Box Fresh, Years Later

Auto writers are constantly exposed to carmakers' latest offerings, and the blistering pace of new-model introductions can cause yesterday's hot new entry to be quickly forgotten. But despite fast-moving competition, some cars retain their appeal even years after their initial fanfare has faded.

Cars that offer something unique in the marketplace can have real staying power, and even those that aren't especially unique can endure if they were particularly well executed to begin with. Both scenarios are represented in our list of five vehicles that still push our hot buttons after years on the market.

1. Honda S2000 (first introduced: 2000)

The S2000 was Honda's belated (by ten years) riposte to the Mazda Miata. Compared with the Miata, Honda's two-seat roadster is an edgier, racier machine, with a high-revving VTEC four and an oversteer-happy chassis. Changes over the years have been limited to massaging of the cabin and the suspension plus minor equipment additions. The engine has grown from 2.0 to 2.2 liters, but output is essentially unchanged. Still, the S2000's 237 hp--at a lofty 7800 rpm--is enough to zip this flyweight roadster to 60 mph in less than 6 seconds.

The biggest news in the S2000's eight-year history was the addition last fall of the track-focused CR (Club Racer) model. The CR has a retuned suspension, a stiffened body structure, and racier interior trim. The CR is also lighter than the standard S2000, largely because air conditioning and a radio have been relegated to the options list, and because Honda substitutes a lift-off hard top in place of the power soft top.

The CR highlights the S2000's singleness of purpose, a quality that has allowed the wee Honda to inspire devotion in its small but fervid owner base. S2000 owners are so fervid, in fact, that a group of nearly 500 recently gathered for an S2000 "Homecoming" at Honda's Southern California headquarters, where the guest of honor was S2000 chief engineer Shigeru Uehara. Not bad for an eight-year-old car.

Buy new: $34,935/$36,935 (S2000/S2000 CR)

Buy used ('00 model): $14,000

2. Mazda 3 (first introduced: 2003 as an '04 model)

It's not often that one car is a perfect choice for avid driving enthusiasts and flinty-eyed consumers alike, but any car that can pull off that winning combo is bound to remain popular deep into its life cycle. The Mazda 3 has accomplished that feat.

It's been a favorite of Automobile Magazine, and the enthusiast press in general, since its launch at the tail end of 2003. Sharing its sophisticated and sporting platform with the European-market Ford Focus and the Volvo S40, the Mazda 3 is a standout drivers' machine in the econocar set. At the same time, its fuel economy, reliability, maneuverability, and versatility (with that last one we're thinking of the four-door hatchback in particular) make the Mazda 3 an excellent choice for those who concern themselves only with a car's more practical virtues.

The latter group might be tempted by the Mazda 3 i, but we'd pass up that base model, with its 2.0-liter engine, in favor of the Mazda 3 s, which comes with a more potent 2.3-liter and also can be had in the more useful and cooler-looking hatchback body style. Serious speed freaks will head straight for the Mazdaspeed 3, whose turbocharged engine ladles on an extra 100-plus horsepower. In America, many small cars are sold as loss leaders with heavy incentives, but the Mazda 3 has enjoyed strong demand ever since its introduction. We expect the Mazda 3 will undergo a redesign next year, but the car's long-running popularity should help it retain a good measure of its value even after a new version comes along.

Buy new: $14,645 - $23,090

Buy used ('04 model): $12,000 - $14,300

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