From the May 1993 issue of Car and Driver.
If history and ad copywriters had shown a little respect for the term “sports car,” perhaps “budget sports car” would be recognized today as the redundancy it out to be. In the dawn of sports-car time, post-war Europe needed cheap transportation and couldn’t pay extra for fun. Skinny-tired MGs drew a clear distinction between sporty driving and other more serious forms of motoring, and a modest price was as integral to the formula as a roofless cockpit. So it’s a shame that “sports car” has been attached to every odd lump on wheels needing an image fix—so much so that when we want to use the term in a disciplined fashion, we have to specify that we’re talking about cars regular working folks can afford.
For about five grand to either side of $20,000, there are exactly four cars available today that have the spirit and substance to be rightly called sports cars. They are Alfa Romeo’s gray-bearded but still handsome Spider, Honda’s incredibly well-thought-out Civic del Sol Si, Mazda’s retro-look MX-5 Miata roadster, and Mercury’s turbo-boosted Capri XR2.
We collected this eclectic open-top fleet in Southern California and took to the mountains and deserts in search of truth, harmony, and transient response (and weird tourist stops, like these dinosaur/gift shops off Interstate 10 near Cabazon). Somewhere between beautiful downtown Chula Vista and the 8443-foot Onyx Pass, we found the test’s winner. And discovered something about the tradeoffs we can be coaxed to accept in pursuit of sheer driving pleasure.
4th Place: Alfa Romeo Spider Veloce
Dedicated Alfisti may rave till the pasta goes limp, singing the praises of the Spider’s certain je ne sais quoi (or is that non so che dire?). But we have to say, “Basta! Enough, already.”
Alfa Romeo first whipped the cover off Pininfarina’s design for the Duetto Spider at the 1966 Geneva auto show. Do you realize how long ago 1966 was? Liz Taylor won the best-actress Oscar for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and the Baltimore Orioles won the World Series. So to say the 1993 Alfa Spider is a little dated is an understatement of heroic proportion. (It happened that the Alfa public-relations people didn’t have a current example handy, so they offered a nicely-cared-for 1991 customer car. “There’s no difference,” we were assured, tellingly.)
HIGHS: Dustin Hoffman snagged Katharine Ross with one…
LOWS: …but that was in 1967.
VERDICT: An all-too-faithful replica of a sports car from a quarter-century ago.
We included the old Italian roadster in this group because, like the others, its mission is to provide a spirited, open-air driving experience for a reasonable price. “Reasonable” means something different coming from the Old World, and the Alfa, at over $25,000, runs eight or nine grand more than the class norm. But the Spider is conceptually comparable to the Capri, the del Sol, and particularly the Miata.
Out on the road, it is anything but comparable. The Alfa feels profoundly and prohibitively old. And we’re not talking details here, like defroster effectiveness (there is little) or differential whine (there is lots). It’s the fundamentals—chassis rigidity, ride and handling, steering response, braking action—that make the Spider seem quaintly antiquated in this company.
You can look at the performance figures and the subjective core and find the Alfa, caboose-like, generally bringing up the rear. To explain why feels like piling on: The engine, though the largest here at 2.0 liters and rated at a respectable 120 hp, does not produce the kind of power you can feel, and at 2700 pounds, this is the heaviest car of the bunch; the body flexes and shudder over imperfect pavement; the steering is vague yet darty; the brake pedal does nothing for the first inch of travel then bites suddenly; the clutch drags even with the pedal hard on the floor; the live rear axle lurches over bumps; and drivers over six feet tall have no place to stow their knees. Need we go on?
It’s true that on a mild spring day, at a very relaxed pace over immaculate blacktop, the Alfa Spider offers a heartwarming, offbeat ride. And even after all these years, its clean shape remains attractive. Its top also flips down easily—almost as quickly and casually as the Miata’s—though the boot cover’s hooks, snap, and zippers work awkwardly. But is that enough?
