Who says a sports car needs a big engine?
In the age of downsizing, three-cylinder motors seem to be the answer to fuel economy and emissions standards. Whilst most manufacturers have downsized tremendously to less than a liter in displacement, it’s been found that the answer may well be a slight increase in size, whilst still retaining a three-pot configuration. But while downsizing seems a sure thing; as unavoidable as death and taxes; can it really infect all aspects of motoring? Take sports cars; can a sports car really exist with just three cylinders under the hood? Not many have ventured into the three-cylinder territory, with four-pots still the dominant engine for junior sports cars; but these 8 are different.
While the world pines for a revival of the Honda S2000, Japan already has their own miniature in production since 2015. The S660 is a two-seat sports car classified under Kei-car regulations; making it ultra-compact, ultra-lightweight, and meaning it features a 3-cylinder engine by law. Weighing just 1, 870lb, the lightweight convertible doesn’t need much power to go relatively fast, and with a 660cc turbocharged 3-cylinder (the largest Kei regulations allow) developing just 63 horsepower, it doesn’t have much power. Torque is also rather little, with just 77 lb-ft on offer, but then again, measuring just 133.7 inches in length, the S660 is pretty tiny – smaller than a Mazda MX-5 Miata by more than 20-inches. The S660 boasts some impressive design features though, like a transverse rear mid-mounted engine with an almost ideal weight balance of 45/55 front/rear, rear-wheel drive, and a six-speed manual gearbox as standard.
Though its dimensions are near identical to those of Japanese Kei-cars, the Smart Roadster was released in several markets around the globe – though it never reaches the United States of America during its 3-year production run between 2003 and 2006. Two body shapes were offered, a Roadster variant, and a Coupe variant – the latter offering shooting brake type styling – with the Roadster being the better looking and the lighter version at just 1,742 lbs.
Power was derived from a mid-rear mounted 698cc 3-cylinder engine, turbocharged to produce 60 horsepower in its least powerful form. The rear-wheel drive sports car was offered in a Brabus tuned version though, that offered 100hp, lowered suspension, 17-inch alloys, and a twin sports exhaust. There was a V6 concept by Brabus at one point that featured two of the Smart’s standard engines merged into one, offering sprightly performance that never reached production.
Though the Daihatsu Copen was originally developed as a Kei car, the first generation was sold in select markets outside of Japan with a larger, more powerful engine. However, it’s the Japan-only second generation that cracks the nod for this list (in production since 2014), powered by a turbocharged 658cc 3-cylinder engine, developing 63hp and 68 lb-ft, and driving the front wheels through either a 5-speed manual gearbox or a CVT automatic transmission. With an 88-inch wheelbase, the compact Copen has been praised as go-kart like to drive, which isn’t all too surprising. While the styling of the second generation has gone substantially more angular than its predecessor, Daihatsu has released a second version called the Copen Cero, mechanically identical, but featuring body styling more bubble-like and reminiscent of the first Copen.
At first glance, you’d be forgiven for mistaking the Melkus RS1000’s styling for that of the original Lamborghini Miura – the resemblance is uncanny – and with production starting 3 years after the Miura started it’s not hard to see where Melkus drew influence from. But where the Miura featured a V12 engine, the Melkus RS1000 featured something far smaller, and far more unique in a road-going sports car. The mid-engined RS1000 was based on the Wartburg 353 ladder frame chassis, and featured a 992cc 3-cylinder engine. But what made the engine unique was the fact that it was a 2-stroke engine, producing 68hp and 87 lb-ft. Despite paltry power outputs, the Melkus was able to reach a top speed of 103mph due to the fiberglass body weighing as little as 1521 lbs. The Melkus RS1000 was produced from 1969 to 1979, with a total of 101 units produced in the ten-year production span.
The predecessor to the Honda S660, higher up on this list, the Honda Beat was a Japanese Kei car produced from 1991 to 1996. The Beat became an iconic 90’s JDM machine, featuring a transverse mid-mounted engine of 656cc in displacement, and 3-cylinders in configuration. Unlike most Kei cars, the Beat didn’t make use of forced induction, but still developed 63hp and was capable of reaching an electronically limited top speed of 84mph. The Beat was rear-wheel drive and was available exclusively with a manual transmission.
The Suzuki Cappuccino holds the title of being the car of which one solitary model was recalled for a missing stamp on the engine, 21 years after it was sold – because Suzuki cares. But the Cappuccino is also a highly sought after Japanese Kei sports car from the 90s – produced between 1991 and 1997 – that was also sold in Europe for a time. The diminutive convertible sports car – 129.7-inches in length – is powered by a front-engined 657cc turbocharged 3-cylinder motor developing, you guessed it, 63hp, and driving the rear wheels. The Cappuccino featured disc brakes at all corners, and later models featured speed-sensing electric power-assisted steering, a limited slip differential, and aluminum double-wishbone suspension.
Of all the 1990’s Kei sports cars, the Autozam AZ-1, produced by Mazda but also sold as the Suzuki Cara, is by far the most iconic as far as styling goes. In Mazdaspeed trim, the AZ-1 featured a pronounced hood scoop and a large (relatively) spoiler that took influence from the Ferrari F40. That wasn’t the only Ferrari-inspired styling trait, as the side strakes on all models looked very much like those of the Ferrari Testarossa. But the most distinguishing feature of the Autozam AZ-1 was that it had gullwing doors, which on a car as small as the AZ-1 made it look like it might actually lift off the ground if given a stiff enough breeze. The AZ-1 was powered by a mid-engined Suzuki 3-cylinder engine, 657cc in displacement and featuring a turbocharger whilst developing 63hp.
For many reading this, the BMW i8 might be the only one you consider a true sports car. After all, the others on this list are all ultra-compact and relatively low on power. Built as part of BMW’s range of i-cars to usher in a new era of electric mobility, the i8 is a plug-in hybrid sports car, and only the second BMW to ever feature a mid-mounted engine after the M1 sports car of 1978. Behind the cockpit, a 1.5-liter turbocharged 3-cylinder engine is good for 228hp and 236lb-ft of torque driving the rear wheels, whilst power is augmented by two electric motors acting on the front wheels delivering an additional 131hp for a combined output of 369 horsepower.
The i8 features a carbon fiber chassis, a 7.1kWh lithium-ion battery pack, and a combined MPG rating of 76MPG. But the i8 is also the best performing vehicle on this list, with a 0-60mph time-tested below 4.5 second, and with a top speed limited to 155mph. While most models on this list represent the past, it’s fitting that the i8 is the final entry on this list, as it’s the 3-cylinder sports car that best represents a future for the idea of sportsters powered by so few cylinders.