- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 22, 2003

Spring has sprung and, for those in less temperate climes, the advent of regaining our sense of smell is eagerly anticipated. For some, the imagination turns to top-down motoring. The thought of sharing the great outdoors with a special person in a two-seat convertible is as popular now as it has ever been.

Despite a variety of sizes, two-seat convertibles have often been lumped together under a single term: roadster. To most, a roadster is an elemental vehicle, four tires (fenders optional), an engine, transmission and rear-wheel drive, two seats (doors optional) and the possible pretense of weatherproofing.

The emergence of the cycle-fendered MGs (named after the factory, Morris Garage) in the United States after World War II was the spark that ignited the popularity of roadsters in America. From these post-war beginnings, many companies from Europe, the United States and even Japan have been supplying us with two-seat convertibles that whet our appetite for the roadster experience.

Often a roadster is a derivative from a company’s other offerings. Or it can be built on a custom platform using off-the-shelf suspension and drivetrain components.

Sometimes it’s a purpose-built machine, using superbly engineered components without regard to affordability.

The classic example of an elemental roadster is the Lotus Seven. Still available from various sources such as Birkin and Caterham, the Lotus Seven is considered by legions of enthusiasts to be the sine qua non roadster.

As such, it bears lots of similarity in concept to the original Viper, and every open race car shares some of the thrill and appeal.

Most factory-built roadsters are a combination of these characteristics and are designed to reflect a sporting image on the rest of the maker’s lineup.

We picked four of the most popular roadsters to review that represent different approaches to the two-door sports car.

Those four roadsters are the Audi TT convertible, Chevrolet Corvette, Mazda Miata and Toyota MR2 Spyder.

There are a large number of other roadsters available and more on the way, and they deserve a good, hard look if you’re in the market for a small convertible.

Others will be mentioned as worthy of further consideration.

Mazda Miata

The Mazda Miata has been with us since 1989, and went through one significant styling change in 1999. When the Miata appeared in the United States, the market for roadsters was all but dead. It revived that market and is now recognized as the best-selling roadster of all time.

Using modified off-the-shelf drivetrain components but built on a unique chassis, the Miata was first and foremost a driver’s car. Mazda built in large amounts of feedback in the steering, suspension and brakes to give the driver the best possible connection with the car. Designed to be superbly adaptable with a fully adjustable independent suspension, the Miata can be tailored to almost any driving style with a visit to an alignment specialist. It can be set up to be as docile or “nervous” as you want it to be.

Attention to the chassis of the Miata was paramount, and it utilizes some tricks that Colin Chapman’s Lotus Elan pioneered many years before. The Elan was a small convertible, made as light as possible with a central backbone that acted to stiffen the car and help take slack out of the drivetrain. The Miata echoes that backbone and a lot of the Elan’s styling.

The Miata is a traditional front-engine, rear-wheel-drive car, and is nearly perfectly balanced. It loves to be driven and a smooth driver who can avoid scrubbing speed while cornering can extract the most out of it.

The Miata’s direct six-speed manual gearshift lever is the standard by which all others are judged. Every gear change is accompanied by a wonderful mechanical feel. It is also available with an automatic transmission.

Over the years, the Miata has gotten a bit heavier, but it still weighs less than 2,500 pounds and its relatively light weight allows a small but lusty 142-horsepower four-cylinder engine to be used. The 1.8-liter four in the 2003 Miata provides sufficient power for all but the most horsepower-hungry enthusiasts. Those fanatics have a wealth of performance goodies available via the aftermarket, and custom turbocharged or supercharged Miatas capable of V-8 performance are not rare.

The 2003 Miata offers two trim levels, base and LS. The base model offers power windows and locks, as well as air conditioning. The LS model offers leather seating surfaces, a Bose premium stereo and a number of convenience items (including cruise control). The Miata in either trim cannot be considered a spartan car. The manual convertible top now has a glass rear window (defroster included) and the trunk is useful if not very deep.

Other cars you may want to consider when looking at the Miata would include the Honda S2000 (more performance), BMW Z4 (more money), Mercedes SLK (more refinement and glamour), and soon, possibly, the Pontiac Solstice.

Toyota MR2 Spyder

The Toyota MR2 Spyder features a midengine, rear-wheel-drive chassis using drivetrain and suspension components adapted from the Toyota Celica.

