1. Dodge (SRT) Viper (1992-2014)
The Viper was born as a modern take on the classic Shelby Cobra of the 1960s—one of the rawest sports cars of all time. Since its launch as a 1992 model, the Viper has marched forward without much driver's aid technology. The V-10 engine has grown in size and horsepower over the years but it's always been mated to a six-speed manual transmission (no automatic or paddle-shift gearbox here).
The Viper is one of the most unsophisticated and unforgiving sports cars around. It requires that the driver commit to the experience by tolerating a warm cabin, loud (and hot) sidepipes, and heavy steering and shifting. And it would bite you if you weren't careful—the rear end could easily step out under power. Incredibly, it took Dodge until 2001 to make ABS standard. And only now, with the relaunch last year of the all-new SRT Viper, does the beast have a stability control system. The Viper has always been just a little too raw, and we like it that way.
2. Mazda Miata (1989-2014)
Few sports cars have enjoyed the longevity of the fun-loving Miata. The mini Mazda arrived in 1989 as a more modern and reliable revival of the classic 1960s British roadster, and at just over 2000 pounds, the Miata was a delicate, lightweight joy to drive. Forget about the electronic steering assist of today—those early Miatas came with a manual steering rack, meaning the driver felt practically every pebble the front tires rolled over. In fact, power steering didn't even become standard until 1999, ABS until 2006, and stability control until 2012. You could get a pure Miata, without any sort of electronic driver handling aids, just two years ago. Of course, that wonderful six-speed manual transmission is still available on today's car and has never given way to a complex paddle shift gearbox.
It's good to know that the Miata's rewarding drive hasn't been ruined with the addition of tech through the years. Today's car remains one of the purest, most organic sports cars—at any price.
3. Lotus Elise (2005-2011)
Few cars could touch the Lotus Elise in purity of purpose. Here was a feathery (under 2000 pounds) two-seat sports car built to push hard up a canyon road or around a racetrack. And all that Lotus brilliance came directly into the driver's hands, thanks to the manual steering rack. The Elise did wear ABS, but it was never offered with stability control, nor was there an automatic transmission of any sort.
The Elise was more of a toy than something you'd want drive on your daily commute. The ride was firm, the thin bodywork and floorboards were loud, and that cockpit was cramped. But lay into the throttle of an Elise (especially the 190-hp supercharged model) on a great road and the experience is stunning.
4. Porsche 911 RS America (1993-1994)
The Porsche 911 has been the iconic German sports car for 50 years, and there have been so many wonderfully analog models in that half-century. Take the 964-generation of Porsche 911 (1989-1994). Although it looked more modern than past 911s at the time, and featured some incredible optional tech like all-wheel drive and an electronically raised spoiler, at least one model kept its tires planted way in the past: the 1993 RS America. Porsche built this car to honor the 20th anniversary of the legendary 1973 Carerra RS, and as such, the RS America was a lightened track-ready version of the 964. It used fabric door pulls to save weight. The rear seat was optional, and so was air conditioning and even the radio. Its sport suspension was borrowed from the Turbo model, the wheels were up-sized to 17-inch. And Porsche installed a manual steering rack. Talk about a pure driving experience. Only around 700 cars were built and these remain some of the coolest 911s ever made.
5. Honda S2000 (2000-2004)
The Honda S2000 was one of the most rewarding sports cars to come from the early 2000s. And though that decade saw some serious technology creep into our cars (including the S2000), this agile little sports car delivered a visceral experience. Under the hood of the early cars was a high-tech 2.0-liter four-cylinder that made 240 hp all the way up at 8300 rpm. That engine speed was staggering 13 years ago and still is today.
The only way to control that power was though a six-speed manual, and this gearbox is easily one of the best. The S2000's transmission required only fingertip effort to move the shift stick through incredibly direct and precise gates. Yes, the S2000 had ABS, it had digital instruments in its dash, and it also borrowed electric power steering tech from the Acura NSX. But unlike many cars today, the S2000 never felt computer-controlled.
In 2005, Honda installed a larger 2.2-liter engine with a lowered redline. And a year later the car was updated with stability control and an electronic throttle, losing some of its analog cred. Still, one of the high points of S2000 production came toward the end of the car's lifetime with the 2008 Cub Racer (CR) model, which had quicker steering, stiffer suspension, and even shorter throws in that gearbox.
