So I’m a huge (Donald Trump voice) fan of sport compact cars for a few reasons. They are affordable, plentiful on the new and used market, fun to drive, and pretty practical. They are popular and have a huge following and afterket to make a good car better. I’ve owned four or five sport compact cars in my 16 or so years of driving. I’m not a tall guy so they have fit me just fine and now I use one to tote my kids around as well! Most of them are fuel efficient so they make sense as a daily driver and it doesn’t take tons of power to make them fun to drive either! Heck, my daily only makes 140hp but it can be fun, it’s all about perspective! Oh, and they really easy to find parking spots with too! As I mentioned, there is a plethora of options out there new and used so it’s going to be hard to pick which ones we talk about here but I can give my opinion on a few that I have owned as well.
Sport compacts cover a wide range of makes, models, and drivetrains. One of my favorites from when I was younger was the first and second gen eclipse / Talon. What are affectionately known as DSM cars, Diamond Star Motors. There was the Plymouth Laser in there too but I didn’t care for it much. You could get the DSMs in front wheel drive or all wheel drive. Out of High school I was dead set on finding and building a 1998 Mitsubishi Eclipse GSX, my personal favorite of the DSM cars. I still think they are attractive cars and clean versions are few and far between, at least I don’t see many anymore. A clean second gen Talon TSI was a close second. Anyways, a big part of the DSMs popularity was the engine. The turbocharged models featured the vulnerable 4G63 turbocharged 4 cylinder, the same basic engine from the evolution, good for around 200 hp in stock form. The potential of the 4G63 is pretty much limitless. The 6 bolt engine from the first generation cars 1990-1994 was the desired engine as the second gen 4G63 was prone to crank walk. Today, modified versions of these budget tuners are still embarrassing cars costing well over ten times as much with a few modifications.
Goes Like Hell is the what the GLH stood for behind the Dodge’s quickest Omni. With the help of Carol Shelby, Dodge produced the GLH as a hot hatchback and that it was. In the mid eighties fuel was expensive and the Omni was a fuel sipping mode of transportation for many. The first iteration in 1984 had bumped compression and some suspension bits to warrant its sporty advertising. In 1985 however things got a little more serious with the addition of turbocharging the Omni. Power was bumped to 145 hp which was pretty good for a car that only weighed 2,300 lbs. It was more powerful that its sporty competitors from overseas. In 1986 and 1987 the GLHS was produced in limited numbers (500 units). Dodge had beefed up the engine a bit and it was now good for 175 hp. This power to weight ratio made the Omni GLHS faster that pretty much any 80’s “muscle car” at the time. It was quicker than Mustangs, Camaros, and Corvettes out of the box with it’s 6.5 second 0-60 and 14.8 quarter mile. This was quick for the mid eighties! All in a sensible, still economical, hatchback. I think the sporty Omni models actually look pretty good as well, for an eighties car.
So the next car i’m going to talk about isn’t necessarily iconic in the sport compact arena but I owned one and i’m not embarrassed to say that I really liked it. In 2003 Dodge introduced the Neon SRT-4, actually it was just called the SRT-4 but anyone can tell it was a Neon with more aggressive body work. One hint that the SRT-4 had a bit more to it was the big front mount intercooler behind the front facia. The SRT-4 had a 2.4L Turbo Inline 4 mated to a 5 speed manual transmission powering the front wheels. At the time I was a junior in high school when these cars were introduced and the Subaru WRX and mitsubishi Evolution were just coming to the states as well. They were probably the most popular sport compact sedans of the time. A few years out of high school my old Dodge pickup was on its last leg and I wanted something sportier. I ended up picking up a 2004 Electric Blue SRT-4 and haters gonna hate but it was a fun car and it was pretty damn quick! I think they were a little underrated at the 230 hp rating for the stage 1 model and the factory offered 3 performance stages which was kind of cool at the time. I’m no street racer but I know first hand the SRT-4 would run door to door with much more expensive STI’s and Evo’s of the day, actually pulling on the top end. Many people made fun of the car but I loved mine and I think it deserves a spot on the list, my list at least.
