Best sports cars

High-scoring, hot rides for spring

Published: April 09, 2015 12:00 PM
Subaru BRZ and Scion FR-S

Sports cars have an unmistakable allure, with gorgeous shapes, engaging handling, and spirited performance being their hallmarks. Their promise is to transform even a routine errand into a smile-inducing adventure. But even the most entertaining sports cars bring compromises, such as ride quality, ease of access, and intimate interior.

The best sports cars tip the balance toward rich rewards, and they are crafted for those discerning drivers looking for a special experience behind the wheel. The models listed below are the top-rated sports cars, positioned in descending rank order of overall test score. All are offered with manual transmissions, considered by many to be essential to the sports car driver/machine interface.

Click through to read the complete road tests, and scan the reliability, owner cost, owner satisfaction, pricing, and other data. Or use our interactive tools to compile your own list based on the factors that matter most to you.

Jeff Bartlett

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BMW M235i

Base MSRP price range: $32,100 - $47,700

The small 2 Series coupe has razor-sharp handling and a sense of immediacy unlike other recent BMWs we've tested, which seem to focus more on luxury and comfort. The 228i comes with a 240-hp, 2.0-liter four-cylinder; the uplevel M235i we tested has a terrific 320-hp, 3.0-liter turbo six-cylinder. Available six-speed manual and eight-speed automatic transmissions are slick and smooth. The excellent front seats have ample space, but the rears are very cramped. Interior appointments are first-rate, but the iDrive unified control system remains a bit of a pain to fully master. All-wheel drive and a convertible are new for 2015.

See our complete BMW M235i road test.

Porsche 911

Base MSRP price range: $84,300 - $194,600

The 911's iconic shape hides a thoroughly modern sports car, delivering performance and relative refinement. The base model gets a 350-hp, 3.4-liter six, and the Carrera S uses a 400-hp, 3.8-liter six; both engines are matched with a seven-speed manual transmission. Measures to help with fuel efficiency include engine shut-off at idle and electric power steering. This powertrain sounds terrifically raucous, and driving the automated manual is just as thrilling as the stick shift. Overall, the 911 is quick and super-agile, and it has sublime handling. The 911 isn't particularly taxing on long trips, thanks to its relatively supple ride and enough sound deadening to prevent headaches. The interior is beautifully crafted but filled with buttons and rocker switches. A rearview camera is optional.

See our complete Porsche 911 road test.

Chevrolet Corvette Stingray

Base MSRP price range: $55,000 - $83,000

The seventh-generation Corvette has sharp-edged styling, more power, and an interior worthy of the price. Power comes from a 455-hp, 6.2-liter V8 mated to a standard seven-speed manual. New for 2015 is an optional eight-speed automatic with paddle shifters. Drivers with a thirst for more power can opt for the 650-hp Z06. The car's all-aluminum construction optimizes weight savings and strength to benefit fuel economy and handling. Acceleration is blisteringly quick, and handling is pinpoint. With the adjustable driving modes the car can be a fairly refined cruiser or track-ready race car. The seats deliver support and comfort. But you can't ignore the low-slung cabin that's difficult to access and tire noise.

See our complete Chevrolet Corvette Stingray road test.

Porsche Boxster

Base MSRP price range: $51,400 - $73,500

Porsche's entry-level roadster is tremendous fun to drive and offers strong 2.7- and 3.4-liter flat six-cylinder engines. Both the base and S versions are offered with a choice of a six-speed manual or a seven-speed automated-manual transmission. The 2.7-liter we tested in the base model is very responsive, and the manual shifter is smooth and crisp. Handling is still excellent despite some loss of steering feedback, and the ride is not punishing. The power top deploys quickly and can be operated at speeds up to 35-mph. Having both front and rear trunks are a bonus.

See our complete Porsche Boxster road test.

Volkswagen GTI

Base MSRP price range: $24,785 - $32,640

The redesigned GTI uses a 210-hp, 2.0-liter turbo, driving through either a six-speed manual or six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. We got an impressive 29-mpg overall with our manual-transmission test car. The GTI is fun to drive, with a taut ride that won't beat you up. Handling is agile, and throttle response is immediate. Inside is a high-quality, quiet, and refined interior with comfortable seats. That all adds up to a sporty car that doesn't wear on your patience during a long drive. The infotainment system includes 3D navigation and an easy-to-use touch screen that incorporates swipe motions.

