Sports cars represent the pinnacle of driving pleasure. Practicality is for crossovers and sedans; driver assistance technology is for commuter cars; sports cars arrange a passionate love affair between man and machine.
There are subcategories within every vehicle segment, but no more so than among sports cars. The design, performance, and usability spectrum is vast, with each automaker tailoring their halo models to a well-defined buyer group. For this reason, it’s difficult to say one sports car is better than every other. Instead, we’ve decided to pick our favorites among five categories, with five unique consumer personas.
Why should you buy this: It’s the everyday supercar
Who’s it for: Those who want high performance without sacrificing comfort
How much will it cost: $189,900
Why we picked the Audi R8 V10 Plus
The 2017 Audi R8 is an anomaly. Audi has built a car that’s as refined as a luxury two-door with the power of a hypercar.
The low-slung coupe uses sharp creases, carbon-fiber accents, and a mid-engine layout to distinguish itself from lesser sports cars, but it doesn’t command attention in the same way as rivals. Its 5.2-liter V10 delivers 610 horsepower and 413 pound-feet of torque to all four wheels via a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. Acceleration is blistering: 0 to 60 mph takes less than 3.0 seconds and top speed is a towering 205 mph.
Within the cabin, occupants are treated to a magnificent engine wail and class-leading convenience features. Audi’s 12.3-inch Virtual Cockpit display gives drivers access too every vehicle function and reduces clutter. Audi Drive Select adjusts suspension damping to transform ride quality from mellow to aggressive in an instant.
At the sub-$200K price point, the Audi R8 V10 Plus invites challenges from McLaren’s 570S, Porsche’s 911 Turbo S, Acura’s NSX, Aston Martin V12 Vantage S, and Mercedes-AMG GT R. Each vehicle is astoundingly quick, attractive, and desirable, but the R8 is the only supercar that’s as thrilling to pummel on a track as it is to dawdle through a neighborhood.
The best muscle car
Why should you buy this: Major performance bargain
Who’s it for: Track day enthusiasts
How much will it cost: $63,495
Why we picked the Ford Mustang Shelby GT350R
In many ways, automotive enthusiasts have the never-ending rivalry between Mustang and Camaro to thank for the ultra high performance muscle cars we see today. What once was a horsepower war has now become a battle for faster lap times. It’s a freaky world we live in where a Camaro (in Z/28 guise) can match a Porsche 911 GT3. And the odd matchups will become more bizarre, especially since Ford’s Mustang Shelby GT350R has exceeded even the Camaro Z/28’s lofty performance threshold.
While its true that Shelbys of years past owe their performance to their engines, the GT350 is only partly defined by its powertrain, which is more impressive considering this is one of the best motors Ford has ever built. Engineers wrung 526hp and 429 lb-ft of torque roar from a brand new 5.2-liter flat-plane crank V8 motor. No forced induction, just the most powerful naturally aspirated motor Ford has ever produced – one that boasts a redline of 8,250 rpm.
Beyond its engine, the GT350R is differentiated from the regular Mustang by a 6-speed Tremec manual transmission, Torsen limited-slip differential, Ford’s MagneRide magnetic dampers, 15.5-inch front brake rotors with 6-piston Brembo calipers, 14.9-inch rear discs with 4-piston calipers, and lowered ride height. Carbon-fiber aerodynamics and wheels also save weight. All this adds up to one of the most capable track cars at any price.
The fact that $60,000 grants you performance to rival some of the fastest cars in the world is confounding. Comparing the Shelby GT350/R to any preceding Mustang is like contrasting a Cheetah with a Dachshund. Sure, they can both run, but that’s where their similarities end.
The best grand tourer
Why should you buy this: For German-engineered hooning
Who’s it for: Sport-touring aficionados
How much will it cost: $129,000
Why we picked the Mercedes-AMG GT S
The Mercedes-AMG GT S is the perfect reminder that Mercedes-Benz can do more than whip up a good luxury car. The two-door sports coupe punishes tires, slides its tail, and howls at the wind, all while cushioning passengers in traditional luxury.
