Featherweights: Serial Thrillers - Compact Performance Comparo - SRT-4 > All. An interview with four fireballs that tip their hats to the lower tax brackets. May 2003 Picture some bland subcompact moving down the assembly line when—kablammo!—it is accidentally fueled with kryptonite, blasted with gamma-ray paint, or attacked by a radioactive torque wrench. Suddenly, it has the power to bend speed limits with a single downshift, the suspension to leap tall mountains without falling off the road. A quick dash to the nearest tollbooth and—zing!—it emerges swathed in Technicolor plastic, a servant to the working classes with a price that won’t break ordinary mortals. Far-fetched? Meet four such schlepnick sedans that have had the ho-hum hacked right out of them. Whether it was from a gamma-ray beam or just an inspired pencil and slide rule, these cars deliver straight-line scamper and switchback agility all out of whack with their junior-petite dimensions and $20,000 price range. Consider the newest American hero, the Dodge SRT-4. From exceedingly humble roots in the base Neon, DaimlerChrysler’s year-old Performance Vehicle Operations has extracted a just-add-gasoline club race car. Step one was stripping the “Neon” badges and jettisoning the Neon’s 150-hp, 2.0-liter four and strapping in the cast-aluminum DOHC 16-valve 2.4-liter in-line four from the PT Cruiser GT, along with a Mitsubishi turbocharger and an intercooler the size of Superman’s cape. The SRT-4’s extra displacement and atmosphere put the five-speed manual on the hook for 215 horsepower and 245 pound-feet of torque. Springs, shocks, anti-roll bars, brakes, even the front knuckles, have been fortified. Dodge seeks $19,995 for the no-extras example pictured here. (Side airbags are the only option at $275.) The Ford SVT Focus earned its propers by vanquishing its super-hatch competition in our “Desert Foxes” comparo (March 2002). That was a three-door model. Now Ford’s speed division, the Special Vehicle Team, has issued a five-door version. No hulking up here—the five-door has the identical exterior and interior dimensions as the three-door and pressed the scale with just 60 more pounds. Also the same is the excitement generated by the injection of an extra 40 horses and 10 pound-feet of torque in Ford’s DOHC 16-valve 2.0-liter Zetec four from the ZX5. Enlarged intake ports and a compression bump from 9.6:1 to 10.2:1 are among the power tweaks. The SVT engine hitches its 170 horsepower and 145 pound-feet to a six-speed stick. Enhanced with a six-CD-shooter stereo ($675), a power sunroof ($595), and xenon gas-discharge headlamps ($450), this one rolled out of the SVT lab at $21,350. Like the Dodge, the Mazdaspeed Protegé gets its superpowers not from a glowing pinky ring but a glowing turbocharger. Mazda called in Callaway Cars of Old Lyme, Connecticut, to slip some more engine-room zoom into last year’s Mazda Protegé MP3. The order called for no changes to the engine internals, so the Garrett T25 turbo puffs just 6.9 psi of peak boost into the DOHC 16-valve 2.0-liter four. The gentle breeze pushes the MP3’s 140 horsepower up to 170 and torque to 160 pound-feet. Longtime Mazda consultant Racing Beat gets credit for millstoning the Protegé’s chassis to a razor’s edge. Doused in metallic carrot-juice paint (Mazda calls it “Spicy Orange”), the no-options Mazdaspeed wants $20,500 for its boredom-fighting services. Nissan’s latest Sentra SE-R had Bigfoot’s shoes to fill when it debuted in 2002. The original SE-Rs were a favorite of street and sports racers, and Nissan figured to squelch skepticism with a Spec V version buffed up by a DOHC 16-valve 2.5-liter four notable for its Hail Mary 100-millimeter stroke. Good for 175 horsepower and 180 pound-feet of right-now torque, the engine pushes the asphalt through a six-speed manual and a helical limited-slip diff that gives it wall-crawler traction. Padded with a $699 sunroof and a $549 stereo belonging to someone with the unlikely name of Rockford Fosgate (see, he wrote his name on it), this Spec V will land on your driveway for $19,066. Only one of these four minimarvels will still be standing after our California highway brawl. Readers, don’t turn that page yet! ----- Fourth Place - Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V Highs: Plenty of low- and midrange torque with no waiting, limited-slip diff plumbs it to the pavement, enough chassis poise for good lap times. Lows: Labored steering that needs grease, moaning tires, shifter could use a map and directions. The Verdict: You never forget that it’s a cheap car with a big motor. The Spec