Bottle Rockets

Nearly 25 years ago, the sport compact wars came to American soil. Since then, the souped-up versions of tamer four-cylinder vehicles have ceaselessly been pitted against each other. At first it was the Rabbit GTI against the Omni GLH. Then it was the Civic Si and Integra Type R vs. the world. More recently, the Evo has taken on the STI.

Right now there’s a slight quiet on the battlefield as we await the latest combatants from Mitsubishi and Subaru. This lull gives three new contenders a chance to shine: the MINI Cooper S, the Mazdaspeed3 and the super-brand-new Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V. Perhaps one of these three will steal the spotlight before the next generation of rally-bred supercars is unleashed.

Each of these hot compacts has strengths and weaknesses, but they are all clearly aimed at our market. Fun to drive? Check. Inexpensive? Check. A blank canvas for future modifications? Check.

In truth, these three cars might just be the hot picks for one of GRM’s Challenge events 20 or 30 years from now. By then we’ll have figured out how to reverse-engineer the airbag and traction control systems, recurve the ignition timing, tweak the fuel and put the sportiness back into their sports suspensions. These are tomorrow’s performance bargains. How do we know? Because they’re all cheap and fun right now.

From England by way of Germany

MINI Cooper S

The modern MINI Cooper is quickly becoming one of our all-time favorites, as it combines the hot hatch chuckability of the original Volkswagen GTI with the rough-and-tumble power of the old Dodge Omni GLH Turbo. It’s naughty, it’s nice and it doesn’t break your bank account.

The new-for-2007 MINI is wrapped in completely new sheet metal that is nearly indistinguishable from the previous generation. The differences include a slight increase in bumper length front and rear, but the wheelbase, track and height remain the same.

The newest Cooper S is powered by a turbocharged, Peugeot-sourced four-cylinder that is rated at 172 horsepower and 177 lb.-ft. of torque at a super-low 1600 rpm. Packaged in the MINI’s 2600-pound shell, the result is an aggressive hooligan car that urges you to be a scofflaw. The engine’s 10.5:1 compression ratio and quickly spooling twin-scroll turbo make turbo lag nonexistent after 1400 rpm.

Starting with the base price of $21,850, the only really important options to spring for are the sports suspension and the limited-slip differential, each of which add $500 to the MSRP. Seventeen-inch wheels are a popular extra, but there are cheaper and lighter alternatives out there, as well as much better tires for performance use. Get a little too spunky with the options checklist and you can quickly find yourself north of 30 grand and packing on the pounds, hurting both your pocketbook and time slips.

track impressions:

We tested this car in as-delivered condition, meaning it had to circle the Ocala Gran Prix kart track on its Goodyear Excellence RunOnFlat tires. While quiet, comfortable and long-wearing, these tires are less than excellent out on track.

Imagine an Olympic gymnast wearing wooden clogs in place of those little slipper-dealies they usually wear (we’re pretty sure that’s the technical term for their footwear) and you get the picture of how the Cooper S felt during this test run. Oversteer on corner entry was countered by understeer as we tried, in vain, to put power down at the corner exit—and that’s despite the well-damped suspension and clutch-type limited slip differential. The optional 17-inch run-flats would have helped performance but are still biased toward the general public. (And while we had rain the morning of our test day, we got dry laps in that afternoon.)

dyno report:

When strapped to Projekt7 Tuning’s Dynojet chassis dynamometer, the Cooper S pumped out an impressive 174.4 horsepower and 197.9 lb.-ft. of torque at the front wheels. That is considerably higher than the rated “at the engine” figures, although MINI does promote an overboost function for short bursts of extra power. Research indicates that the boost is normally electronically controlled at 12 psi, but is allowed to climb to 15 psi for that extra kick over the edge.

daily use:

In day-to-day use, the MINI’s small size makes it easy to dart in and out of traffic. The front passengers are given generous amounts of room, but that comes at the expense of those in the back seat. With the rear seats in the upright position, there’s enough room in the way-back for a few small duffle bags. Fold the back seat down and space increases dramatically, allowing a full set of race tires and gear to safely fit inside.

staff feedback:

The new Cooper S is a great example of a fantastic car that is neutered by its OEM tire choice. It makes good, linear power, and has the agility you’d expect from a tiny, lightweight package. Sadly, the Goodyear run-flats do everything they can to spoil the fun, particularly in the wet.

