By on September 10, 2019

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.

FCA

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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93 Comments on “QOTD: Dreaming of a Cheap Pocket Rocket?...”


  • avatar
    NoID

    1. FCA drops the manual transmission into the V6 Challenger. It already makes 305 horsepower and is available with more trim & appearance packages than the number of mid-performance wardrobe changes by *insert relevant pop star here* at the VMAs. A manual transmission would be icing on the cake.

    2. Don’t forget the 4-cyl. Mustang and Camaro. These exist today.

    None of the above are “pocket” rockets, but they are cheap performance.

  • avatar
    Mike Beranek

    Uh, hello, the GTI?

    • 0 avatar
      DedBull

      A GTI starts at 27,595 according to the VW website, and goes up from there. I am assuming the author is looking for a mythical vehicle somewhere closer to 20K. I have no idea where real world prices are on GTI’s, I’m assuming there aren’t many base units sold.

    • 0 avatar
      spookiness

      Around me it seems that base GTI can be had for 25k. That’s a good deal IMO. I think “cheap speed” circa 20k might be tough. It would never sell, but I kinda like the no-nonsense shape & style of the current Rio5. A NA larger engine (2.0) would probably make it a hoot.

    • 0 avatar
      Art Vandelay

      The Jetta GLI can be had for cheaper than the GTI and in it’s current form is more alike than different mechanically. You can’t get the sweet plaid seats though…I asked.

  • avatar
    ajla

    It wouldn’t be under $20K but a fast version (like 5.1 seconds 0-60) of the BRZ/FRS would be nice.

  • avatar
    juicy sushi

    Take the current Corolla. Insert the 8AR turbo from the Lexus NX/IS, an LSD, and some bigger brakes. Call it the Corolla Trueno as a hatch, and Corolla Levin as a sedan. Price it the same as the Civic Si.

  • avatar
    jack4x

    If $23-$26K is too expensive for this exercise, there isn’t going to be much that will meet the criteria. Insert cheap econobox with 2.0T engine here.

    If I can open it up to “more powerful version of vehicle with low base price” then I’d like to see a true performance truck return. RCSB, 2WD, 6.2 for GM, 3.5 High output for Ford, 6.4 for Ram. Keep the options light and this could sell in the mid $30s.

  • avatar
    87 Morgan

    Prolly not what you are thinking.

    But I would be a big fan of a short bed chevy Silverado or GMC Sierra with the 6.2, cloth seats and and a sliding rear window. Screamer that can be used for actual work and stuff.

  • avatar
    iNeon

    This type of automobile will never happen again. The days of the average human’s ability to consume more than their fair share are over.

    Liken it to generational wealth done right, if you like— prudence is the zeitgeist, and we’re all at her mercy.

    There will be no more wild children, willfully squandering on experiential/experimental lives.

    But I’ll play: 300hp 2.0t 4×4 Jeep Compass TSi with 4 fully-adjustable buckets and a full-length console. Deeply want, but will never happen.

    ‘We’ve got this base Grand Cherokee Laredo over here if you want something for $35k, Sir.’

    • 0 avatar
      iNeon

      P.S. I’m intentionally not playing by the budget constraint, because we’re all aware nothing is underpriced in today’s car market.

      I can allow a healthy profit if my needs and expectations are met— this means I’ll gladly spend Grand Cherokee money on a Compass equipped such that I’m not punished for choosing the smaller vehicle.

      $35k for a compact is where any of these are going to land, price-wise. We’re asking for premium drivetrain cassettes and furnishings— the fantasy car I’ve suggested is what FCA are selling as an Alfa Romeo at around $50k.

  • avatar
    Jaeger

    Honda Fit Si with 1.5l turbo and 6 speed manual. All the parts are already there.

  • avatar
    FormerFF

    Hyundai Veloster Turbo R spec goes for around $22K in the US, and fills the bill nicely.

    I’m suspicious of a new Sentra, I had the current version as a rental and it was as bland as plain oatmeal.

  • avatar
    gtem

    FWIW a lot of these hot hatches are available post-massive depreciation on the lightly used market. I was helping a coworker find a stick shift *anything* for her husband and was seeing a lot of Veloster Turbos and a Sentra SR, very low miles, in the low teens. Fiesta STs even new (well not so much any more I guess) can be bought for $17-18k, very low mileage Abarths for $10k, etc.

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      I don’t know about you, but buying a used hot hatch would make me a bit nervous.

      • 0 avatar
        gtem

        True you’d have to do a very thorough inspection, but I think it’s still worth it for the savings.

