Car testing at CR covers the gamut of the automotive world. It's strange, perhaps, but we'll really go from testing pickup trucks--with some weighing up to 8,000 pounds--to measuring the strengths and weaknesses of small, economy cars weighing considerably less (around 3,000 pounds). And with fuel prices never far from our minds, it's good to know that there are a number of good, capable small cars that deliver fine fuel economy but also relatively refined and comfortable driving experiences. For when you want more fun in your life (but still want to conserve fuel), we've uncovered a few small and sporty gems.
Here are more small car (and sporty car) picks based on our recent test groups:
Small car: Among small sedans my choice is the Mazda3. It looks good, handles well, and has a pleasant interior; it doesn't feel like you are driving an econobox. Even though the Honda Civic is a logical choice--with more futuristic styling and more sparing with fuel--it's less fun to drive. Better yet, I would pick the hatchback version of the 3 for its added versatility and even better looks.
Sporty car: Out of the sporty cars, I'd take the Mini in a heartbeat. It's such a blast to drive. It handles like a go-kart, goes like hell, and it sounds awesome. I might even get used to the unintuitive controls. And while the Mazdaspeed3 is more capable on a track, on the road the Mini is more fun. The Mini looks like nothing else and oozes character. It's the closest thing to my original first-generation Volkswagen GTI that I was piloting two decades ago.
Sporty car: This year, I'm picking the Mazdaspeed3. Few other cars provide the practicality, refinement, and fun-to-drive balance. It's a perfectly easy car to live with as a commuter and for running around town with the family in tow. I'm taken by the well-rounded refinement. There aren't many cars that deliver sports-car handling with a comfortable ride or have an exciting, smooth revving turbo engine that is equally drivable in normal use. And don't forget the sensible four-door hatch design that's versatile and yet sporty looking. Shortcomings? Not much, but I would prefer not to have to fill up with premium fuel and those sticky summer tires won't do in New England's winter months.
Small and sporty car: Emerson wrote that "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." That might be why I don't just simply pick two different versions of the Mazda3 as my choice for best small car and best sporty car. The Mazda3 hatchback does everything I want a small car to do. It handles well, is lots of fun to drive, has a pretty nice interior, stability control is readily available, and it's been reliable. But picking a small, practical sporty car is a different story. As much fun as the Mazdaspeed3 is to drive (and, whoo-boy, it is a lot of fun), I'd probably try to find a 2003-2004 Ford Focus SVT five-door. Maybe an orange or yellow one with the European Appearance package, which also gets you lovely Recaro seats. The Focus certainly isn't as fast as the Mazdaspeed3 or a VW GTI, and it lacks modern safety gear, but handling is razor-sharp and the ride remains comfortable. It would only run around $13,000, leaving me plenty of budget for tires for track days.
Small and sporty car: I know this is turning into a Mazda3 love fest, but if you haven't tried this car (and you want something that's fun, practical, affordable and economical) you must drive one. I can't really get worked up over the extra speed and pizzazz of the Mazdaspeed3 version when the "regular" 2.3-liter model is so good. I'm fond of the s Grand Touring hatchback version with the manual transmission. My two boys fit in the back with lots of room, and in those blessed moments when I have some time to myself, I can fold down the rear seats, load my bike in the back, and meet my buddies for a ride. While I wish there was less road noise on the highway, getting a model with the optional Sirius satellite radio would keep me happy for an extended road trip. Hence, this is the car that fulfills both my economy car and sporty car wants and needs. It does it all.
Read more Personal Picks from the sporty car group and Jim Traver's "Pick of the Litter."