The Volkswagen Rabbit GTI virtually created the hot hatchback segment when it debuted in the US market in 1983. Sure, we had cars like the VW Scirocco, the AMC Eagle SX/4 and the Honda Civic before the GTI, but none of those hatchbacks were designed with pure driving joy in mind. The Rabbit GTI had its practical side, and it was relatively fuel efficient, but make no mistake: It’s primary mission was to put a smile on the face of the driver. GTI, it was said, actually stood for “Get Tickets In”.
Americans, it seems, don’t share the same love for hatchbacks as our friends across the pond. The Honda Civic Si, for example, isn’t available in hatchback form in the US. We don’t get the good version of the Ford Focus, either, since automakers associate hatchbacks with sales disasters on this side of the Atlantic. That’s a shame, really, because hatchbacks are some of the most practical vehicles built. I once fit a kitchen table and four chairs into my VW Scirocco; you’re not going to duplicate that with a sedan or a coupe.
Fear not, RideLust reader, because this is a great time to be shopping for a hatchback with sporting intent. Below are five hatchbacks currently available in the United States that meet our criteria for both practicality and hoonability. I’ve ranked them in the order of preference, based on both price and performance, but let’s be honest here: not one of these cars will disappoint, so which one to pick may come down to which dealer is closest, or which has a lower insurance cost.
First Place: 2010 Mazda Mazdaspeed 3
Likes: Bang for the buck, you can’t beat the Mazdaspeed 3.
Dislikes: Motion sickness inducing interior, not as good as the previous Mazdaspeed 3 on the track
Buy this car if: You’re on a tight buget, like torque steer and can get over the “stoned guppy” look of the front fascia
The 2010 Mazdaspeed 3 isn’t the best car on the list, but I’ve ranked it first on value alone. The price of admission starts at $23,340, and that gets you a 0 to 60 time of 6.3 seconds and the second best power to weight ratio (12.3 pounds per horsepower) in the group. Unfortunately, Mazda took a step backward with the 2010 Mazdaspeed 3: it’s slower to sixty than the last generation, thanks partly to software designed to limit torque steer, and the interior and exterior styling are an acquired taste. Not like sushi, but more like ketchup on breakfast cereal; you really need to wonder what the designers were thinking when they went so completely over the top. Do not, under any circumstances, look inside a 2010 Mazdaspeed 3 when hung over. Unless, of course, you like vomiting up every last thing north of your colon.
Styling gripes aside, you can’t go faster than the Mazdaspeed 3 for less money. It’s a great compromise between practicality (it get an EPA combined mileage rating of 21 mpg) and hoonability. Plus, it’s the only car on the list absolutely guaranteed to reduce your weekend binge drinking.
Second Place: 2010 Subaru Impreza WRX
Likes: The ulimate bi-polar personality: practical commuter and track day terror rolled into one; huge aftermarket support
Dislikes: Car doesn’t feel as fast as it is; there isn’t one parked in my garage
Buy this car if: You have a pulse. If you don’t currently enjoy driving, this car will change your mind.
Sadly, the best car on the list is relegated to second place because of its cost. The WRX has the best power to weight ratio (12.2 pounds per horsepower) and the highest horsepower, but the WRX starts at $25,495, over two grand more than the Mazdaspeed 3. I’d opt for the WRX Premium, which starts at $27,995 but gives you fog lights, a sunroof, heated seats and heated mirrors, but that’s nearly five grand more than a Mazdaspeed 3. That kind of coin buys a whole lot of go fast parts for the Mazda.
I’m a huge fan of AWD performance cars, because you simply can’t beat them on a racetrack or for spirited driving in less than perfect weather. The WRX will get you to 60 miles per hour in 5.2 seconds, but still delivers reasonable fuel economy (it’s got an EPA rating of 21 mpg combined). It’s an easy car to drive fast, and it’s very forgiving of driver mistakes, even at the limit. My sole gripe is that it doesn’t feel as fast as it is, which may not be a bad thing if you routinely carry nervous passengers. If I were in the market for a hatchback in this price range, I’d look no further than the Subura Impreza WRX.
Third Place: Mini Cooper S John Cooper Works Edition
Likes: The best handling front wheel drive car on the planet, now with sufficient horsepower.
Dislikes: The price of admission is mighty steep; car’s diminutive size limits practicality.
Buy this car if: You can justify the extra cost and you don’t need to carry more than one other adult passenger.
