12 Cars That Raised the Bar for All Sports Cars

David S.
By David S. Wallens
Jun 28, 2018 | BMW, Chevrolet, Datsun, Dodge, Ford, Honda, Mazda, Mini, Scion, Subaru, Volkswagen | Posted in Features | Never miss an article

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Story by David S. Wallens • Photos Courtesy of their Respective Manufacturers

Sports cars are the backbone of our motorsports scene, but which ones propelled us from one automotive epoch to another? We have 12 game changers that helped revolutionize our world. Use whatever tired cliche you’d like: Each car on this list raised the bar, upped the ante, or simply blazed new trails.

1970: Datsun 240Z

As far as sports cars go, the 1970s were pretty much just a carryover from the previous generation. Don’t believe us? Exhibits A through G: MGB, Triumph TR6, Alfa Spider, Fiat 124, Porsche 911, Jaguar XKE and Chevy Corvette.

Datsun kicked off the decade with something new, though, giving us cutting-edge styling, a fully independent suspension, and that super-smooth inline-six. Oh, and it didn’t cost a mint.

Their 240Z was more than a flash in the pan, too, as it quickly raised the sports car bar. It dominated the day’s SCCA road races, and today it’s one of the few early Japanese cars to attract American collectors. It also caused everyone else to either learn to swim or leave the pool.

Parting thoughts: The 240Z ushered in the modern sports car era.

1983: Volkswagen Rabbit GTI

For years, stateside enthusiasts had heard the rumors of a factory-built, hotrod version of the VW Rabbit available overseas—remember, this was before the Internet, so news travelled a bit slower. Sure, Volkswagen had the Scirocco, but they still weren’t seen as the sportiest brand out there at the time.

How that changed. VW added the GTI to their 1983 lineup, giving American gearheads all the goodies: Recaro buckets, a front spoiler, tacked-on fender flares, a substantial steering wheel, a close-ratio gearbox and meaty—for the day—14x6-inch wheels. Where the Euro-spec cars made do with 1600cc of displacement, Americans got to enjoy a healthy 1800cc.

Those first cars gave Americans a taste of something that married sport with sophistication. The Golf replaced the Rabbit for 1986, although the GTI option package has remained more or less part of the formula ever since.

Parting thoughts: In 10 or 20 years, a fully restored Rabbit GTI will cross the block at a major auto auction.

1985: Dodge Omni GLH

Turbo cars aren’t that unusual today, but back in the Reagan years, not too many machines came from the factory sporting boost—especially inexpensive ones aimed at the masses. The Dodge Omni changed all that.

The Omni GLH actually debuted a year before it got a turbo, incorporating a stiffer suspension plus a few niceties into the garden-variety Omni. Credit Carroll Shelby with helping to whip up the formula.

Things got serious for 1985, however, when the turbocharger joined the GLH’s spec sheet. For its time, the GLH was stupid quick, posting 8.7-second zero-to-60 times. Not bad for a base price of around $7500, less than most family sedans of the day.

The GLH quickly became an autocross staple, yet production ended after the 1986 model year. Those last 500 cars came right from Carroll Shelby and featured even more goodies: a bigger turbo, a front-mount intercooler and real Koni dampers.

Parting thoughts: Despite their vintage, these cars are a Grainger valve away from running with today’s pack.

1985: Honda CRX SI

The big story of 1985 wasn’t the release of New Coke. Honda gave us the original CRX Si for that model year, not too long after teasing us with the plain-Jane version.

How potent was this pint-sized, two-seat prize fighter? The SCCA placed it in their A Stock autocross class, where it had to face off against the Porsche 911 and Lotus Elan. First year out, the CRX Si finished second at Nats. The CRX got flush headlights for 1986—as shown below—before the second-gen car appeared for 1988. This wasn’t Honda’s first sporty car, but it definitely was a taste of things to come, including later legends like the Civic Si, Integra Type R and NSX.

Parting thoughts: It’s small on the outside yet roomy and airy on the inside. Oh, and it’s quick and easy on gas, too.

1990: Mazda Miata

The traditional, open sports car was all but dead as the ’80s came to a close. Offerings from Europe’s MG, Triumph and Fiat had been gone for years. The Alfa Spider, another vintage design, was on its last legs. To be brutally honest, the day’s Corvette and Porsche 911 convertibles pretty much had zero motorsports potential.

Then the Miata came onto the scene sporting everything that enthusiasts craved: rear-wheel drive, twin-cam engine, five-speed transmission, balanced weight distribution and a double A-arm suspension at each corner. As a bonus, the top went down.

Suddenly, sports cars were hip. Sure, the Miata dominated autocross and road racing, but it also reignited interest in the segment. If there were no Miata, would we have had the BMW Z3, Porsche Boxster, Toyota MR2 Spyder and Honda S2000? Our Magic 8-Ball says No.

Parting thoughts: Just buy the nicest one within your budget and see what the fuss is all about.

1995: BMW M3

For the 1988 model year, BMW brought us the M3—box flares, big brakes, grippy buckets, giant wing and all. For most of us, it was the closest we got to seeing a real Group A race car.

