The 9 Best American Sports Cars Ever (And 9 Of The Worst)

The 9 Best American Sports Cars Ever (And 9 Of The Worst)

When Henry Ford began mass-producing his Model T, the world’s first simple and affordable car had two gears and 20 horsepower. The entire history of the automobile, since those first days of horseless carriages, has been dominated by two competing trends in development: power and performance versus efficiency and utility. But the two sides actually feed on and learn from each other, as improvements in the highest end cars gradually filter down to consumer commuters. Along the way, American manufacturers and consumers have contributed to automotive development, from the popularity of muscle cars to the urge to beat the competition from foreign brands.

Updated February 2022: If you’re looking to purchase an American sports car but aren’t sure which model to buy – or to avoid – you’ll be happy to know that we’ve updated this article with more details surrounding each model.

Improvements in lightweight metallurgy, the developments of forced induction, adaptive damping suspension, and even tire technology have radically improved what the world’s highest end performance vehicles can do. But sports cars aren’t just about sprinting to the highest speeds as fast as possible – the driver’s experience is just as important. Whether canyon carving with the top down, or rowing through a gearbox on a long and straight highway, the smiles a car produces aren’t always tied straight to its raw horsepower figures. The overall attractiveness of a sports car, from its looks to its power to its handling, is a tough nail to hit right on the head. Keep scrolling for 10 of the best American sports cars ever made, and 10 that were absolute duds.

16 Best: Shelby Cobra


The birth of the Shelby Cobra came after American race car driver Carroll Shelby thought up the ingenious plan to take a small, lightweight chassis and cram as big of an engine as he possibly could into it. The result is a lightweight, open top speed demon that is the combination of British manufacturer AC’s Ace roadster, at first featuring one of two 3.6-liter Ford V8s under the hood. Shelby hoped that his creation would compete with endurance race cars in European race circuits, specifically against Ferrari’s racing team led by the enigmatic Enzo Ferrari.

The Cobra wasn’t just a race car, it was sold to the public, as well. Later iterations would evolve to include more reinforcement for greater rigidity, wider fenders and flares, beefed up differentials, and a long line of engines which steadily increased in size – first to 4.3 liters and eventually up to the famous 7.0-liter Ford 427. In competition form, the Cobra with its 427 engine produced 485 horsepower, good enough for a top speed of 185 miles per hour. Weighing in at just over 2,000 pounds, the Shelby Cobra became the first step in a long line of sports cars which emerged from the brilliant mind of Carroll Shelby.

15 Worst: Saturn Sky


GM’s semi-experimental brand Saturn was an attempt by one of the world’s largest automotive conglomerates to compete with the new era of Japanese products that began to infiltrate the American market in the 1980s and 1990s. Founded in 1985, marketing for Saturn tried to differentiate its products from the heavy and slow cars produced by most of GM’s other subsidiary companies. Small, lightweight, and cheap offerings like the S-Series and L-Series represented most of Saturn’s sales offerings, but by the 2000s Saturn needed a rejuvenation.

That boost came in the form of the Saturn Sky, an attempt at delivering a sports car into the market dominated by Acura’s Integra and Honda’s Civic Si. The Sky shared a platform with the Pontiac Solstice, another underwhelming performer, but at least it came in a high-end turbo variant that created up to 290 horsepower. A manual transmission was even optional. Its aggressive exterior represented a full departure from Saturn’s previous designs, but despite a variety of special editions over the three year run, neither the Sky nor the Solstice could draw enough interest or sales numbers to save Pontiac or Saturn, however, and both models saw their production runs come to a close as their companies simultaneously shuttered.

Related: 10 American Sports Cars We Don’t Want To Be Seen Driving

14 Best: Ford GT40


When the Shelby Cobra proved unable to keep up with its ever-improving European competition, Ford and Shelby decided to partner up once again to create an all new sports car, purpose built to win the world’s most prestigious race at the time, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. While the first few generations of the GT40 were built in England and shared DNA with three cars manufactured as the Lola GT, the overall package of the GT40 is as American as they come, from its low-slung silhouette to the high-displacement, mid mounted V8 that powered it. The car’s name comes from its 40-inch height, kept so low to improve aerodynamics, which proved critical as the GT40 rocketed along the straights at Le Mans at speeds north of 200 miles per hour.

By 1966, Ford and Shelby had achieved their goal, with a 1-2-3 finish at Le Mans by drivers piloting the GT40 in its redesigned MkII form, the first overall win by any American manufacturer at Le Mans. The GT40 reigned supreme for the next three Le Mans races, as well, for a grand total of four straight wins. Today, original GT40 examples border on priceless, while Ford’s 2005 and 2017 GT models offer a modern take on the classic American automotive icon.

