Feel the wind in your hair and wear a smile on your face with these great-handling, stylish and quick drop-top sports cars
The true athletes of this field – these lightweight two-seater sports cars will sink or swim based purely on their handling prowess. Not only do the best roadsters have to be instantly engaging to drive, they also need striking, head-turning looks and a charismatic soundtrack to rise to the top.
Price range: £17,990-£23,590
The secret behind this car’s phenomenal sales success is its simplicity. While rivals have become over-complicated or expensive and faded out of the picture, the Mazda MX-5 is stronger than ever, and it’s no surprise to find the current model shares its main ingredients with the 1989 original. Over the years, Mazda has managed to hone its winning formula, with a small, naturally aspirated, high-revving petrol engine driving the rear wheels through a slick six-speed manual gearbox. Later versions introduced more complicated technology such as a neat folding hard-top and a PowerShift automatic transmission, but the MX-5 is still best enjoyed in its most basic form.
The MkIII is no poor relation, though – it’s the most comfortable, refined and reliable version yet, demanding few compromises from its owner. Timeless styling and temptingly low prices make it easy to see why this is the world’s best-selling roadster. The MX-5 isn’t a particularly quick car, even with the 2.0-litre engine, but this only proves that a brilliantly balanced chassis is all you need for driving enjoyment.
One short B-road blast is enough for the Mazda to work its magic: the superbly weighted controls and open roof put you at the heart of the action. Although it’s nearly six years old now, it easily secures the top spot.
Price range: £37,589-£45,384
For affordable thrills, there are no serious rivals to the record-breaking MX-5 – but if your budget can stretch a little further, then the Boxster is impossible to ignore. It takes a commendable second place on our podium thanks to its evocative flat-six engine, luxuriously trimmed cabin and enduring badge appeal. It’s also a genuine sprinter – the 310bhp S version covers 0-60mph in only 5.3 seconds and goes on to a top speed of 170mph.
The Boxster is the only mid-engined car on the podium, and despite its hefty power output, the handling remains nimble and progressive. Adaptive dampers, quick steering and a limited-slip differential at the back mean it’s at home on the track, too, as proven by the lightweight and uncompromising Spyder version released in 2011. The all-new Boxster should be more economical, but this model is still at the top of its game.
Price range: £25,320-£49,165
Another ageing competitor that’s still going strong, the TT is easily the most flexible drop-top in the class. There’s a huge range of petrol and diesel engines on offer: buyers can choose from models as varied as the efficient 2.0-litre TDI or blisteringly quick TT-RS. The optional quattro four-wheel-drive system means this is one car that could compete in winter events as well.
The crisp, modern styling has lost none of its appeal, but despite the neat profile, a 250-litre boot makes the TT a surprisingly practical alternative to folding hard-tops like the Z4. Sportier S line versions are firmly sprung, but the excellent driving position and direct controls mean the TT is a capable companion on demanding country roads.
Price range: £29,480-£45,330
It was nip-and-tuck for third place – but despite some fabulous engines and eye-catching looks, the Z4 falls just short of the medals. The latest model is better built and more comfortable than its predecessor – but the softer ride and added weight of the metal roof have blunted its dynamic prowess. The Z4 is still one of the best-looking cars in the roadster class, and the low-slung driving position and long bonnet push all the right sports car buttons, but it lacks the composure of the TT at speed. The pick of the range is the new turbocharged 242bhp sDrive28i version.It’s no slouch, but is still capable of over 40mpg.
Four times the price of the other contenders, the 458 Spider is too rarefied to finish higher in this group. However, that shouldn’t detract from its astonishing abilities. Taking the roof off our current Performance Car of the Year has made it more desirable than ever without hurting performance. There’s no better way to enjoy the addictive howl of the 562bhp V8 engine, and raising and lowering the roof is a fuss-free affair, too.
Price range: £12,995-£14,795
The ill-fated Renault Wind has only been on sale for 18 months, but it’s already on the chopping block. It will soon be dropped from Renault’s UK line-up due to poor sales performance. Despite a clever folding roof and quirky good looks, it’s let down by shoddy build quality, poor visibility, weak engines and slack controls.
In this review
- 1IntroductionWe name the best new cars of 2012, with 72 contenders for Gold, Silver and Bronze
- 2Best city carsThis is one of the most hotly contested classes out there, and the fierce competition has produced some extremely capable cars...
- 3Best superminisPracticality, affordability, efficiency, style and fun – these best-selling cars have to offer it all. So which ones do the best job?
- 4Best small family carsHard-fought class has a vast range of new hopefuls – but an all-time classic takes gold
- 5Best large family carsLots of space, low running costs and a dash of style are needed to win this category
- 6Best estate carsBig is beautiful for estate buyers – but big has to be clever, too, in a category where all-round practicality is essential
- 7Best executivesAll of our contenders gain points for style, but class is permanent – and BMW is the big winner with updates to its timeless 3 Series
- 8Best crossoversThey’re the gymnasts of the car market – flexible, muscular and versatile. That’s why this is one of the hardest gold medals to win
- 9Best compact SUVsGenuine mud-plugging ability meets comfort, refinement and efficiency in this fast-growing and increasingly competitive class
- 10Best large SUVsThese big cars make a big impression – but which off-road star is the class of our Championship field?
- 11Best roadsters - currently readingFeel the wind in your hair and wear a smile on your face with these great-handling, stylish and quick drop-top sports cars
- 12Best MPVsExcellent carrying ability alone isn’t enough for the latest people movers. The best buys do it in style
- 13Best hot hatchesOn your marks, get set, go... These small cars all have pace, but it will take something special to outsprint VW’s reigning champ