Here are 10 cars that are powerful yet priced to sell. Enjoy the ride.
There's an economic recovery happening somewhere, but this Great Recession has shown us the folly of spending frivolously and has soured our appetite for expensive autos. The slump reveals something else: In good times or bad, the need for speed endures. So now the automotive subcultures of hot hatchbacks, muscle cars and 4-cylinder rally racers are looking more appealing than ever before. These vehicles aren't constructed for moneyed car collectors who gather German and Italian supercars like baseball cards; they are street fighters, made to be driven hard by people who work for a living. And there's never been a better crop of them. Here are our choices for the 2010 model-year vehicles that offer the best fun-to-drive, fast-and-furious demeanor for the price.
Mazda's hottest "hot hatchback" has been restyled for 2010, ditching the car's previously ho-hum looks in favor of a maniacally grinning front grille and a combination of smooth, sharp lines that suggest a gust of wind caught fire. The MAZDASPEED3 (starting at $23,945) carries over its predecessor's 263-horsepower 2.3-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine and front-wheel driveline — and you'll get no complaints from us about that, since the little powerplant scoots the car from zero to 60 mph in around six seconds. In addition to its new skin, the Speed3's suspension was also upgraded, so the car won't be the only one smiling during fast cornering.
Volkswagen invented the idea of the hotted-up compact car back in the 1970s, and the GTI (starting at $23,489) remains true to the original idea, providing tight handling and enthusiast styling (you can opt for the Interlagos plaid seats to "Euro" your ride). It's a shame that the engine hasn't improved with the latest-generation GTI. The 200-horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-banger has plenty of pep, but it seems positively wimpy next to some of the other cheap hot rods in this segment. Still, you don't necessarily miss the horses when you're behind the wheel. The GTI has exceptional road manners and two marvelous transmission options in the 6-speed manual and the paddle-shift, dual-clutch DSG sequential manual.
The Civic has a long history with the 4-cylinder mini-hot-rod crowd; the cheap, easy-to-modify compact cars have been favorites of the fast-and-furious crowd for years. And for those who want a little hotness without swapping out parts, Honda offers the factory tuner Civic Si (the coupe starts at $22,055; the sedan starts at $200 more). With its 197-horsepower 2.0-liter engine, the Si isn't too fast off the line, but the engine starts delivering rewards in the high rpm range. Plus, the Si is an incredible bargain, and it holds onto corners like a champ, so pointing it at some twisties instead of an interstate will slap a smile on your frugal face.
Think of it as the weird little sibling to the more popular and well-known BMW 3-Series. The BMW 1-Series is essentially four vehicles (two coupes, two convertibles) running two versions of the same engine (a 3.0-liter inline 6-cylinder; one version is turbocharged, the other isn't). The only one that can be defined as "cheap" speed with a straight face is the nonturbocharged 230-horse 128i Coupe, which costs $29,000. Like all 1-Series cars, it is built with many of the same structural bits and pieces as the larger 3-Series, but it definitely has the look and feel of a smaller car, with steering and handling that are tight as a drum and an engine that is smooth and confident. The weirdness comes from the vehicle's oddball exterior — the last vestiges of the controversial styling of BMW's now-retired designer Christopher Bangle — with a bubble top and sheet-metal creases that have their own bizarre logic. The view from the outside is love-it-or-hate-it, but the feeling behind the wheel is likely to be unanimously positive.
Subaru's rally-bred Impreza WRX has always been a noisy, undisciplined tin can of a car, but its raw athleticism has always turned what would be drawbacks in any other vehicle into virtues. The current iteration somehow seems a bit less visceral; the hood scoops and spoilers are still there, but are less egregiously in your face. The WRX's mechanics have not been tamed; this is still a tremendously powerful and capable car. The $25,995 base hatchback has a 265-horsepower 2.5-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine and Subaru's grippy, symmetrical all-wheel-drive[LINK to AWD article] system. A bump up to the $34,995 STI variant ups the output of the turbo 2.5 engine to 305 horses and throws in Brembo brakes and a driver-controlled center differential to distribute power between the front and rear wheels. Still, at 35 large, you start longing for a bit more refinement on the inside.