The AMG GT S is Mercedes-Benz’s current halo car, a rumbling 4.0-liter twin-turbo V8-powered, rear-wheel drive fun-fest with 503hp and 479 lb-ft of torque at its disposal. A seven-speed dual-clutch transmission turns torque into a 0 to 60 mph run of 3.7 seconds and enables a top speed of 200 mph. Cars making far more power will struggle to keep up with this German-engineered marvel.
The AMG GT S shares some styling cues with its SLS AMG predecessor, including its endless hood and snubbed rear end, but does without its ancestor’s characteristic gullwing doors. The sports car is molded from a lightweight aluminum space frame that is more svelte than both the Audi R8 and Porsche 911 – the AMG’s main rivals.
Inside, the AMG GT S is equally inspired. A V-shaped center stack with various performance controls catches the eye while supportive yet supple bucket seats cradle the body. With adaptive damping, the Merc rides with predictable smoothness in comfort mode, but becomes a dynamic platform in Sport and Sport + settings. A broad spectrum of colors help the AMG GT S stand out or fade in, but whichever exterior accent you choose, everyone will know this is a special coupe.
The best exotic car
Why should you buy this: For big style, backed up by big performance
Who’s it for: Trend-setters
How much will it cost: $184,900
Why we picked the McLaren 570S
As kids, our car fantasies lead to million-dollar feats of engineering. While these elite vehicles are certainly deserving of our affection, the adult versions of ourselves know there’s greatness to be had for hundreds of thousands of dollars less. The McLaren 570S nails the mark of tremendous performance and style without costing as much as a beach house.
With P1-inspired design language, the 570S is a gorgeous tribute to British artistry. Its swooping lines also translate to aerodynamic efficiency. Air streaks around the sports car’s body as its mid-mounted 3.8-liter twin-turbocharged engine sends power to the rear wheels. 562hp and 443 lb-ft of torque translate to a 0 to 60 mph sprint of 3.1 seconds and a top speed of 204 mph.
Handling is nothing short of astounding. Dual wishbones and anti-rollbars front and rear pair with a lightning-quick adaptive damping system and Pirelli PZero Corsa tires to control body movement. To keep performance in check, Bosch-designed electronic stability control can go from invasive to dormant, while a brake-based torque-vectoring system applies power to the wheel or wheels with most grip.
McLaren’s Sport Series coupe is priced in Audi’s R8 V10 Plus and Lamborghini Huracan LP 580-2 territory. It’s performance and styling is among the best in its segment, but daily drivers might prefer the plush ride of the Audi.
The best affordable performance car
Why should you buy this: Attainable performance
Who’s it for: Track day lovers
How much will it cost: $66,445
Why we picked the Chevrolet Corvette Grand Sport
It’s startling that a Mustang can compete with supercars, and it’s just as remarkable that a Corvette is faster around a track than all but the most potent performance vehicles. Chevrolet’s Corvette Z06 is a vicious machine, but many would consider its 650hp sent to the rear wheels a bit aggressive for the everyman. That’s why the American automaker has reintroduced its Grand Sport – a track-honed Corvette with far more manageable power.
While the Grand Sport’s engine mirrors the standard Corvette’s 6.2-liter V8, meaning 460hp and 465 lb-ft of torque, everything else matches the Z06’s intensity. Upgraded stabilizer bars and suspension springs, Magnetic ride control, and optional aerodynamics keep the Grand Sport planted through corners. A set of Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires aide grip and acceleration; 0 to 60 mph takes just 3.6 seconds.
The handling improvements pay dividends on a road course, and don’t sacrifice the standard ‘Vette’s comfortable ride. Minor visual tweaks help distinguish the Grand Sport from a base-spec Corvette, and opting for a vibrant color lets the Grand Sport stick its neck out a bit. However, more subtle combinations are available. After all, blowing by hundreds of thousands of dollars of automotive hardware at your local track day should be enough to satisfy owners.
How we test
The Digital Trends automotive team scrutinizes vehicles on the road through a comprehensive testing process. We examine the qualities of the exterior and interior and judge them based on our expertise and experience in the context of the vehicle’s category and price range. Entertainment technology is thoroughly tested, as well as most safety features that can be tested in controlled environments.
Test drivers spend extensive time behind the wheel of the vehicles, conducting real-world testing, driving them on highways, back roads, as well as off-road and race tracks when applicable.