The electric steering and drive-by-wire throttle are excellent, but a deliberate motion is required to negotiate the shifter from third down to second without accidentally finding the reverse gate. Maybe MINI should have computerized that, too.

The second iteration of the new MINI is still a standout in the styling department, and you’d have to be very car ignorant to mistake it for anything else from less than a mile away. Considering how nimble the car is, the bolt-upright driving position feels odd, but that’s part of the on-edge fun of driving a MINI.

While it had our slowest average speed, the tires were the obvious handicap. I can’t wait to see what this turbo MINI is capable of on some sticky R-compound tires.—Scott R. Lear, club editor

final thoughts:

Get thee a second set of rims and sticky tires and thou shalt kick butt.

2007 MINI Cooper S
Web site:miniusa.com
base MSRP:$21,850
layout:front engine, front-wheel drive
engine type:1.6-liter turbocharged inline four-cylinder
rated horsepower:172 @ 5500 rpm
rated torque:177 lb.-ft. @ 1600 rpm
actual wheel horsepower:174.4 @ 5800 rpm
actual wheel torque:197.9 lb.-ft. @ 4000 rpm
transmission:six-speed manual
actual weight:2602 lbs.
EPA figures:29 mpg city/36 mpg highway
motorsports potential:A
daily drivability:C
aftermarket support:A
Ocala GP lap time:41.95 sec.

Power–lots of it

Mazdaspeed3

It’s one of our favorite formulas for building a car: Take a decent, fun-to-drive economy car and stuff it with some serious horsepower. While it helps to beef up the suspension and brakes and add a set of supportive seats, the basics of big power in a little car can’t be overlooked.

As if reading our minds, the friendly folks at Mazda took their competent Mazda3 and turned up the wick. The resulting Mazdaspeed3 is stuffed with a turbocharged version of Mazda’s MZR 2.3-liter, direct-injection, four-cylinder engine, one that’s rated at 263 horsepower and 280 lb.-ft. of torque. This is the same engine that propels the heavier Mazdaspeed6 and CX-7 with alacrity and thus makes the Mazdaspeed3 a veritable rocket ship.

The base price of the car in Sport trim is $22,835, and that includes everything you need for behind-the-wheel enjoyment. The torque-sensing limited slip differential is standard and much appreciated since, unlike the Mazdaspeed6 and the CX-7, the smaller Mazdaspeed3 is only available in front-wheel drive. Our Grand Touring example had a base price of $24,550.

track impressions:

The Mazda comes with some mongo-sized 18x7-inch wheels that are wrapped with 215/45R18 Bridgestone RE050A Pole Position tires. These make for a pretty grippy combination that really helps put down the Mazda’s prodigious power.

The handling balance of the Mazdaspeed3 is impressive for its size and mass. Of course understeer is present, but the tail can be wagged under trail-braking. The suspension is supple enough to allow the driver to balance the car between the two extremes for a pretty darn quick lap. Of course, the thrust makes quick work of straights. This car is the definition of a point-and-shoot weapon.

dyno report:

While some Mazdas have been cursed with weak chassis dyno numbers (cough RX-8 cough), the Mazdaspeed3 wasn’t really a slouch in the power department, putting down 231.6 horsepower at 5500 rpm. That’s an acceptable driveline loss for an engine that’s rated at 263 horsepower at the crank. On the torque side, we showed 232.8 lb.-ft. at 5100 rpm, which is a little low considering the MZR engine is rated at 280 lb.-ft. We’ll chalk up that difference to the idiosyncrasies of the chassis dynamometer’s calculations and a factory computer that constantly plays with boost levels during operation.

