What Makes a Car a Sports Car?

Dustin Hawley | Feb 15, 2021

Based on modern car design philosophies and design imperatives, answering this question is somewhat akin to asking if red paint is better than blue or green paint. Paint colors aside, though; modern consumer preferences, legally mandated safety features, clever marketing strategies, and sometimes-biased interpretations by some motoring journalists have blurred the lines between many daily drivers and vehicles that could be described as sports cars.

what makes a car a sports car

 At the risk of clouding the already muddy distinctions between sports cars and other high-performance cars, it must be stated that while supercars and hypercars are typically easy to define and characterize, the differences between modern sports cars and most daily drivers are not always that easy to define. This is difficult because many, if not most, sports cars can be (and often are) used as daily drivers.

Therefore, if we want to answer the question “what makes a car a sports car?” with any degree of objectivity, we need to remove modern considerations from the question and take a short detour to a time when there was no doubt about what made sports cars different from ordinary cars.

The British Experience

The British can perhaps be credited as the originators of the idea that with some design tweaks, cars can be made more fun to drive than the average offerings of the day. Thus, starting in the 1920s, several manufacturers such as Austin, Morris, Alvis, MG, and others, such as the Triumph Motor Company, began producing cars that seated two people as a specific design imperative. As a general pattern, these cars also had soft or convertible tops and boasted improved handling and performance characteristics compared to more mundane offerings produced by the same manufacturers. 

The list of technical innovations and improvements that went into increasing performance and improving the handling of sports cars produced during the 1920s is far too long to reproduce in this article. However, some items deserve special mentions because modern interpretations of these ideas still form much of the basis of contemporary car design philosophies. Here is what manufacturers of the time changed, developed, or tweaked:

  • They lowered the center of gravity of their products to increase stability during cornering.
  • They started experimenting with application-specific shock absorber designs and settings when hydraulic shock absorbers came into wide-spread use after 1927.
  • They revisited the relationship between track width and the distance between the front and rear axles to improve straight-line stability at high speeds.
  • They improved weight distribution by moving engines and transmissions closer to the vehicles’ mid-point
  • They increased the rigidity of the step-ladder chassis designs that were common at the time.
  • They increased brake-drum diameters to improve braking performance.
  • They reduced their overall weight by replacing steel body panels with (often, hand-made) aluminum panels.
  • They improved stock engines’ performance by adding carburetors to the usual one carburetor on stock engines, redesigning intake manifolds to improve airflow, increasing engine valve diameters, or decreasing crankshaft strokes to raise engine speeds. Other innovations included reducing the weight of flywheels, and increasing cylinder bore diameters to compensate for reduced crankshaft strokes.

Although collectively, these and other innovations/design tweaks produced cars that exhibited measurable performance improvements, even the best sports cars of the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, and into the 1950s and 1960s were still exceedingly primitive by today's standards. Nonetheless, for all their faults, British sports cars excelled at and generally out-performed their European-made rivals in almost all of the motorsport disciplines practiced at the time. 

Most notable of these were hill-climb events in which competitors raced up unpaved hills, the object of the competition being to see who could complete the off-road route in the shortest time. The Triumph Motor Company’s various models were incredibly successful hill-climbers, as were a few MG models. However, the Triumph Motor Company's success at building race-winning sports cars ended abruptly in the 1960s when British Leyland acquired the company.

Does any of the above answer the question of what makes a car a sports car today? Perhaps it does, but then again, perhaps, it does not, depending on where one draws a line between sports cars, supercars, and hypercars, given that the boundaries between these classes of vehicles are often blurred to the point of invisibility. Nonetheless, supercars and hypercars are excluded from this question, so let's see how we can apply the technology of primitive sports cars to answer what constitutes a sports car today.

Enhanced Performance

Performance in terms of power output and ability to accelerate to illegal speeds in three to four seconds is no longer a valid differentiator. For example, if one compares something like a Mercedes 450 AMG or BMW M5 with, say, a 2-seater Porsche 911 GT3 SRS, the results become almost moot. 

All three of these cars can reach illegal speeds in about the same amount of time, but of the three, only the Porsche satisfies the time-honored 2-seat requirement, so in that respect, only the Porsche can be classified as a sports car. If, however, one adds something like a Toyota Camry or similar vehicle to the mix, then all three example cars are sports cars because all three can out-accelerate, out-brake, out-handle, and out-steer the Camry by huge margins. 

Enhanced Handling At Speed

If we place the same example cars on the same racetrack in "stock" trim, and assume that their drivers are equally skilled at driving high-performance vehicles, how well each vehicle performs in terms of cornering ability will depend as much on the nature and design of the track as it will on the inherent handling characteristics of each vehicle.

For safety and legal reasons, comparisons like this cannot be made on public roads, but apart from that, there will likely be no difference in how well each car goes around corners at street-legal speeds. To compare, each vehicle would have to be operated at the absolute limits of adhesion and at redline engine speeds to arrive at valid conclusions.

To do so, the three example cars would again have to be compared with a family sedan or daily driver, but at the maximum speed the family sedan can muster on the same track to keep things fair and objective. However, by this measure, all of the example cars will again be sports cars since the inherent handling characteristics of the example cars are far superior to those of the daily driver, making the results moot once again. 

We can list many other possible tests and/or comparisons between any number of high-performance cars and a similar number of sedate family sedans, SUVs, trucks, minivans, and other vehicle categories here, but doing so would be pointless, even though some of these vehicles in other categories may be highly modified to improve their handling and/or performance characteristics. This raises the question, "do real sports cars still exist?"

Do Real Sports Cars Still Exist? 

Harking back to the British experience, a modern sports car would be purposely designed and constructed to out-steer, out-brake, out-accelerate, out-handle, and generally out-perform "normal" cars in the same or comparable weight classes.

However, in the real world, the competition between car manufacturers to produce and market even entry-level models that generally outperform their competitors’ products in the same or comparable weight classes has dramatically reduced the number of defining characteristics of sports cars. 

Some possible candidates remain, though. For instance, several iterations of Ford Mustangs, Dodge Chargers, Challengers, and Vipers, Chevy Camaros and Corvettes; Nissan models that include 240Z and 370Z variants, some Toyota Supra and Celica models, and even some Mazda models such as the RX8, MX-5, and others such as BMW Z-series come to mind. 

Going by the British experience standards, the above examples are all purposely designed to out-steer, out-brake, out-accelerate, out-handle, and generally out-perform their direct competitors.

Summary

As a vehicle class, the few examples listed above may or may not always satisfy all the criteria of a classic, circa 1930s British sports car. Still, the fact remains that driving any of the vehicles listed above is a whole lot more fun to drive than most daily drivers.

If we were obliged to choose two workable, if not defining, characteristics of modern sports cars, it would be the fact that the vehicle must be more exhilarating to drive than an "ordinary" vehicle and must be purposely designed to be exciting to drive. How much more “exhilarating” is a purely subjective matter and one that is best settled by personal preferences, rather than by one or more technical details that may or may not define what constitutes a modern sports car. 

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