AutoGuide Under $30,000 Performance Car Shootout – Part Two: Track Test Elimination Round

Dave Pratte
by Dave Pratte

Yesterday we took eight fun-to-drive performance vehicles under $30,000 and put them through their paces on the street.

After much deliberation, we chose the 2014 Ford Fiesta ST as the king of the street. Despite a somewhat harsh ride, nothing else matches the raw, hilariously fun driving experience behind the wheel.

But now it’s time to get serious. We have come to the test track to complete the second half of our under $30,000 shootout. Every car will be taken around the track and scored on two criteria only; how fast it completes a lap and how fun it is when driven at the limit. That score, combined with yesterday’s street score is used to determine the final finishing order.

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To keep things interesting, this is an elimination round, as we compile the data the track and the street to determine which cars are headed home, and which will move on to the top three.

Tomorrow we’ll unveil the overall winner of the Under $30,000 Performance Car Shootout.

Eighth Place – 2014 Honda Civic Si Coupe

Having track tested a different 2014 Civic Si Coupe just a few weeks prior, I knew within half a lap that something wasn’t right with this car. It just wasn’t accelerating with the same urgency once revs climbed past 5,000 RPM, and that’s normally the sweet spot in the powerband for these 2.4L iVTEC engines.

I was told this car had been used a few days prior at a Honda event where IndyCar driver James Hinchcliffe, and some other folks, were thrashing about in it. Did Hinchcliffe damage our car?

It’s hard to say for sure, but whatever the reason, this Civic Si was almost 3-seconds off my best lap time in the healthy one I had a few weeks earlier. To be fair, all the cars were 1 to 2 seconds slower than previous test results thanks to an unusually greasy track surface (someone oiled it down with a blown engine prior to our arrival). But with the lowest top speed of any car in this competition, clearly something wasn’t right.

SEE ALSO: 2014 Honda Civic Si Coupe Review

Still, it wasn’t just the immediate issues holding back the Civic Si compared to the other seven cars in this shootout. Despite the changes Honda has made to it for 2014, it still has more body roll and more understeer than the other cars here, and ultimately that is reflected in in the fact that it had the second lowest cornering g-forces and lowest ‘fun to drive on the track’ score in the group.

Fast Facts

Lap time: 1:31.232 (8th)
Top Speed: 93.3 MPH (8th)
Max Cornering G-Force: 1.05 (7th)
Max Braking G-Force: 0.69 (8th)
Fun To Drive On The Track (out of 25): 16 (8th)
Engine: 2.4-liter four-cylinder, 205 HP, 174 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Drivetrain: Front-wheel drive, Helical LSD
Fuel Economy Ratings: 22 MPG City, 31 MPG Highway
Fuel Economy Observed: 26.4 MPG
Price: $23,580 after destination charges

GALLERY: 2014 Honda Civic Si Coupe

Seventh Place – 2014 Nissan Juke NISMO RS

I think most of us at AutoGuide assumed the Nissan Juke would finish last, and not because it’s slow or lacking in personality, because the truth is it’s pretty darn quick in a straight line and is plenty of fun to rip around in. But as a crossover based platform with a relatively high center of gravity, the assumption was it just wouldn’t cut it around our test track.

A half-second quicker than the Civic and less than 1.5-seconds behind the universally loved MX-5, the Juke Nismo RS acquitted itself quite nicely, thanks in large part to the proper 6-speed manual gearbox it’s equipped with along with an equally proper helical limited slip differential. Combined with the punchy turbocharged 1.6L 4-cylinder engine and a curb weight under 2900-lbs (over 100-lbs lighter than the Civic Si) and you’ve actually got all the right ingredients for a fun-machine.

SEE ALSO: 2014 Nissan Juke NISMO RS Review

The high seating position and sensation of body roll does take some of the fun out of it around the track, though, as does the understeer that creeps in as you turn up the aggression in the corners. In fact, it posted the lowest peak cornering g-forces of any car in this competition, but thanks to the aggressively bolstered seats, Alcantara wrapped steering wheel and torquey power delivery, it does feel more engaging to drive than the Civic.

Fast Facts

Lap time: 1:30.805 (7th)
Top Speed: 95.1 MPH (6th)
Max Cornering G-Force: 1.01 (8th)
Max Braking G-Force: 0.74 (7th)
Fun To Drive On The Track (out of 25): 17 (7th)
Engine: 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, 215 HP, 210 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Drivetrain: Front-wheel drive, helical (gear-type) LSD
Fuel Economy Ratings: 25 MPG City, 35 MPG highway
Fuel Economy Observed: 34.6 MPG
Price: $26,930 after destination charges

GALLERY: 2014 Nissan Juke NISMO RS

Sixth Place – 2014 Mazda MX-5 Club PRHT

There’s really no disputing the fact that the Mazda MX-5 is a hoot to drive on the street or around a race track. But in this company, it does feel under-sprung, under-damped and under-powered. For such a compact and lightweight roadster, the MX-5, even in Club trim, simply has too much body roll to feel completely at home on the race track.

Still, the MX-5 does enjoy the inherent goodness of rear-wheel drive, so even though you have to wait for the body motion to settle during the first phase of each corner, you can use the throttle to adjust the car’s attitude once you’re past the apex. There is some turn-in understeer to combat, though, and because the Mazda only makes 167 hp, it’s not always as simple as mashing the gas to get the chassis to rotate.

SEE ALSO: 2014 Mazda MX-5 Review

With a bit more power and better body motion control, the MX-5 would be a lot faster and more engaging around the race track. But thanks to its low mass, outstanding steering feel and response, and tossability (it just encourages you to chuck it into the corners as aggressively as you dare), it scored second highest in the Fun To Drive category here.

