4 Great Rides

1 You can’t pack beach chairs into the back. Toyota’s MR2 SPYDER isn’t built for utility. You want that? Get a minivan, soccer mom. This car isn’t about practicality; it’s about sheer exhilaration. It’s about a very simple formula that’s not employed nearly enough: Take one part drop-top roadster, subtract performance-sapping things like weight, add a high-revving, responsive engine, and mate it to a suspension that makes the car take corners with go-cart agility. You get a 138-horsepower four-cylinder that sits amidships, directly behind the two seats – a configuration not often used in passenger cars, but the preferred layout for Formula 1 and Indy racers because of the benefits of weight distribution. This puts the MR2 in company with Ferrari’s 360 Modena and the Porsche Boxster. Who knew that for under 25 grand ($23,585, actually) you could own a car that could be mentioned in the same breath as those two?

2 You can’t have it. So, of course, you want it even more. Taking a page from Sony’s playbook – remember how the PlayStation 2 was last year’s most coveted toy because nobody could get his hands on the damn thing? – Ford intends to whet your appetite for the reborn THUNDERBIRD (there hasn’t been a T-bird since 1997) by keeping production low (only 25,000 per year) and the buzz sky-high. Though the retro rag-top (below) already feels like the car of the summer, it actually just started rolling off assembly lines the first week of June, which means months-long waiting lists – and most dealers won’t even have a single car to demo until July. Fans of the classic T-bird should experience more than a bit of déjà vu: Like the ‘55­’57 original, this two-seater is V8-powered (252 hp) and rear-wheel-drive, but this time it’s built around the state-of-the-art modified Lincoln LS platform (which also serves as the Jaguar S-type underbody). There’s an up-to-the-minute marketing shtick, too: limited-edition colors. We’re holding out for “torch red.” $34,965

3 The LEXUS SC 430 (below) can impress without turning a camshaft. With this drop-top, even something as prosaic as raising or lowering the roof can be a performance unto itself. Servos and solenoids perform an engineering ballet as the two-piece top lifts and folds itself into the trunk while onlookers at the valet station stand in slack-jawed amazement. Other means of keeping the riffraff in check include a 300-horsepower V8 engine, a small forest of burled walnut or bird’s-eye maple wood surrounding the interior, and what might be the best car stereo ever installed in an automobile – a system designed by home-audio guru Mark Levinson that will shame most listening rooms south of the highway. $58,455

4 Don’t call it cute. You used to be able to call the MERCEDES BENZ SLK class “cute,” what with the diminutive size and cheerful, fun-in-the-sun styling, but this particular model is as all-business as a corrections officer during lockdown. You see, it bears a small badge on its tushy that reads amg – and AMG is the place where Mercedes sends its well-appointed civilized transports to school to become rip-snorting hot rods. (For those scoring at home, AMG is named for founders Aufrecht and Melcher, and Grossapach, Aufrecht’s hometown.) In this case, the AMG design team has removed the stock engine of the SLK and replaced it, its transmission, and its suspension with far more sporting elements. To wit: a supercharged 3.2-liter V6 that puts out 349 horsepower. Such an engine in so small and light a car gives it performance figures that make the Porsche Boxster S and BMW M Roadster look positively lethargic. Meanwhile, you still get the retractable hard top, leather appointments, and the undeniable power a three-pointed star carries with it. It’s just that now you can carry it at 155 miles per hour. $38,900

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4 Great Rides