The phrase “sports car” evokes images of an ascot-wearing, martini-swilling playboy, one arm on the wood-rimmed steering wheel of his Ferrari, and the other around his female flavor of the month, as they burn up the highway between Cannes and Monte Carlo.
But “sports car” can also mean something far less grand. I’m thinking, for example, of the cheap-and-cheerful Triumphs, Lotuses and MGs that came over from England in the 1960s. Believe it or not, before the VW Bug took hold, England was our number one automotive trading partner, and most of what we bought were these wire-wheeled two-seaters.
A Triumph TR4A sold for $2,899 in 1967, about the same price as a medium-sized bread-and-butter sedan. And, of course, British roadsters were plentiful as affordable used cars for decades (though they’re getting pricey now). In contrast, a Ferrari 330 GT, one of the more affordable ones, was $14,200 that year, more than five times as much, and $102,000 in today’s dollars—they were always dream cars.
Yes, this is where the British car jokes go, and it helps to know that they all had Lucas “Prince of Darkness” electrics and hit or miss (mostly miss) Smiths gauges.
Q: Why don’t the British make computers?
A: They couldn't figure out how to make them leak oil!
Q: What do you call an MG with dual exhaust?
A: A wheelbarrow!
Q: How do you double the value of a Triumph?
A: Fill it up with gas!
Q: Why do the British drink warm beer?
A: Because they have Lucas refrigerators.
OK, enough of that. The old British roadsters—those that survived, that is—have become valuable garage queens, and England effectively stopped making them in any quantity circa 1980. If you want a cheap-and-cheerful sports car you now have to look elsewhere.
Fortunately, Japan stepped in to fill the void. Here are three prime two-seat roadster choices for 2016-2017. And all three are likely to be quite reliable.
Mazda MX-5 Miata. Let’s start here, because the Miata was modeled—down to the twin-cam four-cylinder engine—on the gorgeous, ahead-of-its-time and hugely trouble-prone Lotus Elan. The car also shares the front engine, rear drive of those British classics—even the exhaust note was copied. In effect, the Miata is a sports car that actually works, and in 1989 it debuted as a back-to-basics roadster at $14,000.
Car writers love the Miata, especially the “NA” first generation (1989 to 1998)—there’s something like eight of them among the staff at one prominent magazine. Why? These ink-stained wretches can’t afford the high-end Porsches and Ferraris they write about, but they can definitely pony up $3,000 to $5,000 for the next best thing, a used Miata.
I’m no different, since I own a 33,000-mile NB with the larger 1.8-liter engine (introduced in 1996). Admittedly, it’s a low-mileage car, but I love driving it and it hasn’t given me a lick of trouble, and I’ve enjoyed adding accessories from the huge aftermarket parts supply—including BBS wheels from a 1995 M Edition, a hardtop, performance tires from B.F. Goodrich, a engine compartment stabilizer bar (useful for reducing vibration), and TopLocs. There's a big online community here.
The latter—well-made metal locks that secure the side latches—are necessary in part because Miata hardtops are both fairly scarce and very easy to steal. Hardtops are in high demand because of the insanely popular Spec Miata race series—an easy way for normal people to get into affordable racing.
Ratty but running MX-5s start around $1,500. They’re everywhere. As of last April, a million had been made. Don’t worry too much about which generation of car you’re looking at—there are advantages to all of them.
Toyota MR-2 Spyder. These little cars, the third generation MR-2, were on the U.S. market from 2000 to 2005, but didn’t catch fire saleswise. Although they’re very good looking and widely considered the best-handling of the MR-2s, they may have simply been too small for the American market. It was also pricey at $25,145 MSRP. Only 27,941 were sold in six model years, and that killed the MR-2 nameplate, too.
2Spyders are harder to find than Miatas, but worth seeking out. I’m looking for one myself, though why I’d actually need two Japanese roadsters is a matter best left to my psychiatrist. I can’t give you a drive report, because I’ve never even sat in one.
Despite the relative rarity, the Spyder enjoys a healthy aftermarket and good online support here and here. Unlike the Miata, the layout of this 2,195-pound car is Italian sports car exotic—a transverse motor mid-mounted, with rear-wheel drive. The 138-horsepower 1.8-liter double-overhead-cam engine connects to a five-speed manual (a semi-automatic became available in 2002), and could get you to 62 mph in 6.8 seconds.
Some owners have swapped the original engine for the 1ZZ-FE sourced from the contemporary Celica GTS, Corolla and Matrix XRS, and the Pontiac Vibe. It’s also possible to change the semi-automatic over to manual, but descriptions seem a bit arduous to me.
An excellent, low-mileage (most have over 100k) MR-2 Spyder can fetch $10,000, but you can find perfectly nice examples for $4,000 to $5,000. The hardtops (Europe and Japan only) are consequently rare in the U.S. and sought after.
Nissan 350Z. First appearing in the U.S. in 2004, when both the MR-2 Spyder and Miata were competition, the 350Z Roadster looks kind of like the former but has the latter’s front-engine, rear drive layout—in this case sporting a 3.5-liter V-6, with an available six-speed manual.
The Z itself is somewhat more upscale than the Miata or MR-2, and was available in a bunch of packages that included such amenities as traction control, Brembo brakes, xenon headlamps, leather-heated seats and GPS.
The roadster boasted an electrically retractable soft top—not available on either of the other cars. There were initially only two trim packages in the U.S., Enthusiast and Touring, but Grand Touring was added for 2005. That designation makes sense, because with more power (up to 300 horsepower in later additions) and also more weight and appointments than the competition, the 350Z was a good candidate for long-distance hauling.
The best year for this car was 2003 in the U.S., with 36,728 sold. If you can find a good one, it won’t be a giveaway. But $6,000 to $8,000 would appear to buy a respectable example. Here's a useful online forum.
Three very good Japanese roadsters, produced in the 1990s and 2000s. Beware of exceedingly high mileage, rot, and prior accident damage. Despite these caveats, these cars offer fun without the heartbreak that often went along with those lovely British ancestors.