Obviously, a few people still find the Alfa Spider irresistible—the company sells about three a day in the U.S.—and those good folks will pay no attention to what we say anyway. But this car needs to be retired gracefully. It became an instant classic in 1967 when poor, befuddled Dustin Hoffman chased up and down California in one, trying to come to grips with his life and a fetching Katharine Ross in The Graduate. We’d prefer to remember it that way, not see it continually shoved out to face rivals 25 years more modern.
1993 Alfa Romeo Spider Veloce
120-hp 4-inline, 5-speed manual, 2700 lb
Base/as-tested price: $25,815/$25,815
C/D TEST RESULTS
30 mph: 2.9 sec
60 mph: 9.7 sec
1/4 mile: 17.3 sec @ 80 mph
100 mph: 30.0 sec
Braking, 70-0 mph: 212 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.82 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 25 mpg
3rd Place: Mercury Capri XR2
This one threw us a curve. We’ve never been smitten by Ford’s little Australian-built droptop, mostly because it just didn’t look like much, with its underbite face, featureless flanks, too-high beltline, and drab interior. No offense intended to our many fine friends in the clerical arts and sciences, but it seemed to be a secretary’s car, intent on being more cute than cutthroat.
So imagine our chagrin when, on any road we saw, the homely little Capri would up and vanish, leaving the rest of the group futilely checking parking-brake handles. With 132 horsepower worth of turbocharged thrust, lots of cornering grip, and resolutely unthreatening handling, the XR2 makes easy speed that is the envy of the class. No $16,000 car needs to apologize for running 0 to 60 in eight seconds flat or reaching 126 mph, and we have to think that this machine would be a riproaring success if it were draped in truly sexy bodywork.
HIGHS: Sheer speed and back-road moves that get your attention.
LOWS: Wallflower looks that don’t.
VERDICT: Low self-esteem; if it seemed cocky instead of embarrassed, we’d be crazy about it.
As it is, the Capri is a rip-roaring anomaly. Pace-setting performance notwithstanding, our ambivalence held it to third among the three real contenders.
Why an anomaly? Why our ambivalence? Because the Capri’s performance is so out of step with its personality. Like the unpromising shape, the feel of the car is just not very sporty. The driver sits deep inside, as if in a bucket, peering out over that high, straight beltline. Though the steering is smooth, it does not snap the relatively weighty car (2560 pounds) into corners with much authority. The loweffort shifter works positively if moved slowly but turns doughy under a more intense hand. In conjunction with good 50series Michelins, the all-disc brakes pull the car up short—but on the handling course we used for lap times, they faded quickly. And over any kind of bumps taken at any kind of speed, vigorous cowl shake betrays a lack of structural rigidity.
Does the Capri sound like an easygoing economy car that just happens to generate good performance numbers? You’re getting the picture.
Of course, the Capri also happens to have a fold-down roof. The open-air option is a wild card that gives the car a dash of flair and gets it invited to sportscar comparison tests. And a good folding top it is, with a neat hard-panel boot cover that only slightly complicates the top-dropping procedure but looks sleek and tidy.
Other details go into the Capri’s plus column: the generous storage area behind you (with belts for two more—presumably legless—occupants), decent seats, a good driving position, lots of legroom, and good draft control with the top down.
All the car really needs is a total makeover to sharpen its reflexes, stiffen its body, enliven its control feel, and make it look as fast as it is.
1993 Mercury Capri XR2
132-hp turbocharged 4-inline, 5-speed manual, 2560 lb
Base/as-tested price: $15,390/$15,670
C/D TEST RESULTS
30 mph: 2.6 sec
60 mph: 8.0 sec
1/4 mile: 16.0 sec @ 87 mph
100 mph: 24.7 sec
Braking, 70-0 mph: 192 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.84 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 22 mpg
2nd Place: Honda Civic del Sol Si
Some gotta win and some gotta lose, as the song says. Even though Honda’s inventive new Civic del Sol is by consensus the best all-around automobile in the group, this is a sports-car test. And in a photo finish worthy of Little Al and Scott Goodyear (0.04 second at Indy last year, remember?), the traditional-layout Miata played up its incontestably sportier character to overcome its compromises and slip past the del Sol at the wire. But this one could have gone either way, thanks to how clever and uncompromised the del Sol is.