        • 0 avatar
          FreedMike

          I saw a WRX not too long ago at Carmax – 8,000 miles. Interior smelled like strawberries. I conjure up the prior owner as Caleb, who was 20 and rewarded himself for getting promoted to assistant manager at Best Buy with a brand-spankin’ new WRX and a top of the line Juul that processed more THC than a Mexican cartel. Caleb’s Twitter name? BabyDriverCaleb.

          I ain’t inheriting that headache, know what I mean? :)

          (And, yes, I did just channel Crabspirits.)

  • avatar
    Mnemic

    I already bought one, Fiat 500 Abarth. I could have got a WRX or ” insert name of car here” for the same or a little more money but then it would have looked like I was trying.

    • 0 avatar
      stevelovescars

      I had the same thought. It’s about the size of a first-gen GTI but is much faster, more capable,sounds amazing, and can be had for about $20k… and they didn’t sell.

      I honestly thought the recent Dodge Dart with the same 1.4 turbo and a manual would have been a fun budget enthusiast car. That model lasted about, what, one year before they killed it?

      So, staying away from FCA products, I think the Chevy Cruze 5-door looked pretty nice and a version with a bit more oomph and a manual would potentially be a fun addition to the Chevy showroom. Oops, the Cruze is dead, too.

      • 0 avatar
        gtem

        Dart was IMO simply too heavy to be a “fun” compact. Even with the 2.4L, the fuel economy focused gearing on the manual makes it surprisingly NOT quick. A reincarnation of the old 1st gen Neon this was not.

        • 0 avatar
          iNeon

          MOPAR or no car.

          I owned both the DOHC/manual neon coupe and the Dart 1.4t/manual.

          Dart was a rocketship compared to neon, but it was too large by a half size and too smooth to ever be fun. The seats were uncomfortable and maintenance astronomical.

          When oil(5w40) has to be ordered from Amazon because McParts only keeps a single quart in each store— you know you’ve gotten your commuter car wrong.

          • 0 avatar
            jh26036

            Pro tip, dealers carry the “Mopar 5w40” oil at a very reasonable price. Last time I bought a case, I opened it up, literally was Pennzoil Euro 5w40 but only $6 a quart.

          • 0 avatar
            MRF 95 T-Bird

            I’ve seen a few leftover or low mileage Dart GT’s available equipped with the 2.4 and the 6 speed manual or automatic. They have the attractive but non functional Evo style hood scoop.
            Not a bad value for a hot compact but like you said the reliability could be an issue.

          • 0 avatar
            gtem

            “hot compact”

            I’d struggle to call it even lukewarm. 0-60 in about 8 seconds. A Hyundai Accent with a stick shift would take it from a light.

          • 0 avatar
            ToolGuy

            “MOPAR or no car.”

            That’s what Jim Hackett said.

      • 0 avatar
        threeer

        And the Cruze (final gen) is also a flaming piece of canine excrement. Owned both gen of Cruze and would take a gen 1 any day and twice on Sunday over the gen 2.
        Rented a Dart and was perhaps more disappointed in that car than just about any new car these days. I wanted to like it…really.
        As for a “cheapseats” sporty car, wouldn’t the Elantra GT brush up against that mark already?

      • 0 avatar
        scott25

        The Abarth was simply too stiff and too highly strung (and too Italian) to be practical as someone’s only vehicle

        • 0 avatar
          jh26036

          Stiff, that’s subjective. I felt it was reasonably compliant for such a short wheelbase car. I drove it daily for 58k miles, in Boston, all year round. I also put the car thru a handful of long road trips. I do not consider this car as a kidney crusher at all, in stock form at least.

          High strung? Are you talking about the engine? The 1.4L Turbo has a very strong mid-range. It’s punchy but you can get caught with your pants down if you’re not in the right gear.

          If you live in the city and street park, the 500 is a truly wonderful single car. Make sure to get the coupe, not the cabrio.

          • 0 avatar
            stevelovescars

            Yeah, with the rear seats folded it took everything I ever bought at Costco without any problem at all. I drove one for two years. While it wasn’t my only household car I used it as my daily driver and my wife had a Mazda5. It never failed to make me smile though my neighbors surely hated the exhaust at 6:00 am.

        • 0 avatar
          Mnemic

          I daily drove an Abarth for 4 years

    • 0 avatar
      MRF 95 T-Bird

      I always thought Alfa should have or was supposed to bring us the Mito hatch. It would have been a good GTI competitor or for folks who wanted to move up from the Fiat 500.

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    The upcoming Yaris iA hatch would be a perfect candidate for this – it’s already got a first-rate chassis. Let Toyota do their thing on the little Mazda engine, and this would be a killer little Q-ship.

