Truly, noisy, speedy

Sports car enthusiasts have never had it so good, says Roger Bell

To jump the queue for a Mercedes-Benz SLK is to line the pocket of a profiteer. Buyers who can't wait their turn for a Lotus Elise, BMW Z3 or Porsche Boxster may also have to pay hefty premiums. Not so long ago, the MG F was on the hit list, too. When demand exceeds supply, market forces incite impatience and extravagance, not to say avarice. But beware: bubbles buoyed by fashion are apt to burst messily, leaving wallets smoking, egos flagging and stocks languishing.

For all the hype that surrounds them, it is not paragons such as the new Merc and Porsche that best reflect soaring interest in sports cars. Nor is it spring fever. Mazda's humble MX-5 - the model credited with the roadster's revival in the early Nineties - is a better barometer. In a static market, interest in the MX-5 would have waned as the competition, notably that from the excellent new MG, intensified. Sales have in fact rocketed, to a record 3,855 in the UK last year. Despite losing the bloom of youth, the little Mazda has cashed in on a sales spree generated by younger rivals. The wider the choice, the greater the interest. Growth in other specialist sectors - diesel, 4x4 and MPV - has been similarly fuelled.

Booms are bad for buyers, as prices are firm, discounts unlikely and deliveries late. For quality, ability and variety, though, the sports car buyer has never had it so good. Although there were almost as many different roadsters on offer 20 years ago as there are now, in 1977 most of them came from just two mainstream players: BL (represented by the MG Midget/B, and the Triumph Spitfire/TR7) and Fiat (Fiat X1/9, Alfa Romeo 2000 and Lancia Monte Carlo). The rest - Caterham, Morgan, TVR (but not Lotus, which didn't have an open two-seater in '77) produced eclectic cars of varying ability, just as they do now. It is the arrival of other major manufacturers - BMW, Honda, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Renault and Toyota -- that has so dramatically improved standards.

Like Mazda, several specialists, led by Lotus (returning to its roots, with the delectable Elise), look set to capitalise on the rush for cars that provide rather more than a moving experience. Here's how they run, at prices below pounds 35,000.

Alfa Romeo Spider

The winner Alfa badly needed. Spectacular styling and plush cabin, but integrity marred by crashy ride and body shake. Handling fluent by front- drive standards, if not mid-engined ones. Great engine; performance unspectacular for the money. Spider is charismatic and a tonic, but the stiffer, roomier GTV coupe is the better drive. Good hood.

Price: pounds 22,590. Power: 150bhp. 0-60mph: 9.0 seconds. Top speed: 125mph

BMW Z3

Nice if you can get it. There are more than 3,000 UK buyers waiting delivery of the US-made Z3 1.9, which is more sunshine tourer than sportster. Remove the BMW badge, and the appeal diminishes. Z3 looks good and handles well - but needs more power. Macho image fostered by Bond movie is better embodied by the 2.8, a latter-day Healey 3000, due this summer. Fine hood.

Price: pounds 19,950 (first orders) Power: 140bhp. 0-60mph: 8.5sec.Top speed: 124mph

Caterham Seven Superlight

Less a means of transport, more a powered skateboard. Cramped, stark, raucous, vulnerable.

Little car for lots of money, but twice as much won't buy more raw amusement. Tuned 1.6 Rover engine, slingshot acceleration, race-bred suspension, pin-sharp handling. Driving machines come no purer than this street-legal racer. Hood? Don't bother.

Price: pounds 17,494 Power: 137bhp: 0-60mph: 4.7 sec. Top speed: 129mph.

Fiat Barchetta

Left-hand drive denies Punto-based Latin charmer a serious role in Britain. Chic styling, novel detailing, plenty of pizzazz, great fun. Eager, economical twin-cam engine gives Mazda MX5-beating performance. Front-drive handling not quite so crisp or tactile. A pretty, practical two-seater at a keen price. Excellent manual hood is quick and simple to operate.

Price: pounds 15,078. Power: 130bhp. 0-60mph: 8.5sec. Top speed: 118mph

Honda CRX

Not the pretty, enthusiast's tearaway it was in a previous incarnation. Powered, party-trick roof panel, which disappears into boot, compromises styling, leaves cabin topless rather than open. Looks awkward, and performance is nothing special since the expensive, humdinger engine was dropped. Handles well, pleasant rather than exciting to drive. Quite economical.

Price: pounds l8,245. Power: 125bhp. 0-60mph: 9.5sec. Top speed: 118mph

Lotus Elise

The best sports car in the world, if not the prettiest. Effects of light weight, great suspension and mid-engined balance put a big smile on the driver's face. Lotus's founder, the late Colin Chapman, would have approved. Steering, handling, agility establish new benchmarks. Performance from MG engine strong. Look elsewhere for plush, goodies. Hood a bad joke.

