It's Ferruccio Lamborghini's fault. In 1966, the sexy Lamborghini Miura, with its aluminum four-cam V12 engine mounted just aft of its seatbacks, showed the world how to do it right. And the world has been in lust with the midengine sports car ever since.
Before that Lambo hit the street, the many dynamic benefits of mounting the engine behind the driver and within the car's wheelbase were only taken advantage of on the racetrack. Germany's Auto Union grand prix cars used the design in the 1930s and all Formula 1 cars had gone this way by the early 1960s. Then, in 1965, Jim Clark won the Indy 500 driving Colin Chapman's midengine Ford-powered Lotus and America also caught the midengine bug. Hell, by 1971 Don Garlits had even put the engine behind the driver in his rail and revolutionized drag racing.
Today, the least expensive midengine car you can buy in America is the 2012 Porsche Boxster, which costs $49,500. So we wondered: What does half that buy you?
Turns out it'll buy a very cool recent classic that would be a hoot to own and drive if you buy a good one. We've chosen 10 midengine "exotics" that fit the budget. Every car on our list is a unique or special automobile, but they all have their quirks. Great examples will be satisfying to own, while bad ones could make you suicidal or bankrupt or both. So absolutely invest in a comprehensive pre-purchase inspection (PPI) by a mechanic or specialist fully qualified to work on the marque and model you're considering. The few hundred bucks an in-depth PPI costs will pay its dividends many times over.
10. Porsche 914 (1970-'76)
The 914 was conceived and developed in partnership with Volkswagen as a less costly alternative to the 911 and a replacement for the recently departed four-cylinder 912. Since it was a joint venture with VW, it was powered by a "Type 4" fuel-injected pancake four, or in the case of the 914/6, by the 911 T's carbureted flat-6.
Purists screamed that "it's not a real Porsche!" But forget all that, there's good stuff here. OK, they're not crazy fast, but they handle beautifully, have disc brakes all around and really respond to simple go-faster modifications. Plus, the 914's chiseled, blocky little body makes good use of Porsche's Targa removable roof design.
The 914s rust like crazy, and have been known to suffer engine fires, but once sorted, you'll love the experience. The sweetest among them is the 911-engine 914/6, but nowadays, any example below our price ceiling is a basket case or major resto project. Beyond that, the affordable sweet spot is the '74 2.0-liter model, which benefitted from many engineering and production line updates. Pay the $15,000-$20,000 for a really solid, clean example and you'll be happier in the long run.
9. Toyota MR2 Turbo (1990-'99)
The second generation of the Toyota MR2 (W20) was offered in 135-horsepower naturally aspirated and 200-horse turbocharged form and in two body styles: a closed coupe with a fixed roof and a "T-bar" roof configuration encompassing two small removable roof panels. A five-speed manual transaxle was standard with either powertrain, although the non-turbo car could be had with a four-speed automatic. The performer is of course the 200-hp MR2 Turbo, which is plenty for this light 2,800-pound two-seater.
This model received one substantive midlife update, for the 1994 model year, and this encompassed modest visual and appearance changes, plus a host of engineering improvements. The bigger brakes and handling improvements of these later second-gen MR2s were substantial so it's worth shopping for a '94 or later model.
Pricing is all over the map. We doubt you'll find a solid piece with reasonable miles on it for less than $5,000, and you could pay double that for a low-mile cherry example.
8. Maserati Merak (1972-'82)
In the early 1970s, French carmaker Citroen owned Maserati, and jointly they decided that the V8-engined Maserati Bora and the Citroen SM should have a love child.
A few years prior, Maserati designed, engineered and built the four-cam 2.7-liter V6 used in the edgy Citroen SM, and went to Italdesign to reconfigure the Bora body and chassis into a slightly less racy machine that was also more cost-effective to produce and could take advantage of the V6, to be named Merak (after a constellation of stars). Giugiaro designed the Bora and Merak, which is why the two cars look so similar.
The SM engine was punched out to 3.0 liters and rated at 182 hp: not a lot, but just enough for a 3,200-pound car. The only trans offered was a Citroen five-speed manual. Fortunately the Merak got the rest of big-brother Bora's good stuff, including independent control arm suspension at all four corners, four-wheel disc brakes and a super-stiff chassis. Power windows and A/C were standard.
