The pursuit of automotive performance has become something like an arms race, with makers of performance, high-performance and exotic sports cars pushing the boundaries of what's possible. We like to imagine that the first person to drive an automobile thought, "This is great, but can it go faster?" It turns out cars can go very fast indeed.
The performance vehicle segment is possibly the most diverse on the market. There are tons of powertrain combinations, from the mechanical precision of the rear-engine, rear-wheel-drive Porsche 911 to the high-tech wizardry of a modern McLaren. And we can't forget the classic simplicity of a V8 up front paired with rear-wheel drive, as perfected by the American trinity of pony cars: the Chevrolet Camaro, Dodge Challenger and Ford Mustang.
For many people, priority No. 1 with a sports car is outright horsepower and speed, which is why exotic cars such as the Koenigsegg Regera and Bugatti Chiron each make a staggering 1,479 horsepower (or a nice, even 1,500 PS for Europeans). Of course, for a more attainable MSRP, Dodge will hand you the keys to an 808-hp Challenger SRT Demon, or a 707-hp Challenger SRT Hellcat if you're feeling shy. Even compact cars have gotten in on the power game, with the Ford Focus RS packing 350 hp and Honda cramming 306 hp into the front-wheel-drive Civic Type R.
Approaches to making power differ, too. Dodge relies on a supercharger for the Demon, and any number of cars use turbocharging to make extra power. And though it's impossible to ignore the power that forced induction adds, sports car enthusiasts have long argued over whether it's the best approach. Many purists prefer the character of naturally aspirated engines, which you'll find in sizes ranging from Dodge's 6.4-liter Hemi V8 and Chevrolet's 6.2-liter V8 to the 2.0-liter four-cylinder in the Mazda MX-5 Miata. (We leave aside the brutish 8.0-liter V10 of the Dodge Viper, which is no longer in production.) But today's turbocharged engines are pretty amazing in their own right with their flat torque curves and impressive fuel economy. There's no point trying to argue which is best; it just comes down to what you want.
For some drivers, power takes a back seat to handling. To this end, sports car makers have worked to perfect their cars' balance, incorporating high-tech materials and even moving the engine around. Exotic manufacturers such as Ferrari, Lamborghini and McLaren all offer mid-engine cars that make liberal use of carbon fiber in their construction. Porsche builds the mid-engine convertible 718 Boxster and hardtop 718 Cayman. All-wheel-drive systems also help keep performance vehicles planted through turns, which is why every Subaru WRX STI ever made has used all-wheel drive and why BMW has switched to AWD for the newest M5.
If you need to take practical concerns into account, a roadster or sports car might be too cramped for comfort. No matter how much you want to be James Bond, you can't shuttle the kids around in an Aston Martin coupe. Slinky sport sedans such as the Audi RS 7, Mercedes-Benz AMG CLS 63 S and Porsche Panamera offer relatively generous back seats, while high-performance SUVs such as the Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk, Mercedes-Benz AMG GLE 63 S and Porsche Cayenne Turbo S will get five people and all their belongings from zero to 60 mph in times that used to be the sole domain of supercars.
In the end, performance comes down to that special feeling you get when you're behind the wheel. It's fun to compare spec sheets, but unless you're a race car driver who can detect incremental differences at the limit, the most important thing is the visceral excitement that a sports car offers. As far as we're concerned, nothing else compares. If you'd like to learn more about our favorite performance cars, be sure to check out our full rating and review of each model and browse our Editors' Picks to find out which sports cars we think are the absolute best of the best.