Unusual Suspects: Which of These Six Oddballs is the Anti-Establishment King?
For as much as people often consider their car an extension of their personality, the automotive world is strikingly conservative. Sure, automakers like to wow us with out-of-this-world concepts, but you almost never see those in showrooms.
Every so often, though, a vice president gets a few too many drinks in him and says, “Sure, what the heck.”
Once it’s too late to cancel the project, the marketing people start biting their nails and wondering how they’re supposed to sell the public on a car with three doors. Invariably, they decide to target younger buyers looking for a way to disassociate themselves from their parents.
These segment-defying cars don’t really have direct competitors. If you’re a marketing guy trying to convince a millennial or a hipster that a car is as nonconformist as it gets, that’s an asset. If you’re a car magazine trying to set up a comparison test, it’s a headache. We’ve got nothing against quirky cars. In fact, we’re fans of the cars that try something different, but that doesn’t make our planning meetings any easier.
After a few cocktails of our own, the solution seemed clear. We’d just throw all the oddballs into one comparison. While that sounds like a cop-out, it’s actually an elegant little fix. These youth-targeted rides all carry a youth-friendly base price of about $20,000 or less. So we put ourselves in the shoes of the recent high school/college grad with a few bucks from Mom and Dad who wants a sporty ride, and wouldn’t be caught dead in the same Corolla S all their friends drive.
SIXTH PLACE: Scion tC
Lots of space and lots of power, but falls down when you take a corner.
Bench racing is a time-honored tradition in autodom.We engage in it as much as you do, and when we started gathering the specs here, the Scion looked the clear favorite. The most horsepower in the test, the lowest as-tested price, and the only contender to offer seating for five. So what went wrong?
True, the Scion offers a trunk big enough for hauling bags of clothes to your new studio apartment, and was one of two contenders with a back seat that could accommodate six-footers (the other was the Beetle). It was also the clear winner at the dragstrip and obviously the most powerful from behind the wheel. The problem is, that’s all it’s got. Funky C-pillar and didn’t-expect-it liftback hatch aside, the tC is the least quirky car of the bunch. For as much as Scion projects a counterculture image, the tC is pretty much a by-the-numbers coupe, and based on our tester, not a very good one.
We can only hope the car Scion sent us is not representative of all tCs, because our tester was a mess. Ignoring superficial nits like the trashed paint, missing engine cover, and ill-fitting glovebox, the tC was plagued with driveability issues. It rode like an old truck, crashing over bumps and transmitting every decibel of road and tire noise into the interior. It shook so violently during acceleration testing, it vibrated the windshield wiper stalk into the “on” position. In canyons, the tC flopped around the corners, while the slow steering returned no feedback and the tires gave up what may be the first recorded case of lift-throttle understeer. Judges were unanimous, and the tC dropped from on-paper favorite to dead last.
FIFTH PLACE: Fiat 500
Charismatic to the nth degree, but doesn’t have practicality or handling chops for this group.
The Cinquecento is a tough car to pin down. You can’t help but smile when you look at it, or when you drive it. It possesses an endearing charm. This phenomenon was no more evident than when we debated the finishing order. No one wanted to be the guy who relegated the cute little Fiat to fifth place, but no one could justify putting it ahead of the others.
While the Fiat satisfied our style criteria without breaking a sweat, it struggled everywhere else. With its little-bitty trunk and vestigial rear seats, the Fiat isn’t practical by any stretch. You certainly won’t be bringing home your new Ikea bookshelf in this one. You also won’t be bringing more than one friend along anywhere.
The Fiat’s other failing was in the drive. A short wheelbase combined with a narrow footprint and a sport-tuned suspension conspire to give the car a bouncy ride that keeps your head tossing constantly on the freeway. Unfortunately, that didn’t translate into fun in the hills, either. While the 500 is incredibly nimble, it tends to bounce around over bumps and is quick to understeer when pressed. Exacerbating everything was the driving position, which felt like driving from a bar stool.
Add to that an as-tested price of over $19,000 for the smallest car here, and third-place fuel economy, and you can see why as much as we like the Fiat by itself, it wasn’t a standout in this group.
