1) Porsche 968
“If you hear hooves,” the saying goes, “you think horses, not zebras.” And that’s pretty much the same case with Porsche’s sports cars. Because, while a zebra, donkey or Shetland pony might be about to come charging over the hillside, chances are that the thrumming sound is a Porsche 911. Yes, at Top Gear, we like our drinks like we like our metaphors: inexpertly mixed.
The 911 is so defining for Porsche that it’s easy to assume every other car it makes is at best off-brand and at worst completely apostatical. But, for a brief moment, Porsche was the financially flimsy, low-volume purveyor of front-engined sports cars. Oh, how times change.
And while Porsche was in its ‘Hey, let’s be a German TVR’ years, the bods who tried their hardest to balance the checkbooks noticed that sales of the 944 were flagging. The answer? A new model, obviously, or at least an update to the 944.
The 968, if anything, was a little of column A and a little of column B. It’s based on the 944 and was apparently meant to be an update to the flagging sports car but, by the time it was ready, so much had changed—reportedly as much as 80%—that Porsche decided it could have its very own name. Or number, as it turns out.
So, why is it great? Well setting aside rarity as an attractive feature, because it just isn’t, this is a front-engined, rear-drive sports car, with a purist-pleasing rear-mounted gearbox and transaxle for perfect weight distribution. And also one of the weirder engines we’ve heard of: a 3.0-liter, massively over-square...in-line-four, carried over from the 944. Um, just quickly checking that wasn’t a misprint. Nope, it’s definitely a 3.0-liter four-cylinder car, which, in the 968, makes for gigantic 750cc cylinders, 240hp, and 305Nm.
In the handling stakes, it’s...well, a Porsche. The carmaker is pretty big on the whole ‘handling’ thing. And the 968 is the culmination of everything Porsche engineers had learned and honed as the 924 morphed into the 944 and then 968. So, it’s as balanced as a gymnast and as even-tempered as a preschool teacher.
2) Spyker C8 SWB
At its heart, what is the point of a sports car? If you answered ‘to go fast,’ we’re afraid that’s wrong. Same goes for ‘to look cool,’ ‘to sound awesome,’ and ‘to turn heads.’ At its very core, the point of a sports car is to make you feel good. It could do that by going fast, looking cool, sounding awesome, or turning heads, but the fact of the matter is that unless it makes you feel better, just for driving it, it’s just a fast car, a good-looking car...you get where we’re going with this.
The Spyker C8 is one of those cars that just makes you feel better for being in it. It’s not all lap times or crossed-up oversteer heroics—just a car that feels custom-designed to extract as much fun as mechanically possible from any given situation.
The ’30s aviation-style interior is home to perhaps the world’s best-looking manual transmission selector, an architectural assembly of stainless-steel sheer willfulness that takes the utter joy of changing gears yourself and amplifies it with a tactile experience you never knew you always wanted.
Its mid-mounted 4.2-liter V8 is courtesy of Audi, but in the Spyker, it’s been goosed up to 400hp, which is just about the maximum amount you can have in a sports car before you lose the ability to actually go wide-open throttle for more than a picosecond at a time. So, with 400hp, that does mean the Spyker is a car that’ll likely lose to anything pointy and serious in terms of elapsed time, but win in the much more important measurement: time well spent.
3) Lucra LC470
Remember Lucra? Well, not if we’ve chosen the right cars for this list, you haven’t. The Californian sports-car builder is in the business of blending small, light cars with big engines, like a modern-day AC Cobra. And, as with the Cobra, it’s hard to argue that the LC470 isn’t a damn attractive automobile, especially in profile.
It weighs a shade over 900kg, and has a 44:56 weight balance front to rear thanks to its front-mid-engined layout. Oh, and the engine? LS, of course. LS3 or LS7 in a lot of cases, but owner Luke Richards is a fan of the new LT series, which gains finements like direct fuel-injection.
Richards tries to build “as many as possible with lower horsepower unless I’m ordered by the owner to build with higher horsepower, because they don’t need it.”
