Not the fastest. Just the best.
Recently, we drove the latest incarnation of the Mazda MX-5. We road tripped with it; we hustled it down backroads, and we ran errands with it. Throughout that week, we rediscovered why we love the roadster as an automotive genre. And, by roadster, we mean a car designed to have the roof down from the word go, not a coupe with a retractable roof as added to an automaker's lineup as an afterthought. We're talking about the traditional idea of a roadster - two doors, two seats, and a dose of sporting ability or pretension; designed for the enjoyment of driving when going from A to B, wherever A or B might be.
There is no way this list could be complete without spending some time on the MX-5. The story of the MX-5 is well documented, so let's go for a few facts that you may not already know, starting with how the MX-5 entered the Guinness Book Of Records in 2000 as the best-selling two-seater sports car of all time. Since then, it has crossed the million sales mark. The genesis of the MX-5 was sparked by an automotive journalist named Bob Hall from Motor Trend magazine and two of Mazda's top executives. Although it's a Japanese car based on the British Lotus Elan, the MX-5 was initially designed in California. It was named as one of the "Best 100 Products" by Popular Science Magazine. Finally, it's one of the few production cars that hasn't grown in size over the years due to focus groups. On the contrary, the current ND was deliberately shrunk in size, as well as designed to be even lighter than before.
Porsche's Boxster is one of the few mid-engined sports cars designed from scratch as a roadster. It was introduced in 1996 and is still going strong here 25 years later, celebrated for its purity of concept and sublime handling. Even its name, a portmanteau of "boxer" (as in the engine design) and "roadster," lets you know it was conceived and designed as a convertible. It was renamed the Porsche 718 Boxster for the 2017 model year.
The Mercedes SL has been around since 1954. It was designed for the American market at importer Max Hoffman's suggestion. He wanted a gentrified grand touring car for the affluent enthusiasts of the post-war boom. A coupe version has long been available, but its true guise is as a soft-top roadster oozing style. It's not a particularly sporty car in its modern iterations, but has always come with powerful engine options suited to grand touring, days out driving, and as a fun but luxurious way to get around town.
The cult classic S2000 was produced for ten years by Honda, for two generations from 1999 and 2009. Pin sharp handling and a high-revving four-cylinder engine (with a specific power output of 124 hp per liter) keep the S2000 as a relevant car today as it was when introduced. It was a direct competitor to Mazda's MX-5. The much-sought-after Club Racer trim came to the US with a hardtop, while the Japanese market Type S edition retained the soft top. The UK's GT trim was offered as either a soft-top or with a removable hardtop.
Before the new Ferrari 812 GTS, the last front-engined, series-production V12-powered roadster the company built was the 365 Daytona GTS/4 in the 1970s. Sure, the 812 GTS is based on the 812 Superfast, but it is everything you could possibly want from a Ferrari roadster. The 6.5-liter V12 produces nearly 800 horsepower; the 812 GTS will hit 200 mph with the top down. However, it is docile when unprovoked and fully embraces the GT attitude a proper roadster should. There's no soft top, but it's a modern Ferrari, so we'll accept the retractable hardtop and love that Ferrari designed the 812 GTS to have a useable amount of trunk space.
The current Z4 is fine, but the Z3 was BMW's purest modern roadster. It also has a complicated origin story with an opening sentence you might want to strap in for.
The Z3 was created by Joji Nagashima, a Japanese designer working for the German company to deliver a competitor to the Mazda MX-5, which, as we learned earlier, is an American-designed Japanese version of a British car. The Z3 debuted in 1996 to much scorn from the automotive press due to its rounded looks and anemic 1.9-liter 138-horsepower four-cylinder engine.
In response to the critics, it went on to be a runaway success for BMW, who sold every single model of the 15,000 it could build in the first year. In fact, every unit was sold before it could be delivered. Many point to its success as as a side effect of being featured in the James Bond movie Goldeneye, but that's mainly by automotive journalists that can't admit it when they're wrong.
It would be criminal not to mention the Alfa Romeo Giulia Spider here. If there is an illustrative embodiment of the idea of the roadster, it's the Pininfarina-designed replacement for the already gorgeous Giulietta Spider that debuted in 1966. Like the Z3, it's associated with a movie, and 1967's The Graduate definitely had a positive effect on sales. Also, like the Z3, it was met with resistance by the press. However, history has vindicated the Giulia Spider, and it stands as a classic example of Italian automotive beauty and an ode to sheer driving pleasure.
In retrospect, we know the Carrera GT was the last of the analog supercars, but it was loaded with modern, lightweight and high-strength materials. It came only with a six-speed manual transmission and no electronic stability control system, which was standard on Porsche's other vehicles. It did have a traction control function, but that could be switched off, and a skilled driver could launch the supercar roadster from 0-60 mph in 3.9 seconds and lap the Nurburgring in 7 minutes and 28 seconds.
AC Cars had been around since 1901, and as the 1960s began its main car was the AC Ace. The roadster featured a hand-built body with a steel tube frame and a pre-World War II BMW engine under the hood. Like many, Carroll Shelby was smitten by the curvaceous styling of the Ace, which has gone on to be the most copied car in automotive history. In 1961, Shelby contacted AC Cars asking if the company could build him an Ace modified to accept a V8 engine, and it duly obliged. The AC Cobra was born out of the ashes, powered by Ford's Windsor 3.6-liter V8. By the time it reached the US, the Ford engine had increased in size to 4.3 liters. AC Cars even had to end production on another car to satiate demand for the Cobra in Europe and produce vehicles for Shelby American Inc.
The BMW Z8 shape was designed by Henrik Fisker, while the interior was done by Scott Lempert as part of a team led by Chris Bangle. It's a design classic, but the Z8 had an edge sharpened by its all-aluminum chassis and body, as well as its hard-revving 4.9-liter V8. The limited-run Z8 went out of production in 2002, and Alpina took up the mantle for 2003 with a version that moved away from being an all-out sports car, to a roadster with a more grand touring-like focus. Alpina swapped the S62 engine for a 4.8-liter BMW M62 V8 tuned for higher peak torque at lower revs, and a BMW Steptronic unit replaced the manual transmission. The suspension was tuned to be more compliant, and the interior leather was replaced with much softer Napa leather. It was also the first Alpina car to be sold directly through BMW dealerships in the US.