This past summer we found ourselves, for the first time, busy driving all the new models that are going to drop this year - and we are proud to say that sport compact performance and value still stands strong. While there are a few higher end (and priced) platforms still being added to the mix, you can be sure you'll be putting your money into quality performers, no matter what your budget is. These are ten of the coolest cars we think will make a big splash for the new year
Priced From: $23,195
Hot Features: 263hp 2.3L DISI Turbo engine and plenty of torque at 280lb-ft; 18-inch standard alloys; LED boost gauge; six-speed tranny with improved gear ratios; torque-sensing conical limited slip differential; BOSE Centerpoint Surround sound
But Can You Modify It? The Mazdaspeed3 is begging for more power so we can't see why this won't be one of the more popular cars of 2010 to tune. It's so affordable it'd be foolish to not want to fix it up.
Deep Thoughts: The 2010 model was the first time I ever drove a Mazdaspeed3 and I all I can say is "wow" - where has this car been all my life? If something this fast were available when I was in high school, I would have easily begged my parents for one. The peppy FWD surprised me with the amount of torque it had on tap and it was scary how fast you could go without realizing it. At the Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca, it was loads of fun when going into boost, so I apologize to the brakes if I cooked them (a little). Hey, it's not like I was the only one. - Jonathan Wong
Priced From: Starting from $12,355 ($13,155 as tested)
Hot Features: Power windows/door locks; 60/40 split, reclining and sliding rear folding seats; MP3 player with iPod support and satellite radio; under-floor storage; optional foglights and spoiler
But Can You Modify It? Very much so, and it also won't cost you a lot to do so. Simple bolt-ons can be easily found, as are suspension and wheel packages. Don't think you'll be seeing too many engine swaps (but it'd be very cool if you did).
Deep Thoughts: To some, the Yaris may seem like a small economic car. But coming from a Honda background (when EFs were the Civic to tune), it's easy for me to say that I love hatchbacks, especially small ones, mostly because I feel more comfortable in a smaller, more agile car. Most Japanese OEMs are beginning to mimic their American competition by making their cars bigger. I used to think my old Civic EF was normal size; these days, it's tiny. Plus, when was the last time you saw a cool looking hatchback, let alone any hatchbacks? No way would I drive a MINI - but a Yaris, hell yes! If you've ever seen the ones built by Tein, Street Image or a tuned Vitz (its JDM counterpart) you'll see the Yaris in another light. It just goes to show that you don't need a $30K car to have fun these days (although it certainly helps). Although the Yaris only has 106 horsepower, a little bit of boost can propel the 2,200lb car nicely. Hopefully low budget tuners will dive into the Yaris as they did with Hondas in the '90s. The Yaris is the coolest little hatchback you can buy and also has a 5-door sibling that's equally cool. - Charles Trieu
Can't Forget The Hybrids
Priced From: $19,800
Hot Features: 40/43 est. MPG; Advanced Technology Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle; Eco Assist with driving score; readily available aftermarket support
But Can You Modify It? Japan already has. Can you say "Mugen"?
Deep Thoughts: While Honda is certainly no stranger to hybrid technology they took a two-year hiatus while redesigning the Insight. From a design stand point the Insight is my favorite ground-up hybrid (by ground-up we mean a car that was designed to be a hybrid, not a gasoline vehicle later incorporated into a hybrid). With its good looks and low sticker price we wouldn't be surprised to see more of these on the road in the future. I'm still trying to figure out a way to get my hands on one so I can replicate the circuit racer versions I've seen in Japan. - Sean Klingelhoefer
Priced From: $22,000
Hot Features: 51/48 est. MPG; 98hp 1.8L VVT-i engine; Advanced Technology Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle; LED taillights and headlights (optional); optional solar powered ventilation system
But Can You Modify It? If history has taught us anything, it's that select tuners may indeed trick out the next gen Prius. Remember Blitz's supercharger for the first gen?