And what exactly is “lower power”? Oh, just 500hp or so, which Richards says “doesn’t sound like a lot in today’s market.” And that’s a sad indictment of the current crop of performance cars, which tend to weigh in around two tons, then bring back performance with 600hp or more. But, if you disagree with our assessment and have the cash, Richards has built a couple with 700hp and even 800hp, which must be borderline psychotic.
The Lucra’s 500hp is good for 0–60mph (97kph) in 3.2sec and a 10sec quarter-mile, with race-spec suspension and brakes to ensure it’s not the quickest trip up a tree you’ve ever taken. Still, take care: There are no electronic minders to save you from overexuberance with the right pedal.
4) Light Car Company Rocket
Taking the virtues of lightweighting to their logical conclusion is the Light Car Company Rocket. And, with a name that literal and the pursuit of weight saving and packaging so pathological, the LCC Rocket can only really come from one man. Yep, creator of all the best F1 cars, a car called the F1, and another new one called the T.50—it’s Mr. Murray himself.
You sit tandem, single-file, just like on a motorcycle. This gives you the full F1-in-the-’60s feel from behind the wheel, and yet still allows a pillion passenger. Also pinched from a motorbike is...well, the engine. It’s a 1,000cc Yamaha unit from the FZR1000, good for 143hp and 104Nm, because motorcycle. Also thanks to its two-wheeled provenance, the one-liter wonder reaches those outputs at 10,500rpm and 8,500rpm, respectively.
And it weighs...practically nothing. If the largest member of the Top Gear team were to get in a Rocket (the cabin is surprisingly capacious), he would be far and away the heaviest component in the entire thing. With Mr. Big Bones back out of the car, it weighs comfortably less than 400kg. That means the power-to-weight ratio rivals that of a supercar, the looks echo that of a ’50s Formula 1 car, and you can still get 15km/L, even when ragging it. Could this pre-McLaren F1 single-seater oddity be the way forward for sports cars? Um, duh.
5) Maserati Shamal
The Maserati Biturbo was, by almost every definition, utter crap. Think about all the things that have ever gone wrong with your car. Now, imagine a car that’s exponentially more prone to breakage, failure, leaking, or good old-fashioned self-immolation. In fact, the only way for your car to be as unreliable as a Biturbo is if it’s another Biturbo. Seriously, a Biturbo expert over in the States advocates changing timing belts every 6,000 miles (9,656km). Not 60,000—6,000.
So how the hell are we going to explain the Shamal, which was based on the same basic architecture as one of the worst things Maserati ever did? Well, if you’ve not witnessed the scope of our mental gymnastics, allow us to give you a small taster.
Number one: The Shamal is named after a breeze. All the best Maserati road cars are named after one wind or another—Bora, Khamsin, Ghibli, and so on—so the Shamal also has to be good. For other logical fallacies, consult your nearest Facebook post.
Number two: While it used a few basic underpinnings from the Biturbo, the Shamal had an entirely new engine—a twin-turbocharged, 32-valve V8, good for an easy 320hp and 433Nm. The new V8 was so good, in fact, that Maserati kept using it in the 3200GT.
And number three: By the time the Shamal came around, Maserati had taken the huge PR hit from the Biturbo and figured that any further hits to its reputation might be the coup de grâce. Also, Fiat had popped by and bought half the company in 1990, which meant Maserati actually had a bit of cash lying around to build the things properly.
So, as well as being a pretty damn brisk sports car with a trident badge (already a win in our book), the Shamal snatched a small victory from the gaping maw of defeat that was the Biturbo.
6) BMW Z1
Do you know what the biggest complaint about the Z1 was when it was new? It was too slow and needed more power. Not sure if anyone told those esteemed motoring writers of yesteryear, but that’s like looking at a supermodel, then bellyaching they’d be rubbish at competitive eating. Let’s all gather around and repeat this together: Convertibles do not need to be fast.
A fast convertible is a great way to lose your hearing from wind buffeting. A fast convertible is a tremendous way to accidentally headbutt a bee (ask us how we know). A fast convertible is pretty much honor-bound to take whatever hairstyle you’ve chosen and rearrange it into one you absolutely didn’t.
And yet the Z1, which debuted with a perfectly acceptable 170hp and a slightly less acceptable insistence on being left-hand-drive only, was derided for being underpowered for its suspension setup. Well, the beardy road-tester types said ‘chassis,’ but they also said things like ‘tip it into a corner’ and ‘trimming the line on the throttle,’ which is just gibberish.