13 Worst: DeLorean DMC-12


The DeLorean DMC-12 is probably one of the world’s most instantly recognizable cars, thanks to its role as a time machine in the Back to the Future movie franchise. And with an angular stainless steel body, gullwing doors, and a futuristic interior, the car delivers everything needed for a perfect movie role. Sadly, though, the DeLorean doesn’t deliver many of the critical features that make for a perfect sports car. The recipe seems to begin well, with a fiberglass body structure surrounding a backbone-style steel chassis, with a rear-mounted V6 engine power the rear wheels.

But the overall package just couldn’t deliver, despite a lengthy development process that included a design overhaul by Colin Chapman (of Lotus fame). The 2.7-liter engine, sourced from Peugeot-Renault-Volvo, only produced 130 horsepower, for a 0-60 time of 8.8 second when purchased with a manual transmission. The automatic transmission was even worse, slowing the car down to over 10 seconds for a 0-60 run. With a heavily rear-favoring weight distribution, the car’s nose was too high in the air, leading many owners to replace the front shocks to allow a return to heights specified in early stages of the design process. The DMC-12 did prove popular and iconic, but it fails to qualify as a true sports car.

12 Best: Chevrolet Corvette Grand Sport


While Shelby and Ford were teamed up creating a series of amazing cars, Chevrolet must have been feeling a little uneasy with the knowledge that Shelby had actually first approached Chevy asking for a V8 to put in his Cobra. Chevy at the time turned Shelby down, because they didn’t want to directly compete with their own Corvette sports car. When Shelby’s Cobra then proceeded to trounce the Corvette in competition, Chevrolet’s engineers began developing what would be the pinnacle of their automotive prowess, the Corvette Grand Sport.

Sadly, before Chevy could produce enough Grand Sport’s to meet the homologation requirements to qualify for overall competition, the project was scrapped. This left only a handful of Grand Sports actually ever made, and when they raced they had to be raced in prototype classes. So even though the Grand Sport weighed 1,350 pounds less than a stock Corvette and churned out 550 horsepower, with four wheel independent suspension allowing for handling that the Cobra could only dream of, the Grand Sport would never truly take home a win against Shelby’s snakes. Still, they did run head to head in the same races despite being in different classes, and the Grand Sport dominated handily.

11 Worst: Pontiac Fiero


Pontiac had their own quintessentially 1980s attempt at a sports car, as well, in the form of the Fiero. With a mid-mounted engine, retracting headlights, and plastic body panels, the Fiero’s features should have made up the parts for a successful performance automobile, but unfortunately the Fiero left drivers disappointed. Thanks to its layout and high percentage of Fiero-specific parts, reliability suffered, while safety concerns bubbled among the public, as well. Competition from Toyota’s mid-engined, similarly angular MR2 proved fierce, and the Fiero’s small engine bay meant that a V8 was out of the picture.

Instead, engine options included a 2.5-liter inline four and a higher-spec 2.8-liter V6. The four cylinder option was a high efficiency, low RPM engine that offered up to 50 miles per gallon on the highway, the complete opposite of the Toyota MR2’s peppy, high-revving engine which also came with an optional turbocharger. Pontiac was unable to bring improvements to the Fiero fast enough, and despite a variety of options packages becoming available over the five years of production, the Fiero was never able to fully shake the impression that it suffered from a lack of focus, being neither a sporty coupe nor a capable highway tourer.

Related: 10 American Sports Cars No One Is Buying Anymore

10 Best: Dodge Viper


The 1990s were the culmination of a rough era for American manufacturers, as a confluence of factors including cheap foreign imports, a series of oil crises, and bland design decisions led many consumers to turn away from domestic offerings. But Detroit responded in kind in the 90s and early 2000s, with a series of retro-styled models that attempted to remind Americans of the long-gone glory days of muscle car history. Many of these attempts failed (the PT Cruiser comes to mind) but at least Dodge’s Viper came out of this era otherwise dominated by industrial malaise.

The heart and soul of the Viper was its gigantic V10 engine and an almost cartoonishly aggressive style. Creature comforts like air conditioning, ABS braking, or even exterior door handles were nonexistent in the first Vipers. Traction and handling proved better than expected, thanks in large part to the enormous rubber required to put such gigantic power figures down to the tarmac.

9 Worst: 1992 Chevrolet Camaro


Chevrolet couldn’t sit idly by while Pontiac and Ford were busy pumping out disappointing Mustangs and Thunderbirds, and their 1990s-era Camaro proved almost as confusing on its own. The fourth generation of Camaros did maintain Chevy’s tradition of a 2+2 coupe with a V8 on offer, but there the similarities to the Camaros of the past ended. A rounded and pointy exterior, with two tone paint jobs, would foretell the disappointing GTO of later years. Even the more aggressively styled cousin of the Camaro, Pontiac’s Trans Am, which shared the platform, only more powerfully resembled a bird’s beak in profile.