Small issue, though: While a killer track car, that first M3 wasn’t exactly designed for daily use. The suspension was stiff, and that hyper-tuned, 2.3-liter four lacked torque.

BMW refined the M3 formula for their follow-up act, this one based on their E36-chassis 3 Series. Yes, the knobs were turned a bit down from 11—the car had subdued looks and relied on more parts bin sourcing—but that doesn’t mean this later M3 was a wimp. In fact, it excelled in just about every venue, from autocross to road racing. Oh, and it made a nearly perfect daily driver. Suddenly, our world had a car that did it all so well: The M3 could dominate any autocross, handle a track day, or comfortably cross the continent.

Parting thoughts: This one is the Swiss Army knife for enthusiasts.

1995: Dodge Neon ACR

Oh, to be an autocrosser or club racer back in 1995. The Chrysler Corporation,who had been a little quiet in the preceding years, dropped a humdinger at our feet: a competition-tuned version of their then-new compact.

No, it didn’t get a Hemi, but the ACR featured the upgrades needed for competition, including beefed-up front hubs, alloy wheels, four-wheel disc brakes, a revised ECU, a shorter (numerically higher) final drive and stiffer suspension.

A tape-and-stripe package this was not. In fact, the ACR didn’t receive any special badging. The main visual clue was the open, unfilled foglight holes in the front bumper.

Then there was the support program, which included technical help and contingency dollars. Those dollars, by the way, meant that campaigning an ACR could actually be a money-making proposition. The ACR, it turns out, dominated Solo and road racing through the second half of the decade. It also reminded the world—specifically those who produce automobiles—that motorsports and car sales go together quite nicely.

Parting thoughts: Will the ACR be our generation’s Hemi Dart? Who knows, but the thought patterns are similar.

1997: Chevy Corvette

During the ’60s, the Corvette was to be feared. Whatever the venue—from Bridgehampton to the local stoplight grand prix—the Vette called the shots.

Then something happened: It got older. And we don’t mean that in the graceful, George Clooney kind of way. As the ’70s rolled into the ’80s and ’90s, the Vette became more of a boulevarder than a thoroughbred. Sure, there were some standouts, but for the most part the Corvette had lost its track cred.

The fifth-generation Vette, released for the 1997 model year, fully restored that luster. This new car was fast, looked great and didn’t ask its occupants to make too many compromises. A rear-mounted transmission and hydroformed frame rails? Yep, they were part of the package, too.

Then GM got really serious, releasing the Z06 package for 2001. Its LS6 engine made 385 horsepower—later bumped to 405—while the brakes, suspension and pretty much everything else were upgraded to track-ready spec.

The C5 Corvette was replaced for the 2006 model year, and Chevy only continued to raise the bar: more power, more rubber and more brakes. While that C5 Corvette may seem tame considering the numbers of the just-announced C7 version, it put the Corvette back on the world stage while offering a track-ready supercar for the masses.

Parting thoughts: A decade and a half later, the C5 Vette still makes a great track car.

2002: Mini Cooper

Traditionally, small cars appealed to two set groups: cheapskates and the relatively few who realized that less mass generally equaled more speed. Notice that the well-heeled were not in that group. The new-for-the-millennium MINI changed all that. Here was the first modern, small car that wasn’t sold strictly on price.

Now part of the BMW family, the MINI packed gobs of luxury features into a small footprint. Xenon headlights, panoramic sunroofs and funky leather interiors were just a few of the available options.

The MINI wasn’t all show and comfort, though. It was quick, too, and could tackle a slalom. The “standard” Cooper quickly became the must-have car for SCCA’s H Stock autocross class, while the supercharged Cooper S was no slouch either.

Despite sailing into uncharted waters, the MINI was a hit. People gladly waited for their cars, while used examples depreciated rather slowly—a total rarity for this segment. BMW introduced an updated MINI for the 2007 model year, and the brand has expanded to include roadsters, wagons, cute-utes, two-seaters and more.

Parting thoughts: If there were no MINI, would we have received the Fiat 500? Probably not.

2002: Subaru Impreza WRX

Like the original Volkswagen GTI nearly two decades earlier, the Subaru Impreza WRX was one of those cool cars that wasn’t available here. It had the full monte: all-wheel drive, a turbo engine and a bona fide rally heritage. It could even be ordered as a wagon, and as we all know, wagons are cool.

The WRX finally arrived here for the 2002 model year. It wasn’t one of the race-tuned Type R models or even an STi, but that first WRX blazed a trail. Hotter variants would follow, and Mitsubishi soon joined the fray with their Evo models. Remember when a Supra Turbo dazzled us with 300 horsepower from 3.0 liters? The WRX STi did that with only 2.0.

Parting thoughts: Sure, later WRXs are faster, but that classic bug-eyed face only gets better with age.

