2000 Roadster Comparison Test

2000 Roadster Comparison Test

  • Full Review
  • Pricing & Specs
  • Road Tests (1)
  • Comparison (1)
  • Long-Term

2000 Honda S2000 Convertible

(3.6L V6 6-speed Manual)

  • Comparison Test
  • Two Vastly Different American Roadsters
  • Stereo Evaluation - Corvette Convertible
  • Stereo Evaluation - Plymouth Prowler
  • Corvette vs. Prowler - Performance Comparison
  • SPFs (Speed Production Factors)
  • Fifth Place - BMW M Roadster
  • Stereo Evaluation - 2000 BMW M Roadster
  • Fourth Place - Audi TT Roadster
  • Stereo Evaluation - 2001 Audi TT Roadster
  • Third Place - 2000 Porsche Boxter
  • Stereo Evaluation - 2000 Porsche Boxster
  • Second Place - 2001 Mercedes-Benz SLK
  • Stereo Evaluation - 2001 Mercedes-Benz SLK320
  • First Place - 2000 Honda S2000
  • Stereo Evaluation - 2000 Honda S2000
  • High-End Roadsters - Conclusion
  • Ten Features Every High-end Roadster Should Have
  • High-End Roadsters - Evaluation - Drive
  • High-End Roadsters - Evaluation - Ride
  • High-End Roadsters - Evaluation - Design
  • High-End Roadsters - Evaluation - Cargo/Passenger Space
  • Low-End Roadsters - Conclusion
  • Ten Features Even Cheap Roadsters Should Have
  • Low-End Roadsters - Evaluation - Drive
  • Low-End Roadsters - Evaluation - Ride
  • Low-End Roadsters - Evaluation - Design
  • Low-End Roadsters - Evaluation - Cargo/Passenger Space
  • Low-End Roadsters - Performance
  • Final Tally

Drudgery it was not. Charged with fully evaluating 10 of the hottest two-seat roadsters on the market, the Edmunds.com editorial team departed the office for a week of top-down driving through the mountains and across the plains of Central and Southern California. Wide grins covered our faces as we headed up the Pacific Coast Highway that first morning, sun to our backs, sea breezes buffeting the cabins of the cars, with mile upon mile of empty highway ahead of us.

Our loop started in Ventura and ended near Willow Springs Raceway in Lancaster, Calif. In between those cities we visited Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Cambria and Ojai before blitzing into the desert for hot laps. Our 1,000-mile trek included freeway, city and, of course, twisty two-lane driving. None of the cars left us stranded, though the Toyota MR2 Spyder got itself stuck in fourth gear and had to be limped to a Toyota dealership in Santa Maria to have a bolt from the shift linkage replaced, and the Corvette we drove was a giant pile of...well, you can fill in the blank.

As seems customary for our comparison tests lately, we were forced to rent one of the cars. Chevrolet decided 48 hours prior to our departure that they didn't want to provide us with the 2000 Millennium Yellow Corvette Convertible that we had scheduled two months prior to the test. We scrambled, and found a 1999 model through our friends at Event Vehicles (www.eventvehicles.com). Sure, the odometer read only 18,000 miles, but it had been thoroughly flogged, to the point that we couldn't evaluate the car properly. The Event Vehicle folks warned us that the car had been ridden hard and was in poor condition. They were hesitant to loan it out, but we pressed them, figuring any Corvette was better than nothing. Turns out we were wrong. The automatic transmission was in sorry shape (it freewheeled regularly when the accelerator pedal was released), the interior was trashed (we found the remains of a marijuana cigarette in the luggage compartment), the car had just gotten out of the body shop after a rear-end collision (which caused the top to get jammed in the down position during a rainstorm), and by the time we got it to the track, it was difficult to drive and control thanks to nearly bald tires. Next time we'll listen to the good people at Event Vehicles, as well as give them more than 24 hours advance notice.

We have three tests for your perusal. The Corvette vs. Prowler story, a comparison of roadsters with less than 200 horsepower that includes the BMW Z3 2.3, the Mazda Miata and the Toyota MR2 Spyder, and a five-car comparo of roadsters with more than 200 horsepower, in which the Audi TT, BMW M, Honda S2000, new-for-2001 Mercedes-Benz SLK 320 and Porsche Boxster (not the S model) competed.

Readers! Start your engines!

So you've decided to buy a two-seat roadster, but your domestic bias requires that it be an American roadster. And you're talkin' real American roadster, by the way, none of this "but the BMW Z3 and M Roadster are assembled in Spartanburg, South Carolina" crap. You demand a Big Three drop top, complete with American styling, a muscular exhaust note and plenty of Yankee attitude.

With these requirements in mind, you thumb through your handy Edmunds New Car Buyer's Guide (or, if you're reading this story, you might even use the Edmunds.com site) and quickly realize that you've got only one decision to make: Plymouth Prowler or Chevrolet Corvette? A quick check of MSRP pricing doesn't make your decision any easier; both cars start within $3,000 of each other, and while the Prowler has a theoretical pricing advantage, tales of rampant dealer gouging have you convinced that even a well-optioned Corvette Convertible could be had at a lower "out-the-door" cost than the Plymouth.

Other than appearance and drivetrain configuration (the Prowler has a V6 while the 'Vette utilizes a V8), how different are these cars, really? After 10 days of hopping back and forth between a bright red Plymouth Prowler and dark maroon Corvette Convertible, we can honestly tell you that price, seating capacity, and country of origin are the only features these two roadsters share in common. Everything from design philosophy to driving dynamics puts these two drop tops on opposite sides of the roadster spectrum.

As noted in this comparison test's main introduction, this wasn't a particularly fair fight. Truth be told, the Corvette was forced to spar with one hand tied behind its back, so to speak. Rather than the 2000 Millennium Yellow convertible we were promised by General Motors, we had to scramble at the last minute to acquire a 1999 model from our friends at Event Vehicles (www.eventvehicles.com). The best they could do on such short notice was a damaged car that was still at the body shop. Event Vehicles rushed to have the Corvette ready in time (Thanks guys!) for our departure up the California coast, but the hurried nature of our request kept the car from being 100 percent. As the days wore on the Chevy's scoring, and reliability, dropped off. In the end, we were forced to discount many of our test car's failings while simultaneously wondering what might have been if only we'd been supplied with a truly representative vehicle. Maybe next time...


The stark contrast between these two roadsters is apparent long before getting behind the wheel of either of them.

The Prowler is a modern-day hot rod in every sense of the word. From its cartoonish dimensions, with 20-inch rear wheels, to its narrow, '50s street racer shape, the car makes a statement without ever turning a wheel. Like the Viper and PT Cruiser, the Prowler began life as one of Chrysler's more exciting concept cars. A combination of consumer interest and corporate risk taking allowed the Prowler to escape the confines of auto show turnstiles and eventually take up residence at your local Plymouth dealership.

Thankfully, much of the show car's personality remained intact during the process, resulting in perhaps the most striking production car ever to roll from an American assembly line. Its short windshield, narrow body and chrome wheels ride on an aluminum frame. The Prowler's independent front suspension is clearly visible between its nose and the 17-inch front wheels that spin under tiny fenders. The rear of the car is dominated by 20-inch wheels that appear barely confined beneath a rounded tail. Only the two-piece front bumper, an obvious concession to those pesky Department of Transportation boys, clutters an otherwise sleek design.

By comparison, the Corvette has an almost sedate look. Last updated in 1997 (the same year the Prowler was introduced) the 2000 model is also called the C5 because it's the fifth generation of Corvette since Chevrolet introduced the model in 1954. The current car's clean, low profile and retractable headlights impart of sense of high-speed purpose. While the 17-inch front wheels match those of the Prowler, the rear wheels are "only" 18 inches in diameter, balancing rather than overwhelming the Corvette's hindquarters, which are themselves a bit too meaty for our tastes. More than one editor referred to the 'Vette's "bubble butt" when discussing exterior design. If we could do one thing to improve the C5, it would involve liposuctioning the rear end.

So you're left with a form that matches function (Corvette) and a form that is the function (Prowler). Both of these cars can make a statement, but when driven together, the Corvette simply disappears. Instead, all heads crane to catch a glimpse of the cool street rod that just motored by and, if you're in Los Angeles, the celebrity who's likely behind the driver's wheel. One of our drivers was even mistaken for a Hollywood producer by said producer's "friend" that started a conversation with him at a stoplight in Malibu. The poor guy's face turned almost as red as our Prowler's paint when he realized his mistake.

Appearance Advantage: Prowler

Interior Design/Storage Space

Neither Chrysler nor GM is know for their stunning interior design, so it was a real quandary as to which vehicle would take the win here.

Stumbling into the Prowler (and we do mean stumbling, since it is impossible to display any form of grace when entering this vehicle...and this is with the top down!) we are immediately aware that legroom is at a premium. Certainly that narrow outer shell looks cool, but it results in a footwell that can barely accommodate a pair of size 10 shoes. Spacing between the seat bottom and steering wheel is also tight and, combined with its high step-in height and narrow door opening, make the Prowler one of the more difficult vehicles to get in and out of.

Once inside, a bevy of plastic panels and glossy leather seat covers serve to remind you that the Prowler is, indeed, a Chrysler product. Hard plastic around the center stack controls does little to impart a sense of value in this $43,000 ride. Climate controls consist of three simple, easy-to-use dials, while the stereo is covered with too many buttons and uses an imprecise "joystick" control for fader and balance that is impossible to operate effectively when the car is in motion. Seat comfort was rated as good by most drivers with sufficient side bolstering and thick cushions that helped soften the blows dealt by the suspension.

Centrally located, white-faced gauges for speed, fuel, temperature, oil pressure, and voltage are surrounded by a body-colored panel. Resting atop the steering column is a bolt-on Auto Meter tach that accentuates the Prowler's street rod theme nicely...even though no manual transmission is available for the car.

Additional controls are limited to the power window and lock switches on the driver's armrest, audio and cruise control buttons on the steering wheel (which is itself pleasantly fat and easy to grab a hold of) and a headlight pull knob on the lower left dash.

Storage space consists of a center console with room for cassettes, a small glove box, and a sliver of space behind the seats. Oh, and technically there's a trunk. But calling those 3 cubic feet of space a trunk would be like calling Tom Cruise an actor; we're just not willing to make that kind of a stretch. Let's put it this way, if you can't wear it, don't expect it to fit in the Prowler.

Unlike the Prowler, the Corvette's interior is attractive enough to inspire hope that GM may one day find its way out of the darkness and create consistently great cabins across their entire product line. Sliding behind the 'Vette's wheel (a simple task due to the doors that open wide and an "easy entry" setting that moves the steering wheel and driver's seat when the key is pulled from the ignition) you are treated to large, easy-to-read gauges for speed and rpm. Beneath these main gauges is a small LCD display, called the Driver Information Center, can be used to display everything from tire pressure to oil temperature to traction control settings. Steering wheel and pedal placement are ideal for high performance driving, yet are comfortable enough to enjoy on a cross-country trek.

All 10 of our test drivers found it easy to get comfortable in the Corvette because of its many seating adjustments. Separate controls for upper and lower lumber, adjustable side bolstering, and even a power seat height control kept everyone smiling as they set the Corvette's cockpit for their specific frames. This level of personalization was enhanced by two-position seat memory and dual-zone climate controls (though some of us felt dual-zone climate control in a convertible seemed a bit excessive).

Power window, door lock, seat memory and mirror controls reside in a pod located on the driver's door armrest. Each of these soft-touch buttons is clearly labeled and exhibits a positive feel when operated, convincing us that GM can design attractive switchgear when they put their minds to it. The soft-touch theme is felt through the Corvette's interior where even the A-pillars have a pleasing tactile feel.

It wasn't until we took a close look at the center stack that our hearts sank. "Hey, isn't this the exact same radio faceplate as in our long-term GMC Sierra?" exclaimed our executive editor. Nice to know that GM is willing to pull from the same parts bin whether equipping a Corvette or a truck. Climate controls are also very GM-like, meaning large, blocky buttons and digital displays that would look right at home in a Miami Vice episode.

Perhaps the Corvette's greatest asset, other than pure performance, is its plentiful storage and trunk space. A large glove box and wide (though somewhat shallow) center console are accentuated by a trunk capable of holding 11.2 cubic feet of weekend getaway supplies. That's close to four times the trunk room of the Prowler. Now here's a convertible that doesn't make you pay for your top down desires with inhumane storage capacity.

The Prowler's interior, like the rest of the car, is cool from a stylistic point of view, but the 'Vette offers both coddling and cargo carrying.

Interior Design and Storage Space Advantage: Corvette


From the first turn of the key it's obvious that Plymouth and Chevrolet had different goals in mind for each of these cars.

The Prowler makes do with a 3.5-liter V6 sourced directly from Chrysler's line of LH sedans. In fact, this engine's 253 peak horsepower and 255 maximum foot-pounds of torque are the exact same performance figures you'll get when purchasing a LHS or 300M. As with the much of the interior components, we were disappointed that Chrysler would allow a vehicle like the Prowler to get out the door with such obvious LH parts bin raiding. Worse still was the flatulent exhaust note that emanated from the Prowler's chrome exhaust tips at various rpms. However, at this point we should probably just be grateful that the car is rear-wheel drive.

During acceleration testing, the Prowler surprised more than one editor with its 6.4-second zero-to-60 time and 15-second quarter-mile run. While not exactly supercar numbers, these figures do place the Prowler solidly in the realm of modern performance cars, proving it's more than just an all-show, no-go poser.

By contrast, the Corvette's forward thrust comes from a big, honking 5.7-liter V8 that makes 345 horsepower, 350 foot-pounds of torque, and one of the sweetest exhaust burbles you're likely to ever hear. This is an engine that would do any street rod proud, making it somewhat ironic that the highly advanced Corvette has pushrods and eight cylinders under its sloped hood while the retro-styled Prowler squeezes an overhead cam V6 between its narrow, upright flanks.

The Corvette's additional horsepower delivered at the track where it cleared 60 mph in 5.2 seconds before rocketing through the quarter-mile in 13.7 seconds at 104 mph. Not bad for an automatic-equipped rental car with a malfunctioning transmission (more on this later).

Acceleration Advantage: Corvette

Spend some time behind the wheel of a performance car and you'll soon realize that stopping quickly and confidently is just as crucial to the overall driving experience as rapid acceleration.

Chrysler outfitted its Prowler with disc brakes front and rear, but no ABS. This means the driver, not a computer, is the key to getting the Prowler stopped in the least possible distance. For our purposes, that distance was 140 feet when stopping from 60 mph. Not terrible, but for a $43,000 dollar car with a very expensive (and fragile-looking) front end design, we feel ABS is a no-brainer requirement.

