Open-road adventures are great in these sports cars.
Lightweight. Nimble. Fun. A sports car catches your eye and promises speedy adventures on the open road. For some, a sports car is a luxurious weekend toy, but there are plenty of affordable sports cars that make great daily drivers.
What is a sports car?
Sports car features invite debate between enthusiasts, but usually include:
- Competitive zero-to-60 times
- A low center of gravity and aerodynamic shape
- Crisp, responsive steering at top speeds
- Eye-catching body design
- Manual transmission or paddle shifters
- No more than two doors
Some prefer convertibles for sun on their face and wind in their hair. Others prefer a fixed-roof coupe for time on the race track. But almost all sports car drivers want rear-wheel-drive.
Why the emphasis on rear-wheel-drive? One of our CarMax senior purchasing associates says it’s all about evenly spreading out the car’s overall weight. “Having the drive mechanicals in your rear wheels when your engine’s up front just means better weight distribution,” our associate says, “and better weight distribution makes a difference in acceleration and traction. You can be a bit quicker off the line with a rear-wheel-drive setup.”Most manufacturers offer at least one vehicle that meets this definition. Here are the top 10 sports cars of 2017.
Unlike many of the cars listed here, the BRZ doesn’t have much backstory or heritage (other than a kinship to the WRX), but enthusiasts love it. Available as a two-door coupe with compact back seats, it’s very much a driver’s machine. Power comes from a boxer-style, 2.0L engine that pushes 200 horsepower to the rear wheels through a six-speed manual transmission or a six-speed automatic with paddle shifters. The BRZ is the only non-all-wheel-drive Subaru, and the rear-wheel-drive makes it a welcome addition to the Subaru stable.
It may not be the fastest car you can buy, but its handling is crisp and agile, which makes it a delight to push through twisty roads. One cool feature to look for is the triangular, center-mounted brake light.
One point to note: the BRZ was actually a joint venture between Subaru and Scion, which means there’s also a Scion-badged version known as the FR-S. With Scion’s recent demise, you can find this car sold as the Toyota 86.
Similar in concept to the MX5 Miata, the Z4 is a smaller, two-seater convertible that packs a retractable hardtop. It’s a little bigger and has a larger, more powerful engine under the hood, so it’s a little faster, but it too seeks to deliver that wind-in-your hair driving experience. In true enthusiast fashion, the Z4 has rear-wheel-drive and provides excellent grip and handling, though you might find the ride a little hard.
The Z4 was first available in 2003, and was redesigned in 2009. The final year of production was 2016 — look for this car to be reborn as the Z5 in late 2017. Engine options for the Z4 include a 2.0L four-cylinder and a 3.0L six-cylinder. When mated to either a six-speed manual or eight-speed automatic transmission, the 2.0 gets to 60 in around six seconds. The 3.0 does the job a full second quicker, using a seven-speed, dual-clutch transmission that shifts automatically or lets drivers shift manually.
Yes, we broke our own rules here and included a four-door vehicle! Fans call this very sporty sedan either a Subie (“Sue-bee”) or just the WRX, and they adore its hardcore rally-car heritage. Powered by a 2.0L, flat-four turbocharged engine, the WRX has all-wheel drive, a six-speed manual transmission, and enough power to sprint from zero to 60 mph in five seconds. If that isn’t quick enough for your taste, there’s also the WRX STI. Powered by a 2.5L boxer engine, the all-wheel drive STI pushes power through front and rear limited slip differentials for phenomenal cornering ability. Also, the Subaru engines’ horizontally-opposed cylinder layout helps lower the car’s center of gravity and improve handling.
One of our sales consultants calls the WRX the sporty sedan of choice on this list for taller drivers; since there are four doors, there’s additional space to recline and adjust the two front seats.Derived from the Impreza, the WRX has been available over the years as both a hatchback and sedan. (For a time, there was also a wagon.) The interior might lack the refinement of some other sports cars, but WRX drivers are OK with this. This car excels to taking on all terrains while delivering an exhilarating driving experience.
Perhaps nothing fits notions of what a sports car is better than this small two-seater. As a lightweight convertible, there’s nothing shocking about the Miata’s performance stats. Cars built from 2005-2015 have a 2.0L engine that gets things rolling from zero to 60 mph in just under seven seconds. That's not a blistering pace, but the Miata is more about feeling than performance. You don't so much control this car as meld with it. Perhaps no car sold today connects you more completely to the road than this little gem.
The good news for someone after an affordable used sports car is that Mazda has built so many Miatas since it entered production in 1989. Over the years, the styling has evolved subtly to keep it fresh and contemporary — but it's never departed from a minimalist approach to open-air motoring. Some fans still lament the passing of the first generation's endearing pop-up headlights.
Our sports car sales consultant says the hard top on this car and the Z4 give both vehicles a more finished look. “Hard tops stand up to the elements better,” he says, “and with both cars, having a hard top gives you more insulation from the elements, and less road noise.In 2016, an entirely new Miata hit the streets. Sharper looking, quicker, and probably a better car in every way. Both convertible and coupe options are available.
Is the GTI a sports car? Some think of it as a “hot hatch,” since it comes with a liftgate and rather generous cargo space when the backseats are folded down. However, under the hood there’s a 2.0L, turbocharged engine that makes 200 hp (210 in the 2015 and newer models) and as devotees will attest, it’s an absolute blast to drive.The GTI departs from the purist’s idea of a sports car because it’s got front-wheel-drive, and it comes in both two- and four-door body styles. But it’s well-built and the cabin is full of high-quality materials. If your sports car must do double-duty as practical, everyday transport, it's hard to beat the GTI. For those who’d prefer a sedan body style, the VW Jetta GLi is mechanically very similar.
