Although many compact cars have a reputation as Point A to Point B appliances with no soul to speak of when it comes to driving thrills, there are some trend-buckers out there. We’ve compiled a list of commuters that have a bit of mojo woven into their DNA. Some are blatant road burners, some roll under the radar — but all will put a smile on your face when let loose on a favorite stretch of open road. Click through for these sweet 16 small rides.
Honda Fit LX
Starting MSRP: $16,090
Marking its 10th anniversary in the U.S. since going on sale in 2006 as a 2007 model, the Fit has a lot going for it . . . from Magic Seats that create all kinds of storage possibilities to first-rate reliability to a nimble personality. At 2,513 pounds the Fit is the lightest car on this list (along with the Fiat 500), which explains how it gets so much out of its 130 horsepower 1.5-liter i-VTEC 4-cylinder engine. The 6-speed manual is the way to go for driving fun, but the base LX only offers 15-inch steel wheels and commuter-spec rubber, so expect a low tire-squeal threshold.
Mazda Mazda3 Sedan
Starting MSRP: $17,845
The Mazda3 is an interesting proposition because it comes in three distinct flavors. Buyers can enjoy the base Sport, which is powered by a 2.0-liter four cylinder rated at 155 horsepower, and choose between a 4-door sedan and a 5-door shooting brake style hatch ($19,095). We love the 5-door with the 6-speed manual gearbox. Both the 4- and 5-door can also be had in various Touring and Grand Touring trims, which upgrade to a 184-horsepower 2.5-liter four. Mazda’s standard G-Vectoring Control is the source of the “Zoom-Zoom” driving experience — employing engine timing and other parameters to produce smoother, more accurate steering inputs, increased road grip, and enhanced driver confidence.
Fiat 500 Abarth
Starting MSRP: $19,995
A built-to-the-hilt turbocharged 1.4-liter engine, action-ready sport suspension and pure Italian style are this diminutive Fiat’s calling cards. At 144.4 inches, Abarth is the shortest ride on this list. With 160 horses and a 2,513-pound curb weight (tied for lightest with Honda Fit), there’s a lot of g-force fun in its future. The Abarth has 60 percent more horsepower than a standard 500 (101 ponies) and features bigger brakes, better tires and a more sporty aura. We’d say getting 28-mpg city / 34-mpg highway has never been so much fun.
Kia Forte Koup SX
Starting MSRP: $20,690
The SX is the uprated turbo variant in the Koup lineup. Thanks to its 201 horsepower it scores much higher on the fun-to-drive scale compared to the base Forte Koup and its 173 horses. Shockingly, you only pay an $800 premium for the SX and the boosting privileges it delivers . . . talk about a no-brainer. The SX has dashing good looks, a well-dressed interior and affordable option packages, so buyers can increase the comfort factor as well as the fun factor.
Ford Fiesta ST
Starting MSRP: $21,140
The Fiesta ST delivers a lot of the Focus RS vibe in a smaller, more stylistically subdued and less expensive package. Unfortunately the RS’s tasty all-wheel-drive system did not make the transition. Among the featherweights on the list at 2,720 pounds, this more petite Ford gets the most out of its 1.6-liter 197-horsepower 4-cylinder EcoBoost engine. The sporty ST version brings a precision sport-tuned suspension, a more balanced brake system, and Ford’s high-tech electronic Torque Vectoring Control to the party.
Nissan Sentra SR Turbo
Starting MSRP: $21,990
Sentra is Nissan’s third-best-selling vehicle behind the Rogue SUV and Altima sedan. Buyers could opt for a commuter pod and move downstream to the S trim at $16,990 (but where’s the fun in that?) or get more upwardly mobile and go for the flashier NISMO edition at $24,990. We like how the SR resides right in the sweet spot of the Sentra performance-versus-value equation. The SR and NISMO variants share the same 1.6-liter 188-horsepower MR16DDT engine and manual transmission. The main differences are an aggressive body kit, slightly stiffer suspension settings, interior trim, and exclusive 18-inch wheels. Is all that glam worth $3,000?
Nissan JUKE S AWD
Starting MSRP: $22,100
For $110 more you can get the heart and soul of Nissan’s Sentra SR with its 188-horse turbocharged glory in an all-wheel-drive package, and its only 151 pounds heavier. The twist? JUKE only comes with an Xtronic CVT gearbox, but it’s wise to remember this small crossover features torque vectoring all-wheel drive, which means the system channels the power left and right, not just front to back. Will a CVT spoil the fun? Nissan has generations of development in its Xtronic system, and the setup in JUKE features a Manual Mode and D-step Logic Control that produces simulated shifts. Does it replicate a manual gearbox? Back-to-back test drives will tell.
Hyundai Veloster Turbo
Starting MSRP: $22,600
A $4,500 premium over the base Veloster’s $18,100 price tag, the Turbo variant showers its driver with 201 horsepower and number of hard-hitting body styling, suspension, interior and rolling stock upgrades. The engine is the same 1.6-liter unit found in the Kia Forte Koup — it just gets wrapped in a swoopy, 3-door cocoon. We admit the Veloster’s styling might be a bit polarizing . . . but doesn’t that simply mean that those who like it really like it?
