No Fixed Abode: The Low Spark Of High Performance Compacts

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth
no fixed abode the low spark of high performance compacts

Imagine a world without war. More specifically, imagine a world without the horsepower war that has dominated the automotive landscape over the past fifteen years.

It’s easy if you try. The Corvette would still have 350 horsepower; mid-engined Ferraris would have about 400. The Mustang? 260 raging ponies. Most pickup trucks would have under three hundred horses, and some would have fewer than two hundred. The V12-powered Mercedes sedans would have just a bit more than half the puissance they currently possess. The Subaru STi would have 300 hp to humiliate the VW GTI’s 200 hp, while the top-spec Nissan Sentra would send 180 hp through a six-speed manual, about which a big deal would be made.

Perhaps you experienced a bit of cognitive dissonance while reading that last sentence. After all, the current Subaru STi has 305 horsepower now, facing the 210 horsepower of the GTI, and the just-announced Sentra Nismo is expected to put out 188 ponies. Compared to their turn-of-the-century ancestors, both of those cars actually have a worse power-to-weight ratio today. And while the new Civic Si is expected to put up a slightly better number than the 2006 Civic Si, it’s going to come from a 1.5-liter turbo engine that will likely be stressed to the gills, not a tuned-down variant of the Type-R’s two-liter.

So, while the wealthy car buyers among us are enjoying an era of unprecedented power in their sports cars, SUVs, and big sedans, the entry-level buyers are being asked to do more with less. Sounds familiar, right?

Not to worry, dear members of the Best & Brightest; I’m not going to use this as an opportunity to dive headfirst into the Eugene B. Debs Municipal Swimming Pool. Nor will I attempt to make the case for modern compact cars being more dangerous in a crash, noisier, or lower-quality than their predecessors; that’s certainly not the case. My sole interest is raw speed.

Thirty years ago, the “hot hatch” was the red-hot segment in motoring both here and overseas. Everybody fielded a warmed-up compact car, and I mean EVERYBODY. From Escort GT to Cavalier Z24 to Corolla GT-S, the hills were alive with the sound of young people revving the nuts off machinery ranging from the tape-and-stripe prosaic to the sixteen-valve exotic. In the UK and on the Continent, drivers were thrilled by a series of sweet-handling small cars from Peugeot, Opel, and Ford of Europe. And in Japan, it was well and truly off the proverbial chain — remember the Honda City Turbo, complete with trunk-mounted motorcycle?

In the decade and a half that followed, manufacturers turned up the heat with a vengeance. The Subaru WRX/Sti and Mitsubishi Evolution weren’t just fast for being compact cars; they were just fast, period. Woe betide the driver of a new 911 Carrera who saw an Evo behind him on a twisty road or a close-coupled racetrack — there was a solid chance that he was going to get a forthright and humiliating lesson in the merits of turbocharged all-wheel-drive small sedans.

But then the horsepower wars started for real, and small cars were left behind. Fifteen years ago, you could throw a $499 aftermarket tune on a new WRX and whip a new Mustang or ‘Vette in the quarter mile. Good luck doing that today. Some manufacturers dropped out of the sport-compact game entirely — Nissan, we’re looking at you — while others were half-hearted (ahem, Honda). While the VW GTI improved by leaps and bounds to become the undisputed class of the field, it didn’t necessarily get any faster while it was doing so. Arguably, only Ford has pushed the envelope in the past ten years — the Fiesta ST is a brilliant car that runs harder than any supermini in history, while the Focus ST was a stout-hearted beast that responded well to chip-tuning. But everybody else has either held the horsepower line or lost interest entirely.

The news from Los Angeles suggests that this trend is unlikely to change any time soon. Yes, you will eventually have the Civic Type-R to join the Focus RS in the hyper-power-hatch segment that didn’t even exist fifteen years ago, but let’s be honest with ourselves: those cars are boutique products, aimed at wealthy Gen-Xers who fondly remember their GTIs or Civics but want to pay Mustang GT Premium money so they can run slightly slower than a Mustang GT.