FOURTH PLACE: Hyundai Veloster
Wins on quirkiness hands-down, and is practical to boot, but the body makes promises the chassis can’t keep.
Were this comparison to be determined solely by the number of turned heads, the Veloster would win hands-down. Everywhere we went, people stopped to stare at the sporty-looking Hyundai. Maybe it was the Chernobyl green paint, maybe it was the third door, but whatever it was, it got folks’ attention.
The Hyundai’s fourth-place finish is due entirely to its failure to deliver. The bulging fenders, fast roof, and rubber band tires promise a sporty ride, but it isn’t there. Instead, the Veloster rides harder than you’d expect with no discernable payback in handling. It’s not eager to turn in, and when it does, it feels like the front end is all rubber. The car pitches and bounces and can’t hold an arc through a turn.
Add to that a lethargic engine and you’ve got the recipe for basic transportation, not a sports car. Despite having the third-highest horsepower rating, the Veloster was achingly slow in nearly all circumstances. The engine is slow to rev and then you’re disappointed because there’s not much more power up there.
Top-gear acceleration is nonexistent, so you’ll be working the shifter quite a bit, and the square knob will give you bad visions of 1980s Mustangs. The real letdown, though, was the fuel economy, as the Veloster was the only car in the test whose observed fuel economy was lower than its EPA city rating.
If only it drove better, we’d be singing a different tune. The Veloster is an otherwise strong contender, offering a big trunk, seating for four sub-six-foot adults (if you can get to that fourth seat), lots of low-cost options, and a great warranty for first-time buyers. Alas, the cool factor wears off when you lose a stoplight drag race to a Camry.
THIRD PLACE: Volkswagen Beetle
Roomy, practical, and better-looking, but too soft for this sporty bunch.
If the bottom half of the group was defined by a failure to meet expectations, the top half was the opposite. Going in, no one expected the Beetle to do particularly well. The heaviest car with the biggest as-tested price and lowest EPA estimated fuel economy didn’t look like a frontrunner on paper, but nevertheless, here it sits with a podium finish.
The Beetle merits this position by being perhaps the best all-arounder. It’s not the fastest, the sportiest, or even the quirkiest, but it holds its own in each category. The retro look, especially now that it’s been butched up, comes off a little forced, but no one will mistake it for anything but a Beetle, and we do like it better than the last one. It’s also one of the most practical cars here, with rear seats that fit real adults and a decent-sized trunk to boot.
And while the non-turbo Beetle isn’t a sporty car, it doesn’t feel like it’s trying to be. The I-5’s second-highest power rating cancels out its extra curb weight, leaving the car with a decent pull that was perfectly adequate among this group. Unfortunately, Volkswagen wasn’t able to find us a manual transmission car, so we had to make do with the automatic, but it didn’t draw much ire. The suspension is clearly tuned for touring rather than sporting, but the chassis is solid and it takes a corner better than any of the lower-ranked cars with the added benefit of riding better on all surfaces. Still, it felt heavy in the corners and the hyperactive stability control grated nerves.
In the end, though, its lack of sporting character and the fact that it really is a not-quirky Golf in retro clothing held it back.
SECOND PLACE: Honda CR-Z
Fun-to-drive factor is held back by greater potential and a lack of seating.
Hybrids can’t be fun, can they? Yes, actually, they can. The CR-Z has taken its lumps for not being the exact CR-X incarnate die-hards wanted, but that doesn’t make it a bad car. It’s actually quite a good little car, hybrid or not.
Like others in this group, the CR-Z was an unexpected surprise. Between the weak-on-paper hybrid powertrain and the lack of seating, we predicted a mid-pack finish at best. After climbing out of it, though, some were clamoring for it to win. The shifter, in classic Honda style, is the best of the group, sliding into every gear with just the right amount of mechanical resistance to let you know there’s real metal at work here. The steering is quicker than even the Mini’s and it showed itself in the bends, where the little hybrid attacked the corners with gusto. Even the hybrid drivetrain had defenders, as it delivered both exceptionally smooth power and best-in-test fuel economy.
