By Patrick Olsen on July 28, 2014
To test our sub-$30,000 speedsters, we put them through an even more rigorous set of tests than we usually use in our Challenges:
Cars.com photo by Evan Sears
Weiss joined our cast of judges (left to right):
We set a maximum price of $30,000, including a destination charge. We had 10 cars on our list when we started, but we ended with eight (more on that in a bit):
Mini said it did not have a Cooper in its press fleets that could meet our price cap; the Civic lost a tire after hitting a Chicago pothole, and repairs could not be made in time for track days. The judges did drive it in our round-robin day, and a report on those tests can be found here.
Here's how the scoring broke down: The experts' scores accounted for 50 percent of the total score; 10 percent came from the shopper's scores; 30 percent was based on track performance; and the remaining 10 percent was based on fuel economy.
Here is what the judges had to say about each car, in order of how the cars finished:
The Verdict: "Not only is this the best performance bang for the buck, bar none, it's one of the most comfortable cars here," Robinson said. "I don't know if it'll win this competition or not, but this is the one I would buy right now."
What They Liked: The judges liked quite a lot, giving it the win with a healthy margin. "In most categories, this car feels like it's in a whole other class," Robinson said. "It behaves more like a midsize performance sedan than a sporty compact." "It was above average on the track out of the front-wheel-drive cars we tested, and on city streets it was more fun to drive than any of the other cars," Thomas said. "The GTI is a no-compromise performance car," Bruzek said. "It accelerates, brakes and handles with the best of the Cheap Speed cars, but with fantastic ride quality and real interior room." Wiesenfelder found the brakes to be "supremely confidence-inspiring, though I think I detached a retina." And a couple of judges called out the transmission for accolades. "Performance enthusiasts may love manuals, but the DSG [direct-shift gearbox] in the GTI is the way to go," Thomas said, "and it didn't push the price all that high." Finally, "refinement is the GTI's watchword," Wiesenfelder said, "describing everything from its drivetrain and suspension to its interior quality and quiet cabin."
What They Didn't: Despite all that praise, there were drawbacks. "A performance car this good deserves better steering feel," Wiesenfelder said. "The GTI multimedia, despite improvements, remains at least a step behind in usefulness and user-friendliness," Healey said. "This car is fast, but the Subaru blows everything away," said Weiss, our in-market shopper. "I'm not giggling like I did in the WRX." And "our model was missing basic items such as a backup camera and a USB port," Bruzek pointed out. "If you don't like plaid seats, you have a problem," Thomas said.
The Verdict: "There's a big part of me that thinks this car is perfect for the Midwest," Weiss said. "All that power and all-wheel drive."
What They Liked: This was the pick for Weiss. "This car is really fast. Wow! That's just ... wow," he said. Others also enjoyed its speed and power. "You really have to experience its neck-snapping off-the-line acceleration to appreciate it," Wiesenfelder said. "Giggle-inducing acceleration," Bruzek said, and Thomas said simply: "Fast, fast, fast." It wasn't just power. "With its all-wheel drive, the WRX rockets out of corners," Bruzek said. "It keeps your head in the game," Healey said, "by being so engaging to drive." In addition, "it's easy to forget that the WRX is a functional everyday car with a usable backseat, large trunk and all-wheel drive," Wiesenfelder noted. "This is the perfect compromise car with plenty of room in the back for friends or kids, a full-size trunk and good resale value," Thomas said. "How could the better half say no?" And "it's absolutely one of the best performance bargains on the market," Robinson said.
What They Didn't: But some judges called out the WRX interior and features as lagging in this group. "The interior materials are hard to swallow at nearly $30,000," Bruzek said. Healey dismissed the "Stone-Age multimedia controls and logic." And Thomas noted that "the tester was the most expensive in the group with the worst gas mileage, and with no options on the sticker." A large problem for this test was the WRX's brakes. After a day on the drag strip and another day on the racetrack, they were worn. "Though they began our testing with good numbers, I don't recall them feeling exceptional even from the start," Wiesenfelder said. "Did we roast them? Possibly. But we exposed them to the same driving we did all the others, and this is the one car that disappointed by the end of the test."
The Verdict: "This car is so much fun," Robinson raved. "It's about time for us to get a real deal ST model here in the States. I'm still not sure that most of America is ready for this car because of its ultra-stiff ride, but give it a chance; it is awesome!"
