For the auto enthusiast, the marriage of human spirit to blacktop and with nature’s elements is the essence of a great driving experience. There is no other platform that does this as well as the coveted roadster. What could be better than sitting low to the ground, hugged tightly by a snug two-seat interior with nothing above you but blue sky? Roadsters are more about passion than purpose. They are the most artistic expression of automotive design, stepping way beyond the function of transportation.
Though roadsters never fell out of vogue, the economically turbulent seventies resulted in a restructuring of the automotive industry and by 1980 they were all but dead. Mazda was the first to tickle our fancy again when they introduced the gorgeous little Miata in 1989.
The really good news is that manufacturers have been busy recently, building some of the greatest roadsters ever. Our bevy of beauties includes three of Germany’s great marques and America’s icon of sports cars, the magnificent Chevrolet Corvette.
Each car is a unique execution and interpretation of the roadster, showcasing the individual characters of their parent companies. So let’s take each one for a little spin and rediscover freedom. Yes, sir, automotive journalism is a tough job!
Chevrolet Corvette Convertible
What young boy has not dreamed of possessing a Corvette? From the pretty little ‘53 to the awesome ‘98, each generation of youth has been connected by this common bond. In fact, since its introduction 45 years ago, over 1 million of these gorgeous machines have rolled out of Chevrolet’s Bowling Green, Kentucky plant. Now in its second year, the new Vette has a more ergonomic interior, a usable cargo area and yes, a smoother and more civilized ride.
Styling is a dramatic departure from its predecessors but leaves no doubt as to where its roots lie. Any criticism of this car would probably center around the concept of uniqueness. The exterior has integrated a few styling cues from other sports cars and the interior has some generic Chevrolet flavour to it. For over 40 years, a fundamental part of the Vette formula has been distinction. To me, this is the first Vette that could be linked in any way to any other car. With that said, the Corvette is still a great looking car, destined to keep another generation of young people dreaming.
Enough about the looks that speak for themselves. Corvettes are all about power. How about a pavement burning 345 hp combined with a neck-snapping 350 lb-ft of torque! The Vette easily catapults to 100 km/hr in under 5.5 seconds. The throaty roar of the 16 valve pushrod 350 V8 will have the adrenaline rushing through your body. Push on the throttle as you ease out of a corner and the power on tap takes over. This a car that you have to respect before testing its limits.
Now while the Vette handles incredibly well, finesse is not a word that comes to mind. It is a much bulkier car than the German roadsters and it is on a winding back road where you really sense it. Not that the four-wheel independent suspension and massive ZR rated tires do not do their job. The Corvette inspires tremendous confidence but there is feeling that this car prefers to know what is coming at it.
It would be a crime not to mention the Vette’s trunk. Yes, a trunk! Practical is not a word that I thought that I could ever associate with a Corvette but 14 cubic feet of cargo space is impressive by anyone’s standards. One further point to note is the manual top. I see this as a positive point on the balance sheet. It is easy to put up or take down and eliminates some weight and potential future repairs.At $5X,XXX, there is no other car in the world that will deliver as much at this price. No longer a crude car by any standard, the Corvette is simply one of the best. But don’t even try to compare this car to the German roadsters. The European and American diversity is simply overwhelming.
Mercedes Benz SLK 230
Mercedes Benz builds cars that rate second to none where build quality is concerned. They are without question among the most desirable automobiles in the world blending timeless styling with innovation and advanced technology. Now when it comes to desirability, the legendary SL Series has always topped the wish list of the masses but with prices ranging from $100,000 to $170,000 they are clearly out of reach of all but the Lords and Barons of the land. Enter the new SLK 230, a new roadster that can be turned into a hardtop with the push of a button. Beauty, cutting-edge technology, and the Mercedes Benz heritage all for $6X,XXX?
The new Benz is a striking car that is easily mistaken for its more expensive siblings. With a composite and very clever hardtop, the car transforms itself in about 25 seconds. To watch the top go up and down is an inspiring exercise in engineering. The top folds down and is stored in the upper part of the trunk, taking up nearly two-thirds of the 9.5 cubic feet of trunk space. While it is innovative, I would be a little concerned about its operation as it ages. Just as you make your last payment, I can see the potential of new revenue streams for your Mercedes dealer.
Inside the car, a retro theme predominates with ivory instrument faces trimmed with chrome bezels. A simulated carbon-fiber material accents the console, dash and door panels. The seating position is low and the beltline of the car comes up to your neck. Once nestled in, the interior is very comfortable.
The drivetrain is where the SLK scorecard could be improved a tad. A supercharged 2.3 litre in-line four-cylinder engine produces a respectable 185 hp, but growls and wines a little more than the silk-like perfection of other Mercedes motors. On the other hand, with 0-100 km/hr times coming in at about 7.4 seconds, the SLK isn’t exactly going to be embarrassed at every stoplight. My other beef with this car is the lack of availability of a manual transmission for North American drivers. The five-speed automatic probably appeals to the majority buyers but a stick shift would transform the SLK into a true sports car. With the automatic, it lacks the driver interaction that makes for a truly rewarding driving experience.