Of course, there are reasons why it didn’t win. Despite a surprising amount of zip from the electrically enhanced motor, we want more power from this car. We also want a decent set of tires and perhaps some larger wheels, for which we’d happily trade a few mpg.
There’s also the issue of seating. Some of us made it through college with two-seaters just fine, while others decried the lack of practicality. We also found that anyone over 6 feet tall is going to have trouble getting comfortable in this car.
Like so many vehicles before it, the CR-Z got a bum rap because it didn’t meet everyone’s preconceived notions of what it should be. That being said, it’s still carrying a few too many compromises to win this comparison.
FIRST PLACE: Mini Cooper
Handling dream, useable seats, quirky everything, and good fuel economy — the Mini does it all.
If you haven’t heard, Minis are really fun to drive. That doesn’t just apply to the turbocharged S model, either. Much to our delight, the base Mini is no penalty box. Instead, it was the unanimous winner. Despite being one of the least-powerful cars here, the Mini laid down the second-fastest 0-60 time and the best stopping and skidpad performance by far, and still pulled off the second-best observed fuel economy, losing to the hybrid CR-Z by a tenth of an mpg. To top it off, despite a well-earned reputation for pricey options, the Mini wasn’t the most expensive car here.
Of course, there are some drawbacks. You either love or hate the Mini interior, and its oddball ergonomics had more critics than defenders. Detractors conceded you’d probably get used to them. There’s also the issue of the cargo capacity, or lack thereof. The smallest trunk of the bunch (yes, even smaller than the Fiat’s) came under fire for its serious lack of practicality, but the tradeoff of useable back seats helped offset it.
The Mini won, of course, with its driving. The one-two punch of smart gearing and a thick power band make the most of the available power, and they’re accessed via a precise shifter and well-positioned pedals. The real magic comes from the solid chassis, sport-tuned suspension, and direct, communicative steering. To be fair, our tester was optioned with larger wheels and better tires and an electronic limited-slip differential, but these wouldn’t affect the handling enough to take the Mini out of first. Mini’s dedication to the driver pays off in handling that trounced the field, albeit at the price of a harsh ride on rough pavement. Unlike some other contenders, though, you feel like you’re getting something in return for your chattering teeth. And we didn’t even spec the $500 sport suspension. It’s worth adding a bit more ramen to your diet so you can swing the extra $7 a month on a 72-month lease for that.
The Mini isn’t the most practical car here nor the most comfortable. It’s the best combination of rewarding handling, useable space, and value. There isn’t an oddball on the road that does it better.
Performance costs money, so most cars sold aren’t enthusiast-oriented, high-horsepower, manual trans models. But while we picked consumer-friendly models here, turbochargers are on the horizon. Mini has its S; VW has its Beetle Turbo; Fiat just launched the 500 Abarth; and a Veloster Turbo is looming. Can you say “rematch”?
|POWERTRAIN/CHASSIS||2011 Scion tC||2012 Fiat 500||2012 Hyundai Veloster|
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT||Front engine, FWD||Front engine, FWD||Front engine, FWD|
|ENGINE TYPE||I-4, aluminum block/head||I-4, iron block/aluminum head||I-4, aluminum block/head|
|VALVETRAIN||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||SOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl|
|DISPLACEMENT||152.2 cu in/2494 cc||83.5 cu in/1368 cc||97.1 cu in/1591 cc|
|POWER (SAE NET)||180 hp @ 6000 rpm||101 hp @ 6500 rpm||138 hp @ 6300 rpm|
|TORQUE (SAE NET)||173 lb-ft @ 4100 rpm||98 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm||123 lb-ft @ 4850 rpm|
|REDLINE||6250 rpm||6750 rpm||6750 rpm|
|WEIGHT TO POWER||17.1 lb/hp||23.9 lb/hp||19.8 lb/hp|
|TRANSMISSION||6-speed manual||5-speed manual||6-speed manual|
|SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; torsion beam, coil springs||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; torsion beam, coil springs, anti-roll bar|
|BRAKES,F;R||11.7-in vented disc; 11.0-in disc, ABS||10.1-in vented disc; 9.4-in disc, ABS||11.0-in vented disc; 10.3-in disc, ABS|
|WHEELS||7.5 x 18-in, cast aluminum||6.5 x 16-in, cast aluminum||7.5 x 18-in, cast aluminum|
|TIRES||225/45R18 91W Yokohoma Avid S34||195/45R16 84H M+S Pirelli Cinturato P7||215/40R18 85V M+S Kumho Solus KH25|
|WHEELBASE||106.3 in||90.6 in||104.3 in|
|TRACK,F/R||60.6/61.4 in||55.4/55.0 in||61.3/61.8 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||174.0 x 70.7 x 55.7 in||139.6 x 64.1 x 59.8 in||166.1 x 70.5 x 55.1 in|
|TURNING CIRCLE||37.4 ft||30.6 ft||34.1 ft|
|CURB WEIGHT||3069 lb||2414 lb||2736 lb|
|WEIGHT DIST,F/R||63/37%||62/38 %||60/40%|
|HEADROOM,F/R||37.7/36.4 in||38.9/35.6 in||39.0/35.3 in|
|LEGROOM,F/R||41.8/34.6 in||40.7/31.7 in||43.9/31.7 in|
|SHOULDER ROOM,F/R||55.4/52.1 in||49.4/46.4 in||55.6/54.0 in|
|CARGO VOL BEH F/R||34.5/– cu ft||–/9.5 cu ft||34.7/15.5 cu ft|
|ACCELERATION TO MPH|
|0-30||2.3 sec||2.8 sec||2.7 sec|
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH||3.7||6.1||4.7|
|QUARTER MILE||15.4 sec @ 90.6 mph||17.3 sec @ 77.5 mph||16.8 sec @ 83.5 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||125 ft||123 ft||127 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.82 g (avg)||0.83 g (avg)||0.82 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||27.3 sec @ 0.63 g (avg)||28.1 sec @ 0.58 g (avg)||27.3 sec @ 0.63 g (avg)|
|TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH||2400 rpm||2500 rpm||2400 rpm|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$19,005||$19,200||$22,155|
|TRUE CAR TRUEVALUE PRICE*||$18,777||$18,203||$21,396|
|AIRBAGS||Dual front, front side, f/r curtain||Dual front, front side, f/r curtain, driver knee||Dual front, front side, f/r curtain|
|BASIC WARRANTY||3 yrs/36,000 mi||4 yrs/50,000 mi||5 yrs/60,000 mi|
|POWERTRAIN WARRANTY||5 yrs/60,000 mi||4 yrs/50,000 mi||10 yrs/100,000 mi|
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE||2 yrs/unlimited||4 yrs/unlimited||5 yrs/unlimited|
|FUEL CAPACITY||14.5 gal||10.5 gal||13.2 gal|
|EPA CITY/HWY ECON||23/31 mpg||30/38 mpg||28/40 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||147/109 kW-hrs/100 mi||112/89 kW-hrs/100 mi||120/84 kW-hrs/100 mi|
|CO2 EMISSIONS||0.75 lb/mi||0.59 lb/mi||0.60 lb/mi|
|MT FUEL ECONOMY||26.5 mpg||30.0 mpg||27.6 mpg|
|RECOMMENDED FUEL||Unleaded regular||Unleaded premium||Unleaded regular|