MINI Cooper S 2-Door Hardtop
Starting MSRP: $24,400
You’ve probably heard cars described as having “go-kart handling” — no doubt the phrase was coined for the original Mini Cooper. The pint-sized giant slayer beat all comers at top-level rally races in the mid-1960s. The current iteration of modern BMW-built MINIs has stayed true to the formula and offers an inspiring combination of retro style and pure driving pleasure. The Cooper S is a step above the base 134-horse Cooper; its 2.0-liter turbo engine puts 189 ponies under your right foot. Want to really get your MINI groove on? Meet the John Cooper Works . . . more power (228 horses), more money ($30,900).
Toyota 86 / Subaru BRZ
Starting MSRP: $26,255 (Toyota) ; $25,495 (Subaru)
One of the most talked-about sporty cars to hit the scene in the last five years, this collaborative creation from Subaru and Toyota offers rear-wheel drive, a responsive 2.0-liter Subaru Boxer engine, and a beautifully balanced chassis that begs you to attack every apex. It’s only discernable shortcoming? Where’s the turbo? The 2017 model has been face-lifted with new front and rear bumpers, five more horses to put 205 ponies in the corral, and improvements to suspension and chassis rigidity that sharpen already razor-sharp handling. This is the kind of car you can stomp on all the way to work — and all the way home.
Starting MSRP: $26,695
The rally-bred WRX offers an adrenalin-filled commute with enough growl to challenge the senses, but a calm demeanor you can live with every day. The WRX’s turbocharged 2.0-liter Boxer engine generates 268 horsepower, with traction provided by Subaru’s highly-refined Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive system that dishes out power on a 50/50 front to rear bias until slippage is detected. Open your wallet wide for the STI ($35,195) and get a ride that’s a few steps closer to the rally race car. It delivers 305 horsepower, a more complex driver-controlled AWD system, Brembo brakes, and a bigger wing.
Honda Civic Type R
Starting MSRP: $35,000 (est.)
It’s taken 10 generations of Civics but America finally gets it . . . for the first time, the racy Type R will be appearing in U.S. showrooms. The arch nemesis of the Focus RS and one of the few compacts to match its hype in recent months, the Type R is simply the most powerful, quickest, fastest and best-handling Civic ever. The design is a love/hate affair — with so many edgy surfaces, this hot hatch looks like it’s been Photoshopped with a Lamborghini and a stealth helicopter. The Type R’s 2.0-liter turbocharged i-VTEC four cylinder checks in at 306 horsepower, barely beating the Focus RS via a specific output of 153 horsepower per liter.
Ford Focus RS
Starting MSRP: $36,120
This hot hatch is molten lava on four wheels. Ford took edgy design to the ragged edge; the car has a daring look, especially in front where there are some seriously complex angles — not quite at Civic Type R levels, but in the ballpark. Look beyond the sheet metal and the RS may be the most technically advanced Ford this side of a GT40. Its 350-horsepower 2.3-liter EcoBoost four cylinder tops the Golf R with an impressive specific output of 152.17 horsepower per liter. The RS has a Drift Mode that “enables controlled oversteer in track conditions.” Translation: Donuts in the parking lot just got better.
Volkswagen Golf R
Starting MSRP: $39,375
Meet the most powerful yet most fuel-efficient Golf to ever grace the North American market. The AWD Golf R is evolution in action; the latest 2.0-liter TSI pumps out a remarkable 292 horsepower. That’s a specific output of 146 horsepower per liter, which translates to a blast to drive at full song. If you can lay off the throttle you’ll enjoy 31 mpg highway fuel efficiency. Like the styling and attitude but don’t have the cash flow? The Golf GTI drops the power to 210 horses, drops AWD for FWD, and drops the price to $25,595 — yet the fun factor remains on red alert.
Starting MSRP: $52,500
Here’s more confirmation that Bavarians know how to have fun . . . and we’re not talking about Oktoberfest in the Alps. Following the true muscle-car formula of the mid 1960s, the M2 takes the BMW’s big-dog inline 6-cylinder powerplant — the 365 horsepower M Power-enhanced turbocharged 3.0-liter — and puts it in the company’s smallest chassis. The result? You get a rear-drive, big-braked, sport-tuned driving machine that begs for a heavy right foot and a long section of winding road. Achtung baby.
Starting MSRP: $55,000 (est.)
Posh and spirited, the RS3 is another car that entices you to take the long way to work. Like the Civic Type R, the RS3 is a special high-performance edition that’s taken a long time to make it to America. This sedan has all the right stuff: chart-topping horsepower, Quattro AWD, sexy European body lines, and luxury refinements above all the other cars on our list. The specific output champion with 160 horsepower per liter, the RS3 wrings 400 horsepower from its 2.5-liter 5-cylinder TFSI turbocharged engine. A 7-speed S Tronic automated manual gearbox is standard fare, so no clutch-kicking drifts for you!