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Where did all the affordable sporty coupes go?

Relatively cheap front-wheel-drive coupes were once easy to find; now there are only a handful.

By James_Tate Apr 17, 2013 5:59AM

Modern car buyers have an unwieldy assortment of choices -- SUVs, CUVs, hybrids, electric vehicles, hot hatches -- except for one segment: the affordable, sporty coupe.

In the early 1990s, it was hard to leave home without spotting cheap, front-wheel-drive two-doors like the Ford Probe, Mitsubishi Eclipse, Acura Integra, Mazda MX-6, Chevrolet Monte Carlo, Ford Escort ZX2 and others like them. So why did they leave, and is there any chance they'll come back into favor?

For decades, U.S.-built coupes had been sold and treated by the public as sedans with two doors. Even in the early 1990s, long after Detroit's complete dominance had receded, there were popular coupes like the Buick Skylark, Plymouth Sundance and Pontiac Grand Am on the road. When the sportier imports came into play, that very definition of coupe -- and indeed, the success of the market -- eventually turned on its head.

The plight of the sporty coupe, however, is best exemplified by a Japanese car, the Mitsubishi Eclipse. In its first and second generations, the Eclipse was actually a fun car, especially with the 195-horsepower engine in the front-wheel-drive GS-T trim level (or the all-wheel-drive option on the GSX). The amount of fun drivers could buy for little money made the Eclipse a hit, and the second-generation brought a power bump (to 210 horsepower) and revised styling that carried it through the end of the 1990s. The 2000s brought anemic styling and soft handling. Suddenly one of the cooler cheap cars on the road was caught trying to grow up, when in fact it had lost all of the charm it had in the first place.

We took a look at overall coupe sales figures in the U.S., excluding hatchbacks like the two-door Geo Metro and Volkswagen Golf, using data from WardsAuto from the 1991 to 2012 model years.

While sales starting declining after 1995 and picked up again in 1999, total coupe sales dropped again during the 2000 model year, from 1,663,609 to 1,172,878 in 2001. That marked the beginning of a precipitous drop in coupe sales that wouldn’t find a floor until the 2011 model year, when just 453,018 were sold.

In recent years, it's easy to see why sporty coupes have gone away: Fewer young people -- the coupe's prime demographic -- have been purchasing new cars. And while there was some reversal of that trend last year, automakers are still struggling to adjust to the new reality. During 2003-2011, a time period during which SUVs and crossovers had the run of the market, poaching sales from seemingly every other segment, coupe sales were especially depressed, at fewer than 1 million per year, a drop of more than half from 1991's 2 million-plus sales. Rising gas prices and a growing emphasis on practicality also sent coupes out of style.

Maybe this is the era of the sporty hatchback. The MINI Cooper S, Hyundai Veloster Turbo, Ford Focus ST and new Fiesta ST, to cite just four examples, are affordable front-wheel drive fun that come in a very different form.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing — who doesn’t love a good hot hatch? — but there's no denying that today's affordable coupes (muscle cars and exotics notwithstanding) are hardly sporty models. The Nissan Altima Coupe just doesn't get the blood pumping like the company's old 240SX.

You might point to the Scion FR-S and Subaru BRZ as contemporary sporty coupes, but in reality, these are purist sports cars. Popular as they are, the Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Camaro and Hyundai Genesis Coupe are pony cars, and the Dodge Challenger is a throwback muscle car. And they’re all rear-wheel drive. Perhaps, as automakers lighten their cars for the sake of fuel efficiency, we'll see the return of less-powerful, front-wheel-drive coupes that are a genuine hoot to drive (remember the Acura Integra and RSX?).

U.S. coupe sales by model year, 1991-2012 (c) MSN Autos

That might already be changing, as coupe sales saw a slight bump for 2012. In fact, while domestic coupe sales grew by 12.5 percent from 2011, sales of import coupes jumped nearly three times that rate. This isn’t so surprising when you consider that at the moment, consumers who want a sporty coupe without buying a muscle car are relegated to Asian builders. The Honda Accord and Civic coupes are still offered with a proper manual transmission and are sporty enough for most buyers, and the Kia Forte Koup is another smart and well-priced option.

