The sheer size of this category — 10 cars — suggests that not only is (relatively) affordable driving fun not dead, it’s experiencing something of a renaissance. Enthusiasts, rejoice!
Turbochargers, the darlings of the 1980s, are back in a big way. Seven of this year’s contenders are turbocharged; just three of seven were last year. No V8s in the 2013 group, either; the sole V-engine — in fact the only one with more than four cylinders — is found in Honda’s V6-powered Accord Coupe.
Beyond that basic commonality, this is a wide-ranging group, with practical hatchbacks duking it out with a quartet of coupes and Mini’s drop-top Roadster. When the dust finally settled, AJAC had picked the Ford Focus ST as the winner.
Best Sports/Performance Car under $50,000:
Ford Focus ST
Price (base/as tested): $29,999/$32,599
Jekyll and Hyde. To the uninitiated, it’s simply a fancy-looking Focus. Driven in moderation, it’s an eye-opening performer, making great sounds and feeling good doing it. Driven aggressively — particularly with the stability control switched off — it’s surprisingly willing to rotate, almost like a rear-drive car. There’s a lot of car here, as reflected in the price. It’s a compelling package, but I prefer the three rear-drive coupes.
Chevrolet Sonic RS 5-door
Price (base/as tested): $14,155/$23,560
At its introduction last year, Chevrolet claimed that Corvette engineers had a hand in the Sonic’s suspension tuning, so maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised at how well this sporty new “RS” version handled. There’s no extra power included with the RS’s chassis, tire, and brake upgrades (now four-wheel discs). Gear ratio changes are the only performance improvement, so the 138 hp Sonic RS unfortunately can’t fully deliver on the promise made by its model-specific styling enhancements and larger price tag. Nice seats, looks neat, but not the winner in this crowd.
Fiat 500 Abarth
Price (base/as tested): $23,995/$27,400
Trading a healthy portion of “cute” for a solid helping of “brute,” the Abarth treatment puts some serious attitude into the diminutive Fiat 500. The exhaust note produced by the 160 hp 1.4L is raw (in a good way), the steering is lively and effective, and my Abarth tester’s red and black interior was a feast for the eyes. This car needs a telescoping steering wheel for me to find it comfortable. That alone might be a deal-breaker in this class.
Honda Accord Coupe
Price (base/as tested): $35,390/$35,390
The English flat cap in a group of backwards baseball hats was Honda’s Accord Coupe. Definitely fast — in AJAC’s testing it trailed the group-leading AWD Golf R to 100 km/h by just a 10th of a second — but immediately proved to not be happy with being chucked around the handling course, slick manual gearbox notwithstanding. The Accord better suits a touring role, where its good ride/handling balance, creamy V6 engine, and comfortable, much-improved interior would be greater appreciated.
Hyundai Genesis Coupe
Price (base/as tested): $26,499/$28,799
What a difference a year makes. Last year the 2.0L turbo in the Genesis Coupe produced just 210 horsepower. This year it makes 274, and they’re angry horses. The AJAC testers were equipped with the R-Spec package, which adds even more aggressive suspension tuning, stickier tires, and Brembo brakes, a combination which provided the shortest in-class stopping distance and very capable handling without being punishingly firm. The Genesis is in my top three for this group, challenged by the Scion/Subaru twins and possibly the Focus.
Hyundai Veloster Turbo
Price (base/as tested): $25,999/$25,999
Last year the Veloster won this category — despite almost universal grumblings about a lack of oomph from its economy car-sourced engine. Adding a turbo knocked 1.6 seconds from the Veloster’s 0-to-100 km/h sprint, though that alone wasn’t enough to keep the title. The Veloster’s big brother, the Genesis Coupe, is much more car for less than $1,000 more, provided rear seat space or having a hatchback aren’t critical needs.
Price (base/as tested): $32,900/$36,610
Mini should take it as a compliment that I would compare the Mini Cooper S Roadster I evaluated to the Mazda Miata in how it provided the visceral feel of classic, top-down sports car driving. Like all current Minis (other than the Countryman and other “man” models), the Roadster’s a nimble, compact, light-feeling vehicle, and having an (easily) retractable roof and no back seats greatly added to the experience. Even so, it was tough to overcome having the second-highest as-tested price and mid-pack performance figures to claim the category win.
Price (base/as tested): $25,990/$25,990
Powered by a 2.0L Boxer engine and assembled at a Fuji Heavy Industries (Subaru) facility in Japan, the Scion FR-S is the twin to the Subaru BRZ. Both share the same basic rear-wheel drive dynamics and lively handling, though each automaker selected different spring and damping rates. Both are blessed with excellent steering. It’s going to come down to pricing versus content — and the Scion is the less-expensive twin.
Price (base/as tested): $27,295/$27,295
The first non-all-wheel drive Subaru sold here since 1997, and it’s a rear-wheel drive beaut. A joint venture, Toyota lends its engineering know-how, so the 200 hp Boxer engine wears Toyota’s D-4S direct and port fuel injection system. The slightly more expensive BRZ includes HID and LED forward lighting not available in its Scion FR-S counterpart, in addition to some trim differences; the Subaru has nicer seats. The unique chassis tuning makes a surprising amount of difference — I much preferred the BRZ’s on-track handling.
Volkswagen Golf R
Price (base/as tested): $39,675/$39,675
Heart set on an Audi TTS, but need something a little more practical? You, Sir or Madam, need a Volkswagen Golf R. Sure, the Golf’s 2.0T engine produces 9 less horsepower, but at 256, it’s certainly no slouch, and you’ll save more than $18,000. The R is the only all-wheel drive Golf model available in Canada, too. A phenomenal, refined performer whose primary downsides are that at $40,000, it’s still not cheap, and it’s so understated that nobody will know you spent the money.