While the original 15 minutes of fame may be long over for what were once considered typical tuner vehicles, the sport compact niche has grown roots and blossomed into a viable market segment over the past decade.
Long-gone are most of The Fast and the Furious-type Civics and Accords with their high wings, splashy graphics and unearthly-pitched mufflers. In their place comes a new breed of small sports cars that includes the typical Japanese favorites as well as European and luxury models, and even a batch of domestic entries.
And if a stigma still exists among some old-time hot rodders, it is more than overshadowed by a growing legion of serious sport compact enthusiasts who love their vehicles-and maybe more importantly, spend money on them-the same as any other performance fan.
If your shop has not typically served this market in the past, the makers of aftermarket sport compact products have five reasons why now might be a good time to reconsider.
#1 Performance Is the Word
If in the past sport compact owners were mainly interested in making a visual statement, these days it’s what’s under the hood that counts.
“The market is maturing,” says Marla Moore, marketing/advertising director for Hypertech Inc., Bartlett, Tenn. “Where it was predominately about lifestyle and looks, it’s becoming more about performance.”
Kyle Snyder, marketing manager – performance aftermarket for Garrett by Honeywell, Torrance, Calif., agrees.
“The market will continue to move in the direction of true performance rather than the image of it,” he says. “You can no longer qualify a ‘sport compact’ as a hopped-up, FWD econo-box. With the introduction of potent power plants like Nissan’s VQ engines, the VIP movement and the interest in time attack and rally, it is very difficult to define.”
And included in that definition nowadays is not just street performance, but a serious race influence as well.
“The sport compact market is very much alive today. Drifting, drag racing, time attack and other forms of motorsports are still taking place on a regular basis. Regional racing, which is heavily driven by local shops and online communities, is very popular,” notes Sean Crawford of Innovate Motorsports, Huntington Beach, Calif. “Overall, the entire market is becoming more knowledgeable to all aspects of modifying a vehicle.”
#2 Parts Are a Premium
When it comes to those modifications, sport compact products of all types are in high demand. And with tight engine compartments and a need for technical inner-engine and suspension upgrades, your shop’s knowledge and installation skills are more important now than ever.
“Regarding hot products, the market is no longer about just intakes and exhaust systems. Electronic tuning products such as data loggers, plug-and-play ECUs, boost controllers, injectors and air/fuel ratio meters are more popular than ever,” Crawford says.
Moore notes that the “Power Three”-exhaust, intake and tuning-still lead the way, however, which has boosted interest in her company’s latest street-legal, handheld programming device, with applications for Mazda, Honda, Nissan and Infiniti the most popular.
In fact, potential profit centers seem to stretch for one end of the car to the other.
“Wheels and tires are the most popular upgrades, since they change the look and feel of the car so immediately. Bolt-on performance such as cold-air intakes, headers and exhaust usually follow,” says Snyder. “When drivers start getting really serious, they typically step up to turbocharger installs and upgrades for big power.”
Kris Carlson, media relations coordinator/technical sales for Auto Meter Products, Sycamore, Ill., notes that the market’s turbo influence naturally leads to other upgrades.
“This is a market heavily focused on power-adders and high-rpm, naturally aspirated engines to make big power numbers from smaller displacements,” he says. “With turbocharging being a very common upgrade, popular instrument products for this market include boost, wideband air/fuel ratio, fuel pressure, oil pressure and oil temperature gauges.”
Ken Brahier, vice president of the Ny-Trex division of Design Engineering Inc. (DEI), Avon Lake, Ohio, says his company’s wide range of nitrous oxide systems, thermal tuning line of heat protection products as well as its acoustical products and chemical line are all attractive to sport compact enthusiasts.
“As for aftermarket products, these (sport compacts) have no boundaries. At the heart of each is a sturdy engine capable of more horsepower, bodies that beg for greater detail and suspensions capable of tweaking for more G-force.”
#3 Technology Drives Design
If innovation gets your blood pumping, the sport compact market is one where technological innovation is the rule, not the exception.
“Today’s tuners have a strong affinity for and comfort level with electronics,” notes Mike Lovro, West Coast accounts manager for Auto Meter Products. For instance, “they are more likely to purchase instruments with advanced feature sets, such as our new series of gauges that include full dial color change alarms and system control outputs.”
