2003-2005 Dodge Neon SRT-4, 2003-2004 Ford SVT Focus, 2003 Mazdaspeed Proteg, and 2002-2005 Mini Cooper S

Tony DiZinno
2003-2005 Dodge Neon SRT-4, 2003-2004 Ford SVT Focus, 2003 Mazdaspeed Proteg, and 2002-2005 Mini Cooper S

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.

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