You won't find a Corvette made in the last 10 years without ABS, so we knew the Chevy had an advantage here. Sure enough, even our beat-up rental unit came to a halt from 60 mph in a short 127 feet. A 13 foot advantage over the Prowler, which, interestingly enough, is the exact length of a Prowler.

Braking Advantage: Corvette

While Chevy's sports car clearly dominated in the acceleration and braking arena, slalom and skidpad testing proved a bit more interesting. Both cars ride on four-wheel independent suspensions and feature massive tire-and-wheel combinations with footprints the size of King Kong, but we simply couldn't imagine the Prowler giving more than a cursory showing when it came time to turn and burn.

With balding tires and a deteriorating transmission the Corvette managed a mediocre .87gs on the skid pad while being held to just 58.4 mph through the slalom. Part of this particular Corvette's problem when trying to navigate between cones was the ill-shifting automatic tranny, which repeatedly upset the car's balance. According to our road test editor, "Gear shifts occurred at strange times which made it very difficult to drive in the slalom." The 'Vette's aforementioned "bubble butt" and generally large dimensions didn't help either.

Surprising us once again was the Prowler's .85gs on the skidpad and 62.8 mph through the slalom. With a near identical skidpad figure and a superior slalom speed compared to the 'Vette, we were left scratching our heads as this previously labeled parade queen showed us she could actually dance! Placing the car in the slalom proved a challenge due to the protruding front wheels, and the Prowler's "creative" ergonomics, including the narrow footwell and center-mounted speedo, limited confidence. Yet the figures don't lie, and it became obvious to us by day's end that if you want to drive your Prowler fast, at least under track conditions, it is possible.

Slalom/Skidpad Advantage: Prowler

Open Road and Race Track

Performance figures are all well and good, but they don't tell the tale when it comes to how most people will drive their roadsters most of the time. For this test, we needed to spend some quality time cruising the best roads of Central and Southern California.

Always willing to "take one for the team" our editors headed out for a multi-day romp that included highway, twisty two-lane, and in-town driving.

Not surprisingly, the Prowler excelled at the latter, preferring a lazy cruise down Main Street (where everyone has plenty of time to take in its unique shape) to the high-pressure zone of canyon roads. Traveling through populated areas actually got annoying by the end of the week when it was time to head home and people wouldn't leave us alone. There's simply no mistaking it: If you want attention, this is the car to get.

If you want to make time, either by freeway or back road, the Prowler's design quickly becomes a liability. Bumps of any kind tend to upset the chassis and rattle passengers. This is one of the few cars we've driven that would greatly benefit, in terms of ride quality and performance, from a softer suspension. Expansion joints jolted the car at highway speeds while midcorner bumps set the chassis a-flexin', forcing drivers to crawl through the more challenging sections of road at parking lot speeds.

Keeping speeds down also meant less wind buffeting in the highly exposed cabin. Wind in your hair is one thing, but drive a Prowler over 50 mph and you get wind in your back, wind in your crotch, even wind in your ankles. Once again, the Prowler's street rod looks, which include a short windshield and side windows, sacrifice function for fun and make it clear that this is not a long-distance runner. Just be careful when pulling into the night club parking lot. Visibility is a real problem due to the high dash and door sills, meaning a scraped wheel or crunched nose is only a momentary lapse of concentration away.

If top-down travel means more to you than cruising Hollywood Blvd. while hoping to be asked for an autograph, the Corvette convertible is your car. The sleek body and tall, highly raked windshield create a serene environment from idle to 80 mph. Looking to take a run up the coast without getting wind burned, fatigued or just plain beaten up? The Corvette can answer the call with a supple ride and easygoing attitude.

The real bonus comes not from the Corvette's relaxing highway ride, but from its tight chassis and razor-sharp handling. With a dual personality that would make Dr. Jekyll envious, the Corvette is ready to please both your grand touring and canyon carving desires.

Unfortunately, at least in SoCal, Corvettes are about as rare as fake blondes, with neither getting much attention these days. Of course, after driving the Prowler for a week, we were ready for a little relaxed anonymity; meaning a Corvette ride with Meg Ryan was far more appealing to us than a Prowler cruise with Jennifer Lopez.

Open Road Advantage: Corvette

We couldn't get all these roadsters together and not spend a day at the track. Well...technically we could have, but that would have been lame. So after our sprint up the California coast and through the central valleys, we made our way over to Rosamond where Willow Springs Raceway and the tight Streets of Willow road course were waiting.

As with the skidpad and slalom testing, we assumed the Corvette would rock the Prowler's world. And, as with the skidpad and slalom testing, we were wrong! By the end of our torturous week of 300-mile test loops over varying terrain, the Corvette was on its last legs. The top no longer functioned, one of the tire pressure sensors was acting up, and the transmission literally didn't know if it was coming or going. Add in the rapidly deteriorating tires, and our editor-in-chief was done after two laps, claiming "Our Corvette sucked!!" Most of the staff concurred, feeling that the 'Vette was fun on the front straight due to its tremendous power, but through the rest of the course it felt loose and uncomposed, spinning more than once despite its stability control system. Major bummer, dude.

Taken from the harsh reality of real-world roads to the fluffy, dream-like world of a controlled racetrack, the Prowler stepped up, big time. With barely a midcorner bump to upset its overly sprung and flexy chassis, the hot-rod-turned-race-car proved a real blast at the Streets of Willow. By locating the tires at its extreme corners, Chrysler has created a highly predictable vehicle that simply will not spin. Those hulking rear Goodyear tires refuse to let go and even the front tires offer solid directional control with gradual front-end plow occurring as speeds increase. Chrysler's Autostick worked well at the track, providing quick upshifts and downshifts that kept the V6 in its powerband (though most of the course was covered in second gear). As bizarre as it felt to drive the car fast around a racetrack, it was even more mind-boggling to watch the action from pit row. As one editor stated after witnessing several Prowler hot laps, "How is it doing that? Man, that's just wrong."

Race Track Advantage: Prowler


The Corvette pulls it out...by a narrow margin. Now, before all you bowtie fans waste our time with irate e-mails, please keep in mind that we realize this test was biased from the start. A beat-up 1999 rental Corvette with 19,000 miles on it shouldn't have to square off against a shiny new Prowler with 1,800 miles. Of course, we did recently use a 26,000-mile Durango for our midsize SUV comparison test that was like new inside and out...

Anyway, you guys have to realize that we planned this test around getting a 2000 Millennium Yellow Corvette. In fact, that was the first vehicle we scheduled a full two months before the test took place and the rest of cars were scheduled based on its available dates! When General Motors told us the car was unavailable a mere two days before departure, we had no choice. We were not going to scrap the whole test. So, as they say, "you pays your money and you takes your chances."

That a Corvette in this condition still won out over a brand-new Prowler goes to the heart of what these cars represent. In the end you've got two American roadsters. One of them is a world champion at garnering attention. The other one is better at everything else. For our money, we'll take the multi-talented, functionally superior Corvette over the "lavish me with attention because it's how I measure my self worth" Prowler.

Second Opinions
Image, image, image. What other reason is there to buy a Prowler. It has zero trunk, it's cramped inside, has terrible visibility, and can only be had with a slushbox. That almost says it all. On the upside, with the wheels pushed out as far as they are, the car actually handles quite nicely, and was far more manageable in the twisties than the sick rental 'Vette we had. The huge rears and relatively skinny fronts combined with the suspension set up to really make this car understeer. This is a good thing for the prospective buyer in my estimation. After all, it's got no traction control, no stability control, and no ABS. Something has to save the poor fool who ventures deep into the limits of adhesion. There is, of course, the "chick checkout" factor; this is the car hands down. Any questions? — Dan Gardner

To me, this is a toy car. Being of a practical mind, I can't see myself ever owning a car like this. Even if I were filthy rich, I'd probably buy something else with at least a little practicality. The absence of storage space was a big turn-off. What do you do with this car after riding in the Fourth of July parade every year? Short of parking it in mothballs for another 364 days, I can't see much else. By now you're saying I'm missing the point. I'm not. I just don't like it. OK, it has a great stereo. There, I said it. — Scott Memmer

What a hoot! Is this a good car? Not really. Then why bother? Because you get noticed by everyone, 24-7, non-stop. Extroverts need only apply. Taken apart from the stylish bodywork, which employs equal parts hot rod and nautical design themes, the Prowler impresses me more for what it can do than what it cannot do. You don't expect much more than a styling exercise, but you get a decent performer that accelerates quickly enough, grips turns tenaciously enough and stops short enough to be entertaining. It suffers numerous faults, like the Autostick-only transmission, zero trunk space, crappy hand-built quality, parts bin Chrysler interior bits, poor communication with the road and lousy visibility when the top is raised, among others. But you can't help but enjoy the experience of driving the car-for limited periods of time. Eventually, the gawkers and quizzing bystanders make you want to pull out your hair. I wouldn't want this car in my garage, but I had fun driving it for 100 miles. — Christian Wardlaw.

It's really a shame that our rental car was such a mess because, despite being the progenitor of the ultimate male ego-trip car, I still think that it's plenty slick looking. I was really anticipating experiencing that Corvette legend, and the guttural growl with incredible straight-line acceleration showed me what kind of car it could have been. However, I was utterly disappointed by the fit and finish and all its little quirks, such as the tail that swings out at the slightest provocation and the auto transmission that seemed to be on its worst behavior. Certainly, allowances must be made for the fact that it's a beat-up old rental that's just been rear-ended. And things may have been different if we had the press car as promised to us. But as is, I can't recommend this car to anyone. — Liz Kim

We can talk power until you're blue in the face, and that's the only good aspect of the 'Vette. It has gobs of gut-wrenching power that will put an incessant giddy grin on you face all day long. However, our test vehicle had a fried tranny and there was something weird happening out back. Add throttle during a corner and rear suspension would quickly get out of hand. Broken shock? Maybe. Loose transaxle mounts? Probably. But when the rain came you needed to slow to a snail's pace to feel comfortable. On the track the 'Vette was also a handful, with the rear always wanting to step out and a tranny that wouldn't retain a lower gear. Would I own one? No way in hell. Would I recommend it? Only to gear heads that want to accrue mileage in quarter-mile increments. — Scott Mead

Our car was a ratted out, beaten up, slug of a car: a poor example of the breed. Based on prior experience with three different C5s, I know better than to base any judgment calls on this rental unit as delivered. One thing was glaringly obvious though, when stacked up against other cars in this test—the interior is constructed of pathetically marginal materials. Compared to the Prowler, however, the Corvette is a paragon of refinement. Little to no cowl shake, huge power, grippy brakes, decent steering feel, superior comfort and ergonomics, and world-class handling all mean that if you've got $50K to blow on an American hot rod, the Corvette is the way to go. Unless, of course, you want passersby to notice you. — Christian Wardlaw

Ranking in Class: Second out of two.

System Score: 6.5

Top Up Score: 7.0

Top Down Score: 6.0

Components. I really wish GM would have done something a little more special with this Bose system. Granted, it sounds great and provides a lot of enjoyment -- in fact, it's pretty damn good -- but why give us the same faceplate (essentially) that we find in a GMC Sierra pickup truck? I understand about family look and all that, but geesch! Maybe that's just to keep it in line with the rest of the interior, which looks like early '70s motor home.

Anyway, to the components. Aside from my smart-ass comments above, the thing works and sounds great. The radio offers 12 FM/6 AM presets on a faceplate with a usable and interesting topography. There is no cassette in this system, although it boasts a single-play CD player. The radio presets are rounded and elevated, and although there is little space between them, they are large enough to use easily. Even though the faceplate resembles something found in a pickup truck -- oops, there I go again! -- it does offer great funtionality. In addition to the large presets, the radio gives the user an oversized round volume knob, large selector switches, a bright LED readout, and pop-out switches for bass, treble, fade and balance. It's a nicely appointed and highly functional setup.

The speakers include an array of woofers, tweeters and mids in each door which point up to driver and passenger, making for great listening. The whole thing is powered by a crusher power amp that delivers beaucoup bang for the buck.

Performance, Top Up. It's a bruiser. This thing really rocks. It is one LOUD system, and maybe part of that is just so it can be heard above the roar of the monster V8. I found that the tweeters got a little "hot" at higher sound pressure levels, meaning they started to break up and get "hissy" when put to the task. The result is a cymbal digging at your ear like a toothless miner going for gold. OK if you like your ears fricasseed -- I don't. As I mentioned, this is probably the loudest stereo of all 10 in this test, and in that sense it matches perfectly the vehicle in which it resides. Muscle stereo for a muscle car. With the top up, in a small passenger compartment, this thing just about makes your ears bleed. However, I prefer a little more refinement with my gunpowder, so I'm giving it a Top Up Score of 7.0.

Performance, Top Down. Because of the speaker positioning in this vehicle, the system loses a little with the top down. Unlike the Plymouth Prowler, which has speakers in the dash hidden behind the windshield glass, the Corvette has speakers only in the doors. As a result, some of the sound is lost in the wind. This is ameliorated somewhat by the huge windshield, which reduces wind buffeting and noise, but not enough to make up for the speaker positions. It does have a lot of power in reserve, but that doesn't always carry through to the tweeters. Top Down Score: 6.0.

Best Feature: Ergonomic faceplate.

Worst Feature: Poor speaker positioning for top-down performance.

Conclusion. A rock-solid system with nice ergonomics. It's almost as loud as the engine.

Ranking in Class: First out of two.

System Score: 7.75Top Up Score: 7.5Top Down Score: 8.0

Components. The most interesting thing about this system is the placement of the speakers. A top-down roadster presents a series of engineering conundrums that a traditional sedan does not. For starters, there's no back deck to place woofers, since the rear deck is where the top goes when it's in the retracted position.

The Chrysler engineers have come up with some intriguing solutions to this problem. In fact, they were one of only three manufacturers in this test (out of 10 overall) that went out of their way to adapt their design specifically to a top-down listening environment (FYI, the other two manufacturers were Porsche and Audi).

The system begins with an 8-inch subwoofer in the center-rear wall. This is coupled to a pair of 6-inch mid-bass drivers in the doors; these speakers, in turn, are mated to a pair of tweeters beautifully positioned in the dash. The tweeters fire upward into the windshield, reflecting off the glass and providing excellent top-down listening. These cues in themselves would be enough, but Chrysler has taken it one step further by providing a pair of tweeter-midrange speakers for additional fill. Located high in the rear wall of the passenger compartment, aimed directly at the passenger and driver's heads, the mid-tweets give that little extra something that completes the system.

Electronically, the system includes a six-disc CD changer and a versatile head unit. Unfortunately, Chrysler has done nothing special on the faceplate to distinguish it from the thousands of radios they sell in their other models. It's the same tired design with the same funky two-stage presetting procedure that has irked us so much in the past. The radio offers 10 AM/10 FM presets, with a joystick for balance/fade, and a three-band graphic equalizer for tone adjustment. Nice, but no different from the radio you'd find in a three-year-old Neon. Luckily, it sounds a lot better.