V certainly earned acceptable marks on the test sheets. It ran in the middle of the herd with a 7.3-second dash to 60 mph and a 15.6-second quarter-mile at 90 mph—even though the six-speed’s short gearing, combined with its uninspired 6200-rpm redline, means it takes two time-consuming shifts to get to 60 mph instead of one as with the others. Better yet was its 0.88-g skidpad performance, second only to the Mazdaspeed, and a gold-medal lane-change speed of 68.5 mph. The test subject’s lack of optional anti-lock brakes ($749, which also buys side-impact airbags) stretched the stopping distance to 192 feet. On the track and along the snow-frothed slopes of the Sierra Madre, the suspension kept a tight rein on body roll while the stroking pistons cranked out manly midrange torque to shame the Focus and the Protegé. In turns where the SRT-4 lifted an inside tire and smoked it, the Sentra’s limited-slip device kept the paws to the pavement. But in a comparison test that is all about comic-book transformations, it makes sense that the car that feels the least transformed will ride in the caboose. The Spec V never seems anything other than a Sentra with extra tinsel. Tire rumble is ever present, and 65-mph cruises were accompanied by an eerie moan. The console is thoughtfully fitted with a latching dash-top box for delicate stowables, and the ceiling console has a flip-down eyeglass holder. But the dashboard’s many seams are havens for dust, and the painted accents on the doors get dingy and scuffed. With 3300 miles showing, the Sentra looked like a Hertz-rental-fleet veteran. The longest body in the test perches on the shortest wheelbase. It’s not a recipe for either beauty or interior comfort. The Sentra’s back-seat riders are the worst off for space, and seats all around are stiff and formless. Only half of the back seat folds down, the pass-through being partly clogged by a stereo bass cabinet with an eight-inch-diameter speaker. More worrisome is that Sentra pilots always felt nervous pushing the speeds. The car stuck to the course through curves, but the breakaway point was never easy to pin down and wholly unforgettable once it was hit. Under braking, through quick left-right transitions, and across uneven surfaces the rear end was always fidgeting. Turn up the gas, and the Sentra’s trip from mild understeer to woolly fishtails could be sudden and snappish. The eager engine hustles the car to the next curve before the chassis can digest the previous one. The Sentra’s controls didn’t inspire heroism, either, beginning with an insulated, high-friction steering rack. The big steering wheel is precise enough to place the tires, but turning it is like winding up a grandfather clock, “as if you could feel all the individual pieces moving,” commented one driver. Decried in the Spec V’s last appearance as being “joystick artificial” (“Budget Banditos,” November 2001), the shifter feels tighter but still has unacceptable plastic-on-plastic feel and rattle in its roots. Also pernicious is the shift pattern. Go for fifth gear in a rush, and you often bounce off and down the long corridor to reverse. The third gear’s synchro grouched when hurried, and there was gear whine at cruising speed. The Sentra went in for the Captain Wonderful treatment but came out as Lieutenant Lukewarm. ----- Third Place - Mazdaspeed Protegé Highs: Exquisite handling, spacious and well-appointed seats, more thrust and flexibility than a Focus with the same horsepower. Lows: Throttle surges, rumbling tires and wind noise, hopelessly complicated and distracting radio. The Verdict: Brilliant chassis seeks refined engine for profitable marriage. In its previous life as the MP3, the hot-rod Protegé dazzled us with its quick reflexes but disappointed with its lack of muscle. So Mazda called around and found a turbocharger for it. Things are definitely looking up, but whether by accident or design, the Protegé’s makers have left ample space to grow. Fundamentally, the Mazdaspeed is just the same feather-footed dancer as the MP3—except that it cleaves 1.2 seconds off the MP3’s 8.3-second 0-to-60-mph time and 0.9 second off its 16.5-second quarter-mile. That latter distance now passes at 90 mph in the Mazdaspeed instead of 84 mph in the MP3. The Protegé’s invigorated throttle now answers the call with more than just noise, especially between 3000 and 4000 rpm, where the MP3’s non-turbo 2.0-liter was about as exciting as a snifter of Listerine. Turbo lag is pleasingly short, but the engine remains thrashy around its 6500-rpm redline. Worse, power delivery is lumpy and less predictable. Thrust can