When last we visited the world of cheap speed, in our January 2002 issue, we took the pulses of the Ford SVT Focus, the Honda Civic Si, the Mazda MP3, the Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V, and the Volkswagen GTI 1.8T. All five cars had healthy hearts and lungs, varying degrees of musculature, and youthful reflexes, but the Focus was deemed the best all-around athlete. Fifteen months later, we return to the question: What's the best performance ride for about $20,000? Narrowing our list of possible answers to 2002's winner and three new challengers, we escaped single-digit temperatures in Michigan by heading west, where we set off from Phoenix's Sky Harbor Airport in an SVT Focus five-door, a Mazdaspeed Proteg, a Mini Cooper S, and a Dodge SRT-4.
If you were expecting a hot-hatch comparo, there are two things you should know: Only two of these cars--the Focus and the Mini--are hatchbacks, and the quintessential hot hatch, the Volkswagen GTI, was not invited. Let us wipe away a tear or two in memory of its once-vaunted status among impoverished hotshoes while we look forward to the arrival of this fall's 237-horsepower R32 and next year's fifth-generation Golf and wonder if VWcan rekindle the spirit of the original 1983 GTI, a feat it utterly failed to achieve in the current car.
You also might notice that half of our quartet comes from Detroit, which is itself noteworthy, since the Motor City certainly is not the milieu from which the sport-compact-car craze has sprung. On the contrary, Detroit has looked on--first with bemusement and eventually with envy and increasing alarm--while manufacturers from the Far East, most notably Honda with its Civic, almost unwittingly reaped the benefits of Gen Y's enthusiasm for high revs, low rides, tall wings, and outsized wheels. Ironically, just as a weak-kneed Civic Si hit the market for 2002, Ford unleashed its SVT Focus to show the Asian manufacturers that their days as the darlings of the sport compact scene might be numbered. The arrival this spring of the Neon-based Dodge SRT-4 seconds that commotion, while Saturn's 200-horsepower-plus Ion Tuner is still a year away.
FOURTH PLACE: MAZDASPEED PROTEG
Mazda, eager to resurrect its racing efforts and create some genuine zoom to back up its "Zoom-Zoom" ad campaign, enlisted engineering firms Callaway Cars and Racing Beat to turbocharge the MP3 and further tweak its chassis; 2000 examples of the resulting Mazdaspeed Proteg are being built. The Garrett T25 turbocharger increases the sixteen-valve, 2.0-liter four's output from a standard 130 to 170 horsepower. Helping to harness the extra 40 horses is a Tochigi Fuji Sangyo KK Super limited-slip diff, in collaboration with larger driveshafts and a heavy-duty clutch disc and pressure plate. Racing Beat, a longtime Mazda tuner, contributed a strut-tower brace, higher-rate coil springs, revalved Tokico dampers, revised struts, and a new exhaust. Five-spoke Racing Hart wheels fill seventeen-inch Bridgestone Potenza RE040 tires.
Grab onto the Proteg's rear wing, open the trunk, and behold a subwoofer and amplifier holding court under the package shelf, part of a 450-watt, six-speaker Kenwood Excelon KDC-MP919 audio system whose operation is as confusing as its sound quality is impressive. Unique front and rear skirts, orange stitching on the leather-wrapped Nardi steering wheel and black seat fabric, a palm-friendly aluminum Sparco shift knob, and drilled-aluminum foot pedals with rubber inserts further differentiate this car from pedestrian Protegs.
The Mazda is nimble, rides okay, and has low-effort steering with good feel. The brakes are superb, and the gearshifter and clutch are as harmonious--and smooth--as mac and cheese. Straightline acceleration to 100 mph is the slowest in this group. The turbo hesitates when you shift into second gear before it decides to breathe, and third gear is good for only 79 mph. Still, we had a swell time running to 110 mph on a flat, desolate stretch of two-lane. Turbo lag and torque steer conspired to end the fun on an autocross course. Power came on plentifully but always at the wrong time, and the limited-slip diff's abrupt torque transfer tugged at the steering wheel every time we came out of a turn.
