During the post-war glory days of the automobile in America (roughly 1950–2000), in order for a car to be considered high performance it had to have a thundering V8 engine under the hood or it simply did not make the grade. But as oil embargoes, calls for conservation, uncertain political climates and the specter of global warming fueled movements in the States during the closing decades of the last millennium to recycle, reuse and reduce, a by-product of these influential factors has been smaller and smaller engines in light vehicles in response to U.S. government mandates on fuel economy.
High Performance, Less Waste
Today auto manufacturers continue to wring more power (and better fuel economy) out of smaller displacement engines, giving a whole new meaning to high-performance vehicles. With the advent of direct injection, turbocharging, variable-valve timing, engine-management systems and other technologies, many of today’s 4-cylinder engines produce horsepower to rival V8 engines of the past — all in a lightweight package. What follows are some of our favorite performance cars powered by today’s high-tech four-bangers, presented by ascending price.
2016 Honda Civic
Price: Starting at $18,640
The redesigned Honda Civic began the year by winning North American Car of the Year at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. The 2016 Civic features a new turbocharged 1.5-liter 4-cylinder engine to power the top-of-the-line EX-T sedan and EX Coupe, producing 174 horsepower and 162 lb-ft of torque from 1700 to 5500 rpm. Currently available with a continuously-variable transmission , a 6-speed manual will be offered in fall 2016. The 2017 Civic Hatchback debuted at the New York Auto Show in March and will also arrive this fall, powered by the 1.5-liter turbo with either a 6-speed manual or a CVT. Honda has announced that Civic Si versions will launch next year, as well as a new Civic Type-R based on the hatchback.
2016 Ford Fiesta ST
Price: Starting at $20,970
A popular model in Europe, Ford first offered the Fiesta ST for the U.S. market in 2014, powered by a new high-output 1.6-liter EcoBoost turbocharged 4-cylinder engine producing 197 horsepower and 215 lb-ft of torque. Available exclusively with a 6-speed manual transmission, the Fiesta ST delivers both hot-hatch performance and excellent fuel economy with an EPA rating of 27 mpg city / 37 mpg highway / 31 mpg combined.
2016 Ford Focus ST
Price: Starting at $24,425
The high-performance version of Ford’s popular hatchback, the Focus ST arrived as a 2013 model powered by a turbocharged 2.0-liter EcoBoost 4-cylinder producing 252 horsepower and 270 lb-ft of torque. A 6-speed manual transmission is standard and three-mode AdvanceTrac traction control lets the driver adjust to different driving conditions. The Focus ST received updates for 2015 including a flat-bottom steering wheel, revised steering, new front springs and sportier shock absorber settings for improved handling and driving dynamics.
2016 Mazda MX-5
Price: Starting at $24,915
The most successful convertible of all time, Mazda’s MX-5 roadster (aka the Miata) has never had an abundance of power, but makes the most of it with sheer driving enjoyment. Mazda has produced more than one million MX-5s over the last 27 years, and the all-new fourth generation went on sale last summer. The 2016 MX-5 gets motivation from a 155-horsepower SKYACTIV-G 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine combined with a standard SKYACTIV-MT 6-speed manual transmission. The 2016 MX-5 incorporates Mazda SKYACTIV technology for improved performance and more efficiency, and adopts the KODO—Soul of Motion design to bring a modern look to the classic roadster. The new MX-5 is approximately 150 pounds lighter than its predecessor, making it lightweight, nimble and fun to drive.
2017 FIAT 124 Spider
Price: Starting at $24,995
The FIAT 124 Spider is an all-new 2-seat roadster, designed to honor its namesake which was last sold in the U.S. market decades ago. Based heavily on the Mazda MX-5 Miata, the new 124 Spider is built in Japan but powered by an Italian-built 1.4-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine making 160 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque at 2500 rpm. Although the 124 Spider is another car that doesn’t have a lot of power it makes the most of it, promising top-down fun with Italian style.
2016 Volkswagen Golf GTI
Price: Starting at $24,995
One of the original hot hatches, the GTI has relied heavily on 4-cylinder power over the years, although V6 versions have been offered as well. The current Golf GTI was redesigned for the 2015 model year and is powered by a turbocharge 2.0-liter 4-cylinder unit producing 210 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque from 1500 to 4500 rpm. The available Performance Package adds an additional 10 horsepower, increases the torque curve and includes an electronically-controlled torque-sensing limited-slip differential.
2016 Ford Mustang
Price: Starting at $25,645
The current-generation Mustang debuted as a 2015 model with a sleek new exterior design and a new engine — Ford’s turbocharged EcoBoost 4-cylinder unit. The Mustang GT continues to top the range with a 435-horsepower 5.0-liter V8, but the smaller 2.3-liter four-cylinder EcoBoost provides a sporty alternative producing 310 horsepower — 10 more than the standard 3.7-liter 6-cylinder engine and delivering 320 lb-ft of torque at 2500 rpm. A painted black roof is optional for both EcoBoost and Mustang GT, as well as over-the-top stripes.