Price: pounds 19,950. Power: 118bhp. 0-60mph: 6.0 sec. Top speed: 125mph.

Mazda MX-5 1.6i

MX-5 sparked sports car revival, now world's best seller. Took over where MG Midget and Triumph Spitfire - axed in old age for want of demand - left off. At its best on twisty rurals, MX-5 is a lovely mover with sharp rear-drive handling and slick shift. Economy better than performance. Practical, everyday sports car. Pricier 1.8i is faster, better equipped. Easy hood.

Price: pounds 14,410. Power: 88bhp. 0-60mph: 10.5sec. Top speed: 110 mph

MG F

Comfortable, all-purpose charmer to everyone's taste, at reasonable cost. Not as fast or knife-edged as the like-powered Elise, but quick and nimble by other yardsticks. Appeals to the poseur without alienating the enthusiast. Slug-like appearance controversial, but character, behaviour, plush cabin and MG badge generate affection. VVC model faster, 10-second hood.

Price: pounds 16,395. Power: 118bhp. 0-60mph 8.7sec. Top speed: 125mph

Mercedes-Benz SLK

Queue-jumpers will need a big premium for stumpy, auto-only SLK - coupe or cabrio, but never a true sports. Merc quality, name, safety, civility and brilliant, hard-panel headgear are the big attractions of a car that impresses more than it beguiles. Goes well, though supercharged engine is harsh and boomy. Great grip; absence of pin-sharp steering bows to American taste.

Price: pounds 29,500. Power: 190bhp. 0-60mph: 7.5sec. Top speed: 140mph.

Morgan Plus 8

Forward to the past with the fastest of Morgan's antidotes to modern motoring. Appeal rooted in vintage looks, primitive chassis and front suspension inherited from 1910 three-wheeler. Rover V8 engine rumbustious, handling an acquired taste, comfort minimal, resale value great. Fine for strong-armed masochists. Order now for delivery in 2002. Best with hood furled.

Price: pounds 29,328. Power: 192bhp. 0-60mph 6.0 sec. Top speed: 125mph

Porsche Boxster

Think of the "cheap" Porsche as a Lotus Elise with added comfort, civility, sophistication and quality. Mid-mounted flat-six engine lacks muscle, but revs with impunity and a glorious wail. Uncanny cornering powers, sharp steering, balanced handling (goodbye 911). Pricey auto Tiptronic less fun than manual. Cabin uninspired, zero depreciation, powered hood brilliant.

Price: pounds 34,095: Power: 204bhp. 0-60mph: 6.5sec. Top speed: 140mph.

Renault Spider

Pricey French funster is modern version of no-frills sports car. Originally sans windscreen (protection was by bug deflector and helmet), Renault's expensive image car now bows to convention. Stunning looks, huge presence, great handling and grip. High weight blunts performance of 2.0-litre Clio Williams engine. Cockpit utilitarian. Hood is unacceptably basic.

Price: pounds 25,950. Power: 150bhp. 0-60mph: 6.9sec. Top speed: 135mph

Toyota MR2 T-bar

Mid-engined, curvy and snug. Twin-seat Toyota too mainstream, too compromised to rival Elise on flair, whoopee, agility. Stronger on comfort, civility, equipment, safety and reliability. Performance nothing special for the price; hard-edged engine potent but frenzied. Handling now ultra-safe rather than super-sensitive. With roof panels off, cockpit is semi-alfresco.

Price: pounds 23,225. Power: 173bhp. 0-60mph: 7.8sec. Top speed: 130mph

TVR Chimaera

Not the fastest, most expensive TVR (the way-out Cerbera grabs those accolades), but arguably the best, especially with tweaked 4.5 Rover V8. Huge performance easily tamed, brakes and handling up to the job, steering quick, grip strong. Quality not to Porsche standards, but competes with authority as cut-price supercar. Lovely noise, cosy cockpit, natty headgear.

Price: pounds 32,950. Power: 285bhp. 0-60mph: 5.0sec est. Top speed: 155mph est.

Westfield SEiGHT

Big 3.9 Rover V8 engine, tiny, Lotus-inspired lightweight chassis; unite them and you have the fastest shoebox on wheels. Original SEiGHT was as loud as it was fearsome. Latest version is quieter,easier to live with. Devilishly fast pocket rocket, more toy than transport. Low on creature comforts, high on excitement. Can be bought as DIY kit.

Price: pounds 25,950. Power: 200bhp. 0-60mph: 4.5sec. Top speed: 135mph.

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