Track Test: Eight Affordable Sports Cars
To determine our Performance Car Best Buy of 2019, the KBB editorial team took eight cars on a spirited drive up the Angeles Crest Highway north of Los Angeles and then spent the next day hot-lapping them on The Streets of Willow raceway in Rosamond, California. It was a memorable two days with these performance cars, which we capped at about $40,000 to ensure that they were attainable real-world cars, not a bunch of pricey exotics.
By now, you probably know the new Hyundai Veloster N was named KBB’s Performance Car Best Buy of 2019. In that post, we documented the insane abilities of this affordable new track-ready Hyundai. What we didn’t do, though, was discuss the other cars that competed so valiantly for the title.
That’s what we’re doing here. In this post, well take a look at all eight of our performance cars and discuss how they felt on both the road and the track. Not to pick a winner, mind you; rather, we simply want to give folks an idea of how these reasonably priced performance cars fare when pushed to their limits on a tight race course and driven with gusto on twisty mountain roads.
Our eight performance cars, in alphabetical order:
2019 Chevrolet Camaro (MSRP: $31,000 -- Price as Tested: $42,585)
Our orange Camaro with the wrapped black hood is a 2019 3LT Coupe with Recaro bucket seats and the Turbo 1LE Track Performance Package, which includes 20-inch forged aluminum wheels, run-flat high-performance summer tires, Brembo brakes, and FE3 performance suspension with stiffer bushings. The piece de resistance, however, is the turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine, which sends 275 horsepower to the rear wheels via a 6-speed manual transmission.
On track, this Camaro rocks. It feels low and about as wide as it is long, and its sticky summer tires help it carve through corners with none of the nervousness felt in the EcoBoost Mustang. The 4-cylinder engine, mounted aft of the front axle line, puts less weight on the nose than the usual V6, making this Camaro feel well-balanced and particularly planted on the high-speed sweepers of Angeles Crest, where the car tracked true.
In short, this Camaro feels like it has been tuned by a GM engineer who knows how to drive. Ride motions are well controlled, and although the short throws of the 6-speed manual gearbox aren’t as snickety-short as the Miata’s, they are far more direct than those of the Challenger. Yeah, we miss the V8 rumble we’ve come to expect from a Camaro, but the thrust provided by the turbo-4 is better than you might expect. As with all current Camaros, it feels as if you’re peering out the narrow slot of a bunker, but you tend to forget about such things when you’re blasting from corner to corner with a big smile on your face.
2019 Dodge Challenger R/T (MSRP: $34,295 -- Price as Tested: $39,970)
The Dodge Challenger we tested is a 2019 R/T model fitted with the 5.7-liter Hemi V8, a 6-speed manual transmission, and the Performance Handling Group, which includes high-performance suspension with 20-inch wheels and big Brembo brakes. While the natural inclination with this potent Challenger is to criticize it for being too large (especially compared to the other cars in this test, and particularly on the tight Streets of Willow circuit), it by no means feels ponderous.
With its good grip, excellent thrust and stout braking power, the Challenger has no major weaknesses. The stable chassis rotates predictably, and the robust shifter requires a fair amount of force but is blessed with well-defined gates. With so much torque on tap, having an automatic transmission wouldn’t have been much of a sin, but the manual gearbox in our Challenger test car is throwback cool. Yes, the engine’s redline is a low 5,750 rpm, but there’s so much bottom-end torque on tap that the driver never needs to spin the pushrod Hemi 5.7 anywhere near its rev limiter. If we had one request, it would be that Dodge rearranges the pedals for easier heel-toe downshifting.
On the track and on the road, the Challenger is a civilized brute. Sure, it’s big and unabashedly American, but it always hangs on amazingly well. And all along, we like pretending we’re Sam Posey in the original SCCA Trans-Am series, power-oversteering his Challenger at will. Right, Micah?
2018 Ford Mustang (MSRP: $30,600 -- Price as Tested: $39,880)
Our Ford Mustang is a 2018 EcoBoost Coupe Premium, painted Oxford White and fitted with a turbocharged 2.3-liter 4-cylinder engine, a 10-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters, MagneRide shock absorbers, P245/40-19 summer tires, a 3.55:1 limited-slip differential, and 19-inch aluminum wheels.
