Sports Car Buying Guide: Everything You Need To Know

By Russ Heaps 05/31/2023 4:01pm

The 2024 Chevrolet Corvette E-Ray seen from a front quarter angle

Sports Cars Quick Facts

  • Roadsters are the vehicles closest to the traditional sports car definition. They are 2-door, 2-seat convertibles.
  • No one buys a genuine sports car for the mileage, cargo capacity, or cupholder count. What matters is how it handles and how fast it goes (or seems to go).
  • The best way to determine if a specific sports car fits your wants and needs is to drive it.

Amid the vast array of cars made today, if you asked 100 people what defines a sports car, you might get 100 different answers. But for those seeking to buy a sports car, only those vehicles purposed for extreme performance will do.

Over the years, automotive analysts and enthusiast publications have debated which cars deserve the moniker “sports cars.” But more recently, the industry usually dubs the sports car designation only to mass-market vehicles that measure up. When they don’t, they immediately spark debate and correct course.

On the other hand, exotics, supercars, hypercars, and aftermarket modified performance cars rise above the definition of the average sports car. What distinguishes these categories are price, materials, performance, and exclusivity. Most of these high-end machines are in limited production and are thus hard to come by — even if you have the money.

In the arena of what we avoid labeling a sports car are some manufacturers’ sport trims, large sedans with big engines, and sport versions of SUVs. Although these vehicles may be excellent and powerful, they are not sports cars.

The following segments of this guide will help you sift through some examples and get a good deal on your next sports car after making your pick. Use the jump links below to skip ahead in the story.

What Is a Sports Car?

The 2023 Mazda MX-5 Miata in Zircon Sand Metallic

A sports car is traditionally a convertible seating two with improved performance and driving dynamics. At least that’s the traditional definition of a sports car reflecting the early British influence on the segment. For example, the Triumph TR6, Austin-Healy Sprite, or today’s Mazda MX-5 Miata and Audi TT Roadster are traditional sports cars. We wish such cars were still built in higher numbers. However, progressive safety regulations and increasing safety fears pretty much ended the reign of the traditional sports car.

A more contemporary definition includes sports models that place performance above practicality and fun above function. Expect quick acceleration and agile cornering from these performance cars, but don’t expect a smooth ride. Feeling the road beneath your seat is not the most comfortable way to drive, but it is the most thrilling!

This expanded view of what makes up a sports car opens the list to vehicles with multiple doors, seats, and engines. And yes, gasp, even fixed roofs! Since this guide does not include a definitive list of current market sports cars (you’ll find nearly 100), we’ve culled some relevant types and examples below to get you up to speed.

Sports Car Characteristics

Indeed, the characteristics of contemporary sports cars are broader than those of traditional sports cars in the British style of the forties, fifties, and sixties. Sports car purists will argue that many examples we present throughout this story are not true sports cars. And, to some extent, they have a point. However, the last fifty or sixty years have blurred the lines defining car types. Consequently, a roster of current sports cars can be stretched to include multiple vehicle types.

Here we list some of the characteristics of today’s sports car. Not every model we highlight below excels in, or maybe even exhibits, every characteristic. However, some combination of these traits meets the notion of the redefined modern sports car.

  • Two seats — A classic trait for a sports car, a 2-seat setup gives traditionalists a warm-and-fuzzy feeling.
  • Open top — Allowing the sun to shine into the cockpit while the wind buffets the driver is another traditional sports car element. It can be a conventional convertible, a removable hardtop, or a removable roof panel.
  • Two doors — Although we have included a select few sedans and hatchbacks in our updated idea of a sports car, two doors still sit high up on the list of qualifiers. It represents coupes and roadsters.
  • Enhanced acceleration — No benchmark exists for automatically qualifying a car as a sports car by acceleration speed. That is, there isn’t a specific 0-60 mph time under which car is a sports car. However, quickness is a sports car attribute. Every car mentioned by name in this guide is quick. Some, obviously, are quicker than others.
  • At-speed handling — How a car corners at speed carries a lot of weight when defining a sports car. Although most of today’s cars handle safely and consistently in everyday driving, what separates them from sports cars is how they perform at their high-speed limits. Do they track in a straight line? Do they stick in the corners?
  • Throaty engine/exhaust — Not so much a qualifier for sports car status, an engine growl or an exhaust burble are highly sought traits for many sports car owners.

