt.

After nine years of successful sales – making it the world’s most popular sports car – Mazda launched the second-generation Miata for 1999. An evolutionary new body eschewed the pop-up headlights in favour of aero-smooth lamps, the interior was slightly roomier and the convertible top featured a glass rear window instead of plastic. A redesigned cylinder head raised engine output to 142 hp.

Things to watch out for: the compact gel-type battery has a short service life, the convertible top leaks occasionally, the plastic window disintegrates and the shocks, spark-plug wires and clutch hydraulics are known to wear prematurely.

1996-2002 BMW Z3

Talk about anticipation. The entire BMW Z3 first-year production run – more than 15,000 roadsters – was sold out by the time the car arrived in 1996. There was hardly need for a James Bond film (GoldenEye) to goose sales of its first sports car in 40 years.

Unlike the Miata, BMW did not trace a British design but started with a clean sheet of paper and rummaged through its parts bins to keep development costs down. The wheelbase was shorter than that of the 3-series sedan, which donated numerous parts including the 138 hp 1.9 L DOHC four-cylinder.

Standard equipment included four-wheel antilock disc brakes, limited-slip differential and 16-inch alloy wheels. A five-speed manual transmission was standard, with a four-speed autobox optional. The manual convertible top had a plastic back window.

A more potent 189 hp, 2.8 L DOHC six-cylinder joined the Z3 lineup in 1997, the first of a succession of more muscular motors. A 2.5 L inline six replaced the anemic four-cylinder base engine in 1999, good for 170 hp.

The four-cylinder Z3 was scarcely quicker than a pizza-delivery Honda Civic, but the subsequent six-cylinder models reduced acceleration times close to the six-second mark (to 96 km/h). Every model exhibited wonderful handling characteristics, silky smooth shifting and powerful brakes in the Teutonic tradition.

Owners reported leaky convertible tops, petulant stereo speakers, perpetually scratched plastic rear windows and interiors that would sometimes lose pieces and rattle. Quicker and more stable at high speed than a Miata, the U.S.-built Z3 earned a legion of fans. But be sure to spring for a six-cylinder model.

2000-03 Honda S2000

Honda crashed the sports car party with its S2000 roadster in September 1999. Resolutely un-Honda-like, the S2000 scorched its rear tires via a meaty driveshaft. The cockpit had just enough room for two average-sized adults; anyone over 6 feet, 1 inch would find it snug.

The driver faced a simple dashboard highlighted by a digital tachometer (with a 8900 rpm redline!) and speedometer inspired by Honda’s Formula race cars. Drivers got to push a “start” button – but, annoyingly, still needed to insert the key to unlock the ignition.

The S2000 was incredibly rigid, thanks to the steel backbone that ran up the middle of the chassis. Unequal-length control arms at each corner endowed the car with remarkable turn-in. The lightweight aluminum engine was positioned behind the front axle line to achieve ideal 50/50 weight distribution.

The DOHC 2.0 L four-cylinder provided the highest output per litre of displacement in the world: 120 hp per litre without the aid of a supercharger or turbo. Unfortunately, torque was missing in action, churning out just 153 lb.-ft. at 7500 rpm. A six-speed manual was the sole transmission.

The S2000 can lunge to 96 km/h in just 5.6 seconds, but it requires 8000 rpm-plus shifts, which can curtail clutch life. But consider this: in two major magazine comparisons of roadsters in 2000 and 2003, the S2000 bested them all, including the Porsche Boxster.

The few mechanical problems mentioned in Internet forums included spark plugs backing out of the early motors, new synchronizers to address gear clash (shifting from first to second) and – surprise – premature clutch and tire wear.

1991-96 Chevrolet Corvette

Unveiled way back in 1984, the Kentucky-built C4 Corvette used a galvanized-steel uniframe and a central backbone that enveloped the drivetrain instead of a separate chassis and floppy “birdcage” to support its fibreglass body. By 1991, the Corvette benefited from hundreds of design changes to enhance refinement.

All 1991 models were updated with a convex tail and square taillamps, previously seen only on the ZR-1. The tapered nose held wraparound fog lamps and turn signals. A power-steering fluid cooler was standard, along with a driver-side airbag.

The L98 5.7 L V8 was still around in 1991, rated at 245 hp and a stump-pulling 340 lb.-ft. of torque. For 1992, the new LT1 base engine made a welcome 300 hp and 330 lb.-ft. of torque. A DOHC version of the 5.7 graced the ZR-1 coupe with 375 hp. A six-speed manual gearbox was standard and a four-speed automatic was available.

The C4’s kidney-jarring ride never let you forget you were driving an all-out sports car. Despite numerous tweaks and equipment changes, Corvette engineers couldn’t solve the problem until the all-new, rigid C5 chassis arrived for 1997 (alas, beyond our $15,000 budget).

While the C4 employed a lot of exotic materials and technology, it still displayed characteristics that plagued previous fibreglass Corvettes: cowl quiver, water leaks and a cacophony of squeaks and rattles. The usual GM electrical gremlins were evident, along with failed fuel and water pumps, seized U-joints and transmission woes.

At least the Corvette’s thirst for fuel was reasonable. If you can keep up with the maintenance regimen, America’s sports car lives up to the promise.

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