Small and Fast: What's Out There for 2008

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If you're looking for a performance driving experience on a budget, but don't want to lose the practicality of an everyday driver that can seat at least four, there are a number of compact sedans and coupes that can deliver on all those counts for less than $25,000.

With lots of punch in a small package, sport compact cars like the Mazda Mazdaspeed3, Chevrolet Cobalt SS, Dodge Caliber SRT4, Volkswagen GTI and Mini Cooper S offer a performance take on the compact car platform. These cars have more than just a simple sport package that offers a tacked-on body kit and spoiler; the driving experience is typically aimed toward the performance-minded.

General Motors performance division spokesman Phil Colley said the tuner crowd was the company's target when it engineered the Cobalt SS.

"For the Cobalt [SS] in particular, it's only offered in a manual transmission and geared for the tuner set and performance set," he said.

What you get from these cars is an overall performance package that includes a powerful engine, a sporty suspension and upgraded brakes. They're fun to drive and racetrack-capable, but still practical to use for everyday life; many have a hatchback body style with folding rear seats and even four doors.

Compared to their entry-level counterparts, these little hot rods stand out with more aggressive body styling, lowered stances and large wheels. Some — like the Caliber SRT4 — really play up the tuner vibe with hood scoops, spoilers and air intakes, while others offer a more conservative approach: see VW's GTI.

Small, Practical and Fast Cars
While the models we outline below start under $25,000, you can easily rack up the bill to $30,000 on some if you add options like navigation, leather, or optional wheels, tires and performance accessories. Prices listed below are base MSRP for the models, which are ordered alphabetically. All models are 2008 versions unless otherwise specified.
Returning for 2008 after a brief hiatus, the SS comes back with more power, a turbocharged four-cylinder and a retuned suspension.
Powering the small, van-like HHR SS is a turbocharged engine (260 horsepower) borrowed from the Pontiac Solstice GXP and Saturn Sky Red Line.
While it does get a lot of flak around the office for its somewhat lesser build quality and awkward looks, the SRT4 is still a fast little hatchback.
The Si name has been around for many years; the latest incarnation debuted in 2006 with a high-revving four-cylinder (8,000 rpm) that makes 197 hp.
This car is one of our favorites in this segment, and is the defending champion of the most recent Small and Fast Faceoff. The Speed3 does a great job combining comfort and speed.
One of the more capable small, fast cars in terms of handling, the lightweight Cooper is one of the most purebred of this crowd. Of course, it's also one of the least practical because of its small size.

The previous Ralliart wasn't performance-oriented in the way the 2008 version will be when it goes on sale in summer 2008. It will be a direct competitor — with all-wheel drive and a turbocharged engine — to the WRX.
The Sentra SE-R may be a competent sporty drive on the street, but it doesn't hold up to cars like the Mazdaspeed3 and Mini Cooper S on the racetrack.
The redesigned 2008 Impreza is much more refined than the one it replaces. Despite being larger and heavier, it still has enough grunt to be a quick car; it's available in hatchback and sedan styles.
VW's GLI is basically a Jetta with a similar treatment as the Rabbit-based GTI. Unlike the GTI, the GLI comes only as a four-door sedan.
One of the original small and fast hatchbacks, the GTI is also one of the most refined sport compact cars and is available with two or four doors.
Posted on 3/5/08