The Merak received a midlife update, becoming the SS in 1977, which upped the horsepower to 220 DIN (about 185 horses in North American, SAE net form) although displacement remained at 3.0 liters. With some looking, you'll find nice, well-maintained Meraks for $20,000, and figure to pay $4,000-$5,000 more for an equal low-mile SS which is the best choice, but don't buy a rough SS over a right and proper standard-spec earlier car.
7. DeLorean DMC12 (1981-'82)
John Z. DeLorean managed to build and sell about 9,000 of these cars in 1981-'82. Love 'em or hate 'em, DeLoreans are an interesting piece. The two-seater was designed by Giorgio Giugiaro, of Lotus Esprit fame, who clothed the whole thing in impossibly exotic-looking brushed stainless steel.
Its engine is a 2.8-liter SOHC Peugeot/Renault/Volvo V6 rated at 130 hp in U.S. trim, backed by either a five-speed manual transmission or a three-speed automatic transaxle. DeLoreans certainly didn't have the power or performance to match their looks, but owning one today, as then, isn't about going fast; it's about style in a Back to The Future/"Hey, Look I Have Gullwing Doors" kind of way.
There's always a plethora of these cars on the market, in and around our $25K limit. Surprisingly, nearly every part needed to keep a DeLorean happy and on the road is available from an independent outfit called the DeLorean Motor Company (not to be confused with the original DMC), which sprang up in Texas some years ago.
6. Lotus Esprit (1976-'95)
Forget those pricey Aston Martins. For the everyday buyer on a non-rich-guy budget, a great Esprit is a fine way to get your Bond on.
The Esprit is powered by a tried-and-true 2.0-liter (and later 2.2-liter) DOHC inline-4, backed by a Citroen-sourced five-speed manual transaxle. With about 140 hp (in U.S. spec) on deck, the Esprit wasn't crazy fast, but the engine had enough to move its 2,700 or so pounds with alacrity.
There were many updates and several special-edition models along the car's long life, the most significant being a substantive redesign by McLaren F1 designer Peter Stevens in 1987, which updated the bumpers, spoilers and rocker panels with more modern looks and generally softened the car's origami-like body lines. The inevitable Esprit Turbo came along in the early '80s, which instantly cured the car's need for speed and is the one to buy today.
A further power injection came along in 1996 with the Esprit V8, packing a twin-turbocharged V8, but those cars cost about $40,000 today.
5. Ferrari 308 (1977-'85)
Here's a car Edmunds.com has a lot of experience with, having had one as a member of our Edmunds long-term test fleet for a little over a year. It was a 1984 308 GTS Quattrovalvole, which means it had the fuel-injected 3.0-liter V8 engine with four-valve heads, and the "S" in the name stands for Spyder, indicating a removable center roof panel.
The Pininfarina-styled 308 became well known as Tom Selleck's ride in the popular TV series Magnum, P.I. The earliest 308s are closed coupes (GTB, the "B" standing for Berlinetta) with fiberglass bodies; these are now prized among Ferrari collectors and well beyond our price range. Metal bodywork came along in 1977, running the same 205-horse 3.0-liter, Weber-carbed V8. Ever-tightening emissions regulations forced the Weber carbs into retirement for 1981, replaced by a Bosch fuel injection system.
Power was rated at the same 205 horses as the previous carbureted cars, but these 1980-'81 308 GTBi and GTSi models have become the least expensive of the 308 line, and basically the only examples available under our $25,000 price cap.
These are wonderful driving cars, but they are very expensive to fix. Every rumor and horror story you've heard about Ferrari 308 service and parts costs is true. But they are robust when well cared for. When looking at a potential example, don't scrimp on a pre-purchase inspection, and look for a thick file full of cam belt changes, tune-ups and fluids services. If all that's missing, run, don't walk, away.
4. Porsche Boxster (1997-2003)
The model-year time span we're talking about here covers most of the Boxster's first two generations, from late 1996-2004. On our budget, we're looking at "base" 986-generation, non-S models running the 2.5-liter, 201-hp engine and a five-speed manual trans. There was a Tiptronic automatic, but it's not particularly responsive and saps a lot of power, so stick with the stick.
As you'd expect, the Boxster's forte is handling: superb balance, plenty of grip, sharp responsive steering, plenty of brakes. These cars were relatively expensive when new, and usually sold fully optioned and equipped, so the likelihood of finding one in North America with cloth seats is rare. Most any example you'll look at will have A/C and power windows, plus power brakes, and ABS and power steering are standard. Boxsters are generally reliable, well-built cars, but the earliest examples (some may be titled as '96s) suffered from engine and electrical problems, so we recommend pursuing '98 and later cars.