Performance, Top Up. Very impressive. With the top up, this thing really cranks. Like most Chrysler stereos, it's short on refinement and long on pyrotechnics. As my notes say, "The bass really thunders in this car." And again, "If you love bass, this is your system." If you're less bass-happy, the onboard graphic equalizer will allow you to filter out at least some of the boom, taking it from Niagara Falls to, say, the Space Shuttle. Anyway, the car itself isn't very refined, so the system lends itself well to the personality of the vehicle. Top Up Score: 7.5. Performance, Top Down. It gets even better with the top down. At 70 miles an hour, with the wind blowing your hair, this stereo is still listenable and cranking. A nice power amp keeps the whole thing humping. The dash-mounted tweets, the rear wall-mounted sub, plus the rear-mounted mid-tweets all combine to enclose you in an envelope of sound. As my notes say, "There are so many speakers, you feel surrounded by sound." True, it's not Bang and Olafsun, but what do you expect at 70 mph? Top Down Score: 8.0.Best Feature: Great, thunderous subwoofer. Worst Feature: Radio presetting procedure.

Conclusion. I liked this one better than the Corvette. The dash-mounted tweeters keep the sound out of the wind and deliver awesome top-down performance.

Measurement Controls

Measurement Controls
Measurement Method Increment Significant Deviation Percentage Deduction Top Result
Acceleration 0-60mph sec 0.2 10% 5.20
Quarter Mile Time Time to sec 0.4 10% 13.7
Quarter Mile Speed Speed @ mph 1.0 10% 104.4
Braking 60-0mph feet 5.0 10% 127
Lateral Acceleration Skidpad g's 0.02 10% 0.87
Slalom Speed Slalom mph 1.0 10% 62.8

Test Results

Test Results
  Chevrolet Corvette Convertible Plymouth Prowler
Measurement Method Increment Test Results Rank Percentage Test Results Rank Percentage
Acceleration 0-60mph sec 5.20 100% 6.40 40%
Quarter Mile Time Time to sec 13.7 100% 15.0 68%
Quarter Mile Speed Speed @ mph 104.4 100% 89.7 0%
Braking 60-0mph feet 127 100% 140 74%
Lateral Acceleration Skidpad g's 0.87 100% 0.85 90%
Slalom Speed Slalom mph 58.4 56% 62.8 100%
  Average 93% Average 62%

Final Results - Vehicle Rankings

Final Results - Vehicle Rankings
Vehicle Name Average % Rank
Chevrolet Corvette Convertible 92.7% 1
Plymouth Prowler 61.9% 2

A decade after the Mazda Miata debuted to critical and consumer acclaim, re-igniting the world's passion for two-seat convertibles, it is obvious that the roadster has returned. Today the selection of mobile tanning booths is wide-ranging: Choices in the segment run the gamut from low buck, cloth upholstered, purist sports cars to overweight, overwrought GTs that cost three figures. Narrowing the field to a manageable size, we wanted to find out which model, with more than 200 horsepower and costing less than $50,000, was the one to buy.

So we rounded up an Audi TT, a BMW M Roadster, a Chevrolet Corvette, a Honda S2000, a Mercedes-Benz SLK320 and a Porsche Boxster to determine which of them does the best job of delivering the most bang for the buck while simultaneously appealing to our widely diverse testing staff. But since the Corvette turned out to be utterly incapacitated by its status as a rental car (see test introduction for details), we booted it out of this group.

In the final analysis, and at the risk of sounding wishy-washy, we discovered that there isn't a dud in this bunch. However, one model stood above the rest, boasting a whopping 2.5 percent margin of victory and inspiring plenty of passionate prose about its performance. It clearly proved to be our staff favorite due to a combination of value, handling, speed and daily drivability. Without further babble, let's discuss specifics, starting with the car that garnered the fewest points in the competition.

That's right, sports fans. Edmunds.com placed a BMW in last place. OK, now gather yourselves up off the floor, take a hit of Primatene Mist, and we'll explain how this happened. Basically, our team of evaluators likened the M Roadster to an old Cobra 427 S/C, which is great if you like old Cobra 427 S/Cs. Evidently, most of our editors didn't, even after an opportunity to drive one fast and hard. Essentially, BMW has created in the M Roadster a faithful and more modern interpretation of that fabled, big-block Shelby special. With its stump-pulling torque, short wheelbase, and twitchy handling dynamics on rumpled pavement, one Mopar-addled editor called it a "German Viper."

So, if raw-edged performance if what you're after, the M provides it in spades. How could it not, with a 240-horsepower, 3.2-liter inline six stuffed under its bulging bonnet and charged with motivating a measly 3,084 pounds? By dipping into the 236 ft-lbs. of torque, made at a reasonably low 3,800 rpm, acceleration from zero-to-60 mph measured a tire scorching 5.6 seconds.

Flowing through a five-speed manual transmission to the rear tires, power was smooth and seamless, producing effortless thrust and a sonorous exhaust note. Gear engagement was smooth and fluid, with a slightly rubbery feel to the shift action. Unlike some six-cylinder BMWs, the M was easy to launch thanks to effortless clutch take-up, making it docile around town despite terrorist moves on the track.

Brakes, though excessively squeaky on our test car, inspired confidence with excellent feel and feedback. The binders gripped with gusto, hauling the M down from 60 mph in 121 feet. However, lots of dust from the four-wheel ventilated antilock disc brakes quickly coated the massive 17-inch wheels. Giant Dunlop SP Sport tires (225/45ZR17 front and 245/40ZR17 rear) stuck tenaciously to smooth tarmac and resisted squealing, and when pushed to the limit, offered progressive breakaway, making the car great fun to throttle-steer.

Exhibiting perfect weighting at speed but deemed a tad heavy when poking along in traffic, our M Roadster's steering read the road brilliantly, telegraphing the surface to the driver unfiltered. This trait came in handy when the pavement got rough and bumpy, because the stiffly sprung BMW didn't stick to the road unless it was flawlessly flat. We also found the ride harsh and choppy, thanks to its sport-tuned suspension and short wheelbase. One test driver noted that the M's "pure chassis dynamics are a step or two behind others in this test."

On the Streets of Willow road course near Rosamond, Calif., most of our editors thoroughly enjoyed the M, drifting the car through turns with glee and accelerating down straights with abandon. After one particularly rousing session, an editor wrote: "The M Roadster is a tail-out, wheels-a-spinnin', Boxster and Honda spankin' (in a straight line, that is) good time for all." Detractors noted an oil starvation problem that had the BMW's valves puttering like an air-cooled VW after just a few laps, and short gearing that required lots of shifting between the second, third and fourth cogs to navigate the relatively tight track. One driver even reported a loud 'pop' from the rear end when the chassis flexed as the rear wheels slid laterally over a crown in the pavement on Turn 4. The large oval rearview mirror, which completely blocks vision around right-hand turns, inspiring zero confidence on public roads, wasn't as problematic on the closed Willow Springs race course, with which many of our editors are quite familiar.

For the most part, the M Roadster met all expectations in terms of outright performance, especially in the controlled environment of the track we rented. And during the urban, traffic-clogged portions of our trip, drivers found the car to be easy to drive at low speeds. Why the last-place finish, you wonder?

Ultimately, you either love the M Roadster or you don't. Outright performance aside, most of our staff found themselves drawn to other cars in the test for one reason or another. Comfort wasn't rated exceptionally high by our staff, with citations against the slippery quality of the leather that had one driver using the dead pedal to readjust his position during spirited driving. The massive side bolsters that gripped some of us too tightly and impeded entry and exit for smaller people, plus the inability for drivers outside the range of normal height to find a truly comfortable seat setting didn't help.

So, too, the cabin was determined to be a middle-of-the-road effort. Most of us liked the chrome-ringed gauges, simple climate controls, old-fashioned pullout headlight switch and two-tone interior treatment. But the cheap plastic on the center console area, control stalks blocked by thick steering wheel spokes, a creaking stereo faceplate when buttons were depressed, and a drafty cabin whether the windows were raised or lowered turned off our evaluators.

Getting in and out proved relatively easy, thanks to the tall seats. But some of us tripped over the high doorsill, and the smallest member of the test team claimed she had to "launch past the side bolsters to enter and exit." Storage areas included large door panel bins, a small center console cubby, tiny seat-base trays, and a storage net hanging from the passenger's side of the center console. The owner's manual eats most of the space inside the glove box.

Our testers complained about an irritating rattle coming from the dash, as well as obnoxiously loud power mirror motors. Our test car exhibited build quality flaws, most noticeably a schizophrenic right turn signal that blinked intermittently. The front fascia was also mounted off center, along with the right headlight cluster.

Subjective comments about exterior design were not flattering, with one opinionated editor likening the M Roadster to male genitalia on wheels. Huge, dished rear wheels provide a rather ungainly look, and when the Z3's butt was restyled for 2000, the M Roadster was left to make do with the old car's stubby tail. Most of us preferred the cleaner and better-balanced look of the Z3 2.3. All of us, however, thought the chrome-finned side gills were cool.

Final nails in the M Roadster's coffin included a plastic rear window, a lack of an airbag cutoff switch so youngsters can ride in the car, and a truly lousy sound system that Harmon Kardon should be ashamed to brand. BMW won the performance portion of this test, beating out the Honda S2000 by a hair, but lost the recommended picks and subjective evaluation portions of the scoring due to its somewhat unruly nature on public roads, and it fell mid-pack in all other areas, thereby relegating it to last place in the competition.

A Z3 3.0 debuts for 2001. With 225 horsepower and a lower price, this new Bimmer has likely signed the M Roadster's death warrant. We suspect that the 3.0, had it been available for testing, would have posted a stronger finish despite the weaker powerplant.

Second Opinions

Its fabulous powertrain delivers awesome straight-line performance, it exhibits a high-quality finish inside and out and the retro-look, chrome-rimmed dials are so cool. But this vehicle falls short in a number of areas. The sound system is among the worst of the group, and this car is miles behind the Honda in terms of performance and handling. Power is not as appealing to me as balance and versatility, and this BMW lacks a little of both.—Scott Memmer

The M Roadster is the closest thing you can buy from a new car dealer that feels like driving a big-block Cobra of yesteryear.—John Clor

Yeehaw!! Jump behind the wheel and you're placed in a nearly perfect driving position in front of easy to read, chrome-bezeled VDO gauges. Twist the key and the sound that emanates from the twin pipes is music to the ears. Release the clutch and you're instantly thrust back into the seat, followed by the double VANOS whine from the engine compartment. The gearing is perfectly matched to the powerplant's torque band. The light rear end is easy to hang out and play with, and the engine delivers the right amount of torque to make throttle steering an effortless exercise. It's totally predictable and transitions weight the best of the bunch. Granted, turn-in isn't as pretty as the Boxster, but for a front-engine vehicle, the M Roadster is as at home on the track as it is on the street.—Scott Mead

Awesome torque from an awesome engine! Problem is, this motor is poorly matched to the Z3 roadster platform. The car feels twitchy and ready to break the tail loose at any minute, like an unrefined muscle car.—Dan Gardner

The M Roadster has an AC Cobra feel to it. It's just damn fun to drive. You get the snob appeal of a Bimmer with the balls-out thrills of a big-block muscle car. Among the five cars in this group, the BMW's chassis dynamics are truly unique. The Honda is in one corner, the SLK and TT in another, and the M Roadster is in a separate building.—Miles Cook

Convertible Top Commentary

Time to drop: 8 seconds
Time to raise: 10 seconds
Time to install boot cover with two people: 46 seconds
Time to remove boot cover with two people: 19 seconds

Ease of use: Manual latches on either end of windshield header require muscle to operate. Power motor lowers top only after leading edge of top has been manually pushed up and away from the windshield and the brake pedal is depressed.

Ranking in Class: Fourth out of five.

System Score: 4.25

Top Up Score: 6.0

Top Down Score: 3.5

Components. Other than the appearance of a Harman-Kardon logo on the subwoofer grill, this would appear to be the same system that is in the BMW Z3. It certainly sounds about the same. The system consists of an 8-inch subwoofer along the back wall of the passenger compartment, between and behind the seats. Also, along that same back wall, for added fill, a pair of 4-inch full-range speakers are tucked behind the seats. Another pair of small full-range speakers occupy the kick panel in front, near where your feet reside. These are mated to a pair of door-mounted tweeters that occupy the very uppermost front edge of the doors, near the side mirrors. The tweeters are exceptionally well placed and afford superb listenability.

On the radio side, the system boasts a classy-looking faceplate that is the essence of simplicity. The whole instrument panel of this car is done up in retro throwback styling, with round, sixties-looking dials rimmed in chrome that looks quite cool. Although the radio is not surrounded by chrome (wouldn't that be a sight), it does fit in nicely with the overall look of the interior. Somehow, it seems less cluttered than most of the other radios in this test, although it has all the essential features.

The radio includes 6AM/12 FM presets and a single-play CD, but is lacking a cassette player. The red digital read-out gives great visibility, day or night, and matches the read-out of the main instrument cluster. The buttons are widely spaced and extremely easy to access. Fade, balance, bass and treble -- all are easy to find and adjust. The radio is the perfect height in the dash; just rest your wrist on the gearshift knob, and away you go.

Performance, Top Up. This is one of those systems that looks and feels great, but, as with many BMW audio systems, just doesn't have the oomph to get up and dance. The biggest problem is the subwoofer design and some desperately needed amplification. In this particular car, with less than 10,000 miles on it, the subwoofer is already blown, exhibiting serious performance problems. This means it sounds like flup-flup-flup instead of Boom-Boom-Boom. It probably has a torn woofer cone, or a melted voice coil, or both. That's not good, folks, and it's a sign that Harman-Kardon, and by extension BMW, have both approved designed parameters that were -- well, let's just say it -- flat out WRONG for this car. Subwoofers blow for three reasons: too little power from the amp, wrong enclosure size, or sloppy suspension (like a too-soft shock absorber). Anyway, the woofer is blown, and sounds pretty bad. It's actually OK when run at lower levels with the top up, but as soon as you put any volume to it or kick up the bass, it bottoms out terribly. The rest of the speakers sound OK, but this was a sure precursor of the system from hell when the top went down. Top Up Score: 6.0.

Performance, Top Down. And that's exactly what happened. With the top down, this system really crapped out. Any loading of the subwoofer produced immediate and noticeable bottoming out. As Scotty used to say in the old Star Trek series: "Cap'n, she's about to blow!" This thing needs some fresh dilithium crystals, and while you're at it throw in a new subwoofer cone. Top-Down Score: 2.5

On a more serious note, this design miscue will cost HK and BMW a bundle in warranty claims and replacement costs. Best to engineer it right the first time, boys, and save yourself a load of headaches.

