Roadster Roundup

Roadsters are the quintessential driving machines. Two doors and two seats, a powerful engine, taut suspension and a movable roof [...]

March 5 2008 by Dale Buss


Roadsters are the quintessential driving machines. Two doors and two seats, a powerful engine, taut suspension and a movable roof are all you really need if you want to focus on the thrill of being behind the wheel. But if you’re reserving a precious spot in your garage for something meant only to deliver pure fun, it must be a worthwhile occupant. And beware: There are some intenders and even pretenders in this segment these days.

So Chief Executive has selected four of the best roadsters for your consideration. They can be had for as little as $36,000 or be enhanced to set you back as much as $65,000. But when you settle in to move out in one of these machines, you won’t really care what you paid for it.

Audi TT Roadster already had the gold medal for its combination of head-snapping performance, deft handling, superb design, interior roominess and a nifty roof that works with one finger. And by the end of 2008, Audi will improve on it with a new model called TTS.

Styled in an aggressive Bauhausian oval, the TT Roadster long has excited design aficionados, from its low-hanging front grille to the curvaceously clipped rear end. TT’s interior is a visual statement as well: a symphony of cylindrical shapes enhanced by touches such as a flat-bottomed steering wheel. Audi has created segment-topping spaciousness inside by expanding the cabin just a bit for 2008. Its seating position already was optimally high for a car so low to the ground.

Best of all is this roadster’s whip-quick acceleration and ample juice for any occasion-even from a base engine that displaces only two liters, has just four cylinders and discharges just 200 hp. Turbo charging does the trick. Braking and cornering are superb as well. And at prices beginning around $37,000, TT actually provides good value. 

BMW Z4 fantastically demonstrates why the company deserves its reputation for pushing continual improvement in its cars, even as good as they already are. The Z4 succeeded the already-fantastic Z3 about four years ago and, at prices starting in the mid- $30,000s, is a very cheap thrill, relatively speaking.

The car looks … well, menacing, with a long and sloped front end, and sides and rear that boast an appealing medley of jewel-sharp ridges. (For that reason, it’s more impressive in a color like silver instead of, say, black.) Inside, a number of high bolsters make you snug in your low-slung seat while you admire the French-stitched faux carbon-fiber leather on the dash and center console. However, the Z4 could use a bit more space inside.

Z4 comes only with a 6-cyl. engine that rockets the vehicle from 0 to 60 in less than five seconds and keeps up the impressive power display no matter how far you want to run. All the while, you’ll feel sealed to the roadway: the M version of the roadster can handle more than 1G both cornering and braking. 

Lexus SC 430 doesn’t compete with these other roadsters in terms of off-the-line acceleration or taut cornering. But if the two of you want to ride in luxury and style-there’s a $65,000 price tag-start with the SC 430. SC 430 certainly cuts a head-turning figure. From its protracted front end to its curvy tail, from the side flares that protrude toward the rear of the chassis to the understated hint of a spoiler, the car is strikingly designed, even more impressive from the rear than from the front. Eighteen-inch alloy wheels with center ornaments, and dual chrome exhaust pipes, provide the finishing touches.

But despite its 288-hp. V8 engine and sporty suspension, SC 430 is a touring vehicle, starting with the hardtop roof which, remarkably, retracts entirely in less than 30 seconds. The car emphasizes a plush interior and appointments, including 10-way power-heated seats and automatic climate control. Front seating is deep, providing exceptional protection from the elements, and a vestigial rear seat-while affording room enough only for small children-allows some cargo as well.

 

 Curb Side-by-Side Comparison

 Model

 Base Price Range

 Max. Horse Power

 Fuel Economy(mpg)

 Seconds for Roof to Retract 

 Audi TT $36,800 – $45,900

 250

 22city/29hwy

12 

 BMW Z4 $36,400 – $42,400

 255

 15city/21hwy

 9

 Lexus SC 430 $65,455

 288

 18city/25hwy

 25

 Nissan 350Z $28,120 – $41,500

 306

 18city/25hwy

 20

Nissan 350Z is the latest in a venerable line of “Z” models. And as such, it continues Nissan’s tradition of offering considerable performance at a really obtainable price-mostly in the $30,000s. The soft-top roadster as well as a two-seat coupe version come with a 3.5-liter V6 engine driving the rear wheels, a powertrain that is true to its Z predecessors: The 350Z revs easily, quickly develops plenty of power and is even reasonably fuel-efficient, from 18 mpg in the city to 25 mpg on the highway depending on the version.

But you’re definitely climbing into a 350Z for the driving experience, not the pampering. The ride is stiff and the grip is serious, with considerable road and tire noise. And while the seats are snug and the instrumentation well presented, interior appointments are a bit Spartan.

It’s a good thing that the 350Z’s exterior styling is so distinctive. There’s the defining long hood, short deck and sweeping rear lines that that flow down to meet a clean, deep bumper over dual exhausts. In a great way, the road-hugging 350Z looks like a well-muscled suction cup scooting along the highway.

 In Case You Missed IT…

1. Authentic origins: The Audi TT Roadster was named after the Tourist Trophy motor sports event held on the Isle of Man, in which a predecessor of the Audi brand competed.

2. Cargo hold: The BMW Z4 does a surprisingly good job of affording some luggage room, and its 9-cu.-ft. trunk capacity remains almost unchanged with the roof down.

3. Room for hindsight: A surprising annoyance in the SC 430 are visors that bounce and wobble too low into the purview of both driver and passenger. Look for Lexus to fix it.

4. NISMO to you, too: The ultimate version of the 350Z-a coupe-is called NISMO (for NISsan MOtorsports) and offers racing wheels, exhaust system and suspension.