Small Package, Big Performance

Nov 22, 2009

As with most automotive jargon, the term “sport compact” is up for debate. The precise definition involves high performance versions of compact and sub-compact cars – typically front-engine [usually 4-cylinder], front-wheel-drive coupes, sedans or hatchbacks. Unlike true sports cars, they are designed for practicality on the street while still focusing on improved handling and increased engine efficiency. However, not all 4-cylinder high-performance small cars fall within the sport compact classification. The MINI, particularly the Cooper S, has found a niche in racing, but is not considered a sport compact.

Nevertheless, unofficially, sport compact primarily signifies import. “Japanese cars dominate,” confirms Sean Crawford, JE Pistons, Huntington Beach, Calif. “In fact, what used to be called the import market has transitioned into the sport compact market. Sure, there’s still some prejudice against Japanese cars, but they’re popular with the younger crowd because their price is good and you get good quality for the money. Smaller engines are more advanced today; they’re making a lot of horsepower for a daily driver. Toyota hasn’t made a mistake; everything they touch is gold.”

Crowd-pleasing compacts

Toyota may have the Midas touch, but across the board, the names that repeatedly appear at the top of the preferred list include the Subaru Impreza WRX STi, the Nissan 350Z and the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution. “They’re crossing boundaries,” proclaims Roger Tibbitts, of Injen in Pomona, Calif., referring to the age of their buyers.

Another model that crosses age boundaries is the Honda Civic SI. “It was one of the earliest sport compacts,” Tibbitts recalls, “and it’s getting better all the time.” Baumgartner predicts the Civic’s popularity will grow, due to the new sedan offered. As Crawford notes, the normally aspirated Honda dominated the market for years, but now that the turbo is more accessible, “horsepower is less expensive. You can make more power for less money.”

Proving that value for money doesn’t necessarily mean econobox, Tibbitts says of the WRX Sti, 350Z and Evo, “They’re not cheap cars, either!” Other popular models at the pricier end of the scale include Lexus, Infiniti and the Nissan Ultima and Maxima, although Tibbitts qualifies the latter two as “not so sporty” and notes that they all tend to appeal to an older crowd. Almost as an afterthought, he adds the Mazda3 and Mazda6, pointing out that the Miata isn’t as hot as it once was because “the newer vehicles tout horsepower.”

Shawn Baumgartner of Unorthodox Racing in Deer Park, N.Y., agrees that the Miata has “fallen a little,” but Crawford disagrees, stating that the Miata has a “very, very large following. It’s big in club racing. It has a very potent little motor.” Because of its continued success, which he attributes to the resurgent popularity of track events, Unorthodox Racing just put its first Miata part in its catalog. But it’s the Mazda3 that’s “coming on hard,” according to Turbo XS President Mark McGovern, because “they have good power out of the factory and are highly modifiable.”

While the Scion tC is a top seller, some models have found niche markets and others are staging comebacks. Crawford says Volkswagen is making a “strong comeback. Mark IV, the Golf, Jetta and Beetle are big. Really, the Porsche, Audi, VW family is bringing great technology to the market, with a sequential gearbox that only high-end cars have.” McGovern ascribes the GTI’s comeback to loyal Volkswagen customers who stick with the brand, but he adds that the two-liter turbo is “a nice engine.”

Thanks to the influence of drifting, certain models are enjoying a revival. The Nissan 240SX, one of the few naturally aspirated rear-wheel-drive cars in the field, is seeing renewed interest. “The 240SX is very popular; so is the 350Z.” Crawford says it’s common for owners to put an SRO20 turbo engine in them. “It has to be rear-wheel-drive for drifting,” he explains, despite the popularity of all-wheel-drive cars like the Evolution and WRX – two big, fast cars with plenty of traction.

Driving a competitive market

Considering that “sport” is part of the equation, its influence on the market is debatable. Crawford believes drifting has changed the market. “It’s the latest, greatest fad. It’s entertaining and the events draw very large crowds.” He notes that people put a lot of money and effort into drifting, and that piston sales are up because of participation.

McGovern, however, says drifting isn’t a big participation sport and therefore, isn’t significantly impacting the market. “There’s no place to do it and few rear-wheel-drive, high-horsepower cars to do it with. It’s more of a spectator sport. Guys modify cars for participation sports like drags and autocross, not spectator sports. Unless you’re making tires, it doesn’t help manufacturers.”

