19 of the lightest performance cars you can buy
It’s a simple recipe: less weight equals more good
If it were up to us, the headline would be ‘The Only Performance Cars Worth Buying’. But our editor has all these silly ideas like ‘free will’, ‘informed discussion’ and ‘writing the article I assigned’, so here it is in no uncertain terms and no particular order: 19 of the lightest performance cars you can buy. We were going to do 20, but that just felt a bit... heavy.
For a car to make this list, it does actually have to be... well, a car. The Slingshot, for instance, is quite light, but it’s technically a motorbike – just ask Polaris. To make this list also means the car in question has to be newly built (or newly restomodded) and available to buy – so sold-out stuff like the Aston Valkyrie misses out. And finally, it has to be lighter than an American romantic comedy.
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Caterham Seven 170
We could just about fill this list with Caterham Sevens that weigh less than a Tesla’s battery, but in the interests of at least some diversity – although you’ll note there are one or two more British cars here – we’ll leave it with Caterham’s lightest. Because that feels right.
And it really doesn’t get much lighter than 440kg, does it? That’s the sort of weight that makes you look to your own corpulent frame and wonder if you aren’t spoiling Caterham’s hard work just by getting in the thing.
So even though the engine bay cradles just 660 cubic centimetres’ worth of engine and 84bhp of turbocharged pep, the 170 can still manage nought to 60 in less than seven seconds and a power-to-weight ratio of 190bhp per tonne. These are performance numbers, springing forth from what looks for all the world like a 1950s toy powered by a motorbike engine. And this is the kind of largesse that’s only offered to those willing to refuse the... well, large.
The A110 is one of Top Gear’s favourite cars, a truly modern design that truly goes against the modern grain – focusing on weight, involvement and enjoyment at the expense of outright power or speed.
The thing is, we’ve already figured out speed. And the cleverer clogs among us have already figured out that speed in a road car isn’t anywhere near as important as we thought it was. Like we’ve said before, the official limit is 70mph, anything past 100mph is entirely antisocial unless you’re on an Autobahn, and 200mph is only to tick something off your bucket list. It’s not to say the A110 is slow by any measure – 4.4 seconds to 60 from a standing start and 150mph aren’t anything to sneeze at, even today – but that’s not where the enjoyment comes from. It comes from the feeling of driving, the experience of action and reaction in a whirlwind of physics and machinery, where every kilogram saved works to speed up the transmission of sensation. In short, it’s brilliant.
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The Exige has been around so long, you could be forgiven for thinking it was basically eternal. The longevity of the stone, just with the lightness of a feather.
And now, realising that we’ve just likened a specialist sports car to a chunk of pumice, let’s get to the point. The Exige is on its way out, a victim of the times it finds itself in and the sheer amount of time it’s already spent on this planet.
So yes, the basic Exige is older than most of the people on TikTok, but you’d struggle to find anything archaic about it. And that’s because the Exige is based on timeless foundations: an absence of weight and frippery and the very distinct presence of a David v. Goliath spirit. And the induction noise of the gods, it must be said.
Funny how a company that nearly exclusively builds lightweight sports cars, whose founder was nearly pathologically obsessed with shaving weight from cars, and whose name is basically a byword for ‘This Car Won’t Weigh Much’ should have multiple entries on a list like this.
The Elise might miss out on the Exige’s ferociousness (and furious engine note), but it’s lighter, cheaper and still imbued with just as much bulldog-versus-bear attitude as the Exige it spawned more than a decade ago.
If the lightness of the Alpine A110 piques your interest, if its focus on sensation over superlative power is a philosophy you can get behind... well, we can relate. And also note that the Elise is the A110 taken that one step further. It’s lighter again, it reappraises just how much in the way of toys and tools is necessary to enjoy the drive, and it arrives at a car that’s 200kg lighter than the Alpine and about as powerful. And, crucially, people as large as we are can fit, which is something of a boon over, say, the Caterham.
If you still can’t fit... well, a) you might be Gordon Murray, and b) there’s always the A110.
Mazda MX-5 (Miata)
Good grief. Even here, the Miata is always the answer? Well, maybe – it really comes down to your definition of ‘performance car’, although the new MX-5 has more of a claim than almost any other. After the welterweight original, the two subsequent generations got something of a middle-aged bloat, regardless of the best intentions of its engineers.