Best Feature: Classy looking faceplate that is easy to use.

Worst Feature: Poor subwoofer design.

Conclusion. In my opinion, this car is already overpriced compared to the competition. With other manufacturers such as Porsche and Audi installing cutting-edge audio gear in their roadsters, BMW needs to get with the program. This is really a lackluster effort from an otherwise venerable automaker.

Rolling automotive art. That's what the TT is. Based on our testing, it certainly fails as an outright performance car. Think of it as an antidote to a BMW M Roadster virus, and you'll not only understand the Audi's mission in the marketplace but also why it ranked so far down the scale in this competition. It beat the Bimmer only because it has more real-world practicality and a full load of features that our evaluators found desirable in a high-dollar roadster. But when a driving enthusiast pushes it in terms of performance, disappointment sets in unless a snowstorm is raging and Bridgestone Blizzaks have been mounted at each corner.

Weight and a laggardly turbocharged engine are the culprits here, along with soft suspension tuning and numb steering. Throw in a somewhat vague shifter with long throws and the fun factor pales in comparison to other cars in this test.

Our TT, equipped with Quattro all-wheel drive and weighing a porky 3,473 pounds, was infused with a dual-intercooled, turbocharged, 1.8-liter inline four whose origins are identical to that of the Volkswagen New Beetle 1.8T. Making 225 horsepower at 5,900 rpm and 207 ft-lbs. of torque between 2,200 and 5,500 rpm, the engine's surprising burst of power as revs climb can catch the unaware off guard, particularly in heavy traffic, when the TT suddenly threatens to catapult itself into the Blocker Beam of the Ford Excursion spewing excessive pollutants into the air in front of you. If not launched properly, turbo lag is frustrating, but midrange power is extraordinary. This explains a middling zero-to-60 time of 7.0 seconds during acceleration testing.

Channeling power to all four wheels, the six-speed manual transmission was deemed a tad notchy by some members of our staff, with notations about difficulty finding gates, missed shifts, crunched gears and vague feel peppering trip notes. We all found clutch take-up to be smooth, and we liked the divoted "baseball" shift knob, stylishly trimmed in leather and aluminum.

Staff commentary about braking puzzled this writer. Some referred to excellent pedal feel, progressive modulation, and strong response while other comments carped about an overly stiff pedal that was hard to modulate under heavy braking, and that the car didn't stop quickly enough. Regardless, we got the TT, equipped with four-wheel ventilated discs with ABS and EBD, halted from 60 mph in 120 feet, one foot shorter than the vaunted BMW.

When driven back-to-back with its competitors, you can feel the TT's mass taxing the suspension, a four-wheel independent setup on Quattro models. On the open road, the Audi soaks up bumps blissfully, providing an unfettered ride and instilling a sense of stability and security. Pick up the pace and you'll notice that the car wallows on dips, but body roll is nicely controlled in all but the tightest of turns. Overall, Audi has engineered an excellent compromise between comfort and performance; this is a cruiser not a bruiser.

With Quattro all-wheel drive and 225/45ZR17 Bridgestone Potenzas connecting the car to the road, grip is good, with controlled breakaway and zero sidewall squish at the limit. It's not a great handling car by any means, but what it is capable of doing to entertain in the twisties can be attributed primarily to the competent tires and AWD system. The steering gear isn't doing much to make you giggle, that's for sure. Light on-center, it filters too much feedback from the road. Excellent weighting makes twisting the rim easy, and the rack slides perfectly for sweepers but a bit slowly for hairpins.

At the track, the TT was out of its element. One editor, who had never turned down hot laps in his life, pitted early in an effort to save the car unnecessary wear after three frustrating attempts to get the TT into a groove. Weight and soft suspension tuning were killing the tires, which howled in pain on nearly every turn at the Streets of Willow. Additionally, our test car was stumbling in third gear on the high-speed straight due to a suspected fuel delivery problem.

Yes, the TT Roadster is more of a boulevard cruiser than a canyon carver. And this suits some folks just fine. "Foul-weather dwellers will appreciate the TT, as will artsy-fartsy types," opined one evaluator. One look inside the lusciously tailored cabin may convince even hardcore performance nuts to forego at-the-limit dynamics for the high style and quality materials found inside this squat Audi.

Aluminum and leather dominate a decidedly industrial theme that blends retro and modern design elements into one enticing package. You could sit inside an Audi TT for hours marveling over the attention to detail, quality of construction, and thoughtful amenities while reveling in the crystalline sound quality pumped through the optional Bose audio system (which operates under retained accessory power if desired). One writer interpreted some themes as nautical in nature, claiming that they reminded him of the old 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea submarine ride at Disneyland. Another called it amazingly well conceived. To varying degrees, we all loved it. Like Pinocchio and the Velveteen Rabbit, the concept TT's interior has been made "real."

As tricked out as the accommodations are inside, what makes the cabin particularly pleasing, especially on chilly nights along the beach, is the innovative power glass windblocker. A button on the center console raises and lowers a tinted glass panel behind the twin silver rollover hoops. With the windows up and blocker raised, minimal buffeting makes its way to occupants. Considering that the seat heaters offer five different temperature settings, you could theoretically use the TT's folding top nine months out of the year. In Minnesota. But with the windows down and blocker lowered, prepare to lose your hat, because wind buffeting is excessive. And if Junior wants to come along and feel the wind (chill) in his hair, you can deactivate the passenger's side airbag for the young 'uns to join in the fun.

Our staff raved about the ease with which the TT could be entered and exited, as well as seat comfort, describing the chairs as firm and supportive while offering enough seat track travel for even the tallest (well over 6 feet) drivers. Just one grizzled scribe felt differently, writing in the logbook: "The manual seatback adjuster knob is hard to twist. The height adjuster puts me too close to the dash when raised up, and the steering wheel won't tilt further out of the way to keep my knees from contacting it when operating the pedals. Why can't I tilt the seat cushion in addition to raising it? And why aren't there any power adjustments in this $40K-plus automobile? The attractively upholstered seats are, overall, comfortable, but are too large and poorly bolstered to hold me in place during spirited driving. The driver's seatbelt buckle drops to the floor when I reach for the belt and it takes several moments to find it and get strapped in -- this is irritating. The odd reverse-facing visors are no good for clip-style radar detectors." Nobody concurred with a single one of his negative assessments, though some weren't bonkers about the $1,000 baseball-stitched leather, which was already wearing and weathering on our test car.

As for the rest of the cabin, what's not to love besides the seat stitching? Forced to take a backseat to style, ergonomics are not sound. Fussy non-intuitive climate controls and identically sized and spaced sound system buttons that force the driver's eyes off the road, as well as the dopey CD changer location (behind the driver's seat), took the hardest hits from our test team. Runners up included a flimsy and fragile feeling control stalk, hints of cheapness in plastic parts and hidden auto-up/down power window controls. Some drivers couldn't find the fuel door release in the covered center console cubby, and it was great fun to watch them pore through the car and the owner's manual while sitting at a gas pump, at least until the rest of the cars were ready for the next leg of the trip while the Audi still required a fill-up. Perhaps the worst ergonomic flaw was the lack of steering wheel audio controls. The embossed aluminum radio faceplate cover is so damn attractive that you can't help but employ it. The problem is that you're forced to open the cover each time you want to fiddle with the controls.

Also dismaying for such a new, and otherwise stout, design is the cowl shake exhibited by the TT. The dashboard and windshield wiggled on rough pavement. Still, we found our test TT to be constructed to impressively exacting build standards, with one evaluator saying that fit and finish were "beyond reproach." But that didn't stop our sound system reviewer from detecting an irritating rattle in the driver's door panel.

Artfully styled (what else?) aluminum-framed cupholders appeared to be designed to hold a variety of containers, but were located far toward the rear of the cabin on the center console. That's OK, they were too pretty to use; spilling a Coke might mar their beautiful finish. One tester accidentally bumped open the rear center storage bin stretching for his frosty beverage. Speaking of storage, there are plenty of places to stash stuff inside the TT Roadster, including a good-sized glove box, a handy tray located under the dash forward of the passenger's seat, two bins fore and aft on the center console, and netting on the doors. Similarly, the trunk is usefully roomy, though the liftover is high.

Remember our Miss Piggy references years ago, when the TT first debuted? Our portly, Quattro roadster qualified for that description, especially in Nimbus Gray. Our test team tried hard to appreciate the car from an artistic point of view, but in the end and after several pitchers of beer, we declared it an ugly pug. One editor asked, "Is it coming or going?" Two of us referenced candy in our notes, with one claiming it looked like a gumball going down the road and another referencing M&Ms. Two others equated it to an industrially styled, squashed and stretched Volkswagen New Beetle. "Quirky in a distinctly German way," is how our photographer likened the TT's sheetmetal — Ich bien Deutsche!

Benefits of TT Quattro ownership include foul-weather drivability, terrific turbo power, individualistic styling inside and out, a full load of luxury-style amenities and a smooth highway ride. But style comes before grace in the house of Audi, and the TT suffers numerous ergonomic flaws and instills disgust rather than a thrill when driven hard. The bottom line is that the Audi TT Roadster makes you feel good without traveling at high rates of velocity. That's makes sense for some people, but not us.

Second Opinions
OK, I'm a freak. I loved this car. With the baseball-stitched leather, stainless steel trim, exposed Allen head screws, and unusual forms and shapes inside the cabin, piloting the TT was like driving rolling art. It also packed many useful features, like a power glass windblocker, heated seats with multiple settings, a tilting and telescoping steering wheel, and easily configurable seats. Plus, the TT felt very stable on the road, smooth riding on highways and easy to maneuver through turns. — Scott Jacobs

The Audi is a very heavy and very stiff vehicle, which for a roadster provides a confidence-inspiring feeling, but nicks away at the overall fun factor. There's absolutely no torque at low rpms and the top end is as flat as Kansas. On the track, I found third gear to run out of steam and the power in fourth came on just as I was entering the braking zone. The Quattro system did an admirable job of pulling the vehicle through the corners, but the extra weight only chewed up the tires. — Scott Mead

Although it is a bit heavy and unresponsive, it drives great on the highway, has a peppy motor under the hood and a great sound system to boot. It's also wonderfully finished on the interior, with some strange (and questionable) design cues. I felt they were aiming for the same customer as Mercedes is with the SLK, and for thousands less this car represents a good value. It's fun, different looking, and well made; a solid machine. — Scott Memmer

It certainly is lovely to behold, this round, well-appointed apparition. From its slick, rotund exterior to its scrumptious, aluminum-laden center stack, it imparts a sense of style that is always appreciated but never appropriated by American sensibilities. I was, however, disappointed by the Audi's ride quality. The heaviest vehicle of the bunch, it felt portly around corners, and it just wasn't as much fun as the others were, beginning with the utter lack of low-end torque. The steering is a tad uncommunicative as well, isolating the driver from the road. Overall, I wasn't terribly impressed by the performance of the TT, but then they shouldn't have made it look so attractive -- it raised expectations too high. — Liz Kim

Our TT exhibited the most impressive interior design I've seen outside of concept cars; the cabin is truly a work of art. The exterior shape is also unique, and it pushes the right passion buttons. Odd that all that work was put into such a daring design, yet the turbo four just doesn't sing like its competitors, and the cruisin' ride comes unglued at the racetrack -- Quattro and all. The TT is a brilliant design inside and out. Too bad the underpinnings and mechanicals didn't get the same breakthrough "clean sheet" approach. — John Clor

Convertible Top Commentary

Time to drop: 7 seconds
Time to raise: 13 seconds
Time to install boot cover with two people: 22 seconds
Time to remove boot cover with two people: 11 seconds

Ease of use: Center-mounted manual latch requires too much muscle to release and fasten.

Porsche's captivating Boxster is a purpose-built sports car for people who love a challenge, designed to go fast and provide optimum feedback while demanding the driver's undivided attention. It rewards skilled pilots with an unparalleled thrill ride, and punishes severely those who fail to respect the physics of its rear-biased weight distribution. Comfortable for two and capable of transporting more than a couple of overnight bags, its primary downfalls lie with a poorly outfitted interior and the fact that little comes standard on the basic car. Even cruise control is optional. The studs from Stuttgart ought to consider a visit to Audi's Ingolstadt headquarters for a lesson on how cabin content is done.

Since we had driven the Boxster S just prior to this test, we decided to see how the more affordable standard model would stack up against the competition. Porsche has bumped output from the boxer engine that resides amidships this year, boosting both displacement and power. Up from 201 horses last year, the updated 2.7-liter flat six makes 217 horsepower at 6,500 rpm, accessible through a new drive-by-wire throttle. With just 192 ft-lbs. of twist available at a rather lofty 4,500 rpm, it's no wonder that our test team complained that the Boxster felt heavy and lethargic in comparison to the torquey BMW and Benz.

In reality, it weighs just 2,778 pounds, 31 pounds less than the Honda S2000, making it the lightest car in this test. "Needs more power to command this premium," wrote one evaluator. "Power band is flat down low, right where you want some punch exiting a corner. Launches slowly off the line," asserted another. But once the motor got spooled up and its lovely exhaust note began to wail, we were pacified. "Sounds like a Swiss watch amplified 10,000 times," enthused a notation in our logbook. Acceleration testing proved that the least expensive Porsche on the market is no slouch, recording a 6.3-second run from zero-to-60 mph.

Finding the Boxster stupid simple to heel-and-toe in preparation for entering a corner, our staff downgraded the transmission in a couple of other areas. First, one editor complained about contact between his knee and the steering wheel when operating the clutch. Several of us noted long throws between gears and a "loosey-goosey" (yes, that is the technical term) shifter. Gates were deemed notchy, and the clutch required more effort than the others to operate smoothly. Yet, nobody groused much about the end result, which is that when driven hard, as a Porsche is designed to be, shifting became nearly transparent.

Similarly, during normal driving, testers griped about a stiff brake pedal that was difficult to modulate, and pads that didn't seem as grippy as others in the test. One editor with large feet claimed the edge of his shoe often got stuck on the back of the brake pedal as he lifted off the throttle. Run this puppy hard and comments change tone: "Unflappable - stops on a dime with zero fade." But, since the Boxster posted the longest stopping distance at 123 feet from 60 mph, we're inclined to think that our test car either had worn brakes when it was delivered to us, or that Porsche needs to upgrade the system in terms of pedal feel and responsiveness.

With just 46 percent of the Boxster's mass over the front axle, the front end tended to bob like a 26-foot Chris Craft cutting through light chop over undulating pavement. But overall, ride quality was impressive, thanks in part to the Boxster's lengthy wheelbase and surprisingly compliant suspension tuning. Body roll was quelled nicely, and the car cornered with a flat stance. But several drivers were nervous about pushing the Porsche's limits, knowing that even a moment's lack of attention to weight management and chassis balance could result in disaster.