Speaking of Subarus, there is no denying one of the hottest sport compact cars to grace our shores in the past 20 years is no doubt the Subaru Impreza WRX. Per usual Japan and the rest of the world had the hot versions of the Impreza long before we got a version here in the US. I remember when the 2002 model came to dealers, kids and grownups drooled over the turbocharged all wheel drive unicorn. With 227 hp and all wheel drive in a small compact sedan made for a fun car that was hard to keep up with in the twisties. Seeing as japan and the rest of the world had the older versions for years it didn’t take long at all for the aftermarket to catch up for the USDM market. With a simple exhaust and bump in boost, big gains in power were made for a minimal investment. In 2004 the STI version came to the states with its 2.5L increased displacement EJ engine, bigger turbocharger, nearly indestructible 6-speed transmission, and more efficient intercooler with water sprayer …Yea idk if this really helped or was a gimmick but it seemed cool at the time! The WRX has gone through some changes over the years, mostly cosmetic, although the newest iteration has shown the biggest changes with a new engine, the STI is still rocking the old EJ257. I’ve owned a 2002 and a 2009 which both were fun, great cars. No one can mistake that signature Subie rumble.
One of the most recognized couple of letters in the auto industry whether you are an import or muscle guy is SI. Honda introduced the SI badge back in the eighties on the Civic hatchback and CRX. Of course we were given a neutered version with the 91 hp SOHC engine compared to the 118 hp japanese and European versions but the car was still a fun car to drive and was efficient as well. As much as I really like the FA5 Civic SI sedans the 1999 EM1 is my favorite SI. I don’t know what it is but i like that body style the best and if I had my choice it would be blue with the stock wheels and a few mods to enhance that sweet N/A Honda sound. Some people make fun of Vtec but I think it’s fantastic technology that’s been out for a while and I’m a little sad Honda has gone away from this naturally aspirated high revving Vtec engines. The current cars although good performers are turbocharged 1.5L engines. They are great cars but I think they lack a little bit of what made the SI so special back in the day. Speaking of the newer cars, the New Civic SI is no slouch! Even with only 1.5L of displacement to work with a turbocharger helps bring power up to 205 hp making the SI a pretty quick little commuter car. While not as ballistic as its big brother, the Type R, the SI features all of the sporty goods that come with the SI badge and is pretty hard package to beat, just like its SI badged ancestors.
The last car on the list is considered a classic in the sport compact class and defined the the hot hatch category over 40 years ago, the Volkswagen Golf GTI. Now on its 7th generation the little hatchback still offers up a fun, practical car for the masses. Volkswagen threw a 110 hp inline four cylinder into a light, nimble hatch and the automotive world took notice. The GTI came here to the states in 1983 and in typical foreign car fashion it was slightly neutered but still fun to drive. Fast forward to today and the seventh generation Golf GTI has won many awards for its refinement and performance. The cars feel very solid with the new MQB chassis and they feel more upscale than the price suggests. The newest version offers an underrated 228 hp and is quicker than people think. We recently traded our MK7 GTI in on something bigger for family trips but it was a sad day for me as the GTI, which wasn’t really on my list when car shopping, was probably my favorite car ive owned! After 40,000 miles without a hiccup the car felt and drove just like it did the day I drove it off the showroom floor. I liked it so much that I picked up a Golf TDI for a daily commuter car, you don’t have to get the hottest version for it to be fun. It’s a MK6, not MK7, but the car feels very solid and while it only has 140 hp the 236 ft lbs of torque mated to a six speed manual makes the thing pretty fun to drive! The 40 mpg on the highway commute isn’t bad either.
Obviously there are a ton more honorable mentions from yesteryear and today such as the Nissan Sentra SE-R, Honda Del Sol, Toyota MR2, Hyundai Veloster N, and the ST versions of the Ford Focus and Fiesta. There have been hundreds of good sport compact car models made over the years and everyone has their favorites, this list barely scratches the surface! Sport compacts fill a wide variety of roles for many people and I think this is what has made them so popular. They can be practical, affordable, fuel efficient, and fun to drive. It’s a hard to beat recipe for many people who don’t want a boring driving experience. From all of us here at Gearbox have fun, be safe, and keep the shiny side up!