GRR

The 8 best mid-engine sports cars

07th September 2023
Russell Campbell

Nearly 60 years ago, the mid-engined Lamborghini Miura was putting the frighteners up Enzo Ferrari, but now you don't need to be cash-rich to get your hands on a perfect road car setup. Less than a few thousand pounds is enough to get your hands on a car with its engine between the axles for perfect traction and an ability to rotate on its axis that would put a classically trained ballerina out of business. Here, we look at eight of the best mid-engine sports that can be had on any budget. 

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1. Ferrari F430 manual

Turned off by the Ferrari's latest hybridised machines? Then a manual F430 should be right up your street. Launched in 2004, the F430 comes from a golden age when analogue cars had experience-enhancing electronics, but without the downsides like electric power steering and particulate filters you'll find in the latest models. 

In practice, that means the F430's flat-plane-crank V8 had the Modena scream you would expect – and near 200mph performance – but backed up by Ferrari's clever eDiff that made a very average driver feel like a complete hero behind the wheel. Look out for an example with a gated manual gearbox, and you'll have reached as close to motoring nirvana as you're ever likely to encounter.

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2. Toyota MR2

A mid-engine layout is more often than not preserved for rare supercars and sports cars – the Toyota MR2 is neither of those. 

It was a Mazda MX-5 rival that swapped the 5's breezy, tail-happy nature for a far more serious setup. The Toyota would grip and grip just before the steering went light, and the car flung you backwards – with little warning – into a hedge. You could argue it was exciting. It's a shame the gearbox wasn't as razor-sharp as we'd like, and the engine sounded dull. 

While it was no supercar, the MR2 – with no boot and a couple of small holdalls behind the seats – was just as impractical. But who's complaining when serviceable examples cost less than £2,000?

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3. Lotus Elise

The Lotus Elise is the kind of car all enthusiasts should own at least once to fully understand how important weight is to every aspect of how a car drives. 

Weighing not much more than 700kg, the Elise felt rapid even in basic form, with a mere 118PS (87kW); its all-aluminium K-series engine spun the rev counter's needle to the edge of the dial with impressive fervour. With unassisted steering and brakes unencumbered by a servo, the Lotus delivered the sensations of a lightweight chassis to your feet and fingertips like they were hooked up to a fibre optic cable. 

Inside, enthusiasts loved the back-to-basics, pure sports car feel but were less enamoured by the small boot and theatrics needed to clamber over the Lotus' massive sills. 

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4. Porsche 718 Spyder RS

The Porsche Boxster was already perfect before the Spyder RS came along, but the range-topper delivers what the chassis had been crying out for since the original Boxster went on sale in 1996 – lots of power.

And it's the perfect kind of power. Borrowed from the 911 GT3, the Spyder's 500PS (368kW) 4.0-litre lump produces one of the most evocative sounds in a road car, which is given front-row access to your ears via the Spyder's drop-top roof. Performance is excellent, with 0-62mph taking 3.4 seconds and top speed rated at 191mph. The Spyder finally has the supercar performance it deserves. The downside is its manually folding roof is infinitely less practical than the one fitted to a standard Boxster.  

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5. Audi R8

For years, the Porsche 911 was the go-to choice for anyone looking for a (relatively) cheap sports car that they could use daily, but the R8 changed all that.

If anything, the R8 is the more exotic of the two. Mid-engined and with at least eight cylinders, even the basic R8 had more firepower than a mid-range 911. Sure, an R8 hasn't got the granular feedback of the Porsche, but it counters with supercar looks and standard four-wheel-drive that is fun and ideal for the UK's inclement weather conditions. Surprisingly easy to drive, the R8 has excellent viability, a well-built cabin and a handy amount of boot space, meaning there is no reason not to buy one.

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6. Alfa Romeo 4C

The Alfa Romeo 4C promised much when it went on sale in 2014. It was the cheapest route to a carbon fibre chassis and had unassisted steering that should have been a refreshing contrast to the electrified racks everyone else was rolling out.

The reality was somewhat different. The high-tech chassis turned out to be just a few kilos lighter than a Lotus Elise's aluminium tub – a nearly 20-year-old design – while the steering somehow encompassed all the bad bits of unassisted and assisted setups: heavy but lacking in feel and worryingly sensitive to camber changes. Even the gurgling exhaust failed to hide that the 1,750cc turbocharged engine was quick but unexceptional.

But it was still an Alfa, meaning it looked great and had more passion in its dust cap than your average car has in its entire body. Nowadays, several aftermarket options can turn the 4C into the car it always should have been.

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7. Chevrolet Corvette

The new Chevrolet Corvette makes it onto this list on the proviso you don't buy one new – the nearly £80,000 you'll need is good but frankly still too much when you can have a car like the Ferrari F430 above for less. 

Wait a few years, though; knockdown price will make the Corvette's shortcomings – its horrible interior and line-dancer image – much easier to accept. And you should be open to changing your mind because the latest Corvette challenges the European supercar club in a way it never has before, thanks to its mid-engined layout and flat-plane crank engine. No surprise, Corvette benchmarked its new car against the Ferrari 458.

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8. Honda Beat

Just because you live in the city doesn't mean you can't enjoy the perfect balance of a mid-engined exotic – and the Honda Beat, despite its appearance, is exotic. This puffed-up hero has independent suspension all around, but under the engine cover, the real magic takes the form of a 660cc three-cylinder with independent throttle bodies and an 8,500rpm redline. Naturally, you need to relentlessly stir its excellent five-speed box to make progress, but the reward is impressive acceleration of 0-62mph in just nine seconds. 

Downsides? There are a few. The Beat has almost zero luggage space, no stereo, and at a 60mph cruise, the engine screams at a frantic 6,000rpm.

  • Audi

  • R8

  • Lotus

  • Elise

  • Toyota

  • MR2

  • Honda

  • Beat

  • Chevrolet

  • Corvette

  • Porsche

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