Baby boomers nostalgic for their sports car daysaren't the only folks who'll enjoy this pair of zippyand stylishnewcomers.
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Baby boomers nostalgic for their sports car days aren'tthe only folks who'll enjoy this pair of zippy--and stylish--newcomers.
Only a few years ago, industry soothsayers were ringing the death knellfor the sports car in America. Baby boomers had traded in their Beemersfor practical minivans and sport utilities to cart their own offspring around.
But tempus fugit. Today those boomers--hitting age 50 in droves, andwith their children grown--can afford the frivolity of adding a sports carto the household fleet.
Mazda kicked off the return of the two-seat roadster with its Miata.That vehicle's phenomenal success led BMW to introduce the Z3, Porsche theBoxster, and Mercedes-Benz the SLK, all two-seat roadsters. Now two moresports cars enter the midlife-crisis market: the model-year 2000 Audi TTand Honda S2000.
The TT, which went on sale this spring, rides on the same platform asthe new Volkswagen Beetle. The family resemblance also includes the curvedroof. Test runs in the two cars brought different reactions from other drivers,however. Where the New Beetle garnered immediate grins of recognition, theTT drew double-takes. Drivers speeded ahead of me on the freeway, strainingto see what nameplate adorned the front.
Indeed, the Audi TT is first and foremost a design experiment. It lookslike no other vehicle on the road, and it's described more often in architecturalterms, like Bauhaus, than in automotive language. The predominant exteriorstyling cues are the arching lines of the roof and the bulbous fenders.Metal trim and exposed rivets, such as those on the fuel-filler door, givethe car a post-industrial look.
Inside, the TT's design is even more dramatic. Its materials are morecommonly found in a factory than in nature. Unlike the luxury cars thatpotential TT buyers currently own, the new Audi hasn't got a bit of woodanywhere.
Pieces of hardware, such as the air vent rings and shift knob, are madeof brushed aluminum with dimples like a golf ball. The pedals are stainlesssteel with oval, machined perforations. Circular dash vents open and closeby rotating the outer metal rings. An aluminum plate folds down to hidethe sound system. Aluminum wire rings form the cupholders. The scheme insidethe car, like that outside, is arches and circles, including the retro-lookingwhite-on-black gauges.
Technically defined as a "2 + 2," the TT ideally carries onlytwo people, accommodating their belongings in a spacious cargo bay accessiblethrough the rear hatch. The rear seats--virtually unusable for humans--foldto provide even more room for cargo. Other storage spots are limited; atiny glove box holds only the owner's manual.
The feeling inside is intimate, to say the least. (Some might find iteven claustrophobic.) But headroom and legroom are plentiful. Passengerssit low, and the doors and dash are high, reminiscent of bathtub-shapedPorsche sports cars. The drawback: severe blind spots.
Though its emphasis is on design, the front-engine, front-drive TT isno slouch at performance. In fact, it feels and behaves like a classic,nimble sports car. The five-valve, four-cylinder, turbocharged engine delivers180 horsepower and accelerates respectably. It's paired with a slick five-speedmanual transmission. Steering is responsive, the tires grip hard in tightcorners, and the brakes stop the car confidently.
The TT currently is available only as a coupe. Other versions are onthe way, including a convertible. Some will be offered with such optionsas all-wheel drive, a more powerful 225-horsepower engine, and Tiptronic,which allows manual shifting of the automatic transmission.
This new two-seat roadster is less about show than go. The S2000, whichwas scheduled to enter showrooms this month, emphasizes performance andtechnology over appearance.
It's attractive enough, nevertheless. The exterior lines are simple andtimeless, reminiscent of classic 1950s and '60s British roadsters. Likewise,the interior is clean and uncluttered in its use of high-quality materials,typical of Japanese automobiles.
Accommodations are tight--even tighter than in the Audi TT. The S2000is no car for a boomer who hasn't stayed in shape. Perfectly supportiveseats are contoured upward to hug the thighs. Knee room in the wheel wellis limited. The electronic convertible top, however, offers the spaciousnessof the open sky in a matter of seconds.
The new Honda has minimal storage; there's no glove box, and atiny upright console between the seats has room for only a few CDs. Women'spurses must be stowed near the passenger's feet or behind the driver's seatif it is moved far forward.
Honda is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and the S2000 paystribute to the company's rich racing history. The driver-oriented instrumentcluster, which includes a digital speedometer, resembles that of a Formula1 race car. The S2000 starts like a Formula 1, too: Turn the key, pressa red button to the left of the steering wheel, and the engine comes tolife.