We've now driven two Mazdaspeed Protegs that died temporarily because of a flimsy hose clamp that connects a duct to the bottom of the turbocharger's intercooler. As the duct heats up, the clamp can loosen. When this happened during our All-Stars testing last October, we attributed it to a pre-production snafu, but our patience was tested this time around. The Mazdaspeed Proteg sure sounds good on paper, but in the real world, it can feel like a cobbled-together tuner car. Then again, that might be exactly what its young audience is looking for. Road test coordinator Tony Quiroga, who's twenty-eight, says, "I always feel like I'm ten years too old to be driving it," but if we were still in high school, we'd surely want to peel this luscious-looking orange.
THIRD PLACE: MINI COOPER S
In this company, the ultra-hip Cooper S stands out not only for its white-on-blue paint scheme but also because, at least in perception and style, it's half a class above the other three cars, which are simply tricked-out economy sedans. The Mini is half historical automotive icon, half fashion statement, with a surprising degree of athleticism compensating for the supercharged 1.6-liter engine, which, although a willing dance partner, clearly has never been introduced to Mr. Low-end Torque. Modulate the throttle and clutch carefully, or risk stoplight launches that have all the authority a riding lawn mower would provide. The Mini not only has the least horsepower here--163--it's also the least practical, with only two doors, minimal rear-seat room, and a trunk that barely accommodates a 24-inch suitcase.
Little of that matters, though, because this is the car we all want to own and to be seen in. The driving position is superb, with a big tach in front of you and skinny A-pillars that allow for great sightlines. The interior design theme--in disparate shades of black, silver, pewter, and chrome--might not be to everyone's liking, but at least it's a design theme, and the toggle switches in the center stack are too cool.
Most important, BMW's role in the driving dynamics is obvious. Your feet and hands are immediately at home on the pedals, the steering wheel, and the hefty six-speed gearshift knob. Handling is remarkable for a front-wheel-drive car, with astounding turn-in and cornering, and the steering provides all the feedback and feel you would expect from a BMW. As we set off into the hills on the old Apache Trail east of Phoenix, design director Darin Johnson found that the Mini "was absolutely flat" when we turned into the first set of tight, dipping curves. The Mini was also very composed in the autocross, where "it didn't work its tires nearly as hard as the other cars," according to Quiroga. This is partly caused by the exceptionally stiff sidewalls of the Cooper S's Pirelli Euforia run-flat tires.
The Mini is fun to toss around at low speeds but is hardly a speed machine. Between 40 and 100 mph, however, the supercharger gets all the air your right foot thinks it should, and the car really hustles--we have a speeding ticket from the Superior, Arizona, police to prove it. The brakes are good, too; you should have seen how quickly we slowed down when the flashing red lights loomed in the rear-view mirror.
SECOND PLACE: FORD SVT FOCUS
In our previous comparo, we called the SVT Focus "the most engaging driver of the group. . . almost BMW M3-like in its seamless integration of important and expensive tweaks." For 2003, SVT applied its expertise to the five-door (four-door plus hatch) Focus, giving enthusiasts the choice of two SVT Focus models.
If you concentrate only on the Focus's 0-to-60-mph and quarter-mile times, both the poorest in this group, you'll miss the point of the car, which is balance. The normally aspirated 2.0-liter engine, at 170 horsepower, is not particularly powerful, but it's immensely tractable and willingly revs to a 7200-rpm redline. Like the Mini, the SVT Focus has a six-speed manual transmission, but tall gearing means that second and third are all you'll likely need on a twisty mountain road. The steering loads up beautifully, and the chassis always communicates its intentions, even if the slight excess of body roll leads you to think, wrongly, that its intentions include kissing the rock wall coming up on your right. The brakes are perhaps not as hyper-alert as the Mazda's and the Dodge's, but the Ford's 70-to-0-mph braking distance was competitive. The Focus has the best ride, smoothing out rough pavement like a BMW 3-series. Although it doesn't corner as succinctly as the Mini, it slid through autocross hairpins with little drama.
We once thought the SVT Focus's 170 horsepower was perfectly adequate, but now that we've tasted the 215-horsepower Dodge SRT-4, we find ourselves pining even more for the Euro-market, 212-horsepower Focus RS. Don't look for anything like it here any time soon, our friends at SVT tell us.
