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.

Voices
A Russian hunter at the Medved bear-hunting lodge in Siberia
Save the tigerWildlife charities turn to those who kill animals to help save them
News
Davis says: 'My career has been about filling a niche - there were fewer short actors and fewer roles – but now I'm being offered all kinds of things'
PeopleWarwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
News
i100
Sport
Frank Lampard will pass Billy Wright and equal Bobby Charton’s caps tally of 106 caps against
sportFormer Chelsea midfielder in Etihad stopgap before New York contract
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The first film introduced Daniel Radcliffe to our screens, pictured here as he prepares to board the train to Hogwarts for the first time.
booksHow reading Harry Potter helps children grow up to be gay-friendly
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Aladdin is performed at the Tony Awards in New York in June
theatreBrit producer Lythgoe makes kids' musical comedy a Los Angeles hit
Sport
Usain Bolt of Jamaica smiles and shakes hands with a competitor after Jamaica won their first heat in the men's 4x100m relay
sport
News
Chancellor George Osborne, along with the Prime Minister, have been 'complacently claiming the economy is now fixed', according to shadow Chancellor Ed Balls
i100... which is awkward, because he is their boss, after all
Life and Style
A small bag of the drug Ecstasy
Health
Life and Style
Floral-print swim shorts, £26, by Topman, topman.com; sunglasses, £215, by Paul Smith, mpaulsmith.co.uk
FashionBag yourself the perfect pair
News
news
News
Netherlands' goalkeeper Tim Krul fails to make a save from Costa Rica's midfielder Celso Borges during a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final between Netherlands and Costa Rica during the 2014 FIFA World Cup
newsGoalkeepers suffer from 'gambler’s fallacy' during shoot-outs
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmReview: A week late, Secret Cinema arrives as interactive screening goes Back to the Future
Extras
indybest
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    (Senior) IT Support Engineer - 1st-3rd Line Support

    £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful IT service provider that has bee...

    Wind Farm Civil Design Engineer

    £55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

    Principal Marine Mechanical Engineer

    £60000 - £70000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

    Principle Geotechnical Engineer

    £55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

    Day In a Page

    Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

    Hunters protect Russia's rare Amur tiger

    In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate
    Transfers: How has your club fared in summer sales?

    How has your club fared in summer sales?

    Who have bagged the bargain buys and who have landed the giant turkeys
    Warwick Davis: The British actor on Ricky Gervais, how the Harry Potter set became his office, and why he'd like to play a spy

    'I'm a realist; I know how hard this business is'

    Warwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
    The best swim shorts for men: Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer

    The best swim shorts for men

    Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer
    Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

    Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

    Meet the couple blamed for bringing Lucifer into local politics
    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup