Sport compact

Sport compact
1996 Ford Escort RS Cosworth at the 2008 Greenwich Concours d'Elegance in Greenwich, Connecticut.

A sport compact is a high-performance version of a compact car or a subcompact car. They are typically are front engined, front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive coupés, sedans, or hatchbacks driven by a straight-4 gasoline engine. Performance-oriented sport compacts generally focus on improving handling and increasing performance by engine efficiency, rather than increasing engine size. Sport compacts often feature external body modifications to improve aerodynamics or house larger wheels.

Typical sport compacts include such examples as Ford Escort RS Cosworth, Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, Mitsubishi Eclipse, Honda Civic Si, Chevrolet Cobalt SS, Ford Focus SVT, Opel Astra GTC, Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V, Hyundai Tiburon, Honda Prelude, Toyota Celica and Scion tC TRD.


Classification and debate

Chevrolet Cobalt SS

The exact definition of a sport compact remains a subject of debate. Some believe that any 4-cylinder compact car falls into this category, clearly placing cars such as the Nissan 240SX or Acura Integra in the sport compact category. However, the Lotus Esprit was offered with a 4-cylinder engine that produced greater than 100 horsepower (75 kW) per litre engine displacement—a feat achieved only by exotic sports cars at the time. Today, its performance is largely eclipsed by high performance versions of compact cars such as the Ford Escort RS Cosworth, Ford Focus RS, Subaru Impreza WRX STi, Volkswagen R32 or the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution. As with most automotive language, the category "sports compact" is not precise.

However as "the term compact car is a largely North American term" and "The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines a "Compact" car as measuring between 100 cubic feet (2.8 m3) and 109 cubic feet (3.1 m3) of combined passenger and cargo volume capacity", the term compact is defined precisely in the US. A sports car such as a Lotus Esprit or Nissan 370Z is defined as a two seater, and should not be a considered a sport compact simply because it has the same length as many compacts, because a modest back seat is required for a car to be a compact. On the other hand, subcompact cars definitely are considered sport compacts, probably because the term "sport subcompact" is too awkward. In either case they are vehicles that four full sized adults could ride in their own seat on a trip across town, but they would not want to ride in on a longer trip. A mini-compact car such as a Porsche 911 does not have a rear seat big enough that full sized adults would even want to ride across town in. They are not sport compact cars either, just sports cars with miniature seats in the back. Sport compact cars in the US have always included six cylinder cars as well as four cylinder cars, from the V-6 Buick Skyhawk of the 1970's to the Citation X-11 in the 1980's, and the Cavalier Z-24 in the 1990's, just to name a few GM examples. A four cylinder engine is clearly not a requirement. Of course if a sports car maker made a subcompact or compact model it should still be considered a sport compact.

Nevertheless, the designation of the "sport compact" is generally reserved for the higher-performance versions of common, lower-performance compact and economy vehicles. A car that is specifically designed to be a performance automobile (a sports car such as grand tourer or an exotic sports car) may also be compact in size, but is clearly delineated from an ordinary compact by manufacturer's performance intent. Thus, a "sports car" is a car specifically intended to provide elevated vehicle performance. The "sports compact", on the other hand, is a compact car that has been improved (by owner or manufacturer) to provide an elevated degree of vehicle performance over the base version of the car.

Note that the debate is often confused by arguments of power, since engine power is a clear indication of straight-line acceleration performance. However, categorization by number of engine cylinders, the addition of forced induction, or even an arbitrary horsepower reference does not provide clearer categorization. This is due to the rapidly advancing performance capability of new sport compact cars as compared to yesterday's sports cars. Cars such as the Toyota Supra, Acura NSX, Lotus Elise, and the Nissan Skyline clearly fall into a different market segment than even the highest performance production versions of the Honda Civic and specifically prepared post-production-tuned automobiles. Despite this, Sport Compact Car Magazine often contains articles on the Toyota Supra, Nissan 350Z, Honda S2000, Lotus Elise, Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, in addition to other sport compacts.