daily driving:

We put nearly a thousand miles on the Mazdaspeed3 during the course of our testing, and in that time we had little in the way of complaints from our drivers or passengers. The power of this engine made quick work of merges onto the freeway. Like the MINI Cooper S, the Mazdaspeed3’s turbo thrust downright urges you to be a jackass. This can make drives to the store a little more tense than they need to be.

The rear seat area is roomy enough for average-sized adults, although the way-back is a little cramped for larger suitcases. Expect to flip down the rear seats if you’ve got a big ol’ Samsonite.

staff feedback:

This thing feels like a hot rod out of the box. It’s got gobs of power, and not just that “I’m a turbo car and I can get from zero to 60 quickly because of my short gearing” type of power, but real, long-legged, pass that truck full of logs and sod while a minivan is approaching in the oncoming lane kind of power. If you don’t believe me you can ask the Florida Highway Patrol.

Ergonomically, the Mazda is an excellent fit for me. The wheel is in a nice position and easy to manipulate in an enthusiastic fashion. The pedals are well placed for driving in anger, and the six-speed shifter is right where your hand wants to be, unless you’re watching an adult movie.

The chassis is good, but a little edgy for my tastes. It actually feels like a modified car that’s been fitted with stiff springs and heavy anti-roll bars. This gives the car impressive limits and grip, but it’s not so much a “get in and drive fast” kind of machine. You have to work your way up to speed to gain any rear end predictability. Once you’re comfortable, though, the 3 will reward you with some impressive lap times.

In terms of utility, the 3 has a surprising amount of lugging potential, as it actually seems bigger on the inside than the outside. I loaded it up with sound gear and still had room for three people comfortably. The back seats fold down quickly, easily and, best of all, nice and flat. The hatch opens wide, all the way down to the cargo deck of the car.—J.G. Pasterjak, art director

final thoughts:

Looks like an econobox, pulls like a locomotive and handles like it’s on rails.

2007 Mazdaspeed3 Grand Touring
Web site: mazdausa.com
base MSRP: $24,550
layout: front engine, front-wheel drive
engine type: 2.3-liter turbocharged inline four-cylinder
rated horsepower: 263 @ 5500 rpm
rated torque: 280 lb.-ft. @ 3000 rpm
actual wheel horsepower: 231.6 @ 5500 rpm
actual wheel torque: 232.8 lb.-ft. @ 5100 rpm
transmission: six-speed manual
actual weight: 3123 lbs.
EPA figures: 20 mpg city/28 mpg highway
motorsports potential: B
daily drivability: A-
aftermarket support: B
Ocala GP lap time: 41.02 sec.

One of the originals gets a redo

Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V

The latest Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V is based on the all-new 2007 Sentra, which looks for the most part like a 7/8-scale Altima. It’s hard to miss the fact that this car is designed by the same group that did the Z and the Maxima.

While the Sentra might look smaller from the outside, the truth of the matter is that this new car is quite large and has a roomy interior and trunk. It’s rather tall, too, giving the driver a commanding view of the road.

Like the previous SE-R, the 2007 model uses Nissan’s QR25DE engine. The Spec V version gets a bump with a higher 10.5:1 compression ratio and is rated at the crank at 200 horsepower and 180 lb.-ft. of torque. It’s helped by CVTCS, Nissan’s Continuously Variable Valve Timing Control System. (The standard Sentra SE-R makes do with a 177-horsepower version of the QR25DE.)