Launched in 2010, the 370Z replaced the visually similar 350Z and traces its lineage back to the 240Z of the early 1970s. Available as both a coupe or a roadster, this compact two-seater checks all the sports car boxes. Power comes from a 3.7L V6 that puts 330 horsepower to the rear wheels through a six-speed manual or a seven-speed automatic transmission (the auto gearbox version comes with paddle shifters). From standing still, this Nissan zooms to 60 mph in around five seconds. If that’s not fast enough you, seek out the NISMO models, which are sportier and make an extra heap of horsepower.For further proof of sports car cred, check out the trunk. It’s tight in the coupe and smaller still in the roadster, so buy soft-sided bags for those weekend getaways!
For a certain set of enthusiasts, the Corvette is more than a sports car — it’s American heritage on wheels. The Corvette has been in production since 1953 and the car is currently in its seventh (C7) generation, which hit showrooms in 2014. At an average price of close to $40,000 on our website, a used Corvette is the priciest sports car on this list; but then, you do get a lot for your money.
So what do you get with a Vette? Some real performance, for starters. Late-model Corvettes have rocket-like acceleration and very impressive handling. Your seat is close to the ground, and you’re wedged in place by sturdy seat bolsters. These aren’t just for show either; the Vette has incredible grip through the corners and the bolsters stop you sliding around the compact cabin.
For the hottest performance, look for Z06 versions or find a Grand Sport, which handles like the Z06 but has a little less horsepower. Add in a big V8 and a zero-to-60 time of four seconds, and for many car enthusiasts the Corvette really is “America’s sports car.”There are only two seats in a Vette, which comes as both a coupe and a convertible, and it retains just a pinch of practicality: the trunk has room enough for a golf bag. But then, Corvette drivers don’t own this car because of its luggage capacity. They pilot a Corvette for the sense of heritage and for the performance (and surprisingly, nearly 30 mpg on the highway!).
“The Dodge Challenger is probably the biggest two-door sports car out there, and it’s got a really big back seat.”
- senior CarMax purchasing associate
The Challenger is Dodge’s flagship enthusiast vehicle. But is it a muscle car or is it a sports car? It has certainly got the brawn to launch it in a straight line (zero to 60 mph in a hair over six seconds, thanks to its big Hemi® engine), using its six-speed manual stickshift; the newer models’ independent suspension means the Challenger is a sportier handler than ever before. Some of the more tricked-out Challengers are factory-built hot rods; the Scat Pack option gives drivers nearly 500 horsepower.Our senior buyer says another reason customers seek out the Challenger is its size. “It’s probably the biggest two-door sports car out there, and it’s got a really big back seat,” he says. “Your backseat passengers will definitely be more comfortable back there than they would in most any other two-door sports car.”
Like the Corvette, the Camaro has a long history. Production stopped in 2002, and enthusiasts cheered for its return in 2010 with a wonderfully unique exterior design that projects power and performance. Changes for the 2016 redesign were minor and the current Camaro looks much like it did in 2010.
The Camaro is available both as a rear-wheel-drive coupe and a convertible, and while both have a backseat, it probably works best as a shelf for your groceries. Before the 2016 refresh, the LS and LT trims got a 3.6L V6 rated at 312 horsepower, while the SS was powered by a mighty 426-horsepower, 6.2L V8. And if that wasn’t enough, for 2014, Chevy unveiled a Z/28 Camaro that packs a huge 7.0L V8 from the Corvette.
Like the Mustang, the Camaro gives drivers some smaller engine options that offer a balance of power and economy. Today’s models get impressive performance from a 275-horsepower, turbocharged 2.0L four-cylinder engine that delivers up to 31 mpg on the highway. If you want more cylinders and brawnier performance, opt for either a V6 or a V8 powerplant.
For more than 60 years, the Mustang has often been more of a muscle car than a pure sports car. But if driving enjoyment is your main criteria, this car fits the sports car bill. The 2005 to 2014 versions came as both a coupe and a convertible and with a choice of 3.7L V6 or 5.0L V8. Drivers who wanted more of a racing feel in their Mustang could look for the Boss 302 or Shelby GT500 versions.
The current Mustang arrived in 2015, and brought with it a new range of engine choices. The 3.7L V6 became the base engine; it’s good for a not-at-all-shabby 300 horsepower. Next up is a 2.3L, turbocharged four-cylinder that makes 310 horsepower. Yes, only four cylinders, but it sprints from zero to 60 in less than six seconds! Topping the range is a 5.0L V8 good for over 400 horsepower. Transmission choices include a six-speed manual or an automatic with paddle shifters.
One of our sales consultants favors the Mustang of all the cars on this list; he says this sports car gives drivers the biggest bang for their buck. “There’s a lot of old-school power here,” he says, “plus refreshed, new-school suspension and handling for not a lot of money. There are plenty of performance levels here to choose from, from the four-cylinder turbo all the way to the big, impressive V8s. All are a blast to drive!”
Both the latest and previous Mustangs are boldly stylish and distinctly American. They have a backseat, although adults wouldn't want to spend much time there, and a reasonable amount of trunk space. On the road, the Mustang drives well and the latest version gets high marks for its handling. Owners also love the progressively-flashing rear turn signals that point in the direction you’re turning.