Secondhand Gems: $33,000 Roadsters

By Christopher Smith

May 15, 2012

Many will remember 2012 as the year that began with no winter. Yes, 87-degree temperatures whilst the calendar hadn’t even flipped over to spring gave many enthusiasts reason to bust their summer rides out of storage early--in some cases several weeks early. For car lovers without polished steel waiting patiently in the garage, an early spring often brings out the desire to acquire such a summertime fun machine. And let’s be honest, nothing says summertime fun more than going topless to the beach.
With the requisite topless joke neatly dispensed with, we can now offer a few tantalizing drop-top temptations to satiate the craving for a properly brilliant warm weather whip. The good news is that there’s no shortage of convertibles available in the automotive market, but we’re not just looking for a car with no roof. If this is going to be a part-time, fair-weather love affair let’s take a look at cars that offer maximum fun potential, and that role often falls to roadsters: cars with two seats, no roof, and endowed with some measure of performance.
Where to start? On the low end of the scale there’s the everlasting Mazda MX-5 Miata, which can often be found in mid-1990s trim for the same price as nice set of new golf clubs. Or we could look at the other end of the scale, where the likes of Porsche and Mercedes-Benz can have price tags higher than the value of many homes these days.
Look closer at the segment, however, and one finds a roadster sweet spot just about in the middle, in the vicinity of $33,000. At that price point there exist three roadsters in the secondhand market that have the ability to deliver everything an enthusiast could ever want. Each machine has a different personality. All share a front-engine/rear-drive configuration with a manual gearbox, and the ability to properly carve corners. At $33,000 you can probably guess the two Japanese makes on the list, but the American entry just might surprise you.
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2004-2009 Honda S2000
Unless your motoring experience absolutely requires the visceral soundtrack of a big-bore engine or a face-flattening surge of acceleration to make the journey complete, there's no need to read beyond the next few paragraphs. From a driver's perspective the S2000 wholly satisfies on virtually every level, from its fit-like-a-glove interior (assuming you’re not much taller than six feet) to the Honda's angelic six-speed manual gearbox that executes cog swaps with a buttery goodness.
It rolls with a perfect 50/50 weight distribution and connects to the road with an independent suspension that's tuned for action, yet balances performance and comfort in a manner that borders on uncanny. The minimalist cockpit is snug, but comfortable and supportive, emphasizing the act of driving over all else. It's conservatively styled, it doesn't sport gigantic wings or oversized wheels, and it's readily available all over eBay Motors for well under our $33,000 price point. Actually, step back a few model years to 2004 and the same car with the same amount of awesome can often be had for less than $20,000. For all the motoring perfection the S2000 offers, it truly is an exceptional bargain.
The firm, compliant underpinnings and crisp handling characteristics are a perfect match for the S2000's modest powerband. We can't image any auto enthusiast not already being aware of Honda's rev-it-like-you-stole-it, 2.2-liter four-cylinder motor, which in this version of the S2000 hits max power at a sky-high 7800 rpm  while pulling delightfully all the way to its 8200-rpm limit (earlier models redlined higher at the cost of low-end torque). At just 237 horsepower and 162 pound-feet of twist (the latter of which doesn't peak until 6500 revs) it's not a power monger, but such brute force goes against the S2000's character. It doesn't do billowing clouds of tire smoke and extended periods of opposite-lock cornering any more than a ballet dancer does chewing tobacco and professional wrestling. In fact, Honda engineers re-tweaked the S2000's underpinnings midway through the 2003 model year to tame oversteer, and though such modifications are often the bane of enthusiasts, the adjustments created one of the most enjoyable, tossable, easy-to-drive topless two-seaters in the history of everything, and that's not an exaggeration.
The S2000 is surgical in its actions, deftly responding to the commands of the driver and executing them without delay. It's stable and balanced in virtually any situation, yielding to mild, controllable drifts only when pushed very hard into corners. Winding the naturally aspirated four all the way to 8000 delivers a tingling soundtrack that's neither raucous nor obnoxious, punctuated by just the right amount of forward thrust to keep things exciting. If it's an attention-getting, open-air muscle car you seek, keep reading. But if your interests lie in exploring the fine art of dynamic driving, the S2000 is your salvation.
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2010-2011 Nissan 370Z Roadster Touring
Fans of the previous-generation 350Z ragtop (which we are) should know that the 370Z eliminates the few problem areas that car suffered from. What was bad about the 350Z roadster? Specifically, in roofless form it shook more than is sporting on anything other than smooth pavement, and with the roof up it wasn't exactly quiet inside. It also had a rather odd look about it when the top was up that wasn't necessarily bad, just incomplete, as if the whole 350Z convertible thing was an engineering afterthought instead of a design specification. Throw in cheapish Nissan plastic interior bits and for a $30,000 two-seat convertible, well, the 350 still wasn't a bad machine. But better alternatives were available.