So, even though the Z1 had a welded steel body with a bonded plastic floor for stiffness, interchangeable plastic body panels, doors that disappeared into the sills, less drag than a canceled Mardi Gras, and brilliant multilink rear suspension, it copped flak for not traveling at the speed of your average solar flare. It was a handling dream with a straight-six engine that you could whip like a racehorse, with the added benefit that, unlike with a racehorse, you didn’t also feel the guilt of whipping a living creature for other people’s entertainment.
And if you decide that we’re just talking absolute cobblers and that 170hp is only just enough to power a mobility scooter, it’s not like the BMW straight-six is allergic to tuning, is it?
7) Subaru SVX
What, exactly, was the SVX? A grand tourer, a sports car, a high-tech showcase from Subaru during Japan’s economic bubble? Um. Can we pick all of the above?
Here’s just a taster of what’s on offer in an SVX—a 3.3-liter naturally aspirated flat-six, full-time all-wheel drive, and...a four-speed automatic. Was this the ultimate stumble? Well, it’s gracing a list of forgotten sports cars instead of sharing the A80 Supra’s giant-killing debut, ascendancy in the tuning world (and on film), and meteoric rise in both status and secondhand value.
But Subaru’s loss is your gain, if you can actually track one down. Styled by Giorgetto Giugiaro, powered by a flat-six engine with 230hp, and home to Subaru all-wheel drive (which tends to be shorthand for ‘roughly the best kind of AWD short of an actual rally car’), it ticks pretty much every sports car check box. Except for that crucial one: manual.
Why did Subaru stumble at the great gearbox hurdle? Well, the story goes that the Japanese carmaker just didn’t possess a manual that’d deal with the 311Nm of shove from its big flat-six engine. Another story goes that the four-speed auto’s torque converter wasn’t really up to the twist, either, and slightly grenaded, but that Subaru ironed that particular problem out early on in the SVX’s life.
So, let’s lay out a couple of things. A quick search of the Internet will yield all the instructions necessary to swap the gearbox out for a five- or six-speed manual from a WRX. And it’s not like they’re thin on the ground. And if you do that, you might have one of the last of the Japanese no-holds-barred sports cars from the ’90s. Tempted?
8) Lancia Montecarlo
Yes, we’re doing it—putting a late-’70s Lancia on a list of best sports cars. Have we gone entirely mad? Well, we’re probably not best-placed to give an objective assessment on that. You be the judge.
But how exactly are we supposed to do anything but argue in favor of a mid-engined Lancia, designed and built by Pininfarina and named after a first-place finish in the Monte Carlo rally by the peerless Stratos?
Okay, so the Montecarlo wasn’t without its issues—when it was first released, the brakes were...problematic. So, Lancia took it off sale for two years to fix the problem. And the fix? Removing the brake servo entirely and changing pretty much every other braking component. There was also a raft of other improvements and updates between the first and second generations, in case you were thinking that two years is a long time to rip out a few parts.
Over in the US, the Montecarlo was sold as the Scorpion, which was not so much of a problem. What was so much of a problem was the raised suspension necessary to pass American headlight-height regulations and the massive impact bumpers needed to pass crash laws. Together, they took a lithe, nimble, mid-engined Italian sports car and turned it into a heavy blob of pudding. And just for added injury, American smog laws meant Lancia had to strangle the engine. In America, the Lampredi unit made just 80hp, whereas in civilized countries, it was putting out more than 120hp.
But let’s not worry too much about that, especially when the Montecarlo’s engine bay will accept both the Delta Integrale powerplant (being the same basic engine) and also Alfa Romeo’s Busso V6, which transforms the 120hp Montecarlo into a mid-engined Italian sports car with at least 250hp.
On the handling side of things, a set of modern tires and some fettling will result in proper mid-engined steering joy and balance, and the iffy brakes have been sorted by any number of Montecarlo specialists. Scratch your modding itch, your Italian itch, and your mid-engined itch in one go!
NOTE: This article first appeared on TopGear.com. Minor edits have been made.