Pirelli P-Zero tires, sized 205/55ZR17 in front and 225/50ZR17 at the rear, provided excellent grip, but released with little warning if the car's weight wasn't managed just right in a corner. They also wore quickly and were the only tires to melt during laps at Willow Springs. On public roads, they wanted to follow grooves in the pavement. "Great sidewall stiffness equals awesome cornering but little predictability," read one logbook entry. Perhaps Michelin Pilots are the answer here.

"Constant thrum and shudder vibrated the steering wheel during my stint behind the wheel," noted another driver with regard to the steering, "and this got old quickly. Feedback is amazing, but it's just too much on poorly maintained city streets and country byways." Some of our drivers also griped about the heft of the steering at low speeds, wishing for more boost, and several pilots lamented the lack of a tilt function. However, overall we found the Boxster's steering to be sharp, direct, and quick. At the track, it performed flawlessly on the flat, unrumpled pavement.

But not everyone was happy with the Boxster after wheel time at Willow Springs. One experienced editor who drove the Porsche immediately after the Honda found it to be a sloppy handler, feeling too large, undersprung and unresponsive in comparison to the stout little S2000. Another who hit the track in the Boxster for his first set of laps was thrilled with the way the mid-engined sports car pirouetted around its centralized mass, drifting it through sweepers on the edge of balance, a fat grin plastered on his face. We all agreed that the Porsche was easy to heel-and-toe, and that, free from the rigors of poorly patched pavement, the steering was spot on. Transitional ability was determined to be awe-inspiring by those who'd been through a driving school or two.

Despite shortcomings, real or perceived, we all agreed that the Boxster has a sneaky way of urging you to drive it fast and hard. "I didn't want to give back the keys!" exclaimed one editor in the logbook. Some people just can't say no to a challenge. We challenge Porsche to create a much-improved interior for the Boxster. Our comments about materials used in the construction of the cabin were not kind, and ergonomically, much of the dash was a disaster.

Porsche claims to have added upgraded interior materials and soft-touch surfaces to the dash for 2001, but our team of evaluators found instead that cheap, glossy black plastic switchgear marked with often-cryptic symbols littered the interior. 'Click' and 'clack' accurately describe the tactile quality of much of the controls. The turn signals felt flimsy, the cruise stalk wobbled, the shift boot was termed "cheap-ass" (another technical term to go along with "loosey-goosey"). There were lots of 'plugs' in the dash of our lightly equipped test car where equipment we didn't have would have been installed. Characterized by one driver as "fuzzy dice" carpeting, the floor coverings had a shaggy, 1970s look to them.

Covered with teensy buttons that had no immediately discernable functions, especially if the sun was shining directly on the dashboard, the stereo was a nightmare to operate, and the design served as an effective deterrent to keep the music off and enjoy the mechanical symphony behind the driver's head instead. Simpler to understand and use, if you knew German (manuell means manual, right?), was the climate control system. CD holders ate space in what could have served as a good-sized dashboard cubby, and there was no cupholder(s).

For the record, we did like the snazzy aluminum door handles, and the racing-inspired location of the ignition, high on the left side of the dash. And, as a proper driver's car should, the giant tachometer is presented dead center in the gauge cluster, with the speedometer serving as the secondary display with both analog and digital readouts.

Fortunately, there's plenty of room for two adults in the Boxster, and the supple leather seats are mighty comfortable for most folks, though we wished for a power, rather than manual, height adjuster to go along with the electric backrest recliner. Substantial bolstering holds occupants in place on tight turns, and nicely sculpted door panels provide a great spot to rest an arm while driving. A telescoping wheel is helpful when searching for a proper driving position, but some test drivers wanted a tilt function, too. Because the driver and passenger sit so far forward on the Boxster's platform, the left front wheel well is somewhat intrusive, and the pedals are offset slightly to the right. Entry and exit was hampered by the low-set steering wheel, which made it difficult for some to swing their legs when getting into the car while rubbing on thighs upon departing. Despite wide doors, exiting the low-slung Porsche with grace eluded a couple of staffers with aging kneecaps.

Prepare to have your hair tousled with the windows up and the wind blocker in place. With the windows down, the cabin gets downright drafty in spite of the Plexiglas screen spanning the rollover hoops. Cowl shake is nearly non-existent, with only slight amounts of shimmy evident. Generally, the Boxster is as solid as a German battleship.

Front and rear trunk wells accommodate an impressive amount of cargo. Inside, both door armrests serve duty as storage bins, as there is no glove box. A relatively useless seat base tray is attached to the passenger's seat, and a decent-sized dash cubby supplements average center console storage space. A large, slotted panel behind the seats also proves to be a good place to stash stuff, while a storage slot under the steering column is great for CDs.

Interior parts and pieces will wiggle when pressure is placed upon them, and we did detect some minor misalignments of exterior panels. Otherwise, fit and finish is hard to fault. But Porsche might want to rethink the design of the script "Boxster" badge on the rear of the car. Susceptible to breakage by overeager car detailers, this was the second time a neat freak in our office snapped the bottom of the "B" off on a terry-cloth towel.

As for exterior design, only two staffers didn't get all hot and bothered by the Boxster. "Sex" has never appeared so often in an Edmunds.com logbook: "One of the sexiest cars on the road." "Love it, love it, love it. Bulbous enough to be sexy yet still clean and pure of line." "Gorgeous! Smooth, sexy lines - the most attractive car of the test." "Sexy, strong, clean, curvy and classy." "Sexy, athletic, but not a 'look at me' exotic." Our lone female participant wrote: "The jury's still out on this one - it looks squat like a toad." A final editor chimed in with this rather sterile entry, which, come to think of it, could be representative of his problem: "Hate the headlight design. Front overhang is excessive. The car looks out of balance in profile. Rear three-quarter view is this vehicle's best angle."

As a daily driver, the Porsche isn't well equipped to deal with the realities of ever-changing weather conditions, multi-tasking behind the steering wheel, and low-speed traffic situations. Its delicately balanced chassis, confounding interior ergonomics, lack of a cupholder and stiff steering, brakes and clutch conspire to make it a chore around town. Pick the Mercedes SLK320 if your primary driving environment resembles Los Angeles during the Democratic National Convention.

Rather, the Porsche Boxster shines as a weekend getaway vehicle, providing comfort and space for two adults and their belongings with driving characteristics improving at speed. Take the long way, running hard on as many twisty two-lane roads as you can find with someone who loves road trips just as much as you do, and you'll immensely enjoy one of the most memorable overnight vacations you've had in years.

Second Opinions
Trust is hard to come by, and Porsches don't have my trust. They bite when you least expect them to. As a result, I drive like a weenie whenever I get behind the wheel of one. Despite this lack of faith, it is hard to fault such a great, purpose-built driving machine. Interior ergonomics are a disaster, and there isn't a cupholder, but otherwise this is a fine roadster with plenty of trunk space and lots of comfort for two. That mellifluous exhaust note soothes the soul. On the track, the Boxster was a delight. On the road, it provided a supple ride and excellent feedback. But it's not worth the premium over the Honda S2000 unless you're heavy into tailoring a vehicle specifically for you, via Porsche's extensive options list.—Jon Raintree

The Boxster is one of my favorites as it reminds me of an old 356 Speedster in terms of handling, road feel and gauge layout. Although the package is well balanced, the Boxster still rotates its rear end too easily. God forbid you should find some gravel strewn across your lane in a turn. A spin is almost guaranteed. Generally, the Boxster sticks like glue in the twisties, but there's no warning or "gray area" when you're about to step outside the suspension's boundaries. You're either on line, or out of line.—Scott Mead

The Boxster rides beautifully, providing a driving experience like no other. It's got amazing steering, throttle response, and an exhaust note that possesses a pleasing pitch. Razor sharp braking and an enchantingly easy roof operation shoot it to the top of the list for me.—Liz Kim

Where this car has no rival is when it comes to balance, that essential quality that racers look for in every car they drive. It also has telepathic steering, strong brakes and a stout transmission. I'm displeased by some of the organic design elements inside the cabin, and I don't like the glossy plastics used throughout, but I can't argue against a car that can handle this well.—Dan Gardner

Storage space is staggering. The stereo is specifically designed for top-down listening, and it sounds great. Steering feel and suspension damping are close to perfect. The roof latch is a snap to use. The storage armrests on the doors are a delight. On the open road, with top down and the radio blasting, this car is just flat-out fun to drive. Next to the Honda S2000, I found it to be the most entertaining car in the test.—Scott Memmer

Convertible Top Commentary

Time to drop: 12 seconds
Time to raise: 13 seconds
Time to install boot cover with two people: None, it's integrated with top mechanism.
Time to remove boot cover with two people: None, it's integrated with top mechanism.

Ease of use: A centrally located manual latch is easy to release and fasten. Power operation takes over once the top is released.

Ranking in Class: Second out of five.

System Score: 7.25

Top Up Score: 6.5

Top Down Score: 8.0

Components. The system consists of a pair of dashboard-mounted midrange-tweeter combination speakers that fire directly up into the windshield. These are coupled to a pair of 6-inch woofers in the doors, which produce great bass. The speakers are powered by a significant power amplifier, which gives this system an excellent top-down sound. The radio, however, is the one of the worst designs I've ever seen. The preset buttons are miniscule and have no spacing between them, making it difficult to choose stations with any certainty -- a major problem considering how fast you'll be moving in this vehicle. A row of buttons along the top of the faceplate have strange markings and letterings, most of which do little to clue you into their function. I found the radio confusing and difficult to use, and marked off heavily for ergonomics and lack of user-friendliness. A single-play CD player occupies the dash as well. The system does not include a cassette deck.

Performance, Top Up. This is one of best sounding systems in the comparison test. The bass is thundering and just plain loud. The highs are soaring and aggressive. It's a great system for getting out on the road and cruising, the faster the better. Everything is perfect in this system except for one thing: unbalanced sound. Because the mids and tweets are positioned in the dash directly in front of the passengers, reflecting off the windshield glass and into the passenger compartment, and because glass is a very acoustically "bright" material, you're left with a system that just about tears your head off with its aggressive sound. This in itself is not a problem, and a lot of headbangers will love banging their heads with this system; but for those of us with an, a-hem, more refined sensibility, Porsche should have built a graphic eq. into the system to supply enough flexibility in the tone controls to back the system down when desired. Granted, the setup is perfect for top-down driving, but sometimes it rains and snows (in Germany, for instance) and you must leave the top up. The design is innovative and forward-thinking, but not as versatile or flexible as it could be.

Performance, Top Down. When I first laid eyes on this system, I thought it would win the top-down sound check no contest. The idea the Porsche engineers had here -- and it's a brilliant one -- was to hide the tweets and mids out of harm's way behind the windshield glass. It works great. In fact, I tested the system on AM talk radio and the announcers' voices were clear and listenable at all times. Unfortunately, the system is still marred with the midrange aggressiveness alluded to above, even with the top down. Maybe this system would be the flat-out top-down winner at 140 mph on the Autobahn, but here in the States, where we have to start looking in our rearview mirrors above 70 mph, it still has too much aggressiveness. A shame too, because all it needs is a little more tone control flexibility to make it perfect.

Another minor concern. I drove this vehicle for two hours with the top down. During that time, the system kept kicking off the CD player and reverting to FM mode. This happened at least a dozen times. It seemed to have something to do with the wind-generated sound pressure levels, because it occurred mostly under overpasses and above 60 mph. Maybe we got a bum unit. Porsche should look into this.

Best Feature: Dash-mounted mids and tweets.

Worst Feature: Very poor radio ergonomics.

Conclusion. A great top-down system, and a strong contender overall. If you like your music as aggressive as second and third gear in this car, this may be the perfect sound system for you. As for me, I prefer a little toning down.

What a Cinderella story. With the installation of a 215-horsepower V6 under the hood and an AMG-style sport package to liven up the exterior, the Mercedes-Benz SLK has been transformed from a white-bread wallflower into a sensual seductress in one fell swoop. Had the six-speed transmission's shifter been more enjoyable to row, the Benz may have landed in the winner's circle.

Let's start with a discussion of the new motor. Engineers shoehorned the 3.2-liter six-cylinder engine from the E-Class into the SLK, where it makes its 215 ponies at 5,700 rpm. A big, fat, wide torque band peaks at 229 ft-lbs. between 3,000 and 4,600 rpm. Couple these figures with a smooth, quiet, refined demeanor and a sweet exhaust note (compared to the flatulent tone of the SLK230), and you've got an enticing powerplant. One test driver called it "turbine smooth." Another praised it as "stout" with "great pull in the midrange." We managed to extract a zero-to-60 time of 6.7 seconds from the SLK.

What caused the powertrain to ultimately disappoint our evaluators was the crappy six-speed manual transmission charged with routing power to the rear wheels. In fact, the balky clutch take-up, floppy shifter, vague feel, murky gates and lousy heel-and-toe pedal arrangement are to blame for almost dragging the Benz to third place after all was said and done. Jerky around town and generally unpleasant to operate, the SLK's manual gearbox garnered only one positive comment in the logbook: "Good gearing." Since Mercedes claims the optional TouchShift automatic doesn't result in slower acceleration times and actually provides better fuel economy, we highly recommend it.

Our entire test team praised the brakes. With ventilated front discs, ABS and Brake Assist, the SLK stopped from 60 mph in an astounding 112 feet. From our trip notes: "Well-balanced brakes with intuitive pedal feel and wonderfully progressive engagement. Absolutely perfect."

Too bad praise wasn't equally unanimous for the suspension, which provided a taut highway ride without controlling body roll in corners and felt too soft at the track to accommodate serious speed. "Stiffer than expected on public roads," offered one driver. Another noted, "No drama or excitement because little gets communicated." Overall, the SLK felt heavy (though in reality, it weighs just 15 more pounds than the BMW), which imparted a sense of solidity and security, catering to the car's core customer. But the SLK was not sporting enough for many members of our troop.

Fortunately, the outstanding Michelin Pilot SX tires (225/45ZR17 front and 245/40ZR17 rear) provided prodigious amounts of grip, helping the SLK handle better than it had a right to. It was difficult to break them loose from the pavement, but when we did, they offered progressive scrub at the limit. Our team of evaluators found them to be quiet at cruising speed with little squealing in turns, and highly effective in the rain, too.

Continuing in the loved-it-hated-it vein, we weren't crazy about the recirculating ball steering gear in the Benz. We said it was "a tad heavy, numb and slow, but with nice off-center weighting." Most of us noted how pleasing it was to hold the wood and leather steering wheel rim, which was trimmed with soft leather along the top of the wheel and a lovely wood insert on the inside of the rim. We also wished for a tilt function, which would have helped us to find an optimal driving position.

