Where Have All the Affordable Sports Cars Gone? By Christopher Sass


Four-and-a-half years ago, when the Miata was midway through its initial incarnation, Motor Trend was comparing it with three of its rivals; the Alfa Romeo Spider Veloce, the Honda Civic del Sol Si, and the Mercury Capri XR2.  As the 1998 model year begins, those three cars are history, as are the once-affordable Fiat 124 Spider and X1/9, the Toyota MR2 and the Pontiac Fiero; all of which could have been had for the 1997 equivalent of 15 to 25 grand.  So where have all the affordable sports cars gone?

Itís a particularly timely question because the market is surging with expensive sports cars like the BMW Z3, the Mercedes SLK, and the Porche Boxster.  But why are $40,000 sports cars more successful than their $20,000 counterparts?

Spokespeople for the manufacturers of these affordable sports cars give a variety of reasons.  A Ford spokesman stated that "The sports segment, like all specialty segments, has declined over time, and unless you're really clever, its hard to make money.  Sports cars are a fashion statement.  A manufacturer has 18 months before the car is out of vogue."  Toyota says, "The demographics haven't supported youthful two-doors in the last 10 years.  People who were buying Celicas and MR2s are buying Camrys or sport-utility vehicles like the RAV4."  Insurance is another problem.  Toyota had customers bringing MR2s back once they discovered how much it cost to insure the cars.  Sport-utility vehicles (SUV) and sedans are more useful and relatively cheap to insure.  I was able to insure my Grand Cherokee for the same cost as my Dodge Daytona ES because the Dodge was considered to be a sports car (!) by the insurance industry.  Although a current trend is to raise the rates for SUV owners because these vehicles inflict more damage on smaller vehicles and property when involved in an accident.

A Pontiac spokesman said, "Repeat sports-car buyers are also rare...Guys [I'm sure he meant people - ed.] who buy inexpensive sports cars are young and single and find pretty soon that golf clubs don't fit and you can't carry many people.  It was very difficult to live with the Fiero as your only car."  It may be rare to have repeat buyers for affordable sports cars, but Pontiac should look at people like us who not only continue to buy Fieros (and would presumably buy a new Fiero if Pontiac saw fit to continue making them).  We have members who own two or more of Fieros.  The Fiero is not an easy car to live with as your only vehicle, however Pontiac should consider its own literature before denouncing the Fiero.  If they had, they would have seen Pontiac touting the fact that "two sets of golf clubs or five upright bags of groceries could fit into the trunk".  It may not be easy to live with a Fiero when you're not single, but many of us with families are able to cope by having a two-place Fiero and a five-place car.

Sports cars are more often than not, purchased by multicar families.  Such families tend to be affluent, which is one reason for the current popularity of the more expensive sports cars.  Plus, as Ford points out, "there's more profit margin to justify a limited-volume car in the higher price range."

The new expensive cars are sold around the world to maximize their overall sales volume.  That's one secret of the Miata's success.  It was so good at the outset that its staying power has remained for eight years.  As a result, Mazda has sold more than 400,000 worldwide.  Pontiac sold almost 300,000 Fieros in the first three years of production.  Mazda also believes much of the Miata success is due to it being a "pure" sports car.  "It is an open two-seater with rear wheel drive and a longitudinal engine."  Obviously, this is a point that can be argued forever and will never reach a conclusion; that is, what is a sports car?  I have had this discussion with others (generally people who own cars that have drop tops or cars that hold more than two people) and we have never agreed.  I think Mazda has some validity but as history shows, there have been and are many cars that everyone agrees are sports cars that do not strictly adhere to Mazda's views.

Sports cars are and always will be a small specialty niche for manufacturers like GM, Ford and Chrysler.  Therefore, as stated above, these cars will have small profit margins, and a limited audience.  However there is a value to having these types of cars in a product line; that being interest in the product line.  Affordable sports cars and sports cars in general bring people into showrooms.  Although only a few will buy a sports car, it got their interest and sports cars round out the product line.  Secondly, there will be a percentage of repeat buyers.  I know that many of you bought multiple new Fieros when they were available and probably would still be buying new ones if they existed.  As much as I like my current Fiero, I probably would have purchased a new one had production continued.

Companies like GM are typically run by business people whose only concern is the bottom line and how the stockholders will be affected.  The C4 Corvette was almost the last Corvette because GM was having a hard time justifying it financially.  These companies should follow Chrysler's example and have car guys involved in running the company.  Pontiac stated that the Fiero was taken off the starting grid because sales were off,  meaning they weren't making enough money on the Fiero to justify keeping it around.  This may have been true, although we know the Fiero has gained an undeserved reputation due to problems involving some early cars.  If GM or any of these companies want repeat buyers, whether its sports cars, sedans, or SUVs, they need to earn the buyers loyalty by being loyal to the buyers.  I never stepped into a Pontiac showroom until the Fiero was introduced and my Fiero was the last GM product I've purchased.  I feel GM and Pontiac did its customers a disservice when they eliminated the Fiero.  It wasn't a great car; but we know it was a good car.  I can't help but feel that Pontiac feels the Fiero is a dirty little embarrassment that they want to forget.

Affordable sport cars will appear again in showrooms because niche type vehicle sales are cyclical.  There are already signs that the SUV market is over-supplied and softening, and the public's tastes change.  Soon many SUV owners will become tired of driving these large vehicles that are definitely not cars and consume fuel at a sinful rate.  Light trucks and SUVs in particular have been under steady attack by EPA regulators and environmental groups because of their higher fuel consumption and emissions.  A portion of the population will become empty nesters making a sports car easier to live with.  These people may turn to affordable sports cars and learn, or relearn, what we already know...these sports cars are fun and affordable.  Who knows, maybe we'll see an affordable sports car from Pontiac again some day.  I'll bet is won't be a mid-engine car and it won't be called Fiero, though!

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