The romance of a sports car encompasses a lot of things: racy styling, quiet backroads, fall colors, summer days. What doesn’t come to mind are big repair bills and being broken down on the shoulder waiting for the AAA tow truck.
The sports car aficionado of yore once accepted unreliability as a part of ownership, but those days are gone. Today’s buyer expects their low-slung two-door to be as predictable as a Toyota Camry, no exceptions. Automakers, for their part, have delivered on this. The current crop of sports cars are largely no more finicky than anything else built by their respective manufacturers. This is an era of being able to daily drive your track car if you so desire.
That said, there’s still sports cars that are better suited for the long haul than others. To find out which are the most reliable cars in this class, we analyzed over 13.8 million used cars sold in 2019 from model years 1981 through 2018. For each model, the percentage of the number of cars sold with at least 150,000 miles was calculated. Those vehicles with the highest percentages have been crowned the most reliable. Models that were not in production as of the 2018 model year, heavy-duty vehicles, and low-volume models were excluded from our analysis.
A note on the data: sports cars, by design, aren’t typically vehicles that quickly accumulate high mileage; those that do manage to rack up more than 150,000 miles usually take years longer than the industry average to get there. Used sports cars also retain their value better than any average sedan or crossover, due to the interest they generate among enthusiasts not deterred by age or mileage concerns. All this is to say that the statistics here may have disproportionately counted older models of these long-running nameplates.
The results of our study were interesting, to say the least. Take a look below to see if your favorite sports car made the cut:
The Ford Mustang was remarkable when it debuted in the 1960s because it married sports car aspirations with the realities of daily-driving in an unprecedented way. Rather than be treated as weekend toys, many Mustangs were put to use every day, either by folks who purchased them new or high school kids who bought one out of the classifieds. The Mustang’s simple and robust rear-wheel drive platform and V8 and V6 engines could endure the use and abuse of both these buying groups. And having been continuously in production since 1964, there’s plenty of old but desirable Mustangs to enjoy for relatively cheap - though the Mustang does retain its value better than the average sports car.
All this can explain why the Mustang has taken the top spot among American sports cars in the reliability rankings, with 2.30 percent of all examples sold in 2019 showing more than 150,000 miles on the odometer. A longtime favorite of the muscle car set, the Mustang is always a good choice for a cheap, fun sports car in the American tradition.
Number two on our list of reliable American sports cars is the Chevrolet Corvette. Like the Mustang, the Corvette has been around for ages, dating back to 1953 and being produced continuously since then. It’s one of the best selling premium sports cars and has developed a reputation as being a high-performance giant slayer that can take down cars twice its price. Its old-school pushrod V8 engine can trace back to 1955 and has proven its reliability both on the street and on the track.
If it’s so reliable, then, why the significantly lower score than the Mustang? The answer lies with supply, demand, value, and buyer demographics. Corvette buyers - along with any buyer of a superfluous car costing more than $50,000 - are an older group looking for something to take on pleasure cruises and enjoy on sunny summer days. That kind of usage amounts to little more than a few thousand miles a year. Go browse the classifieds and you’ll marvel at how many 15- or 20-year old Corvettes can be found with well less than 50,000 miles on them. The low miles and pristine condition of these examples mean transaction prices remain high even for an older model, keeping them out of the hands of folks who might try to press one into daily service. Unlike most cars, the Corvette is a perennial classic. It is a rare specimen indeed that has been used extensively.
Trailing the Corvette ever so slightly is the Chevrolet Camaro. It might seem interesting that everyman’s sports car from Chevy is ranking as a touch less reliable than its more premium showroom sibling. Shouldn’t it be up there with the Mustang, or is it really that unreliable?
Consumer Reports thinks the latter. In their analysis of 2020 sports cars, they put the Camaro at the bottom in terms of reliability, awarding it a score of 5 out of 100 for reliability and 53 out of 100 overall. In 2019 it was second from the bottom, bettering only the Dodge Challenger.
There’s also the fact that the Camaro is that it just hasn’t been around very long, so there’s not yet a large sample size of 150,000 mile examples. Yes, the original model debuted in 1967, and it was produced through 2002. But between 2002 and 2009 the Camaro nameplate was in hibernation. Since returning in 2009, the Camaro has largely trailed the Mustang in sales. It has also sold more to buyers seeking that occasional toy than it has to the daily-driver crowd. As a result, not many of the latest Camaros have had the chance to rack up high mileage.
At the bottom of our list for the domestic iron is the Dodge Challenger. Similar to the Camaro, this is a retro nameplate that was revived after a long slumber - just about 35 years, if you don’t count the 1980’s Challenger that was little more than a rebadged mitsubishi. The fact the current Challenger has only been around for about 10 years means it hasn’t really had the chance to rack up heavy mileage, especially as the Challenger, like most sports cars, sells more to the weekend-cruise crowd than to commuters.
