Best sporty compact cars blend excitement and civility

Big fun in small packages

Published: September 2014

Sometimes, it pays to think small. Relatively affordable and fuel-efficient, many of these sporty compact models are also a thrill to drive. They ooze appeal, delivering engaging driving dynamics and eye-catching styling with varying degrees of practicality. The latest models to run through our test program—the Volkswagen GTI, Mini Cooper, and Subaru WRX—also include clever cabin design and many high-tech features. Sure, there are trade-offs, such as limited passenger and cargo space. But who couldn’t use a little wow in their life?

Click on the model name in the write-up for each car to read the comprehensive road test and get Ratings.

Mini Cooper S/Cooper: Charisma Plus

Redesigned and slightly larger than before, the latest Mini Cooper offers agile handling, an upscale interior, and compact proportions. The base engine is now a surprisingly energetic turbocharged three-cylinder that delivers a frugal 31 mpg overall. The larger turbo-charged four-cylinder in the sportier Cooper S is smooth and punchy, and emits a nice sound. Handling is nim-ble and sporty, albeit dialed back a bit compared with the razor-sharp agility of previous models. The upside is a much improved ride that makes this modern classic more livable. The revamped interior captures the spirit of its predecessor while providing improved controls, a quieter cabin, and more passenger space. If you liked the last Mini, you’ll find even more to love in this one.

Price

$29,945/27,400*

Fuel economy

30 mpg/31 mpg

Engine

134-hp, 1.5-liter turbocharged 3-cyl.; 189-hp, 2.0-literturbocharged 4-cyl.

 

Subaru WRX: Extreme Sport

With its latest redesign, this rally-inspired all-wheel-drive performance sedan is more high-strung than its predecessor. It’s track-ready, right out of the box. As such, it might be too extreme for everyday commuting by most drivers. Honed from the highly rated Subaru Impreza, the WRX provides simple controls, good visibility, a decent rear seat, and a roomy trunk. But the recipe is a bit over the top. Acceleration is ferociously quick, but a narrow powerband makes the power delivery jerky. Cornering grip is tenacious and braking is terrific, but the WRX is short on steering feedback and the ride is jarring. The cabin is filled with a constant drone and connectivity features are behind the times, making the WRX tough to live with.

Price

$29,742*

Fuel economy

26 mpg

Engine

268-hp, 2.0-literturbocharged 4-cyl.

Volkswagen Golf GTI: Practical sophistication

The original “hot hatch” has steadily evolved, increasing in size and refinement. The tradition continues with the redesigned 2015 Volkswagen GTI, which is the most sophisticated version yet. The car feels athletic, with a taut yet compliant suspension and nice steering. Unlike other sporty cars, the GTI doesn’t beat you up, and it’s multitalented for a daily commute or a blast on a track. The turbocharged engine delivers ample power, pulling strongly with either the stick shift or the automated manual transmission. Fuel economy is commendable at 29 mpg overall. Simple controls, good visibility, comfortable seats, a quiet cabin, and a premium-feeling interior combine to instill this practical, fun-to-drive car with a winning personality.

Price

$31,730*
Fuel economy 29 mpg

Engine

210-hp, 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cyl.

Best overall

Volkswagen GTI

In a category overflowing with personality, these three cars stand out: Volkswagen GTI, Mini Cooper S, and Subaru BRZ/Scion FR-S. The VW GTI feels like a true European sports sedan. The Mini Cooper S has character and offers sharp performance. The head-turning, rear-wheel-drive Subaru BRZ and Scion FR-S twins are a delight on a track or twisty road.

Fun to drive

Subaru BRZ

For us, a truly fun car delivers agreat driving experience with ample power and inspiring handling. The Ford Fiesta ST and Focus ST are like factory-tuned modified cars, bristling with track-ready capability. The Subaru/Scion twins deliver rear-wheel drive in a striking, low-slung coupe.

Quick acceleration (0–60 mph)

Subaru WRX

If you feel the need for speed, consider the Subaru WRX, an all-wheel-drive sedan with fierce acceleration. The Ford Focus ST transforms the regular hatchback into a muscular track toy. The Volkswagen GTI delivers punchy, effortless acceleration in a more gracious manner.

Subaru WRX Acceleration: 6.0 sec.

Volkswagen GTI Acceleration: 6.6 sec.

Ford Focus ST Acceleration: 6.6 sec.

Most reliable

Mazda3

We've noted that many of the sportiest cars in this class have had below-average predicted reliability. As alternatives, consider the Mazda3, Honda Civic Si, and Subaru Impreza. They concede some performance and agility to more dedicated sporty models but make up for it in other ways.

Best fuel economy

Fiat 500 Sport

Fuel economy and sporty performance don’t often go together, but these models deliver both while saving at the pump. The Fiat 500 Sport has go-kart-like handling, but its overall test score is too low for us to recommend it. The fun-to-drive Mazda3 and Mini Cooper are good alternatives.

Fiat 500 Sport Overall MPG: 33

Mazda3 Overall MPG: 32

Mini Cooper Overall MPG: 31

Editor's Note:

This article also appeared in the November 2014 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.



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