2010 Mazda MX-5 Miata
The fundamental mission of a sports car is to put smiles on the faces of its occupants, and few accomplish that mission more effectively than the Miata. After all, a sports car, particularly a roadster, is at least as much about transportation for the spirit as it is about simply getting your body from one point to another.
What makes the Miata special in this regard? Certainly not organ-displacing power. With 167 horsepower (158 with the automatic transmission) and 140 pound-feet of torque, the Miata's 2.0-liter four is at the low end of the contemporary sports-car pyramid.
On the other hand, it's fair to say that the Miata has become one of the world's most popular race cars, particularly among the weekend warriors of club racing, as well as autocross. On any weekend, flocks of Miatas are on track somewhere, battling for trophies.
There are two very good reasons for this. First, the Miata possesses the essential qualities that separate sporting machinery from the rest of the herd: feline reflexes, crisp shifting, and surgically precise steering — traits that make a car a treat to drive on a winding back road.
Second, the Miata's pricing puts sports-car fun within economic reach of just about anyone. The range starts at $23,560, and even when maxed out with leather and a power-retractable hardtop (one of the best: 12 seconds up or down, preserves trunk space), the bottom line doesn't go much over $30K. Agility and affordability. In a sports car, it's a combination that's tough to beat.
- VEHICLE TYPE: front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, 2-passenger, 2-door roadster
- BASE PRICE: $23,560
- ENGINE TYPE: DOHC 16-valve 2.0-liter inline-4 Power (SAE net): 158 or 167 bhp @ 6700 or 7000 rpm
- Torque (SAE net): 140 lb-ft @ 5000 rpm
- TRANSMISSIONS: 6-speed automatic with manumatic shifting, 5-speed manual, 6-speed manual
- DIMENSIONS: Wheelbase: 91.7 in, Length: 157.3 in, Width: 67.7 in, Height: 49.0-49.4 in, Curb weight: 2450-2550 lb
- FUEL ECONOMY: EPA city/highway driving: 21-22/28 mpg
Mazda Mazda3 / Mazdaspeed3
The latest Mazda 3 arrives with more than just a shiny new wrapper. It's more refined, too. In both 148-hp i and 167-hp s versions, the basic Mazda 3 feels more like a genuine car than most of the econoboxes it competes with on price — a bare-bones i starts at $16,045, and the s begins at $19,790. Material quality, ride quality, and chassis control are all a class above. If there are beancounters at Mazda, they don't get anywhere near the suspension. Getting behind the wheel of the Mazda 3 is a comforting reminder that there is a fun-to-drive car for every economic stratum.
And then there's the Mazdaspeed 3 in all of its 263-hp glory. You'll have to spend thousands more than the Speed 3's $23,945 base price to find a more complete performance package that seats four in comfort. It might have coarse manners compared with the VW GTI, but its visceral thrill is part of the Speed 3's appeal.
The presence of two cars with a 3-based designation on the 10Best list might suggest that we're suckers for any vehicle with a 3 in its name. But it's just a coincidence. Like the BMW 3-series, the Mazda 3 delivers an exceptional package in all of its trim levels.
- VEHICLE TYPE: front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door sedan or 5-door wagon
- BASE PRICE: $16,045-$23,945
- ENGINES: DOHC 16-valve 2.0-liter inline-4, 144 or 148 hp, 132 or 135 lb-ft; DOHC 16-valve 2.5-liter inline-4, 165 or 167 hp, 167 or 168 lb-ft; turbocharged and intercooled DOHC 16-valve 2.3-liter inline-4, 263 hp, 280 lb-ft
- TRANSMISSIONS: 5-speed automatic with manumatic shifting, 5-speed manual, 6-speed manual
- DIMENSIONS: Wheelbase: 103.9 in, Length: 177.4-180.9 in, Width: 69.1-69.7 in, Height: 57.5-57.9 in, Curb weight: 2900-3250 lb
- FUEL ECONOMY: EPA city/highway driving: 18-25/25-33 mpg
2010 Porsche Boxster / Cayman
There are a lot of words beginning with the letter "P" that can describe the mechanically identical Boxster and Cayman — poised and profitable leap to mind — but we think the most appropriate one is perfect. It's certainly hard to think otherwise when the Boxster offers a driving experience so sublime and so tactile that it's really only rivaled by the Cayman's. Every spin of the steering wheel, every push of a pedal, every fat blat from the flat-six engines, they're all calibrated to deliver one thing: unparalleled automotive pleasure. In fact, the pair proves even more rewarding than the iconic — and much pricier — 911.