vanish with a whoosh when the pedal lifts, provoking an unsettling whiplash through the driveline. The turbo can always be heard as that dog whistle under the hood. Occasionally, the Mazdaspeed’s engine surged under load and then rocked with a violent shudder. Fuel problems and computer hiccups were suggested as possible causes. No longer Listerine, the engine improves its status to that of boxed wine. In comparison tests, the Mazda Protegés always seem to offer the sharpest steering, the best weight balance, and the lowest center of gravity. Likewise, the Mazdaspeed rewards real drivers. The svelte, three-spoke wheel feels honed enough to splice a lane into millimeter-sized cutlets. The steering is light—no sneezing in a sweeper or you may dart for the weeds—but “tugs itself to the center with a good sense of the straight-ahead,” wrote one driver. The seedling-tall Sparco shifter has overly heavy detents but never gets hung up or lost. Once the suspension sets in a turn, the pilot can park the car at its handling limit with the throttle. No bobbing or wandering, plenty of grip, no surprises. The only real cheap-car DNA is in the tire thrum, the thunks from suspension impacts, and some wind noise. The Mazdaspeed carries on the MP3’s role of being an elaborate stereo-delivery device. The Kenwood Excelon receiver and its various accessories will put up a 450-watt (0.6 horsepower) wall of sound. So don’t even try to ignore the radio. It craves attention. The motorized folding faceplate performs a little ballet every time the car is switched on. Its digital display ceaselessly winks with pixilated TV commercials for the car, for itself, and, apparently, for interstellar travel. “If the objective was to distract the driver,” fumed one, “it has succeeded.” Titanium-hued, Lycra-looking inserts make the seats resemble jerseys for a pro-football team. Fancy pseudo-suede inserts on the doors, delicate ribbons of orange stitching, and painted trim plastic prove that someone—perhaps with a peculiar taste for colors—was sweating details. The back seats are the most spacious to report for duty. Given that the substantially slower MP3 won the “Budget Banditos” comparison, how come this Protegé only rates third here? Before putting pen to furious letter, dear reader, note that there was no SVT Focus or SRT-4 in that earlier test. Also, just three points separate the top three finishers in this test. A harsh decision, but until Mazda serves up an engine to match the moves, we have to defer to those more transformed. ----- Second Place - Ford SVT Focus Highs: A smoothie to the redline, warehouse-size interior, tasteful styling. Lows: Gutless in this group, spongy shifter. The Verdict: A speedy pack mule for the practical soul. A standard Ford Focus is an invitation for the staff to argue. Some here love it for its suspension, scissor-cut styling, and efficient interior. A few despise it for its torturous seats, wonky dashboard, and buzzing engine. Every time it’s nominated for a comparison test, the voters separate like vinegar and oil. But park an SVT Focus on the ticket, and the anti-Ford agitation quiets to a murmur. The tinkers at SVT have injected a healthy shot of steroids into the Focus without mutilating the patient. As transformations go, this is perhaps the most artfully executed one here. Like many things that pass for art, the Focus is subtle. The superhero costume is for sophisticates: fog lights, a black-mesh screen in a chunkier bumper fascia, a winglet on the hatch, and metal-flake-painted alloy wheels. In this group it stands out like a Zegna pinstripe at a Grateful Dead concert. Equally polished is the suspension tune. A cushion of compliance absorbs frost joints, pavement cuts, and Botts dots. A beefy structure keeps the pedals, seats, and steering column from jiggling in sympathy, and tire noise is all but absent. Yet when pressed into apex-dusting duty, the chassis doesn’t shirk. Friction-free front struts and tautly bushed rear links stem the understeer and plant the rear end. When the sideways drifting starts, the motion is deliberate and controllable. The thick steering wheel is a tight, telegraphic link with the front wheels. Pick the pebble you want to fling from the white line, and the Focus will point you there. The piper gets paid for the supple ride with some extra body roll and light bobbing across teeter-totter surfaces. A fast-changing camber on a snaking road does more to unsettle the driver than the suspension, but perception is the difference between high-speed fun and a high-speed frown. The 2.0-liter whirls to its 7100-rpm redline