Sport Compact Challenge
Cheap speed…that is inexpensive high performance…is something we and a lot of automotive enthusiasts are always searching for. But which ones offer bargain hunting speed freaks the most bang for the buck? Well, that’s what we’re about to find out.
For this battle of thrifty thrusters, we hightailed it to Chicago, where we again joined cars.com and USAToday, to blast our way through this pack of frugal fliers.
Leaving no RPM unturned, we also weighed performance with practicality for our group of 8 contestants. They are…
…the feisty Fiat 500 Abarth…
…the fun Ford Fiesta ST…
…the unique Hyundai Veloster Turbo…
…the Euro-flavored Kia Forte5 SX…
…the quirky Nissan Juke NISMO RS…
…the rear-drive Scion FR-S…
…the Impreza-less Subaru WRX…
…and the original hot hatchback Volkswagen GTI…
There’s a wide variety of body styles and drivetrain here, so head to cars.com for full specs and scoring rundowns. But, all of our competitors are out the door for less than $30,000.
We’re also joined by a local hot shoe looking to purchase one of these bargain blasters.
Our first order of business was to hit the track and get some high speed impressions on which of the sport compacts are most capable when pushed hard.
After multiple trips down the strip and many laps around Autobahn Country Club’s North Circuit much was revealed. The GTI, WRX, Fiesta ST, and FR-S shined, while others including the Forte5 and Veloster left us wanting.
From there, it was some time on public roads; and a complete inside and out evaluation of each car for daily livability. And, that’s where the other shoes dropped.
Practically hit our emotional favorite, the Fiat 500 Abarth, hard as it settled into the 8th spot. 7th through 5th were the Nissan Juke Nismo RS, the Hyundai Veloster Turbo, and another surprise, the Scion FR-S.
Our remaining quartet of finalists sees the Kia Forte5 SX in 4th place. While it didn’t overwhelm our testers at the track, for a daily driver with a splash of excitement it’s hard to beat, as it offered great comfort and practicality that’s hard to come by in this segment, as well as the usual Kia bang-for-the buck with features like navigation, heated steering wheel, and even a cooled driver’s seat.
BRIAN ROBINSON: “As for on track performance, the Forte5 falls way short of the rest of the group here; but for an everyday, practical, comfortable car, it’s probably one of the best here.”
JIM HEALEY: “…it’s a really good choice for daily driving because it’s very composed, very compliant; has enough of a sporty edge to it that you don’t feel like you’re driving somebody else’s leftover something.”
JOHN DAVIS: The Ford Fiesta ST is another one of our favorite pocket rockets at MotorWeek and it didn’t disappoint here one beat, at least on the track, where its stiff suspension made for some fun and flat handling. However, it’s also that harshness that held it back here in this competition, as most found the ride too unforgiving for daily driving. Still it’s a lot of fun for a little price.
JOE WIESENFELDER: “…you know there are more refined cars in this test, you know, more buttoned down and poised; this one is just fun. Whether it’s on the street or on the track I just had a blast in it.”
JOE WEISS: “…I had the most fun in the Fiesta all day long, it just, you know the car drove so well it kept like, it kept urging me to drive faster and faster...”
JOHN DAVIS: The Subaru WRX has long been a standard in the hot cheap class, and while it may have dropped the Impreza name from its title, it’s lost none of the great performance or good commuting comfort on its way to a runner up spot here. It was by far the fastest of the group at the drag strip, and the true sedan design makes for a great every day car. Plus it has standard all-wheel drive. But that all came at a price as the WRX was also the priciest contestant here.
JOE BRUZEK: “The WRX is without a doubt the hot rod of the group; its acceleration is unparalleled at the drag strip.”
BRIAN ROBINSON: “For me, I think the WRX is one of the best cars here in overall every single category; and its proof that you don’t need an ultra-stiff ride to get great handling performance.”
JOHN DAVIS: Most consider the Volkswagen GTI as the original sport compact, so it’s no surprise that it came out on top again as it continues to bring the goods. It was in the top 2 in every performance category, including fuel mileage. Throw in a mid-pack price, a comfortable ride, hatchback practicality, and it makes for one perfect all around package.
DAVE THOMAS: “Not only was the GTI fast, but it was comfortable and it’s pretty practical too; and it wasn’t even one of the most expensive of the bunch with an automatic transmission. Definitely the best all-around performer here.”
JOE WIESENFELDER: “…when it comes to versatility, performance, power, excellent braking, the GTI really seems to have it all.”
JOHN DAVIS: In this comparison of cheap speed, some cars highlighted the cheap, while others prioritized the speed. Still, all are good buys for your performance dollar. None however, can match the Volkswagen GTI’s overall mix of performance and practicality. It looks like the original sport compact is still the best.
Fiat 500 Abarth
Ford Fiesta ST
Hyundai Veloster Turbo
Kia Forte5 SX
Nissan Juke NISMO RS