There is a historical link to previous generation MR2s and to cars of the ‘80s such as the Fiat X1/9 and Pontiac Fiero, which all copy the layout favored by pure racing cars.

The MR2 Spyder has its Fiat and Pontiac predecessors beaten six ways to Sunday in reliability.

The MR2 Spyder has an edgy contemporary styling. Lighter than the Miata, the MR2 Spyder has a crisp, electric hydraulic-powered steering rack, a responsive engine and good brakes.

Because its engine is behind the driver, the MR2 Spyder has a different feel than a comparably sized front-engine car.

The 2003 MR2 Spyder differs from the Miata not only in its drivetrain configuration but also in its suspension layout.

The MR2 Spyder utilizes a strut front and rear suspension, which does not allow the same level of adjustability as the Miata, but it still handles exceptionally well.

The 138-horsepower four-cylinder engine in the MR2 Spyder is a real delight and, coupled with the manual transmission, this engine is a joy to use in everyday driving. It has a smooth, wide power band that helps minimize shifting.

True to its race car heritage, there is no automatic as such for the MR2 Spyder; rather there is an optional sequential shift transmission. Eschewing the clutch pedal, it operates as a manual transmission with an electronically operated clutch. While it has an “R” and an “N” position on the floor-mounted shifter, there is no “D” position. You either move the center console shift lever fore and aft, or operate the appropriate steering-wheel buttons to shift up or down. It is easy to use once you’ve tried it. This type of transmission is more usually available in cars such as the BMW M3 and the Ferrari 360 — great company to be in.

If there is a downside to the MR2 Spyder, it would have to be the limited storage space. Some careful attention to packing is required if you intend to use the MR2 Spyder for trips. Soft, flexible luggage is a must because the bulk of the storage is two small compartments behind the seats. The MR2 Spyder has a manual convertible top featuring a glass rear window with defogger.

Only about 6,000 MR2 Spyders will be imported each year, which lends a bit of exclusivity to the car. If a midengined car such as the MR2 Spyder is something you’re interested in, you may also want to check out the Porsche Boxster (more powerful, larger luggage spaces but pricier, albeit with the full cachet of the Porsche name).

Audi TT convertible

The Audi TT is one of the most dramatically styled cars available today. Available in coupe or convertible form, the TT came from a talented design group at Audi. It is the production refinement of the Audi Avus concept car designed by J Mays, now the head of global design for Ford Motor Co.

Utilizing the venerable VW Golf platform, the TT convertible delivers style and refinement that are the envy of other automakers. This isn’t the first time a front-wheel-drive platform has been utilized for a roadster; many still remember the Australian-built Mercury Capri of the 1990s. That Mercury roadster had none of the refinement or style of the Audi TT, and the Capri lingered in the market for just a few years before silently fading away.

The Audi TT, on the other hand, has styling in spades. From a sculptured exterior to formal shapes of common objects in the interior, arranged in a refreshing and unique way, the TT is as much about art as transportation. As an example, check out the optional Baseball Optic Leather seats. The convertible top does intrude on the available luggage space, but there is enough room in back for a well-thought-out trip.

The TT convertible features a power top with a glass rear window and defogger.

The TT convertible is heavy, with the AWD version tipping the scales at over 3,400 pounds, and the FWD version at over 3,100 pounds. That weight is the cost of strengthening an existing “closed” car chassis for a convertible configuration. The equivalent TT Coupe is 200 pounds lighter even with its steel roof structure. The TT is a bit nose heavy and is not as crisp in handling as either the Miata or MR2 Spyder. While it might not be as nimble as others, most drivers will find the TT’s handling to be more than adequate for their needs.

The Audi TT is available with a 180-horsepower four-cylinder engine coupled to front-wheel drive or a “hot rod” version of the same four cylinder that puts out 225 horsepower and is coupled to Audi’s Quattro all-wheel-drive system. The 180 horsepower version is equipped with a six-speed automatic transmission in 2003. The Audi TT has very good acceleration, wonderful brakes and a visual presence that evokes stares from fellow motorists.

The Audi TT will turn heads, but a couple of other head-turners you may want to look at are the VW Beetle convertible, introduced recently (the new VW Beetle is also a J Mays design) or the new Ford Thunderbird, a stunning car any way you look at it (design finished by J Mays’ studio — do we spot a trend here?)