Like the Audi, the Benz is not a track car. The suspension is too soft in this environment, the steering too light and numb, the shifter too difficult to use, the pedals too far apart for heel-and-toe. Plus, the rock-hard center console is not a comfortable place to brace a leg or knee, and the Electronic Stability Program (ESP) kicks in, even if the driver has attempted to defeat the system. Evidently, Mercedes isn't willing to trust a driver's ability to recognize when he is in over his head, keeping this electronic nanny operative in "defeat mode," but only after it's blatantly obvious control has been lost to fate.

The result of all this hemming and hawing over the SLK's driving dynamics was middle-of-the-road commentary when the time came to discuss how fun the Benz was to drive. Typical staff opinion went along the lines of, "More enjoyable than I expected, but not optimal in comparison to some cars in this class." Perhaps "Classy and refined, but fun? Nah." more clearly expresses our thoughts on the subject. The driver who found himself hustling the SLK along a rain-soaked mountain road was quite impressed, writing: "This car was a blast, thanks to the hardtop, ESP and great tires - where do I sign up?"

Signing up is easy to do, considering the cabin improvements Mercedes has wrought upon the SLK for 2001. Rich wood, soft leather, chrome accents and white-faced gauges create a more mature and aesthetically pleasing environment. We're particularly thrilled that the faux carbon fiber dash trim, which wouldn't have fooled Ray Charles, is gone from the SLK320. Overall, the interior exhibits a simplistic design, though many of our evaluators griped about the complexity of the stereo, which thoughtfully includes a weatherband feature. At least the head unit's LCD screen didn't wash out in direct sunlight, which was initially a concern. Some buttons, knobs and switches felt cheaper than they should have, and our car didn't have an in-dash CD player or changer. Those less familiar with Mercedes-Benz products reviled the cruise control stalk's location, often confusing it for the turn signal. Visors couldn't support one editor's Valentine One radar detector, the visor mirrors lacked illumination, and the chrome gauge bezels reflected too much glare onto the gauge faces for at least one editor. We also took issue with some of the more cryptic control markings.

Roomy foot and leg wells were appreciated, and though the seats lacked acceptable bolstering for rapid transit, they were big and comfy enough for highway travel, with good thigh support. One of our taller drivers wished for a smidgen more seat track travel. Slightly high doorsills proved to be the only impediment to entry and exit, with most drivers noting that the SLK's large doors open nearly 90 degrees.

Hair will muss at speed with the top down, but with the side windows up and the fussy fabric wind blocker installed, it's relatively calm in the cabin. Driving in the rain with the top down, water beaded on the side window and dripped onto the driver's left arm (Where else are you gonna get this kind of information? Motor Trend?). Taking the blocker off and powering down the windows, which don't lower completely into the doors and haven't got a one-touch up feature, resulted in the eruption of a whirlwind inside. Structurally, the three-year-old SLK proved more solid than we expected. Some detected minor cowl shake, but most ranked it non-existent. "Cowl shake? What cowl shake? It's damn near a sedan!" scribbled one of our obnoxiously caffeinated staffers.

Caffeinated beverages could be placed in either of two non-adjustable cupholders that deploy from the top of the dash. They're easy to use, but force taller drinks into the driver's field of vision. They also threaten the center stack stereo and climate controls with sticky dripped soda syrup, and create an unfinished appearance to the dash when closed. But, this prominent placement tells you something about the SLK customer, doesn't it? The center console has a large storage bin and a good-sized slot for smaller items like cell phones. Supplementing this storage space is a large dash slot, huge glove box, decent door pockets (one of which houses the thick owner's manual), and a pouch on the rear cabin wall.

With the top raised, the trunk measures 9.5 cubic feet. Lowered, the folded metal eats up plenty of space, but what room is left serves adequately for light packers. Loading and unloading necessitates that the top be raised to create enough space to remove items, and Mercedes has thoughtfully added a sensor that won't allow you to fold the top down unless the cargo cover that separates the trunk from the top's storage well has been pulled into place. The low liftover into the trunk is appreciated.

A renegade piece of plastic was loose inside our test car, and the cupholder tray was slightly misaligned, but otherwise build quality proved flawless. Some voiced concerns over the expected longevity and potential repair cost associated with the folding top mechanism, but most comments mirrored these: "Marvelous paint quality and terrific fit and finish." "The Benz is built stronger than a brick s___house!"

Styling was applauded, with one test driver claiming the 320 "looks less like a chickmobile than the 230." With the obscenely priced $4,135 sport package included on our test car, it isn't any wonder. The only useful parts of this package are the 17-inch wheels and tires; we could live without the body kit and integrated fog lights. Still, had the car not been so equipped, comments like "Gorgeous, sexy, stylish and classy," might not have been penned. Opinion was split on the grille, a silver-painted plastic panel designed to look like drilled metal, but more of us liked it than disliked it. We also thought the integrated turn signal lenses on the back of the sideview mirrors were a great idea. "Fun, but serious" summed up our opinions of the SLK's styling.

Two interesting technologies bear mention. First is Tele Aid, which incorporates a GPS to determine your car's location and cellular service to Mercedes-Benz "client assistance" personnel. Using this telematics system, owners can call for emergency help by pressing the SOS button, contact roadside assistance by clicking the button with a wrench emblazoned upon it, or ask questions about the car by punching the information button (marked with "i"). Owners must sign up for service and connection charges, but Mercedes eats the tab for the first year.

Second is the BabySmart airbag deactivation system, which annoys the family types on staff. Rather than provide, like other automakers, a lockable switch to shut down the passenger airbag so that a generically branded car seat can be installed and children can enjoy the wonders of top-down motoring, Mercedes forces consumers to buy a special BabySmart car seat from the local dealer, which communicates with the airbag system via sensors that won't work with just any old baby seat.

Despite our disagreement that a consumer should be forced into selecting a specific brand of child safety seat to use in the SLK320, we genuinely like the car. It's a great compromise between comfortable touring convertible and road warrior performance machine. Better still, it serves duty as both a coupe and a convertible, without ever forcing the driver to leave the seat.

Second Opinions
I found this to be the most versatile vehicle in this test, performing decently in all categories, but not well enough to ascend to the top spot. In the SLK, you can drive to the country club with your golf gear stowed in the trunk for a morning round, then zip to your afternoon business meeting in an air-conditioned cocoon, then loosen your tie and fly home through the canyons with the top stowed neatly behind you. Wow, what a great car. I say bring on an AMG version.—Neil Chirico

S2000 and Boxster too racy for you? Bimmer tail happy? TT too soft? Try the SLK320, a happy medium that will hold appeal for a wide range of drivers. It is a perfect compromise vehicle.—Miles Cook

The SLK320 is a refined luxury roadster with enough purr and growl to satisfy even the most discriminating driver while oozing sophistication and class. One slam of the door tells you it's a Mercedes-Benz, with a heritage of quality and solid construction. It didn't shine as brightly as others on the track, but for open road cruising and canyon running it more than held its own. I voted this my No. 1 "recommended" pick in this class because it does so few things wrong and is extremely easy on the eyes and ears.—Scott Memmer

What a difference the V6 makes. Appreciable gains in power aren't realized, but the additional torque and massive improvement in exhaust note are worth the price of entry. A manual is appreciated, but not this one. Thanks for nothing, Mercedes. With its vague gates, sloppy play and lack of feel and feedback, I'd take the automatic over this do-it-yourselfer. Back on a positive note, the SLK handles in a fashion that belies its appreciable weightiness. The retractable hardtop represents far more than marketing and electronic wizardry, providing a coupe and a convertible in one tidy package.—Dan Gardner

The SLK320 goes against the grain of the true roadster. Rather, it is a gentleman's GT. Nevertheless, the SLK is a dream to drive, with a powerplant that sends you to MACH 1 like a screaming banshee. I found the suspension to be slightly soft on both the street and the track, precluding truly spirited driving. At Willow Springs, the ESP was quite intrusive, to the point that I had to shut the system "off" to gain optimal speed around the course. The SLK continually bottomed out at the Turn 1 exit cone and the sloppy shifter, which offered vague gates and numb feel, did not impress me. But most SLK owners won't push their cars to the limit, using them instead for cruising to the hair salon in Malibu or the gym in Westchester, and that's fine, because that's what this vehicle was designed for.—Scott Mead

Convertible Top Commentary

Time to drop: 22 seconds
Time to raise: 28 seconds
Time to install boot cover with two people: None, the trunk lid covers the folded top.
Time to remove boot cover with two people: None, the trunk lid covers the folded top.

Ease of use: One button, hands-free operation is exceptionally simple.

Ranking in Class: Third out of five.

System Score: 5.0

Top Up Score: 5.5

Top Down Score: 4.5

Components. This is a nice system in desperate need of a CD player. There are a pair of 4x6 oval speakers located in the rear wall, behind the seats. These are supplemented in the doors by a pair of 6-inch full-range drivers, which in turn are rolled off to a pair of dome tweeters in the upper portion of each door. Ergonomically, the controls are less than ideal. It takes a while to get the hang of the faceplate, which is laid out similarly to some Mercedes vehicles, but operates differently than others in the product line. For instance, most new MB radios have a rocker panel on the left side with a rubberized knob in the middle. In some cars, such as this vehicle, the knob serves for volume control and the rocker panel works seek/scan and other functions; in other Mercedes vehicles, the knob is a function selector. You never know what you're going to find. Mercedes should consider standardizing if for no other reason than so they don't confuse lazy automotive journalists. Seriously, it is a little bedeviling at times.

Performance, Top Up. Mercedes has a habit of supplying their lower line vehicles with mediocre sound systems and their top line vehicles with the best stuff on the planet. This system falls into the former category. Surprisingly, it just doesn't sound that good compared to other Mercedes vehicles and to other cars in this test. Considering the size of the front speakers, the system produces a lot of bass and sound pressure; it just doesn't measure up to others in the test, especially for a car that is one of the most expensive of all ten vehicles in this test. Top-Up Score: 5.5.

Performance, Top Down. The tweeters lack ideal positioning in this car, which causes most of the higher frequencies to get lost in the wind. Also, the power amp begins to lose juice when you push it too hard, making everything garbled and potentially damaging the speakers. Top-Down Score: 4.5.

Best Feature: Large video display.

Worst Feature: Poor tweeter placement.

Conclusion. Similar to the Honda, this is a car that deserves a better stereo. Although this system is more than adequate, there are better ones in the test, some in cars that cost less.

Who'da thunk a Honda could inspire such passion, in both our test drivers and readers of this sentence? We can predict the content of the torrent of e-mail that is about to pour into our inbox. They go pretty much like this: "How can you guys rank a high-revving Honda with a four-banger and minimal features No. 1?" "Your value equation doesn't add up. Honda dealers are gouging at least five grand, and if you bothered to take that into consideration, then maybe the Honda wouldn't have ranked as highly as it did." "A Honda cannot possibly compete in the same class as a Porsche, Mercedes-Benz, or BMW. It doesn't possess the pedigree or feature content required in this class."

Well, we did, it does, and this was a test of roadsters with more than 200 horsepower costing less than $50,000, so a lack of brand cachet and interior doodads weren't determining factors. As for actual transaction prices, the Honda pulled off the win by a large enough margin that, even if we based the value portion of the scoring upon the fact that consumers actually pay more than MSRP at some dealerships for a new S2000, it still would have taken the top slot. (Our editor in chief knows a guy who just bought a black S2000 at MSRP, so this assertion doesn't hold water anyway. Not all dealers are out to rape consumers.)

We do concede, however, that the Honda is best characterized as a single-minded, surgically precise driving tool. If you're not looking to drive like an escaped mental patient the majority of the time and want to be coddled for trips over to Nordstrom, the Audi or Benz is more your speed. Furthermore, the S2000 is not likely to inspire envy or get you some action at the club. Choose the BMW or Porsche for that. But if you're looking for a serious car that's serious about performance, search no further than the awesome but austere Honda S2000.

From its somewhat gimmicky but sweetly effective bright red Start button to its controversial F1-inspired digital gauge cluster, perfect 50/50 weight distribution and in-wheel suspension system, the S2000 is about driving fast. But to access the power supplied by the 2.0-liter, DOHC four-cylinder engine, you've gotta rev it hard like a motorcycle. The tiny powerplant is able to make 240 horses, but the power peak is at an incredible 8,300 rpm. Variable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control (VTEC) is responsible for this prodigious output, but, as expected from a small-displacement engine, torque is nothing to brag about, measuring just 153 ft-lbs. at 7,500 rpm.

Nonetheless, driven hard the way engineers intended, the S2000 sprinted from rest to 60 mph in 5.9 seconds. Below 6,000 rpm, the Honda is docile, behaving more like a Miata than a Mangusta. Once VTEC makes its appearance, the car rockets forward, sounding and behaving much like one of the company's CBR1100 bullet bikes. One editor likened the power delivery this way: "The VTEC is like a light switch -- no power, click, holy smoke power!"

A close-ratioed, six-speed manual transmission transfers motive force to the rear wheels. With its satisfying snick-snick shift action, easy to modulate clutch, and rubber-nubbed aluminum pedals set up perfectly for heel-and-toeing, the Honda's gearbox is an enthusiast's dream. However, we found that until acclimated to the tight gates, it can be easy to miss shifts. The understated aluminum shift knob looks great and gives the drab cabin a dash of character, but on sunny days, it gets mighty hot to the touch if the S2000 is left parked with the top down.

S2000's light 2,809-pound curb weight and substantial four-wheel disc ABS brakes equate to instantaneous response. Our test car took just 113 feet to stop from 60 mph. Feel and feedback was determined to be spot-on, but some evaluators thought the pedal could use more progressive travel.

Tight and light on its feet, S2000 provides a stiff ride, but stays solidly glued to the ground. With double-wishbone suspension design, the Honda is easy to drift thanks to progressive breakaway and pure, unfiltered communication through the chassis. "Perfectly calibrated, the suspension is the best aspect of the S2000," claimed one test driver. "Tuned to perfection," said another. "Absolutely phenomenal chassis setup and balance. Excellent feel and compliance, superb manners and composure," asserted our resident industry veteran.

Of course, the S2000's tires also deserve to bask in praise when it comes to handling. The Bridgestone Potenza SO-2s, sized 205/55R16 up front and 225/50R16 at the rear, served up prodigious grip with no sidewall squish and plenty of warning about approaching traction limits. Better still, they rarely squealed in pain, taking all we could dish out in confidence-inspiring silence.

Even drivers of average skill, like those of us who conducted this test, can place the S2000 exactly where they want to in corners, thanks to delightfully direct, scalpel sharp steering. This ability came in handy at the track, where we unanimously enjoyed the Honda, stealing extra laps in the S2000 every chance we could.