Crawford also sees the market as one that embraces the latest innovations.
“There is no shortage of technology in the sport compact market. In fact, this segment was one of the first to embrace the latest advancements in tuning and ECU technology,” he says. “Since 99-percent of popular sport compact cars feature modern fuel injection systems, the affordable tuning solutions we provide are a perfect fit. As a company, we encourage people to embrace the new technology and learn to tune their engines, just as other segments do with carbureted engines.”
After all, Brahier says, today’s new idea is tomorrow’s standard equipment, so it never hurts to be in on the cutting edge.
“While the term ‘sport compact’ applies to sporty small cars in general, the future of sport compacts will no doubt evolve and may incorporate many new technologies as standard equipment,” he explains. “It was not too many years ago that cars had special badges on the fender sides that bragged ‘Fuel Injected’ in much the same way we now tout ‘Hybrid,’ for example.”
#4 The Scene Is Green
With the growing public sentiment toward environmental awareness, the sport compact market is one where efficiency and green thinking can be part of the speed equation.
“Due to the economy and the price of fuel, consumers are more concerned about fuel mileage than they were five years ago, which strengthens the appeal of sport compacts,” says Hypertech’s Moore. “Look at new car sales-”trucks and SUVs are down; compact car sales are growing. From the Ford Focus to the Honda Civic, the car manufacturers are producing more desirable compacts, which is creating a more passionate market.”
And a market that wants to lessen its environmental impact, she adds.
“The economy and an energy-conscious society are going to demand changes in our industry,” she says. “It’s been coming for a long time and it’s increasing the need for more fuel-efficient vehicles, whether they’re gas, diesel, hybrids or electric. This makes the sport compact future very promising.”
Honeywell’s Snyder has much the same outlook.
“This market has the potential to grow tremendously over the next few years,” he says. “As CAFE standards become more stringent, OEMs are set to release scores of very capable small cars. These are going to quickly fall into the hands of tuners who will wring them out and develop parts that will redefine compact performance.”
But could your customers one day really be hot-rodding a hybrid? Ny-Trex’s Brahier believes that day may come sooner than you might think.
“The future may very well be an electric car in the 9s, or a hybrid that could handle a road course,” he says. “Already, famed Japanese Honda tuner Mugen recently released its own set of tuning parts for the Japanese Honda Insight. Mugen, well known for building Honda NSXs used in Japanese Grand Touring Championship racing, has stepped into the realm of tuning hybrids big time.”
#5 There’s Strength in Numbers
If your performance business is in it for the long haul, what more could you ask for than a young, enthusiastic customer base and a wide range of plentiful vehicles to work on?
“The most popular performance vehicles (in this market) are currently the Mitsubishi Evo, Subaru WRX STI, Nissan Z and Infiniti G platforms. With the sport compact market, though, anything goes,” Snyder says. “Being a typically younger market, there are a lot of cheaper, older, but still well-performing cars like the Mazda RX-7, DSMs, BMW 3-Series, VW GTI, and, of course, the Hondas and Acuras that helped build the movement that are built to a high degree of performance.”
And signs point to a customer base ready to start spending again.
“This is now the perfect time for surviving companies and new startup companies to be selling,” says Brahier. “One reason is pent-up demand. Many enthusiasts, as well as the general public, held back from making purchases last year on big-ticket items for a number of reasons. With the economy now showing signs of gradual improvement, pent-up-demand will begin to open up, giving hope that those who hung on to their discretionary funds in’09 will start buying the parts they have held off on in 2010.”
All this adds up to a tremendous opportunity, Carlson says.
“The sport compact market is a dedicated group of enthusiasts still buying parts, going to shows, and building/customizing vehicles despite a recent tough economy. These are the types of enthusiasts that excite us. Their cars are more than just a hobby; they’re a way of life,” he says.
“Gearheads share a passion for vehicles, and though the types and styles vary, the language is largely the same. This is a young market that can benefit from the experience you already have in the industry, and there are things that you can learn from them as well. Fostering this interaction now can lead to new opportunities and provide an excellent footing to move forward into the future.”