Sports cars represent the pinnacle of driving pleasure. Practicality is for crossovers and sedans; driver assistance technology is for commuter cars; the best 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 to 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: It’s a 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: It’s a sports car that won’t leave you exhausted at the end of a long drive.
Who’s it for: James Bond wannabes
How much will it cost: $198,000+
Why we picked the Aston Martin DB11
The DB11 is Aston’s first clean-sheet design in over a decade, and it shows. While it still looks like an Aston Martin, and has the performance to back up those looks, this is a distinctly 21st century automobile.
Whether you choose Aston’s own 5.2-liter twin-turbocharged V12 or the Mercedes-AMG-sourced 4.0-liter twin-turbo V8, the DB11 has plenty of muscle. The “entry-level” V8 model has 503 hp and 513 lb-ft. Aston says it will do 0 to 60 mph in 4.0 seconds, and reach a top speed of 187 mph. Upgrade to the V12, and you get 600 hp and 516 lb-ft, shaving 0.1 second off the 0 to 60 mph sprint, and allowing for a top speed of 200 mph.
The bodywork is gorgeous and doesn’t compromise on aerodynamic performance. Aerodynamic downforce is important for generating tire grip, but Aston didn’t want to mess up the DB11’s clean lines with protruding spoilers and splitters. So designers created channels in the bodywork to direct airflow around the car in the most advantageous way possible.
The DB11 is also a true grand tourer, capable of covering long distances at high speeds without wearing its driver out. Contrasting the Spartan interiors of some sports cars, the DB11’s cabin is genuinely luxurious. The car is set up for spirited driving, but the ride is still fairly comfortable.
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: Because power isn’t everything in a sports car.
Who’s it for: Those who want to master the basics.
How much will it cost: $26,255
Despite being named differently, the Toyota “GT” 86 and Subaru BRZ are quintessentially the same vehicle, minus some tweaks here and there. But they are prime examples as to how sports cars aren’t all about straight-line speed and neck-snapping performance. Handling is also part of the experience, in addition to acceleration. And if you want a picture-perfect idea of how a proper, rear-wheel-drive sports coupe should handle, without overwhelming speed, look no further than either of these two.
Because of their lightweight and compact size, front-engine, rear-wheel drive, with a helical limited slip differential, a six-speed manual option, and 50/50 weight distribution, the result is sharp and balanced handling that you can’t quite get anywhere else at this price point. From professionals and amateurs alike, these two became an instant favorite in sports car world, especially for its sticker price of less than $30,000. You won’t win many traffic light drags with its 205 horsepower and 156 pound-feet of twist but its naturally aspirated boxer engine is eager and revtastic four-cylinder perfection and a lesson in throttle and brake control.
There are compromises. If long car distances or carrying more than a passenger happens often, you will find its sporty bucket seats might cause your back to ache after hours and limited space. But sports cars aren’t meant to be practical! For what it is, however, you get just enough space for you, plus one, and both of your things for a weekend.
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.
Update: Added the Toyota “GT” 86 and Subaru BRZ to our list.