Deep Thoughts: Coming back for the third installment of the best-selling hybrid car, Toyota has delivered a very polished product. Although the interior more closely resembles that of a spaceship than a car, everything functions the way it should. The joystick-style shifter might seem strange at first, but once you get used to driving with it you'll love it. The new Prius is by far the most refined version yet and the crossover from gas to electric engine is seamless. - SK
Priced From: $13,695 ($17,495 as tested)
Hot Features: Heated front seats; rear folding seats; power windows/locks; MP3 player with USB input; Bluetooth hands-free phone/stereo support; four-wheel disc brakes; optional foglights
But Can You Modify It? There's definitely room for improvement here on the Forte but we haven't seen fixed-up Kias since never. Who'd like to be first?
Deep Thoughts: Surprise, surprise - the Forte comes to the table offering a 2.4L engine with a six-speed manual transmission; that's a lot of displacement for a four cylinder. After driving the Forte for a few days, I jumped back into my 240SX and said to myself 'this thing is old and SLOW'. I initially had trouble with the Forte's clutch engagement but after going back into my own car, I realized it was my car that was funky. I guess I've become accustomed to a slipping clutch. I'll admit it; the Forte sounds nice when it drives and it isn't an eye sore either. It's much nicer than some of the other cars I see being made these days. The only gripe I have is the Forte doesn't come with a navigation option and I'm not sure if an aftermarket head unit would fit in either as the OEM stereo is integrated into the dash. There is Bluetooth, though, with access buttons on the steering wheel, which makes driving easy as pie. - CT
Priced From: $34,200
Hot Features: 35/34 est. MPG; 187hp 2.4L VVT-i engine; optional navi with Remote Touch Controller and interior Heads-Up Display
But Can You Modify It? Probably not. Wheels at best.
Deep Thoughts: The HS is an all-new vehicle from Lexus and is the first time the brand has ever released a ground-up hybrid vehicle. Taking many innovations from the Prius, including the shifter design, one drive makes it obvious that this is still classically, a Toyota hybrid. All the traditional luxury options from Lexus are here, including dual climate control, seat heating, cooling and so much more. Our favorite part was the innovative navigation, which also uses a joystick rather than a touch screen. It's a little clumsy at first but after one drive we were wondering why this wasn't implemented earlier. - SK
Nissan Nismo 370z
Priced From: $39,130
Hot Features: This is not your standard 370Z: 350hp and 276lb-ft with the SynchroRev Match six-speed transmission is the hotness. Coupled with a stiff NISMO-tuned suspension, the performance level is high on this one. It's also dressed to kill with the aero components and 19-inch forged RAYS wheels.
But Can You Modify It? We're sure you can, but why mess with perfection?
Deep Thoughts: Nissan's NISMO 370Z officially kicked my ass. And I can tell you (with equal parts shame and pride) that whether it's on or off the track, the car is pretty much perfection on wheels. If you don't handle it a certain way - with extreme finesse, precision and a huge pair of balls - it will own you. Don't believe me? Get behind the wheel of one. This particular car, developed in conjunction with Autech Japan, sports a very special VQ37VHR that makes 350hp by using an exclusive H-configured exhaust and a sport tuned ECM (Engine Computer Module). The acceleration is wicked fun, pushing much harder than the base models - just imagine how much more terror you could unleash if you boosted the damn thing. On corners, the NISMO Z is dialed in beautifully thanks to the addition of stiffer springs and stabilizer bars, an instantaneous difference you will feel if you jump back and forth between the other models. It's quite easy to get the car off balance but master the car's willingness to succumb to your driving and it will obey. Nissan gives the NISMO edition a lot of other special edition touches, like the forged RAYS wheels in 19-inches of pleasure, big Sport brakes, sport tach and the numbered serial plate of authenticity. But its looks are what really set this car off. Yes, the aero kit is functional; it visually lowers the car to a downright sexy stance (I'd hate to see what would happen if you tried to lower it more.) and depending on which color you select (trust us, Pearl White, Solid Red and Magnetic Black - in that order), it just seems like it should have been the only Z to be sold. - JW
Mazda RX-8 R3
Priced From: $26,495 (base), $31,990 (R3)
Hot Features: Bilstein shocks; 19-inch forged alloys; leather reclining Recaro seats
But Can You Modify It? Sadly, this is one Mazda that never got its due, simply because the 1.3L Renesis rotary engine is hard to tweak. And without help in that department, it's simply underpowered and fun only when high revved. The R3 model will allow you to enjoy the car as is but with a few extra touches of comfort and cool.