What They Liked: "Everything about the ST is feisty and full of energy," Bruzek said. "Its fantastic engine noises beg you to keep your foot on it." Healey agreed; the Fiesta, he said, "provokes you into having a ton of fun. It's no imposter, as it showed in track tests." "The clutch action and shifting were juuust right for this type of car and definitely amped up the driving fun," Thomas said. "It has just enough practicality to it while still being quite small, a bonus for city dwellers." "I feel more connected to the road," Weiss said, "and I like that I know exactly what the front tires are doing." Some liked the styling, calling it "sweet" and "sharp," while Wiesenfelder said that despite its size, "I was impressed with backseat space for a car of this size, to my own surprise." And the Recaro-brand seats are "worth every penny," Robinson said.
What They Didn't: But Bruzek and others found those same seats to be uncomfortable. "Narrow Recaro seats don't provide much wiggle room and constantly force anything in your pockets out, such as cellphones, wallets and more. I'm a skinny guy and still found them too tight." It's "definitely hard to find a good seating position," Weiss said. For others, the Fiesta's real penalty was the ride, all five experts agreed. "The test is full of firm-riding cars," Wiesenfelder said, "but this one took the cake — a punishingly hard cake that I wouldn't eat with someone else's teeth." While some judges liked the Fiesta's looks, Bruzek said it "looks more comical than aggressive." Finally, Thomas said, "I thought the interior was cheap, with rough plastics. The tiny screen for MyFord Touch was pretty worthless despite nice clarity."
The Verdict: "Truth be told," Wiesenfelder said, "Kia doesn't make an equivalent to the STs, Abarths and NISMOs of this lot, but if ever the company does, the Forte5 suggests it could field a strong competitor."
What They Liked: "Just a few years ago, I wouldn't have dreamed of putting a Kia on a racetrack," Wiesenfelder said. "That it didn't embarrass itself is alone a victory." Of course, there were other, more tangible benefits as well. "Hugely roomy, given the competition," Bruzek said. "Its suspension is surprisingly capable, and it looks the part of cheap speed with 18-inch wheels, dual-exiting exhaust and blackened exterior trim." Healey raved that the "handiness of a hatchback can't be beaten," while Thomas noted that "features-for-the-price is a Kia strong suit, and it sure shows here."
What They Didn't: Despite space and high value, the Kia lagged as a driving experience in this group. "No fun allowed," Healey groaned. "It makes you sick on the track. 'Thank goodness' was our first thought when the laps were done." Robinson dinged the "fair amount of roll in corners," while Wiesenfelder found that "on the track it just wasn't interested in downshifting when I wanted it to." Bruzek agreed: "The SX's automatic transmission is good for a family car, not a performance one." For Weiss, the answer was simple: "I hate this car."
The Verdict: "Want an affordable track star that you can drive right home in?" Thomas asked. "Then this is in the car for you."
What They Liked: Handling, handling, handling. "The FR-S has responsive handling that most in this group can only dream about," Robinson said. "The balance is perfect," he said, "and the whole car seems to rotate around you." "Great to have this car in the test to remind us all that front-wheel drive is inherently inferior," Wiesenfelder said. In addition, he noted that "the engine has a nice, even power band, the gear ratios are spot-on and for a small four-banger engine, the induction sound is deep and tough and growly." Bruzek found that "the optional TRD [Toyota Racing Development] exhaust makes all the right noises."
What They Didn't: Not for everyone, it didn't. "The high rpm and droney exhaust note at highway speeds make you wish for another gear or two," Robinson said. And several judges called out the FR-S for not having enough go. "To be taken seriously, this car's powertrain needs more behind it," Wiesenfelder said. "I'm not a power guy, but more horsepower and torque would raise this car to another level." Bruzek found it "way under-tired; sliding is fun for a while, but I want more grip from the lazy tires." Several noted the very small backseat and "Spartan" interior.
The Verdict: "The Veloster Turbo isn't as big of a misfit among the competition as you may expect," Bruzek said. "It's perfectly fine as a street car with its turbo noises, a fantastic manual shifter and the Veloster's signature funkiness. It's easily outshined once you start pushing the car with any serious performance driving."