See our complete Volkswagen GTI road test.

Mini Cooper S

Base MSRP price range: $25,300 - $36,250

The new third-generation Mini is longer and wider, and for 2015 is available with four doors. Engine choices include a 134-hp three-cylinder and a frisky 189-hp four-cylinder turbo, with either a six-speed manual or automatic. We measured 31-mpg overall in the base automatic and 30-mpg from the S with its stick shift. Handling is very nimble and sporty, though agility has been dialed back some. The ride is markedly better, no longer beating up your lower back, and road and wind noise are kept in check. The backseat is still tiny. You can spend hours online configuring your ideal, personalized Mini, but that can push up the price to and beyond $30,000 for a small car.

See our complete Mini Cooper road test.

Photo: Nissan

Nissan 370Z

Base MSRP price range: $29,990 - $49,400

Employing a wonderfully strong and smooth 3.7-liter V6, the Nissan Z delivers quick acceleration and respectable fuel economy. The six-speed manual is a bit notchy but easy to use, and it can match revs on downshifts. Handling is very agile, with quick steering and lots of grip, but somehow the car isn't as engaging to drive as one would expect. The ride is very stiff and choppy, and road and tire noise are constant. The Z's well-finished interior is cramped, and visibility is lousy. Convertible and stiffer-riding, higher-performance NISMO versions are available. Changes for 2015 include standard Bluetooth and revised suspension tuning.

See our complete Nissan 370Z road test.

Scion FR-S / Subaru BRZ

Base MSRP price range: $24,900 - $31,090

Co-developed by Subaru and Toyota, the first rear-drive sports car for both Scion and Subaru brands features a 2.0-liter four-cylinder with a choice of a six-speed manual or automatic transmission. These coupes aren't about raw power or scrimping at the pump. Their magic comes from the super-sharp, agile handling and excellent braking that makes them so enticing to drive, whether on a track or a twisty, back-country road. At its limits, the BRZ understeers more than its mechanical sibling, the FR-S. That difference makes it more forgiving but slightly less rewarding. The ride is also a bit more jittery. Their trade-offs are typical for sports cars: a jittery ride, noisy cabin, and vestigial rear seats. And getting in and out of these low-slung cars requires a bit of ducking.

See our complete Scion FR-S and Subaru BRZ road tests.

Photo: Mercedes-Benz

Mercedes-Benz SLK

Base MSRP price range: $43,950 - $70,900

The SLK features a retractable glass and metal top that lets it credibly serve as either a coupe or an open-top roadster. The base SLK250 features a 1.8-liter, 201-hp turbocharged four-cylinder that delivers ample thrust. Our tested SLK250 with the six-speed manual returned a very good 26-mpg overall, but we weren't impressed with the rubbery shifter action. The more powerful V6 and V8 engines come with a seven-speed automatic, which is a better choice. Handling is crisp and enjoyable, though inattentive drivers may be surprised at the SLK's limits due to its late-acting stability control. The ride is firm but refined enough even for lengthy trips. The small cabin is well-finished but narrow.

See our complete Mercedes-Benz SLK road test.

Subaru WRX

Base MSRP price range: $26,295 - $38,495

The redesigned WRX, with its wide fenders and muscular stance, is only available as a sedan. Its 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder produces 268-hp and an abundant 258 lb.-ft. of torque, driving all four wheels. A six-speed manual is standard, but a CVT automatic is offered, with three drive modes: Intelligent, Sport, and Sport Sharp. Power is abundant and handling is nimble, but the ride is very stiff and choppy, and the stiff-feeling shifter and abrupt clutch engagement make the WRX frustrating as a daily driver. Still, it's among the few high-performance cars that has four-door practicality. The higher-performance WRX STi has a giant wing on the trunk, some transmission and suspension differences, and a stronger 305-hp engine.

See our complete Subaru WRX road test.

2015 Autos Spotlight

Visit the 2015 Autos Spotlight special section for our 2015 Top Picks, Car Brand Report Cards, best and worst new cars, best and worst used cars, used-car reliability, new-car Ratings and road tests, and much more.

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