But the fourth-generation MX-5 reverses the trend, offering what has to be the most accessible lightweight sports car on sale.
With that said, we bet at least a few of you are still asking, “Seriously... the MX-5 is a performance car?” And that could be something of a difficult argument, when you have all of two litres of naturally aspirated engine and a power output well south of 200bhp to make your case.
But look at those numbers again from a different perspective. After all, it’s not numbers that lie, just the people who manipulate them. So what about a naturally aspirated engine that revs to 7,500rpm, feeding more than 180bhp through a sweet six-speed manual to the rear wheels? And what if it only had to motivate 1,100kg or so... that sound a bit better?
Still no? Well, place a quick call to BBR for 220 naturally aspirated horsepower and zero weight penalty. Then you’re up to about the same power per litre as a Lamborghini Aventador SV for the merest fraction of the cost.
Failing that, there’s always a long-distance call to Flyin’ Miata...
It might be hard to believe, but the Ariel Atom has been around for more than two decades. To us, it felt like only yesterday that we saw some pleasantly sculpted scaffolding reaching silly speeds and unpleasantly rearranging a Top Gear host’s facial features. Ah well; the years speed up as we slow down, and all that.
One thing that hasn’t slowed down is Ariel – nor indeed its Atom. Now in its fourth iteration, the Atom’s been tweaked, honed and then entirely overhauled, resulting in a car that’s more usable on the road than ever before.
But if you think it’s bloated like a middle-aged rocker, think again. The Atom 4 weighs 595kg, even with the engine from the Honda Civic Type R, turbos, intercoolers and all. And the figures are only half as astonishing as the finished result. Anyone of a dab-of-oppo disposition might find the Atom’s newfound civility disappointing, given its reactions are now hummingbird-quick, rather than bat-on-benzedrine bonkers. But as a wise Top Gear writer once said, “Like a Cornish wedding, everything’s relative” – the Atom is civil only in comparison to the absolute nutters that came before it. Compared to your average fat spaniel of a road car? An absolute riot.
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Remember a little while back, when Top Gear writers were given the task of idly daydreaming about their perfect three-car garage? Long story short, far too many of us spent too long imagining the cars we actually want to see in our very real garages and less on the whole ‘dream’ part – except for our illustrious TopGear.com editor, who went exclusively for Economic Miracle-era Japanese weirdness. Top marks there, and possibly an honourable Jalop badge in the mail, depending on the whims of the Muricans.
But we do have to mention a crushing oversight. Not once, not a single time in 12 writers’ imaginations and 36 hypothetical garage spaces did the Ariel Nomad feature – despite being our best guess at what it would look like if you somehow managed to make the concept of fun corporeal.
The Nomad’s much more than a beefed-up and bolstered Atom, but you could be forgiven for thinking that. It’s actually a whole new design, specifically engineered to take proper off-road knocks in stride and dole out the kind of powerslides usually reserved for 1980s action movies. Well, we don’t know if it’s actually made for that second bit, but we certainly are.
In terms of Ariels, the Nomad’s positively lardy, weighing in between 650 and 725kg – depending on how many off-road farkles you fit. In the real world, it’s a bantamweight bruiser that can punch above its division on almost any surface. To say we like it would be like saying we like our firstborn.
And this brings us back to our hypothetical garage, where we’re left with a dilemma. Our original choices were thus: W204 C63 AMG estate, Alpine A110 and a 1989 Porsche 911 Carrera G50. But we’d like to correct the record. Goodbye AMG, hello Nomad.
At first glance, you might imagine that the Dallara Stradale is a fun little track toy, fitted with just enough in the way of road-going gear to be allowed on the road. But it isn’t. The Dallara Stradale is a toy in much the same way a loaded gun is.
Trying to drive a Dallara near its limit is a double-speed deluge of grip and g force and gurning as you try to think as quickly as it can move and fail entirely. Sure, if your name rhymes with Benson Mutton, you might have more of a chance of getting out ahead of the Stradale, but it’s entirely worth noting that Dallara makes literal race cars and the underpinnings of Bugattis. Slow is for pit lane and parking. And if you mention heavy around Giampaolo Dallara, you’d better be talking about downforce.
As we said back at the Dallara’s launch, “It's not a car to have a few laughs in at a track day. It's a car to turn up with, obliterate everyone and then blithely trundle home in.”