    And I’m kind of surprised Mitsubishi hasn’t “heated up” the Outlander Sport, given the brand’s history. It’s not a bad driver to begin with. Drop in a hotter engine, lower the suspension, and sell it for around $30,000. It’d find buyers. Heck, if nothing else, if manufacturers feel compelled to shove CUVs at us, the least they can do is make them entertaining.

  • avatar
    pathfinderdoorhandle

    What a hoot! My first car was a brand new, factory-ordered 1969 Dodge Dart 340 GTS (approximately $3,400). The George Barris customized GTS convertible that Joe Mannix drove didn’t figure in my decision but it didn’t hurt either. No, my reason for the Dart versus an intermediate muscle car was size. Road Runners and SS Chevelles were just too big and offered no demonstrable advantages to my mind. Fun times, but then David E. Davis, Jr. wrote that damn article and I was off on a tangent. Today? I don’t know. I was intrigued by the Chevy Sonic turbo when it first came out, but nah. And since a nice GTS clone would probably cost ten times what I paid for the real thing in 1969, here’s my current Dart: https://tinyurl.com/yxtsyoc7

    • 0 avatar
      pathfinderdoorhandle

      Same color combo as my original, btw. Very accurate 1:18 scale model. Wrong wheels but a period-correct upgrade. I’d ordered mine with factory “mags” but due to production issues the car came through with painted steel wheels and dog dish hubcaps, sought-after today but considered low rent in 1969. I quickly fitted Keystone Kustom Mags (https://tinyurl.com/yyyukf3v) and Goodyear Polyglass raised-white-letter tires. The rims on the model are 1970 factory issue.

  • avatar
    tallguy130

    Hyundai Elantra Sport, or N as they are calling it now fits the bill pretty well. About 200hp and anyone with basic negotiation skills can get one for under 20k. Still offer it with a stick too.

    You could do a lot worse. Very easy to live with an still fun to drive.

    • 0 avatar
      PrincipalDan

      I’d love to see a version with the 275 hp engine from the Veloster N. Much more practical than the Veloster on a day-to-day basis.

    • 0 avatar
      pathfinderdoorhandle

      Yeah, the Elantra Sport fits the bill but it’s oh-so-close in price to the genuine article, the GTI. Plus, the beautiful bright blue featured in the ads and promos appears to be unavailable in the real world. Never mind finding a stick.

      • 0 avatar
        FreedMike

        The Elantra Sport’s sticker is pretty close to the base GTI’s, but it’s far better equipped, and they go for +/- $20,000 around here.

        But now that they’ve phased out the stick, I’d pass – I tried one with the DCT and I was not a fan. Lots of bucking/hunting, and the car comes from the factory with a tag entitled “What to do if your transmission overheats” hanging off the rear view mirror. That can’t be a good sign.

    • 0 avatar
      gtem

      I’ve actually started pondering whether I would actually enjoy getting into something like this, I’ve found myself tearing into on ramps in my wife’s Camry SE since starting to use it as my commuter, and and am kind of missing having a stick shift and a bit of midrange punch since I let go of my ’01 A4 Quattro 2.8. The 35 series tires on that Elantra Sport would be a big no-go with our roads, I’d have to see if a dealer would be willing to swap over some 16s from a lesser trim car.

  • avatar
    dwford

    An easy missed opportunity would’ve been a Chevy Cruze RS with a real engine. They gave it the right go fast look, but didn’t touch the motor. Swapping in the 1.5T or even better the 2.0T from the Malibu would’ve been so easy. Moot point now, I guess. But at least current owners have some cheap ECU reflash options that take the 1.4T to about 200hp.

  • avatar
    dal20402

    The Civic Si Sedan is already pretty much what I would want in this type of car. The Fit Si suggestion above is nice, though.

    But let’s play a bit of a different game: how about a Prius with a proper suspension and the 2.5 hybrid powertrain from the Camry?

  • avatar
    scott25

    Elantra Sport sedan (the N-line hatches and the Veloster Turbos at least north of the border are going for at least $5k more than the sedans) is the best cheap sporty option available for young people. You’ll never see a Civic Si discounted by much and the GTI is just out of reach.

    I’d still love to see a proper semi-practical hatch/sedan done on the 86 platform.

  • avatar
    DenverMike

    Base Mustang, just the Coyote and basic GT suspension/brakes/seats and automatic option.

    No power windows/locks/mirrors, LED lights, Nav, info/CarPlay or cruise control options. Yeah I know it costs carmakers more to delete the hardware, but Ford would be betting such a Mustang, priced like a loaded Corolla, would lure them in, except they’ll get weak, sign on for the GT, loaded EB and or convertible plus a longer loan.