With exceptional control at the limit, we felt the S2000 could be drifted at the edge of adhesion without danger. One editor had to take a few laps to get his heel-and-toeing and shifting sorted out, but once he acclimated himself to the car, it fit like a glove. Thereafter, he sped around the Streets of Willow with wild abandon, confident in the Honda's ability to take all he could dish out and warn him when luck was outpacing skill.

The key to the S2000 is this: you've gotta wring it out. Otherwise, it behaves more like a Miata in terms of the driving experience. Added torque, we all agreed, would make it perfect. "Fun to drive fast, but rather docile when driven slow," was the logbook quote that summed it up best.

Where the Honda fell down in our rankings was feature content, which can be guessed by viewing the decidedly Spartan, monotone interior. Our red test car was all black inside. Other S2000s can be equipped with red leather for some extra spice.

Though several evaluators found the bottom cushion a tad short, we all agreed that the S2000 proved comfortable, even over the course of 300-400 miles at a time. Thick side bolstering holds occupants tightly for twisty road running and a healthy level of lumbar support staves off backache. The seating position is ideal for most, despite the lack of a tilt wheel, but one editor wished for a seat height adjuster.

Constructed mostly of high-quality materials, the cabin features soft-touch surfaces throughout. Hard plastics appear to be cheap, however, and some drivers noted that parts inside shook and rattled on rough pavement.

Primary switchgear is clustered around the steering wheel where they are easy to reach and use, though the fan speed control is fussy with seven settings from which to choose. The stock Honda stereo, with too many buttons and teensy lettering for markings, is evidently not in keeping with the S2000's minimalist design theme, so it gets hidden behind a flip-down cover. Plus, sound quality was found to be abysmal. And why can't the large "Audio Control" push-button sitting to the left of the steering wheel serve double duty as a volume control knob? The power mirror controls are awkward to use. A single cupholder that looks difficult to clean exists, and interferes with shifting.

"Drab and plain," sum up our sentiments regarding the cabin design, despite the F1-inspired digital tach and speedometer that most of us wished could be replaced with conventional analog gauges. One more creative type wrote in the logbook, "The Spartan look reminds me of a camcorder control panel." Despite what sounds like less than a ringing endorsement of interior styling, the take-away from this discussion is that the S2000 prioritizes function over form. In general, the minimal number of features operate with a minimum of fuss and hassle.

In addition to a dearth of doodads, storage was limited inside the S2000. There is no glove box or any door pockets. An awkwardly placed bin is affixed between the seats on the back wall, but without padding inside, whatever gets placed in there will rattle. There is a small center console slot, and a net that runs the length of the center tunnel on the passenger's side. Fortunately, the trunk is accommodating as long as the boot cover is removed, able to swallow two good-sized duffel bags with ease.

Getting in and out of the S2000 proved troublesome due to a tall doorsill, a tight door opening, an intrusive dash and thickly bolstered seats. The tall rear cabin wall and small plastic wind blocker proved effective at keeping drafts out of the cabin when the side windows were raised. Drop the windows down, however, and it gets drafty. But with vents that are perfectly placed to warm torsos on chilly nights, you can still enjoy the starlight without discomfort.

S2000 exhibits zero cowl shake, though with the top lowered, bumps brought out a squeak from over the driver's left shoulder. Still, our team was bowled over by the Honda's chassis stiffness, "One of the stoutest structures I've ever experienced, including vehicles with fixed roofs," explained one staffer in the logbook.

Most of our drivers liked the way the S2000 looked, highlighting the aggressive front styling with its wide-mouthed air intake, astoundingly short front overhang and dramatically upswept headlights and front fenders. Commentary regarding the rear end of the car ranged from "boring" to "Ferrari-like," which tells you nothing except that, as always, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Call it purposeful, in keeping with the design theme of the entire vehicle.

We did have a few gripes about the car. For starters, some of us wondered why a power top was included on a vehicle ostensibly built for low weight and maximum speed. We feel it should be optional, with manual operation standard. Besides, given the choice, our test team would swap the power-activated top for a glass rear window with defogger any day of the week. We were also bummed by the fact that a passenger airbag cutoff switch is non-existent, precluding summertime drives with kids under the age of 10. The already lousy sound system suffered from poor reception, and the turning circle was wider than expected at 35.4 feet. Finally, the power point is inconveniently located on the back wall of the cabin, meaning radar detector cords, which will be present if you've bought this car for its singular purpose, get stretched across the interior.

Surgically precise in all of its mechanical movements, you can make the S2000 dance any number you like. Want to bop around town without dipping into the power, achieving an EPA-rated 26 mpg in the process? Keep the revs down and the car will loaf like your neighbor's Civic. Want to tear out the throat of the punk kid in the Mustang GT next to you? Drop the hammer and keep the pedal pegged all the way up to nine grand, enjoying the banshee shriek of the VTEC motor. With its light weight, quick steering, magnificent brakes and stout chassis, the Honda S2000 goes, stops and handles like nothing on this planet. Luxury buyers won't find much to like about the delightfully minimalist cabin, but there's nothing in there to distract from the task at hand -- driving like a bat out of hell.

Second Opinions
When I turned eight, my grandfather built me a go-kart with a 250cc Kawasaki engine. It handled like it was on rails and went like gangbusters. Until now, I've wanted to get into another kart, as I've never driven an automobile that feels like you're riding on a slot car. Now I can say that I've found a true grown-ups go-kart -- the Honda S2000. Like a kart, the chassis is as solid as granite with absolutely no cowl shake and zero body flex in hard corners. The powerplant spins at incredible numbers, and I have to admit that tooling around in sixth gear and taching at nearly 5 grand takes some acclimation, but it's a song you quickly learn the words to. The steering, like an old Triumph TR-3, is lightning fast and precise. The tranny is well mated to the engine's torque band and the shifter has that racing "tink" as it engages gates. The seating position is near perfect, but the digital gauges have got to go, optimally replaced with clear, analog VDO displays like those in the BMW. A true racecar for the streets, the S2000 was a dream to flog around the track.—Scott Mead

The steering, suspension, brakes, tires and chassis are phenomenal! I knew the Honda would be great fun to drive, but who could have guessed the experience would be otherworldly. The S2000 is more fun to drive than most other street-legal, four-wheeled thrill rides on Earth.—Miles Cook

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I'm almost tongue-tied with admiration for this little road rocket. Honda has really blown the doors off the competition with this gem of a roadster, inspiring me to give it top scores almost across the board. Flat out, hands down the most fun to drive roadster on our trip. I marked it down for the anemic stereo and Civic-inspired interior, and for being a little short on storage space and character, but aside from these minor shortcomings, the car is nearly perfect. Congrats to Honda on one hell of an accomplishment.—Scott Memmer

A screaming engine and world-class chassis make the Honda a true enthusiast's car. Chassis dynamics are firm yet compliant, with great predictability and impressive roadholding -- a point-and-shoot track star with incredible athleticism. Understated looks and a simplistic interior make this one sleeper of a roadster. The S2000's limits are way beyond those of most drivers. Too bad it doesn't look the part. Its performance is tough to match.—John Clor

Minimalist interior with a hardcore soul pretty much sums up the Honda S2000. It looks great, handles better than anything in this test, and inspires ungodly amounts of speed. But the peaky powertrain serves as a double-edged sword. On deserted desert highways and mountain roads, where you can really dip into the power, the S2000 rules the roost. It sounds like you're driving an F1 car as you scream toward the 9,000 rpm redline. But in the city, the torque-deficient Honda is weak, unable to point and squirt into holes in traffic like the other cars we tested. It loses top ranking in my book for that reason.—Scott Jacobs

Convertible Top Commentary

Time to drop: 6 seconds
Time to raise: 13 seconds
Time to install boot cover with two people: 34 seconds
Time to remove boot cover with two people: 25 seconds

Ease of use: Manual latches at either end of the windshield header are easy to release, but slightly fussy to fasten. Power operation takes over once latches are released.

Ranking in Class: Fifth out of five.

System Score: 3.0

Top Up Score: 2.5

Top Down Score: 3.5

Components. Well, you probably wouldn't buy this car for the sound system anyway -- and that'd be a wise decision, since this one is a real disappointment. My notes start out this way:

For such a great little roadster, this car has a surprisingly pedestriansound system. For starters, the radio looks like it was lifted directlyfrom the Civic. Yuck! The faceplate is very plain Vanilla Honda(not even chocolate or strawberry, folks). You come to expect something more from a car of this caliber.

Not that the Civic has such a horrible radio, but you wish Honda had paid a little more attention to detail here.

The system includes a pair of 6-inch full-range speakers in the doors (no tweeters), and that's it speakerwise, ladies and gents. Electronics include a faceplate that is positioned too low in the dash (partially blocked by the gearshift knob) and which offers crowded buttons and bunched-together controls. This is augmented by dash-mounted controls to the left of the steering column (volume up or down, CD seek/scan, radio seek/scan), which aid in keeping the driver's eyes elevated and on the road (and you'll want that in this little pocket rocket). The radio does not include a cassette.

Performance, Top Up. The best part about this system is the surprisingly aggressive bass response, which really thunders with certain source material. Unfortunately, the amplifier may also be from the Civic, because this thing runs out of steam just when it's starting to sound good. The rest of it is just so-so, and with the loud engine it all sounds a little strained. Top-Up Score: 2.5.

Performance, Top Down. The problems with the amplifier get worse with the top down. Wind and road noise, on top of engine growl, make for lousy listening. This is further exacerbated by having full-range speakers in the bottoms of the doors (away from your ears) and no tweeters up high to supplement them. The result is great sound at your kneecaps and not much above.

Best Feature: Deep bass response.

Worst Feature: Weak power amp.

Conclusion. As stated at the outset, you probably wouldn't buy this car for the sound system. Still, it would've been nice for Honda to fine-tune this one a little more.

From the outset, we knew each of these cars would be enticing in different ways, all of them desirable to one degree or another. That still stands true. The BMW, Audi, Porsche and Mercedes all scored within a few percentage points of each other, and in some circles, the margin for error could essentially result in a statistical tie between the four. The second-place Benz was a pleasant surprise, giving the Honda a run for first place. We only wish we'd had the TouchShift automatic instead.

But we didn't expect such distinct personalities to emerge from the five cars. Truly, your selection between any of them depends on your priorities and needs in a high-powered roadster. The BMW is the muscle car of the group; the Audi a showy, all-weather piece of rolling artistry; the Porsche a modern interpretation of the 356 Speedster, built for speed at the hands of a skilled driver and the Mercedes is the buttoned-down, conservative luxury GT of the test.

Standing head and shoulders above this quartet of German drop tops, in our opinion, is the Honda S2000. It must be driven to be believed, and not just around the block at the local auto mall. Get it out onto your favorite stretch of twisty road and let 'er rip. Of course, no Honda dealer will let you do this. In fact, considering that demand continues to outstrip the limited supply of S2000s coming to America, you might not even get to take one for a test drive.

So you'll just have to trust us. If you want a precision driving tool and nothing more, get the Honda.

After 1,000 miles of top-down travel, and more than a week of poking and prodding the Audi TT Roadster, BMW M Roadster, Honda S2000, Mercedes-Benz SLK320 and Porsche Boxster, we thought we had a pretty good idea what the 10 most important features, aside from outright performance, are in such a car.

We made lists of all the neat things with which each of the cars came equipped, and whittled them down during a rigorous voting process. When the dust settled and the votes had been tallied, the Audi TT came out on top, equipped with nine of the 10 items we most wanted in a big-dollar two-seater. Next up was the well-equipped Mercedes-Benz, followed by the BMW M Roadster and the Porsche Boxster. As expected, the bare bones but inexpensive Honda S2000 trailed by a significant margin, supplying us with just three of the desired features.

Audi TT BMW M-Roadster Honda S2000 Mercedes- Benz SLK Porsche Boxster
Auto down/up windows 2 2 0 0 2
Glass rear window w/defrost 2 0 0 2 0
Heated Seats 2 2 0 1 1
Premium audio 2 2 0 2 1
Remote keyless entry 2 0 2 2 2
Rollover protection system 2 2 2 2 2
Side airbags 2 2 0 2 2
Stability/traction control systems 0 0 0 2 0
Tilt/telescoping wheel 2 0 0 0 0
Windblocker 2 0 1 2 1
Total Scores 18 10 5 15 11
0 = Not available as option 1 = Available as option 2 = Standard Feature

Automatic up and down windows:
The Audi, BMW and Porsche all included this feature, which allows the driver, with a single touch of a button, to lower or raise a window without having to sit and wait for the glass to power up, holding the button down the entire time. The SLK320 had automatic down for both front windows (and up, which was integrated only with the power top mechanism), while the Honda provided auto-down for just the driver's window.

Glass rear window with defroster:
Yeah, um, if the Toyota MR2 Spyder and Mazda Miata can come equipped with these at prices less than $25,000, then we expect them to be included on vehicles sold in this lofty economic stratosphere. Only the Audi TT and Mercedes-Benz SLK provided distortion-free glass with a defroster, making either the obvious choice if you're planning to use one of these cars as a daily driver in a city other than, say, Phoenix or Tucson. The BMW, Honda and Porsche all had rippled, scratched plastic backlights. Yuck.

Heated seats:
Roadster owners tend to be fanatical about driving with the top down, and if they aren't we'd ask, "Why would you buy one in the first place?" Anyway, it's always a pleasure to ride topless along the coast or up in the mountains on a frosty fall evening, and heated seats help take the edge off the chill. The Audi and BMW have them standard, the Benz and Porsche provide them optionally, and Honda apparently thinks you should just put on another sweater and some long pants.

Premium audio:
Dude, you've gotta be able to hear your tunes with the top down, right? Honda, surprise, doesn't give you a premium audio option, and it shows. Porsche offers upgraded equipment at extra cost. Too bad the upgrade doesn't include a new faceplate in the dash. Mercedes and Audi supply Bose equipment that sounds damn good, while Harmon Kardon installs an embarrassingly lame audio system in the M Roadster.

Remote keyless entry:
Even the S2000 came equipped with this feature, but the BMW didn't, leaving us spoiled automotive journalists to lock its doors with the key. Pull out the violin.

Rollover protection system:
Happy, happy, joy, joy! All of the roadsters in this test had rollover hoops behind the seats to help support the vehicle in the event it flipped over.

Side airbags:
Roadsters are not large cars, despite the fact that some of them weigh nearly two tons. Occupants need all the protection they can get, including side airbags. Honda doesn't seem to see it this way, even though the Accord has them. What, only families want to remain protected if somebody T-bones them at an intersection?

Stability and traction control systems:
Let's face facts —people drive like lunatics when they get behind the wheel of a powerful something-or-other. They need electronic nannies, because they don't know how to recognize when they're approaching the vehicle's limits. Only the Benz supplies both of these technologies to buyers. The BMW comes with standard traction control, and Porsche offers it as an option. In the Audi and Honda, you're on your own when the rain pours and the snow flies, though something tells us the TT's Quattro system helps in nasty weather.