Like Crawford, Tibbitts thinks drifting affects the market, but says participation sports like time attacks also boost the auto industry. “They draw 12,000-15,000 people at events.” That’s why JE Pistons has a presence at several events. “Events at tracks are more popular than ever because they give the regular person a chance to race in a safe environment.”

Time attacks are a rising trend, but other participation events, such as drag racing, aren’t faring as well. “The failure of drag racing to sustain interest hurts the market,” concedes Baumgartner, who points to the pocketbook as one of the biggest influences on the trends. “Grassroots racing organizations recognize that spec racing makes sense because it allows more involvement.” However, he still believes drifting has influence. “A lot of military guys like it. They’re only 10 percent of the market, but they have a lot of influence.”

Influences and non-issues

While Tibbitts believes this market is more genuine than ever, with an emphasis on performance, he acknowledges that for some, it’s more about the look. For others, it’s also about the cost. “Gas prices have forced people into smaller cars with better performance. People love big vehicles, but they’re either trading them in for a smaller car or a diesel, or they’re keeping them for weekend cars and getting small cars for their daily driver.

“However,” he continues, “it comes down to ‘what are you willing to sacrifice?’ A lot of people are willing to sacrifice room but not power, so they beef up performance and enhance the fuel efficiency without losing the sporty feel. Bigger isn’t always better; you can get good horsepower without a big sacrifice.The new market is evolving.”

That new market is buying a lot of accessories for their smaller cars. Air intakes add power, so it’s no surprise that Injen, a major player in the sport compact market, is busy tuning air intakes. “People haven’t focused much on the air-to-fuel ratio, but as they recognize the cost of fuel, they’re researching ways to save money. Straightening the airflow, changing ratios can give you better fuel efficiency.  Changing the filter can provide a 10 percent improvement in fuel efficiency.”

It’s all a matter of education, he says. “OEMs talk more about it. We test every model when launching a new air intake kit so we get the right fit. It’s complicated, sophisticated and still evolving, but we have a better understanding of how those components work.”

Baumgartner agrees that fuel costs are redirecting enthusiasts who would have purchased Camaros and Mustangs to consider more economical options in the import sport compact market. That is having a domino effect on the demographics. While the sport compact market has traditionally comprised a young crowd, its base is expanding in regards to age as it picks up deserters from the huge domestic market that Baumgartner characterizes as “17 years old to the grave.”

Unhappily for domestic manufacturers, while they’re losing older audiences, they aren’t picking up the younger crowd either. “The younger market wants sporty, not big,” Tibbitts speculates, adding that the sport compact market is being “invaded” by an older generation due to fuel prices. “Consumers are more sophisticated today; they’re informed about quality and performance, so they’re turning to sport compacts. They know the sport compact isn’t just a small 4-banger engine. It’s producing 500, 600, 700 horsepower.”

The market is definitely growing, and Crawford attributes it in part to more affordable and more easily upgradable cars. “It’s not just a young person’s market any more. Guys in their 50s are into Miatas.”

After a decline in sales during the 1990s, sport compacts are riding a resurgent tide in North America. McGovern sees Japanese cars making inroads even in the Midwest, where Detroit muscle has traditionally dominated. “On the coasts, there’s more diversity, more imports. But numbers are increasing in the heartland.” Perhaps customers are looking at performance rather than the emblem.

Baumgartner predicts further blurring of the line between the traditional domestic and sport compact markets within the next 10 years, pointing to the Pontiac GTO as an example: “If it didn’t have a V8, it looks like a sport compact.” Anticipating continuing interest in the domestic market, he says they’re “close to releasing a production version of a damper for the domestic market. It didn’t exist before; this is a complete package: damy and accessory pulley.” A diesel damper will premiere at the PRI show. “Few products offer both fuel economy and performance improvement, but you can expect 2-3 mpg improvement with this.”

However, currently few domestic cars are successful in the sport compact market. The Ford Focus has “faded,” according to Tibbitts, and the Chevy Cobalt SS needs to “refocus to compete.” GM succeeded with the Saturn Sky and the Pontiac Solstice, Baumgartner says. Unfortunately, he adds, “it’s a surprise, not the norm.”

