Dave Pinter: Why Affordable Sports Cars Are Making A Comeback [Detroit 2014]

The SUV and Crossover markets saturated, attention has turned to reviving cars promising fun more than practicality.

After years of relentless SUV, Crossover, and Hybrid vehicle debuts, US auto shows have suffered from excitement deprivation. We spotted some early signs that the 2014 North American International Auto Show might break free from an emphasis on the pragmatic and practical. In fact, Detroit became the focal point for a sports car super storm. It reaffirmed that cars have the potential to make you dream, get excited and lust after a sleek, shiny and fast product.

For the past couple decades, owning a sports car meant you had to be wealthy, there’s the cost of the car (likely with an Italian or German sounding name), the fuel budget (they’re thirsty) and insurance and maintenance (added up, like leasing another car at the same time) For younger buyers and even not so young buyers, owning in this category of cars was an indulgence. It wasn’t always this way, back in the 70’s and early 80’s cool, affordable sports cars like the Datsun 240Z, Toyota Celica, and Honda CRX thrived on a formula of affordable to own, small size and nimble performance characteristics.

There’s been much written about how millenials aren’t buying cars in the same volume as previous generations and hence that car culture is dying. Diagnosis of the situation ranges from “They can’t afford cars,” to “They’re more interested in bicycles.” But the drought of affordable, small and fun cars available doesn’t inspire or motivate buying. Scion tried to fill this void and are just hitting the sweet spot with the FRS sports car, which has exceeded sales expectations to date. It was a leap of faith in a sense for Scion and Subaru to market a pared back,¬†small, affordable rear-wheel drive car in an digital and gadget obsessed period for the auto industry. But as we experienced on our own test drive, there’s something about this combination that leads to uncontrolled smiling and a reconnection to a pure enjoyable driving experience.

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The Scion FRS and BRZ may be in a class by themselves right now but the evidence from the 2014 North American International Auto Show reveals other automakers are looking to re-stake a claim in the affordable sports car segment. Beyond that, there were a slew of introduction that showed a collective interest in driving passion instead of alternative energy and gadgets. Sure, some of these cars will have a very limited production run, but it shows that the auto industry hasn’t lost its soul.

Here’s a collection of the sports car debuts that illustrate the range from realistic to far fetched.

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2015 Subaru WRX STi

With DNA that can be traced back to Subaru’s World Rally Championship winning days, the latest WRX STi is the most practical sports car in our collection. It has four doors, seats four adults, and has a usable trunk. The giant rear wing is more fashion accessory than functional element but the 305-horsepower 2.5-liter turbocharged BOXER engine under the hood and standard Active Torque Vectoring handling technology means this sedan should rocket around the corners.

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 2014 MINI John Cooper Works Concept

While called a ‘concept’ this latest-generation MINI is mostly a prototype for the next JCW performance version. Known for merging a go-kart like feeling and genuine everyday usability, the JCW Concept boasts an ultra-high-performance powertrain, reduced weight, and improved aerodynamics which MINI say contribute to a more agile and powerful motoring experience.

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Nissan IDx Freeflow and Nismo Concepts

Seeing these two concepts in person, having seen the formal unveil in late 2013 at the Tokyo Motor Show, confirmed that they look fantastic. The twin Datsun 510 revivals show what a street and track personality would look like, the concepts were designed with modularity in mind. The latest new is that Nissan has confirmed that the IDx will see production beginning in 2016.

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Kia GT4 Stinger Concept

The GT4 was the crowd stunner of the show, even more so when you consider how far Kia has come in styling and design sophistication in ten years. Beautifully balanced and classic in terms of adhering to the sports car design ethos, the GT4 sneaks in enough modern design touches to make it seem familiar yet very fresh. The best example on this list for what an affordable sports car should be.

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Volvo XC Coupe Concept

While technically a crossover and not a sports car, it isn’t hard to see the sports car influences that migrated into this concept. The low profile, long hood, two doors and sporty details look fantastic in person and it is one of those cars that doesn’t shout for attention but offers a lot of refined design elements to hold it.

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Toyota FT-1 Concept

It may look exotic and expensive, but in a way, the FT-1 is the cheapest car to ‘drive’ on this list. All you need is a Playstation 3 console and a copy of Gran Turismo 6. Toyota created the FT-1 primarily for the latest edition of the popular racing simulator but many speculate that it is a first look at a Toyota Supra revival. Toyota hasn’t had a proper sports car in its dealerships in a while and president Akio Toyoda has been calling for more exciting vehicles to wear the Toyota badge.

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2015 Acura TLX GT Race Car

Moving into the realm of the more exotic, Acura debuted a race version of their upcoming TLX sedan which will compete in the Pirelli World Challenge series, a multi-class racing series designed for performance production cars. Acura also has the next generation NSX supercar in seemingly endless development and while not exactly affordable, it should be good value like the original.

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Corvette C7-R

It is difficult to talk sports cars without having the Corvette coming to mind and last year saw the introduction of the latest generation Stingray. While critics dogged the Corvette’s handling over the years, recent iterations have been transformed into very successful endurance race cars. Much of that learning from the track has informed the mechanical design of the latest street car. But for the ultimate Vette, there is still nothing close to the latest race version beast, the C7-R set to compete in the 24 Hours of LeMans.

Photos: Bill Pinter, Dave Pinter

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