Chevrolet Corvette

The final car we’ll look at is the fabulous 2003 Chevrolet Corvette. While incorporating the notion of a “halo” car, this is also a purpose-built performance car. The Corvette is available in three body styles, a convertible, a coupe or a hardtop in the Z06 high-performance version.

The Corvette was America’s first post-World War II “sports car” and is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2003. At first the Corvette was more of styling exercise and an innovator in the use of fiberglass body panels for a mass-production vehicle. But as the years rolled along, the Corvette became more and more sporty. No small amount of credit for that is due to the crucible of auto racing. The Corvette’s natural enemy was the dreaded Shelby Cobra, an English sports car body mated to a potent Ford V-8 engine. The duels between the Corvettes and Cobras became the stuff of legends.

Now in its fifth generation, the Corvette has reached a level of performance normally found in cars costing hundreds of thousands of dollars more with names such as Lamborghini and Ferrari. A GM engineer considers being assigned to the Corvette team as the dream job.

The Corvette could very easily have disappeared in the late 1970s when owning a high-performance sports car was tantamount to demon worship. That the Corvette has risen to this level is a great credit to the perseverance of dedicated Chevrolet execs and engineers.

The Corvette is an incredible engineering tour de force with no small number of innovations — from hydroformed chassis members, to transverse composite mono-leaf springs, to a self-tuning Magnaride suspension (that uses some super shock absorber fluid), to one of the most highly tuned aluminum V-8 engines on the planet.

This V-8 is as thoroughly modern an engine as is currently available, even if it does use pushrods, which some consider an antiquated method of operating its valves. The Chevrolet engineers have given this remarkable engine outstanding power (350 horsepower standard, 405 horsepower in the Z06) with decent gas mileage and excellent emission characteristics.

The gearbox (either automatic or six-speed manual) is at the back of the car for better weight distribution.

The Corvette has an almost perfect balance and, given its great suspension tuning and super sticky tires, it can grip better than most people will ever want to know. While tipping the scales at about 3,200 pounds, the weight-to-horsepower ratio is under the magic 10 pounds per horsepower that seems to be a hallmark of exceptional performance automobiles.

Acceleration is incredible in either manual or automatic Corvettes.

The handling limits of the Corvette are astronomical, but with 350 horsepower available it can break the tires lose at the drop of a hat. To counter that, the Corvette is equipped with GM’s second-generation Active Handling System, which provides relatively seamless operation while not intruding heavily on the occasional need to be enthusiastic (well, more than occasional). Several high-powered German cars have a much more intrusive traction control system that takes a lot of the fun out of driving when they are in operation.

The Corvette is a delight to drive over any road. The C5 fifth generation is a tight, well-finished car that doesn’t suffer from the squeaks and rattles (and plain trucklike ride) ascribed to earlier versions.

Driving on a twisting road is a blast in this car. Even if you scrub too much speed coming into a corner, you have all that wonderful power to get you going again. This is a car that loves to be driven hard and rewards drivers of decent skill with plenty of grins (and quite possibly speeding tickets).

The exterior of the 2003 Corvette is handsome and muscular. It still utilizes plastic body panels and pop-up headlights, but that is part of the appeal of Corvettes.

The Corvette convertible top is power operated with a glass rear window and defogger. The coupe has a convertiblelike feel when the glass roof panel is removed. All will provide maximum smiles per gallon.

One neat optional feature (standard on the Z06 and 50th Anniversary models) is the “Head Up” display that projects pertinent information on the windshield of the car — digital speed and tachometer and other vital bits of information. Developed in conjunction with Hughes Electronics, it is similar to the displays used in fighter aircraft.

The Corvette is a bargain-priced supercar, a real steal for the extremely high level of performance offered. But if price is not a significant factor, you may want to consider a Dodge Viper (redesigned significantly for the 2003 model year and now offering a 500 horsepower gonzo V-10 engine) or the Mercedes SL500 (pricey, but oh that three-pointed star).


Every one of these cars is a winner, and one of them is waiting to find a home in your garage, eager to have its top opened up when the robin sings and all is right with the world. Regardless of what you eventually decide, the one thing that becomes apparent with today’s roadsters is that the overall reliability has improved dramatically.

None of these cars is as likely to leave you stranded for some unknown mechanical fault as any of their predecessors would.

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