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Compared to the original Mono, the new ‘2.5’ version is an absolute heffalump. It doesn’t tip the scale – it tips the scales over. Yes, it’s a full 40kg heavier than the original Mono, totalling a cruise-ship-worthy... 580kg. Oh.
Yes, even the Atom weighs more than the new Mono, whose extra chunk (but still no trunk) comes courtesy of a few small tweaks and one big one: a larger engine that delivers even more power. Because that’s always what the Mono was crying out for.
It’s a pricey little number, but then the Mono is a single-seater, mid-engined, track-ready nutter, with any number of other hyphenated adjectives at our disposal should we feel the need to labour the point.
Yep, the X-Bow is still on sale, in case you’d forgotten. The X-Bow was loosed (sorry) all the way back in 2008, which feels like an eon at this point. But much like the Lotus Elise, what KTM put into the X-Bow was so right to begin with that it’s basically timeless. Can you really argue against a carbon-fibre monocoque from the wizards at Dallara, a mid-engined layout and 62 miles of headroom?
We’d say no. And so would buyers – demand for the Austrian Atom was so much higher than KTM expected, it had to build a specific factory to make the X-Bow. And they’re still building them there today.
Unless you’re a boxer or fitness model, you’re unlikely to be as obsessed with weight as Gordon Murray. Decades of experience at the highest levels of motorsport – oh, and creating the McLaren F1 – means that he knows better than most that light is right.
So when the itch came to address what he saw as the shortcomings of McLaren’s most-famous road car, you’d better believe that Murray made sure it’d be as light as humanly – and mechanically – possible.
Here’s a quote from our first look at the T.50 that lets you in on what Murray’s about:
“The pedals are gorgeous, skeletal works of art – the lightest ever fitted to a road car, Murray believes, 300 grammes lighter than the F1's. The same story is repeated everywhere you look: the titanium gear linkages save 800 grammes. Each of the full LED headlights weighs just 2.1kg (including the integrated heat sink and cooling fan), the 10-speaker, 700-watt Arcam stereo is half the weight of the Kenwood system in the F1, the titanium chassis plate ahead of the titanium gear lever has been milled out from the back to just 1mm thick, so weighs just 7.8 grammes. Tenths of a gramme. This is a car we’re dealing with, remember. No-one cares about tenths of a gramme. No-one except Gordon Murray.”
Eagle Lightweight GT
If you want lightweight, you either reach back to antiquity for a Caterham Seven, or get something that looks like an F-22 Raptor and is just as complex, right? Well, up until a little while ago, right.
But now, thanks to the titanic trend of restomodding, there is a third way: yes, it’s that happy intersection of modern mechanicals and Sixties styling that never fails to floor even the hardest-hearted car snob.
And in the case of the Eagle Lightweight GT, it’s one of the all-time great shapes, just with the kind of engineering that the original couldn’t even conceive, let alone match.
Back before the GTA badge was just a byword for ‘The Fast One’, it referred to a very specific – and very special – type of Alfa Romeo. Gran Turismo Alleggerita, or, in our comparatively colourless language, Grand Touring Lightened. The point being that speed and performance came as much from an absence of weight as the presence of power.
It’s the perfect backstory for a restomod like the Alfaholics GTA-R, which employs Gordon Murray levels of weight shaving. That’s not just a simile, by the way – he had his own Junior Zagato upgraded at Alfaholics. And if that isn’t an endorsement, we don’t know what is.
The GTA-R has won over the top echelons of the Top Gear team, too, and among the lower echelons, too, given that we’re considering some sort of popular revolt to make sure we get the keys the next time Alfaholics lends us one. Probably should not have let that slip, come to think of it.
Porsche 911 reimagined by Singer
Well, you can’t buy Singer’s accurately titled ‘Dynamics and Lightweighting Study’ – weighing just 1.050kg – because they’re sold out. But it’s not like the (and we’re loath to use this term here) ‘standard’ Singer restomod is exactly a porker. Even though it’s a Porker, right guys? Right? This thing on?
Anywho, Rob Dickinson and the team at Singer were far from the first to look to the past for aesthetics and the present for performance, but we’ll be damned if they didn’t do such a good job of it that it’s still the first name that springs to mind when we think ‘restomod’.
