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Open-air motoring for only $15,000

You don’t have to spend too much for the sunny, top-down motoring you dream of. Here are four cheap candidates.

Published April 15, 2010


<p>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.</p>
<p>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.</p>
<p>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.”</p>
<p>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. </p>
<p>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). </p>
<p>1990-2005 Mazda MX-5 Miata</p>
<p>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.</p>
<p>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.</p>
<p>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. </p>
<p>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.</p>
<p>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. </p>
<p>1996-2002 BMW Z3</p>
<p>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 (<em>GoldenEye</em>) to goose sales of its first sports car in 40 years. </p>
<p>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.</p>
<p>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. </p>
<p>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. </p>
<p>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.</p>
<p>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.</p>
<p>2000-03 Honda S2000</p>
<p>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. </p>
<p>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.</p>
<p>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.</p>
<p>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.</p>
<p>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.</p>
<p>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.</p>
<p>1991-96 Chevrolet Corvette</p>
<p>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.</p>
<p>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.</p>
<p>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. </p>
<p>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).</p>
<p>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.</p>
<p>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.</p>
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