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Sports Car Types

The 2023 Audi R8 seen from a rear quarter view

Here we will pursue the expanded definition of a sports car. This is where we will soon lose sports car purists. Once we venture beyond roadsters, there isn’t much agreement on what is and isn’t a sports car.


Roadsters are the vehicles closest to the traditional sports car definition. They are 2-door, 2-seat convertibles. The least practical of the sports car types, you buy one to have fun, get some sunshine on your face, and, sometimes, to show off. While typically expensive, finding a used luxury sports car under $40,000 is possible if you want luxury on a budget.

The price range for the list below begins at $28,050 for the Mazda MX-5 Miata, running to $171,000 for the Audi R8 Spyder, not including destination fees.

This set includes:

  • Mazda MX-5 Miata
  • Chevrolet Corvette
  • Audi R8 Spyder
  • Porsche 718 Boxster


The 2024 Nissan GT-R seen from a front quarter angle

Although some carmakers like Mercedes-Benz refer to a 4-door model as a coupe; however, by definition, coupes have two doors. They often feature a sloping rear roofline. The second-row seat, when offered, is usually little more than a cushioned package shelf.

The list below ranges in price from $28,400 for the Toyota GR86 to about $120,990 for the Nissan GT-R.

Examples of this group:

  • Chevrolet Corvette and Camaro SS
  • Dodge Challenger SRT
  • Toyota GR86 and Supra
  • Porsche 911 Carrera
  • Ford Mustang GT
  • Audi TT RS
  • BMW M240i xDrive Coupe
  • Mercedes-AMG E 53 Coupe
  • Nissan GTR and Z



Even if they’re not sports cars, most hatchbacks look the part. However, a small subset of hatchbacks provides better performance and handling than their run-of-the-mill competitors. In this segment, the door count doesn’t enter the equation. Usually, hatchbacks have four doors, though five if you include the hatch. However, that’s not always the case.

The hatchbacks we’ve listed below can range from about $38,000 to nearly $45,000 for new model vehicles.

  • Mini John Cooper Works Hardtop 2 Door
  • Volkswagen Golf GTI and Golf R


2022 Subaru WRX

Granted, pounding the square peg sedan into the round hole of the traditional definition of a sports car is a reach. But we’re fortunate to have established broader parameters for a sports car at the top of this guide, right?

Just because a car has four doors, a hardtop, and seats up to five doesn’t exclude it as a sports car in contemporary terms. We might agree if you argued that a sporty sedan would not qualify. However, we say some sedans can apply if your budget doesn’t allow for a weekend toy and you need some practicality in your fun machine. For example, certain sedans make a fantastic compromise because they have more passenger space and cargo room, an athletic suspension, and a high-output engine. We won’t convince a sports car purist with such an argument, but we believe it has merit.

Prices for the list below range from about $33,000 to $109,900 for the BMW M5. Here are some sedans to consider:

  • Subaru WRX
  • Hyundai Elantra N
  • BMW M5
  • Cadillac CT4-V Blackwing
  • Audi RS 5 Sportback
  • Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Widebody
  • Infiniti Q50 Red Sport 400
  • Kia Stinger GT2

Electric Sports Cars

2022 Porsche Taycan 4S in red.

Electric vehicles (EVs) are growing more mainstream every day. Most carmakers have jumped into the act. Consequently, some very engaging, fun-to-drive electric cars are on the market. No, the rich notes from the engine or exhaust aren’t there. However, one universal quality among electric vehicles is their immediate response. It’s an advantage over gasoline-fueled cars. Whatever the pony count and peak torque, it’s all available the second you engage the accelerator.

Moreover, many EVs provide one-pedal driving. Depress the accelerator to increase speed and reduce pressure on the accelerator to slow down. Taking your foot entirely off the accelerator can bring the car to a stop. This function blends convenience with even quicker acceleration and braking response.

