Man at His Best

Opinion: No One Knows What 'Sports Car' Actually Means Anymore

Remember when names used to mean something?​

BY JACK BARUTH | Feb 20, 2016 | Automotive

Andrew Trahan

Late last year, I wrote a story on the new Mustang GT350R and how it compared to the outgoing Boss 302. It wasn't exactly a controversial piece, given that I have a healthy dose of affection for both cars and don't mind showing it, but the readers had a few complaints nonetheless. They complained that we didn't post laptimes, to which my response was that we just didn't have enough time to get them both a clear track and proper conditions. They complained that we should have compared a Boss 302 "Laguna Seca" to the 350R, to which my response was that we couldn't get our hands on a Laguna Seca on short notice. It's tough enough coming up with all of the right new cars for a comparison test at the same time. Adding used cars to the mix makes it nearly impossible.

The most frequent criticism, however, was my use of the term "sedan" to refer to the Mustangs. What I heard is that the Mustang is a "sports car," not a "sedan." Well, ladies and gentlemen, you are dead wrong—and that misunderstanding could be one of the reasons that true sports cars are so hard to find in showrooms in the year 2016.

Before we consider what a sports car truly is, perhaps we should consider why the definition is important. After all, we live in an era where people take it for granted that they have the inalienable right to be protected from any conversation or communication that might offend or upset them. If you can insist that I use gender neutral pronouns to refer to you, how much more reasonable must it be that you can tell me to call your Mustang or Macan a "sports car?"

What I will suggest in response is that words need to have a certain basic level of meaning or society will stop functioning. Take, for example, the insistence on the part of Mercedes-Benz and BMW and a few other companies that we call their fastback sedans "four-door coupes." Imagine for a moment that you are walking your 10-year-old daughter down the street when two thugged-out investment bankers, possibly Martin Shrkeli and a friend, pull up in an Audi S7, punch you in the face, and throw your child in the back seat of the S7 before speeding away. 

Tell me, with a straight face, that you will describe that car to the police as "an Audi coupe."

There's another, even more important reason to describe cars using proper and appropriate names, but we'll come back to that in a moment. Let's return to the question: "What is a sports car?" In the postwar era, a "sports car" was any car that seated two, had a soft top, and could be used for competition. Thus, the Sports Car Club of America. An MG-TC was a sports car, as was an XK-120 or a Jowett Jupiter. 

That same car with a permanent hardtop was considered a "Grand Tourer", meaning it would be appropriate for a young man to drive around Europe in varying weather conditions. Thus, the MGB-GT is an MGB sports car upgraded to Grand Tourer configuration. The definition of "GT car" has always been more flexible than the definition of "Sports Car" because it is based around prospective usage. In the modern era, virtually anything from a Scion FR-S to a Mustang to an Aston Vanquish would serve the would-be Grand Tourer well and so we can call them all "GT cars.”

When did the definition of "sports car" change? Well, here's the thing: it never did.

When did the definition of  "sports car" change? Well, here's the thing: It never did. What happened was that the cars themselves changed. Fear about prospective DOT rollover regulations in the 70s caused an entire generation of cars, from the Jaguar XJ-S to the C3 Corvette, to be conceived and sold primarily as hard-top Grand Tourers. In many cases, this led to the "sports car" name following the marque or badge, even if it no longer applied. An XK120 was a sports car; an E-Type Mk1 was a sports car; therefore, the Jaguar XJ-S must be a sports car despite being the size of the HMS Hood and sporting a 12-cylinder engine. If the original 1953 Corvette was a sports car, and it most assuredly was, then certainly a 2016 Corvette Z06 hardtop is a sports car, right?

In some cases, the "sports car" name was used for something that was meant to be an antidote or alternative to traditional sports cars—see "911, Porsche" and "240Z, Datsun." This depresses me; a Porsche 911 is certainly not a sports car. I know. I own one. A Boxster, which I also own, is definitely a sports car. That's why the Boxster, er, 718, and the 911 can co-exist. That, and the fact that the 911 is basically the same car as the Boxster for much more money, and no manufacturer with its head on straight would permit such a thing to disappear. 

With all that said, however, there are cars out there that should not be referred to as "sports cars" by anybody who considers himself or herself to be a member of the sainted automotive cognoscenti. The list of such cars includes:

  • SUVs, CUVs, or anything else that doesn't require the use of a floor jack to change the oil and is not a Porsche 959 Dakar. Which is also not a sports car. So leave that in.
  • Fast sedans, like the BMW M5, or their two-door variants, like the BMW M6, or the four-door variants of the two-door variants, like the M6 Gran Coupe, or the crossover variants of the four-door variants of the two-door variants of the four-door, like the X6M. 
  • Hot hatches, like the GTI.
  • Rally-reps, like the Mitsubishi Evo or Subaru WRX.
  • Big-money cruiser droptops, like the Bentley Azure, recent-generation Mercedes SL, or Lexus SC430.
  • The Honda CRX or anything else that was meant to be a copy of the Honda CRX.
  • The Mustang, Camaro, Firebird, Challenger, Cougar, Javelin, Barracuda, Genesis Coupe, Accord Coupe, Mazda RX-8, or Mercedes-Benz CLK63 Black Series.

That last one seems to be where most of the confusion occurs. The Mustang is a sedan. Don't like it? Take it up with the Sports Car Club of America, which classifies the Mustang in the "American Sedan" class. The Mustang was always a sedan. It has always been a sedan. It always will be a sedan, unless it changes significantly. If the word "sedan" offends you, then choose the term "pony car," which is also fine and respects the Mustang's unique role in history as a sporting sedan variant of a non-sporting sedan, in this case the Ford Falcon. 

Don't call a Mustang a sports car. It's not a sports car. The word "sports car" doesn't mean "car that I like and think is really cool." Were that the case, then I would call the Rolls-Royce Wraith a "sports car," because I really like the Rolls-Royce Wraith and I think it's just the bee's knees, old boy. Come to think of it, I also like the Phantom Drophead, which is also not a sports car by any sane estimation.


What's the harm in calling a Mustang a sports car? Why, Sir, the evidence is all around you. True sports cars are almost gone from showrooms nowadays, simply because we've used the phrase and its attendant social baggage so carelessly. If everything is a sports car, then nothing is a sports car. If people who are not self-taught car experts decide in middle age or retirement that they've finally earned the right to have a "sports car," and that search leads them to an Audi SQ5 or Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro because nobody is willing to draw that line in the sand between things that are sports cars and things that are not, then why would any automaker bother to build a sports car? 

Therefore, I beg of you, dear reader: start using the term "sports car" to apply to things that are truly sports cars, or close to them. The Miata. The Porsche 718 Boxster (not the 718 Cayman). Stuff like that. In the end, the life you save could be your own, because who wants to live in a world where the smallest and most nimble "sports car" for sale is a Mustang, no matter how excellent said Mustang might be? 

From: Esquire US