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Small cars rock 'n' roll

This is the time of the small car. The car you want to own, the one you'll brag about. The rock 'n' roll small car.

Americans are being offered the best crop of compacts in recent memory, if not all time. Hot hatchbacks, rear-wheel-drive hellions, impish convertibles and turbo-charged tykes, all crying out for very modest dollars.

And they've responded by buying: The U.S. market saw a 50 percent increase in small car sales this September.

Not long ago, purchasing a compact or subcompact meant compromising, giving in or even giving up. For every Volkswagen GTI with a furious little engine built for fun, we were awash with tinny toys like the Ford Aspire, Geo Prizm and Hyundai Excel.

Now, if you've got $22,000 or more and buy a boring car, it's your own fault.

Veloster: Hyundai was once a major source of punishingly bad small cars. Now the South Korean brand gives us zingy hatches like the Veloster, pictured, released last year.

The Veloster is entertaining, but the 138-horsepower 1.6- liter engine didn't quite get the job done. Now they've added a turbo model with 201 hp and a standard six-speed manual transmission.

The suggested retail price of the Veloster Turbo is $21,950. As tested, my 2013 model year car came in just over $25,000. Gas mileage is 26 city, 38 highway.

Hyundai's interiors and electronics are good, but the handling and ride characteristics needed work. The Veloster Turbo proves those areas are coming along nicely.

With front-wheel-drive and no limited-slip differential, the hatchback may not be a serious canyon carver, but is very good at bombing down boulevards. An accessible mix of amenities and driving entertainment.

Fiat 500 Abarth: In my recent review of the Fiat 500 Abarth ($22,000; $26,050 as tested), I was clearly taken by the piccolo Italian chariot. A few weeks ago I had the chance to let it lope around a racetrack and wondered how it would hold up. (Can you even imagine taking most small cars on a track?)

No racecar, it pushes wide on corners and the front end dives under hard braking. Yet there's something intensely likable about the upright seating position, the way you can see through the windows, and rowing through the gears with the long stick shift.

Giggle-inducing good times, even on a track. I'm enamored with this car. (MPG 28 city, 34 highway.)

Mini Cooper S Roadster: BMW-owned Mini always has a troop of cadets ready to muster for those who like their kicks in small packages. Perhaps the simplest offering is the Cooper S Roadster, a topless version of the two-door Coupe model.

It's little more than a soft top, turbocharged engine (a 1.6-liter four-cylinder with 181 hp), two seats and a sophisticated suspension. That recipe is best when zipping around back roads like those I drove in early October; leaves carpeting the asphalt, the top down and heat blasting.

The car pivots from its center, and is tuned to steer with inputs to the gas pedal.

It gets 27 mpg city, 35 highway. Too bad it starts around $30,000 (and $33,000 as tested), so it is as expensive as many larger, more complicated cars.

When it comes to happy gifts from the small-car gods, I'm especially thankful for two 2013 models, the $24,500 Ford Focus ST and $26,265 Subaru BRZ.

Ford Focus ST: The Focus comes as both sedan and five-door hatchback, a cute and likable entry. The ST model is less cute and more fiery, with Recaro sports seats and a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine which makes 252 hp, 270 pound-feet of torque. It has a specially tuned suspension meant to get it to slip and slide at will. (Gas mileage is 23, 32.)

Subaru BRZ and Scion FR-S: Subaru's BRZ, meanwhile, is a rear-wheel-drive two seater. Extremely light, it does without turbos to its 2.0-liter four- cylinder engine (200 hp; 151 pound-feet of torque; 22, 30 mpg).

Developed in conjunction with Toyota, which released its version as the Scion FR-S, nobody has made a new car like this since the original Mazda Miata.

A colleague and I took the cars onto a road course to race against each other, like dueling banjos. After all, both were created with an eye toward troublemaking on a racetrack. (The same could be said for me and my buddy.)

I started with the BRZ. On the first big bend, I gave it a dose of gas and turned the wheel, creating a tire-screaming drift.

I let off the gas slightly, flicked the wheel, straightened and made for a straightaway. Glancing into the rear-view mirror, I found the Ford right on my tail.

Around and around we went. I couldn't shake the Focus ST, which was also sliding around the place like we were driving on oil. I let him pass.

We switched cars. The Ford is front-wheel-drive, but engineered to turn on a dime. I was soon on the Subaru's tail. I was whipsawing the wheel about wildly, playing with my driving line. Under these conditions, the Ford was quicker than the Subaru.

Exiting, I pulled off my helmet and my head steamed in the cool air. Totally rock 'n' roll.

Small cars rock 'n' roll 11/22/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 21, 2012 10:36am]
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