sports cars are typically evaluated based on their inflated horsepower figures, but in fact there are several other characteristics that are crucial in the making of a successful performance formula. Of these, the most important is weight. Specifically, less mass equals greater handling, better acceleration and the ability to hold more speed through the corners. It also allows an automobile to brake much more effectively, as there is less weight to haul down from high speeds, and lighter sports cars further benefit from the fact that they don’t require hugely powerful engines to deliver maximum thrills, which reduces the price paid at the fuel pump at the end of each track day.
Let’s take a closer look at eight of the best lightweight sports cars on the market.
1. 2011 Mazda MX-5 Miata
The 2011 Mazda MX-5 Miata is a continuation of the design philosophy that saw the first generation of the compact roadster tip the scales at a mere 2,200 lbs. Two decades later, the Mazda MX-5 Miata has seen its girth grow by the smallest of measures, putting its current curb weight at 2,480 lbs. A reputation for almost telepathic handling makes the convertible a very forgiving track day weapon and an excellent learning tool for novice drivers.
The 2011 Mazda MX-5 Miata is motivated by a 167 horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder motor that also generates 140 lb-ft of torque. Five and six-speed manual transmissions are available, as is a six-speed automatic that drops engine output to 158 horses. Not primarily focused on straight-line speed, the Miata can still hit 60 miles per hour in a tick under seven seconds.
2. 2011 Lotus Elise
The 2011 Lotus Elise takes the tiny roadster formula and turns it up to 11. The Lotus Elise is hardcore performance machine that strips away many of the niceties one would expect in a production car in order to offer a startlingly low curb weight of 2,010 lbs. One of the lightest sports cars on the market, the Elise’s stiff suspension and chassis make it less comfortable as a daily driver but much more capable on the track than many of its competitors.
The 2011 Lotus Elise features a Toyota-sourced 1.8-liter, four-cylinder base engine that is good for 190 horsepower and 133 lb-ft of torque. The Elise SC slaps on a supercharger and grinds out 220 horses and 155 lb-ft of torque from the same mill. Each of these engines comes matched exclusively with a six-speed manual transmission, and the Elise SC leaps to 60 miles per hour from a standing start in just 4.9 seconds.
3. 2011 Honda CR-Z
The 2011 Honda CR-Z is an unusual automobile, a hybrid sports car on a diet that aims to be fun to drive despite not producing gobs of power. The Honda CR-Z weighs a respectable 3,164 lbs – much lighter than the majority of its battery-powered rivals – and as such, the front-wheel drive, two-seat hatchback offers quick steering and a sporty suspension system.
The 2011 Honda CR-Z is outfitted with a variation on Honda’s Integrated Motor Assist hybrid system. A 1.5-liter, four-cylinder engine teams up with an electric motor to provide a total of 122 horsepower and 128 lb-ft of torque. Unlike other hybrids, the CR-Z offers both a six-speed manual transmission and a continuously-variable automatic unit that features virtual gear ratios accessible via steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters. The two-seat Honda hatchback accelerates to 60 miles per hour in 8.8 seconds.
4. 2011 Tesla Roadster
The 2011 Tesla Roadster combines a slippery aerodynamic shape with the instant-on torque of a pure battery-powered drivetrain in order to blow your hair back on twisty country two-lanes, tight road courses or wide-open blacktop. The pricey but formidable two-seat convertible weighs 3,273 lbs – most of it battery – and comes with a suspension system that has been tuned to extract maximum grip and response from whatever surface it might be blasting over.
The 2011 Tesla Roadster pulls 288 ponies and 273 lb-ft of torque from its electric motor, with the Sport model tacking on an additional 22 lb-ft of torque. Pure electric vehicles requires only a single-speed transmission to get their power to the wheels, and the Tesla offers supercar levels of acceleration as demonstrated by its 0-60 miles per hour time of 3.7 seconds in Sport trim.
5. 2011 Mazda RX-8
The 2011 Mazda RX-8 is a compact coupe that offers two additional rear doors for easy access to the back seat. This innovative and practical system sometimes masks the fact that the Mazda RX-8 is a genuine, lightweight (3,064 lbs curb weight) sports car with a chassis that has been massaged by the very capable engineers employed by the Japanese brand’s performance division.
The 2011 Mazda RX-8 stands out from the crowd with its hood popped, thanks to the use of a 1.3-liter rotary engine in place of a standard piston unit. The rotary offers as much as 232 horsepower and 152 lb-ft of torque (with the six-speed manual transmission selected). A six-speed automatic is also available, and choosing this gearbox lowers the RX-8’s power rating to 212 horses. If one is willing to rev the rotary motor to the 9,000 rpm redline, the RX-8 is good for a zero to 60 miles per hour time of seven seconds.
6. 2011 Ariel Atom
The 2011 Ariel Atom exists at the fringe of what could loosely be defined as “street legal.” The Ariel Atom looks like a baby Formula One car with its lack of body panels, barely-there wheel fairings and exposed tubular frame. Now in its third generation, the one-seat sports car weighs a paltry 1,350 lbs and serves as one of the most coveted track beasts on the market.
The 2011 Ariel Atom offers a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine borrowed from Honda that churns out either 200, 245 or 300 horsepower, depending upon which model is selected and whether a supercharger is installed. In top spec, the Ariel Atom can reach 60 miles per hour in less than three seconds. All versions of this incredible performer come with a six-speed manual transmission.
The 2011 Porsche Cayman
is a two-seat compact coupe that challenges the pricier Porsche 911 in terms of pure sports car capability. A low curb weight of 2,932 lbs goes a long way towards helping the Porsche Cayman achieve its impressive precision and poise on the track, and it can be also equipped with Porsche’s Sport Chrono package, which adds in a launch control system, the ability to dial back the vehicle’s electronic nannies and a lap timer.
The 2011 Porsche Cayman boasts a 2.9-liter, six-cylinder entry-level engine, one which generates 265 horsepower and 221 b-ft of torque. The Cayman S model swaps in a 3.4-liter, six-cylinder unit that offers 320 horsepower and 273 lb-ft of torque, while the Cayman R adds an extra 10 ponies to the mix. Transmission choices include a traditional six-speed manual as well as a seven-speed PDK automated manual. The Porsche Cayman R can launch itself to 60 miles per hour in a very quick 4.7 seconds.
8. 2011 Nissan 370Z
The 2011 Nissan 370Z carries on the proud Z car lineage that helped to ingratiate Nissan with American sports car fans since 1970. The Nissan 370Z weighs 3,232 lbs and provides sleek styling as well as the availability of the Nismo edition, an in-house hot rod model that provides a limited-slip rear differential, larger brakes, a more aggressive body kit and track-tuned suspension.
A 3.7-liter V-6 powers the 2011 Nissan 370Z, and this mill provides 332 horses and 270 lb-ft of torque, managed by either a six-speed manual or seven-speed automatic transmission. The Nismo edition cranks up the output to 350 horsepower and 276 lb-ft of torque, and drops the seven-speed auto from the picture. The Nissan 370Z is capable of pushing the needle past 60 miles per hour in a scant five seconds.