Bring Back the Fun 

Newest crop of coupes and convertibles offers a fun and affordable alternative to chunky SUVs

Newest crop of coupes and convertibles offers a fun and affordable alternative to chunky SUVs

While SUVs continue to dominate the automotive news cycles, there’s plenty of ferment at the other end of the lifestyle spectrum where fun-loving two-door coupes and convertibles are enjoying something of a renaissance. From Formula One-derived exotics like the beautiful Acura NSX to cutesy commuters like the Mini Cooper and New Beetle Convertible, there’s a 2003 coupe for every budget, philosophy and ego.

2003 Acura NSX This full-fledged supercar may just be too smart for America. NSX turns 12 in 2003, but its race-car pedigree is as pristine as ever. Powertrains are a 3.2-liter V6, making 290 hp with a six-speed manual and a 252-hp, 3.0-liter V6 with an auto shifter. Performance is brilliant but perhaps too high-revving and high-priced for traditional American muscle-car buffs.

2003 Acura RSX This is a sporty coupe with a luxury twist. Acura’s RSX is available as a base model with a 2.0-liter inline-four making 160 hp. Opt for the Type-S and ramp up to 200 hp with an exotic iVTEC valve train. Handling and acceleration are performance oriented; and while space is tight, the RSX interior skews toward tasteful luxury.

2003 BMW 3-Series coupe and convertible Here are a pair of instant status-getters in terms of both looks and performance. The BMW mystique is alive and well in the “entry-level” 3-Series, even if the price isn’t particularly budgeinded. Choose from two inline-six powerplants, displacing either 2.5 or 3.0 liters. Handling is superb, racer-like, though perhaps a bit harsh for the plush-aeart.

2003 BMW Z4 The Z4 is a worthy successor to the sex-kitten Z3 roadster. Less cartoonish styling translates into more panache and sophistication on the road. Two inline-sixes are available: a 2.5-liter making 184 hp and a 3.0-liter rated 225 hp. The Z4 looks like a fun plaything, and it is.

2003 Chevrolet Corvette All hail the 50th anniversary of America’s longeseigning true sports car! The 2003 'Vette isn’t much changed from its 2002 predecessor, and it still boasts the 350-hp LS1 V8 whose throbbing acceleration is the envy of every 50-year-old baby boomer. A hood ZO6 hardtop model makes 405 hp, but curiously, only the coupe and convertible will get the birthday badge.

2003 Chrysler Sebring convertible With legitimate seating for four, the Sebring convertible combines pleasure with practicality. Though you shouldn’t expect raging performance, what you can get is plenty of wind in your hair and extra friends along for the ride. Power comes from a 2.7-liter V6 making 200 hp or a 2.4 inline-4 making 150 hp. The only transmission for either is an automatic.

2003 Dodge Viper SRT-10 The Viper matures with a civilized makeover that now includes real, roll-up windows. There’s also 500 hp underhood, from that massive 8.3-liter Dodge V10. Road manners—in town and on the backroads—are also significantly improved. Fans of the original Viper’s brute force aggressiveness may whine, but this kinder, gentler Viper takes a welcome step up the evolutionary scale.

2003 Ford Focus ZX3 SVT One of a new breed of compact street fighters. The ZX3 boasts 170 hp from Ford’s 2.0-liter inline-four mated to a six-speed manual. Acceleration is strong and torquey, and handling is extremely precise. The fold-down rear seat aids versatility with cargo. De-tuned ZX3 versions produce 130 hp and 110 hp, with a corresponding break in price.

2003 Ford Mustang coupe and convertible In the last year before a major makeover, Ford’s Mustang is still one of the beselling sporty cars of all time. Power comes in V6 and V8 flavors, and the ragtop is a blast. But handling is occasionally skittish due to shorheelbase architecture.

2003 Ford Thunderbird An elegant exercise in style. Ford’s resurrected Thunderbird is a bon-bon to the eye and a stately cruiser with 280 hp from a 3.9-liter V8. Interior and trunk space is cramped, however, and handling is biased toward a plush ride instead of razor-sharp cornering.

