Hot Wheels!

Liz Duarte has always lived sensibly. A divorced high-school English teacher from Cleveland, she's used to driving practical, reliable cars like her Honda Civic. But this month her younger child leaves for college, and in January she turns 50. Those milestones should be rewarded, she says. So by the new year, her Civic will be replaced by a sports car. "When I was younger I used to laugh at old people driving hot cars," she says. "I'd think, 'What are they doing? Who do they think they are?' Now I understand--they're me."

Baby boomers, start your engines. Fueled by the spoils of a strong economy--and perhaps a midlife crisis or two--the generation that first embraced minivans and sport utilities is driving the next automotive fad: the return of the sports car. Sales of these speedy neck-snappers are still tiny compared with those of sedans or pickup trucks, but analysts expect them to break 100,000 this year for the first time in a decade. That comes as the world's carmakers are crowding showrooms with a new generation of hot rods, most of them two-seat convertibles or coupes selling for under $40,000. Some, like the forthcoming Ford Thunderbird, are nostalgic throwbacks to the cars boomers drove as kids. Others, like Audi's stylish TT coupe, may become the first automotive icons of the next century. Style and horsepower aside, the result is the same: lots of spinning tires, skid marks and wind-tousled hair--much of it gray. Well-heeled Gen-Xers may be ogling the new wheels, too, but the fact is that most buyers are well into their 40s. Says Mario Nar-butaitis, a 43-year-old Ohio car collector who's thinking about buying a new Porsche next year: "Life is too short to be bored by your ride."

And how. Mazda sparked the trend nearly a decade ago with its Miata, a roadster that evoked a bygone era of Triumphs and MGs, minus the huge repair bills. That car was a hit but didn't inspire quick imitation. Then came the roaring '90s. As brokerage accounts swelled with the Dow and boomers' nests began emptying, the Germans rolled out a trio of zippy drop-tops--at some very un-German prices. BMW's Z3, Porsche's Boxster and Mercedes's SLK all offer horsepower and prestige and sell for less than $50,000. Sure, driving one of these beasts wins waves from women who wouldn't notice a man in a Camry. But there's more to the urge to drive with the top down. "Most of us spend our days stuck on interstates in rush hour," says James Morgan, who drove a Boxster cross-country while writing "The Distance to the Moon," a new book on America's love for cars. "Like sport utilities, roadsters promise freedom."

Now come the Japanese. The Honda S2000, a 240-horsepower convertible priced in the low $30,000s, hits showrooms next month. Car magazines are already aslobber. "The car of your dreams," coos Car & Driver, praising its plushy features: a push-button starter, aluminum racing pedals and an engine that seems tuned for Indianapolis. "At low speeds, it's got a nice rumble," says Honda VP Dan Bonawitz. "Above 6,000 rpms, it screams." At rival Nissan, chief designer Jerry Hirshberg is still tinkering with his forthcoming version of the classic Z sports car, due late next year. Nissan, whose sales have slumped in the '90s, hopes the car will buff up its entire image. "The 240Z made this company," says Hirshberg, who promises his creation will dust Honda's. "We need to bring it back." Toyota is taking a different tack: its MR-Spyder, which rolls into showrooms next spring, will have less horsepower than Honda's or Nissan's, but with a sticker price near $20,000, it has the potential to appeal to both boomers and Gen-Xers.

Detroit's carmakers, awash with cash from the SUV craze, are slower to take big steps to cash in on sports-car fever. Ford is making the boldest move; its new Thunderbird, a car that pays homage to '50s styling and goes on sale next year, stole this year's Detroit auto show. "It's a very calculated play on baby boomers' emotions," says Ford's chief designer, J. Mays. Chrysler's Sebring convertible is no sports car. But as one of the country's best-selling rag tops, it's already winning a fair share of more practical middle-aged hearts. As for General Motors, its Corvette is the granddaddy of all sports cars--and it still sells briskly.

Of course, anything as fun and carefree as a sports car must have some flaws--and NEWSWEEK is duty-bound to try to find them. But it's tough. Safety? Yes, these small, fast vehicles can get crunched if they collide with an SUV, says Brian O'Neill of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. But because sports cars are still a tiny slice of the car market and many of them are driven only in nice weather, overall accident rates aren't alarming, he says. How about the economy? Won't carmakers get burned if a recession flushes out buyers? Nah, says Ford's Mays. Some of history's most stylish cars sold well during the Great Depression. So why worry. Be happy. As Hirshberg puts it: "These cars say, 'I'm gorgeous, I can go fast--and I'm not shy'." Even when they're driven by an English teacher from Cleveland.