HOSCHTON, Ga. — Three years ago, Steve Robinson had a hankering for an edgy sports car. He reminisced about his first car, a Fiat 1600S. He flirted with the Morgan Plus 8, kicked the tires on a big BMW.
Then, surfing the Internet, Robinson came across the 2002 Panoz Esperante. He knew little about the company but felt the car captured the curves of classic sports cars from the late 1950s and boasted the latest technology and power of the $100,000-plus European speedsters.
"I was intrigued by it," said Robinson, the vice president of a large security company. "It's the perfect blend of handling and simplicity."
The Esperante isn't made by Italian artisans or by German engineers. It's built in this small town north of Atlanta, where Daniel Panoz has created an empire built around race cars and, lately, street-ready sports cars.
Despite hardly any advertising, Panoz (pronounced PAY-noze) already has 51 dealerships selling the Esperante and wants to increase that to 100 within two years.
Many customers like Robinson — who picked a sapphire blue model with a butter-soft cream leather interior — are surprised to find the Esperante's price is about a third of many of its competitors.
Price has kept the cars moving, although the sluggish economy has put a dent in sales of high-performance street cars, said Panoz, founder and president of Panoz Automotive Development Co.
Nearly 15 years ago, Panoz — whose father, Donald, founded the Elan Corp. pharmaceutical giant — established his company, intending to compete with a group of small-volume, mostly European exotic car manufacturers.
Panoz said six autos currently dominate the category: The Aston Martin Vanquish, the Ferrari 575M, the Ferrari 456 GRA, the BMW Z8 and the Esperante, the only domestic car in the club.
While the Esperante starts at about $88,950, many of the others are $100,000 plus, and the most expensive top $250,000. Panoz said the performance is comparable: The Esperante boasts a lightweight aluminum body that can reach 60 mph in less than 5 seconds, faster than the Vanquish and the Ferrari 456.
Art Spinella, an auto industry analyst and president of CNW Marketing Research in Bandon, Ore., said there's room in the market for the Panoz.
"I think they have as good a shot as any of these cars. It's not an issue of product, it's an issue of fashion statement. That's the whole nature of that type of vehicle," Spinella said.
Panoz, a 41-year-old father of two, loves to show off the Esperante's power. Holding a lit cigarette firmly in his teeth, he pushes an Esperante convertible to nearly 100 mph along the quiet Highway 53.
"I have a 16-year-old daughter," he said while letting the wind blast the ashes off the cigarette. "We told her she has to wait until she's 17 to get her license. . . . Kids think they're invincible."
Panoz said he can still turn a profit these days because he has adopted the efficiency of small-volume aircraft manufacturers — a craft dominated by the United States — who make the light planes using the same type of aluminum found in the body of the Esperante.
"The technology we work with comes from the aerospace industry, which relies on low-cost efficiency," Panoz said at his 100,000-square-foot car factory, just a few minutes from his family's Chateau Elan golf resort and winery 45 miles northeast of Atlanta.
There are other small-volume companies in the United States that manufacture cars, such as Shelby Automobiles, maker of Cobra race cars, but none that turn out sports cars like the Esperante.
Panoz said the soft economy has hurt, as orders have dropped in the past two years from 500 cars a year to about 200.
"We sell very high-end cars, and we had quite a bit of success with the Esperante after an auto show three years ago," said Brian Miller, general manager of Manhattan Motors in New York. "Now it's kind of a struggle."
Panoz is hardly worried. He said he knows his niche — successful corporate executives or entrepreneurs who are approaching middle age and looking for a powerful, head-turning ride. And he says the Esperante, with a handcrafted Ford 4.6 V8 engine, is easier to maintain than European sports cars.
Panoz also expects the cars to get more attention in the coming months thanks to his racing team's success.
Panoz and his father got into racing six years ago, mainly as a means to help promote their street car dreams. They bought Road Atlanta (just down the road from Chateau Elan) and launched the American Le Mans endurance series.
The family got involved with Indy cars by purchasing the English company that makes the G Force chassis. Last month, Panoz G Force cars driven by Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves finished 1-2 in the Indianapolis 500.
Many dealers expect sales of the Esperante to pick up soon.
"It has a very strong following that's been building," said Walter Dawydiak, president of San Francisco's Cars Dawydiak, which has sold about a dozen Esperantes. "People are looking at it when they look at Aston Martin and Ferrari, but want something unique and special for them. . . . It gets back to the days of custom cars."