Sport Compact Compass

Dec 2, 2009

In the early 2000s, the sport compact market and emerging “tuner” scene was so hot, Hollywood movies such as The Fast and the Furious compared the youthful passion to the glory days of the hot-rod movement.

Nearly a decade later much to the surprise of some naysayers the market is still going strong.

To help Performance Business magazine readers and speed shop retailers understand just where the sport compact market is today, we turned to the experts: the manufacturers of aftermarket automotive equipment for this niche.

Perhaps Sean Crawford of JE Pistons, located where the scene was born in Huntington Beach, Calif., sums it up best.

“Some people try to say the sport compact market is dead, but that’s not true,” Crawford says. “Just like other segments, the sport compact market has changed. The U.S. received many of the good sport compact cars later than other countries. The prices on cars such as the Subaru WRX, Honda S2000, Mitsubishi EVO and others are coming way down. There is a huge secondary market for these vehicles. Just as Hondas have been popular due to affordability and performance, this next wave of vehicles will be, too.”

Small Car Fans

One thing that has remained fairly consistent in the niche market is its demographics, according to Exedy’s Evan Cline. Exedy offers racing clutches and flywheels for drift cars and others in the sport compact scene.

“I would have to say 16- to 35-year-old males hold the vast majority of the market,” Cline says. “Those guys probably account for 80 to 85 percent of the market, and make a mean income of roughly $40,000 to $45,000 per year. This age group is mostly single and without children.”

Cline believes the sport compact market is healthy today.

“I feel that the market is very stable and is spreading out,” he notes. “In the last five years it has turned from mainly street and drag racing to drifting, road racing, rally, autocross and time attack. The sport compact market today is less fad-oriented and enthusiasts are more serious about their hobby.”

Fuel systems specialist Aeromotive has a very similar take on the sport compact market’s current viability, says company representative Jesse Powell.

“I think that you need to look at what’s changed in the sport compact market,” he says. “Five to 10 years ago there was a surge in sport compact popularity. Suddenly, aftermarket performance products gave small, affordable, import and domestic late-model cars true performance potential. What this meant was that now you didn’t have to pony up for a Chevelle or late-model Camaro to customize your car and make it fast… or at least faster. Now, high school kids that already had a Civic had an opportunity to express themselves through the car they already owned and could afford. It’s no different than it was in the 1980s with 5.0 Mustangs and IROC Camaros, or in the ’70s with Chevelles and Chargers.”

Cars are the Stars

While the evolution of the market followed a predictable course, so have the in-demand vehicles.

“The Japanese manufacturers are still the most popular in the sport compact market,” says Crawford. “Vehicles such as the Subaru WRX STi, Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, Nissan 350Z and Honda S2000 are very popular. Since many people are more cost-conscious than before, some ‘older’ vehicles have become popular again. Vehicles like the Nissan 240SX, Mazda RX-7 and Acura NSX are popping up again for great prices.”

New cars are also holding their own.

“Right now, there is a major newcomer into the sport compact market the Hyundai Genesis Coupe,” he adds. “Hyundai has done a great job supplying a demand in the sport compact market by manufacturing an affordable, rear-wheel drive, turbocharged coupe. For around $22,000, you can get a brand-new Genesis coupe with a four-cylinder engine similar to that in the Mitsubishi Evolution X. The car looks promising, and we recently manufactured pistons for Rhys Millen and his Red Bull-sponsored Genesis racecar. The new engine was able to make nearly 600 hp with the addition of a turbocharger.”

One popular domestic car to make the list is the Chevrolet Cobalt SS, notes Cline.

“When you get into more serious racing and performance, you see a whole new breed of cars ranging from the BMW 3 series to the Nissan GTR,” notes Powell. “To get an idea of what a shop might see, look at a series like the Speed World Challenge, Redline Time Attack and Formula D.”

Michael Quaife of U.K.-based gear company R.T. Quaife Engineering Ltd., adds another U.S. vehicle to the pile.

“I feel the trend is definitely upwards, as more cars hit the market like the 2009 Ford Focus RS, with more than 300 hp.”

When it comes to modifying their rides, sport compact enthusiasts are again fairly predictable. Intake and exhaust modifications are usually done first, just as in other performance markets, due to both the low cost to performance gain ratio and the ability of the owners to make the more basic upgrades themselves.

Besides those time-tested mods, Exedy’s Cline says he is seeing some higher-dollar work from the more hardcore enthusiasts.

“That depends on how serious the enthusiast is about their car and their budget,” he says. “A lot of the focus these days is about handling characteristics of the vehicle versus power output. Turbo upgrades and engine swaps are always popular. Custom fabrication has really improved over the years as well.”

When it comes to that high-end work, Aeromotive advises speed shops to get to the heart of engine the fuel pump, says Powell.

“If making power is part of that plan, you need to deliver the fuel to support that power,” he explains. “We offer high-flow performance fuel rails for many of the popular applications including the Mitsubishi EVO, Acura Integra and Subaru WRX.”

Quaife adds that his company is selling more than 250 differential models worldwide, and is seeing interest from hardcore enthusiasts wanting to build stronger transmissions.

Something There

And on the subject of fuel, more than one manufacturer interviewed for this story noted the interest and use of E85 fuel by sport compact enthusiasts, mainly for its greater tuning capacities.

But all also make the point that the sport compact cars are generally fuel-efficient out of the box, and owners know that performance comes at a price namely fuel use.

Aeromotive’s Powell puts it rather succinctly.

“Nine out of 10 times, performance and economy’s goals are drastically different and rarely cross paths.”

Quaife agrees, noting that “although there is a lot of development work going on at the moment, it’s not having any effect on the current market.”

Powell goes on to caution speed shop owners from seeing only doom-and-gloom in the recent down economy nationwide.

“When there isn’t excess cash in the economy, products like (aftermarket performance upgrades) tend to be the first lines to get hit. If it isn’t a necessary purchase or performance upgrade, people aren’t going to make those purchases. Not right now. The same can be said for car stereos and engine dress-up kits. This isn’t just confined to the sport compact market either. The same can be said for the street rod market, diesel and 4×4 markets as well. I think that’s why a lot of industry professionals would tell you that the sport compact market is down, or the initial novelty has worn off.”

However, for sport compact enthusiasts who truly want to go fast, a bump in the economy won’t slow them down.

“When it comes to true performance, the market probably couldn’t be any stronger,” Powell adds. “For the guys that race their cars, no matter what type of racing it is, it’s all about performance. People will continue to race and they will continue to modify their cars. It hasn’t changed in almost 80 years and won’t anytime soon. The cars will change, but the passion behind them will not.”