The Sport Compacts You Can’t Buy





TCC's Auto Show Index by TCC Team (7/4/2005)
Our coverage of the world's major auto shows, year to year.



by Conor Twomey


The term sport compact is a relatively new term for a set of cars that have been around for a while. It’s used to describe small, sporty cars, usually imported hatchbacks from Asian carmakers.




As a subgenre of the massive American market, sport compacts have been embraced because they’re affordable, cheap to insure, and have a wide array of tuner parts available. And they’re so much more fun than anything else you can get for the money.




But in Europe , where tight roads and high gas prices have always been part of the landscape, the sport compact has been around for decades. Except Europeans don’t call them sport compacts. They refer to them as “hot hatches.” It’s generally accepted that VW gave us our first modern hot hatch, the original 1976 VW Golf GTI. It was an understated and modest little car, powered by a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine that produced just 110 hp. But with less than 2000 lb to propel, that was enough for a 0-60 time of 8 seconds, which was incredibly fast for its day.




In addition to scorching pace, the GTI also handled exceptionally well and the car was a massive success, despite originally being slated for just a 5000-unit run. By the mid eighties just about every compact and subcompact had a hot version, many bearing copycat GTI badges but there were other equally meaningless acronyms like GSi, XR3, SRi, and XSi. As always happens, carmakers tried to outdo each other by adding more and more performance culminating in the likes of the Peugoet 205 T16, Audi quattro, Lancia Delta Integrale, and Ford Escort Cosworth of the early Nineties, all four-wheel-drive, turbocharged, street-going versions of rally cars.


Today, Europe is once more falling in love with the hot hatch — in much the same way America is rediscovering the muscle car at the moment. Europe is entering into a new age of fast motoring for the masses but sadly, for the most part, American buyers will be deprived the pleasure these sophisticated little cars can offer. And even though these cars aren’t available in the U.S., it’s no surprise that their performance and style seem a lot like the sport compacts we get here in America:



Ford Focus ST




While the U.S. makes do with a facelifted version of the original Focus, Europe got a new model last year and at the Geneva show in March they wheeled out the Focus ST performance model, full of aggression and attitude, and with standard 18-inch alloys and a beefy body kit. More importantly, it should go pretty well, too, when it goes on sale in a few months’ time. Ford has let slip that the new ST can lap the Nuerburgring some nine seconds faster than the old Focus RS, which was a 212-hp, wide-bodied, turbocharged version of the old Focus that was meant to be only for hardcore enthusiasts. The supple ST is smooth and fast where the old RS would buck away precious time.



The new Focus ST uses the same platform as the Mazda3 and Volvo S40 and even shares an engine with the S40 T5. The five-cylinder, turbocharged, 2.0-liter engine produces 217 hp (no news on torque yet) and drives the front wheels through a six-speed manual gearbox. Standard enhancements will include a trick differential and unobtrusive electronic aids, ensuring the car is both fast and agile. The interior gets all the usual go-faster accessories including bucket seats, leather steering wheel, aluminum pedals, and a sports shifter. Fancy dials and extra equipment complete the package but there are no prices yet.


Renaultsport Megane



RenaultSport MeganeRenault, the French company that basically bought out and returned Nissan to profitability, has had its Megane on sale for almost three years now so by the end of 2004 it was time to introduce a fast version to boost interest in the range. Renault has a long and (sometimes) proud history of producing fast hot hatches, with the Clio Williams (the F1 team leant only its name to the car) amongst the best of all time. The Renault R5 Turbo and mid-engined Clio V-6 were other hugely iconic cars for the company which, to be fair, were awfully fast if diabolically bad machines.


The Megane RS takes the rather stodgy-handling hatchback and injects some serious life into its boring dynamics. The engine, for example, is a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder unit that produces 225 hp (221 lb-ft of torque) and lights up the front wheels via a six-speed manual. The 0-60 dash is dispatched in just 6.5 seconds and top speed is a staggering 147 mph. It’s considered by pundits in Europe to be fast and capable but not up to the standard of previous Renault hot hatches due to its 3031-lb heft and safe, rather than playful, dynamics. Blame the simple, torsion beam rear suspension and electro-magnetic steering for the lack of excitement. There’s no arguing with its looks, pace, and family-friendly accommodation, however, and although its price (estimated at $29,000) is a bit prohibitive by American standards, it’s competitive in Europe.


Opel Astra OPC



Opel Astra OPCThe Opel Astra is a brand-new European model that is closely related to the new U.S.-only Chevy Cobalt. There’s a lot of behind the scenes stuff common to the two cars, while the Astra OPC shares much of the Cobalt SS’s suspension, steering, and drivetrain. Given how much fun the SS is, we’d expect the OPC to be a riot. Indeed, basic versions are getting rave reviews from European pundits who compare its handling to the Focus and MINI (despite its basic torsion beam rear suspension) so the sporty version is eagerly awaited.



