Subaru Impreza WRX & WRX/STI

For the serious enthusiast looking at compact cars, the Subaru Impreza WRX STI is the holy grail. Its longstanding history as a top-ranked rally model carries into the street version with the comfort features everyone asks for. But let’s be honest here – no one cares about the blind-spot monitoring or STARLINK Safety and Security, nor does the premium audio matter. It’s about the 305-horsepower, 290 lb-ft turbocharged boxer engine, the Symmetrical AWD, Brembo brakes, and track-tuned suspension. Some may want the auto gearbox with paddle shifters, but the 6-speed manual will suit enthusiasts just fine.


If the STI is a little out of reach, the Subaru WRX may be the cure for what ails you. Mildly scaled back, it still has Symmetrical AWD, the same transmission options, and similar available features. The main difference is the spoiler, and a modest decrease in power to 268 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. You’ll get into a WRX for $26,695 and the WRX STI will set you back at least $35,195.

Mini John Cooper Works

The name is a mouthful, but you won’t be talking while you drive. You’ll just be grinning. The Mini Cooper is a European icon of compact cars, and this model takes it to the next level.

The John Cooper Works pushes the tiny compact’s performance specs to 228 horsepower and 236 lb-ft from a turbo’d 2.0-liter engine. The car feels like a rocket on rails thanks to Dynamic Damper Control. You can tame down the JCW’s responsiveness and performance if you want at the flick of a switch, but that option will probably remain largely unused on most John Cooper Works models. JCW models start at $30,900.

VW GTI & Golf R

The Germans seem to know how to build performance into compact cars, as evidenced by the Volkswagen GTI. In its recognizable Golf hatch styling, the GTI turns the highway into a playground. Powered by a quick-spooling turbocharged 2.0-liter engine, it pumps out 210 horsepower. Those who want just a little bit more can pick the Autobahn edition (aptly named, isn’t it?), jacking power to 220 ponies. What’s cool about the GTI – aside from a torque-sensing LSD and Dynamic Chassis Control, and Car-Net App Connect infotainment – is its performance computer. An in-dash digital monitor shows configurable options like boost pressure, oil temperature, and G-force for an enhanced experience. The VW GTI starts out at $25,595.


Need a little more zip in the doodah? The Golf R might be just what the doctor ordered. The high-performance turbocharged 2.0-liter TSI engine cranks up 292 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque. For under $40K, you can get the manual transmission but not the DSG. It sticks to the road courtesy of all-wheel drive, but this one will set you back a few more bucks. Okay, a lot more — $39,375 to be precise.

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