Audi TT
Audi
Significant models for 2008 include a redesigned Audi TT.
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updated 12/13/2007 3:54:39 PM ET 2007-12-13T20:54:39

Sales of sports cars in 2007 show that the rich are getting richer, and as the average age of sports-car buyers steadily creeps up, more models with added luxury and amenities are rolling into showrooms.

The healthiest segment of the small but highly profitable sports-car market is at the extreme upper end. Sales of "ultra-luxury" makes like Aston Martin, Ferrari, and Lamborghini, whose vehicles tend to have longer product cycles, are down by the smallest margin so far this year, 6.9 percent, according Bandon, Ore.-based, CNW Marketing Research.

David Wurster, president of research firm Vincentric in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., sees the high end of the sports-car market holding strong in the coming year. "So-called 'supercars' costing $200,000 and up are in a different sort of marketplace," he says. "It's a good example of the widening gap between the rich and poor in this country — we're apparently going to see more wealthy people at the top who can afford to own the very best."

Overall, sports car sales are in a slump, but that's not stopping manufacturers from releasing hot new models for 2008.

Sales of "premium" sports cars (which include the Audi TT, BMW Z4, and Chevrolet Corvette) are down 10.2 percent during the first 10 months of 2007 compared to the same period a year earlier, according to CNW data. "Upper premium" models (Dodge Viper SRT10, Mercedes-Benz SL, Porsche 911, etc.) are off by 13.5 percent.

In these categories, where models tend to get refreshed every four or five years, significant models for 2008 include redesigned versions of the Audi TT and the Dodge Viper SRT10 Coupe and Roadster; the latter gets a major boost in power, with its massive V10 engine now pumping out 600 horsepower.

Arguably the most anticipated new sports car in recent years debuts next spring as an early 2009 model: The Nissan GT-R will be powered by a twin-turbo V6 engine and be able to reach 60 miles per hour in less than four seconds.

This sleek all-wheel-drive coupe has long been a performance icon in Japan (where it has been called the "Skyline GT-R") but is just now coming to America. "It will be a true 'halo' vehicle for Nissan," says Francois Gravigny, an analyst with the market research company R.L. Polk and Company in Southfield, Mich. "The Japanese had gotten away from selling high-performance vehicles in the U.S., like the Acura NSX and the Toyota Supra, and Nissan is timing the return to that segment of the market perfectly."

Among new models for 2008 in the exotic segment are the Maserati GranTurismo, an elegant and civilized near-exotic coupe, and the stunning Audi R8, which is that company's first foray into the realm of uber-sports cars. The R8's traffic-stopping looks — we mean that literally; people jumped out of their cars in the middle of traffic to take pictures of it on our test drive — and boasts a 420-hp V8 engine. Its price extends into six figures and Audi has made it clear that the Porsche 911 Carrera 4S is one of its chief rivals. "The R8 is the perfect model that illustrates the Audi's new performance-based philosophy," Gravigny says. "It's the first time any German manufacturer is really going up against the Porsche 911."

Also new for 2008 is the first modern electric-powered sports car, the low-slung Tesla Roadster. The San Carlos, Calif.-based startup says the car production will be limited to 800 units for its first model year and, pending no further hold-ups (it was originally due to be released this fall but was delayed, reportedly because of transmission problems), the car will enter production next spring.

The Tesla Roadster borrows the ultra-light aluminum chassis of the Lotus Elise and the company says it will run for 245 miles on a charge and reach 60 mph in less than four seconds.

Tesla expects both well-heeled environmentalists and sports-car aficionados to be drawn to the $98,000 Roadster. "A strong motivation for many of our customers is the fact that the Roadster will be the only production car available that produces zero emissions," says Darryl Siry, Tesla's vice president of sales, marketing and service. "But the design and performance of the car are each a powerful draw on their own."

Analysts hope an infusion of new models in the years ahead, combined with a market shift as aging Baby Boomers' transportation needs change and their disposable income increases, will breathe new life into the broader end of the sports-car segment. "The sports car market will improve a bit in terms of volume as America ages and can afford them," says Vincentric's Wurster. "There's a lot of guys waiting out there for their kids to graduate college so they can indulge themselves."

According to the Power Information Network, the sports car segment is still dominated by the youngest group of buyers with an average age of 42. But that average has been steadily inching up in recent decades. The average Porsche buyer's age rose from 42.7 years old in the 1970s to 51.2 in the 1990s, according to CNW data. The average Corvette buyer was 38.1 in the Nixon/Carter era, yet rose to 49.6 in the Bush/Clinton period.

Upward age creep could be one reason sports cars have been gaining computer-controlled suspensions, advanced chassis-control features, dual-clutch semi-automatic shifters, and luxury-car convenience features. "As people get older, and the population of this country is clearly getting older, they want more amenities and comfort," Wurster says. "But you can still go and buy yourself a Lotus Elise and get a car with no amenities if you want to be a true-blue sports car guy."

To see the full list of hottest sports cars, which includes models that are either all-new or significantly updated for 2008, click on the “slide show” link above.

© 2007 ForbesAutos.com

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