In short, a sweet recipe for Angeles Crest and The Streets. This Mustang feels narrower and longer than the Camaro, and quite a bit more compact than the Challenger. While it takes a few laps to figure out what this Mustang likes, this pony car, once mastered, impresses us with its agility and speed, the latter courtesy of a 310-horsepsower 4-cylinder engine that blasts this car out of corners with plenty of verve.
On the Streets, the Mustang is one of the easiest cars to manage while braking and downshifting into the Streets' Turn 1, the shift paddles removing much of the drama. If you are abrupt with steering inputs, the Mustang will understeer a bit, so the car profits from smooth and gentle turn-in. While the Ford works well with the gearbox left in fully automatic mode, the transmission occasionally upshifts before you want, sapping some acceleration. The fix? Use the paddles at all times and shift by feel. With so many available ratios, it’s occasionally difficult to know the exact gear you were in, but manually shifting is the best way to extract speed out of the 2.3 turbo.
This EcoBoost Coupe Premium is one of the most refined Mustangs we’ve ever driven, rewarding in the canyons and a delight on the track. While we miss the V8 roar, the potent 2.3 turbo makes this Mustang feel more like a European sports coupe than a traditional pony car.
2018 Honda Civic Type R (MSRP: $34,700 -- Price as Tested: $35,595)
The Civic Type R we tested, a Touring model, has no options. Not that it needs any. Standard go-fast hardware on this otherworldly Honda includes a turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-4 with 306 horsepower, a 6-speed manual transmission (with the world’s best linkage), a limited-slip front differential, big Brembo brakes, super sticky Continental summer tires, and sport-tuned suspension with MacPherson struts in front and a multilink rear.
When we toggle the driving mode into “+R”, the Type R’s dashboard glows red, the dampers get firmer, the steering and throttle quicken, and the stability control is remapped, all for sharpened performance. Thus adjusted, the Civic Type R responds with an unrivaled immediacy when tossed into a corner. There’s none of the expected front-drive understeer, just phenomenal cornering grip courtesy of the aggressive low-profile 30-series Continentals.
What’s more, the short gearing of the Type R’s close-ratio 6-speed manual gearbox helps the driver keep the VTEC engine in the thick of its powerband, which lasts all the way to redline in each gear. Hard as it may be to believe, this is a Honda that can hang with Porsches, and it seemingly can be hot-lapped all day without running out of brakes or tires.
Is the Civic Type R the best-performing front-wheel-drive vehicle we’ve ever tested? Possibly. It more than lives up to the promises of its bold styling, with handling, acceleration, and braking capabilities unmatched for the money. In everyday use the tight seats and short gearing of the R may wear on you, but this is a purposeful car that relishes the racetrack and canyon roads.
2019 Hyundai Veloster N (MSRP: $26,900 -- Price as Tested: $29,000)
The performance bargain of our group is the 2019 Hyundai Veloster N. Our particular N is equipped with the $2,100 Performance Package, which means it has the electronic limited-slip differential, larger brakes and tires, and a turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine that puts out 275 horsepower instead of 250. Available exclusively as a front-drive hatchback with a rev-matching 6-speed manual transmission, our Veloster N also has specially tuned suspension to go along with its aggressive exterior styling and N-specific driving modes.
When you push the "N" button on the bottom part of the steering wheel, the Veloster N comes alive. Although the N’s a bit down on power compared to the Civic Type R, the engine feels strong and tractable, not peaky. While its tires aren’t as aggressive as the Honda’s, the sport-tuned Hyundai takes corners nearly as well, aided by an electronic limited-slip differential that makes it easy to power out of corners without wildly spinning the inside front wheel. Wherever we point this Veloster it goes, with nearly as much steering precision as the Type R. And during deceleration, the backfires that crackle out of the Veloster N’s exhaust are positively addicting.
In everyday daily life, the Veloster N is more comfortable than the Honda Civic Type R. It also enjoys a significant price advantage of some $6,000. As such, it’s easy to see why this Hyundai has taken home the title of KBB’s Performance Car Best Buy of 2019.
