What Makes A Sports Car?

Supercars and hypercars are typically easy to define and characterize, but what characteristics actually define a sports car.

How do you define a sports car? In purely technical terms it might be defined as a car designed with an emphasis on dynamic performance, such as handling, acceleration, top speed, the thrill of driving, and racing capability. Without any specific minimum requirements; both a Triumph Spitfire and Ferrari 488 Pista could both be considered sports cars, despite vastly different levels of performance. Broader definitions of sports cars include cars “in which performance takes precedence over carrying capacity“, or that emphasize the “thrill of driving” or are marketed “using the excitement of speed and the glamour of the racetrack” However, other people have more specific definitions, such as “must be a two-seater or a 2+2 seater” or a car with two seats only…

Attributing the definition of ‘sports car’ to any particular model can be controversial or the subject of debate among enthusiasts. Authors and experts have often contributed their own ideas to capture a definition. Insurance companies have also attempted to use mathematical formulae to categorize sports cars, often charging more for insurance due to the inherent risk of performance driving.

1954 MG-TF Roadster

Based on modern car design philosophies and design imperatives, answering this question is somewhat akin to asking if red paint is better than blue or green paint. Paint colors aside, though; modern consumer preferences, legally mandated safety features, clever marketing strategies, and sometimes-biased interpretations by some motoring journalists have blurred the lines between many daily drivers and vehicles that could be described as sports cars.

At the risk of clouding the already muddy distinctions between sports cars and other high-performance cars, it must be stated that while supercars and hypercars are typically easy to define and characterize, the differences between modern sports cars and most daily drivers are not always that easy to define. This isn’t easy because many, if not most, sports cars can be (and often are) used as daily drivers.

1960 MGA Twin-Cam

Therefore, if we want to answer the question “what makes a car a sports car?” with any degree of objectivity, we need to remove modern considerations from the question and take a short detour to a time when there was no doubt about what made sports cars different from ordinary cars.

The British can perhaps be credited as the originators of the idea that with some design tweaks, cars can be made more fun to drive than the average offerings of the day. Thus, starting in the 1920s, several manufacturers such as Austin, Morris, Alvis, MG, and others, such as the Triumph Motor Company, began producing cars that seated two people as a specific design imperative. As a general pattern, these cars also had soft or convertible tops and boasted improved handling and performance characteristics compared to more mundane offerings produced by the same manufacturers.

1968 Marcos 1600 GT

The list of technical innovations and improvements that went into increasing performance and improving the handling of sports cars produced during the 1920s is far too long to reproduce in this article. However, some items deserve special mentions because modern interpretations of these ideas still form much of the basis of contemporary car design philosophies. Here is what manufacturers of the time changed, developed, or tweaked:

  • They lowered the center of gravity of their products to increase stability during cornering.
  • They started experimenting with application-specific shock absorber designs and settings when hydraulic shock absorbers came into widespread use after 1927.
  • They revisited the relationship between track width and the distance between the front and rear axles to improve straight-line stability at high speeds.
  • They improved weight distribution by moving engines and transmissions closer to the vehicles’ mid-point
  • They increased the rigidity of the step-ladder chassis designs that were common at the time.
  • They increased brake-drum diameters to improve braking performance.
  • They reduced their overall weight by replacing steel body panels with (often, hand-made) aluminum panels.
  • They improved stock engines’ performance by adding carburetors to the usual one carburetor on stock engines, redesigning intake manifolds to improve airflow,
  • increasing engine valve diameters, or decreasing crankshaft strokes to raise engine speeds.
1972 Triumph TR6

Other innovations included reducing the weight of flywheels, and increasing cylinder bore diameters to compensate for reduced crankshaft strokes.
Although collectively, these and other innovations/design tweaks produced cars that exhibited measurable performance improvements, even the best sports cars of the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, and into the 1950s and 1960s were still exceedingly primitive by today’s standards. Nonetheless, for all their faults, British sports cars excelled at and generally out-performed their European-made rivals in almost all of the motorsport disciplines practiced at the time.

1970 Datsun 240Z

Most notable of these were hill-climb events in which competitors raced up unpaved hills, the object of the competition being to see who could complete the off-road route in the shortest time. The Triumph Motor Company’s various models were incredibly successful hill-climbers, as were a few MG models. However, the Triumph Motor Company’s success at building race-winning sports cars ended abruptly in the 1960s when British Leyland acquired the company.

Does any of the above answer the question of what makes a car a sports car today? Perhaps it does, but then again, maybe, it does not, subjectively it all depends on where you rationally draw the line between sports cars, supercars, and hypercars… In an effort to simplify this thought exercise, let us exclude supercars and hypercars from the equation and focus on how we can apply the technology of primitive sports cars to answer what constitutes a modern sports car today.

1974 Jaguar E-Type Roadster

Enhanced Performance
Performance in terms of power output and ability to accelerate to illegal speeds in three to four seconds is no longer a valid differentiator. For example, if one compares something like a Mercedes 450 AMG or BMW M5 with, say, a 2-seater Porsche 911 GT3 SRS, the results become almost moot.