Fast Facts

Lap time: 1:29.462 (6th)
Top Speed: 93.9 MPH (7th)
Max Cornering G-Force: 1.10 (5th)
Max Braking G-Force: 0.80 (3rd)
Fun To Drive On The Track (out of 25): 22 (2nd)
Engine: 2.0-liter four-cylinder, 167 HP, 140 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Drivetrain: Rear-wheel drive, torque-sensing (gear-type) LSD
Fuel Economy Ratings: 21 MPG City, 28 MPG highway
Fuel Economy Observed: 31.4 MPG
Price: $29,460 after destination charges

GALLERY: 2015 Mazda MX-5

Fifth Place – 2014 Ford Focus ST

The Ford Focus ST remains something of an enigma to me. On the one hand, I love its European styling, high quality interior, supple ride quality and powerful engine (highest torque output of the bunch at 270 lb-ft). But on the other, the seating position is high and cramped, the handling can be a bit quirky thanks to the torque vectoring going on across both axles, and the power delivery falls off sharply after a lap or two (presumably from heat soak or the computer pulling timing and/or reducing boost pressure when it starts to see temperatures or some other data points that scare it).

SEE ALSO: Ford Focus ST Handling Secrets Revealed

As a result, I’d describe the Focus ST as a bit of a one-lap wonder. It’s really fast on that first lap when the engine is cool and making full power, and the torque vectoring and e-diff work best when the brakes are cool, too. But after that, lap times fall off and so does the fun factor.

SEE ALSO: 2013 Ford Focus ST vs 2013 Mazdaspeed3

Still, with the second quickest lap time of the bunch and a big grin on my face during that one magical lap, it is a very engaging car to drive. It rotates like very few front-wheel drive cars before it, even if that rotation is being achieved “artificially” via its brake-based torque vectoring system, and it jumps out of the corners with real purpose thanks to that mountain of turbocharged torque.

Fast Facts

Lap time: 1:26.884 (2nd)
Top Speed: 95.6 MPH (5th)
Max Cornering G-Force: 1.17 (2nd)
Max Braking G-Force: 0.79 (4th)
Fun To Drive On The Track (out of 25): 20 (4th)
Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, 252 HP, 270 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Drivetrain: Front-wheel drive, eTVC differential
Fuel Economy Ratings: 23 MPG City, 32 MPG Highway
Fuel Economy Observed: 34.6 MPG
Price: $29,000 after destination charges

GALLERY: 2014 Ford Focus ST

Fourth Place – 2015 Volkswagen GTI

I really thought the new Volkswagen GTI was in with a chance at fastest lap time and the overall win. On paper it’s got the right stuff to be a contender, and yet somehow it underwhelmed me with its performance around our test track.

It has almost as much torque as the Focus ST, yet weighs 200-lbs less. Plus the 2013 GTI I tested last summer was surprisingly willing to rotate in the corners, so I was expecting this 7th generation 2015 GTI to be even better.


And it wasn’t all-bad, posting the 3rd quickest lap time, 2nd highest top speed, and 2nd highest braking g-forces. Where it failed to keep up was in the corners, where the GTI was only 6th best in lateral g-force rankings and simply didn’t show the same willingness to rotate as either of the Fords or the rear-wheel drive cars.

SEE ALSO: 2015 Volkswagen GTI Review

It’s ironic that the manual 6-speed gearbox, something I would normally argue as essential in a fun-to-drive car, may have actually detracted from the GTI’s performance compared to the DSG (dual-clutch automatic) version I tested last year. Plus, the lack of side bolstering makes it a struggle to stay in place on those tartan-covered seats, and there just isn’t enough communication via the steering wheel or the chassis to stimulate my senses the way the top three cars do.

Fast Facts

Lap time: 1:27.425 (3rd)
Top Speed: 98.7 MPH (2nd)
Max Cornering G-Force: 1.08 (6th)
Max Braking G-Force: 0.81 (2nd)
Fun To Drive On The Track (out of 25): 19 (5th)
Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, 210 HP, 258 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Drivetrain: Front-wheel drive, XDS brake-activated electronic-differential
Fuel Economy Ratings: 25 MPG City, 34 MPG Highway
Fuel Economy Observed: 31.4 MPG
Price: $25,815 after destination charges

GALLERY: 2015 Volkswagen GTI

Click here for Part 3 where we announce the winner of the Under $30,000 Performance Car Shootout

Dave Pratte
Dave Pratte

Some say he's closely related to Bigfoot and that he's a former Canadian Touring Car Champion. All we know is he's the AutoGuide Stig! A thesis defense away from being your intellectual superior he's a professor of vehicle handling dynamics. The part-time touring car and time attack racer is faster (much faster) than your average auto journalist.

More by Dave Pratte

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3 of 20 comments
  • Alex Kozovski Alex Kozovski on Aug 27, 2014

    The Miata should have won. The results are now irrelevant.

  • Eric Eric on Aug 27, 2014

    What a JOKE! Anybody who driving these cars knows the Mazda MX-5 Miata is easily the most fun and rewarding to drive car of that bunch. Also, these people can't drive with a sh#t.

    • Aamaster Aamaster on Aug 31, 2014

      Well, aside from your opinion(s), one thing is pretty evident. The reviewers are correct in that the Miata has a LOT of body roll compared to the other cars (pause it at about 4:00 in). You can definitely tune the car after you buy it and get a much better Miata (which is what most people do anyways), but this a comparison of different cars in stock form.