Get your motor running and head out on the highway thanks to the return of one of the auto industry’s sexiest products: the roadster.
Close your eyes and imagine this: It’s the weekend. You’ve got no particular place to go. Yet you find yourself racing down empty two-lane country blacktop. Behind the wheel of your nimble new roadster, you downshift for an oncoming mountain curve, goosing the engine into howling, heartbeat-skipping revolutions. With its hair-trigger handling, the car flawlessly delivers you safely, but somewhat shaken, to the other side of the turn. The top is down, the sun beats down, the wind blows through your hair, and there are more tree-lined curves and straight-aways ahead. And you? Well, just you try wiping that silly grin off your face.
Of course, this being Honolulu and all, what you may actually open your eyes to are four lanes of H-1 gridlock, or a packed Costco parking lot and a long list of groceries certain to burst your sports utility vehicle. But at least the roadster is available. And with a number of manufacturers tossing their key rings into this newly hot, though admittedly niche, class of vehicles, a dealer may just be waiting to accommodate you on the other side of the…um, gridlock.
Yes, the roadster is back. A longtime favorite of driving enthusiasts for whom a Point A to Point B trip is as unthinkable as work without pay, the two-seat mini convertible has long embodied the freedom of open-air motoring. The past few years have seen a renewed interest in roadsters. High-end manufacturers such as Porsche and BMW took to the market first a little less than a half-decade ago with brand new designs and models aimed at Baby Boomers and empty-nesters with an SUV already in the garage and upward of $40,000 in savings to burn. Those models were followed recently by offerings from more mainstream auto makers such as Toyota and Honda seeking to lure the nation’s growing under-30 population into showrooms with sticker prices starting at $23,000.
“It’s not that the segment for this type of car is really growing, and manufacturers have suddenly decided that people really want this car,” says Wes Kimura, vice president and local senior division manager of strategic planning for Toyota, which recently relaunched its MR2 sportscar line with an inexpensive roadster aimed squarely at Generation X and Y buyers. “A lot of this is an image thing for what is going to continue to be a very small niche market. We don’t expect to sell a lot of them. This is purely for the driving enthusiast.” Indeed, Toyota’s 2000 MR2 Spyder, part of a recently launched trifecta of models aimed at the youth market, which included a redesigned Celica and the economical ECHO, is being marketed with an built-in exclusivity factor designed to make it a must have for both the kegger and cotillion crowd. Launched in April, the MR2 Spyder retails for $23,098. The vehicle will have a limited production of just 5,000 units annually, spread out among a mere 1,600 Toyota dealers nationwide. ”We’re expecting one MR2 per dealership every two months,” says Kimura of Servco’s allocation for the year. “We’re not going to have any in stock, and everything we get in is probably going to be pre-sale. It’s going to be pretty rare to get one.” And regardless of price or market niche, the new class of roadster has thrived on that enviable ability to continually turn drivers’ heads through sheer rarity on the open road. This, in a way that ubiquitous sports utilities—no matter how sweetly designed—can no longer hope to. Two words apply here: auto envy. Just ask your father or grandfather about boyhood days spent lusting after cherry red British-made Triumphs and MGs, or creamy white Italian Alfa roadsters, almost as much as they did girls in saddle shoes or angora sweaters. That kind of appeal was enough to satisfy the niche market for new roadsters—one traditionally dominated by European manufacturers, though sprinkled with a few domestic models—until a sour national economy and slumping domestic auto maker profits steered consumers to minivans and subcompacts in the late 1980s. Now with auto sales back in the fast lane and a freewheeling U.S. economic picture, a record number of manufacturers are once again looking at low volume models like the humble roadster to add some color to their product lines. Still, while the endless curves and classic retro designs of the new crop of roadsters may be enough to give old school purists something akin to a bout of melancholy, these are clearly not your father’s roadsters. Mazda provided the blueprint for the roadster of today when it launched the two-seat Miata in 1989. Tossed into one of the auto industry’s most woeful eras, the Miata with its no-nonsense lines, classic styling reminiscent of 1960s British convertibles and the reliability of modern Japanese cars was an instant success. And not just with the twentysomethings that Mazda’s marketing mavens were angling for, but 45-year-olds replete with mid-life neuroses and discretionary wallets. While Miata sales remained strong for much of the 1990s, critics questioned whether mid-decade entries like the Mercedes-Benz SLK, Porsche Boxster and BMW Z3 were just a bit too optimistic for what was believed to be an again waning market. Instead, sales of the topless two-seaters both exceeded manufacturer expectations and increased traffic in their showrooms up to 25 percent on average. Armed with distinct personalities unique to each manufacturer, new entries have created a larger overall market for the vehicles rather than a smaller pool of customers to squabble over. Though the new crop of roadsters are being designed with an instantly recognizable nod to the days of “real” walnut paneling and clever, yet elegantly, fitted analog gages and knobs, manufacturers knew modern driving enthusiasts had somewhat evolved to require a bit more, shall we say, accoutrements. This means that you’ll regularly find among a typical vehicle’s standard faire features such as tilt steering, power windows and booming CD audio systems for everything from Bach sonatas to Beastie Boy raps. All this mixed in with goosebump-inducing extras like adjustable rear spoilers, electronic braking and-heaven forbid!-automatic climate control for rainy days and Mondays with the top up. Bottom-line though…does anybody really need a six-cylinder pocket rocket roadster with two seats and a label of “discretionary at any price”? Especially in a locale where endless lazy circles of Oahu are the epitome of a driving enthusiast’s weekend outings? ”Well, it’s a little different here since we don’t have the kind of roads you really need to enjoy these vehicles,” admits Toyota’s Kimura. “It’s not like you can do a weekend trip up the coast from L.A. to Big Bear or to Tahoe. We know we have an even smaller market for these cars here.” Still, having loaned himself Toyota City’s showroom MR2 Spyder on more than a few occasions, Kimura can’t help but display that silly grin mentioned earlier. ”If you never get into one and drive it, you’ll never know what the appeal is,” smiles Kimura. “It’s an emotional purchase. Once you get behind the wheel and put the top down, you’ll instantly know why people love these cars.”