Sports Cars  |  Discussion forums Glossary of motoring terms

Sports car is a type of automobile designed for sporting performance. While opinions differ as to the exact definition, most sports cars have two seats and two doors, and are designed to provide excellent acceleration, top speed, and good looks.

When it comes to actual Sports car racing and the needs for braking, maneuverability, low weight, reliability etc., the philosophies differ. While some brands like Porsche always have built cars that are raced, others like Lamborghini never were intended nor suitable for competitions. Most current so-called sports cars have to be considered luxury cars, with many options and high weight, as few customers are willing to sacrifice comfort or noise deafening.

Great emphasis is often placed on handling—the ability of the driver to remain in control of the car under challenging conditions such as when the car's tires begin to lose their grip on corners.

A car may be sporting without being a sports car. Performance modifications of regular cars, such as muscle cars, hot hatches and the like do not generally fall in the pure sports car territory.

A large, powerful engine is not required; many of the early British sports cars lacked a powerful engine and did not accelerate as quickly as, say, muscle cars, but were known for having exceptional handling characteristics due to their combination of light weight, carefully engineered/balanced chassis and innovative suspension designs. Lotus is often cited as an example of this approach. On tight, twisting roads, such a car has higher effective performance than a heavier, more powerful car with less cornering ability.

In many situations, the term "sports car" is used to refer to any car with more power or performance than is typical for cars in general. Often vehicles in the muscle car, performance sedan/saloon or grand tourer (GT) category are referred to as sports cars even though they tend to lack the light weight and excellent handling characteristics of a true sports car.

Due to bureaucratic restrictions in the North American market, many sports cars are not available for sale or use in the United States and Canada. In Britain and Europe, a more flexible attitude towards small-volume specialist manufacturers has allowed companies like TVR, Noble, Pagani, etc. to succeed.

Prices on sports car have risen due to emissions requirements, more luxurious interior, more powerful engines and so on. Apart from some small British firms the idea of an affordable sports car vanished until the introduction of the Mazda Miata. The Miata had a rather modest price tag and a not that powerful engine 120 bhp. Since the success of the Miata others have followed.

The layout of drive train and engine influences the handling characteristics of a car and is the focus of more attention in a sports car.

Most modern cars use front wheel drive (FF) where the engine is in the front and drives the front wheels. Some sports cars have this layout (e.g. Lotus Elan M100, Fiat Coupé, Fiat Barchetta, Saab Sonett...), but due to its conservative effect on handling, it is not typical in higher-performance models. However the FF layout is quite common in small Japanese sport cars such as Honda CR-X, Subaru Alcyone SVX, Toyota Celica, Mitsubishi Eclipse... The FF layout has some advantages in small sport cars since it allows you to reduce weight (no need for gearing and propshaft) and size (no intrusion from the transmission tunnel).

Previously FR, front engine driving rear wheels, was common. The designation is deceptive as the engine is often mounted behind the front wheels, so it should be called a mid engine. This form has survived longer in sports cars than in the mainstream and is declared by some to be the "classic" layout for sports cars. The lighter rear-end and rear drive increases the ability of a car to "drift" around corners without losing control.

In search of improved handling and weight distribution other formats have been tried. mid engine, rear drive (MR) is a layout commonly found only in sports cars—the engine is mounted towards the centre of the chassis, close behind the driver, and powers the rear wheels.

Honda NSX sports car

Porsche are the sole remaining users of the RR layout, a rear engine driving the rear wheels. The qualities of their cars are often said to have come about despite rather than because of this layout. The weight distribution across the wheels in a Porsche 911 provides excellent traction, but is not ideal as weight of the engine is outside the car's wheelbase. This could lead to unpredictable handling and, indeed, many of their early Porsches did suffer from this. However, Porsche have continuously refined the design and, in the recent years, combined their modifications with electronic driving aids like computerized traction and stability control which do much to counteract the inherent flaws of the design.

One option for transferring the power from the engine to the car's wheels is all wheel drive or AWD. Although some early passenger cars used this technique (e.g. 1966 Jensen FF) it did not gain widespread acceptance until the 1980s, when Audi upgraded their FF design to a turbocharged Quattro. Their great initial rally racing success in the early 1980s was soon bettered by even more sophisticated mid-engine cars, eg. from Peugeot or Lancia, who was later continued with the front-engine Lancia Delta Integrale.

Japanese manufacturers like Mitsubishi and Subaru use AWD in performance cars that serve as a basis for rallying, so they can be considered real sports cars. Many of the top-performing cars from marques like Audi, Porsche and Lamborghini have AWD in order to allow less skilled customers to take advantage of the power, which has to be considered the exact opposite of sporting.

In touring car racing like the 1990s German DTM, Opel and Alfa Romeo needed to add AWD to their FF designs in order to keep up with the Mercedes-Benz standard FR. After having been beaten once even in the wet by the inferior concept, these two brands pulled out of the DTM/ITC because they couldn't afford the high costs anymore. When the DTM series resumed in 2000, AWD was banned to save costs, which was eventually accepted even by Audi.

Some sports cars have small emergency back seats that are really only suitable for luggage or small children. Such a configuration is often referred to as a 2+2 (two full seats + two "occasional" seats). Often these seats are only included to lower insurance premiums.

Over the years, some manufacturers of sports cars have sought to increase the practicality of their vehicles by increasing the seating room.

One method is to place driver's seat in the center of the car which allows two passenger seats on each side and slightly behind the driver. The arrangement was originally considered for the Lamborghini Miura but abandoned as impractical because of the difficulty for the driver to enter/exit the vehicle. McLaren used the design in their limited-edition supercar the F1 whose performance was so extraordinary that the inconvenience of getting in and out of the car was dismissed by owners as a minor complaint.

Another British manufacturer, TVR, took a different approach in their Cerbera model. The interior was designed in such a way that the dashboard on the passenger side swept toward the front of the car which allowed the passenger to sit farther forward than the driver. This gave the rear seat passenger extra room and made the arrangement suitable for three adult passengers and one child seated behind the driver. The arrangement has been referred to by the company as a 3+1.

Some Matra sports cars had three seats squeezed next to each other. The small Messerschmitt TG500 had only one front seat, reminding of a fighter airplane cockpit or a motorcycle, with the passenger sitting in the rear.

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