2003 Ford Mustang Mach 1
If your mind is dancing with images of a classic 1969 fastback—stop. This is not that sports car. But this generation of pony did deliver brilliant acceleration back in the early 2000s (0 to 60 mph in a scant 5.3 seconds). It also offered good grip when cornering hard, but the ride and handling were anything but sophisticated. How does it compare with the GT, which you can get for a couple grand less? The Mach 1's V-8 produces about 40 more ponies, it's about a half-inch lower and is equipped with a sportier suspension; and don't forget that slick-looking shaker hood.
2000 Corvette Hardtop Coupe
Offering the speed and power of a much more expensive sports car has always been the Corvette's signature. The C5 (1997 to 2004) was no exception—so if you can't afford the sizzling new Corvette Stingray, look into one of these fixed-roof hardtops. Because it was only offered for two years (1999 and 2000), the nontarga Vette offers a small piece of exclusivity in a popular car model. While no match for the 385-hp Z06 (which became the only fixed-roof model in 2001), the regular Corvette's LS1 V-8 engine cranked out 345 hp and 350 lb-ft of torque. Besides being instantly responsive to the driver hitting the gas pedal, the engine was also capable of sprinting the car from 0 to 60 mph in under 5 seconds.
2000 BMW Z3, 2.8 Roadster
After a long hiatus, BMW got back into the roadster business when it introduced the Z3 in 1996. The affordably priced, four-cylinder roadster conjured up memories of well-heeled socialites zipping around in their early BMW 328 roadsters or 507s. A completely modern two-seater, the Z3 offered superb road manners, cast a sexy shadow, and came well-equipped from the factory. While its predecessor was a bit underpowered, the 2000 remodel was a peppier machine, thanks to a more powerful 2.8-liter engine. And though it still had an unfortunately long nose, its rump was hippier, giving the car a more aggressive, but balanced, look. Both changes were welcome, upping the car's fun factor and appeal considerably. A leather interior with power-adjustable seats was standard, as were antilock brakes, traction control, and an antiskid system.
2002 Chevy Z28 Camaro
We saw Chevy's newest attempt to revive the retro Z/28 label at the New York Auto Show as a weight-obsessed track monster. But a decade ago, when the Camaro last roamed our streets, there was no slash in the Z28. And while the old Z28 was merely the standard V-8 model, it still took its cues from when muscle cars were big, fast, gnarly looking beasts. With a Corvette-sourced 5.7-liter producing 310 hp and 340 lb-ft of torque, the Camaro offered the same brutish power with a broad, smooth power band that launched the Camaro effortlessly, whether from a standing start or for a fast highway pass. In previous-generation Camaros, cornering power came at the expense of riding comfort. Not here. It offers a more compliant ride while still offering very capable cornering. The 2002, the last model year of the fourth-generation car, represents the end of an era.
2001 Porsche Boxster
The Boxster is a purpose-built sports car, following in the footsteps of the race-bred 550 Spyder and its RS60 forefathers. Don't let its vestigial roots in the past fool you, though. This two-seater is modern in every way. The 2.7-liter flat-six boxer engine was enlarged from 2.5 liters in 2000 and produces 217 hp and 192 lb-ft, enough grunt for a 0 to 60 mph romp of less than 7 seconds and a top speed of 155 mph. The use of aluminum suspension components helps in the rigidity and unsprung weight departments, endowing the vehicle with ultra-quick reflexes that seem to only get better with speed. This is a vehicle designed to go fast and be a thrill ride for a skilled driver.
2000 Honda S2000
When tasked with building this car, Honda engineers were told to give it superior handling, crisp shifting, incredible braking ability, and killer looks. They nailed it. The key to the S2000 is its 2.0-liter four-cylinder that revved to an amazing 9000 rpm and pumped out 240 hp—a specific output that's still impressive today. Honda also mounted the engine behind the front axle, technically making the car a front-midengine and helping it turn on a dime. In the years since its introduction, Honda has yet to build a car as exciting.
2004 Mazda MazdaSpeed Miata MX-5
We can't say much about the Miata's place as a legendary driver's car that hasn't already been said. But this is the MazdaSpeed variant, so we'll give it a try. Unlike its tamer sibling, the MazdaSpeed's turbo blows 7-1/4 pounds of boost into combustion chambers with fractionally reduced compression ratios (9.5 versus 10.0:1), allowing it to develop 178 hp—36 more ponies than the stock MX-5. Based on the LS trim, the MazdaSpeed Miata is equipped with a six-speed transmission, beefier gearbox, and heavy-duty clutch. The suspension has been tweaked too; springs have been shortened and stiffened; there are bigger antiroll bars and Bilstein shocks. Other MazdaSpeed signatures include an exhaust tip, a unique front-air dam, and Racing Hart wheels. While this pint-size roadster is not screaming-fast, it'll power through the twists like a rocket. Compared with the stock Miata, it's a fire-breathing dragon.
2004 Acura RSX Type S
The Acura RSX had some big shoes to fill when it replaced the Integra back in 2001. It did so with aplomb. It was luxurious and sporty, yet affordable, and the import-tuner crowd loved it. For those who really like to push a car to its limits, this 200-hp two-door was loads of fun to toss around in traffic. There was also a particularly appealing A-Spec package that included stiffer shocks and springs that lower the car an inch and upgraded multispoke alloy wheels fitted with more aggressive rubber for better grip. The A-Spec definitely had a more stable and planted feel than the regular Type-S without sacrificing much in the way of ride quality.
2002 Subaru Impreza WRX sedan
The Subaru Impreza sedan originally rolled out in 1992 for the Asia–Pacific and European markets. The rest of the world got the WRX performance variant in 1994, the same year that the regular Impreza came out in the United States. After winning a host of international autocross and rally championships with the little pocket rocket, plus widespread fame through the Gran Turismo video game series, Subaru decided to bring the WRX model to the U.S. market in 2001. Right off the boat, it blew away the press and consumers with its impressive speed combined with a freakish ability to hold the road in the most punishing conditions.The 2002 is powered by a 227-hp 2.0-liter turbocharged flat-four, capable of accelerating the ho-hum looking vehicle to 60 mph in less than 6 seconds and on to a top speed of 145 mph. The all-wheel-drive system was forgiving, the steering sharp and precise.
1996 Nissan 300ZX Turbo
This is one of the finest sports cars to ever come out of Japan, and one of the greatest Z car ever made. It packed a 3.0-liter V-6 engine with a pair of blowers that pumped out 300 ponies and hit 60 mph in the mid-5-second range. And it handled like a dream, despite a relatively heavy weight, thanks to its innovative high-capacity active-suspension system. Like most Japanese sports cars of this era, it's hard to find one that's unmolested by aftermarket modifications. But if you can find a clean one it will offer the same virtues that made these cars popular back in the day: high performance with everyday reliability.