Crawford credits domestic manufacturers for attempting to create good power plants, but says it’s “too little, too late.” The Cobalt can’t compete because of a twist-beam rear axle that hasn’t been sufficiently improved. The Focus bombed, he says, from a performance standpoint, and “now that the Neon’s gone, Chrysler has nothing. There’s no demand or interest for domestic cars in the $15,000-$25,000/$30,000 range. With the gas crunch, there’s more interest in smaller cars.”

Despite the concern over fuel costs, hybrids are not making a breakthrough with the enthusiast. “The general market will adapt to fuel-efficient vehicles, but they’re not cheap and they don’t have sports car style or power,” explains Tibbitts. “You’ll see more diesels before hybrids – they have more power, they last much longer and they’re more sophisticated.”

“There will always be a question of fuel economy,” Baumgartner predicts. “The combustion engine has significantly further to go; we could see 10-20 percent more efficiency.” He considers hydrogen the perfect fuel, calling hybrids a “stop-gap measure.” Like Tibbitts, he foresees a move toward diesels instead. “They have undergone major changes: now they have great power and thermal efficiency; they’re getting quieter; they’re low-maintenance vehicles that run forever; and with the low-sulfur fuel, they’re better for the environment. The hybrid’s batteries aren’t.”

Surprisingly, the new emissions regulations haven’t had a noteworthy impact on the sport compact market. “Cars are smarter,” McGovern states. “However, the restrictions make them more difficult to modify for performance.” Baumgartner reassures enthusiasts that emissions controls don’t necessarily mean a loss of performance, but when purchasing performance products, California car owners should ask if it’s Air Resource Board-exempt. For instance, Unorthodox Racing manufactures a line of pulley skirts, but they might not meet ARB requirements. “Pulleys offer the highest horsepower per dollar. A $200 item can pick up 8 to 10 horsepower.” Tibbitts says Toyota and Scion have hydrocarbon filters to absorb gas, and that Injen is working on a program to create something similar.

Despite the frustration surrounding emissions regulations, Baumgartner believes the government hasn’t pushed hard enough. As restrictions increase, he predicts that direct injection will come to this market. “You’ll see improvement in performance and fuel economy because the mixture is finer and doesn’t pre-ignite so easily.”

Ranking quality and performance

Although affordability and fuel efficiency are frequently referenced as driving forces behind the surge of the sport compact market, Baumgartner says money isn’t as much of an issue as performance and quality. Customers expect more, he says.

“People are smarter today,” Tibbitts says. “They look for quality and performance. The younger generation looks for something fresh and unique -“ the latest and greatest.” Injen’s latest and greatest includes a titanium tip exhaust for the sport compact market. They’ve also increased the size of their inner coolers and added stainless steel screens to their power boxes. In addition, they introduced MegaRam technology that mimics the air-fuel ratio from OEM for higher, safer horsepower and torque.

Car owners want it all, which is why the biggest trend in the market is the ability to make more power for less money. “The cars come from the factory with more power and they’re easily upgradable,” Crawford reiterates. That includes do-it-yourself tuning with free software downloaded from the Internet. “It used to take a lot more to get to the level you wanted; now, with a reflash, an air filter and maybe a turbo, you’re ready for the street.” Unorthodox Racing offers a simpler version of their high-end tuner program; for about half the price, you get about 70 percent of the performance.

Crawford believes the market benefits from the increase in after-market choices. Air filters and exhaust systems are the first thing enthusiasts typically purchase, he says, and the market is saturated with manufacturers.

Turbo XS is one of those exhaust system manufacturers and McGovern says they’re busy keeping up with all the new platforms being released. An all-new WRX Sti is due out in September and the Evolution 10 sometime after that. “They’re our two biggest platforms of pure performance, and everything, including body style, chassis and sheet metal, will be new. It requires complete new designs from us.”

Designing a new exhaust system takes approximately six weeks for an early production run, and because customers want parts immediately, McGovern has pre-ordered cars from the dealer so they can gear up for the rush. “Typically, customers owned a previous version of the vehicle, so they know what they want and they want it now. Eight out of 10 modify them. They drive off the lot and go straight to the parts store. One customer bought his STi on Friday and drove it over here to pick up his cooler with the window sticker still showing.”

It’s a dynamic market, Crawford summarizes: manufacturers need to be active, produce quality products and stand behind them. “There used to be a following for the cheapest product available; now, quality is more important than cost.”