For this, Inside Line's first ever 10 Most Fun Vehicles, we've constructed the ultimate car-evaluation tool. Thanks to the wealth of technical data available in our databases and the brilliance of our on-staff software engineers and algorithm writers, our computers can now automatically generate lists of the most fun vehicles currently on the U.S. market, using criteria including, but not limited to: availability of brown paint, cupholder count, overall width (in millimeters, including side mirrors), the attractiveness of its VIN sequencing and the depth of carpet pile of optional floor mats.
All right, we've left the engineers, spreadsheets, pricing reports and everything else back at Comparison-Test Headquarters. All we really needed to complete this assignment were our asses, a bucket-load of endorphins and access to press-car fleets. Our criteria included whether the vehicle in question could convince us to take on a car payment we really couldn't afford and whether a drive in said vehicle leaves us in a stupor after the endorphin flood recedes.
We've limited the winners to vehicles currently available in the United States and...well; actually that was the only rule. Here they are in the order that they leapt to mind.
Ferrari 458 Italia
Is it sacrilege to include on this list — first on the list, in fact — a car not available with a conventional manual transmission? What about the wisdom of including on a list of great cars any vehicle with three exhaust tips? When we put the 458 Italia up against its competitors from Italy, Germany and England, we noted that it won the competition because it is the car you would want to use to wear out a racetrack. That seems as good a measure as any. The 458 stands as a triumph of fun not in spite of its technology, but because of it. Every surface, device and electron of this magnificent thing is aimed at absolute quickness of response. That's true of the carbon-ceramic brakes, the hyper-quick steering and the 4.5-liter V8 that zings up to its 9,000-rpm power peak about as rapidly as electrons zip through copper wire.
The four-cylinder engine in the Mazda Miata produces almost exactly 400 fewer horsepower than the engine in the Ferrari 458. But you know what? A Miata makes about 100 hp more than the first Honda CRX. And what the hell are we going on about? Well, it's not about power...or rather, it's not only about power. Mazda had the basic look, performance envelope and control relationships (oh, that stubby little shifter!) down the moment the first generation arrived (with even less hp) more than 20 years ago. There's a reason the Miata is the best-selling roadster of all time. There's a reason that even now we choose to spend our time and money on a Miata project car. It's that, despite all odds, Mazda has not screwed up the Miata's basic formula of an inexpensive fun car. Also, the top comes down. When we threw the Pontiac Solstice up against the Miata in 2006 we wrote: "When you drive the Mazda, it becomes obvious that every aspect of the car was designed and engineered by people who love cars and love to drive." You'll notice that the Miata is still around. The Solstice? Not so much.
Ford F-150 SVT Raptor
With the brawny and bold Raptor, Ford's SVT unit took the whole idea of a hot-rodded pickup and turned it on its ear...and then kicked sand on it...and then jumped over it, flying with its wheels dangling at full droop like a hornet's rear legs. There is simply nothing like the high-speed, desert-pummeling, ass-kicking, bitchin' damper-having, wife-embarrassing awesomeness of the Raptor. The addition of the 6.2-liter V8 to complement (and eventually replace) the gutless 5.4-liter V8 was the final awesome piece of the great pie of awesomeness. It just makes you want to whoop and holler.
Ford Shelby GT500
Yes, we're aware that the last entry on this list was the work of the SVT boys. In fact, with its two (wildly divergent) entries, the relatively small SVT group is responsible for 20 percent of our 10 Most Fun list. It didn't have to go this way. When the modern GT500 arrived on the scene it was, well, a push pig. It was pretty much the old one-dimensional muscle-car deal. That changed for 2010 with a substantial rework of the vehicle. That was enough to vault the GT500 onto our Editors' Most Wanted list. And for '11, the GT500 got a lighter, slightly more powerful aluminum-block motor and the SVT Performance package, which served to make the GT500 not just quicker but also better handling. This is truly a dual-mode vehicle now. It's capable of doing the knuckle-dragging muscle car thing: looking menacing, sounding wicked and vaporizing its newly designed Goodyear rear tires at will. But it's also a helluva track car. The upcoming Camaro Z28 has its work cut out for it.
Old funnyman P.J. O'Rourke once posited that the best-handling car in the world is a rental car. That's cute and funny and also wrong. The best-handling car is the one that isn't worth fixing and is already paid for. The best-handling car in the world is the beater. The beater (and the subspecies winter beater for us tundra people) is part transportation, part punching bag, driver-training vehicle, boudoir, ashtray, battering ram, you name it. And the beater is the greatest of all vehicular chameleons. For example, we once owned a 1982 Honda Civic in college that we prepared for rally-car duty simply by driving it way too fast onto rough dirt paths, caroming off tree trunks of considerable girth. But it could be a 1978 Ford Fairmont with a 302. Or a 1978 Fairmont with the "Thriftmaster" inline-6. Or it might not be a 1978 Fairmont at all. Whatever it is, it should be cheap enough that you can walk away from it without a second thought, like a dried-up Bic pen. Its only value is that is has utterly no value. Beaters can also be used to make donuts.