quickly and with remarkably little vibration. It has to; there’s precious little power anywhere else on the rev band. The car’s last-place drag-strip times tell the tale—60 mph in 7.7 seconds (a 10th faster than the three-door “Desert Foxes” Focus), the quarter-mile in 15.9 at 89 mph. To run with this crowd, the Focus spent many two-lane miles stuck in third gear, where poking the throttle out of a corner is best translated into forward thrust. South of 6000 rpm the engine does little more than issue a satisfied purr when prodded. During gearchanges, the engine hovers at high revs, falling too slowly for fast shifts to be smooth. Are emissions-control elves at work? The Focus was able to accept three people, their luggage, and two big boxes of test gear. The split back seat is among the best in the group, and it folds down—once headrests are plucked—to form a small sea container. No other car here better utilizes the space between its bumpers. The polished aluminum pedals look authentic but proved too slippery under wet shoes. More than a few corners got overcooked in a frantic chorus of squeaking soles. Gearchanging with the six-speed was more padded, less mechanically satisfying than the Mazda’s five-speed stub. The engine sometimes produced a harmonic buzz in the shifter. Call Roush, call Yunick, call Caterpillar. Someone please get this handsome and sweet-handling car some more punch. ----- First Place - Dodge SRT-4 Highs: Power out the wazoo, bites into corners like a pit bull, the brakes never give up. Lows: Exhaust boom can get tiresome, punishing freeway ride. The Verdict: Dodge delivers a club racer in a box. Our last Neon tester (a pallid 150-horse, 2.0-liter R/T) finished the “Budget Banditos” comparison in last place, sucking wind to a Sentra Spec V, among others. That was before SCCA racer and DaimlerChrysler Performance Vehicle Operations director John Fernandez and his crew pointed their Snap-on ray guns at it. They have created a superswift mutant that shreds 60 mph in 5.6 seconds and the quarter-mile in 14.1 seconds at 102 mph. It blurs the telephone poles at 153 mph and pulverizes 70 mph into brake dust in just 167 feet (only six more than a BMW M3). Mustang GT and Nissan 350Z drivers, bring your pinks if you dare. All slots and screens, this Dodge’s face no longer says, “Hi.” It says, “Feed me now.” Airflow priorities are evident. The styling mimics a Carrier air conditioner. Incoming gases do one full lap around the engine compartment, from the airbox in the front left corner, around the back of the block to the rear-facing turbo, forward to the nose-mounted intercooler, then down the hatch. The hood scoop is the one discordant fakey-doo. The air’s extended journey contributes to turbo lag. Put your foot in it, and the intermission is split-second but palpable. Once the boost gauge registers anger, the 205-wide Michelin Pilot Sports must look for grip where they can. Axle hop at low speeds and tire smoke out of corners are common side effects. The SRT-4 was voted most in need of a limited-slip device. Every sniffle, snort, and pop blurts unimpeded from the twin tailpipes. “Emphatic,” commented one driver. The SRT-4 can be boomy and tiring on a freeway mush, especially in combination with its stiff-legged ride. Watch out in rain—the tires hydroplane easily. Inhaling a track or mountain pass, that’s where the SRT-4 wants to be. It resolutely glues all four to the corners, displaying none of the wild tail wagging we noted in the R/T. Choose a line, turn in, squeeze on the power, and just hold it there. A lightly weighted wheel demands more path corrections than in the Focus or Mazda, but it does the job admirably. The front end thrusts where you aim it, and the back end follows, doing what it can to help. The brakes can induce bug-eyes, but they never melted, even on long, curving descents. At the track, the SRT-4’s brand of balance and strength brings home prize money. The car’s buckets have fat fingers to grip the torso, but the backside loses interest quickly and falls asleep. Stick to sprints, or find something with softer cushions. The trim fit inside was unexpectedly good for an American econobox. A faux-carbon-fiber theme is omnipresent—in the shift-boot vinyl, the steering-wheel rim, even the seat-cover fabric. The SRT-4 sports fancy silver gauges and an electroplated center console bezel. Still, squeezed pennies are evident on the plastic shift ball and manual rear windows. An acceptable compromise between rudeness and refinement, the SRT-4 really earns its tickertape shower by being nothing at all like its mild-mannered alter ego.