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.