The Sports Car Is in Serious Trouble

Three reasons why sales of speed machines are skidding badly.

A true sports car—a genuine ground-scraping, carbon-veined track monster—is terrible at most things. It doesn’t lend itself to Uber, it’s crap on a Costco run and in today’s truck-crazy culture, it's so low that the driver can't see anything but the bumpers of the SUVs around them.

And that’s to say nothing of the traditional drawbacks. There's the astronomical expense of purchasing one (plus keeping it running) and their tendency to make a driver look a bit cheesy unless handled carefully (see Newman, Paul; Rodriguez, Michelle; and this guy).

For all of those reasons and more, swanky sports cars are losing momentum in the U.S. of late. Sales in the segment have declined for the past six quarters. Last year, nearly one-third of premium sports car purchases vanished, according to Edmunds.com. The trend is only accelerating this year. There was a 52 percent drop in sales during the first quarter of 2016.

"I think there’s a significant change in the desire for driving—I think there’s a significant slowdown in that," said Erich Joachimsthaler, CEO of consultancy Vivaldi Partners Group, which advises carmakers.

Will the sports car die? Of course. Eventually, the only people shredding tires and burning dead dinosaurs will be the small group of hobbyists on private tracks, where they are dropped off by the fleet of anodyne robot cars the rest of us commute in. But that day is still a long way off.

The recent skid in the sports car market is far more nuanced and interesting than road-scanning radar. It is being fueled by strange turns in consumer psyche, a redefinition of curb appeal and the gamesmanship of auto executives. Here are the three things crimping—but not killing—the swanky sports car.

1. Cheap Thrills

The Ford Mustang is, hands-down, the bestselling sports car in America these days. The king of pony cars roped in nearly 123,000 U.S. buyers last year, a 48 percent spike over 2014. That's pretty impressive for a vehicle that requires backseat passengers to possess the flexibility of a yogi.

Ford's dramatic redesign of the sixth-generation Mustang sent sales soaring. Here's a 2015 version in "triple-yellow."
Ford's dramatic redesign of the sixth-generation Mustang sent sales soaring. Here's a 2015 version in "triple-yellow."
Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

This is where all the Porsche priests start furiously drafting e-mails about the Mustang not being a "real" sports car. The argument goes something like this: Anyone with $130,000 to spend on a two-seated rocket with a Stuttgart pedigree isn’t going to consider a cheap thrill such as the Mustang.

This line of reasoning may have been valid in the past, but that's the past. Carmakers have gotten so good at their craft that performance is becoming a commodity (to say nothing of fetching design and reliability). The newest Mustang can be had with paddle shifters and a V-8 engine that makes 435 horsepower. It gallops to 60 miles per hour in less than 5 seconds, faster than many Ferraris from the 1990s and just a hair slower than a contemporary Porsche Cayman. 

Chevrolet’s new Camaro puts up even more impressive performance metrics, and Dodge’s Challenger Hellcat offers an engine that makes an astonishing 707 horsepower. Those in the market for something more refined are clamoring for Mazda’s new MX-5 Miata. Small, light, and almost perfectly balanced, it’s the driving equivalent of a bonsai tree. Any of these cars can be had for less than $30,000. Taken together, U.S. drivers bought 373,000 of them last year, a 23 percent increase over 2014.

The fourth generation of Mazda's Miata has been a hit, outpacing the company's expectations.
The fourth generation of Mazda's Miata has been a hit, outpacing the company's expectations.
Source: Mazda

There is evidence that at least some of those customers would have otherwise bought more expensive vehicles. According to Edmunds.com, 11 percent of drivers looking at the $56,000 Porsche Boxster these days also consider the considerably cheaper Mazda Miata, and 8 percent of potential Chevrolet Corvette customers kick the tires on a Mustang.

Masahiro Moro, chief executive officer of Mazda North America, concedes that the ranks of customers who really love to drive are thinning. "Right now, it might be 10 percent," he said. "But we are a tiny, 2 percent [market-share] company, so it's enough for us."

2. SUV Fever

Anyone who questions how keen Americans are for utility vehicles and so-called crossovers should look at the BMW X6. It is essentially a sports car that has been jacked-up from the road a bit. It doesn’t handle quite as well as a traditional car, and it holds, at best, a couple of additional grocery bags. Mostly, it’s taller.

BMW's X6 is outselling its 6-series coupe by two to one.
BMW's X6 is outselling its 6-series coupe by two to one.
Source: BMW

Since its launch in 2008, the weird speed buggy has experienced an irrational amount of success. Last year, BMW sold almost 8,000 of them in the U.S., and in the first quarter of this year American buyers bought two X6 models for every one of the company’s 6-series sports coupes.

“The X6 was the first to kind of say ‘We can be a sports car and a utility at the same time,’” said Eric Lyman, vice president of industry insights at TrueCar. “It was a pioneer in terms of what we’re seeing in other products coming to market.”

Now virtually every blue chip brand has something similar to the X6, including Jaguar and Maserati. Bigger, burlier family trucks are speeding off lots, too. In all, sales of premium luxury SUVs have swelled by 40 percent in the past three years. Granted, not all of those purchases are in lieu of two-seated speed machines, but some undoubtedly are.

It helps that these new SUVs have the looks and performance of their low-slung relatives. Porsche’s baby SUV, the Macan, puts up specs similar to those of the brand's famous 911 from 10 years or 15 years ago. Plus, the Macan has the clamshell hood of a race car. "Brands like Porsche have found a way to create the authentic 911 experience in the SUV," Joachimsthaler said.

3. Tesla

“We don’t make slow cars,” Tesla CEO Elon Musk assured the world last week, as he pulled the cover off his company's newest machine, the Model 3. Indeed, car critics have plenty of gripes about Tesla vehicles, but the way they drive typically isn’t one of them. Tesla’s electric motors offers immediate acceleration, so there's no need to wait around for the controlled explosion of an internal combustion engine. Plus, plastering a tombstone-heavy battery along the floor of the vehicle establishes the low, level center of gravity that engineers covet.

Again, purists will gripe that Tesla's Model S isn’t a sports car; it’s a luxury product, a four-door sedan, and a quiet commuter. Those people probably haven’t gone down the Internet rabbit hole that is a YouTube search of “Tesla drag race.” Naming one of its driving modes “insane” was not just a marketing exercise. The Model S is properly fast. Tesla plans to deliver up to 90,000 vehicles this year, a Mustang-sized disruption in the heart of the market for luxurious speed machines.

Tesla Model S P85D has become a favorite among drag racers.
Tesla Model S P85D has become a favorite among drag racers.
Photographer: Scott Legato/WireImage

All that said, the swanky sports car won't die soon. Decades from now, Porsche will still be offering a new 911 you can’t afford. Even if sales continue to swoon, car companies will keep making these speed pods just to burnish their brands. Lyman at TrueCar believes the real utility of these vehicles is to convey credibility in the overall product line. "It's an emotional thing," he said. "I talk to a lot of people, and no one ever asks me what's the SUV with the most cargo capacity; they ask about speed."

In a way, the future of the sports car, like most things in the auto industry, comes down to semantics. What is a "sports car?" Depending on your definition, there are more of them at the moment than there ever have been. They just look a little different than they used to, cost a lot less, and drive a lot better.

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