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Tough Crowd Comparison Test

$20,000 can buy performance--or a poseur. We figure out which is which.

This test is long overdue. More than a year ago, the Honda Civic Si, Ford SVT Focus and Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec-V hit the market within months of each other. In an instant, the number of fun, fast, tweakable performance cars that cost less than $20,000 went from zero to three. We warmed up our radar gun and prepared for battle.

Then we hesitated. What was zero and then became three, would soon be four with the unexpected new Hyundai Tiburon, bowing in with a solid chassis, a 2.7-liter V6 and six-speed transmission. And, if we opened our eyes a bit, the total should be more like five. The GTI, which created the modern econo-rocket class in the early '80s, had wandered off our radar screens, thanks to its modern bulk and sloppy suspension. But recent tweaks to the ECU have pushed stock output to a very convincing 180 hp. Suspensions can be changed, you know.

Prepared for a five-car battle, our plans were again foiled when the Mini Cooper S turned out to be a real driver's car. Then we learned Mazda's new Mazdaspeed team was putting the finishing touches on its turbocharged Mazdaspeed Protegé, and Daimler Chrysler's Performance Vehicle Operations crew was about to roll out a turbocharged Neon dubbed the SRT-4.

It seems our thirst for cheap speed has suddenly reached some market viability threshold. The rice-rocket demographic that was once regarded as nothing but a bunch of used-car-buying hooligans is suddenly the darling of at least eight product planning teams. But which of these rides are the true driver's cars and which are more suited to the "dope wing, yo" carpet racer?

That was the question when we gathered all eight for a tires-be-damned battle. What was once a friendly, three-car boxing match is now an eight-car brawl. Performance, both in raw numbers and the far subtler real world, is all that matters here. Practicality, styling and mass-market appeal are, for the most part, wadded up and stuffed in the cupholders. It's how well it works at the limit that really matters.

We ran all eight cars through our standard barrage of acceleration, braking, handling and dyno tests. During these tests, an order began to appear. Then we sorted out the details with a series of hard-charging road trips through the local mountains. The car that generated the biggest smile won.

0301Scc 20Gsdodge FrontFirst Place: Dodge SRT-4
0301Scc 20Gsmazda FrontSecond Place: Mazda Protegé
0301Scc 20Gsford FrontThird Place (tie): Ford SVT Focus
0301Scc 20Gsmini FrontThird Place (tie): Mini Cooper S
0301Scc 20Gsnissan FrontFifth Place: Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec-V
0301Scc 20Gstib FrontSixth Place: Hyundai Tiburon V6
0301Scc 20Gsgti FrontSeventh Place: Volkswagen GTI 1.8T
0301Scc 20Gscivic FrontEighth Place: Honda Civic Si
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