Different in character, design and segment, the best compact and sporty convertible cars to be had include the sexy Alfa Romeo 4C Spider and the Lotus Elise S that it must try to beat. With sports cars being the main focus, no list is complete without the feel-good Mazda MX-5, and a Caterham Seven, in this case the minimalist 160.. Also on the list are the brutally powerful Mercedes-Benz AMG SLK55, the stylish Fiat 500C Abarth hot hatch and the Jeep Wrangler, which with compact size, open cabin and unassailable off-road ability, is an ideal companion for those looking for thrills off the beaten path.
1. Road racer: Lotus Elise S
Its closest competitor and a master class lesson in how lightweight sports cars should be, the Lotus Elise S is the car that the Alfa 4C Spider should be hoping to beat. Similar in size, performance and on paper, the Elise S however does things differently, with lightweight aluminium construction, a crisp 6-speed manual gearbox for more driver involvement and a supercharger to provide its 1.8-liter mid-mounted engine with forced induction grunt.
With its supercharged engine the Elise S may produce less mid-range torque, but suffers no turbo lag, and instead provides instant response, seamlessly consistent delivery, precise throttle control and surging high revs. Agility, responsiveness and speed through lightweight construction is a Lotus trademark, and the Elise will be a hard car to best, with 220HP and 184lb/ft allowing for 4.6-second 0-100km acceleration and a 234km/h top speed.
Engine: 1.8-liter, supercharged. mid-mounted, 4-cylinders; Gearbox: 6-speed manual, RWD; Power: 220HP@6800rpm; Torque: 184lb/ft@4600rpm; 0-100km/h: 4.6-seconds; Top speed: 234km/h; Length: 3824mm; Width: 1719mm; Height: 1117mm; Wheelbase: 2300mm; Weight: 924kg
2. Compact exotic: Alfa Romeo 4C Spider
The bad news is that the long-awaited front-engine rear-drive Alfa Spider will unlikely be produced, but the good news is that the mid-engine rear-drive 4C Spider will be making it to showrooms. Unveiled at this year’s Geneva Motorshow, the 4C Spider is in essence a junior supercar with mid-engine, exotic lightweight carbon-fiber construction, finger-snap quick double clutch gearbox and sexy Italian looks, from its ‘shield’ like grille to its round rear lights and pert rear deck.
As its tense athletic lines and compact size, wheels pushed far apart, and mid-engine balance would suggest, the lightweight 955kg 4C Spider is expected to handle with sharp precision and nippy agility. Gaining little weight over its coupe sister, the 4C Spider’ 1.75-liter 240HP and 258lb/ft turbocharged engine will power it to 100km/h in 4.5-seconds and onto 255km/h.
Engine: 1.75-liter, turbocharged, mid-mounted, 4-cylinders; Gearbox: 6-speed dual-clutch automated, RWD; Power: 240HP@6000rpm; Torque: 258lb/ft@2100-4000rpm; 0-100km/h: 4.5-seconds; Top speed: 255km/h; Length: 3990mm; Width: 2000mm; Wheelbase: 2380mm; Weight: 955kg
3. Back to basics: Mazda MX-5 Roadster
The car that virtually single-handedly revived the lightweight compact roadster niche back in 1989 in a post-hot hatch world, the Mazda MX-5 – or Miata, as it is known stateside – is a classic British-style sports car but with Japanese reliability and affordability. A back-to-basics front-engine, rear-drive convertible, the MX-5 has remained meticulously light and fun through three generations, with the current long-standing iteration set to be soon replaced.
Celebrating its 25th anniversary recently, the MX-5’s balanced, agile and responsive chassis offers affordable thrills and sporty handling, while a high-revving 160HP, 134lb/ft 2-liter engine is mated to a 6-speed manual gearbox and provides brisk 7.6-second 0-100km/h acceleration and a 210km/h top speed.
Engine: 2-liter, in-line, 4-cylinders; Gearbox: 6-speed manual, RWD; Power: 160HP@7000rpm; Torque: 138lb/ft@5000rpm; 0-100km/h: 7.6-seconds; Top speed: 213km/h; Length: 4020mm; Width: 1720mm; Height: 1245mm; Wheelbase: 2330mm; Weight: 1165kg
4. The minimalist: Caterham Seven 160
Launched in conjunction with caterham’s most powerful ever 310HP Seven 620, the Seven 160 is the most pared down car among Caterham’s already lightweight and minimalist range. A car that perfectly demonstrates that a fast and fun sports car needn’t be overwrought and over complicated, the Seven 160 doesn’t have or need power-steering or power-brakes and uses slim steel wheels rather than alloys.