You can't see or touch most of the engine, and if it needs major work, it must be removed for service. You might find a clean example with 50,000-100,000 miles on it for $10 grand, but we suggest seeking out somebody's lower-mileage "baby" that has been polished and serviced lovingly and on time; you'll spend closer to $20,000 for that, and even more for a 2000-'03 car (which had a slightly larger engine, nicer interior materials and more power), but you'll get something a lot more fun to own and drive. Beware the super-cheap, high-mile Boxster; like the abused Ferrari 308, it'll burn more money than gas.
3. Porsche Cayman (2007)
Although it wears a different model name, the Cayman could have been called the Boxster coupe and few people would have griped. Because, architecturally, that's essentially what it is: a coupe built on the second-generation Boxster platform.
The Cayman was launched in 2006 initially in sportier, higher-spec 3.4-liter S form, while the "base" 2.7-liter 245-horse Cayman came along shortly thereafter. The main differences are the engine size, and that the manual transmission has five ratios instead of six. The good news is that the driving experience isn't much diminished due to the smaller displacement, lack of a 6th gear or mildly softer suspension tuning and less aggressive rolling stock. That's an important distinction, as you won't find a clean, running, non-salvage-titled Cayman S anywhere near our $25K budget target.
With some hard looking and a bit of luck, you could score a dandy base Cayman in the mid-$20Ks, which would be a worthy find. Many of these cars are leased, so it's possible to find one at a dealership that just came in off a three-, four- or five-year lease. Edmunds.com's TMV is currently estimated at $24,609, varying depending upon equipment, condition and mileage.
2. Lotus Elise (2005-'09)
Some people consider the Elise only practical as a weekend track toy, not a "real car" that can be driven daily. These people are called wimps. Sure, the little Lotus is a bit Spartan and is not the easiest to climb in and out of, but it has "luxuries," too, such as air-conditioning and an audio system.
In North America, Elises use an all-aluminum 189-hp DOHC 1.8-liter Toyota inline-4 with variable valve timing, and a six-speed manual gearbox. Everything about the Elise is intended to maximize its lightness and power-to-weight ratio, which is important considering that the Toyota ZZ-series four isn't overrun with low-end torque. The engine is relatively sturdy but not burstproof, as a few owners who have tracked their cars and probed the farthest reaches of the tach have learned. But if you are all about cat-quick reflexes, lots of grip, fast steering and an unmuted driving experience, you may just love the Elise.
Since its introduction, there have been faster, sportier and rarer special editions of the Elise, but in our price range you're likely looking at a fairly early, relatively base model (not like there are many options) but you don't have to worry about rust, given the primarily aluminum chassis and plastic bodywork. Pay a little extra for a low-mile example that hasn't been beat into submission, and make sure you test-drive one before you buy; the on-road ride is harsh and the cabin is cramped if you're tall or wide.
1. Acura NSX (1991-'93)
If there's a more high-tech, highly developed, better built midengine exotic to be bought for $25,000, we don't know what it is. When Honda first revealed the car in 1990, it seemed far too good to be true. Aluminum everywhere you looked and a suspension that would be at home on most sports racers, all engineered and built by Honda, with quality and reliability built in. No strange driving position, no cheesy plastic parts falling off in your hand, with reliable electronics, A/C that worked and a slick-shifting six-speed manual transmission. The everyday exotic car was born. And for a cost of less than half the premium Italians.
Hell, its final tuning work was performed and signed off by no mere engineer, but by the late and absolutely great Honda F1 driver Ayrton Senna. Senna!
Under its hood is a symphonic all-aluminum VTEC-equipped 3.0-liter V6 that spins to 8,000 rpm and spooks out 270 hp along the way. Increased displacement (from 3.0 to 3.2 liters) followed, as did the availability of an optional automatic transaxle and a Porsche Targa-like removable roof panel, but forget about any of those in our price range. In fact, for $25,000 it'll take deep searching and some luck to find a clean, early 3.0-liter example that hasn't been overmodified and track-lapped into a steaming pile of melted-down beer cans.
We know. Last year we bought one for the Edmunds.com long-term fleet. Ours is a silver '91 that came to us in near as-new condition with low mileage, and we were happy to pay $33,000 to get it. But during that search we came across many others still worth having for that $25,000 check.