Mini Coopers are great cars, but they come with a lot of baggage. Their reputation for build quality is hit or miss; it seems that Mini either builds reliable cars or lemons, with very little in between. Their small size automatically gets them labelled as a “chick car”, even though they’re an amazing car to drive on a racetrack. They’ve got personality, and the John Cooper Works Edition of the Mini Cooper S stuffs a decent amount of horsepower into a very small package. The turbocharged four cranks out 208 horsepower, good enough to get the John Cooper Works equipped Mini Cooper S to 60 mph in 6.2 seconds. It’s small size and low weight help acceleration; despite having the second least powerful motor of the group, the Mini has the third best power to weight ratio of 12.9 pounds per horsepower. As you’d expect, it gets good mileage, too, and has an EPA combined rating of 28 mpg.
Mini Coopers are fine for hauling one other adult in relative comfort, but they’re not the best choice if you routinely carry passengers and cargo. Two adults won’t want to spend much time in the back seat unless you hold them at gunpoint, and the likelihood of getting the previously mentioned table and chairs into the back of a Mini isn’t as good as the chances of David Lee Roth leading Van Halen to a comeback. Still, if you like the looks of the Mini and can live with the size, it’s one entertaining option you shouldn’t overlook.
Fourth Place: Volkswagen GTI
Likes: Interior is the nicest of the bunch
Dislikes: Segment starter hasn’t kept up in horsepower
Buy this car if: You want your hoonage with a dose of refinement and comfort
If you’re looking for a track animal that you can drive to work, this isn’t it. If you want something to embarrass your buddy’s WRX, this isn’t it. If you want a car that’s relatively fast, handles well and is supremely practical, the VW GTI may be for you. The turbocharged 2.0 liter motor only puts out 200 horsepower, but that’s still enough to get the GTI to sixty in under seven seconds. It’s not light, so the horsepower to weight ratio is a sobering 15.2 pounds per horsepower. Still, like the original GTI, it’s quick enough to be entertaining and features a level of refinement you won’t find in others on the list.
At a starting price of $24,565, it’s the second cheapest ride on this list. The frugal side of you will appreciate its fuel mileage, as well – the EPA gives it a combined rating of 25 mpg, second only to the much lighter Mini Cooper in this group. Volkswagen has huge aftermarket support, so a quicker or better handling GTI is just a website away. For less than the cost of a WRX Premium, you can personalize a GTI to meet your specific needs. Like it or not, the GTI is the most “grown up” of the bunch, and it’s subdued appearance won’t have every Civic with a rear wing trying to race you off of stop lights.
Fifth Place: Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback Ralliart
Likes: Best looking car in the bunch, quicker than it should be for its size
Dislikes: Not too many Mitsubishi dealers left these days
Buy this car if: You need AWD but don’t like the Subaru WRX
What happened to Mitsubishi? Just ten years ago, they were everywhere. They sold a complete lineup, ranging from sports cars to full size SUVs. At one point, they even built the compact pickup trucks for Chrysler. Time, sadly, has not been kind to the triple diamond brand; today, they sell just handful of models from a declining network of dealers. When was the last time you saw an ad for Mitsubishi, outside of an enthusiast magazine or website?
That’s a shame because they do build good cars. Take the Lancer Sportback Ralliart, for example: for under $30k, you get a Mitsubishi Evolution Lite. No, it isn’t as fast as an Evo (not even close), but it does present the buyer with a less punishing and less expensive option for everyday driving. Slightly larger than the Subaru WRX, the Lancer Sportback Ralliart is the heaviest car on the list by nearly 1,300 pounds. As you’d expect, this gives it the worst power to weight ratio (19 pounds per horsepower) of the group, even with its 237 horsepower turbocharged motor. Fuel economy is the worst of the group as well, coming in at a combined rating of 20 mpg. Baby got back, but she still holds her own: when flogged, the Lancer Sportback Ralliart can sprint to 60 in 6.1 seconds, making it second only to the WRX on this list.
If you want a Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback Ralliart, you’d better act quick. Ralliart, the tuning division of Mitsubishi Motors, is no more, and I haven’t seen any indication that Mitsubishi will continue the Sportback line in the US in 2011. In fact, Mitsubishi’s declining product lineup makes me wonder how much longer they’ll even be in the U.S. market, something to seriously consider when putting down the cash for a new car.