Our car guy offers his top picks for fun, flirty and fast rides
In the last “Air Bag” column, I talked about the huge crop of supercars (and one “Luxury Megacar”) that have appeared in the last six months or so. And I’ve come to understand that some people were not hugely interested in cars with an average sticker of $218,000, which may or may not ever be on sale, or at least not for sale to anyone whose name or coat of arms isn’t on an Emirate, eyesore skyscraper, vanity album, reality show and/or Incident.
As it is spring, when as far as I’m concerned everyone’s thoughts should be turning to cars, it seemed like a good time to look at some that are more affordable, actually on-sale, and potentially even practical enough to justify owning. That doesn’t mean they don’t have at least a little, and sometimes a lot, in common with six-figure cars.
Until very recently, one horsepower per cubic inch was a very high bar to clear. Now we have a $30,000 Ford that makes 2.24 hp per cubic inch and probably puts more power to the ground than a 426 Hemi ever did. So aside from one outlier, all of them are very technologically sophisticated, some maybe even more so than the supercars, and two are more powerful than most of them, too.
With power from 158hp to over 700hp and real world prices (listed first) from $20,000 to around $65,000, you’ll be amazed how much fun you can have for not a huge amount of money, in a car you can use every day. But because this about fun, there are a couple of others in there that while not supercars, are a little more, let’s say, aspirational. What’s a mortgage payment more or less between friends?
Mazda MX-5 Miata
167hp, $21,000 (MSRP $24,000)
Mazda has done something that car people absolutely adore: They’ve made their new Roadster smaller and less powerful. The original Miata a quarter-century ago weighed 2,100lbs, had 14-inch wheels and made 116hp. Like every other car since ever, even the Miata bloated with time, more than 400lbs heavier by 2014.
But this fall’s new 2016 model is dropping 200lbs, 15hp and actually getting back to its roots. It is far more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow. It should be amazing. Which isn’t to say the current one isn’t great, because it is, and late this year is going to be a spectacular time to pick up a 2015 at an enormous discount.
Ford Focus RS
315hp, est. $30,000
Later this year, Ford will go head-to-head with the Subaru WRX STi and Mitsubishi Lancer Evo and offer one of the hottest hot hatches ever hatched. Here’s where we really get some technology borrowed from way, way up the line, with its EcoBoost (turbo) 2.3-liter four and all-wheel drive.
The 1974 Ford Pinto also got a 2.3-liter four. It made 88hp, so that’s what 40 years of progress looks like. There really isn’t another car in this particular four-door hatchback niche; Ford has done a good job creating a new segment of their own.
Cadillac ATS-V Coupe
455hp, est. $63,000
What is up with Cadillac? I mean, seriously, what is up? We went from DeVilles to this thing in like no time. Cadillac has probably lost the market of people looking for, you know, comfortable cars, forever, and instead as of this fall will sell what even they say is a track-focused small coupe (or sedan). It’s got a twin-turbo 3.6-liter V-6 and will go 185 mph, which does not jibe well with the whole Elvis image. I’m not saying I don’t like it—just that they sure have changed direction.
Scion tC Release Series 9.0
179hp, $22,500 (MSRP $23,960)
I am so not the target demographic for Scion, particularly the tC, but I love the thing. The cumbersomely-named Scion tC Release Series 9.0 is a limited edition tuner-look version and comes lowered with ground effects, and only in ticket-me Magma and black. tCs are actually superbly fun little cars, especially for Toyota, and are also built like Toyotas. Kind of a win-win.
Volkswagen Golf R
290hp, $38,000 (MSRP $36,595)
You probably know about this car, but I have to say, “about time.” I could seriously live without a DSG, because I’m experienced enough to be terrified of it and VW used to make some awesome manual transmissions. It’s been two years since the last R, though, and it returns not only with 34hp more, but a 31-mpg highway rating.
There are even hints of a six-speed, which, duh. If you have trouble selling six-speeds’ send me one and I’ll proselytize the heck out of it. The price discrepancy is because all the initial production has already sold and they’re being marked up. That won’t last.
Alfa Romeo 4C
237hp, $72,000 (MSRP they don’t really say)
Definitely not practical under any circumstances, including actually driving, the 4C is nevertheless a magnificent automobile. You don’t get many—any—cars like this today, where comfort is a distant second and uncompromising lightness in the service of ultimate performance is paramount. That 237hp gets it to 60 mph in 4.3 seconds. You also don’t get any cars that look like it. Plus you only live once.
Honda Accord EX-L V6 Coupe
278hp, $28,500 (MSRP $30,775)
The V6 Accord Coupe is one of those cars that people who write about cars don’t like to write about, just in case Honda notices they still make it, and stops. The only way you can get a six-speed, V-6 Accord is in the Coupe, which happens to weigh almost 200 pounds less than the sedan. And it is an absolute rocket ship, going 0-60 in about 5.5 seconds while also being a Honda. Buy one and expect lots of subtle nods from assorted hipsters.
Jeep Wrangler Rubicon
285hp, $30,000 (MSRP $31,695)
Enzo Ferrari said, “The Jeep is America’s only real sports car,” and if it’s not the “only,” he’s otherwise not wrong. Even without the ludicrous power (20 years ago, Jeep’s top engine was AMC’s old 180hp 4.0-liter six) Jeep was the essence of fun; now it’s still uncomfortable and impractical but also stupid fast. It comes standard with front- and rear-locking Dana 44 axles and BF Goodrich T/A tires and you really should get to know what one can do.
Porsche Cayman GT4
385hp, $NA (MSRP $84,600)
This is a big deal for Porsche people. For years, we’d known the Cayman was deliberately slower than the 911. You can’t have little brother dunking on big brother. Porsche, in their ad copy, says, “The new Cayman GT4 is the long-awaited step beyond the boundary. The step over to the other side of the frontier.” Meaning, it’s faster than a 350hp 911. And cheaper, technically.
When it goes on sale shortly I expect gouging and Porsche is famous for long, long lists of expensive options. Stickers will probably start at $115,000, at which point you can buy a Nissan GT-R and a whole can of worms is opened up. Have you considered the long-term benefits of supercar ownership?
Jaguar F-Type R
550hp $98,000 (MSRP $99,925)
This is what you call a premium sports car, meaning you’re probably cross shopping a Porsche 911 or Cayman or something. All American V-8 F-Types (like this supercharged 5.0-liter) come with all-wheel drive for some reason, but you can also get a six-speed manual, so go figure. It also comes in a convertible, which is going to run you $15,000 more and is a little gaudy for my taste (says the guy who likes the bright orange Scion).
Dodge Challenger Hellcat
707hp, $61,000 (MSRP $58,295)
Tesla Model S P85D
691hp, $NA (MSRP $105,670)
Here we have the two most powerful American production cars of all time, and maybe the two most different possible ways to get to the same result. Your Hellcat comes with a supercharged 6.2-liter V-8 and six-speed manual transmission driving the rear wheels into powder at a breath.
The electric Tesla has a one-speed and separate motors for the front and rear wheels. Other than that, what do you get for the extra $45,000? Well, you do get the Tesla’s Insane Mode (an actual thing), which steam catapults you to 60mph in 3.2 seconds, plus you order directly from Tesla and get your car like 20 days later. There aren’t any on the secondary market yet, but there’s no markup, either.
But that’s a lot of money and a lot of technology, when for the cost of a diesel Chevy 3500 pickup you can get a Hellcat. You can get the same engine in a much better looking Charger Sedan, although you can’t get the six-speed. There are already dozens of Hellcats on dealer lots and I’ve seen them advertised right around the MSRP.