Consumer confidence in Chevy crumbled with the fourth generation Camaro, as disappointing performance paired to confusing style left the buying public unable to meld the new version with their image of a classic American muscle car. The Camaro’s sales would disappoint Chevy in turn, and by 2002 one of the icons of American sports cars would be shelved, pending a complete overhaul for the 2010 release of the new Camaro, which represented a return to the Camaro’s performance-focused heritage and powerful styling, the overall result being one of the best model revitalizations the auto world has seen to date.

8 Best: Chevrolet Camaro


After the failure of many retro-inspired model reboots in the 1990s and 2000s, followed by a financial crisis which rocked Detroit and resulted in the auto industry bailout of 2009, American manufacturers knew they needed to refocus their products. One of the first great successes of the newest generation of cars is Chevrolet’s reimagined Camaro. Debuting in late 2009 as a 2010 model year, the new Camaro represented a total departure from its previous iteration, a dismal failure that resulted in the Camaro line being dropped from production for eight years. The 2010 Camaro celebrated the muscle car days of its earliest success with aggressive exterior form and fascia paired to powerful engines and even manual transmissions. In SS trim, a 6.2-liter V8 cranked out 455 horses, while a supercharged ZL1 spec Camaro offered a mind-numbing 650 horsepower.

The new Camaro departed from its predecessors by simultaneously bringing impressive handling to the lineup, with an all new chassis that shaved nearly 200 pounds off its predecessors weight, optional adjustable suspension and lightweight wheels, and few major components shared with any other GM product. At an affordable entry price, the Camaro signaled the new era of mass-produced American sports cars that could perform with the best while demonstrating classic American style.

Related: Greatest Japanese Sports Cars Of The ’90s (And 5 American)

7 Worst: Chevrolet C4 Corvette


The 1980s provided American manufacturers with an opportunity to utilize improved technology and lighter weight materials in their cars, which theoretically should have led to better performance and superior design. Unfortunately, gas prices began to rise as world usage rates of the automobile increased exponentially, and the beginnings of a flood of imported competition led American brands down a winding path towards the mediocrity that would eventually dominate the industry. Chevrolet’s newly redesigned C4 Corvette epitomized the confused era’s products. With a sleek yet angular exterior, liquid crystal displays on the dash, and a new glass hatchback design, the Corvette should have been a contender amongst its contemporaries.

A series of V8 engines under the long hood should have helped, but instead were often paired to automatic transmissions or manuals with electronic overdrive – part of Chevy’s efforts to meet increasingly stringent efficiency standards. A novel reverse flow cooling system helped improve compression on some of the engines, too, but the addition of sway bars for the first time and a fiberglass mono-leaf spring design still couldn’t save the new Vette from itself. Higher prices and disappointment in the lack of a sports car feel led to a redesign in 1992.

6 Best: 2016 Ford Mustang


Ford couldn’t sit idly by and watch as Chevy’s Camaro stole the spotlight. Though the Cobra, Mustang, and GT40 were major figures in the brand’s heritage, Ford had lost a bit of edge with its fourth and fifth generation Mustangs. After trying to modify the fifth gen into a competitor for the Camaro, by 2015 Ford released an all new Mustang that could keep up in both straight line acceleration and head to head handling competitions. Styling improved on the fifth gen, as well, by referencing the original Mustang (and a GT350 options is even now available).

A series of engines, from turbocharged four cylinders to beefy V8 beasts, can be found under the hood of modern Mustangs, but the highlight for the new model is independent rear suspension coming standard for the first time in the car’s long history. For true auto enthusiasts, the six speed manual transmission is a must, and Ford didn’t skimp on interior amenities and quality, either. Though the Focus RS drew a ton of attention away from the new Mustang, for fans of American automotive manufacturing and the lineage from Shelby to muscle cars to the modern era, a fastback Mustang is greatly preferable to the seemingly impressive but overall disappointing Focus RS hatchback.

5 Worst: 2002 Ford Thunderbird


Another of Ford’s mishaps during the low years of the 1990s and 2000s was the reintroduction of the five years’ defunct Thunderbird. A sad attempt at retro styling defined the new coupe and convertible forms of the eleventh generation T-Bird, and much like the GTO, even a V8 under the hood couldn’t compensate for radical departures in concept and development of the new model. Where the Thunderbird began life as a solid muscle car, the bloated coupe that Ford unveiled in 2002 can only be described as a bland touring car.

Weighing in at over 3,700 pounds despite a relatively small body, with soft springs and shocks that left it feeling more like driving a boat than a sports car, the new Thunderbird also only came with an automatic transmission. The front end of the car resembled a fish smiling more than anything else, and American consumers wouldn’t be fishing out their wallets to shell out for a price tag that reached close to $40,000. Sales declined every years of the four year production period, leading Ford to shelve the Thunderbird after the 2005 model year. Unlike the Mustang, which thankfully received a massive upgrade in years past, no future plans for a Thunderbird appear to be on the table.

