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Sports cars caught in downturn

Kyle Stock
Bloomberg

A true sports car — a genuine ground-scraping, carbon-veined track monster — is terrible at most things. It’s terrible on a Costco run, and in today’s truck-crazy culture it’s so low that the driver can’t see anything but the bumpers of the SUVs around them.

And that’s to say nothing of the traditional drawbacks. There’s the astronomical expense of buying one (plus keeping it running) and their tendency to make a driver look a bit cheesy unless handled carefully.

For those reasons and more, swanky sports cars are losing momentum in the U.S. Sales in the segment have declined for the past six quarters. Last year, nearly one-third of premium sports car purchases vanished, according to Edmunds.com. The trend is accelerating this year. There was a 52 percent drop in sales during the first quarter of 2016.

“I think there’s a significant change in the desire for driving — I think there’s a significant slowdown in that,” said Erich Joachimsthaler, CEO of Vivaldi Partners Group, which advises carmakers.

The recent skid in the sports car market is far more nuanced and interesting than road-scanning radar. It is being fueled by strange turns in consumer psyche, a redefinition of curb appeal and the gamesmanship of auto executives. Here are the three things crimping — but not killing — the swanky sports car.

Cheap thrills: The Ford Mustang is the bestselling sports car in America. The king of pony cars roped in nearly 123,000 U.S. buyers last year, a 48 percent spike over 2014. That’s impressive for a vehicle that requires backseat passengers to possess the flexibility of a yogi.

This is where all the Porsche priests start furiously drafting emails about the Mustang not being a “real” sports car. The argument goes something like this: Anyone with $130,000 to spend on a two-seated rocket with a Stuttgart pedigree isn’t going to consider a cheap thrill such as the Mustang.

This line of reasoning may have been valid in the past. Carmakers have gotten so good that performance is becoming a commodity (to say nothing of fetching design and reliability). The newest Mustang gallops to 60 miles per hour in less than 5 seconds, faster than many Ferraris from the 1990s and just a hair slower than a contemporary Porsche Cayman.

Chevrolet’s new Camaro puts up even more impressive metrics, and Dodge’s Challenger Hellcat offers an engine that makes an astonishing 707 horsepower. Those in the market for something more refined are clamoring for Mazda’s new MX-5 Miata. Any of these cars can be had for less than $30,000.

SUV fever: Anyone who questions how keen Americans are for utility vehicles and so-called crossovers should look at the BMW X6. It is essentially a sports car that has been jacked-up from the road a bit.

Since its launch in 2008, the weird speed buggy has experienced irrational success. Last year, BMW sold almost 8,000 of them in the U.S., and in the first quarter of this year American buyers bought two X6 models for every one of the company’s 6-series sports coupes.

Now virtually every blue chip brand has something similar to the X6, including Jaguar and Maserati. Bigger, burlier family trucks are speeding off lots, too. In all, sales of premium luxury SUVs have swelled 40 percent in the past three years.

Tesla: “We don’t make slow cars,” CEO Elon Musk assured the world a couple of weeks ago, as he pulled the cover off Tesla’s newest machine, the Model 3. Indeed, car critics have plenty of gripes about Tesla vehicles, but the way they drive typically isn’t one of them. Tesla’s electric motors offers immediate acceleration, so there’s no need to wait for the controlled explosion of an internal combustion engine. Plus, plastering a tombstone-heavy battery along the floor of the vehicle establishes the low, level center of gravity engineers covet.

Again, purists will gripe that Tesla’s Model S isn’t a sports car; it’s a luxury product, a sedan, and a quiet commuter. Those people probably haven’t gone down the Internet rabbit hole that is a YouTube search of “Tesla drag race.” Naming one of its driving modes “insane” was not just a marketing exercise.

In a way, the future of the sports car, like most things in the auto industry, comes down to semantics. What is a “sports car?” Depending on your definition, there are more of them at the moment than there ever have been. They just look a little different than they used to, cost a lot less, and drive a lot better.