Deep Thoughts: What an amazingly balanced car - the RX-8 R3 is easily one of the most fun cars we've driven in years, but it begs for more power every which way we turn. Keep the car in a lower gear or higher rpm band because you're going to need it. The R3 comes with the plush Recaro recliners that made giving this car up that much harder. If there were more aftermarket support, this would have gone down as one of the greatest Japanese cars of all time, like the RX-7. Nonetheless, still a great car and a blast on the street or track. - JW
Lexus IS 350C F Sport Edition
Priced From: $60,646 (base model: $44,390)
Hot Features: F Sport performance intake and exhaust, front/rear brake upgrades, lowering springs, Bilstein shocks, front/rear sway bars, carbon fiber engine cover AND 19-inch wheels
But Can You Modify It? Look no further than F Sport, gang, but if you must go elsewhere, there are plenty of wheel options out there.
Deep Thoughts: Save all your "guys shouldn't drive convertibles" jokes for another car; the ISC - especially when decked out with F Sport gear - is a two-door coupe we don't mind dropping the top and gas pedal on. It's outrageously quick and has enough torque to make you forget that you've got two doors less than the other IS models (until you look behind the two seats). The C commands great respect on the road because of these upgrades and we pray for the day Lexus blesses us all with a hard top version, simply because it'd put them in full contention with BMW and its lower M-Series cars. - JW
Along With A Few Other Ass Kickers
Nissan 370Z Roadster
Priced From: $36,970
Hot Features: Tighter and lighter than the 350Z Roadster; all-new 3.7L VQ37VHR V6 with VVEL and 332hp/270lb-ft; 6-speed manual gear box with SynchroRev Match; smooth hydraulic one-touch drop top with a more refined look; standard ventilated seats and Sport Package (Touring model)
But Can You Modify It? All signs point to yes, but we think the majority of enthusiasts are gonna gun for the hard top over this.
Deep Thoughts: Equally enjoyable to the hard top in every way, your bonus here is the ability to (cue arrival of Captain Obvious) put the top up or down with the single touch of a button. We found that with the top down and in colder weather, the ventilated and heated seats come in extremely handy. - JW
Subaru WRX STI - Spt Edition
Priced From: Varies depending on accessories added
Hot Features: Factory developed, proven performance parts from Subaru's Performance Tuning line. Oh, how sweet they are. But Can You Modify It? Pick up a SPT brochure and you'll see easily why modification is welcomed and encouraged.
Deep Thoughts: What better way to enjoy the STI than with Subaru's own infectious brew of engine hard parts, suspension, aero pieces and more? They're factory backed and more important, they make guaranteed performance. - JW
And Here's A Bonus (Just Because We Had To Drive It)
BMW M3 Sedan
Priced From: $54,850
Hot Features: 414hp 4.0L V8 engine; rear wheel drive performance; dual clutch transmission; M Drive; all-season traction (Variable M differential lock); Sam Du-approved styling; makes girls in LA very excited
But Can You Modify It? Shoebetcha. (And pick up eurotuner if you want to find out how.)
Deep Thoughts: I knew the second I'd get behind the wheel of an E90 M3, I'd become the very driver I dislike. Try to understand, I don't dislike them because they own M3s but because they give off the "I'm an asshole" vibe that is all too common in LA. And trust me, you cross those paths - a lot. But when I turned the thing on, I wanted very much to be one of them. Like my previous experiences with an older E46 coupe, once I got on the road and punched it, things suddenly became crystal clear: I was the asshole -and I loved every second of it. The M3 is clear in its definition, a real sportscar (even if it is a sedan) with all the bells and whistles that some Japanese cars don't have, and performs so much better that it's a shame that only few can compare, except in price. Maybe when a coupe version of the IS-F is released, Lexus will have a fighting chance - and they probably will. But until then, BMW can enjoy their view from the top, along with all of its owners, even if they are assholes. - JW