2003 Honda Civic Si Sibling to Acura’s RSX, the Civic Si boasts off-beat styling both inside and out. Its bullet shape and nimble maneuverability are perfect for slicing though commuter congestion. The five-speed shifter sprouts from the dash to govern a 2.0-liter inline-four making 160 hp.

2003 Honda S2000 convertible The S2000 is a poor man’s supercar. This feisty pocket rocket features Formula One-inspired variable valve timing to produce 240 high-revving horsepower from a mere 2.0 liters. Styling is subdued, space is precious, but performance is positively exhilarating—all for about half the cost of Acura’s NSX.

2003 Infiniti G35 Sport Coupe Infiniti is making a serious bid to launch a sporouring flagship. This sexy-looking two-door boasts 280 hp from a 3.5-liter twin-cam V6 mated to either a six-speed manual or five-speed auto. Aero styling and beautiful wheels combine images of aggressive performance with the feel of stately luxury. Amenities abound, and price is surprisingly affordable.

2003 Lexus SC430 luxury convertible This is a yachike luxury tourer. With its silky smooth 300-hp V8, the SC430 seems to glide over the road. Performance is of the strong and silent variety. The retracting hardtop is a mechanical marvel to behold, but it consumes both trunk and rear seat space that would be nice to have for other uses.

2003 Mazda MX-5 Miata Mazda makes the last of the classic British roadsters—in Japan. Essentially unchanged for 2003 (why mess with success?) the Miata, a modern-day re-creation of the Lotus Elan is fun, affordable and tiny. Its 1.8-liter inline-four makes 142 hp, which is just right for a pleasant day of tossing this lightweight roadster through the twisties.

2003 Mini Cooper Although technically a hatchback, this ultra-clever micro-commuter is taking the world by storm with its diminutive looks and peppery performance. A 1.6-liter base motor makes 115 horsepower. Add a supercharger for 163 hp in the Cooper S. It’s nine inches shorter than a Mazda Miata, but the Mini’s personality quotient is simply out of this world.

2003 Nissan 350Z Nissan invented the concept of “affordable performance” with its 1970 pocket rocket, the 240Z. For 2003, the Z-Car returns after a six-year sabbatical as the remarkable and eye-catching 350Z sport coupe. Although a number of different trim and suspension packages are available, at the heart of them all is an exhilarating 3.5-liter V6 whose variable valve timing helps deliver 287 hp for this very compact and athletic package.

2003 Toyota Camry Solara coupe and convertible Much like the Sebring from Chrysler, Toyota’s Solara convertible blends four-seat roominess with top-down entertainment. Camry’s tried-and-true engine duo provide the power: 157 hp from the 2.4-liter inline-four and 198 hp from the 3.0-liter V6. Don’t expect extreme performance, but count on a lot of fun; and if you prefer, a coupe version is also available.

2003 Toyota MR2 Spyder If the Miata is a retro-classic, Toyota’s Mr. Two is a futuro plaything. Engine performance is nearly identical to the Mazda: 1.8-liters and 138 hp; but the mid-engine layout guarantees a one-of-a-kind responsiveness in the handling department. Forget about cargo, of course. Still, you can leave your worries behind for an afternoon of barnstorming in the driver’s seat of this four-wheeled motorcycle.

2003 Volkswagen New Beetle convertible Still eye-catching after all these years. The much anticipated New Beetle Convertible has been worth the wait: It’s cute, plucky and fun to wear topless. Rear seating is restricted thanks to the convertible top. Choose from two powerplants—a 1.8-liter turbo making 150 hp or a 2.0-liter straight breather with 115 hp.

2003 Volvo C70 convertible The C70 was the first of the Swedish Volvos to think “outside the box” with curvaceous, sexy styling. Originally a coupe, only a convertible remains in '03, and it’s available with two turbocharged inline-five cylinder powertrains: a 197-hp 2.4-liter or a 242-hp high-pressure 2.3-liter. Trademark safety features abound, with many luxury amenities as well. With the four-seater layout, there’s more fun to spread around.

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