There may be some interesting offerings on the horizon to spark domestic growth, though: Chevrolet’s Code 130r and Tru 140s concepts could hit the market as the first fresh, all-new American sporty coupes in years. The sudden rise in coupe sales from 2011-2012 may be just the beginning of a renaissance that, much like the 1990s, will see these automotive dinosaurs roam the earth once more. 

James Tate cut his teeth in the business as a race-team crew member before moving to the editorial side as senior editor of Sport Compact Car, and his work has appeared in Popular Mechanics, Automobile, Motor Trend and European Car. When not writing, Tate is usually fantasizing about a vintage Porsche 911.

Apr 17, 2013 12:19PM
Every time I see a picture of a late 90's Eclipse it makes me sad because it reminds me how far the Eclipse has fallen.   Man they were awesome cars back in the 90's.
Apr 18, 2013 2:02AM

There were many GREAT cars built in the 1980s & '90s.  They have many features of modern cars, such as rust résistance, disc brakes, sway bars, steering racks and sequential fuel injection.  Yet they are relatively simple and can still be repaired by a skilled home mechanic.  They tend to be more comfortable than earlier cars and they run on unleaded fuel. 


The beauty is that they are often cheap to buy.

Apr 17, 2013 1:55PM

I have been out car shopping over the last few years. The 2 door coupe today costs 500-1000 more than a four door equivalent. Since when does it cost more to build a 2 door over a 4 door? The auto manufactures have caused this paradigm shift to 4 doors because their pricing simple forced buyers to choose the more cost effective alternative.


You can also blame the insurance companies they tell you you’re more dangerous in a 2 door than a 4 door. So you have to pay more. The end result is people don’t buy these cars anymore.


Now, the Dodge Challenger, Mustang and Camaro have drawn consumers into their fold so if you are trying to say that only front wheel drive cars count as a Sport coupe your sadly mistaken.

Apr 18, 2013 5:29AM
Any true car lover will tell you, one of the only good cars to come out of the 90s was the Mark IV Toyota Supra.  One hell of a motor in that bad boy.  Toyota just doesn't make them like they used to.
Apr 18, 2013 4:57AM
The Hyundai Genesis Coupe is a pony car?   I used to own a 1989 Nissan 240SX and kept it for 16 years and it had 377,000 miles on it before I donated it to charity.  I now drive a 2010 Mustang GT500, a much faster car but the 240SX was a great reliable rear wheel drive sports car and I had no issues with it less normal maintenance and wear and tear.

Apr 18, 2013 3:18AM
There was no Escort ZX2 in the early 90's like the article says. There was an Escort GT.
Apr 18, 2013 3:12AM
Reality Check, people: do "bargain" and "sports car" really go together, or do they cancel out?


Apr 17, 2013 7:47AM

Actually, the sport coupes went away because sport hatchbacks are simply more practical.  The fact that most automakers have found ways to make them look attractive rather then boxy, shorter versions of stations wagons simply added salt to the sport coupe's wounds.


I find it highly likely that my next car will be some sort of sport hatchback.

Apr 18, 2013 5:47AM
Depending on your definition of  "affordable", the steal of the sports car world is currently a used Porsche Cayman.  Their new price tag can easily get up to the 80K range, but you can buy a used Cayman or Cayman S with under 25K miles for less than half (around mid-30's).  I got a 2006 with 23K miles for that price and it's incredible.  Porsche screws the new-car buyer because their market allows it, and their rich clients pay it.  Let someone else suffer the depreciation, and get one hot car at a 50% discount.  Other cars may be faster, buy nothing turns heads like a Porsche Cayman.  It is a beautiful car. 
Apr 18, 2013 4:02AM
My first car was a 1935 Ford with a rumble seat. Loved that car and kept it til i got out of high school in 55. Went to service and had to sell it. Cost me 85 bucks used.  I would buy another one now if they still made them. Now i am into small suvs. About 60 years later.  
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