2005: Ford Mustang

Few would accuse the Ford Mustang of being overly complex, but that didn’t make it any less lethal. By the mid-2000s, however, despite some sheet metal redos, the Mustang’s foundation was a bit dated. We’re not knocking the stick axle, but the 2004 Mustang shared some serious DNA with the 1979 version. It was time for a makeover.

Ford’s 2005 Mustang may have sported some retro lines, but it upped the ante—solid performance, good ergonomics and that healthy V8. At the time, the 4.6-liter V8 found inside the Mustang GT produced a solid 240 horsepower. The car immediately became a success both on the showroom floor and on track.

My, how times have evolved. Chevy and Chrysler have since entered the pony-car wars, and have you checked Mustang specs lately? The V6-powered base car makes 305 horsepower. Care to go nuts? More than double that figure is available with the optional supercharged V8.

Parting thoughts: Today’s pony-car scene didn’t start in 1965; it truly began 40 years later.

2013: Subaru BRZ/Scion FR-S

Around 15 years ago, the reasonably priced sport coupe was a big deal. Toyota sold a ton of Celicas, the Honda Prelude was a major player, and Nissan’s 240SX added some much-needed rear-drive fun to the mix.

And then, poof!—the genre pretty much disappeared. The masses traded some sport for jacked-up SUVs.

The Hyundai Genesis Coupe may have been the first spark, but it looks like Scion and Subaru have brought the sport coupe back from the brink with their FR-S and BRZ twins. Yes, it’s an unexpected marriage, but in reality the finished product works nicely—good torque and a well-balanced, rear-drive chassis. It looks good, too.

Parting thoughts: Is this the start of something new? We can only hope.

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Wizard_Of_Maz New Reader
6/27/18 3:50 p.m.

Glad to see the E36 M3 here. Though the internet hivemind (not this forum, but those less in the know) deems it the least M of all M3s, I'd argue that in some ways, it is the most M. The hoards of them you see at the track resonates more with the spirit of motorsport that the M brand originally aimed to capture. It is truly an enthusiast's car. 

Appleseed MegaDork
6/27/18 4:51 p.m.

As the owner of an FR-S,  is it wrong that I almost want a GLHS more? 

Kreb GRM+ Memberand UberDork
6/27/18 6:27 p.m.

In reply to Appleseed :

I saw a roached out GLHS the other day. It was really terrible, which is a good thing, because I was able to restrain myself from buying it!


Vigo UltimaDork
6/27/18 9:30 p.m.

I've only owned 4 of these,  but i've driven 9 so that's good!  

That 8.7s 0-60 on the GLH would have been for a carbureted model. GLH could be had either carb or turbo.  If you find whatever the 0-60 is for a turbo GLH, go ahead and knock a few tenths off for modern tires. I would guess around 6.9-7.2 for stock turbo GLH in good running condition on modern 205/50/15s (factory size iirc). Then comes the $15 boost controller..

irish44j UltimaDork
6/27/18 9:33 p.m.

I looooove old Z cars, but I'd have to argue the "cutting edge style" of the 240Z. It is a beautiful car, but most of the style features were essentially derivative of the (greatly inferior overall) Triumph GT6, which had existed for several years already....raised fenders and inset headlights, hood bulge, hump over the rear fender, and the general proportions. Granted the Z substantially modernized the overall look, but the design was more evolutionary than cutting edge, I'd say. YMMV.

Sadly, the GT6 was such a mediocre car in every category other than looks, most people pretty much just forgot about it lol...

Image result for 1970 triumph gt6

irish44j UltimaDork
6/27/18 9:42 p.m.

And though I agree with the entire list pretty much as-is, I'm a bit surprised the Porsche 944 (or its various derivatives) aren't in there, as one of the first modern "mainstream" sportscars from a high-end marque that a middle-class person could afford and daily drive. 

And though I don't love them personally, the absence of the RX-7 is notable if only for it being the car that made rotary engines mainstream to some degree. 

I would argue that one of those two should probably replace the (admittedly cool) Omni GLH since the Rabbit GTI is already on the list and pretty much created that niche (and sold a lot more) .


irish44j UltimaDork
6/27/18 9:56 p.m.

One other thing - I love this kind of clickbait "top 10" list kind of article, but this whole article (aside from the BR-Z) is giving me major deja vu. I feel like 7 or 8 years ago GRM basically published the exact same article with the exact same cars and even pretty much the same pictures. Or am I just morphing together other articles I've read in GRM?

Kreb GRM+ Memberand UberDork
6/27/18 10:04 p.m.

In reply to irish44j :

Agreed abut the RX-7. The car scene was a wasteland in 1978. The RX-7 and the 5.0 Fox body Mustangs were promises that there might be decent times ahead in the post-smog world. The 924 was cool too, but the engine was uninspiring. 

pinchvalve GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
6/28/18 8:38 a.m.

Close, but you forgot one of the most significant sports cars of the last 25 years: 


Joe Gearin
Joe Gearin Associate Publisher
6/28/18 9:20 a.m.

In reply to irish44j :

This was an older article.   We've been posting past editorial up on the website.  We have over 30 years of material to choose from, so you'll be getting deja-vu occasionally.  

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