2016 Chevrolet Camaro
Price: Starting at $25,700
The Camaro is completely redesigned for the 2016 model year, and in addition to the standard 3.6-liter V6 and the 6.2-liter V8 for the Camaro SS a third option gets added — a new 2.0-liter turbocharged inline 4-cylinder powerplant. Producing 275 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque, the 2.0-liter offers more torque at 3000 rpm than the V6, and can be paired with either a 6-speed manual transmission or an 8-speed automatic. With a sculpted new exterior, the new Camaro is leaner and slightly smaller than its predecessor. The 2.0-liter will propel the Camaro from zero to 60 mph in less than 6 seconds and achieve more than 30 mpg on the highway.
2016 Subaru WRX
Price: Starting at $26,595
Subaru’s performance models have always relied on 4-cylinder power, beginning with the first WRX offered to the U.S. market for 2002 with a 227-horsepower turbocharged horizontally-opposed (boxer) 4-cylinder, followed by the STI with 300 turbocharged horsepower in 2004. Redesigned for the 2015 model year, the Subaru WRX is even more of a sport sedan value than the previous version with a stiffer, more agile chassis, a new 268-horsepower 2.0-liter direct-injection turbocharged boxer engine and standard all-wheel drive. The WRX offers a new 6-speed manual transmission, a new Sport Lineartronic transmission with manual mode, and Active Torque Vectoring to enhance the vehicle dynamics system. The WRX STI takes things up a notch with a 305-horsepower 2.5-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder boxer engine, driver-controlled center differential and enhanced aerodynamic package.
2016 Volkswagen Golf R
Price: Starting at $35,650
The hottest car in the Golf lineup, the new Golf R is powered by a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder TSI engine that produces 292 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque, driven through VW’s new 4Motion all-wheel-drive system with a fifth-generation Haldex coupling. The Golf R features a new sport suspension, a progressive variable-ratio steering system and the ESC Sport stability control system, which can be deactivated for track driving. The 6-speed DSG dual-clutch transmission includes launch control, helping the Golf R accelerate from zero to 60 mph in 4.9 seconds. When the Golf R first came to the U.S. market in 2004 it was known as the R32, powered by a 240-horsepower 3.2-liter V6 engine, but switched to 2.0-liter 4-cylinder turbo power when it returned for 2015.
2016 Ford Focus RS
Price: Starting at $35,900
The most powerful production Focus ever, the highly- anticipated Focus RS is coming to the U.S. as a 2016 model, powered by 2.3-liter 4-cylinder EcoBoost turbo engine producing 350 horsepower and 350 lb-ft of torque, combined with a 6-speed manual transmission. Focus RS debuts the all-new Ford Performance All-Wheel Drive with Dynamic Torque Vectoring that can shift up to 100 percent of the torque to the rear axle and distribute up to 100 percent of torque to either rear wheel. The driver can adjust the car for street or track driving with four available drive modes: normal, sport, track and drift. The exterior design is optimized for aerodynamics and cooling with zero lift and 9 percent less drag than the previous model, which was not available to the U.S. market.
2016 Cadillac ATS
Price: Starting at $36,240*
When you think of high-performance 4-cylinder engines, Cadillac is probably not the first name that comes to mind. But Cadillac’s compact ATS sport sedan and ATS coupe both offer a 272-horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder powerplant combined with either a 6-speed manual or an 8-speed automatic transmission. Created to compete with established sport sedans, the Cadillac ATS aims to deliver a dynamic driving experience with a lightweight architecture, a near 50/50 weight balance, a 5-link independent rear suspension, a multi-link MacPherson-strut front suspension, available driver-adjustable FE3 performance suspension with Magnetic Ride Control real-time damping, available Brembo brakes and available all-wheel drive. *At press time, Cadillac was offering a $3,000 cash allowance on the ATS sedan, dropping the starting MSRP to $33,240 with delivery taken before August 31, 2016.
2016 Audi S3
Price: Starting at $42,500
The high-performance version of Audi’s A3 sedan, the new S3 sport sedan is almost dimensionally identical to the original A4. The S3 is powered by a high-output 2.0-liter TFSI 4-cylinder engine that produces 292 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque, with a 6-speed S tronic transmission and standard quattro all-wheel drive. Standard equipment includes sport suspension, a sport brake system, S-design 18-inch wheels, a trunk lip spoiler, Aluminum-optic mirror housings, aluminum door sill plates, quad exhaust and a Platinum Gray matte grille with chrome struts.