The list of strengths goes on. The structures are girder-level rigid whether you opt for the tintop Cayman or the droptop Boxster. Operating the manual transmission is an act of mechanical self-gratification. And last year saw the addition of direct fuel injection for S models (which raised gas mileage and widened the already potent power band) and the slick, dual-clutch PDK gearbox for folks who no longer wish to use a clutch pedal. Power went up, too, with base models gaining 10 (Boxster) and 20 (Cayman) horsepower and the respective S cars getting an additional 15 and 25 horses.
Beyond that, they're livable and luxurious, with good cargo room from their two trunks as well as supportive seats and leather everywhere (including on the coat hooks and vent slats, if you opt for it). Sure, these mid-engined Porsches are expensive, but don't you always get what you pay for? This is the 11th appearance on our 10Best list for the Boxster and the fourth for its hardheaded sibling.
Hail Boxster. Hail Cayman. Long may they reign.
- VEHICLE TYPE: mid-engine, rear-wheel-drive, 2-passenger, 2-door roadster or 3-door hatchback
- BASE PRICE: $48,550-$62,450
- ENGINES: DOHC 24-valve 2.9-liter flat-6, 255 or 265 hp, 214 or 221 lb-ft; DOHC 24-valve 3.4-liter flat-6, 310 or 320 hp, 266 or 273 lb-ft
- TRANSMISSIONS: 7-speed dual-clutch automated manual, 6-speed manual
- DIMENSIONS: Wheelbase: 95.1 in, Length: 172.1-172.3 in, Width: 70.9 in, Height: 50.9-51.4 in, Curb weight: 3000-3250 lb
- FUEL ECONOMY: EPA city/highway driving: 19-20/26-29 mpg
2010 Volkswagen GTI
The latest GTI is the sixth iteration since VW invented the pocket rocket (or "hot hatch" in Euro-speak) back in 1976. And while the GTI has grown larger and more powerful, it keeps its original spirit.
It's relatively inexpensive and supremely practical yet is an immensely entertaining vehicle that's as happy meandering around mall parking lots as it is being flogged along a great back road. The 200-hp, turbocharged inline four-cylinder is smooth and responsive, although it doesn't imbue the GTI with the kind of startling acceleration that the brawnier Mazdaspeed 3 possesses.
But then, the GTI doesn't shout about its ability. It's the quiet kid at school who gets on with it and outperforms the blustery types on the ball field and in the classroom. It doesn't dart and lunge across uneven blacktop but seems to caress the road surface. The midrange torque and easy handling allow a GTI to cover twisting blacktop at hair-raising speeds. It steers and stops like a sports car. And whether the driver opts for the standard six-speed manual or the dual-clutch transmission, shifting is smooth and gratifying.
This latest car is better-looking inside and out than was the outgoing model, and we are particularly taken with the interior design and execution. It looks and feels like a car that costs more than its base $24,189 price, making it even more of a great value in our book.
- VEHICLE TYPE: front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 3- or 5-door hatchback
- BASE PRICE: $24,189
- ENGINE TYPE: turbocharged and intercooled DOHC 16-valve inline-4, iron block and aluminum head, direct fuel injection Power (SAE net): 200 bhp @ 5100 rpm Torque (SAE net): 207 lb-ft @ 1800 rpm
- TRANSMISSION: 6-speed manual, 6-speed dual-clutch automated manual
- DIMENSIONS: Wheelbase: 101.5 in, Length: 165.9 in, Width: 70.0 in, Height: 57.8 in, Curb weight: 3200-3300 lb
- FUEL ECONOMY: EPA city/highway driving: 21-24/31-32 mpg