That engine is a marvel. Under its long, sleek hood, the S2000 is outfittedwith a tiny 2-liter, four-cylinder powerplant. Honda engineers have squeezeda whopping 240 horsepower from it, and the company says it's the world'shighest-output engine without a turbocharger. Getting such power from asmall engine is a feat typically accomplished only by racing teams.
Indeed, the S2000 resembles a racer more than any production car I'veever driven. Its layout--rear drive, front engine--is a traditional sportscar configuration. Like a Porsche, the S2000 does exactly what the drivertells it to do, and when. So you'd better be sure just what instructionsyou're giving. For instance, the tiniest input to the steering wheel movesthe car quickly and precisely. Fortunately, its beefy brakes stop the carassuredly if you make a mistake.
This vehicle is not designed for lazy Sunday afternoon cruising. TheS2000 begs to be driven hard: Zip quickly through the six gears of the manualtransmission, rev the engine high, and you feel like Mario Andretti. Unfortunately,the power comes at a price: The S2000's engine is noisier than the six-cylinderones in German sports cars, and its sound is harsh.
With base prices of about $32,000, neither of these cars will force babyboomers to drain their mutual funds.
The Audi TT that I tested totaled $33,925, fully equipped with the premiumaudio system, comfort package, and performance items. Audi also throws infree scheduled maintenance for three years or 50,000 miles. Honda officialssay the S2000 will start at around $32,000. However, a scant 5,000 of thecars are targeted for the US, so look for Honda dealers to charge a premiumwell over the sticker price.
A week of living with an Audi TT in Michigan and a day driv-ing an S2000over winding mountain roads in Georgia gave me the most fun I've had behindthe wheel in a long time. If these two cars are what a midlife crisis brings,let mine begin.
Base price (including destination charge): $31,025
Major standard equipment: Head and side air bags; antilock brakes; antitheftalarm system, with remote keyless entry; am/fm stereo cassette; power windowsand mirrors; cruise control
Major options: Comfort package including heated seats and trip computer($700); Bose audio system with six-disc CD changer ($1,200); performancepackage with xenon headlamps and 17-inch wheels ($1,000)
Base price (including destination charge): approximately $32,000
Major standard equipment: Antilock brakes; antitheft system, with keylessremote entry; am/fm stereo, with CD player; power windows; cruise control;leather seats
Major option: Windscreen (price not yet determined)
The Mazda Miata, a two-seater, kick-started the sports car androadster market a decade ago. A half-million of this reinvention of theclassic British sports car have been sold. And no wonder: The Miata stillgives its driver and passenger the most grins for the least money.
For its anniversary, the Miata (base price $20,220*) has been freshened,but its simple look remains timeless. Now outfitted with a more powerful1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine rated at 140 horsepower, the new Miata feelsquicker than its predecessor, and more nimble than heavier, pricier roadsterswith larger engines. A 10th anniversary limited edition, with six-speedmanual transmission, comes in a blue-black color combination.
With a sticker roughly double that of the Miata, the Porsche Boxster(base price $41,765) is a classic Porsche sports car. Though it gets 219horsepower from its midcar-mounted six-cylinder engine, the Boxster's superbperformance isn't a function of raw power. The overall balance between powerand agile handling--for which Porsche is famous--gives the Boxster an edgeover all other roadsters. And there are touches of modern-day practicality:the electronically operated top, and front and rear trunks that can fitgolf bags.
The Mercedes-Benz SLK (base price $40,595) will appeal to driverswho are nostalgic for the SL roadsters of the 1950s and looking more fora luxury ride than for sports car handling. The SLK's exterior proportionsand wedgelike silhouette, as well as its chrome-trimmed gauges, are reminiscentof classic Mercedes roadsters. A supercharged 2.3-liter, four-cylinder engine,rated at 185 horsepower, is mated to either a five-speed automatic or afive-speed manual transmission.
Introduced in 1996, the BMW Z3 ($31,870) is freshened for the2000 model year, but the changes are subtle. It still has voluptuous curvesand gill-like side vents. The South Carolina-built Z3 now comes only withsix-cylinder engines--either a 2.5-liter rated at 170 horsepower or a 2.8-literdelivering 193 horsepower.
Base prices quoted here include destination charge. The BMW Z3 priceis for the 2000 model year; all others are 1999-model prices. No 2000 priceswere available at press time. Photos courtesy of (from top to bottom) MazdaNorth American Operations; Porsche Cars North America; Mercedes-Benz ofNorth America; BMW of North America Inc.
The author, a Michigan-based automotive journalist, tests hundreds ofproduction models and "concept cars" each year.
Michelle Krebs. Audi TT and Honda S2000: Nifty antidotes for a midlife crisis. Medical Economics 1999;18:136.