Cheap Speed Challenge: Best car for practical fun? – USA TODAY
JOLIET, Ill. — Corner 1, Lap 1. The few moments it took to get there after leaving the pit lane are how long it took to realize this multicar challenge would be the best of all for sheer fun.
Many of the regular head-to-head market segment showdowns that USA TODAY does with Cars.com and PBS TV’s MotorWeek involve more mainstream vehicles — midsize sedans, compact SUVs, minivans.
THE WINNER IS: Cheap Speed Challenge results, car-by-car evaluation
SHOPPING TOOLS: More details, pricing, comparison tools at Cars.com
Evaluating them is useful to shoppers — those are the high-volume sellers — and satisfying to the judges. But they don’t get your heart thumping.
Not this time.
The Cars.com/USA TODAY/MotorWeek $30,000 Cheap Speed Challenge was brimming with excitement.
We wanted to see which automakers could provide honest, sporty performance in a car you might actually be able to afford — and further, to see how practical it would be in daily duty.
Face it, it’s no trick to tickle every enthusiast’s nerve with a $70,000 Jaguar F-type. But it’s a stunning engineering accomplishment to come close for less than half that price — and throw in a back seat and cargo space for good measure.
How do you execute that mission? Coupe, sedan or hatchback? Front-wheel drive? Rear drive? All-wheel drive? Turbocharger? Manual transmission? Automatic?
Yes. All of the above, in varying combinations.
The Cheap Speed Challengers ranged from the diminutive Scion FR-S sports coupe that barely has a back seat, to the bigger and very powerful Subaru WRX four-door sedan with room enough in front and back to tote friends or family and to be your only car.
Styling ranged from the out-there looks of WRX and Nissan Juke Nismo to the ordinariness of the Kia Forte5 hatchback.
The cars varied almost unimaginably; no commodity cars here.
We deliberately excluded pure two-seaters, such as the Mazda MX-5 Miata, because we wanted to test cars with at least a modicum of practicality.
What we didn’t expect — Challenge judges being the sort of folks who often drive ’em like we stole ’em — was the terrific fuel mileage we got. Four of the eight Challengers had tallies in our real-world mileage test of more than 220 miles of highway, suburban and a little city driving that was higher than those cars’ official EPA highway rating. The other four weren’t far off. That surprise and made the cars fit the “cheap” part of the Cheap Speed formula better than expected.
The nature of the cars also begged for some time on a racetrack to sort the truly sporty from the pretenders. The Autobahn Country Club track here was just the ticket.
Ten were invited; eight made it.
Mini said it couldn’t find a Cooper priced less than the $30,000 cap. And the Honda Civic Si coupe suffered a ruined tire that couldn’t be replaced in time for the track, which excluded it from the score card.
We did drive the Honda on a regular route, back-to-back with the other contenders. And we had our “real person” cycle through it.
We suspect it would have finished high if it had been available for track time to compare to the others there.
Who buys such cars? Along with the expert judges, all of our Challenges include, as a reality check, a consumer judge in the market for the type of vehicle being tested. And in this case, our “real person” is a perfect example of the buyer for such cars:
Joe Weiss, 38, who lives in Chicago — not the suburbs, the South Loop. He works for a start-up social media company.
He drives a 2010 Mini Cooper S and is planning to replace it with exactly the sort of car in our Cheap Speed Challenge.
He also promised his fiancée, Erica Reynders, that he’d commit to an earlier wedding date if she would learn how to drive a manual transmission and agree their car would be a stick.
“Never should have done it. Now I can’t b.s. her anymore. She took to it like crazy,” he said.
The eight Challenge cars prove it’s possible to buy a car for less than $30,000 that’s extraordinarily fun, still more-or-less handy enough to use as a daily driver and notably easy on fuel.
It also illustrates that there’s no one best way to accomplish that.
Each car was scored in 10 categories, including track manners, by veteran auto journalists and by Weiss. Points also were given for drag-strip acceleration and fuel economy.
The overall winner in the scoring was the 2015 Volkswagen GTI, and Weiss’ personal choice was the Subaru WRX. — see here for details of the competition, the final ranking and the judges’ evaluation of each car.
Here are some personal thoughts on each model, written before the overall scores were tabulated, presented in alphabetical order:
• 2014 Fiat 500 Abarth ($25,995): Cramped, tech-deficient, pricey for what you get. Five-speed stick in a world of six-speeds. Sound and fury signifying very little. Hit the showers, buddy.
• 2014 Ford Fiesta ST ($25,610): Track star, road ruffian. If Ford could fix the harsh ride without compromising the sporting attributes, it’d be hard to beat.
• 2014 Hyundai Veloster Turbo ($27,260): Weird. A three-door coupe — really? And a matte-gray finish that’ll confound the world’s car waxers.
But nice behind the wheel. Stable, predictable on the road course, quick, satisfying, roomy, composed as a daily driver.
Gearshift offers short, firm throws from gear-to-gear that lends a hopped-up car feel.
• 2014 Kia Forte5 CQ SX Turbo ($26,865): Sport Lite character made it nobody’s first choice for a racetrack dance partner. Our first comment upon finishing track laps: “Thank goodness.”
Body lean, modest engine power, uncooperative automatic transmission are buzz-kills.
For everyday driving, though, it’s great: roomy, comfortable, quick enough to satisfy real-world demands.
• 2014 Nissan Juke Nismo RS ($28,345): Ugly, edgy, pricey, jerky. Next in line, please.
• 2014 Scion FR-S ($28,642): Ice cream on a hot day; refreshing, satisfying, tasty. Ride’s pretty rough, though. Only rear-drive car in the Challenge.
• 2015 Subaru WRX ($29,290): Roomy enough to be your only car. It has a lot more power than the others in the Challenge and could hit 100 mph in sections where the others could manage 90 to 95 mph. Corner-calming, all-wheel drive seems to work well on the racetrack.
But after the track workout — endured by all the Cheap Speed contenders — the WRX brakes were permanently weakened and borderline unsafe in regular driving. The clutch became harder to push and engagement became increasingly jerky.
The WRX was a pre-production car, so some parts might have been a bit off-measure. But problems with serious systems such as brakes and clutch leave us quite wary.
• 2015 Volkswagen Golf GTI S ($26,915): Best all-around sport sedan in the group. Very quick, solid performer on the track, laudable road manners in daily driving. Seems the very definition of what a modern, affordable, practical — yet very sporty — vehicle should be.
And, remarkably, it was not the high-price entry in this group.