The Spec V starts at $19,900, and our test car’s optional helical limited-slip differential added $400 to the bottom line. Don’t forget to check the box for that option, as it’s a cheap price for an effective piece of kit.

track impressions:

There’s something to be said about a simple and unassuming car with good grip and reasonable amounts of power. Where the MINI was nervous and the Mazdaspeed3 was simply frightening, the SE-R Spec V was a breeze to drive. We could dive deep into corners, trail brake and feed the power back on with no hysterics. It simply lapped our track time after time without pause.

Part of the credit comes from the very competent stock tires, the Continental ContiSportContact 2. This is a very underrated tire that finished in the STX trophies at the 2005 Solo National Championships. While the suspension wasn’t without merit, it was pretty clear from our testing that stickier tires would have helped the SE-R less than the other two cars tested.

dyno report:

Like the track testing, the dyno showed that the Spec V’s power was strong and respectable with no real sweet spots or problem areas. With 168.4 horsepower at 6700 rpm and 153.9 lb.-ft. of torque at 5000 rpm, the QR25DE engine likes to rev. It doesn’t love to spin like an Integra Type R, but it certainly doesn’t mind a trip to the limiter.

daily driving:

Despite not having a super-handy hatchback, the SE-R Spec V is still a very capable daily driver. The large trunk swallows larger suitcases and gear without much trouble.

The high seating position and excellent visibility make trips around town pretty easy. The rear seat room is also generous and can accommodate two larger adults pretty easily. Three would be pushing it.

staff feedback:

Nissan is obviously spreading the same DNA through the entire product line; like it or not, you know this is a Nissan at first glance. The new Sentra is loaded with 350Z and Altima visual cues. While the family resemblance can be overbearing, there’s more diversity here than in years past.

The interior is also very Nissan-like. The new Sentra is not small, and this almost feels like the pre-2007 Altima. The wheel, gauges and many other aesthetic aspects say Altima SE-R, not Sentra SE-R. The “rally-inspired” shifter and huge dash scream EP Civic Si, however. Not sure if Nissan meant to aim for that benchmark or not, as Honda quietly let the EP fade away.

Remember when we all balked upon hearing that the Dodge SRT4 weighed nearly 3000 pounds? Sadly that’s no longer so unusual. The SE-R Spec V checks in at a portly 3100 pounds. While the car doesn’t feel that heavy, when you pull up next to a minivan at a stoplight and realize that both of you are eye-to-eye, it suddenly feels big. Really big. 

On track, that mass seems to vanish. The car felt surprisingly tossable. It was easy to drive at the limit, and a lot of that credit has to go to the tasty limited-slip diff and the awesome O.E. tires. Thank you, Nissan, for not cheesing out in this department.—David S. Wallens, managing editor

final thoughts:

While no longer a lightweight skateboard, the new Spec V is a competent, sporty sedan.

Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V
Web site:nissanusa.com
base MSRP: $19,900
layout: front-engine, front-wheel drive
engine type: 2.5 liter inline four cylinder
rated horsepower: 200 @ 6600 rpm
rated torque: 180 lb.-ft. @ 5200 rpm
actual wheel horsepower: 168.4 @ 6700 rpm
actual wheel torque: 153.9 lb.-ft. @ 5000 rpm
transmission: six-speed manual
actual weight: 3103 lbs.
EPA figures: 24 mpg city/ 31 mpg highway
motorsports potential: B-
daily drivability: A
aftermarket support: C
Ocala GP lap time: 41.81 sec.

What We Know

So, here we have three worthy cars that carry the standard for our favorite market segment, the pocket rocket. Each one seems to be suited for a different role in life, however.

It’s not much of a puzzle to figure out which one we’d buy for autocross use, as the new MINI is already establishing itself as the car to have for cone carnage. In just a few short years, the previous “new MINI” slalomed its way to a slew of national titles and zillions of local wins. There’s no reason why the new car won’t continue to dominate in this arena.

As far as a daily driver, we’d have to go with the SE-R, as it was the best at alleviating the monotony of a daily commute. We don’t see it running down the MINI or Mazda in sanctioned competition, but the Nissan just fit us well.