Helpfully, the 964-generation Porsche 911 wasn’t the heaviest thing in the world – generally less than the 1,400kg mark. And, depending on the depths of your pockets, Singer can deliver a ‘regular’ reimagined 911 that weighs 1,150kg. Heavy for this list, of course, but about 300kg lighter than Porsche’s brand-new GT3. Food for thought.
And the restomod hits keep coming. In this case, it’s a car that we’d sort of filed away as sacrosanct. Surely, no one would be brazen enough to restomod a Ferrari, right?
Well, gaze upon this divine 250 GT revival and discover the enormity of our error. It, like every other from GTO Engineering, is a bona fide Ferrari from the 1960s, taken back to its component parts and then put together with the sort of components that Enzo could only wish for. So it’s a real, classic Ferrari, rebuilt and revitalised as one of the best of its breed.
It’s not a shape from the past with the driving experience of the present, though – it’s about using modern techniques and technologies to sharpen and enhance what was already on offer in the original article. It’s also, unsurprisingly, chuffing brilliant.
Morgan Plus Four
But what if you wanted something that looks old, is actually new, is entirely hand-built and isn’t a restomod? Well, thanks to Morgan, that eerily specific set of wishes is their command. Or, y’know, business model.
Doing something the same way because that’s how it’s always been done is a sure-fire way to end up on the wrong side of history. But that’s not what the Plus Four is about – it’s a modern, conscious effort to recapture the classic feeling of driving, that intimate connection of road, machine and human being that has generally been the preserve of motorbikes for decades. Combine that with the almost atelier-like build process – any new Morgan is yours to customise and/or cock up as you see fit – and the Plus Four delivers the full yesteryearian experience with young-blood engineering.
AC Ace RS
Well hang on now. We have Morgan, Caterham and now AC, all delivering polio-era looks and properly modern performance. If one were a bit on the cynical side, one could argue that the way cars and driving seems to be heading has made car lovers turn tail and head in the exact opposite direction.
And can you really blame them? Facing the EV revolution, the SUV armageddon, and the modern car’s uncanny ability to insulate its driver from the actual process of driving, it takes a more dispassionate disposition than ours to write off the people who feel they’re losing something they held dear.
The Ace RS – like quite a few British entries on this list – brings the old-school vibes, conveyed on modern mechanicals. How modern? Well, how about a full-electric Ace, with 268bhp, that weighs just 1,050kg? No? OK, just the 350bhp, 1,000kg petrol one, then.
Weight: 1,050kg (RS electric); 1,000kg (RS petrol)
No, not Rapture as in the Rapture, nor Jacques Cousteau’s Rapture of the Deep, Blondie’s 1981 hit, that place from Bioshock or anything else you’re imagining. In this case, we’re talking about that other kind of rapture – joy, delight and so on – and the car that does its level best to deliver that via the medium of scant weight and scary performance.
See, Radical is the company you go to for track-honed excellence to wield at club racing days, endurance events or whichever bit of closed-circuit hoonery takes your fancy. Weight is the enemy on track – along with cold tyres and, presumably, other drivers – and creature comforts extend as far as not doing your five-point harness up too tightly.
So to discover that Radical’s road car weighs 765kg, has 360bhp and offers the luxurious features of a 12V socket, a heater and a cabin light is not exactly a surprise. And neither is the fact that it’s basically an FIA-compliant road car with enough roadworthy bits to earn a set of number plates. Really, the only surprise with the Rapture is that its talents will vastly outweigh yours. Well, at least there’s one heavy thing about it.
The limited-edition CTR was our first thought but, being a limited edition and about as desirable as the original Yellowbird, it’s very much sold out. Figures.
The good news is that the SCR, despite having the same custom carbon-fibre floorpan and body as the CTR, isn’t a limited edition. Of course, there’ll be natural limits – i.e. however many people can a) afford one, and b) have enough of an individualistic streak to look beyond the obvious supercar set.
If they do, they’ll get a brand-new, ultra-modern car that just happens to look like a Nineties 911. A 911, it must be said, driven by a naturally aspirated, Mezger-based flat six with the power of a brand-new GT3, yet one that weighs nearly 200kg less than said GT3. Oh, and the SCR also has racing-spec pushrod suspension, carbon-ceramic brakes and an integrated roll cage, which might give you some idea as to how Ruf wants you to drive it.
One day, people. One day we will line up Ruf and Singer’s ideas of the perfect 911, tell you about it, then retire to become a teacher or public servant or something, knowing that we could never top that moment.