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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

October 30, 1998

There was a time not long ago when automotive marketing pundits pontificated that sports cars were passe and said the buying public was turning up its collective nose at impractical two-seaters. Maybe so, but there's a stirring in the auto world that bodes well for lovers of performance-first machines whose primary function is to provide fun behind the wheel. Here's a few of the upcoming crop that may or may not be currently available at your local new car supermarket:

HONDA SPORTS CAR - It's been a long time since Honda made a car that had an engine up front that drove the rear wheels. To be specific, it was in the early '60s and the vehicle was the S500 roadster. The little fellow was powered by a 500cc twin-cam engine that drove its rear wheels through a pair of chains (a holdover from its then-main product which was basic-transportation motorcycles) and it could hit 85 MPH with two people on board. Now on its 50th birthday, Honda is preparing to mass- produce its S2000 roadster to do battle with the Mercedes SLK, the BMW Z-type roadsters, the Porsche Boxter and the ever popular Mazda Miata. Like its ancestor, the S2000 name denotes the engine size - 2.0 liters - and its four cylinder engine puts out a 240 horses without a turbocharger. Since this is the 50th anniversary of the formation of Honda, the car is an appropriate birthday present to itself.

DE TOMASO RETURNS - If you were a car buff in the early '70s, you no doubt remember the De Tomaso Mangusta sports car that carried a Ford V8 midships in its exotic Italian body. Lincoln-Mercury dealers sold them along side the Town Car, Cougar and Marquis. This unusual market mix didn't last long and in '74 Ford bailed. The De Tomaso marque reappeared sporadically, by '89 the name was history. Until now. The Qvale family of San Francisco (Kjell Qvale, patriarch of the clan, built British Motor Car Distributors empire from the importation of a couple of MGs in the late '40s) is resurrecting the name as a front-engined, rear drive roadster. Like its predecessors, the new Mangusta is Ford powered using that company's twin-cam, four-valve "Modular" V8 engine and a five -speed transmission. Since the new Mangusta is aimed at the U.S. market, an automatic transmission is offered too but to meet our stringent emission control laws, this model will carry the less-powerful but equally "torquie" single-cam engine. Visteon Automotive Systems, a development subsidiary of Ford, is heavy into the development of the new car. The senior Qvalle told me that the various components of the car are make in different European locations and that the family hopes to have the 400 to 600 annual production put together in Torino, Italy. He says that there's magic in the Torino name for car enthusiasts.

NISSAN ROAD ROCKET - Some months ago I report on the possible return of a Nissan sports car to replace its blazing fast 300ZX Turbo which went out of production several years ago. I was wrong. Nissan has had a true roadable and licensable sports car on the market all the time. There's just a couple of flys in the sales ointment of the Nissan R390 GT1. Primary drawback is that its price tag is somewhere in the neighborhood of $1 million and another is that it's as practical for road use as using a Stinger missile for duck hunting. The R390 GT1 is, in truth, a race car built for FIA GT Championship endurance racing. But GT means Grand Touring and to qualify, each manufacturer has to make at least one that can be legally driven on a European street. As offered to the public, the "streetable" R390 GT has a top speed of 200 MPH and hits 60 in just under four seconds. Some of the drawbacks are that getting into the luggage area requires unbolting a plate that covers a breadbox- sized compartment. There's no sound system (unless you consider the 160 decibel engine scream music) and interior climate control is limited to the air flow that's forced into the cockpit at speed. Ask your local Nissan dealer about the easy lease plan available on the '98 version of the R390 GT.

AUDI TWO-SEATER READY FOR THE SHOWROOM - Well, almost ready. To say that the Audi TT coupe looks like a high fashion version of its corporate cousin, the cute new Volkswagen Beetle, will no doubt bring down the wrath of aficionados, but there it is. The stubby, aerodynamic all-wheel-drive coupe shares its platform (along with various other bits and pieces) with a plethora of cars like the Europe-only Audi A3 as well as the new VW Golf. Its 1.8 liter four cylinder engine is the same unit as that used in our Audi A4 but with a dash of steroids via turbocharger intercooling to boost the power to 180 horses. The TT is far from a bare-bones knuckle-whitener like the Nissan RT390 GT and can be had with all the automotive amenities of life like air conditioning, an automatic transmission and a fancy stereo. It's jokingly listed as a four-seater because of its embryonic back seat but its use is restricted to side-show contortionists. Since the BMW Z3, Mercedes SLK 230, Mazda Miata and Porsche Boxter are all drop-tops, a roadster version of the Audi TT is in the works.

A hundred years ago, horse-drawn vehicles ruled the streets and all automobiles were built for "sport" since they were deemed impractical and written off as toys for the wealthy. Times have changed and thankfully there are still a handful of cars built for the primary purpose of providing fun for the driver.