Motor Trend often have sport compact road tests, and their 2009 group included Chevrolet Cobalt SS, Dodge Caliber SRT4, Honda Civic Si, Mazdaspeed3, Mini Clubman S, Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart, Subaru Impreza WRX and Volkswagen GTI.[1]


It has become fairly popular to modify or customize a sport compact, commonly referred to as tuning. This has given rise to the term "tuner" for the owners of modified sport compacts (and other vehicle classes), and by extension, their automobiles. As with trucks and other vehicle categories, there is a large market for performance-enhancing equipment designed to fit small cars. Unfortunately, "tuning" is a term that is also symbolized by cosmetic and non-performance related vehicle modifications. It is the subject of some controversy whether to recognize a compact "tuner" car that has been modified to offer lesser vehicle performance than a "sport compact".

Cosmetic tuning may include changing the interior (such as changing the shift knob and steering wheel as an example) and exterior decoration, installation of a DVD combined with a powerful sound system, adding neon headlights and other aftermarket lighting systems to name but a few. Performance tuning can include the modification of the cars' aerodynamics adding a nitrous oxide injection system, changing wheels and tires, chip tuning installation of a Weighted Gear Knob and a short shifter, changing filters and so on.

Restoration of a Japanese import to its JDM specifications (or J-Spec) has become a fairly popular modification for many tuners in North America. It is quite common for Japanese automakers to produce or export less powerful versions of their models to the North American market. The common exception to this is the 1993-1998 Toyota Supra which received a more powerful engine for US export due to the "Gentleman's Agreement" in Japan. Such modifications usually involve swapping engines and transmissions. Popular examples include the conversion of parts from a JDM Silvia onto a USDM Nissan 240SX, or replacing JDM Honda parts and equipment (such as from a Civic Type-R) onto a United States Domestic Market USDM Honda Civic. Most Hondas are particularly good examples of this because of the cost saving "parts bin" designing used at Honda. To save production costs many high-end production equipment use the same or similar mounting locations as a cheaper or lower-performance alternative. These modifications can also be cosmetic, such as the replacement of the front fascia or rear spoiler with its JDM counterpart.


Small cars with high power ratings can be formidable racing vehicles. The Sports Car Club of America SCCA has long hosted races for compact cars. More recently, sport compacts have become so popular that the Australian National Drag Racing Association (ANDRA) ( now have special classes for sport compact racing, and the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) has made sport compact cars eligible to compete in the Lucas Oil Sportsman Series, and Sport Compact "Pro RWD" type cars are used in the NHRA Pro Stock category as the Chevrolet Cobalt is used as the manufacturer's car in the class. All these classes are officially sanctioned by ANDRA and are recognised through a series of successful events and National Records.

Some highly modified sport compact dragsters can accelerate from 0-60 mph in less than four seconds.[2]

Sport compacts are fairly popular for autocross competitions. The Acura Integra, Toyota Celica, and MINI Cooper are some of the more successful sport compacts within their classes.

It is also worth noting that sport compact cars have been the backbone of the latest motorsport discipline to emerge - drifting - since its beginnings.

The former NASCAR Goody's DASH Series found new life in 2005 when acquisitioned by International Sport Compact Auto Racing Series (ISCARS) DASH Touring[3], which tours primarily on asphalt ovals throughout the southeast. In 2008 the series accepted the sanction of American Speed Association (ASA).[4] The TC 2000 Championship is one of the touring car racing series which involving sport compacts.

Market trends

2006 US-spec Subaru Impreza WRX STI

Sport compacts remain one of the largest segments of the performance car market in Europe and Japan, and is seeing a resurgence in North America after declining sales in the 1990s.[citation needed]

Japanese manufacturers such as Honda, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan and Subaru have continued to release new generations of modestly priced sport compacts, such as the Honda Civic Si, Mazdaspeed3, and the Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V. General Motors and other American companies has responded with the Saturn Ion Red Line, the Pontiac G5 GT, and the Chevrolet Cobalt SS. Dodge also offers the Caliber SRT-4, high performance versions of their respective models.

European manufacturers have long offered multiple high-performance compacts in Europe and many of these are imported to North America. These are called hot hatches or warm hatches depending on engine power as they are available as hatchbacks. They include the VW Golf GTI (which was first announced in 1975) and Mini Cooper.

Lexus IS F, one of the sport compact executive cars.

The sport compact can also refer to the top performance version of the compact executive car (or entry level luxury car).[citation needed] The examples of sport compact executives are BMW M3, Audi RS4 and Lexus IS F. In Australia they are referred to as Sports sedans.


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