Tilt and telescoping steering wheel:
Roadsters beg to be driven hard and fast. To do so properly, you've got to be positioned perfectly to maintain control of the vehicle. You can't do that without a tilting and telescoping wheel. Only Audi sees to it that you can have both. The Mercedes and Porsche telescope only. And the BMW and Honda offer a fixed steering column to drivers.

Wind blocker:
Don't you hate it when you pull up to your sweetie's house in a snazzy two-seater and you get an earful about how riding with the top down will cause a bad hair date? With a wind blocker in place, maybe it won't be an issue. The Audi's is best, a power-operated glass panel that rises like a phoenix from the rear deck. Mercedes gives you one as well, a cheesy mesh fabric contraption that takes too long to install. Porsche supplies a creaking Plexiglas number between the rear rollover hoops, as does Honda, optionally on both. The M Roadster doesn't get one. The word from Munich? "You vill enjoy ze breeze."

Engine Performance
Vehicle Score Ranking
BMW 9.4 1
Mercedes Benz 8.7 2
Porsche 8.6 3
Honda 8.3 4
Audi 7 5
Transmission Performance
Vehicle Score Ranking
Honda 9.6 1
Porsche 8.4 2
BMW 8.3 3
Audi 7.7 4
Mercedes Benz 5.4 5
Braking Performance
Vehicle Score Ranking
Honda 9.4 1
Mercedes Benz 9.1 2
BMW 8.7 3
Porsche 8.6 4
Audi 7.3 5
Suspension Performance
Vehicle Score Ranking
Honda 9.9 1
Porsche 9 2
Mercedes Benz 7.7 3 (t)
Audi 7.7 3 (t)
BMW 7.6 5
Tire Performance
Vehicle Score Ranking
Honda 9.7 1
Mercedes Benz 9.1 2
BMW 8.7 3
Porsche 8.1 4
Audi 7.7 5
Steering Performance
Vehicle Score Ranking
Honda 9.4 1
Porsche 8.6 2
BMW 8.6 3
Mercedes Benz 7.7 4
Audi 7.9 5
Fun to Drive
Vehicle Score Ranking
Honda 9 1
Porsche 8.7 2
BMW 7.7 3
Mercedes Benz 7.3 4
Audi 7 5
Seat Comfort
Vehicle Score Ranking
Audi 9 1
Honda 8.7 2
Mercedes Benz 8.4 3
Porsche 8.3 4
BMW 7.6 5
Wind Buffeting
Vehicle Score Ranking
Mercedes Benz 8.6 1 (t)
Porsche 8.6 1 (t)
Audi 8 3
Honda 7.4 4
BMW 5.9 5
Cowl Shake
Vehicle Score Ranking
Mercedes Benz 9 1
Porsche 8.9 2
Honda 8.4 3
Audi 8.3 4
BMW 7 5
Interior Materials
Vehicle Score Ranking
Audi 9.1 1
Mercedes Benz 9 2
Porsche 7.4 3
Honda 7.3 4 (t)
BMW 7.3 4 (t)
Vehicle Score Ranking
Mercedes Benz 8.4 1
Honda 7.6 2
Audi 7 3
BMW 6.9 4
Porsche 5.7 5
Secondary Controls
Vehicle Score Ranking
Honda 8.1 1
Audi 8 2
BMW 7.1 3 (t)
Porsche 7.1 3 (t)
Mercedes Benz 7 5
Vehicle Score Ranking
Audi 7.6 1
Mercedes Benz 5.8 2
Honda 5.6 3
BMW 5.3 4
Porsche 0.9 5
Exterior Design
Vehicle Score Ranking
Porsche 9.1 1
Honda 8.4 2
Mercedes Benz 8.1 3
BMW 7.7 4
Audi 6.9 5
Overall Build Quality
Vehicle Score Ranking
Audi 9.4 1
Mercedes Benz 9.3 2
Honda 8.9 3
Porsche 8.1 4
BMW 7.7 5
Vehicle Score Ranking
Mercedes Benz 9.3 1
Audi 9.1 2
Honda 8.3 3 (t)
Porsche 8.3 3 (t)
BMW 7.1 5
Expanding/Loading Cargo
Vehicle Score Ranking
Porsche 9.6 1
BMW 8.1 2
Mercedes Benz 7.7 3 (t)
Honda 7.7 3 (t)
Audi 7.6 5
Storage Space
Vehicle Score Ranking
Porsche 9.4 1
Mercedes Benz 8.4 2
Audi 7.6 3
BMW 6.9 4
Honda 5.7 5

What did we learn during our six-day long, 1,200-mile test? Always wear sunscreen, even on your scalp. Don't put your duffel bag beneath the satchel containing tire cleaner —it's gonna leak. Despite appearances, washing and drying 10 cars isn't really that much fun, especially after a freak 20-degree drop in temperature.

And choose your roadster wisely. If you want a cheap, lightweight head-turner to head to your annual nudist colony reunion, opt for the sharp-handling, no-storage-space Toyota MR2 Spyder. If you want a cheap, lightweight, less-polemical but still-pretty two-seater that you can use in your daily commute and weekend trips that require shirts and shoes, choose the Miata. If you have the means and the desire for a world-class handler, get the Bimmer.

Ultimately, any of the three will invariably inject a certain je ne sais quoi in your life. Roadsters bespeak a freedom from the onerous restrictions of societal rules, for it forces interaction with an outside environment that is all but impossible in the hermetically sealed, climate-controlled, dust-filtered, bubble-chamber that is the modern automobile. People who are anal about maintaining perfect coifs need not apply.

But for those seeking the proverbial fountain of youth, a roadster may be the ticket to evoke warm, sunny days, of the times in your youth when summer represented endless possibilities to explore the ways that you could spend the vast amounts of sunlight, days that melt into soft evenings of chirping crickets, your beloved (for the moment) in the next seat, and being able to recapture that point in your past when all the promises whispered by the world still seemed possible.

Roadsters are by definition minimalist. They're tiny cars; how many gewgaws can you stuff into them? We here at Edmunds.com, however, believe that there are certain inalienable rights we can demand when considering even a bare-bones roadster.

We made a list of all the useful and/or interesting features we could find on the vehicles during our evaluation period, and then we created a spreadsheet showing which test vehicles were equipped with what items. Research is conducted to be sure we haven't missed anything, and then the editors who participated in the test selected a pre-determined number of features from the list that they felt every vehicle in the segment ought to have as standard, or, at least optional, equipment.

We found that the most expensive car, the BMW, slightly trailed the other two in this respect, faltering by one point. Most conspicuously, it lacked a glass rear window and a passenger airbag on/off switch that the other two provide as standard equipment. Whaddup?

BMW Z3 2.3 Mazda Miata Toyota MR2
ABS 2 1 2
A-pillar tweeter 2 2 2
CD/Cassette 1 1 2
Cruise Control 1 2 0
Glass rear window 0 2 2
Heated seats 1 0 0
Pass. airbag on/off 0 2 2
Roll hoops 2 0 0
Stability control 2 0 0
Windblocker 0 2 2
Total: 11 12 12

0 = Not available as option 1 = Available as option 2 = Standard Feature

—Whether or not you speed in these cars, there are situations that call for quick, confident braking. ABS helps you and your car maintain composure during hard stops. Only the Miata failed to offer this as standard equipment.

A-Pillar Tweeter—Whether your taste in music runs the gamut from the profane to the sublime, you'll want to be able to hear it even with the wind swooshing through the cabin. Strategically placed speakers will help. All cars had this feature.

CD/Cassette Stereo—Sure, cassettes may be heading the way of 8-tracks and 45s, but we still hang on to the relics of our youth. We can't part with that maudlin, '80s love-song mix that we made in honor of Corey Feldman just yet. And, by the way, BMW, what's up with not providing a standard CD player?

Cruise Control—No, blazing through the Midwest in the middle of August is not a roadster's forte. But it would be nice to be able to do so without constantly having to adjust the throttle and be mindful of maintaining your speed. This feature isn't even an option on the MR2.

Glass Rear Window—Very impressive, the editors concurred, after learning that the two least expensive cars of the 10 in our comparison test had glass rear windows rather than cheap, scratched-up plastic. C'mon, BMW and Porsche!

Heated Seats—Inclement weather will not stop die-hard roadster enthusiasts from opening the top. Those drivers can keep their buns toasty with this feature, a rather pricey ($500) but convenient option available only on the BMW.

Passenger airbag on/off switch—There are only two seats in a roadster. You, the driver, are going to occupy one of them. Airbag deployment could hurt kids more than help them. If you want to take Junior out for a thrill ride, you need this feature.

Roll Hoops—God forbid you'll ever truly need these. But it's nice to know they're there. Thanks, BMW.

Stability control—If all cars had this option, we wouldn't be needing roll hoops as much. The Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) system of the BMW, as one driver put it, "turns a good driver into an excellent one."

Windblocker—Sometimes you feel like a nut. Sometimes you don't. Sometimes you feel like wind, sometimes you don't. The windblocker on the Miata isn't terribly effective, but raise the side windows on the MR2 and you're all but ensconced in a wind-free environment. The BMW doesn't offer one, but we just saw a Z3 fly by on the freeway with a black mesh-like contraption, so we called a dealer who said that it's a dealer option worth an extra couple hundred bucks. Judging by the way the blond lady's hair was whipping around all over the place, it's not really effective either.

Engine Performance

Vehicle Score Ranking
BMW Z3 2.3 8.3 1
Toyota MR2 Spyder 7.0 2
Mazda Miata 6.2 3

Vehicle Score Ranking
BMW Z3 2.3 8.3 1
Toyota MR2 Spyder 7.7 2
Mazda Miata 6.3 3

Braking Performance

Vehicle Score Ranking
Toyota MR2 Spyder 8.0 1
Mazda Miata 7.8 2
BMW Z3 2.3 7.3 3

Suspension Performance

Vehicle Score Ranking
Toyota MR2 Spyder 8.3 1
BMW Z3 2.3 7.8 2
Mazda Miata 7.3 3

Tire Performance

Vehicle Score Ranking
BMW Z3 2.3 8.7 1
Mazda Miata 8.5 2
Toyota MR2 Spyder 8.5 3

Steering Performance

Vehicle Score Ranking
BMW Z3 2.3 9.0 1
Mazda Miata 8.2 2
Toyota MR2 Spyder 7.8 3

Fun To Drive

Vehicle Score Ranking
Toyota MR2 Spyder 8.5 1
Mazda Miata 7.7 2
BMW Z3 2.3 7.7 3

Seat Comfort Front

Vehicle Score Ranking
BMW Z3 2.3 7.3 1
Toyota MR2 Spyder 7.2 2
Mazda Miata 7.0 3

Wind Buffeting

Vehicle Score Ranking
Toyota MR2 Spyder 8.0 1
Mazda Miata 6.2 2 (t)
BMW Z3 2.3 6.2 2 (t)

Cowl Shake

Vehicle Score Ranking
Toyota MR2 Spyder 7.5 1
BMW Z3 2.3 7.5 2
Mazda Miata 6.0 3

Interior Materials

Vehicle Average Ranking
Mazda Miata 7.8 1
BMW Z3 2.3 7.5 2
Toyota MR2 Spyder 4.8 3


Vehicle Average Ranking
BMW Z3 2.3 7.3 1
Mazda Miata 7.2 2
Toyota MR2 Spyder 6.3 3

Secondary Controls

Vehicle Average Ranking
Mazda Miata 7.5 1
BMW Z3 2.3 7.2 2
Toyota MR2 Spyder 5.8 3


Vehicle Average Ranking
Toyota MR2 Spyder 5.8 1
BMW Z3 2.3 5.0 2
Mazda Miata 4.2 3

Exterior Design

Vehicle Average Ranking
Mazda Miata 7.7 1
BMW Z3 2.3 6.8 2
Toyota MR2 Spyder 6.3 3

Overall Build Quality

Vehicle Average Ranking
Mazda Miata 8.2 1
BMW Z3 2.3 7.0 2
Toyota MR2 Spyder 6.5 3


Vehicle Average Ranking
BMW Z3 2.3 6.7 1
Mazda Miata 6.2 2
Toyota MR2 Spyder 5.8 3

HVAC/Stereo Op

Vehicle Average Ranking
BMW Z3 2.3 7.7 1
Mazda Miata 7.3 2
Toyota MR2 Spyder 2.3 3

Secondary Control

Vehicle Average Ranking
Mazda Miata 6.5 1
BMW Z3 2.3 6.5 2
Toyota MR2 Spyder 3.3 3

Corvette vs. Prowler

Vehicle0-60 (sec.)1/4 Time (sec.)1/4 Speed (mph)60-0 (feet)
Chevrolet Corvette5.20 13.7 104.4 127
Plymouth Prowler6.40 15.0 89.7 140

VehicleSkidpad (g's)Slalom (mph)Final Score
Chevrolet Corvette 0.87 58.4 92.7%
Plymouth Prowler0.85 62.8 61.9%

High-end Roadsters

Vehicle0-60 (sec.)1/4 Time (sec.)1/4 Speed (mph)60-0 (feet)
BMW M Roadster 5.60 14.0 98.8 121
Honda S2000 5.90 14.5 96.5 113
Porsche Boxster 6.30 14.7 96.8 123
Mercedes-Benz SLK320 6.70 15.0 93.1 112
Audi TT Quattro Roadster 7.00 15.1 90.1 120

VehicleSkidpad (g's)Slalom (mph)Final Score
BMW M Roadster 0.88 62.6 88.0%
Honda S2000 0.89 65.4 87.8%
Porsche Boxster 0.92 66.0 84.3%
Mercedes-Benz SLK320 0.91 64.674.0%
Audi TT Quattro Roadster 0.86 64.4 58.9%

Low-end Roadsters

Vehicle0-60 (sec.)1/4 Time (sec.)1/4 Speed (mph)60-0 (feet)
BMW Z3 2.3 6.90 15.2 90.8 118
Toyota MR2 Spyder 7.40 15.6 87.2 119
Mazda Miata SE 8.00 16.2 84.1 118

VehicleSkidpad (g's)Slalom (mph)Final Score
BMW Z3 2.3 0.89 62.5 98.7%
Toyota MR2 Spyder 0.87 62.6 85.0%
Mazda Miata SE 0.85 63.3 72.2%

Overall Scores

  Features 20% Evaluation 20% Reccomended 10% Personal 10%
BMW Z3 2.3 55 73.5 67.3 85.3
Toyota MR2 60 66 30.4 40.7
Mazda Miata 60 70.4 55.3 45.7

  Value 20% Performance 20% Total
BMW Z3 2.3 64 98.7 73.5%
Toyota MR2 100 85 69.3%
Mazda Miata 90 72.2 68.6%
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