The 370Z, on the other hand, doesn't jiggle nearly as much. With the top up it's much more livable inside, while still looking snazzy. With the top down (the 370Z's most harmonious state of being, as far as we're concerned) it's positively gorgeous. Where the S2000 was smooth and conservative, the 370Z is proportioned and voluptuous. Driver and passenger sit comfortably in grippy leather/suede power buckets that come standard on the Touring model with built-in heating and cooling functions. Other features abound, like satellite radio, factory navigation, and HID headlamp, and of course there's Nissan's SynchroRev Match system that automatically blips the throttle on downshifts with the six-speed manual transmission. Or, you could go for a seven-speed automatic with paddle shifters on the steering wheel; but do you seriously want to let a car this cool shift itself? The automatic works just fine, but with a 332-horsepower V-6 providing the motivation, trust us when we say there's so much more pleasure in rowing your own path through the rev range.
On the road, the 370Z is clearly a bit friskier than the Honda. It exhibits exceptional poise and balanced control when the going gets twisty, but the extra power and a slightly stiffer ride require more diligence behind the wheel to keep out of trouble. All the extra strengthening in the 370's chassis that contributes to this poise does exact a small comfort penalty on rougher surfaces, especially when equipped with the optional nineteen-inch wheels, so be prepared to live with some minor thrashing in such conditions.
Packaged in a sexy wrapper with serious moves and enough comfort to survive a daily commute, the 370Z is a serious contender as one of the best factory roadsters available today.
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1992-1995 Dodge Viper R/T-10
And here's the point where things go a little bit bonkers. A C6 Corvette might be the more obvious choice here, given its slick style and gutsy LS3 V-8, but we can't ignore the fact that for the same amount of money you can have a Viper with equal performance. Admittedly we need to step back about 20 years to a car that doesn't even have exterior door handles or side windows, but it does have side-exit exhaust, and that earns the Viper some cool points right there. Or actually hot points, since Viper owners back in the day did occasionally burn their legs when climbing out of the car, but as far as we're concerned that's a small price to pay. This is the original Viper R/T-10; it wasn't built to be perfect but hot damn it was, and still is, supremely awesome.
Refined? Definitely not. Modest? Nope. Civil? Not a chance. Its V-10 makes 400 horsepower the old fashioned way, by displacing a gargantuan 8.0 liters (or 488 cubic inches for you old-schoolers) with two valves at each cylinder to control air/fuel and exhaust flow. If you're doing the math, the Nissan's 3.7-liter engine is less than half the size of the big V-10, yet it makes 83 percent of the Viper's horsepower. That's 20 years of automotive evolution in action, and yet it still doesn't take away from the Viper's appeal. It's big-displacement V-10 hits low and hard, packing a prizefighter's punch in just about every gear.
The six-speed manual is thick and notchy, requiring a firm handshake with deliberate force to change up and a throttle blip to change down. Fearlessly manhandled, the original Viper will still turn 60 miles per hour in about 4.5 seconds and pull nearly a full g on the skidpad, all while belting exotic V-10 music out both side pipes. It's wide, long, and low, and though it wields a massive lump of engine in the front, the Viper only weighs a shade over 3200 pounds. That's because it's devoid of safety systems like anti-lock brakes and airbags, not to mention side windows (we were serious about that bit) and though there is a cloth top, it's not actually built into the car.
The Viper, then, is an elemental machine not unlike the S2000, though it satisfies the driving gods in a very different manner. It doesn't strike a Zen-like balance between man, machine, and road. It attacks everything with a sledgehammer, biting and gripping corners ferociously until the tires blow or the driver runs out of talent.
Carry too much momentum into a turn and the Viper will understeer to destruction, unless you counter with too much throttle, in which case it will spin like a helicopter. Finding the edge of the envelope requires the complete and undivided attention of a driver who can exercise patience and restraint behind the wheel, slowly mastering the Viper's nuances until they are thoroughly understood.
The payoff is owning a classic American supercar that can still run with modern performance cars 20 years after the fact, and when all the asphalt tomfoolery draws to a close, the Viper still manages to get all the looks as well. Finding a roadster that combines this kind of exotic style and serious performance usually requires a six-figure price of entry. Perhaps it's overlooked, or maybe people just forgot how amazing it was. But you can have everything we just mentioned with an original Viper, all for the same price as a new Toyota Camry.
Roadsters aren't necessarily rare, but in a world where crossovers and sport utes continue to find larger audiences, it's nice to know that a broad selection of purist performance vehicles such as these can still be had for a relatively attainable price. Now it's just a question of what you prefer--the surgical S2000, the sensual 370Z, or the nonsensical Viper?