The State of the Sports Car

The Driving Life contributor Eric Huebner gives his thoughts on the current class of sports cars available today.

Driving enthusiasts today are in dire straits. The American automotive sphere was damaged badly by the 2008 recession, and its casualties litter the floors of Detroit’s executive boardrooms. Gone are the days when car companies put out cars designed purely for fun. Nowadays, the majority of new cars follow what may be referred to as the “Toyota Corolla Model”: safe, good fuel economy, underpowered, looks best in beige. Due to the desperate financial situations that so many major automakers found themselves in following the economic meltdown, there are very few cars on the market designed with fun in mind.

Only the venerable Mustang, Camaro and Corvette still pull large numbers. Yet the appeal of these cars is quite hit-or-miss. I, for example, think that the new Corvette looks vulgar and disgusting, however many horsepower it puts out. There’s a lack of continuity in the design from the front to the back, the air intake on the hood looks hastily dashed on, and the tail is too similar to the Camaro. I truthfully don’t see any appeal in the Mustang or Camaro either. That’s not to say that they don’t have some good performance credentials, but you wouldn’t exactly compare one to an E-Type Jaguar. While the original E-Type is now viewed more as a piece of art than a car, our current muscle cars feel more like mass-produced facsimiles than the real deal.

That’s the problem with today’s mainstream American sports cars. In a technical sense, they’re wonderful achievements of engineering, but, at least in my opinion, they’re really a bit soulless.

The new C7 Corvette will go 0 to 60 in the three-second range, and its engine produces about 450 horsepower. Those are truly ridiculous and amazing numbers, and the engineers who worked to make them possible should be commended. But how often do you need to go from 0 to 60? When was the last time that you needed 450 horsepower? If you are like the majority of the people who choose to purchase this car, you will use it on weekends to cruise around and on the occasional morning commute to work, where you will sit stationary in traffic next to a dentist in a Focus with one-fourth of your horsepower.

The counterargument to this, of course, is that nobody buys such a car for its performance. Most buyers are indeed realistic and know how the car will be used. They recognize that it really doesn’t matter how quickly their new Mustang can lap the Nürburgring. They buy these cars because of the fun that they represent. And that, right there, is why the current state of the American sports car is a problem.

There are many people who love their Mustangs, Camaros and Corvettes. But not me. It all feels a bit forced, a bit corporate. I miss cars like the Pontiac Solstice. The Solstice was woefully underpowered and dreadfully uncomfortable, but at the same time, it handled deftly, came with a lovely manual transmission, and had a completely unique design that harkened back to the British roadsters of the 1960s.

That’s what made it so great. It never tried to compete with the heavyweights like the Mustang. It was designed from the ground up to be an affordable, fun way to drive around on weekends for people who liked cars but knew that they didn’t possess the same skill set as Sterling Moss. The closest thing still in production is the Mazda MX-5. It’s inexpensive, it’s fun, and it doesn’t beg to be taken too seriously like the Mustang, Camaro and Corvette.

That’s what the American car manufacturers sorely lack: a sense of fun. Now, bear in mind, that’s not altogether their fault, given the current state of the economy. But we can all hope that in the coming years, this sense of lightheartedness makes a comeback. There are some hopeful signs on the horizon: the Dodge Viper was recently revived and made better than ever (read: no longer a terrifying death trap); Ford is completely scrapping the current Mustang platform and starting afresh with a new, European-inspired design; and Fiat will finally, mercifully, be bringing Alfa Romeo back to American shores. While the state of the sports car is dire, gearheads can find hope on the horizon.