Ah, the lure of the open road - a nimble sports car speeds down a straightaway clear of traffic, then slows only slightly as it confidently hugs a mountain curve. The sun blazes down on the driver, whose hair blows in the wind.
It's the dream of many American motorists - and a dream coming true for an increasing number of car buyers. The open road is luring American car buyers into showrooms to buy two-passenger roadsters in growing numbers, thanks to a booming economy, an increasingly affluent baby boom generation and an expanding array of choices from automobile manufacturers.
This fall, the Honda S2000 joins the lineup of two-passenger roadsters, which includes the slightly restyled BMW Z3, the Mercedes-Benz SLK230 Kompressor, the higher-horsepower Porsche Boxster and the venerable Mazda Miata. In spring BMW adds the Z8. A convertible version of the Audi TT (though technically a 2+2) is on its way, and, later in the year, Ford introduces the new Thunderbird.
Ironically, less than a decade ago, industry experts were ringing the death knell for two-passenger sports cars in America. Baby boomers were bearing children in record numbers and carting them around in practical minivans. Cars such as the Nissan Z, Mazda RX-7 and Toyota MR2 disappeared because of lack of interest. The economy was in a slump, and so, too, were automaker profits. The auto manufacturers allocated funds to mainstream products, not low-volume niche models such as two-passenger roadsters.
Now, the robust economy and the unprecedented strength of total automobile sales are driving a roadster revival. Automakers' coffers are brimming with profits, providing funds to add smaller-volume vehicles to their portfolios.
'Today, the industry is putting more people into fancier cars - more leisure cars - than in the early part of the economic expansion. And the introduction of new products has generated a lot of excitement and interest in the roadster segment,' said Bob Schnorbus, director of macroeconomic analysis at J.D. Power and Associates in Agoura Hills, Calif.
Demographic shifts also are fueling the roadster resurgence. Baby boomers, hitting age 50 in droves, desire the sports cars they had or yearned for in their youth, and now they can afford the frivolity of adding a mid-life-crisis car to the household fleet.
Many Americans born between 1946 and 1964, America's largest age group representing more than 40 percent of American households, are empty nesters. They are in their peak earnings years; already their typical household incomes amount to $100,000 annually. And they will grow even wealthier as they stand to inherit as much as $8 trillion during the next few years, according to demographers.
Early in the decade, Porsche Cars North America looked at those demographics as it contemplated the future of the sports car in America. Sports-car and roadster sales had declined, volume producers had departed the segment and analysts had predicted the demise of the market. But Porsche executives saw light at the end of the dark tunnel. The country was easing out of recession, and the economy was on an upswing.
'People were spending money again, and they were spending it on items designed to add enjoyment to their lives,' recalled Richard Ford, executive vice president of Porsche Cars North America.
Porsche's response was the Boxster, an entry-level (starting at around $40,000) roadster that mimics classic Porsches in its proportions, bulging fenders and agile handling.
'The baby boomers had both the opportunity and resources to enjoy such items as sport cars,' Ford said. 'They also had an interest in buying them. Many had owned sports cars at earlier times in their lives. Others, since they were kids, had admired and dreamed about one day owning and driving them.'
Peter Pan's car
Indeed, the nostalgia movement took hold in every aspect of life, from music to household items to automobiles, with the baby boom generation that refuses to grow old.
The two-seat Mazda Miata, with its simple and timeless styling reminiscent of a British-built Triumph or MG from the 1950s, met with immediate success when it was introduced a decade ago.
'The Miata taught everybody something,' said George Peterson, president of AutoPacific Inc. in Tustin, Calif. 'Everybody thought it would be bought by 22-year-olds. But they were wrong. It was people 45 years old who bought it, because they had the discretionary income. The Miata proved there was a market for vehicles designed to allow people in their 40s and 50s to revisit their youth.'
The debut of the BMW Z3 in 1996, with styling inspired by the BMW 507 roadster of the 1950s, suggested there was room in the market for more two-passenger roadsters. The subsequent sales success of the Porsche Boxster and the Mercedes-Benz SLK230, also designed with hints of the classics, provided further evidence. The domestics got on board with the decidedly American Dodge Viper and Plymouth Prowler, and the Chevrolet Corvette was rejuvenated with the C5.
'The boomers in middle-age crisis can support the demand for vehicles that are an alternative to the family car,' Schnorbus said. 'A vehicle like the Plymouth Prowler, the total contrast to the minivan, has people coming into dealerships to look at them.'
Room to grow
While experts publicly questioned just how many more two-passenger roadsters the market could absorb as the European and American models reached the market, those same experts now suggest there's space for even more. Most analysts predict the sports-car market, which includes two-passenger roadsters, will grow. Some say it will rise from about 100,000 cars this year to 140,000 to 150,000 in 2004.
Good thing, because more, in fact, are on the way. Additional roadsters will arrive from Europe, including a roadster version of the already successful Audi TT and the BMW Z8. Ford Motor Co. and General Motors are planning, respectively, the 2001 Ford Thunderbird and, possibly for 2003, the Cadillac Evoq. Small automakers such as Panoz with its Esperante and De Tomaso with its Mangusta are joining the fray.
And for this round, the Asians are climbing on board. Honda introduces the S2000 this fall, Toyota the MR2 Spyder in spring and the Nissan Z comes later. 'The Asians are continuing to broaden their upscale product lines, like roadsters, following their successes in other niche markets, including the premium sport-utility segment,' Schnorbus said.
Indeed, mid-life baby boomers are the target audience for the Honda S2000. The buyers are expected to be mainly men in their mid-40s to early 50s, married, with household incomes upward of $100,000.
'The No. 1 reason these buyers cite for their purchase decision of roadsters is that they want a vehicle that's fun to drive,' said Dan Bonawitz, vice president of American Honda Motor Co.
Honda's research leading up to the launch of the S2000 further suggests there's more room in the marketplace for two-passenger roadsters because buyers tend to be brand-loyal.
'The majority of roadster buyers are not cross-shopping other vehicles at all, even within this category,' Bonawitz said. For example, he noted a quarter of Mercedes-Benz SLK buyers come out of other Mercedes vehicles, the C class, E class or SL. Meantime, Honda expects S2000 buyers to be drawn to the roadster by Honda's racing heritage and its history of technological innovation.
Hefty profits being generated by the economic expansion are allowing automakers to finance more risky, low-volume experiments such as roadsters.
'We've never had market running at 15 million plus for so long,' Schnorbus said. 'It has provided a stability in the market and a level of profits that allows automakers to experiment a bit.'
In addition, automakers are learning how to leverage their platform strategies better so they can produce a two-passenger roadster from existing architecture at a lower cost. The Audi TT, for instance, could be developed economically because it shares its platform with a number of other models, including the Volkswagen New Beetle and Golf, as well as other Audi and Skoda models.
'With the exception of the upcoming Ford Thunderbird, roadsters are sold in relatively low volumes, so there are penalties. Automakers spend more money for the piece cost of each car than on high-volume models,' Peterson said. 'That may prevent some automakers from moving into the segment.'
Still, he argued, an automaker can enjoy some seemingly intangible returns, including the halo effect a high-profile roadster has on other models in a vehicle line.
'The Dodge Viper cost Chrysler $100 million to develop, but it has paid for itself in spades with the glowing press and advertising it has received. Chrysler has gotten tremendous mileage from the Viper.'
Michelle Krebs is a free-lance writer in West Bloomfield, Mich.