Definitions of sports cars often relate to how the car design is optimised for dynamic performance (car handling), without any specific minimum requirements; both a Triumph Spitfire and Ferrari 488 Pista can be considered sports cars, despite vastly different levels of performance. Broader definitions of sports cars include cars “in which performance takes precedence over carrying capacity”, or that emphasise the “thrill of driving” or are “marketed “using the excitement of speed and the glamour of the (race)track” However, other people have more specific definitions, such as “must be a two-seater or a 2+2 seater” or a car with two seats only.
In the United Kingdom, an early recorded usage of the “sports car” was in The Times newspaper in 1919. The first known use of the term in the United States was in 1928. Sports cars started to become popular during the 1920s. The term was originally used for two-seat roadsters (cars without a fixed roof), however since the 1970s the term has also been used for cars with a fixed roof (which were previously considered grand tourers).
Attributing the definition of ‘sports car’ to any particular model can be controversial or the subject of debate among enthusiasts. Authors and experts have often contributed their own ideas to capture a definition. Insurance companies have also attempted to use mathematical formulae to categorise sports cars.
There is no fixed distinction between sports cars and other categories of performance cars, such as muscle cars and grand tourers, with some cars being members of several categories.
Two-seat layout (Mazda MX-5)
2+2 layout (Porsche 911)
Traditionally, the most common layout for sports cars was a roadster (a two-seat car without a fixed roof), however there are also several examples of early sports cars with four seats.
Sports cars are not usually intended to regularly transport more than two adult occupants, so most modern sports cars are usually two-seat layout or 2+2 layout (two smaller rear seats for children or occasional adult use). Larger cars with more spacious rear-seat accommodation are usually considered sports sedans rather than sports cars.
The 1993-1998 McLaren F1 is notable for using a three-seat layout, where the front row consists of a centrally-located driver’s seat.
Engine and drivetrain layout
The location of the engine and driven wheels significantly influence the handling characteristics of a car and are therefore important in the design of a sports car. Traditionally, most sports cars have used rear-wheel drive with the engine either located at the front of the car (FR layout) or in the middle of the car (MR layout). Examples of FR layout sports cars are the Caterham 7, Mazda MX-5, and the Chevrolet Corvette. Examples of MR layout sports cars are the Ferrari 488, Ford GT and Toyota MR2. To avoid a front-heavy weight distribution, many FR layout sports cars are designed so that the engine is located further back in the engine bay, as close to the firewall as possible.
Since the 1990s, all-wheel drive has become more common in sports cars. All-wheel drive offers increased traction, although the downside is the added mass of the extra drivetrain components. Examples of all-wheel drive sports cars are the Lamborghini Huracan, Bugatti Veyron and Nissan GT-R.
Rear engine layouts are not commonly used for sports cars, with the notable exception of the Porsche 911.
Although front-wheel drive with the engine at the front (FF layout) is the most common layout for cars in general, it is not as common amongst sports cars. Nonetheless, the FF layout is often used by sport compacts and hot hatches. Examples of FF layout sports cars are Fiat Barchetta, Saab Sonett, Opel Tigra and Berkeley cars.