And what about the Mazda? That would be our choice for track day events, as it’s a fast ship with a generous cargo hold. Just try not to get busted for speeding on the way home; with any of these three funsters, that’s just too easy to do.

No longer new, but still contenders:

While the Cooper S, Sentra SE-R and Mazdaspeed3 are all new for 2007, they aren’t the only options out there. Two other earlier releases are still true contenders in this field.

Like the Mets and Yankees or ‘N Sync and the Backstreet Boys, the Honda Civic Si and Volkswagen GTI are two polarizing favorites in the field. A good number of enthusiasts have cherished the Civic’s nimble and precise feel, while others love the Teutonic toughness of the GTI. Whichever camp you’re in, you’ll be happy to know that the legends still live on.

Honda Civic Si

After many years of only being available with two side doors, the latest Civic Si is now available as a four-door sedan. Either way, power comes from a 197-horsepower engine that’s hooked to a smooth-shifting, six-speed gearbox and a gear-type limited-slip differential. Both versions of the Si are priced at less than $22,000 and offer a lot of performance for the money—along with more than a dash of Honda reliability.

Speaking of the dash, the instrument panel of the new Civics takes some getting used to. Frankly, it was one of the few odd points to the whole car. The cab-forward design results in a very long dashboard teamed with a short hood, making it hard to figure out exactly where the front tires are placed. However, a good driver should be looking up and out of the windshield, so we’re going to let the dash issue slide.

The K20Z3 engine is a rev-happy wonder with an 8000 rpm rev limit, with Honda’s i-VTEC cams giving that kick at the upper reaches of the tach. Torque is a little low compared to this group at 139 lb.-ft. That torque has to lug around nearly 2900 pounds (which is about 1000 pounds more than the original Si). Thankfully, the six-speed gearbox has well spaced ratios that help the car get to 60 mph in just 7.5 seconds.

The Civic Si offers a good value in a comfortable, fun daily driver. While it’s no match for the MINI Cooper S on an autocross track in stock form, we’re pretty sure that Honda’s extensive aftermarket has already figured out ways to make the Civic transform into a Yak or a MIG-29 or something equally radical.

Volkswagen GTI

To drive the VW GTI is to be emotionally torn. It’s a manipulative bitch of a car, but just when you want to kick it to the curb it does something that forces you to keep it around for a little while longer. First, we’ll give you the highs.

Dynamically, the GTI is a worthy bearer of the nameplate in this day and age of bloated curb weights. Although spec-wise it seems to lag behind its competitors—struts and not wishbones, only 200 horsepower from the 2.0-liter, turbocharged engine—it really makes the most of what seem to be sub-par specs for the class.

The thick, extremely well located wheel guides the car as efficiently as any wheel has ever guided a GTI, and that’s pretty high praise. The DSG transmission has just become our favorite manumatic, and its dual-clutch action makes for exceedingly fast and positive shifts. Plus, the wheel-mounted paddles mean you don’t have to readjust your hands for shifting. For launching, it takes some practice to get the timing right between throttle stomp, brake application and brake de-application, but it is consistent, so once you get a feel for it, trips to the strip won’t be frustrating exercises in trial and error. 

Now, here’s the bad news: The GTI we tested cost 30 grand. No, that’s not a typo—thirty-freaking-thousand dollars and change for our test car with the DSG and a nav system. It’s also a VW, which, lately, has been an indication of somewhat less than industry standard quality. It’s also a bit hefty, tipping in at over 3300 pounds, although it does a good job of managing to feel light on its feet.

Scour the dealerships and try to get a good deal on one if you must have this car now. Or let some other chump take the depreciation hit and pick one up used in a year or two. Basically, the new GTI is a very nice $23,000 car that just happens to cost $30k when optioned up. If we can somehow find a workaround for that little issue, we may be ready to declare the GTI officially “back.”

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