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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Feint Drifting over the River and Through the Woods

As a resident of the northern hemisphere, I admit that things can get a bit depressing around this time of year.  The days are getting shorter, the temperature is slowly creeping toward single digits, and it seems like the sun is doing nothing but taunting us.  The good cheer and festive moods of the holiday season do help some but even the holidays are sure to cause a bit of depression.  The two main culprits for this are the slightly enlarged waistlines and those ridiculously large red bows in Lexus commercial!
I have a few issues with those commercials.  Who buys somebody a car, never mind a Lexus, for Christmas?  How do you get it into the driveway without anybody noticing?  Where do you get a bow that big?!?!

I've never seen a bodaciously big bow like that in anybody's garbage after Christmas, so I can only assume that people don't get Lexuses (Lexi?) for gifts or those bows are fictional characters.  Regardless, if you want to please an enthusiast this holiday season with a car but you're in a bit of a financial bind (there is a recession happening after all), FPH has got the perfect gift giving guide for you!

To make this list, the cars had to meet three criteria:

Fun to drive 
I don't care who you are but nobody wants to get a minivan.  Even people who buy minivans don't want one.  Those people are just obligated to buy one because of wifey, the PTA, the soccer league, etc.

Under $8000
As stated earlier, we're in the midst of a recession.  Nobody has Puff Daddy money to buy their kids Rolls-Royces.  Plus, the receiver won't feel so bad about adding some speed mods to a used car.  If they decide to slap on a body kit, neon lights, or a giant wing, smack that fool and take the keys back!

Decent reliability/age
Giving somebody a lemon would be like saying you got them a race-bred greyhound only to have the pooch crap on the carpet and lick himself all day.  OK, that analogy sucked but you get the idea.
The first car to make the list has, arguably, the best power to cost ratio of anything that meets our criteria.  It is the Dodge Neon SRT-4.  Dodge produced this vehicle from 2003 to 2005 for the enthusiasts who wanted a bit more kick in their sport compacts.  Its 2.0 liter turbo motor was rated at 215 horsepower from the factory which proved to be very conservative.  Dynos proved that this car actually put down that much power at the wheels.  This was good for 14 second quarter-miles and mid 5 second 0-60 time.  By adding Mopar backed upgrade kits, this car could put down over 350 horsepower with the same amount of torque.  The only car in Dodge's lineup that could beat this in a straight line was the Viper.
While the rest of the cars aren't laced with the same crazy-go-nuts-crack-cocaine-induced power as the Neon, they can definitely hold their own when the road takes a turn.  The 2003 Mazdaspeed Protege, a one year special, has the stellar chassis and driving dynamics of the original Protege while upping the ante with a turbocharger bolted onto its 2.0 liter four banger.  While 170 hp provide the locomotion, the thicker anti-sway bars, retuned suspension, and limited slip differential keep handling in check and prevent loco motions.  This car circles the skidpad with .89g of stick and runs the slalom at 70.9 mph which is comparable to rear wheel drive performance cars.
OK, so maybe turbo power isn't your cup of tea.  The heads up competitor to Mazda's Protege would have to be the Ford Focus.  Seeing as we're looking as the Mazdaspeed version, Ford's foil comes with the letters S-V-T.  With more aggressive cam timing, intake plumbing, and compression in the engine bay courtesy of Cosworth, the Ford pumps out 170 horsepower, equal to the Protege.  The chassis and suspension don't give an inch to the Mazda either.  Automobile magazine even called it "the best front-wheel-drive chassis on the road."  With an endorsement like that, numbers and specs aren't needed here.
While Ford brought us an amazing chassis in the Focus SVT, another powerhouse brought a phenomenal motor to the sport compact world, the K-series.  Honda released the K-series motor with its 2001 Acura RSX to replace the aging Integra and B-series motors.  The K20C in the RSX type-S provides 200 horsepower of thrust from a 2.0 liter inline-4 and redlines at a stratospheric 7900 rpm.  As per Honda standards, the chassis is strong, rigid, and lightweight.  The sum of these parts conspire to make the RSX the best balance of the previous three cars.  It will scoot to 60 in 6.5 seconds and circumnavigate the skidpad with a tick less grip than the Mazda.  What it gives up in hardcore performance, the Acura makes up with a cabin that is light years ahead of the competition, fitting for a luxury marque such as Acura.
Before everyone starts complaining that every car here is "wrong wheel drive," let's add the disclaimer that there were barely any rear drive options in the compact car segment until recently with the introduction of the Hyundai Genesis and the upscale BMW 1-series.  The lone exception would be the Mazda Miata MX-5 which I can wholeheartedly recommend.  While not the fastest in a straight line (even among this group), it carves corners better than any car here and will instill a sense of confidence with its perfect weight distribution.  Oh yeah, they've also been around the longest of this bunch, are highly modifiable, and have bullet proof motors that regularly see 200,000 miles.

Come Christmas morning, I hope you find one of these under your tree.  They should keep a real smile on your face long enough to save you from cracking a fake one when you get that ugly sweater or fruit cake.  For those that say humbug to these choice automobiles and think they need more horsepower, put down that slice of pie and make a New Year's resolution to fix your personal power to weight ratio.


  1. finding my car under a tree will be terrible.

    Thankfully, like a good neighbor state farm is there!

    Do I get royalties for saying that?

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