After something small and fun? Here are ten small sports cars that can provide some big thrills at legal speeds
While most petrol heads dream of owning a Ferrari or Porsche, prohibitive pricing ensures that only a select few will ever get to experience the thrills they offer. Wide footprints and massive power outputs also mean that owners rarely get chance to enjoy them to their maximum, especially on the public road.
Is there an answer? We’ve selected a range of cars that distil the sports car experience down to its very essence, offering driving excitement that can be accessed along almost any stretch of road – generally without breaking any speed limits. Our choices may not have graced many bedroom walls, but in the real world they are more likely to put a smile on your face. Take a look and let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.
Mazda MX-5 Mk1
The Mazda MX-5, introduced in 1989 was one of the first of the modern generation of roadsters and over the years became the most successful small roadster ever built. Spawning dozens of imitators, well-kept first generation cars have even started to rise in value. Prices start at £ 2500-00 for good ones and it is worth getting the best you can afford as rust has claimed more than a few of the first generation cars. The MX-5’s combination of agile lightweight chassis and eager little four pot motor is a timeless formula that continues to this day in the fourth generation cars.
Lotus Elise S1
The Elise was a return to form for Lotus when it arrived in 1996, eschewing all driver aids and creature comforts the first Series 1 cars are the purest of the lot. The Rover-K Series engines could be had in various outputs from 118bhp right up to 190bhp and with only 755kg to push along, all are rapid. Sport versions are great and make for a fantastic track day toy. Prices start at £ 11 000-00 and with only 9000 built they are rarer than you might think.
£1500 doesn’t get you much nowadays, and rarely do you find a rear engined, two seater turbocharged sports coupe for this sort of money. Apart from the tiny little Smart Roadster that is. The catch? Instead of the 3.0L V6 you would expect to be sitting under the bonnet, there’s a tiny 0.7-litre turbocharged engine peeking out. Peak power is 80bhp. Weighing less than a week’s worth of shopping means that performance is still pretty sprightly, and if you hanker for more there is always the tar-burning 101bhp Brabus version. Even these are great value starting at just £3500.
If a Mazda MX-5 seems a bit large and a Smart Roadster a little too bulky then you may find the Honda Beat more to your liking. Just like a Ferrari Testarossa the Beat was designed by Pininfarina, however unlike its Maranello counterpart it was built following the tax efficient Japanese Kei car principles. This means it has a diminutive body shell, a 60bhp 656cc engine and weighs just 760kg. It’s a fantastic little city run-around and while it was not officially imported into the UK it has a strong following here. The best place to start looking is at the Honda Beat UK Car Club, prices are around £ 3000-00 for a good one.
Toyota MR2 Mk3
The third-generation MR2, which made its debut in 1999, deviated from previous versions in that it was only available as a full convertible with only one engine option. While it retained the mid-engine layout, it was actually a much lighter and more focused car – with excellent handling characteristics. The looks may be a little bit divisive, but more importantly the 135bhp 1.8-litre engine provides more than enough performance. Reliability is naturally excellent. The best cars rarely sell for more than £7000, while good ones can be found for half that much.
The Beat wasn’t Honda’s only foray into tiny sports car territory, it has been at it for years and the 1966 S800 was one of its finest. Thanks to years of experience in building high performance small capacity engines, the 69bhp 791cc unit made the S800 Honda’s first 100mph car. Their next S car was the excellent S2000 released in 1999. If you do want an S800, then best start saving: they are rare collectibles now with prices reaching as high as £30,000.
Austin-Healey ‘Frogeye’ Sprite
The Frogeye Sprite has long been a favourite among classic car enthusiasts thanks to its eager handling and peppy little A-Series engine. It’s easy to modify, running costs are low and fun levels are high. By modern bloated sports car standards it hilariously tiny. With an estimated 2000 units, surviving prices are on the rise, from £12,000 for useable cars to over £25,000 for perfect examples. Stay away from rusty ones, and have fun.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then the Lotus 7 should be very flattered indeed. Few cars have spawned as many imitators as this little minimalist roadster. Originally intended for club events, the road-legal Seven became a popular weekend sports car and occasional daily driver for the hard core enthusiasts. Weighing a fraction of contemporary fast sedans, acceleration was extremely rapid away from the lights. Few have remained unmodified and originals can be extremely valuable. Produced under a myriad names the Lotus 7 lives on under the Caterham name to this day.
The Morgan 3-wheeler is a truly quirky British sports car that offers something a little different from the norm. Morgan’s first 3-wheeler was actually the runabout from way back in 1911 and the spirit of these cars lives on in this modern V-twin powered version. Full of character and surprisingly brisk it can be customised to reflect each owner’s eccentricities. This little Morgan may only have three wheels, but in this case it equals a lot of fun. New cars cost well over £30,000, and with few cars rolling out of the Malvern factory each year, used prices remain extremely strong.
Mini Roadster JCW
The original Mini may be have reached legendary status, but its modern-day equivalent captures much of its charm and adds contemporary convenience and safety features. The John Cooper Works Roadster was not a success for the company, hence why it has not yet been replaced (and there are no plans) but the model is certainly quirky. Go for the JCW and you can expect serious pace and a fantastic chuckable chassis. 2012 models start from just £12,000.
Words: John Tallodi