Where the OPC will really stand out, though, is in terms of power and performance. Thanks to its turbocharged, 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine, its power output will be 240 hp (235 lb-ft of torque), which is enough for a searing 0-60 time of around 6.2 seconds and a top speed of 152 mph. That’s remarkable pace for a small, compact hatch. It’s also expected to undercut rivals in terms of price and equipment, which will include a six-speed gearbox, limited slip differential, 18-inch alloys, and a wild body kit. As a package, we think the Astra OPC will be very hard to beat.




2006 Volkswagen GTIIt’s coming, VW promises us, but not until massive demand for the new GTI in Europe has been met. The new Golf GTI packs a 2.0-liter turbocharged, four-cylinder engine that’s already available in the Audi A3 and A4, mated to a six-speed manual or VW’s remarkable DSG twin-clutch sequential manual. Power is pegged at around 197 hp (206 lb-ft of torque), good enough for a 0-60 time of 7.2 seconds with the manual — 6.9 with the DSG transmission — and a top speed of 147 mph.


Having previously lost the plot with slow, stodgy GTI models, the new VW hot hatch has been met with broad acclaim in Europe as reviewers enjoy its fun handling characteristics and compliant ride. Like the Focus, it boasts a sophisticated independent rear suspension that VW has set up to be lively when conditions allow, but comfortable and quiet for day-to-day use. The car that kicked off the hot hatch craze is back with a bang, even if it is a cultured and mature bang. Seventeen-inch wheels are standard, but in true VW fashion it costs a little more than its rivals (over $30,000) while basics like air conditioning are expensive options in certain markets.


Citroën C4 VTS



Citroen C4 VTSThe Citroën C4 is one of the most eye-catching cars on the market in Europe and it’s packed with quirky features like a static steering-wheel boss and a transparent speedometer. It shares its platform with the Peugeot 307 but the one-time masters of the hot hatch refused to give European buyers a fast version of the 307 so it was left to sister company Citroën to take up the hot-hatch slack for both companies. The Citroën C4 VTS only gets a body kit and 17-inch alloy wheels to set it apart from lesser models but despite the restrained looks it still manages to stand out.


It’s down on power and torque compared to rivals, though, with just 178 hp and 152 lb-ft from its normally aspirated 2.0-liter four-cylinder. Not surprisingly, the 2947-lb Citroën C4 only manages a time of 8.3 seconds for the 0-60 sprint and is all out of puff at 141 mph. Reviewers complain that its electro-hydraulic steering and sloppy gearchanges make it difficult to get the most from the C4 VTS but it counters these criticisms by having a lower price than its rivals by several thousand dollars.


Peugeot 206 GTi 180


Peugeot 206 GTi 180Peugeot’s only true hot hatch is the tiny 206 GTi 180. Based on the ubiquitous Peugeot 206 subcompact, the GTi 180 has had its engine-bay stuffed with the same 178 hp, 152 lb-ft 2.0-liter four-cylinder as the Citroën C4 VTS but with 392 lbs less to haul around it’s considerably faster. The 0-60 run is quoted at 7.4 seconds, though top speed is geared to just 137 mph because of the car’s short wheelbase. The standard 17-inch wheels look massive beneath the little 206 and there’s plenty of other go-faster equipment including leather-bolstered seats, dual tailpipes, and racy spoilers.


Testers agree that it lacks the torque to make it truly rocket-ship fast and like the Citroen C4 VTS, the steering and gearbox let it down somewhat — very surprising given how good hot Peugeots used to be. But what really keeps it out of the limelight is the fact that the car itself is almost seven years old and is terribly packaged. The cramped footwell and splay-leg driving position is just no good in a car that demands delicate used of the controls.


BMW 1-Series



2005 BMW 1-SeriesThe BMW 1-Series is a surprise addition to the performance car list, especially considering there’s no actual “fast” model yet. But the tiny 1er has something that no other car in this class can offer — rear-wheel drive. This bestows superb balance on the car and thanks to a sophisticated five-link rear suspension it boasts wonderfully sporty dynamics, reviewers claim. Without a hot version per se, you might expect the 1-Series to be the slowest car in this group, but that’s not the case. The quickest model is actually the 120d, a 2.0-liter common-rail turbodiesel that packs 163 hp and a massive 251 lb-ft of torque. It propels the 3119-lb BMW 1-Series to 60 in 7.9 seconds and on to a top speed of 137 mph, though being diesel-powered these numbers don’t reflect the car’s true performance. Common-rail diesels often leave gas cars behind when overtaking or on inclines, where their low-down torque really comes into its own.


Costing several thousand more than even the Golf GTi, the 1-Series is as expensive as you would imagine a small BMW would be and although a six-speed manual gearbox and air conditioning is standard, the standard wheels are small 16-inch items and the 120d has none of the go-faster styling cues of its more aggressive rivals.


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