By Cars.com EditorsJuly 24, 2014
About the video
Check out Cars.com's $30,000 Cheap Speed Challenge, where we teamed up with USA Today and "MotorWeek," pitting eight affordable performance-oriented cars against one another to determine the biggest bang for your buck.
Hi, I'm Joe Wiesenfelder with Cars.com. We're joined by USA Today and Motor Week, just outside Chicago, where we have assembled eight affordable performance oriented cars for our $30,000 Cheap Speed Challenge. Here are the contestants.
The 2014 Fiat 500 Abarth, the 2014 Ford Fiesta ST, the 2014 Hyundai Veloster Turbo, the 2014 Kia Forte5 SX, the 2014 Nissan Juke NISMO RS, the 2014 Scion FR-S, the 2015 Subaru WRX, and the 2015 Volkswagen GTI. And here's how they ranked! In first place by the widest margin in the whole test was the 2015 Volkswagen GTI with 878 points. It's acceleration is among the best in the test, and even though our judges are fans of manual transmissions, the GTI's dual-clutch automatic is one of the best of it's kind, and won universal praise, even after considering it's price. Despite it's impressive power, the GTI had the best observed fuel economy in the mileage test. The brakes were equally lauded for their raw stopping power and confidence inspiring feel. It didn't end with acceleration and braking, refinement is the GTI's watchword. Describing everything from it's drivetrain and suspension to it's interior quality and quiet, versatile cabin. Despite the praise, there are drawbacks. A performance car as good as the GTI deserves better steering feel, and some basic items such as a backup camera and USB port were missing. The multimedia system was deemed a step behind in usefulness and user-friendliness. Overall, our judges deemed the GTI the best performance bang for the buck, as well as being one of the most comfortable cars in the test. In second place, trailing by 71 points was the 2015 Subaru WRX. Our judges described the WRX's acceleration as neck snapping and giggle-inducing, especially immediately off the line. The only all-wheel drive in the test ensured all the power went to the ground and rocketed the WRX out of corners. With it's engaging driving experience it's easy to forget that this is a functional everyday car with usable backseat, large trunk, and winter friendly all-wheel drive. On the downside, several judges criticize the Subaru's interior materials, especially at nearly $30,000 with no options on the sticker. One judge characterized the multimedia controls and logic as stone aged. The WRX also had the worst gas mileage in the test, and after two days of track testing, the originally decent brakes had grown weak, and the clutch pedal became harder to press. Did we roast them? Possibly, but we exposed them to the same driving we did all the other cars, and this is the one that degraded by the end of the test. Overall, the WRX is absolutely one of the best performance bargains on the market, especially for buyers in the Snowbelt. 57 points behind the WRX, in third place was the 2014 Ford Fiesta ST. The Fiesta's entertaining power came with fantastic engine and exhaust noises that beg you to keep your foot in it. The clutch action and shifting were just right for this type of car. We also noticed that despite the car's small size, the thin RECARO brand front sports seats resulted in more back seat leg room than you find in the regular Fiesta. Unfortunately, several drivers found those front seats to be uncomfortable. With bolsters so narrow that they provide no wiggle room, and regularly force items out of your pockets. Some judges called out the interior as cheap with rough plastics and the touchscreen as small for a system as ambitious as MyFord Touch. But the Fiesta's Achilles' heel from a company that otherwise excels at building comfortable sports suspensions, was the overly firm ride quality. The judges unanimously stated that in a test full of firm riding cars, the Fiesta took the cake. A punishingly hard cake that we wouldn't eat with someone else's teeth. Overall though, the judges agreed the Fiesta was feisty, and full of energy. One of the most fun cars in this contest, both on the track, and the street. In fourth place, just two points behind the Fiesta, was the 2014 Kia Forte5 SX. Just a few years ago we wouldn't have dreamed of putting a Kia on a racetrack, and that it didn't embarrass itself is alone a victory. It's suspension is surprisingly capable, and it looks the part with 18 inch wheels, dual tailpipes, and blackened exterior trim. Still, there's no denying the Forte5's relatively high points total results from the static categories and typical Kia value. It's very roomy and comfortable among the competitors, and hatchback versatility is a plus. It's in the driving experience where the Forte5 racked up fewer points. Most notably on the track, where body roll was evident, and the transmission wasn't interested in downshifting, when we wanted it to. Truth be told, Kia doesn't make an equivalent to the ST's, Abarth's and Nismo's of this lot, but if ever the company does, the Forte5 suggests it could field the strong competitor. In fifth place, down 12 points, was the 2014 Scion FR-S. What's the FR-S all about? Handling. It has the balance, overall dynamics, and responsive handling that most in this group can only dream about. Having this rear-wheel drive car in the test reminded us that front wheel drive is inherently inferior. We have always loved this car's shifter. 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. One of our judges thought the optional TRD exhaust made all the right noises. Not everyone agreed though, saying the high RPM and droning exhaust note at highway speeds, make you wish for another gear or two. And to be taken as seriously as it could be, the engine needs more power. We also agreed sliding is fun for awhile, but in time we wanted more grip from the lazy all season tires. In sixth place was the 2014 Hyundai Veloster Turbo. We liked the optional shift lever's short height, and short throws, which made it a delight to operate and well worth the extra $325. The engine's power delivery was smooth and exhibited little lag. The third door makes the backseat more usable than a standard coupes and the Veloster's many features for the money, earn high marks for value. Part of what made the Hyundai stand out, was it's optional matte finish paint job. However, a couple judges noted that the cool paint requires special care. The Veloster's biggest issues were more than skin deep. It loses composure when pushed hard where the best in the group, hunker down and get around a corner without a fuss. The Veloster tracks straighter than it did when the car made its debut, but the steering remains numb and vague. In seventh place by a more substantial 48 point gap was the 2014 Nissan Juke NISMO RS, A subcompact SUV, the Juke doesn't handle the track like anything else. And our judges enjoyed putting this curiosity's high seating position and unique dynamics to the test. To be a serious competitor among the cars in this test, a vehicle really does need an abundance of power and torque, and the Jukes NISMO version definitely has it. We were also surprised by how precise it's steering could be. Though, there were exceptions. Many judges cited torque steer strong enough to nearly yank the steering wheel out of your hands, even in the midst of the engines prevalent turbo lag. Really the worst of both worlds. Though the engine makes good power for coming out of corners, The chassis doesn't always seem to know what to do with it. The handling wasn't enough of a payoff for the choppy ride quality. In eighth place, behind a 63 point margin was the 2014 Fiat 500 Abarth. The Fiat really surprised us on the track with strong brakes, good steering feel, and impressive grip from its Pirelli P ZERO narrow tires. The car's short wheelbase and narrow track made it nimble and darty at high speeds. A couple of our judges liked its high performance look and sound. In particular, it's exhaust note. But others found the exhaust well, exhausting. Deriding it's farty sound and unrelenting presence. Short one gear versus the others in the test, The Fiat was a snoozer off the line, and the gearbox otherwise didn't impress. Despite the overall breaking strength, there was worrisome skittishness during emergency braking. And even though the car had stayed well-grounded on the track, there's no escaping the tipsy feeling you experience anytime you take a sharp corner in street driving. One judge dismissed the car as too small to be useful, especially at its price. For full scoring and details on all of these cars, visit Cars.com.