|POWERTRAIN/CHASSIS||2012 Volkswagen Beetle||2011 Honda CR-Z EX||2011 Mini Cooper|
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT||Front engine, FWD||Front engine, FWD||Front engine, FWD|
|ENGINE TYPE||I-5, iron block/aluminum head||I-4, aluminum block/head||I-4, aluminum block/head|
|VALVETRAIN||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||SOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl|
|DISPLACEMENT||151.3 cu in/2480 cc||91.4 cu in/1497 cc||97.5 cu in/1598 cc|
|BATTERY TYPE||N/A||Nickel-metal hydride||N/A|
|POWER (SAE NET)||170 hp @ 5700 rpm||113 (gas)/13 (elec)/122 (comb) hp||121 hp @ 6000 rpm|
|TORQUE (SAE NET)||177 lb-ft @ 4250 rpm||107 (gas)/58 (elec)/128 (comb) lb-ft||114 lb-ft @ 4250 rpm|
|REDLINE||6500 rpm||6250 rpm||6500 rpm|
|WEIGHT TO POWER||18.3 lb/hp||21.5 lb/hp||20.8 lb/hp|
|TRANSMISSION||6-speed automatic||6-speed manual||6-speed manual|
|SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; torsion beam, coil springs||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; torsion beam, coil springs, anti-roll bar||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar|
|BRAKES,F;R||11.3-in vented disc; 10.7-in disc, ABS||10.3-in vented disc; 10.2-in disc, ABS||11.0-in vented disc; 10.2-in disc, ABS|
|WHEELS||8.0 x 18-in, cast aluminum||6.0 x 16-in, cast aluminum||6.5 x 16-in, cast aluminum|
|TIRES||235/45R18 94H M+S Bridgestone Turanza EL400|| 195/55R16 86V M+S
Dunlop SP Sport 7000 A/S
|195/55R16 87H Bridgestone Turanza ER300|
|WHEELBASE||99.9 in||95.9 in||97.1 in|
|TRACK,F/R||61.8/60.9 in||59.6/59.1||57.4/57.8 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||168.4 x 71.2 x 58.5 in||160.6 x 68.5 x 54.9 in||146.6 x 66.3 x 55.4 in|
|TURNING CIRCLE||35.4 ft||35.4 ft||35.1 ft|
|CURB WEIGHT||3104 lb||2617 lb||2521 lb|
|HEADROOM,F/R||39.4/37.1 in||36.9/– in||38.8/37.6 in|
|LEGROOM,F/R||41.3/31.4 in||42.7/– in||41.7/27.9 in|
|SHOULDER ROOM,F/R||55.3/49.0 in||53.8/– in||50.3/44.7 in|
|CARGO VOL BEH F/R||29.9/15.4 cu ft||25.1/– cu ft||24.0/5.7 cu ft|
|ACCELERATION TO MPH|
|0-30||2.8 sec||2.7 sec||2.5 sec|
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH||5.1||4.8||4.7|
|QUARTER MILE||16.8 sec @ 83.1 mph||16.5 sec @ 84.4 mph||16.4 sec @ 83.9 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||124 ft||119 ft||107 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.83 g (avg)||0.84 g (avg)||0.90 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||27.4 sec @ 0.62 g (avg)||27.6 sec @ 0.60 g (avg)||26.6 sec @ 0.63 g (avg)|
|TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH||1950 rpm||2450 rpm||2500 rpm|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$25,965||$23,475||$24,600|
|TRUE CAR TRUEVALUE PRICE*||$23,749||$21,315||$23,267|
|AIRBAGS||Dual front, front side, f/r curtain||Dual front, front side, front curtain||Dual front, front side, f/r curtain|
|BASIC WARRANTY||3 yrs/36,000 mi||3 yrs/36,000 mi||4 yrs/50,000 mi|
|POWERTRAIN WARRANTY||5 yrs/60,000 mi||5 yrs/60,000 mi||4 yrs/50,000 mi|
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE||3 yrs/36,000 mi||N/A||4 yrs/unlimited|
|FUEL CAPACITY||14.5 gal||10.6 gal||13.2 gal|
|EPA CITY/HWY ECON||20/29 mpg||31/37 mpg||29/37 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||169/116 kW-hrs/100 mi||109/91 kW-hrs/100 mi||116/91 kW-hrs/100 mi|
|CO2 EMISSIONS||0.83 lb/mile||0.58 lb/mi||0.60 lb/mi|
|MT FUEL ECONOMY||24.2 mpg||33.1 mpg||33.0 mpg|
|RECOMMENDED FUEL||Unleaded regular||Unleaded regular||Unleaded premium|