This article originally appeared in the August 2023 issue of THE SHOP magazine.
Monty Python gave us the phrase, “And now for something completely different.” Sport compacts started off being just that, while today—well over 20 years since their raucous entry into the automotive world—they are still around and thriving.
Small but packing a big punch when it comes to power, style and swagger, sport compacts continue to carve out a special niche in the industry, on the street and at the track. Body styles and engine designs are constantly evolving, while enthusiasts consistently find new ways to use them as an expression of their personality and creativity.
Whether import or domestic, these high-revving, nimble machines make up an exciting, progressive part of the aftermarket. To keep pace, suppliers offer insights on how things are changing, hot new products to watch for, and sales tips to help shops better meet the needs of these drivers.
ALIVE & WELL
Scott Weiss, president of Konig American (Konig Wheels), notes the sport compact market remains alive and well—maybe having toned down some of the brashness of its youth, but without losing any of its edge.
“It’s not as in-your-face or loud; however, it’s there and strong,” he says. “The true sport compact tuning enthusiast is a diehard and loves the segment and, more importantly, the cars to their core.”
He also acknowledges the perception that the segment has decreased in size.
“There’s truth to that. However, from a retailer’s perspective, the visible decrease in size is accompanied by a more qualified buyer looking for specific items,” he notes. “Whenever a segment goes more in a niche direction, the size will shrink but the quality increases. That is exactly what has happened over the last couple of decades to the sport compact segment.”
While the demographics trend older as this group ages, customers know what they want and are passionate about the scene, the cars and the products, and generally have increased buying power as well.
“If you look at the progression of any automotive segment, you will see that there is a fair bit of nostalgia that goes hand in hand,” Weiss continues. “It’s no different than the reason many of their parents will still prefer muscle cars. It’s what they grew up with and now they have the income to purchase what they’ve always wanted.”
Another market progression has gone from focusing mainly on appearance to vehicles with the power to match their looks.
“The current state of the sport compact market for motorsport pistons is one of vibrant sales growth, technological advancements and increasing horsepower,” observes Brian Fair, application engineer at MAHLE Motorsport. “With rising demand from enthusiasts seeking greater performance and the constant evolution of engine technologies, we are focused on delivering high-quality forged pistons that can withstand the extreme demands of increasing horsepower and extended durability.”
One reason for the market’s staying power is the continuing production of smaller, more efficient, yet still powerful vehicles.
“With brands like Subaru reintroducing a new model of the iconic WRX and continuing its partnership with Toyota on the BRZ/GR86, the future looks bright,” says Alex Ortega, director of business development for Aero Exhaust. “And let’s remember to mention the loyal JDM and Euro fanbase. Performance exhaust remains a top-three mod for most sport compact enthusiasts.”
Drew Dayton, senior product planning manager, consumer for Yokohama Tire, also believes that OEM offerings are keeping the segment strong.
“The sport compact market still has a good following, and you can see the manufacturers know that as well with some new releases in the past few years. Toyota released the Supra and the GR86, Mazda has the MX-5 Miata, Subaru with its BRZ, plus the Honda Civic Type R and the Nissan Z,” he says.
As mentioned, no market stays the same, including sport compacts.
“One of the outside factors that has had a significant effect is the trend of OEMs downsizing their engines and incorporating sport compact engines into their vehicle lineups,” says Fair. “This shift toward smaller, more efficient engines has not only increased the overall market for sport compact vehicles but has also influenced the demand for aftermarket performance parts, including forged pistons. This trend has spurred piston innovation and development in the industry, providing enthusiasts with more opportunities to modify and upgrade their engines for improved performance and reliability.”
The market is also not operating in a bubble.
“The segment has grown in popularity for the past few decades. It has respectfully earned its place in other popular genres, such as rallying, drifting, autocross, etc.,” says Ortega. “The expansion of four-wheel and rear-wheel drive platforms has opened the doors for the sport compact motorsports segment.”
Of course, some fringe participants will always come and go.
“This segment is not as robust as it was due to the growing demand for CUV and EV vehicles,” Dayton states. “There are still options in this market, but not as many as there were 15 years ago. Most manufacturers seem to want to invest in EV vehicles, not ICE.”
Weiss agrees, noting a general shift in societal priorities.
“From a general overview, younger generations are less focused on cars, especially from a modification and tuning point of view. They’re more tech-inclined and will continue to see cars as transportation and have adopted time and convenience as priorities,” he says. “The bad news is there’s less a retailer can do about this shift.”
But it’s not all doom and gloom.
“There is a very silver lining to this,” he continues. “As long as there are vehicles, regardless of what powertrain is in them, there will be users who want to modify them, tune them and make those vehicles their own. If you’ve ever been in a sea of white Teslas on your commute to work, you can understand the desire for someone to want to make theirs stand out. Thankfully, wheels are one of the most immediate ways for vehicle owners to do exactly that.”
Suppliers believe there are products and procedures shops can offer to maximize sales in this market.
“Sport compact enthusiasts tend to modify their exhaust systems quite frequently,” notes Ortega from Aero Exhaust. “The younger JDM and Euro enthusiasts are constantly seeking an aggressive tone. Eventually, that turns into a repeat customer for the local muffler shop. It is very likely the enthusiast will ultimately add an in-line resonator to reduce interior drone and/or high-pitched exterior sound frequencies (rasp).”
A wide variety of offerings is always attractive to serious fans, says Yokohama’s Dayton.
“The customers buying these vehicles are enthusiasts and want to modify them with wheels, tires, suspensions and lots of other modifications that the normal vehicle owner would not do,” he explains. “This makes it more beneficial for shops to do the work, since they will be able to make more money from these customers.”
You can also expect satisfied clients to spread the word about your shops and services.
“This generation still remembers and embraces the social interaction of physical car meets and get-togethers. It is also extremely engulfed in the use of social media. So, I believe that if a shop is properly offering solid technical advice and advisement, great service and great products, it will see an increase in business just from doing the right thing,” predicts Konig’s Weiss. “Shops will enjoy the word of mouth benefits these owners bring, and also the word of mouth generated from their social posting and involvement.”
Fair from MAHLE points out two big benefits for shops catering to sport compact customers—an established, enthusiastic customer base and a unique specification.
“As mentioned earlier, the sport compact market has been experiencing increased demand, to the point where some businesses haven’t been able to catch up” he says. “Jumping into a growing market with a low supply of people who have the skills to succeed in that niche is an equation for long-lasting success.”