    The uptil ’93 5.0 Mustang LX coupe/notch was such a car, but with not many (retail) takers. Most still stepped up to the fastback/hatch LX 2.3/5.0, or GT.

    • 0 avatar
      Art Vandelay

      As Ford is fond of “Retro” editions like the Mach 1 and the Bullitt, I was going to suggest that those of us in Gen-X get our version and that it should wear LX badges and be just the car you described. Bonus points if it has a cassette deck

      • 0 avatar
        PrincipalDan

        Once upon a time there was a “GT Delete” package to get rid of the spoiler and other GT identifiers.

        Do an LX that’s the equivalent of the base Ecoboost Mustang in interior and exterior appointments sell at a substantial discount over a true GT.

        The Challenger has the lowest average buyer age of the Mustang, Camaro, & Challenger. Those under 40 buyers are likely buying many more R/T models than 396 or Hellcats. I’ll also bet that the age of the people who buy the new LT1 Camaro is much lower than Camaro SS buyers.

  • avatar
    Wheatridger

    The car most needing hot hatchery might be the one I drive, the one that replaced my fourth GTI- a Ford C-Max. After a terrible introduction, where this hybrid failed to get the claimed Prius-beating MPGs, they should have offered a hopped up and rebranded model. Let the world know how quick and un-Prius-like the car really was. Almost 200 HP, without a turbo! A zero-to-sixty time of eight seconds (matching my early, non-turbo GTIs)! Focus-fast steering on a Euro-proven platform! All with hybrid bragging rights and a solid 40 mpg. All this was true, but known only to a few lucky owners.

    All the C-Max platform really needed was some well-bolstered sport seats, firmer shocks and some sporty trim. It already has wide alloys, the same dimension as my Mk. V GTI. Even stock, the C-Max is eager and capable in the canyons. I slide before the tires do… wonder if the Focus ST seats would fit? “Announcing the C-Max ST, the driver’s hybrid!” The car might have sold well and be introducing its new generation now.

    Or, we could name it the G-Max…

  • avatar
    caljn

    Would it be foolish to pick up a discontinued model such as the Fiat 500 Abarth?

  • avatar
    Maymar

    I think what I’d want to see the most, the one that I might be most likely to spend money on, is a hypothetical Golf GT-Line (borrowing from a trim a bunch of models in Europe use). It would have been preferable to use the 1.8 that the MkVII originally had, but either way, the 1.4 isn’t slow, and an option slightly less dear than the GTI’s $31k (CDN) base price would be nice. Throw the good brakes and suspension at a base Golf, and as much red striping and badges and plaid seats and such as VW is willing to do without feeling like they’re selling out the GTI’s heritage.

    Another oddball option I’d like to see is a Micra NISMO – the 1.6T should drop in, and they could build a genuinely cheap car out of that. If a base Micra is $11k, offer one without much more extra than 197hp for $14,995 just to see how many people they can get in the door, If they have to do a $20k model to get AC and power anything, it’d still be a steal.

    • 0 avatar
      spookiness

      I am with you on the VW idea. I gave some serious thought to a Golf at one point earlier this year but backed off. The GTI was a bit much for my needs, but the S/SE needed a visual and small performance bump. I really wanted a Golf SE, but with plaid seats instead of mandatory pleather, and some exterior upgrades kind of like the “R-Line” trim available on the Jetta & Passat. Anyhow, a VW is probably never in my future.

  • avatar
    namesakeone

    Why would you want three-pedal shifting when you can have three-row seating? (Stated sarcastically, of course.)

  • avatar
    Art Vandelay

    The 2 that stick out to me as practical options based on what is out there would be the Fit SI as mentioned and an SE-R version of the current Versa.

    This segment is more difficult than you think though. It isn’t just “drop the big motor in the little car” That is fun in its own right but the cars that become legends (think B-13 Sentra SE-R, 99ish Civic SI, CR-X, GTI) manage to get just enough motor in the car to where it’s quick but cant overpower the Chassis. This results in a car that makes the driver feel like a hero and keeps them out of trouble (Think Mustang GT at Cars and Coffee). Id drop the Corolla hatch in as well but I have seen nothing organically produced from Toyota to make me think they could pull it off.

    Perhaps they could outsource their Hot Hatch to someone else. Just let the Ford ST folks tune it. Toyota reliability with those driving characteristics may make me a convert.

  • avatar
    Daniel J

    Kona with the 1.6T scoots at 0-60 in 6.5s.

    New Forte GT with the 1.6T with 201hp but has yet to be tested that I’ve seen.

    Both under 24K.

  • avatar
    IBx1

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

    • 0 avatar
      Art Vandelay

      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.

  • avatar
    Art Vandelay

    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.


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