All three of these cars can reach illegal speeds in about the same amount of time, but of the three, only the Porsche satisfies the time-honored 2-seat requirement, so in that respect, only the Porsche can be classified as a sports car. If, however, one adds something like a Toyota Camry or similar vehicle to the mix, then all three example cars are sports cars because all three can out-accelerate, out-brake, out-handle, and out-steer the Camry by huge margins.

1978 Porsche 911 Turbo (3.3L)

Enhanced Handling At Speed
If we place the same example cars on the same racetrack in “stock” trim, and assume that their drivers are equally skilled at driving high-performance vehicles, how well each vehicle performs in terms of cornering ability will depend as much on the nature and design of the track as it will on the inherent handling characteristics of each vehicle.

For safety and legal reasons, comparisons like this cannot be made on public roads, but apart from that, there will likely be no difference in how well each car goes around corners at street-legal speeds. To compare, each vehicle would have to be operated at the absolute limits of adhesion and at redline engine speeds to arrive at valid conclusions.

1965 Factory Five Racing Shelby Cobra Replica

To do so, the three example cars would again have to be compared with a family sedan or daily driver, but at the maximum speed, the family sedan can muster on the same track to keep things fair and objective. However, by this measure, all of the example cars will again be sports cars since the inherent handling characteristics of the example cars are far superior to those of the daily driver, making the results moot once again.

We can list many other possible tests and/or comparisons between any number of high-performance cars and a similar number of sedate family sedans, SUVs, trucks, minivans, and other vehicle categories here, but doing so would be pointless, even though some of these vehicles in other categories may be highly modified to improve their handling and/or performance characteristics. This raises the question, “do real sports cars still exist?”

1988 Toyota AW11 MR2 (Supercharged)

Do Real Sports Cars Still Exist?
Harking back to the British experience, a modern sports car would be purposely designed and constructed to out-steer, out-brake, out-accelerate, out-handle, and generally out-perform “normal” cars in the same or comparable weight classes.

However, in the real world, the competition between car manufacturers to produce and market even entry-level models that generally outperform their competitors’ products in the same or comparable weight classes has dramatically reduced the number of defining characteristics of sports cars. Some possible candidates remain, though, such as the Chevrolet Corvettes, Nissan’s Z cars, and Silvias, Subaru’s BRZ Toyota’s Supra, 86, MR2, and Celica models, Lotus’s Elise/Exige, Mazda’s RX, and MX, BMW Z and M Series, and perhaps most strikingly the Alfa Romeo 4C among a handful of others.

2005 Lotus Elise

Going by the British experience standards, the above examples are designed to out-steer, out-brake, out-accelerate, out-handle, and generally out-perform their direct competitors, making them by all accounts, sportscars. Sports cars are not usually intended to regularly transport more than two adult occupants, so most modern sports cars are usually two-seat layout or 2+2 layout (two smaller rear seats for children or occasional adult use). Larger cars with more spacious rear-seat accommodation are usually considered sports sedans rather than sports cars.

The location of the engine and driven wheels significantly influence the handling characteristics of a car and are therefore important in the design of a sports car. Traditionally, most sports cars have used rear-wheel drive with the engine either located at the front of the car (FR layout) or in the middle of the car (MR layout). Examples of FR layout sports cars are the Caterham 7, Mazda MX-5, and the Dodge Viper. Examples of MR layout sports cars are the Ferrari 488, Ford GT, Lotus Elise/Exige, and the Toyota MR2. To avoid a front-heavy weight distribution, many FR layout sports cars are designed so that the engine is located further back in the engine bay, as close to the firewall as possible. Rear engine layouts are not commonly used for sports cars, with the notable exception of the Porsche 911. Although front-wheel drive with the engine at the front (FF layout) is the most common layout for cars in general, it is not as common amongst traditional sports cars. Nonetheless, the FF layout is often used by sport compacts and hot hatches such as the Mazdaspeed3.

2016 Alfa Romeo 4C Coupe

In Conclusion
As a vehicle class, the few examples listed above may or may not always satisfy all the criteria of a classic, circa 1930s British sports car motoring. Still, the fact remains that driving any of the vehicles listed above is a whole lot more fun to drive than most daily drivers. If we were obliged to choose two workable, if not defining, characteristics of modern sports cars, it would be the fact that the vehicle must be more exhilarating to drive than an “ordinary” vehicle and must be purposely designed to elicit driving excitement. The level of exhilaration is a purely subjective matter and one that is best settled by personal preferences, rather than by one or more technical details that may or may not define what constitutes a modern sports car… A long-winded way of saying, that sportscars should make driving fun and that even today, in the modern mainstream era of the crossover SUV, the sports car ethos is alive and well embodied by the recently redesigned Toyota 86′ / Subaru BRZ, Nissan’s latest generation Z cars and others.  

2023 Nissan Z