4 Best: SSC Ultimate Aero Twin Turbo


Even if they employ hyper futuristic design and manufacturing techniques, Hennessey represents in many ways a continuation of the aspirations of early American sports car manufacturers. Much of the time they cram upgraded engine components into other people’s cars, which is sort of akin to Carroll Shelby adding his Ford engine to a British coupe. Shelby once famously described the Cobra in the simplest terms, saying, “It’s a massive motor in a tiny, lightweight car.”

Many might think that Shelby himself is involved in America’s current supercar manufacturer, SSC, but SSC – which formerly stood for Shelby SuperCars – is in no way related to the original icon in anything more than intention. But that intention sure was similar, as SSC’s Ultimate Aero held the landspeed record from 2007 until it was eventually overtaken by the Bugatti Veyron Super Sport in 2010. With a supercharger, the Ultimate Aero’s 6.3-liter V8 made 1,046 horsepower, though the eventual addition of a twin-turbocharger setup resulted in 1,183 horsepower and the crown of world’s fastest car at 256.18 miles per hour. Intent on retaking their title, SSC plans to release a new model, the Tuatara, though concrete details of the development process are notoriously scant.

3 Worst: 1994 Ford Mustang


The theme of muscle cars being re-envisioned as small modern coupes during the low point of American automotive history may have begun with the fourth generation Ford Mustang, which debuted in 1994. The impetus for the trend can clearly be found in the increasing success of small and affordable sports cars being imported from Japan, but Ford and its fellow manufacturers would have done better to stick by their guns than adapt in such lackluster fashion. After the distinctly 80s style of the Fox body Mustang, the new version had smoother lines to go along with its disappointing entry-level 145 horsepower V6.

Interior quality also suffered, as Ford tried to keep production costs low, while a lack of drivability meant the Mustang failed in its attempt at being a sports car at all. A four speed automatic coming standard certainly didn’t help. A sharper redesign breaks up the production run of the fourth gen Mustang, and both GT and Bullitt editions did eventually offer more powerful drivetrains, but the unimpressive coupe was the start of a long and embarrassing chapter for one of America’s classic muscle car models, all the way through until the release of the sixth generation in 2016.

2 Best: Saleen S7 Twin Turbo


Perhaps America’s first true entrant into the super car class, though, was the Saleen S7 back in the year 2000. With its long, low silhouette and distinctive venting, the S7 leaves no doubt that its intention is pure performance. The S7 originally featured a mid-mounted Ford small block V8 with no forced induction, and with that powerplant it can sprint to 60 miles per hour in only 3.3 seconds. A luxurious interior even features amenities like custom-fit luggage and a rear-view camera, but the S7 is such a potent performer thanks to its honeycomb aluminum structure – the sleek coupe only weighs 2,865 pounds.

Like so many sports cars, however, the S7 received an upgrade in 2005, adding twin-turbochargers to the 7-liter V8 to up engine output to 750 horsepower (though a competition package also offers up to 1,000). The Saleen S7 Twin Turbo reached 60 miles per hour in 2.8 seconds, 100 miles per hour in 5.9 seconds, and has a top speed of 248 miles per hour. The addition of the twin turbos only added 100 extra pounds of weight, while all those seemingly superfluous details on the S7’s exterior prove useful: at 160 miles per hour the S7 creates the equivalent of its own body weight in downforce.

1 Worst: 2004 Pontiac GTO


When it comes to some of the terrible decisions that plagued Detroit in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the bold reintroduction of a classic like the Pontiac GTO has to sit near the top of the list. While Pontiac felt pressure from Ford’s Mustang, the 2004 GTO was released as a small coupe that completely lacked the big, aggressive style of its original predecessor. Where once the GTO represented everything great about muscle cars, the new GTO now represented everything terrible about the design aesthetic that dominated American manufacturers during a low era for almost every brand.

Even a respectable 350 horsepower V8 paired to a manual transmission couldn’t save the new GTO. After two years of disappointing sales, Pontiac crammed in an even larger LS2 engine, allowing the revised GTO to run from 0-60 in under five seconds and all the way to 100 miles per hour in under 12 seconds. The boring coupe (despite a fairly pathetic effort at hood scoops and fender vents) failed to reach its sales goals, and after only three years the GTO line one again found itself shuttered, perhaps for good as it can certainly be considered one of the cars that led to Pontiac as a whole being shut down by GM in 2010.

Sources:,, and

2007 Pontiac Solstice GXP
5 Best American Track-Day Cars Under $30,000 (And 5 Japanese)

These Japanese and American cars are cheap, but they also provide tons of fun for track-day action.

Read Next

About The Author