So who killed the hot hatch or the crazy compact? Every theory that comes to my mind sounds like a stereotypical indictment of either today’s “participation-trophy” generation of young men, or the economy in which said young men are struggling to find work, or both. Perhaps it’s just a matter of engineering resources being pulled in another direction. Small cars nowadays are more likely to spawn tall-roof variants like the HR-V or C-HR than they are to generate fire-breathing Touge-twisters. Somebody with more baked-in optimism than I possess might argue that the increased durability of modern cars is to blame — why would you drop $20k on a warmed-over compact when that same money will get you a 370Z or Mustang GT with 100,000 good miles left in it?

Regardless of the causes, however, I will tell you what the effects will be. Enthusiast-focused small cars are the gateway drug of automotive enthusiasm. Today’s Corvette or McLaren owner was probably a hot-hatch driver at some point in his or her life. If we don’t hook ’em young, we won’t hook ’em at all. Mark my words. It’s a trickle-up economy out there when it comes to fast cars, and if that sounds crazy, how can it be any crazier than selling a “NISMO” Sentra that can’t keep up with the old Sentra SE-R?

[Image: Honda North America]

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  • Scuzimi Scuzimi on Nov 20, 2016

    Jack, Jack... ! Here is a place were you could learn to write better and more concise, shortened posts, ASU, as it seems you never took a less is better course. ;-)

  • LesleyW LesleyW on Nov 25, 2016

    Why do you think I drive such old beaters? I'll probably go out in a crumpled ball propelled by 86 horsepower, but at least there aren't seven layers of safety disconnect between me and the car.

  • Denis Jeep have other cars?!?
  • Darren Mertz In 2000, after reading the glowing reviews from c/d in 1998, I decided that was the car for me (yep, it took me 2 years to make up my mind). I found a 1999 with 24k on the clock at a local Volvo dealership. I think the salesman was more impressed with it than I was. It was everything I had hoped for. Comfortable, stylish, roomy, refined, efficient, flexible, ... I can't think of more superlatives right now but there are likely more. I had that car until just last year at this time. A red light runner t-boned me and my partner who was in the passenger seat. The cops estimate the other driver hit us at about 50 mph - on a city street. My partner wasn't visibly injured (when the seat air bag went off it shoved him out of the way of the intruding car) but his hip was rather tweaked. My car, though, was gone. I cried like a baby when they towed it away. I ruminated for months trying to decide how to replace it. Luckily, we had my 1998 SAAB 9000 as a spare car to use. I decided early on that there would be no new car considered. I loathe touch screens. I'm also not a fan of climate control. Months went by. I decided to keep looking for another B5 Passat. As the author wrote, the B5.5 just looked 'over done'. October this past year I found my Cinderella slipper - an early 2001. Same silver color. Same black leather interior. Same 1.8T engine. Same 5 speed manual transmission. I was happier than a pig in sh!t. But a little sad also. I had replaced my baby. But life goes on. I drive it every day to work which takes me over some rather twisty freeway ramps. I love the light snarel as I charge up some steep hills on my way home. So, I'm a dyed-in-the-wool Passat guy.
  • Paul Mezhir As awful as the styling was on these cars, they were beautifully assembled and extremely well finished for the day. The doors closed solidly, the ride was extremely quiet and the absence of squeaks and rattles was commendable. As for styling? Everything's beautiful in it's own way.....except for the VI's proportions were just odd: the passenger compartment and wheelbase seemed to be way too short, especially compared to the VI sedan. Even the short-lived Town Coupe had much better proportions. None of the fox-body Lincolns could compare to the beautiful proportions of the Mark was the epitome of long, low, sleek and elegant. The proportions were just about perfect from every angle.
  • ToolGuy Silhouetting yourself on a ridge like that is an excellent way to get yourself shot ( Skylining)."Don't you know there's a special military operation on?"
  • ToolGuy When Farley says “like the Millennium Falcon” he means "fully updatable" and "constantly improving" -- it's right there in the Car and Driver article (and makes perfect sense).