QOTD: Dreaming of a Cheap Pocket Rocket?

Steph Willems
by Steph Willems
qotd dreaming of a cheap pocket rocket

Pity the low-end driving enthusiast. Once upon a time, this crop of new car buyers could slip behind the wheel of a muscled-up compact like the Dodge Dart Swinger 340 or GTS and brag that Mannix drove the same car. While the Malaise Era put an end to sportier small car variants with legitimate performance cred, by the late ’80s and early ’90s the party was back on. Cash-poor buyers could peruse a V6 Plymouth Duster or turbocharged Dodge Shadow ES/Sundance RS, though those same turbo fours also found a home in the cheaper Dodge Omni.

How ’bout a Pontiac Sunbird GT… or a less status-worthy Ford Escort GT?

Japan got in on the game with a myriad of compact and subcompact sport offerings, from the Honda CRX Si to the Mazda 323 GTX and a myriad of models in between. While there’s still options out there for enthusiasts on a budget (RIP, Ford Fiesta ST), the pickings have become far slimmer. Is there an entry-level vehicle worthy of a performance makeover?

It should be noted that Nissan sells a Sentra SR Turbo — and, yes, a NISMO variant — that no one ever mentions, while Honda sells a punchier and far more visually appealing Civic Si that’s the talk of some towns. With destination, the lowliest Sentra turbo stickers for just over $23,500; Honda wants just under $26,000 to start for the Si. Nothing to moan about when considering prices of yesteryear and the steady march of inflation, but perhaps too dear for many first-time buyers, even with relatively low interest rates.

Let’s get one thing clear: this is a daydream exercise. There’s good reason why automakers don’t sink money into shrinking, low-margin model lines just for the sake of fielding a budget pocket rocket. With the subcompact and compact car segments on the decline, the era of cheap speed is rapidly drawing to a close, if it hasn’t already. If there’s a more powerful motor available from the parts bin that fits, maybe a manufacturer will consider it (after long and dry meetings with company beancounters). A fast, fun, affordable car that’s popular with the young crowd can pay dividends in terms of marketing and luring new buyers into the brand, but it’s not for everyone. Economics too often puts the kibosh on such offerings. The Fiesta ST is gone, the Fiat 500 Abarth recently bit the dust (along with the 500 itself), and the Chevrolet Sonic — available with a turbo four some might deem too tepid — is living on borrowed time.

Browsing the opinions of the Twitterverse, one candidate for a bargain-basement fun cart seems to be Nissan’s next-gen 2020 Versa, a sedan with new bones and certainly newfound style. It’s possible some would prefer to see the Mazda-turned-Toyota Yaris sedan and upcoming hatch enlivened with a gutsier engine.

If the idea of turning an el-cheapo econobox into a thrifty factory pocket rocket appeals to you, take a look around the meager automotive landscape and tell us your pick. Which model will it be, and how far would you like to see the manufacturer go?

[Image: Nissan, Chrysler]

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3 of 95 comments
  • IBx1 IBx1 on Sep 11, 2019

    Imagine if Toyota listened to the last 8 years of requesting a turbo in the GT86.

    • Art Vandelay Art Vandelay on Sep 11, 2019

      People bash turbos constantly in these forums, but I think even they would have to admit that a turbo would drastically improve not only the power delivery but also the drivability and power delivery of this car in particular.

  • Art Vandelay Art Vandelay on Sep 11, 2019

    Though it would be out of this category price wise, what I really want is an Acura ILX "Type R". Just drop in the Civic Tye R drivetrain. Bonus points if it wears Integra badges. Take my money if it's a coupe. I thought the ILX was a different platform (last gen Civic maybe?) so I'd really like to see it migrated to the current civic if so. I want to like the Civic, especially the Si, but man they are so ugly. Give me a civic with a mature body, make the Si powertrain standard ant the type R the upgrade and take my money.

  • Redapple2 Why does anyone have to get permission to join? Shouldnt the rules to race in a league be straight forward like. Build the car to the specs. Pay the race entry fee. Set the starting grid base on time trials.?Why all the BS?I cant watch F1 any more. No refuel. Must use 2 different types of tires. Rare passing. Same team wins every week. DRS only is you are this close and on and on with more BS. Add in the skysports announcer that sounds he is yelling for the whole 90 minutes at super fast speed. I m done. IMSA only for me.
  • Redapple2 Barra at evil GM is not worth 20 mill/ yr but dozens (hundreds) of sports players are. Got it. OK.
  • Dusterdude @SCE to AUX , agree CEO pay would equate to a nominal amount if split amongst all UAW members . My point was optics are bad , both total compensation and % increases . IE for example if Mary Barra was paid $10 million including merit bonuses , is that really underpaid ?
  • ToolGuy "At risk of oversimplification, a heat pump takes ambient air, compresses it, and then uses the condenser’s heat to warm up the air it just grabbed from outside."• This description seems fairly dramatically wrong to me.
  • SCE to AUX The UAW may win the battle, but it will lose the war.The mfrs will never agree to job protections, and production outsourcing will match any pay increases won by the union.With most US market cars not produced by Detroit, how many people really care about this strike?