Nonetheless, it delivers superb handling and balance and is powered by a tiny Suzuki-sourced turbocharged 0.7-liter 3-cylinder engine. Developing 80HP and 79lb/ft, the ultra-light 490kg Seven 160 can still deliver brisk 6.9-second 0-100km/h acceleration, while its 161km/h top speed is still well above legal limits.
Engine: 0.7-liter, turbocharged, in-line 3-cylinders; Gearbox: 5-speed manual, RWD; Power: 80HP@7000rpm; Torque: 79lb/ft@3400rpm; 0-100km/h: 6.9 -seconds; Top speed: 161km/h; Length: 3100mm; Width: 1575mm; Wheelbase: 2225mm; Weight: 490kg
5. Brutal baby Benz: Mercedes-Benz AMG SLK55
Whereas an SLK200 offers reasonably good performance, economy and fun, the AMG version of Merc’s baby roadster crams a massive naturally-aspirated version of Mercedes’ usually twin-turbo 5.5-liter V8 engine under its hood to deliver blistering performance.
Set to be one of the last naturally-aspirated AMGs, the SLK55’s engine is more progressive and higher revving but is true to AMG’s love for excess, with 421HP and 398lb/ft propelling its relatively heavy 1610kg mass to 100km/h in 4.5-seconds and onto 250km/h. With folding metal roof for coupe refinement and drop top fun as required, the SLK55 also features terrific interior ergonomics, space and kit.
Engine: 5.5-liter, in-line V8-cylinders; Gearbox: 7-speed automatic, RWD; Power: 421HP@6800rpm; Torque: 398lb/ft@4500rpm; 0-100km/h: 4.5-seconds; Top speed: 250km/h (electronically governed); Length: 4146mm; Width: 1817mm; Height: 1300mm; Wheelbase: 2430mm; Weight: 1610kg
6. Urban racer: Fiat 500C Abarth
With retractable ragtop roof, compact dimensions and in Abarth performace guise, Fiat’s ultra-fashionable and retro-inspired 500 has something for everybody. The ‘it’ crowd will gravitate to its chic design, sun worshippers will love the roll-back roof and commuters would appreciate its fuel efficiency and compact size for urban conditions.
For hardcore drivers the 500C Abarth however delivers eager, agile and responsive hot hatch handling, while a punchy and prodigious 162HP and 170lb/ft turbocharged 1.4-liter engine mated to a 5-speed self shifter will ensure sprightly 7.4-second 0-100km/h acceleration, 210km/h top speed and gutsy mid-range flexibility.
Engine: 1.4-liter, turbocharged, transverse 4-cylinders; Gearbox: 5-speed manual, FWD; Power: 162HP@5500rpm; Torque: 170lb/ft@2500-4000rpm; 0-100km/h: 7.4-seconds; Top speed: 210km/h; Length: 3667mm; Width: 1627mm; Height: 1504mm; Wheelbase: 2300mm; Weight: 1154kg
7. Mountain goat: Jeep Wrangler Rubicon
It may not be a sports car, but the compact Jeep Wrangler is still offered with detachable doors and ragtop roof, and is about as much fun as one can have off-road. A direct descendent of the legendary WW2 Willys, the Wrangler is a hardcore off-roader with superb ground clearance and compact size providing excellent approach, break-over and departure angles.
One of very few vehicles still using rugged live front and rear axles for off-road ability, the Wrangler’s off-road hardware includes standard low ratio gears and optional front and rear differential locks. Power is provided by Jeep’s efficient and modern 285HP and 260lb/ft 3.6-liter Pentastar engine.
Engine: 3.6-liter, in-line V6-cylinders; Gearbox: 6-speed manual, 4WD; Power: 285HP@6400rpm; Torque: 260lb/ft@4800rpm; 0-100km/h: 8-seconds (est.); Top speed: 185km/h (est.); Length: 3881mm; Width: 1872mm; Height: 1800mm; Wheelbase: 2424mm; Weight: 1403-1532kg