All-American Sports Cars
By THOMAS BEY
The old tagline, "Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet," could easily include Ford, Dodge, Pontiac or virtually any domestic auto maker. Cars are an integral part of American culture, and domestic sports cars are even closer to our hearts.
Compiling a list of favorite sports cars was no easy task, so some ground rules had to be set. To make the list, a sports car must have had final assembly in North America, could not be single model-year special editions, must have a street-legal version (whether or not a racing version was made), and, of course, had to be a hit with critics and enthusiasts.
1 - Chevrolet Corvette
Top model years: 1955-1975, 1997-present
It isn't by accident that the Corvette is known as "America's Sports Car." What began as an underpowered underdog over 50 years ago soon gained power, sales and iconic status. Through six generations, the Corvette has evolved with the times. I've driven today's car, also known as the C6, and can confirm that it's the best 'Vette yet. Few sports cars from any country offer this degree of thrust (400 horsepower), handling and, at last, build quality for the price.
What's more: For those with a little more pocket change and a greater need for power, the even hotter Z06 offers 505 horses to further risk loss of driving privileges.
2 - Chevrolet Camaro/Pontiac Firebird
Top model years: 1967-2002
To divert would-be Mustang buyers in the late '60s, GM gave birth to a pair of twins christened the Camaro and Firebird -- and who doesn't dig twins? That fueled a tire-smoking rivalry with Ford that would continue for more than three decades. Throughout their lifespan, the Camaro and Firebird stood for sports-car performance on a budget. This probably contributed to their reputation as the preferred ride for men with mullets, though it's not completely fair. Slow sales led to their mercy killing in 2002, but not before they had left their marks -- in sports-car history and on pavement.
What's more: Given Ford's neo-retro Mustang success, rumbles hint at a Camaro revival in the coming years. We think it would look great on the Pontiac GTO platform.
3 - Ford Mustang
Top model years: 1964-1973, 1997-present
The inclusion of Ford's Mustang among heralded sports cars is as obligatory as the inclusion of Bruce Willis among action-flick heroes. Like Bruno, the Mustang has made a few miscues in its career (namely, the Mustang II of the '70s). But that's done little to tarnish a legacy that's mostly positive with such a wide audience. Competitors have come and gone, yet the original pony sports car is stronger than ever -- especially with the 2007 Shelby GT500.
What's more: The Shelby GT500 kicks out 500 horsepower, hits 60 mph in 4.6 seconds, and does a quarter mile in 12.8 seconds at 112.6 mph.
4 - Ford Thunderbird
Top model years: 1955-1957, 1983-1995 SC model, 2002-2005
To qualify for our list, we had to exclude a lot of Thunderbird model years -- in fact, most model years. But the T-Birds remaining are what we consider to be gentleman's sports cars. It was an instant hit when it hit the streets in 1955, and for its first three years it was one of the hottest domestic sports cars you could buy. Years of frumpy cars later, the Super Coupe variant of the 1983 redesign made a strong statement. Then, after a few years off, the Thunderbird returned in neo-retro form in 2002. For its targeted demographic, it remains an American icon.
What's more: The newest Thunderbird had a cameo in 2002's Die Another Day, driven by Halle Berry -- although I completely understand if your eyes were on her more than the sports car.
5 - Pontiac GTO
Top model years: 1964-1974, 2004-2006
Many consider the "Goat" to be the first real muscle car, even if the name was borrowed from Ferrari. When Pontiac dropped a potent V8 into a mild-mannered coupe, the American GTO became as notorious as its Italian namesake. Pontiac wisely discontinued labeling their cars as such when horsepower nosedived in the '70s, and just as wisely revived the legend in 2004. Some criticize the new car's understated design, but we think it's a far cry better than Batmobile-esque Pontiacs of just a few years ago. And remember, the original GTO entered life with plain-Jane looks, too.
What's more: Unfortunately, production officially ended in 2006, but a new GTO is expected in 2009. I'm hoping it will bring the return of The Judge edition.
6 - Shelby Cobra
Top model years: 1965-1969, 1989-present
Carroll Shelby is a man who hates to stand still. He feels the same way about cars. Take, for example, his matching of Ford V8 power with a British AC roadster. The name Cobra came to Shelby in a dream, which is appropriate -- his car has been the dream of enthusiasts for more than four decades. It has dominated the track and street in just about every aspect, except maybe for quietness and comfort. But that's not the point. Whether endowed with the 289 cubic-inch engine or the ground-pounding 427, the Shelby Cobra has a Pavlovian effect on us.
What's more: Yes, the Cobra is the car that launched a thousand kits. But to counteract dilution of the legend, you can buy the real deal from Shelby Automobiles, Incorporated.
7 - Oldsmobile Cutlass 442
Top model years: 1965-1971
With the Olds 4-4-2, you didn't have to sacrifice comfort just because you wanted a snarling V8 under the hood. From the 1964 introduction of the 4-4-2 as an option package on the F-85, it didn't take long for those three numbers to take on a life of their own. And for a handful of years in the '60s and early '70s, the 4-4-2 was one of the ultimate sleeper cars. You could serenely cruise around in style or terrorize most anything at a stoplight; it was your choice. This decent balance of luxury and performance make it an American sports car we're comfortable to call one of the best.
What's more: The official definition of 4-4-2? Depends. It's changed several times over the years from 4-barrel carb, 4-speed with dual (2) exhaust, to 4 cylinders with 4 valves per cylinder and 2 camshafts.
Top model years: 2004-present
We can't let this one go without at least an honorable mention. It's hard to believe Cadillac was a punch line not so many years ago. The division has since done a 180-degree turnaround to reclaim past glory -- and attract younger buyers. The XLR is more than enough to make up for the failed Allante of years past. This time, the two-seat convertible interpretation benefits from the refined Northstar V8 on the Chevy Corvette's platform. Its taut lines announce a car that's just as comfortable in its element at the country club as on a twisting two-lane. The same can't be said of the XLR's rivals from Jaguar, Lexus or Mercedes-Benz.
What's more: You can up the ante with the XLR-V, costing just shy of six figures and packing nearly 443 toupee-peeling horsepower.
Ain't that America
American car culture is led by its homegrown sports cars. There have been dozens of iconic models to burn rubber with over the last several decades. And new rides like the Pontiac Solstice and Ford GT could easily join these ranks if they live up to their potential. Either way, the future looks bright for the great domestic sports car to continue fueling our enthusiasm.