The best-selling two-seat roadster in history is in its fourth generation, yet the mission remains the same: affordable fun. In a world where every car seems to get larger, the current Miata is nearly identical in size to the NA version that launched 33 years ago. The latest featherweight is still nimble and immensely tossable, yet with more power and higher grip levels. The steering is perfectly weighted and the wheel itself is a joy, your hands falling naturally to three and nine, while the shifter’s short throws beckon your engagement. The Miata is available with either a quick folding manual top or a power targa hardtop for year-round use. For all its performance, the Miata sips fuel like an economy car, netting 36 mpg during my week with a gorgeous Soul Red Crystal Metallic Grand Touring model. If I were looking to replace my classic S2000, the Miata would be an easy choice. Prices start at only $26,650.
Audi S5 Sportback The Audi is the conservative choice in this group. My tester, in Florida retirement white, didn’t turn a lot of heads. It’s attractive enough, but not showy. Like most Audi’s, the interior is where the S5 shines. Comfortable and roomy with great ergonomics and finished in quality materials. The liftback design gives the Sportback a leg up in usefullness over its sedan competitors. Step on the gas though, and the S5 throws practicality to the wind. It’s a serious German sports sedan, with a chassis that rewards the driver with every turn. The ride is firm enough, yet not jarring in everyday use. With Audi’s excellent quattro AWD system, and a good set of snow tires for the winter months, the S5 would be an excellent daily driver. Pricing starts at $55,300.
KIA Stinger GT2
A serious sports sedan—from Korea? Indeed. The Stinger GT2 packs a 368-HP twin-turbo V6 and a choice of rear or all-wheel drive. The performance, fit and finish, and ride quality are worthy of German cars costing far more. At its base price, the Stinger comes fully loaded and features a cavernous interior with room for the whole gang. Yet when the road beckons, the Stinger leaves most family cars in the dust. Steering feel is excellent, and in my tester, the AWD system provided ample grip, even in the wet. The exterior is handsome and while the Stinger may not have a German name, it does a fine Teutonic impression from behind the wheel. Stinger GT2 prices start at $52,895.
Cadillac CT5-V Blackwing If the Audi S5 is Clark Kent, the Blackwing is Tony Stark. The heart of the Caddy is a brutal, supercharged V8 pushing 668-HP through the rear wheels. The exterior is stylish and elegant, with details revealing just a hint of the hooligan underneath. On an evening out, the Blackwing can be a perfect gent, refined and comfortable, but turn it to sport mode, hit the throttle, and Tony is suddenly Iron Man. The rear tires will shred themselves silly if you want, or launch you to 60 mph in only 3.4 seconds. Best of all, you can get the Blackwing with a 6-speed manual transmission. This Caddy is more than just a hot rod. In spite of weighing nearly 4,100 pounds, it handles like a true sports car, and on a race track or twisty stretch of road, is capable of embarrassing cars costing much more. It’s rewarding, exhilarating, and fun as hell. Driven hard, the Blackwing guzzles fuel, making it a bit impractical these days. Yet, I have to applaud the GM folks who signed off on it. The Blackwing is probably the last of its kind; a fire breathing, V8-powered sedan—with a manual trans and RWD—is not exactly the direction the car industry is going. Electrification can give us the brutal acceleration speed junkies crave, yet an EV can’t replicate the visceral thrill of launching a supercharged V8, smoking the rear tires while the ferocious exhaust note and supercharger whine rattle your brain. Enjoy it if you can. Because sadly, like Tony Stark, the bad boys eventually get written out of the script. Starting at $90,995.
Subaru BRZ There are few better values—or more rewarding driving experiences—than the than the BRZ and its Toyota GR86 cousin. The new second generation adds more power and refinement, better steering feel, and an overall higher level of performance. Yet like the Miata, the BRZ didn’t get larger in the process, retaining the tidy dimensions and 2,800 pound weight of the original. This RWD sport coupe will slay an autocross course yet deliver all day comfort and up to 30 mpg on the highway. Like a Porsche 911, the engine is a flat, boxer design and there are small seats in the rear for packages or the kiddos. A slick shifting six-speed manual is standard or you can opt for the optional six-speed auto. The BRZ is flat out brilliant to drive and prices start at $28,695.
VW Golf R The R is the fastest, highest performance Golf ever made. Like its GTI sibling—AKA the original hot hatch—the R was created for those who like to drive. The traditional five-door hatchback layout, and restrained exterior, make the R a great choice for the more mature driver, but boring it’s not. Packing 315-HP and AWD, the R can reach 60 in under 4 seconds, yet still deliver 30 mpg highway (28 with the manual). While the interior is comfortable with great seats, the infotainment interface is the one flaw, with touch sensitive sliders vs actual buttons. But the R is so much fun to drive, I could probably adapt. Prices start at $44,090.
Hyundai Kona N Borrowing the 286-HP drivetrain from the Veloster N, the FWD Kona N is either the first affordable performance compact crossover or a large hot hatch. Regardless, it’s a hoot. This is not a car for introverts as the barking exhaust and loud Racing Red paint of my tester drew stares and questions. The eight-speed dual clutch transmission delivers fast shifts both up and down the range, while the interior ergonomics and nicely bolstered seats are spot on. The Kona N is fine around town, if a bit stiff, but when you start pushing it through the corners, the little bulldog comes alive. It’s rather hilarious, yet has room for five, and with the seats folded, can handle a full Costco haul. Base price: $34,200. •