There are, however, actual reliability issues to contend with here. Dodge as a manufacturer hasn’t had the best track record in reliability; per the 2019 Consumer Reports directory of vehicle ratings, the V8 Challenger ranks last in the category of sporty cars over $40,000, with predicted reliability garnering the second-worst score the outlet awards.
Opening our list of most reliable foriegn sports cars is a real curveball: the Audi TT. How does it manage to rank as high as it does, beating out even the most famed of reliable sports cars, the Mazda Miata?
A lot of this has to do with who owns these cars, who wants these cars, and how these cars trade hands. The front-wheel drive Audi TT is an elegant, usable sports car: it has a hardtop, it has refined road manners, it is relatively quiet and comfortable and gets better fuel economy compared to most of the cars on this list. It even has a back seat, small as it is. These traits make it a better daily driver than tiny convertibles like the Miata or burly V8 machines like the Mustang.
It’s also likely that dealers, when selecting their inventory, see in the TT a fun, affordable coupe that has a bit of character and a bit of sport, yet livable enough to entice someone perhaps not fitting into the typical sports-car-buyer demographic. Sports cars like the Miata, by contrast, are being horse-traded on craigslist when the mileage hits deep six figures.
Behind the Audi is the Mazda MX-5 Miata. The Miata project began as an attempt by the Japanese company to build an affordable sports car in the European tradition. Did they succeed? They did, and then some. For every Miata that became a garage queen, there were probably a half dozen more were driven, raced, or autocrossed to 200,000 miles or more.
We know what you’re thinking: If the Miata was so successful and reliable, why does it rank below the Audi TT? Economics, most likely. Since its debut in 1990, there’s been over a million Miatas manufactured. The abundance of available Miatas in decent shape keep prices low - though initial depreciation is better than average for the segment - making them attainable for people who are happy to drive them daily, modify them, and race them. When they’re done with it, the little four-cylinder roadster often gets sold privately for cash.
Because of this, high-mile Miatas generally don’t end up at dealerships, but instead on sites like Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace. Our data won’t pick up those private-sale transactions - but if it did, odds are the Miata would be number one on this list.
The Mercedes SL is a luxury two convertible, a sports car for those who care less about low weight or raw power and more about solid build quality and total refinement. The SL delivers on this with its muted but fast power delivery, elegant interior, and stylish, upscale design.
The reason the Mercedes ranks at .90 percent in our study is likely due to its price point as well as maintenance considerations. Starting at around six figures, this is not a cheap car, relegating it to wealthy shoppers looking for a third or fourth car to be used occasionally. Even though depreciation hits them hard - they’ll lose over 60 percent of their value within five years, according to our study on highest-depreciating sports cars - they never become any cheaper to maintain, keeping them out of the hands of those who may want one to drive regularly. This one-two punch keeps SLs as perpetual weekend cars that never really accumulate major mileage.
Coming in behind the SL is the BMW M6, with .60 percent of used versions sold in 2019 having more than 150,000 miles on them. The M6 is a trim level of the 6-Series, itself recently discontinued in favor of the new 8-Series. As the sportiest, priciest variant of the 6-Series, it is a rare find; as it also uses the most exotic powertrain in the 6-Series lineup, it is the most expensive to maintain as well. Those high maintenance costs are enough to scare away most buyers who would otherwise drive an M6 regularly.
The iconic German sports car, the Porsche 911, finishes last in our study - perhaps the only time this esteemed sports car came in last place in any comparison. Why the dour score? We imagine it has more to do with the fact that these flagship Porsches just don’t accumulate high mileage the way other cars on this list do. After all, per our depreciation study, the 911 is the lowest-depreciating sports car on the market: over five years, a 911 will lose just 37.2 percent of its value, versus a segment average of 48 percent. That keeps transaction prices high, which means used buyers are likely continuing to use them as a weekend pleasure craft rather than a regular driver. The result is a dearth of high-mileage examples for our analysis.
But that doesn’t mean all sports cars are created equal. The expensive German models showcased here occupy the bottom of the list because of how expensive they are to maintain even after they depreciate to affordable levels. Proven models like the Mustang, on the other hand, can be ordered up as a stylish daily driver - and treated as such without constantly worrying about repairs. Some, like the Miata, have built their reputation on the fact they are both endless fun and eternally reliable.
Any sports car is going to be fun, but the ones topping this list have proven themselves to be just as reliable as they are entertaining. If you were wondering what are the best sports cars that will most likely never let you down, you’ve now got your answers.
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