What They Liked: "The shift lever's short height and short throws make it a delight to operate," Wiesenfelder said. "It's well worth the extra $325." "The engine's power delivery is smooth and without much lag," Bruzek said, "though it never comes on fierce like the Fiesta ST." Healey liked its "predictable track handling — and road handling, too, if you drive that way on the road." Thomas found the Veloster to be "weirdly practical: The third door does make the back row more usable than a standard coupe. I've had my two little kids in it, and they did great, even in car seats." Not to be left out, the Veloster got high marks from the judges for its value, with a lot of features for the money, a typical Hyundai trait. "In a world of look-alike transportation, it's one car that truly stands out," Robinson noted. Part of what made the Hyundai stand out was its ($1,000 extra) matte finish. Bruzek said it "works with the Veloster's funky shape."
What They Didn't: "That cool paint job requires special care," Robinson noted. Of course, the biggest issues were more than skin deep. "The Veloster loses composure when pushed hard," Bruzek said, "where the best in the group hunker down and get around a corner without a fuss." Wiesenfelder agreed, and added "it tracks straighter than it did when I reviewed the first model year, but the steering remains numb and vague." "The shifter was a bit sloppy and the clutch a bit mushy," Thomas said, "so pushing it hard wasn't a great experience despite decent acceleration. On the track, there was no escaping how poorly it handled." For Robinson, "the looks 'overpromise' on 'under-delivered' performance."
The Verdict: "For a crossover, it's a pretty poor execution, but for a performance car trapped inside a crossover body, this thing is pretty remarkable," Robinson said.
What They Liked: "This subcompact SUV does not handle the track like anything else I've experienced," Thomas said. "The high seating position and dynamics of the car gave a new sense of exhilaration to my track runs, and I wanted to keep pushing it to see how far it would go." He also found that the Alcantara simulated suede touches were "terrific, especially on the steering wheel." Others also commented on power, albeit with an asterisk. "The engine makes good power for coming off corners, though the chassis doesn't always seem to know what to do with it," Robinson said. "To be a serious competitor among cars like this, a vehicle really does need an abundance of power," Wiesenfelder said. "NISMO has it." And "the steering is nearly as precise as the Scion FR-S," Bruzek said.
What They Didn't: While the experts loved the power, there were two aspects they didn't love. "There was torque steer strong enough to nearly yank the steering wheel out of my hands," Wiesenfelder said. "Torque steer during turbo lag? The worst of both worlds." "Can you say torque steer?" Thomas asked. "You'll be saying it a lot if you buy a NISMO RS." And then there were the seats. "Scaling the wall that is the bottom cushion's side bolster every time you get in and out could easily be a source of regret for an owner," Wiesenfelder said. Finally, Bruzek complained about the "choppy ride quality with little handling reward."
The Verdict: "The Abarth is an absolute joy on the road course, with unexpected levels of cornering grip and stopping power that give this weird little car surprising amounts of street cred," Bruzek said. "Off the track, however, it's oddly less confident in every regard: braking, acceleration and handling."
What They Liked: They liked the Fiat on the track, for sure. "The Abarth surprised me so much on the track for its impressive grip that I had to think of it in a whole new way the rest of the test," Thomas said. "The steering feel is quite good," Wiesenfelder said. "The car's short wheelbase and narrow track make it nimble and darty at high speeds." Robinson asked, "How can this tiny car be this much fun?" As a practical matter, the tires impressed Wiesenfelder. "The grippy Pirelli P Zero Nero tires proved the Abarth can handle a turn on a racetrack, defying the tipsy feeling experienced on the street. I was shocked to learn that replacements cost less than $100 apiece." Healey and other judges liked the appearance of the Abarth edition. "It tries hard to project a high-performance image through its exhaust note and more." Robinson also liked its notes: "Its engine/exhaust sound at startup never gets old." "I can't even listen to you," Weiss said, "because the exhaust sounds so beautiful."
What They Didn't: Well, maybe for Weiss. Others found the exhaust note, well, exhausting. Bruzek derided its "farty sound," and others said it "droned" or just annoyed them over long stretches. In more substantial complaints, Robinson found the Abarth to be "a real snoozer off the line," while Healey said it was both "too small to be useful and too expensive to be worth it." Wiesenfelder noted "there's no escaping the tipsy feeling you experience anytime you take a sharp corner in street driving. Not to say I think it's more prone to tip than any other car, but the feeling alone is disconcerting." Weiss said, "the gearbox is horrible. It's like a stick in Jell-O." And Bruzek said the Abarth's "skittishness during emergency braking is less than ideal. Smooth operation on the track helps, but who's really thinking about being smooth when a deer jumps out in front of the car?"
Cars.com photos by Evan Sears
Editor-in-Chief Patrick Olsen was born and raised in California. He loves pickup trucks and drivers who pay attention. Email Patrick