Typically, EVs require less maintenance than cars with an internal combustion engine (ICE). EVs don’t have all the mechanical moving parts of an ICE vehicle, and there is no transmission, oil changes, air filter changes, or radiator flushes.

On the downside, there is something visceral about manually swapping gears and hearing the rich roar of a high-performance internal combustion engine. There is also that range anxiety with EVs: Will my EV run out of juice before I get where I’m going?

Prices for the list below range from about $68,700 for the BMW i4 M50 to nearly $104,900 for the Audi e-tron GT.

Examples of electric sports cars include:

  • Audi e-tron GT
  • Tesla Model S
  • Jaguar I-Pace
  • Porsche Taycan

RELATED: Electric Cars 101: What You Need To Know About EVs

What To Consider When Buying a Sports Car

What you should consider when shopping for a sports car depends on how much of a sports car you want. You don’t need to worry about less-relevant details if you look for fun, performance, and a little wind in your hair.

No one buys a genuine sports car for the mileage, cargo capacity, or cupholder count. What matters is how it handles and how fast it goes (or seems to go).

Other considerations include everyday use. For example, when using the vehicle for carpooling the kids, running shopping errands, and hauling stuff from the home improvement store.

Here are some things to think about:

1. How Much Does a Sports Car Cost?

The first question to ask yourself when researching any car is, can I afford it? Your answer shouldn’t be based solely on the transaction price and monthly payments but on the total cost of ownership. Chances are good that your pick will require premium fuel, larger and more expensive replacement tires, and will cost more to insure. Because many performance models use specialized, lightweight parts, your maintenance and repair costs may be more than you want to spend. When answering the “Can I afford it?” question, you need to factor in all the ownership costs.

We recommend you do some soul-searching in the early stages of your research and establish a realistic amount you can comfortably afford. As illustrated above, prices can range from nearly $30,000 to $300,000 or more.

Make sure the cost easily fits within your budget. Picking the model and trim that best suits your wallet can save you heartache. We bring it up again below but consider buying used to reduce your depreciation hit and get the cost within your budget. If you are looking for a used sports car on a budget, plenty of used sports cars under $20,000 deserve consideration.

2. Power

Going fast plays a significant role in getting the most out of a sports car. The sports cars above are 4-cylinder, V6, V8, and even V10 engines. Electric vehicles don’t even have an engine. Some listed cars are faster than others.

RELATED: Do I Need a V8? Or is a V6 Good Enough?

Your pick may not be the quickest because it doesn’t need to be. It just needs to be fast enough for you and your comfort level. The idea is the overall driving experience. If the engine growl and exhaust note are essential to your experience, keep an ear out for that during your test drive.

3. Handling

A core reason to buy a sports car is better-than-average handling. Only an extensive test drive on various roads can affirm this trait. Key handling attributes are quick steering response, road-holding capability, minimal body roll or lean, and consistent, predictable behavior when pushed hard.

These are the attributes on which to focus during a test drive. Also, remember that many high-performance cars don’t handle winter weather well.

4. Seating

No matter which among the above types of sports cars you shop for, other than the sedans, none of them comfortably seat more than two. The rear seat in those that have one might accommodate small children. However, adults will suffer back there.

Size does matter in sports cars. Older and taller drivers may find it challenging to scrunch down into some of the lower, sleeker cars. Taller drivers may discover the driver’s seat in some sports cars lacking sufficient aft travel to accommodate their long legs. Stretching the tape to 6 feet 4 inches, one of our editors recommends the Porsche 911 as a solid choice for tall drivers.

5. Sports Car Trunk Space

Usually, the more sports car-like a car is, the less trunk space it provides. Carmakers measure the cargo-carrying room in cubic feet. Visualizing what 6 cubic feet looks like next to 10 cubic feet can be a little challenging. Here’s a bit of help. If a regulation basketball were a cube rather than round, it would be roughly a cubic foot.

For example, the Mazda MX-5 Miata’s trunk will accommodate roughly 4.5 basketballs. You can stuff about 16 basketballs into the trunk of the Dodge Challenger.

Remember that folding that seat down can significantly increase trunk space in cars with a rear seat, even more so when that car is a hatchback.