What, you didn't really think we'd make it through a list of fun cars without mentioning that sacred cow of automotive journalists the world over, the BMW M3, did you? Look, we understand it's an obvious choice, but that's because it is actually one of the most fun vehicles on the market (top 10, you might say). There might come a day when the M3 will need to be knocked from its pedestal. That day is not today. And while the few people who owned the original M3 (and the many more who wanted to) might bemoan the increased size, weight and cylinder count of the modern M3, it would take but one drive to convince them of its essential goodness. Like many of its German brethren, the M3 is serious fun. No flyweight Lotus, the M3 is a weighty, solid thing. Like few cars new or old, the beautifully balanced M3 has always made its operator feel like a better driver than he is. Come to think of it, maybe that's why so many automotive journalists love it.
It's no shame that part of the reason the Cadillac CTS-V is so damn impressive is that the company took a close look at the template laid out by the BMW M3 and M5. But a couple of things set the CTS-V apart from the raft of BMW clones. First is the look, which is brash and flashy and American as all get-out. And then there's the little matter of the CTS-V's hooligan streak. There's a muscle-car heart beating at the center of this upper-end sport sedan. It's a big-displacement, pushrod, blown V8 producing a tidal wave of torque and a nearly untouchable 556 hp. It's a powersliding, smoke-billowing, bird-flipping delinquent but it also has the high-speed stability and comfort to not just hang with but to stomp all comers. That's fun.
For our purposes, we're referring here to the straight-up two-door (or no-door) Wrangler. The four-door Unlimited model has its merits and has been a sales success. But once you add rear doors, people start expecting the Wrangler to be a decent SUV in the modern sense and it simply isn't. One of the few automotive constants in the world, the standard Jeep is the vehicular equivalent of the Zippo lighter: it's rugged, it's perfectly and simply designed to do its job well, and it's used for a sometimes dangerous, sometimes uncouth and usually fun activity. Look, despite advances since the Willys days or even the CJ days, the Jeep is a pretty awful vehicle to drive on the road. Its intended home is off-road, where it can crawl up and over the seemingly insurmountable straight out of the factory. But the Wrangler also rates as one of the all-time best summer vehicles the world has ever seen. Can't take the doors off your Sebring convertible and roll around in flip-flops and no shirt with your left knee hanging out of the car, can you?
Rolls-Royce Drophead Coupe
Yeah, yeah, we know, this 3-ton, kabillion-dollar poof-mobile is not exactly textbook fun-car material. But believe us when we tell you that when you're steaming along at an absurd speed in the Drophead Coupe (which is neither a coupe nor a, uh, drophead*) and the world is parting in front of you and swirling in your wake, you are having fun. Did we mention that the car's tonneau cover is made of teak wood like that of high-end boats and stupidly expensive outdoor furniture? It is. There is satisfaction and fun in ushering this well-oiled block of opulence through a world so clearly built to smaller, more cost-conscious and modest scale. And, for something controlled by such an enormous ship's helm of a steering wheel, the Drophead Coupe is inconceivably — well, we'll just say it — nimble. Did we mention that the two doors are hinged at the rear and are power-operated? They are.
*Oh, fine. To those notorious head-dropping Brits it is.
Porsche Boxster Spyder
The Spyder is the car we always wanted the Boxster to be. Hell, the Spyder is the car we always wanted...period. The Spyder is a toy. With its confining seats, optional air-conditioning and wholly inadequate weather protection, the Spyder is designed not only to be loved by sports car purists but also despised by badge-hounds and trophy spouses. We used to think that we would have to forgo the top-down driving and choose a Cayman to get the Porsche experience we've been looking for. Not anymore. The 2,900-pound, 320-hp Boxster Spyder and its perfectly judged chassis tuning makes all those zillion-horsepower, fire-breathing super exotics seem a bit silly and desperate. Look at it this way: The Boxster Spyder is not much more than half as fast as the Bugatti Veyron Super Sport, but we'll bet it's every bit as much or more fun to drive.
Addendum: The Fast Bike
For stupid, adrenaline-pumping, muscle-clenching fun, nothing in the car world can quite compete with the fast motorcycle. And so, we have added an honorary spot here for a powerful motorcycle, in this case the world's most powerful production sport bike, the BMW S 1000 RR. If pure, unadulterated speed is your fun-drug of choice, there's not much that's going to compete with a $14,295 ride that will teleport itself to the end of the quarter-mile in the mid-9s at 150 mph without breaking a sweat. That any old ham-fisted, testosterone-addled dude is allowed to buy such a device is pretty remarkable. For him (and all but expert riders, in fact), the BMW comes with an ABS and traction-stability control system that brings the S 1000 RR's performance level down to merely stratospheric.