It’s really too bad about the transmission because the handling of this car is excellent. I expected the Mercedes to be a little cushier but the car communicates with the road and remains completely poised when pushed hard through a corner.
Though I rated the Mercedes behind the Boxster and the Z3, my significant other rated it number one. Then again she refuses to drive a manual. Overall, the SLK 230 is a gorgeous car that offers great value. Besides, I don’t think I’m the person Mercedes had in mind when they designed this car.
BMW Z3 2.8
Capturing the spirit of the beautiful BMW 507 of the fifties, the Z3 is a striking car that redefines BMW’s niche. The German automaker has been the benchmark of sports sedans for decades but the Z3 is BMW’s most significant deviation from their winning formula. One could argue that the 3 Series coupes can go head to head with the best but practicality and a four-seat layout keep them relegated to “near sports car”. The Z3 changes all that. It’s long hood and short deck gives it perfect visual proportioning. Flared wheel wells, BMW’s trademark kidney-shaped grill and some styling cues taken right from the 507 put the finishing touches on this instant classic.
The interior encases its occupants with a wraparound dash and center console. A low seating position gives this car the most traditional roadster feel of the cars tested. Like the exterior, the very attractive interior leaves no doubt as to who the parent company is.
Power is delivered via a near perfect 2.8 litre inline-6 producing 190 hp with near peak torque delivered throughout its powerband. It is smooth and refined and when mated with a 5-speed manual transmission, is an absolute treat to drive. Anyone who has ever experienced BMW’s magnificent 6 cylinder engines can appreciate the responsiveness of this motor and the application of power. Place it in a 3000 lb roadster and you have one great car. The Boxster can edge it out in a sprint to 100 km/hr but not by much. Besides, if lightning quick straight line acceleration is all that you are looking for, you have missed the point of this car.
Balance, ride, and handling are all managed through independent struts up front and semi-trailing arms in the rear. Though BMW claims a near perfect 50/50 weight distribution, the rear end seems a little light. Hard cornering produces a bit of oversteer but with some experience, it is predictable and can be quite a bit of fun. The Z3’s precision, smoothness and refinement more than compensate for this slightly unruly behavior. This car just seems to instinctively know where to go and all you have to do is point.
The manual drop top can be lowered or raised without getting out of the car. Like I have emphasized before, a manual top usually means less weight and fewer problems with more interior and cargo space. With only 5 cubic feet in the trunk, you will need every inch you can get.
One big plus for the Z3 2.8 is the sticker price. Starting at $5X,XXX it is priced about X-XXK less than the other cars in our fleet. That should leave you enough to pick up an ’88 Chevy Caprice for the winter. Who said this was going to be all fun! When pushed to make an executive decision, I would give the nod to the Boxster, but the Z3 is a compromise I would gladly make.
Like the BMW, bold retro styling clearly links the Porsche Boxster to its predecessors of the fifties. Inspired by the great 356 Speedster, the Boxster is a beautiful car that perfectly blends its heritage with state of the art chic. From the windshield forward, the Boxster is identical to the new 911. The rear end that is cleverly integrated with the most prominent styling cues of the glorified Speedster.
The interior is modern and somewhat ergonomic. Here again, the retro theme ensures that some reluctance to change has been a guiding principle. Personally, I love the layout of the gauges with a large and prominent tachometer front and center.
Of the German cars we tested, the Porsche gets bragging rights in the horsepower wars with 201 hp produced by a 2.5 litre flat-6 Boxer engine. This powerplant is sweet music to the ears sounding very similar to and responding in much the same way as the 911’s larger 3.6 litre. Now compared to the Corvettes brawny 345 hp, the Porsche has a clear disadvantage. Still, with 0-100 km/hr times of just over 6 seconds, the Boxster produces performance numbers that are outstanding.
The mid-engine layout seems to give the Porsche perfect balance. The car is built to be driven hard and just loves to be wound out through a series of sweeping curves. MacPherson struts up front and Chapman struts with multi-links in the rear give the Z3 incredible feel and poise. The car just goes where you ask it to go with total confidence. No matter how hard I pushed the Boxster, it pushed back and I would sense that I was still a long way from this its limits. Communicative steering is crisp and direct. The car gives up relatively little to side forces, maintaining control over the tendency to roll and oversteer.
Letting the sun in is achieved with the push of a button, lowering the power-operated top and storing it neatly under a hard shell. A plexiglass deflector and a high beltline keep intrusive wind noises out of the cockpit.
Now you would think that like the Mercedes and BMW, cargo space would be at a premium. The Boxster has not one but two storage areas. Under the front hood and in the rear behind the engine, one finds enough space to make the Boxster a decent traveling companion for an extended journey.
Well, it is probably not too hard to read between the lines. I think this is one fabulous car. Its classic good looks, perfect balance and sweet engine make the Boxster one of the best roadsters ever built. It is everything we would expect of Porsche and more, all delivered at the extremely reasonable price of $5X,XXX. Due to arrive in the coming months is the Boxster S, boasting a 250 hp powerplant. Any doubt as to who builds the best roadster may very soon be put to rest.