6. Fuel Economy

Bigger and badder engines slurp more fuel. That’s a fact. As already noted, these same engines often require premium fuel. It’s a double whammy. You can reduce fuel costs by picking a smaller, more efficient sports car or choosing from the growing number of electric models.

Although most cars, even sports cars, are growing more fuel-efficient, you could compromise a bit in the mileage department for the performance you crave.

7. Safety Systems

The government mandates many safety technologies like stability control, antilock brakes, a rearview camera, etc. Consequently, every passenger car must have them. The government doesn’t regulate other newer, more advanced safety systems. These include systems like automatic emergency braking, lane-keeping assist, and rear cross-traffic alert.

It’s not rare that a high-performance or competition-based sports car won’t have some or any advanced safety systems. This may be to hold down costs or reduce weight. In either event, you should take extra care to determine which, if any, advanced safety systems are in the sports car you are considering, primarily if it will serve as a daily driver or family hauler.

Manual Versus Automatic Transmissions

2021 Hyundai Veloster N profile in blue

Manual transmissions are slowly disappearing, but they aren’t gone yet. You can find plenty of sports cars still offering a manual transmission. The Chevy Camaro SS, BMW M3, Hyundai Veloster N, Lotus Evora GT, Porsche 911, Nissan Z, and the VW Golf GTI and Golf R are just a few. Indeed, there was a time when no self-respecting sports car offered an automatic.

However, automatic transmissions have become more sophisticated and fuel-efficient in cars like the Acura NSX and Ford Mustang GT. Dual-clutch automatic transmissions (DCT) and paddle shifters have made believers out of many a manual-transmission diehard. Is one better than the other? There are good arguments for both. The choice is yours.

Buying a New vs. Used Sports Car

There are good reasons to go either new or used. You can buy the exact car you want with a new car’s full manufacturer’s warranty. You don’t have to settle for a color scheme you don’t particularly care for or worry about how the previous owner treated the vehicle.

Buying used, however, makes good sense. That is especially true of high-performance and sports cars. According to Kelley Blue Book parent company Cox Automotive’s data, such vehicles tend to depreciate quicker than average, losing as much as half their value in the first two or three years. As a result, it makes sense to find your sports car pick among models two to three years old. If you’re in the market for a used car, many used sports cars are available for under $30,000.

Your pre-owned car should cost less to insure, too. Be sure to check out any Certified Pre-Owned (CPO) models in your dealer’s inventory. These have been inspected and provide some factory-backed warranty protection.

Steer clear of models with super-high mileage or heavily modified vehicles with aftermarket performance parts. Have a mechanic or inspection service check it out if you find a used car you want that isn’t CPO.

Sports Car Test Drives

You won’t know until you know, and the best way to find out if a specific sports car fits your wants and needs is to drive it. In most respects, test driving a sports car is the same as any vehicle you consider. You can get a comprehensive list of how to prepare for, schedule, and take a test drive with this Kelley Blue Book test drive checklist advice.

Let’s face it. You won’t be able to air out a sports car on a typical new car test drive. Safety and common sense require following speed limits and other road rules. So don’t get carried away.

Check out how the vehicle accelerates, corners, and brakes within legal limits. If it will be a daily driver, run it over some uneven pavement. A car engineered for acute handling often sacrifices ride comfort. Can you live with that every day? Can you find a comfortable driving position? Do the clutch and gearbox perform smoothly if it’s a manual transmission? Does the brake pedal operate predictably?

Making the Deal

Your research should have included discovering the book value of the car you want. That’s easy to do when you use the Kelley Blue Book valuation tool. You can also find out what other vehicles like your pick are selling for in your area. Finding a price point matching is especially critical if you buy used.

If you aren’t taking advantage of a factory-backed financing special at a dealership, get pre-approval from your bank or credit union before car negotiations begin. This way, you know exactly the car you can afford, and you’ll be able to negotiate from a position of strength.

But never be afraid to walk away. If the deal you want is realistic, but the seller won’t budge, walk away. Even in today’s tight car market, other cars are out there. Do a little more research and find one. Have fun — that’s what sports cars are all about.