HIGHS: The regular-car details (legroom, luggage space, comfort, ergonomics) are uncompromised.
LOWS: Is it trying to be too many things to too many people?
VERDICT: The best car of the bunch, but not enough sports to nab the gold.
Much of this Honda’s appeal lies in its “openable-coupe” concept. Not a traditional roadster, with little more than a scrap of fabric to keep out the elements and traffic racket, this newest Civic spinoff wraps its occupants in genuine sheetmetal, keeping them as snug and comfy as any closed car. Then when it’s time to open up, the removable aluminum roof panel and power rear window provide a top-down experience on par with a ragtop’s. The roof panel is stowed in a hinged carrier just beneath the trunk lid, so it remains handy, takes up little cargo space, and allows access to your gear. The open cockpit has very good draft control, with just a little wind noise from air rushing around the roof bar above your head.
Though not the largest car here, the del Sol has the most stretch-out room for occupants and the largest trunk, thanks to the modem, space-efficient, front-drive Civic platform. It also has the best structural integrity of the group, showing only minor cowl flutter with the roof panel out and almost none with it latched in place.
In familiar Civic fashion, the 125-horsepower 1.6-liter engine spins freely and pulls flexibly. The five-speed box shifts sweetly, and steering action is buttery and predictable. All controls, in fact, work with the expected precision and feel, helping to give the Honda civility and sophistication that the others in this sporty crowd can’t match. On the road, the del Sol displays especially benign front-drive handling, suggesting it wouldn’t step out of line even if you asked it to.
All of which would make the del Sol everyone’s choice as an only car to live with forever. But frame the question in sports-car terms, where driving fun and feeling close to the action count, and the picture changes a little. That steering isn’t as quick as it might be, is it? And front-wheel drive, say what you will, leaves the driver fewer options when dancing over a gnarly mountain road or around a handling course. Also, for its size and engine output, this car carries quite a bit of weight (2460 pounds), blunting its poise a smidgen and preventing its power advantage over the Miata from translating into a real performance edge.
So we applaud Honda for its clever and thoughtful work in conceiving the pop-top del Sol. But if it’s unadulterated driving fun you’re after—if sports car to you means wiring the tire contact patches directly to your brain synapses—then we call your attention to the top platform of the winner’s podium.
1993 Honda Civic del Sol Si
125-hp 4-inline, 5-speed manual, 2260 lb
Base/as-tested price: $15,310/$16,460
C/D TEST RESULTS
30 mph: 2.6 sec
60 mph: 8.9 sec
1/4 mile: 16.9 sec @ 82 mph
100 mph: 32.5 sec
Braking, 70-0 mph: 204 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.81 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 27 mpg
1st Place: Mazda MX-5 Miata
The tight handling course at Willow Springs Raceway brought all this into focus. Yes, we know real people buy real cars to drive on real roads. And, no, we didn’t let racetrack performance unduly bias our final judgment. But this was where the true character, the driving character, of these cars could be most dramatically (and most safely) exposed. And it’s where the Miata showed itself to be much more than just a vintage-Lotus lookalike without oil leaks.
The front-drivers in the group—the more powerful and heavier Civic del Sol and the much more powerful, lots heavier Capri XR2—swooped and slid around the course, trading understeer for forward thrust in an easy, no-brainer give-and-take. We simply pitched them into the corners and let them scrub off speed until it was time to unwind the steering and get back on the gas.
HIGHS: Genuine, pure-sports-car virtues, from the control feel to the exhaust note.