2016 Audi TT
Price: Starting at $42,900
The Audi TT Coupe and Roadster are all-new for 2016 with more focus on the elements of a true sports car, and a new design that ties it closer to the mid-engine sports car. Signature elements remain from the original design, including the exaggerated wheel arches that push into the hood cutline, round exhaust tips and prominent gas filler door. The TT is powered by a turbocharged 2.0-liter TFSI 4-cylinder engine that produces 220 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque, combined with a 6-speed S tronic dual-clutch transmission with quattro all-wheel drive. The TTS coupe is also powered by a turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder TFSI engine producing 292 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque, combined with a 6-speed S tronic transmission with quattro. For the first time ever, the quattro AWD can be controlled by the Audi drive select system, and when in dynamic mode more power gets delivered to the rear wheels.
2017 Mercedes-Benz SLC-Class
Price: Starting at $47,950
On sale in late summer of 2016, the brand-new 2017 Mercedes-Benz SLC is a 2-seat roadster with a retractable hardtop. Replacing the SLK in the model lineup, the SLC300 derives power from a turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine that produces 241 horsepower and 273 lb-ft of torque delivered through a 9G-TRONIC 9-speed automatic transmission. Interior features include aluminum trim parts with a carbon fiber finish, a new instrument cluster design and a new sport steering wheel. Active brake assist, a Diamond grille, an automatic trunk separator and a sport exhaust system are all standard.
2016 Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG
Price: Starting at $49,500
The CLA45 AMG is the high-performance version of the smallest Mercedes-Benz 4-door, with a sloping coupelike roofline similar to the CLS sedan and aggressive styling to attract new buyers. The CLA45 AMG is the top performance model, powered by a transverse-mounted turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine that produces 355 horsepower and 332 lb-ft of torque. Power gets delivered through an AMG SPEEDSHIFT DCT 7-speed sport transmission and AMG 4MATIC all-wheel drive, which features three drive modes, rev matching and Race Start. Standard equipment includes an AMG Sport exhaust, 3-stage ESP and AMG Sport suspension.
2016 BMW Z4
Price: Starting at $49,700
When the BMW Z4 debuted in 2003 buyers could choose between inline 6-cylinder engines, but BMW has turned to turbocharged engines, including the TwinPower Turbo 2.0-liter 4-cylinder unit that powers the Z4 sDrive28i. The 2.0-liter has 240 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque delivered through either a 6-speed manual transmission or an 8-speed automatic transmission. A long hood, low beltline, long wheelbase and short rear deck combine to create the low-slung profile of BMW’s 2-seat Z4 roadster. Its power-retractable hardtop can be lowered at cruising speeds up to 25 mph, and stows in a compact package in the trunk.
2017 Porsche 718 Cayman
Price: Starting at $53,900
Porsche’s mid-engine 2-seat coupe debuted as a 2006 model, powered by a 295-horsepower 6-cylinder engine. The redesigned 2017 model adopts the 718 Cayman name and switches exclusively to turbocharged 4-cylinder horizontally-opposed engines. A newly-developed 2.0-liter turbocharged engine that produces 300 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque powers the 718 Cayman, and the 718 Cayman S upgrades to a 2.5-liter turbo producing 350 horsepower and 309 lb-ft of torque. Engine efficiency gets improved via electrical system recuperation, thermal management and auto start/stop function. The 718 Cayman body has been extensively redesigned, the chassis has been retuned and it is on sale now.
2016 Alfa Romeo 4C
Price: Starting at $55,900
Alfa Romeo returned to the U.S. market in 2015 with the mid-engine 4C sports car, followed by the open-top 4C Spider — both powered by a turbocharged 1.75-liter 4-cylinder engine with dual intercoolers that produces 237 horsepower. The 4C features a lightweight carbon fiber and aluminum chassis and the body is made entirely of SMC (sheet molded compound) — a low-density, high-strength composite material that is 20 percent lighter than steel but more rigid. The 4C will accelerate from zero to 60 mph in 4.1 seconds and reach a top track speed of 160 mph. For 2016 an available carbon fiber trim package includes interior vents, instrument cluster surround and shift bezel. A new premium leather interior has Tobacco and Black sport seats, black interior and Tobacco accent stitching.
2017 Porsche 718 Boxster
Price: Starting at $56,000
Porsche’s mid-engine, 2-seat roadster gets redesigned for the 2017 model year, and the name gets changed to 718 Boxster. The German automaker has a rich history of sports car racing — in 1950s and ‘60s the company campaigned the legendary 718 lightweight mid-engine sports car. In the spirit of that original, Porsche introduces the 718 Boxster, powered exclusively by new turbocharged 4-cylinder horizontally-opposed engines. A newly-developed 2.0-liter turbocharged engine produces 300 horsepower in the 718 Boxster, and the 718 Boxster S upgrades to a 2.5-liter turbo producing 350 horsepower. The models feature new chassis tuning and stronger brakes, which should provide great fun on the road or track. The 718 Boxster is available now at Porsche dealerships.