Having been assigned lots of writing about SUV’s for work, I want to write about some nice, simple, manually-shifted econo car/hot-hatch goodness to get that plain consumerism out of my system. We’ll get the boring one out of the way in the 2014 Corolla.
Remember I brought up a few weeks ago that the Corolla was going to be touched up? Yup, this is it. It’s the cheapest vehicle to feature Light Emitting Diode headlight, not just those little strips for daytime running lights everyone is doing. Toyota says it’s lighter to use LED’s, and of course they should last longer and use less energy which helps for fuel economy and less worry about replacement. Then again, how easy will it be to pick up replacements at a local Autozone when that comes around?
Further “excitement” about the Corolla is they finally moved up to a six-speed manual, which is undoubtedly geared more for fuel economy than performance and is probably more rubbery than the tires themselves. Speaking of tires, the S model rides on 17” alloys, which harbor four-wheel disks unlike the rear drums of old, and the suspension is actually tuned differently from the rest of the Corolla’s (both are actually firsts for the Corolla S as it was just aesthetics in prior generations). Otherwise, there’s not much to get the average enthusiast even remotely interested. The dashboard is much more modern, but over time all the little trim pieces they placed in there will be that much more prone to rattle—more parts, more wiggle. Imagine how much more difficult it’d be to pick up a 100-piece puzzle compared to a 10-piece set.
More enthusiast based discussion can start with old news like the Chevy Sonic RS, and the up-coming Ford Fiesta ST. Both are different sorts of entries for the subcompact market, since they are the only turbocharged “hot” subcompacts sold in the U.S. The RS, though, isn’t exactly hot. It adds a sportier exhaust tone for the 1.4L turbo engine, which is still hushed (a Fiat 500 Abarth, for example, has much more pushed out for both power and torque with the same displacement). There is a chip for the computer that’ll boost the 1.4T power in the Sonic (as well as the Cruze), but getting such a tune from the factory would be nice. I haven’t seen confirmed output numbers for the Trifecta tune I keep hearing about. The Trifecta tune is reported at $500 to get it up to 180hp/200ftlbs.
The Sonic RS does at least afford lower, stiffer suspension, requisite four-wheel disks, and quicker gearing to the manual transmission to improve acceleration. The Sonic Turbo was already getting top praises for its handling and power by the press, so the RS is an even more welcome reminder that one can have some good, small-car fun these days.
Once the Ford Fiesta ST comes stateside, however, the Sonic RS will be in the relative doldrums with all the other “powerful” subcompacts like the Hyundai Accent and Kia Rio (all put out around 138-140hp). The basic Fiesta is dynamically fine for the class—handling has never been a problem. The 120hp of the Fiesta, however, put it in a mid-pack sort of range of acceleration, sitting closer to the Mazda2 it shares a platform with, and the Toyota Yaris. That’s a depressing thought when the 120hp Fiesta is being poked by a 100hp Mazda and 106hp Toyota because of the added weight the Fiesta has to lumber around. It could be worse, Ford: the Nissan Versa is the go-to for slowness and boredom; that’s as much as I’ll say about Versa.
Forward to the Fiesta ST, which has a helping of 197hp/202ftlb. That 1.6L Ecoboost power is put through a six-speed manual that— so far— has been getting good reviews, and the handling is still one of the sharper of the class. The European version is a three-door hatchback, which we won’t be getting in America, instead giving us easier entry to the back with rear doors—the Fiat 500 Abarth doesn’t stand a chance for this practicality, nor do most Mini’s unless you count a Clubman S or Countryman S in the same class.
The Fiesta is a bigger car over the Fiat 500, of course, so the similarly-quick Abarth (and likewise the Hyundai Veloster Turbo I compared to the Abarth) will have a few more sales taken away for that sake. If only Chevrolet could juice the Sonic 1.4L up like Abarth did with their 1.4T, and Ford and Hyundai did with their 1.6T.
The European Fiesta ST has also been noted as being more stripped, focusing the money spent on the car where it should be—power, handling, and seats to hold you in place from the latter. On the other hand, Americans like to be coddled in features, so perhaps this simplification may chase them away. Furthermore, the Fiesta’s secondary problem after power is interior space. No matter, the Fiesta still has a big brother: the Focus ST.
There’s quite the heritage behind fast Ford sport-compacts. Since the 1970’s, Ford had a rally and/or touring presence with the Ford Escort name (one that even put it in the recent Fast 6). America only had a glimpse of these machines through the 1980’s and ‘90’s Escort GT’s that upgraded the engines, suspension, and braking to keep up with the likes of the VW GTi of their respective times. By the late 1990’s, the Escort was dwindling as the VW started to turbocharge or even throw a V6 into the Golf body, and the Escort GT lost its old appeal. The Ford Focus came to be the sharp-handling compact for Ford in 2000, and offered the even-sharper SVT Focus in 2003-2005, which had 170hp (40 more than the most powerful non-SVT Focus). Meanwhile, in Europe, the Focus was still charging around the countryside with Subaru WRX’s on rally stages, and on the roads with the 220hp turbo RS model (there was also an SVT-like ST170). The RS’s made enthusiasts like me want for more, especially after hot Foci left the U.S. stage in 2008, while the Focus RS of a newer forbidden-for-America version made up to 300hp elsewhere. Come 2012, the basic 160hp Focus was quick out of the gate, but the ST badge reaches us through a growly, turbo 252hp model. Loaded with more content than the Fiesta ST thus-far, the Focus is the car to buy if you want a car between the Fiesta ST and Mustang V6.
It’s all well and good to talk about these turbo compacts and subcompacts, but there’s still problems that come with them. For one thing, the Ford ST’s have an electronic system called Torque Vectoring Control that helps them corner by squeezing the front brakes to maintain stability and traction. By applying the inside brake in a corner (the right front brake in a right hand turn) it helps rotate on that axis. This system works well enough from what I can visually see, but to me I’d prefer a real differential rather than wearing down my brakes prematurely, or even heating them to the point where they have the potential to fade later. As the cars stand now, this may not be a problem, but for those who might want more speed and power out of either car, it’s likely to be harder to swap out or modify. In the Fiesta, this system is quite noticeable.
A problem for the Chevrolet Sonic RS comes to the tune of it being cheaper than the Fiesta ST, and tuners bringing up that a simple chip to the engine (Trifecta has a kit for around $500) that will help it meet or beat the Ford. My problem there lies with many gear heads: when you start talking about a modified car against one that is stock, it’s apples to oranges. In the case of the Fiesta and Sonic, it’s also down to the Chevy would need more done to the brakes, suspension, and seats to make the same sort of package. Sure, one can still purchase go-fast pieces for the Sonic, but Ford does that for you, and does so without the worry of how well the car will actually be afterward– the Sonic would become a project car in a garage rather than a multi-million dollar project car being tuned time and time again by engineers like the Ford has been. A few thousand extra at the dealer for that seems worth the money, if you ask me. Lets see official pricing and economy from the Fiesta ST and if GM brings out a Sonic SS before I conclude too soon.