FIRST PLACE: DODGE SRT-4
It took another car from Detroit to knock the SVT Focus off its pedestal, and it did it the old-fashioned, Motown way: by applying brute power. The SRT-4 is a Neon on steroids. What it lacks in finesse compared with the Ford, it more than compensates for with tire-smoking, exhaust-snorting acceleration. When technical editor Don Sherman sampled the SRT-4 (Street and Racing Technology, four cylinders) for our December 2002 issue, his unbridled enthusiasm for this hotted-up Neon (a Neon!) made us wonder if he had been drinking the Kool-Aid up in Auburn Hills. But the numbers don't lie, and the story they tell here is 0 to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds, 0 to 100 mph in 14.0 seconds, and a 14.2-second quarter-mile at 102 mph. Nothing else in the category, certainly not the SVT Focus, comes close. Heck, the SRT's 0-to-60-mph and quarter-mile times are nearly identical to those of the $62,000 Jaguar S-type R and the $45,000 BMW Z4 3.0i we also tested in December.
Hard to believe, but the sixteen-valve DOHC 2.4-liter four is the same unit used in base models of the Dodge Stratus and the Caravan minivan. In turbocharged form, it also sees duty in the Chrysler PT Cruiser GT. Its official SRT-4 output is 215 horsepower and 245 pound-feet of torque, but those figures might be conservative. Our Primedia corporate cousins at Sport Compact Car measured 223 horsepower and 250 pound-feet on the dyno. Suffice it to say that it's more than sufficient. Unlike the Mini, the Ford, and the Mazda, the Dodge delivers smooth, sustainable, serious power at any speed and in any circumstance. During an impromptu, 100-mph freeway race among the four cars, we downshifted the SRT-4 into fourth gear and rocketed away from the others. "The SRT-4's engine is the best of the group by far," enthused Quiroga. "I think it's better even than the Subaru Impreza WRX's engine, because it's never out of step." Turbo lag? MIA.
The SRT-4's duds include seventeen-inch cast aluminum wheels shod with Michelin Pilot Sport tires, an aluminum intercooler shining through a new front fascia, an integral hood scoop, red brake calipers, and a surprisingly well-integrated basket-handle rear wing. Leg the throttle in neutral, and the exhaust snaps, crackles, and pops like some sort of miniature Viper to announce your stoplight presence. If you needed any further proof that this is no rental Neon, get on your knees and have a look at the dual-outlet exhaust system's pipes, as thick as pythons, crisscrossing the underside of the car.
Inside, we find an underwhelming Neon cabin laid over with some Performance Vehicle Operations gear, including an AutoMeter boost gauge (shooting the needle to 14 or 15 psi is seriously addictive), silver-colored instruments, and a round silver shift knob. The front seats are wide and extremely well bolstered. There's also an SRT-specific, three-spoke steering wheel, but the rest of the cabin is strictly Neon-grade, which means such indignities as wind-down rear windows.
The SRT-4's braking distance was the shortest, even though it's the heaviest car with the biggest frontal weight bias. Ride quality is almost on par with the Focus, although the steering is "a little light and numb," claimed Quiroga, and effort is not quite as progressive. Both cars have more body roll than the Mini. The Dodge's five-speed New Venture Gear T-850 gearbox is the best here, with satisfying snick-snicks and positive feel.
The SRT-4 is not just a Neon with a hot engine. Like the SVT Focus, it's a properly and thoroughly engineered street car whose suspension, brakes, transmission, and steering have been upgraded to complement--rather than endure--the engine's prodigious performance. It was first seen as the SRT concept at the 2000 Los Angeles auto show, and the production SRT-4 debuted at the 2002 Detroit show. The $19,995 sticker makes it an incredible performance bargain.
All four of these cars are capable of providing maximum grins for minimal dollars, and we'll direct appreciative nods toward drivers we see behind the wheel of any of them. But Dodge has upped the ante with the SRT-4, which wins this comparison because of its raw, unadulterated, and muscular engine, which kicks sand into the intake manifolds of the competition. The Dodge has neither the style and cachet of the Mini, the Mazda's street cred, nor the Ford's balance of packaging, finesse, and performance. What it does have is a very well-tuned chassis, one helluva powertrain, and the ability to blow everything else at its price point into the wild mustard. Whether you're on a road course or a drag strip, that's all that really matters. What we're really waiting for, however, is a car that combines the style of the Cooper S, the audio system of the Mazdaspeed Proteg, the chassis of the Focus, and the engine of the SRT-4.