Sports Cars of the 2000s

It was really just the last year of the twentieth century, but the world rushed to welcome 2000 as the start of a new decade, a new century, a new millennium. The celebrations were large and lavish, spirits and hopes high. Hangovers clouded many a morning after, but most computers woke up just fine, their calendars clicking over to "Y2K" without the widespread digital calamities that had been feared. The parties over, life went on.

But on September 11, 2001, life shattered amid the death and destruction of the World Trade Center in New York City and a large portion of the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. The events of that day and the events still flowing from them require no comment here. Suffice it to say, as many already have, that America and the world have been changed in ways profound and fateful.

The automotive world had seen many changes already. Globalization, heralded as the new millennium's Big Thing in most industries, was old news here. But competition was now rougher than ever, the stakes enormous. Failures were not an option. Even the largest manufacturers could no longer afford to do an Edsel. Excess production capacity didn't help. Though India and China were emerging as huge new markets, the rest of the world found itself with too many factories able to make more cars than there were people to buy.

Manufacturers had been hedging bets by teaming up in various ways. Daimler-Benz made business history by "merging" with Chrysler Corporation in 1998 to form German-dominated DaimlerChrysler. Ford Motor Company had bought Jaguar and Aston Martin in the Eighties, then added Volvo and a controlling stake in Mazda, and finally Land Rover. General Motors, meanwhile, completed its purchase of Saab and forged partnerships with Subaru and Fiat to complement its holdings in Suzuki and Isuzu.

Volkswagen/Audi rescued Lamborghini, snatched Bentley from Rolls-Royce, and retrieved the remains of a short-lived 1990s Bugatti revival. Even BMW got the urge to merge, acquiring Rolls and the Mini brand, the latter from its brief stewardship of Rover Group. Ferrari, which came under Fiat's wing in the late 1960s, had lately become a semi-autonomous enterprise that had prospered enough to take over Maserati. Thus, among major sports car powers, only Porsche remained independent, defiantly so despite its small size.

Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren
The Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren is successful collaboration between two historic automakers.

Happily, consolidation and globalization did not mean fewer or less-interesting sports cars in the new century. On the contrary, choices multiplied, and power and performance reached levels that would have seemed impossible even 10 years before. In addition, smaller producers like Aston and Lamborghini were making vast strides in engineering and quality, thanks to the financial might and greater production discipline of their big new owners. Because this book is being prepared in late 2003, we can only survey the field up to that point, but we already know that more great sports cars are just around the bend.

Let's start with the fantasy ranks, where an all-out war got underway. Ferrari, as usual, fired early salvos. The 360 Modena arrived in 2001 as a lovelier, faster, better-handling evolution of the midengine F355. A hotter front-V12 GT, the 575M, cruised in during '03. But even these paled next to the Enzo, a 2003 celebration of the legendary Il Commendetore and heir to the great tradition of the F40 and F50. Though no less a barely tamed Formula 1 car, the mid-V12 Enzo took everything to the next level -- the fastest, most powerful roadgoing cavallino yet. It cost an Olympian $700,000, and only 399 would ever be built, but it deposed the 1994-98 McLaren F1 as the history's ultimate sports car. Nothing else around looked to come close.

Except, perhaps, the extraordinary Bugatti EB 16.4 Veyron. Though not quite reality at this writing, it's an all-wheel-drive wundercar backed by the very real engineering expertise and deep pockets of VW/Audi. An improbable W16 engine mounted amidships should deliver a mind-boggling 987 horsepower and a top speed of over 252 mph. Yet unlike the Enzo, the Veyron is furnished and equipped like a luxury sedan. Price? A mere $1.2 million. But get your order in fast. Only 50 or so will be built each year -- in France, appropriately, just as Ettore did.

As noted, Lamborghini is also in the VW/Audi stable now. As such, it's enjoying a happy renaissance after limping through the Eighties and Nineties under three different masters. It began in 2002 with the mid-V12 Murcielago, as thrilling and charismatic as the Diablo it replaced, but infinitely more civilized and better built. Joining it in 2003 was the long-awaited "baby Lambo," the mid-V10 Gallardo, a 360 Modena/Porsche 911 Turbo rival that promises to further secure the marque's future.

Porsche's latest weapon for the supercar war is a sort of Boxster on steroids, with some 600 horses from the company's first production V10. As expected of Porsche, the Carrera GT is shot full of high technology, much of it lifted directly from the racetrack. It doesn't have a turbocharger, but no one would be surprised if Porsche bolted one on to get closer to the Enzo and Veyron.

Crosstown rival Mercedes-Benz fires back with the SLR McLaren, a cooperative effort with the same British specialist that built the aforementioned BMW-powered F1. In name and character, the new supercharged V8 coupe recalls the seminal SLR racers of the early 1950s. It departs from other new-century ├╝berwagens with a traditional front-engine layout, but follows them with costly aluminum/carbon fiber construction. The Mac SLR is close to the Carrera GT in wallop and wallet-shrinking ability -- to the tune of some $400,000 -- so the fight for bragging rights and sales supremacy should be fierce.

There was plenty of action in the popular-price ranks as well. The success of Mazda's Miata touched off a late-Nineties "retro roadster" craze that produced not only the Boxster but BMW's American-built Z3. The latter was redesigned for '03 to become the Z4, which earned plaudits for most everything except its postmodern styling. Audi, meantime, had weighed in with the TT, a cut-down VW Golf with shapely Bauhaus bodywork and available all-wheel drive. Honda joined in for 2000 with the ragtop S2000, a rear-drive cornering fool with a 9000-rpm redline. That same year, Toyota resurrected its MR2, this time as a convertible.But it was Nissan's all-new 350Z for 2003 that really got people talking. Here at last was the long-sought spiritual heir to the 1970 original. And it was a great drive besides.

Detroit was far from idle. Chevy delivered a "pure performance" Corvette, the Z06, for 2001, then gave it more power and stickier handling. Chrysler Corporation unleashed a slick new 500-bhp Dodge Viper for 2003, followed by the stylish Mercedes-based Chrysler Crossfire hatchback. And in a grand gesture to its historic 2003 centennial, Ford announced a fully road-legal replica of its fabled LeMans-winning GT40 racer, complete with a 500-bhp supercharged V8.

With these and other great new sports cars on the scene -- and more on the way -- we can't think of a happier ending for this article. Whatever the future may hold, we can be sure that sports cars will be a part of it. In many ways, we need them more than ever.