Okay, stop drooling. You, too, can experience the dramatic styling, the knife-edged dynamics, and the no-it-won't-fit storage capacity of a mid-engine sports car, even if you haven't backdated a bunch of stock options or signed a three-picture deal with Paramount. Now, granted, your quest for an affordable classic won't involve sharing an espresso in a sleek Ferrari showroom with a charming salesman named Mauro. No, your watchwords will be due diligence and caveat emptor, and your pursuit will entail scouring car-club listings, classified ads, and, in the worst of all possible worlds, used-car lots run by guys named Honest Jake. But for those willing to go the extra mile(s), we can recommend three mid-engine stalwarts from three different eras offering three contrasting philosophies at three distinct price points: The 1991 Acura NSX, the 1997 Porsche Boxster, and the 1985 Toyota MR2. Gentlemen, start your search engines.
Driving a car with 112 hp and 97 lb-ft of torque seems like an invitation to get your butt kicked from Woodward Avenue to Mulholland Drive. But when Toyota unveiled the MR2 runabout in 1985, it was big enough news to merit a cover story in the inaugural issue of Automobile Magazine--facing off against a Ferrari 308GTBi! Sounds like lions versus Christians, right? Try David versus Goliath. Spake this magazine's founder, David E. Davis, Jr.: "God help the Italians if the Japanese ever decide to build supercars."
Pontiac and Fiat had gotten to the affordable mid-engine two-seater market first with the Fiero and the X1/9, but Toyota--Japan's stodgiest automaker--was the first to get the formula right. Unlike the Mazda Miata, which would arrive a few years later, the MR2 didn't channel British roadsters of yore. The space-age coupe styling looked forward rather than back, and the free-revving twin-cam engine, slick-shifting five-speed transmission, light-but-stiff chassis, and rear-biased weight distribution added up to a deliriously high fun-to-drive quotient.
Toyota went a different way when the ambitious second-generation MR2 debuted in 1990. Fans claimed it looked like a poor man's Ferrari--critics said it resembled a Fiero--and the top-of-the-line turbocharged version could be boosted to crank out monstrous amounts of thrust (modern-day tuners often claim to achieve 500-plus hp). The last of the MR2s, a roadster that appeared in 1999, returned to the sweet handling and quirky styling of the original, but it was too little, too late. U.S. imports stopped in 2005, and the production run will end later this year.
Among younger enthusiasts, the second-gen turbo is the bomb. But purists prefer the spunk of the original Mister Two, a spirited machine that was light on pyrotechnics but full of personality. A lot of old MR2s have been driven into the ground, so you can find them for less than $1000, but a cheap car isn't necessarily a bargain. Plan to shell out between $2500 and $5000 if you want to spend more time on the road than in the shop.
Rust is a common MR2 killer, and T-tops often leak. Engines, however, aren't merely bulletproof but grenade-resistant. "They last a couple of years past forever," says Jeff Fazio, who's owned thirteen MR2s and currently uses an '85 as his daily driver. A supercharged model was offered in 1988 and 1989. Or knock yourself out and find what's known as a Mk 1.5--a first-gen car retrofitted with a second-gen turbo.
For thirty years after the 911 was introduced, the Porsche lineup consisted of two choices--the 911 and the also-rans. Granted, the 912, 914, 924, 928, 944, and 968 generated cult followings of their own, but among the Porsche faithful, they were tolerated rather than loved. It wasn't until the Boxster was delivered in 1997 that one of the 911's siblings was embraced.
It didn't hurt that the roadster's shape and motoring soul harked back to the 550 race cars of Porsche legend. And there was no mistaking the family resemblance between the Boxster and the early 996-body 911. (To reduce costs, the two cars shared sheetmetal and interior components.) The 1997 Boxster's 2.5-liter engine wasn't air-cooled, true, but as of the following year, neither was the 911's. More to the point, the flat-six made a healthy 201 hp and all the right noises, thanks to its horizontally opposed architecture.
Priced at a relatively affordable $41,000, the Boxster was an immense hit. "When we drove our car home, people were racing to get alongside of us to see what it was," says Nita Burrows, who's still driving that car, number 647 to come down the assembly line. The Boxster synthesized virtually every quality necessary for driving satisfaction, and with the engine situated between the axles rather than hung out the back, it actually handled better than the 911. To nobody's surprise, it was the slam-dunk Automobile of the Year in 1998.
A larger, more powerful engine arrived in 2000. So did the sportier S, whose extra grunt, stiffer suspension, and seriousness of purpose made the base car seem almost like a--dare we say it?--chick car. In 2005, the 986 Boxster was replaced with the new-and-improved 987, and the Boxster-based Cayman coupe debuted shortly thereafter. At this point, the Boxster seems almost as much a part of Porsche's DNA as the 911.
Porsches aren't designed to run forever, so Boxster prices are very sensitive to mileage. Early cars, which trade in the $20,000 range, suffered from various engine design and manufacturing flaws that led--and might still lead--to catastrophic failures. It's safer, although more expensive, to pay upward of $25,000 for the 2000 model year and beyond, which also buys you some extra displacement. S models command a premium of $5000-plus. And to think, some people say money can't buy happiness.
Honda is the most inscrutable of car companies. Even as its engines were dominating Formula 1 during the 1980s, Honda didn't bother building a serious sports car until the Acura NSX debuted in 1990. Then, after redefining the supercar with this technological and ergonomic masterpiece, Honda left the car pretty much as is until allowing it to expire in 2005, when it was long in the tooth and long past state of the art.The NSX wasn't just a shot across Ferrari's bow; it was a thermonuclear missile designed to obliterate the factory in Maranello. The most memorable of its many groundbreaking technical features were an aluminum unibody and a soul-stirring 3.0-liter V-6 that generated 270 hp while spinning to 8000 rpm. Long and low, with cab-forward styling and an integrated rear wing, it looked like a Le Mans prototype for the street. But the most revolutionary aspects of the NSX were its user-friendly controls and a supple suspension that made it not only a pleasure but also a breeze to drive at any speed, from crawling in traffic to really-officer-160-miles-per-hour? "The car is beyond comfortable," says Larry Bastanza, a lifelong Porsche guy moved to buy an NSX after driving one for five miles.
Although the NSX was our Automobile of the Year in 1991, it got no respect from Ferrari snobs and supercar masochists who dissed its derivative styling and dclass heritage. In '95, T-tops became standard, and '97 brought a bigger engine and a six-speed gearbox. As Y2K dawned, the NSX was the automotive splurge du jour for affluent techno-geeks, and it re-mains an enduring icon of the dot-com bubble.
If you want the best supercar bargain on the planet, find an early coupe. Plan on spending about $30,000 for a well-maintained NSX with moderate mileage. You can buy cars for less than $25,000, but these tend to be high-mile, highly stressed beaters. More expensive models, on the other hand, are usually garage queens. Most NSXs have been liberally customized; deal with it. Among the more ambitious upgrades, a shorter final drive is useful, and true believers opt for a supercharger worth at least 60 horses.
Timing-belt service is critical and the air-conditioning is an expensive fix, so check both of them. But rust isn't ever an issue, for obvious reasons. And as long as you buy a car that's been properly maintained, your Ayrton Senna-developed, littlest-supercar-that-could NSX will make you feel smarter than everybody else on the road.