6. Ford Mustang Cobra R (2000)
The one-year-only 2000 Ford Mustang Cobra R was one of the most radical and raw ponies Ford ever built. Only 300 were made. At its heart, the Cobra R was a thinly disguised road racer for the street. The snarling 385-hp 5.4-liter V-8 was hooked to a six-speed manual and a tight limited slip differential in an independent rear suspension. That compact rear suspension replaced the Mustang's solid axle to make room for a 21-gallon fuel cell for racing. Forget air conditioning, traction control, or stability control—the beast had just ABS-enhanced Brembo brakes.
Many of today's sporty cars use the car's audio system to pipe in engine and exhaust soundtracks through speakers. Not here. The R was authentically loud and unapologetic, and a stout competitor to the Corvette Z06 and Dodge Viper around a track.
7. Toyota MR2 Spyder (2000-2005)
It's hard to imagine that staid and conservative Toyota had this bare-bones roadster in its lineup less than a decade ago. The MR2 Spyder was a midengined fun machine not unlike the T-Top MR2 that came before it, but engineered as a full convertible and stripped of any fat. The Spyder's reflexes were quick, and the soon the MR2 became not only the most engaging Toyota in the lineup but also the most engaging Toyota anyone had driven in years.
The first year of the Spyder was the purest. It came one way: packing a 138-hp four-cylinder, a five-speed manual, and ABS as the only driver's aid. Like the Honda S2000, the MR2 was a pioneer of electric-assist steering, but that didn't make the car any less enjoyable to drive hard. And by 2002, the company had developed an optional new sequential manual (SMT), but thankfully, the conventional manual was available and preferred throughout the car's run. Whether charging up a canyon road or clipping apexes at a track, the MR2 Spyder was a delicately balanced sports car that didn't need deep layers of technology to boost the experience.
8. Ferrari 550 Maranello (1997-2001)
Just about everything that prances out of the Ferrari factory these days is weapons-grade sports car chock-full of computerized transmissions and modern race technology. Ferrari is synonymous with incredible car tech and buyers expect breakthroughs with every new model. That's one reason you haven't been able to buy a Ferrari with a true manual transmission for years. That's too bad because the classic gated shifter and wonderfully weighted stick shift were trademarks of the brand.
The last Ferrari to be offered exclusively with a manual transmission throughout its entire production run was the 550 Maranello. The 550 was a bit of a retro car even at the time. As the successor to the midengined Testarossa and 512 TR, the 550 looked back to the Ferraris of the 1960s and early 1970s and brought back the front engine V-12. And what an engine. The big twelve packed 478 hp and 419 lb-ft of torque. Shift the six-speed like a pro and the 550 could hit 60 mph in just over 4 seconds and keep pulling to 199 mph.
The 550 might not have been quite as raw as the midengined V-8 cars that came after it, but if we could own any Ferrari, we'd want the one equipped with manual transmission. The 575M that replaced the 550 was the first V-12 Ferrari to be offered with an F1-style paddle shift transmission. It soon became the dominant way to change gears, and Ferrari, and the automotive world in general, hasn't looked back.
9. BMW M3 (1995-1999)
The E36 was the second and last generation of the M3 that wasn't overloaded with tech. Yes, there was only 240 hp under that hood, but 1996-1999 models came with BMWs wonderfully smooth and torque-rich 3.2-liter straight six hooked to an equally magnificent five-speed manual. You could get an automatic M3, and a four-door or convertible as well. But in our book there's only one M3 for backroad hustling—a manual coupe. The M3's direct and organic steering matched with the supple suspension to create a nuanced experience that automakers strive to emulate.
10. Chevy Corvette Z06 (2001-2004)
Engineers working on the C5 Corvette wanted to produce a car with a more track-focused mission than they'd ever made before. The Z06 arrived in 2001. It was based on the lightest Vette at the time, the hardtop, and between the fenders was a new higher-revving (6500 rpm) LS6 small-block V-8 that made 385 hp (later upped to 405 hp). It came bolted to a six-speed manual. Although the Z06 wore the Corvette's Active Handling stability control, the driver could disable that system.
Around a racetrack, the Z06 was much more engaging that the standard-issue Corvette. And quick? That Z06 was a legitimate low 12-second quarter-mile car.
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