2019 Mazda MX-5 Miata (MSRP: $25,730 -- Price as Tested: est $31,000)
Our 2019 Miata looks stunning in its Soul Red Crystal Metallic paint. And Mazda’s 2-seat roadster lives up to its looks in our testing, where it shows excellent composure and balance in the mountains and an entertaining blend of grip to power on the track. The Miata totally shines in both environments, reminding us again of why classic roadsters are just so much fun.
On the track, in the constant-radius skidpad turn, it’s easiest in the rear-drive Miata to maintain a slight power-on drift through the latter half of the corner. Then, down the straight that follows, Mazda’s 2.0-liter 4-cylinder can be enjoyed all the way to its 7,500-rpm redline in each gear, not falling flat in the upper reaches of the tachometer. However, while this 181-horsepower 16-valve twincam engine makes the Miata feel quicker than before, this lively roadster is among the slower cars in our test.
Speed, though, is not what Miatas are all about. Rather, they’re about outstanding overall balance and excellent flickability, complemented as always by a short-throw shifter that remains one of the best in the business. Moreover, this lightweight (2,339 pounds) rear-drive sports car impresses us on the track, where it’s remarkably easy on tires and brakes -- exactly how an elemental roadster should be. While this Mazda doesn’t have the power of the Americans (or any other car) in this test, the Miata continues to show us why it’s such a popular club racer and the most successful roadster in the world over the last 30 years.
Subaru WRX (MSRP: 29,495 -- Price as Tested: $33,480)
Yeah, we know, we should have brought an STI with 310 horsepower to this test, replete with its big brakes. But there wasn’t one available when we needed it. And besides, the new 268-horsepower 2019 Subaru WRX is no slouch. Besides the turbo 2.0-liter flat-4, a 6-speed manual gearbox, and 18-inch alloy wheels wearing 245/40R-18 summer tires, our WRX is equipped with the $3,100 Series.Gray option package, which includes Recaro sport seats, a moonroof delete, red brake calipers with performance brake pads, rear spoiler, LED turning headlights, and black instrument panel trim. By all accounts, this is a potent machine.
If only our test had been on dirt roads, then the WRX would have really shined. More than any other car in this test, the Subie’s unibody chassis moves around on its suspension, squatting and diving during acceleration and braking (respectively) and leaning toward the outside when carving through fast sweepers. Although this body movement is a bit disconcerting, the WRX nevertheless hangs on well, aided by a suspension suppleness that we suspect would serve it better when tackling a gravel stage.
On tarmac, though, where our testing took place, the WRX feels a bit unsettled and ragged at the limit. That feeling is exacerbated by the WRX’s relatively high seating position, which makes this potent all-wheel-drive sedan feel a bit floppy on surfaces with good grip. Also, the WRX’s shift-throws are on the longish side, while the clutch is a bit of an on/off proposition.
Volkswagen GTI (MSRP: $35,070 -- Price as Tested: $36,610)
You gotta love the Volkswagen GTI. A hot-hatch institution, this car blends boxy practicality with a healthy dose of driving fun. And the 2019 GTI continues that tradition, powered by a 2.0-liter turbo-4 that sends 228 horsepower to the front wheels via a 6-speed manual transmission and an electronic limited-slip differential. The GTI also is blessed with a sport suspension (featuring an enlarged rear stabilizer bar to reduce understeer), VW’s 4-mode DCC adaptive chassis control, sport seats and a leather-wrapped steering wheel.
How does the GTI perform on the track and mountain roads? While it’s not as sharply responsive as the Civic Type R or Veloster N, it can be hustled along very quickly with smooth applications of steering, brakes and throttle. It’s plusher than the competition, with commensurately softer suspension damping, and it would benefit greatly from a set of high-performance summer tires in place of its rather pedestrian all-season rubber. Even so, the VW GTI is quick, but it comes across as more of an adult ride than a boy racer, aided by a 6-speed manual gearbox with easy clutch modulation.
With its excellent everyday practicality, composed twisty-road behavior and high level of comfort and sophistication, VW’s hot hatch has come a long way since the original Rabbit GTI of 1983.
Looking for speed on the cheap? Consider getting a used version of one of these cars instead.