LOWS: Genuine, pure-sports-car vices, from trunk space to cockpit noise.
VERDICT: The sports car of our day.
But the Miata demanded an entirely different approach. It displayed delicate balance, reflex-quick steering, and opportunities for attitude adjustment that come only when the driven wheels are not also the steered wheels. Like a good dance partner, it showed a wide repertoire of moves and a steadfast willingness to follow our lead. Despite its skinny tires and modest 116 horsepower, it pirouetted its way to a lap time comfortably ahead of the del Sol’s—58.8 seconds to 59.0.
Out on serpentine public roads, the handling trait that caught everyone’s attention after stepping out of any of the other cars was a quick-snap steering reaction coming off of center; at first, it felt like dartiness, but once we were acclimated to it, the lively response became just part of the Miata’s light-footed style. Combined with good stability (even when entering corners on the brakes), plenty of grip, and excellent overall balance, this quick-cut maneuverability made the Miata feel the raciest, though it was far from the fastest. In fact, Mazda’s little roadster—with a fairly green engine—posted the tamest top speed of the group (111 mph), and only barely dodged a last-place finish in the acceleration event. But the attention its backroad manner demanded, and then rewarded, made up for the shortfall in power.
The Miata’s architecture and most of its aural and tactile feedback reinforce that close-to-the-road sense of sportiness—for better and worse. The front-engine/reardrive layout steals space in the already snug interior, but it evenly divvies up the working loads among all four wheels and presents the neatest, most direct-feeling shifter you could want. The chassis telegraphs information about the road surface and tire traction straight to your fingertips and back pockets, although the freeway ride is noisy and busy. The Miata comes by its close-coupled feel honestly—it’s the lightest car here at 2260 pounds, and the shortest—but passenger and luggage space are squeezed to the minimum. Still, even drivers of above-average height have the working room they need, and major-control placement is about perfect for almost everyone. Finally, there is that impertinent exhaust snarl Mazda worked so hard to capture. It may get a little wearing on long drives, but who would dare complain?
Certainly, no one will complain about the Miata’s folding top, a model of simplicity that can be unlatched and tossed back from the driver’s seat, while waiting for a light to change (if you’re not too picky about unzipping the plastic rear window so it can lie flat). This is spur-of-the-moment convertibility that should be the rule among convertibles, but in fact is quite rare.
That easy, frivolous manner in which the Miata flings itself open aptly characterizes the car’s whole attitude, and stands in fascinating contrast to the studiously refined ingenuity of Honda’s marvelous Civic de! Sol. “Hey, c’mon, will ya?” pesters the Miata. “Let’s get out, tear around have a little fun, leave some skid marks. Okay? Okay? C’mon, let’s go. Can we? Now? Huh?”
The del Sol, for its part, quietly suggests, “It’s a lovely day. We can probably have a good time, I should think. And I’ll try not to inconvenience you too much along the way.” Commendable deference and all, but there’s something to be said for enthusiasm.
And yet, in the final accounting, this contest wound up as close to a tie as we’d ever want to see. The voting staff members weighed the all-accommodating cleverness of the openable-coupe Honda against the Mazda roadster’s single-purpose eagerness…and found near-parity.
What would we have done if the scoring had in fact produced a tie? One option (arbitrary but reasonable, given this magazine’s predilections) would have been to look at the Fun to Drive category core as a tiebreaker, on the rationale that if all else is equal, the car that we enjoy driving the most ought to take the gold.
And on that basis, it’s really no contest. Mazda’s little Miata is the modern embodiment of driving fun.
1993 Mazda MX-5 Miata
116-hp 4-inline, 5-speed manual, 2460 lb
Base/as-tested price: $15,650/$16,480
C/D TEST RESULTS
30 mph: 2.8 sec
60 mph: 9.4 sec
1/4 mile: 17.2 sec @ 80 mph
100 mph: 32.5 sec
Braking, 70-0 mph: 201 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.85 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 25 mpg