A sport compact is a high-performance version of a compact car or a subcompact car. They are typically are front engined, front wheel drive cars driven by a naturally aspirated straight-4 gasoline engine. Typical sport compacts include the Acura Integra, Honda Civic, Acura RSX, Toyota Celica, Volkswagen GTI, and more recently, the Dodge Neon SRT-4. The name for any sport compact in a hatchback form is a "hot hatch". The design philosophy of a sport compact sharply contrasts with those of 'true' sports cars. Sports cars are designed with a performance-oriented philosophy, often compromising cargo space, seating, gas mileage, (daily) driveability, and reliability. A sport compact is usually designed with a practical design philosophy and profit in mind. This philosophy has led to several compromises when it comes to performance, such as front wheel drive, conservative engine design, and platform sharing. Electronic control units are also programmed for optimal gas mileage.
Performance-oriented sport compacts focus on improving handling and increasing engine efficiency, rather than increasing engine size or conversion to rear-wheel drive. For example, the Celica GT-S and RSX Type-S are both sport compacts that produce 100 hp/ L of displacement, and have handling superior to their stock trims and other cars in it's price range.
Classification and debate
The exact definition of a sport compact remains a subject of debate. Many believe that any 4-cylinder compact car with 130 hp or more falls into this category, so a RWD car such as the Nissan 240SX would be a sport compact. High performance versions of compact cars, such as the Subaru Impreza WRX STi or the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution often make proper categorization ambiguous. Many see the addition of forced induction as the delineation, as that the increased power provided by forced induction can make a four-cylinder engine produce more power than most six and eight cylinder engines, sometimes even more than 10 and 12 cylinder engines with the right build.
Some would venture so far as to place any performance-oriented car with fewer than eight cylinders in this category. However, this categorization is very broad, as cars such as the Toyota Supra, Acura NSX, Lotus Elise, and the Nissan Skyline would then fall into the same category as the Honda Civic and Nissan Sentra. This is probably based on the design philosophy of domestic automakers, as they usually produce sports cars driven by eight cylinder engines, reserving six-cylinder engines for less-competitive models. This is most likely due to the fact that domestic automakers have not been able to push out the same amount of power per liter as Japanese automakers have had; so displacement is depended on rather than technology. Japanese automakers have had success with 110hp per liter as seen in the Honda S2000. Never has this amazing feat been accomplished by an American automaker.
It has become fairly popular to modify or customize a sport compact, commonly referred to as tuning. This has given rise to the term "tuner" for the owners of modified sport compacts, and, by extension, their automobiles. There is a large market for bolt-on performance enhancing equipment that fits small cars of this type. This market also includes a lot of equipment that is cosmetic (something that changes the appearance of the vehicle).
Restoration of a Japanese import to its JDM specifications (or J-Spec) has become a fairly popular modification for many tuners. It is quite common for Japanese automakers to produce or export less powerful versions of their models to the United States. Such modifications usually involve swapping engines and transmissions. Examples include the conversion of a Toyota Celica GT or GT-S into a Celica GT-Four, or a Honda Civic into a Civic Type-R or Si. Other crazier conversions include swapping a Toyota Supra Turbo engine into a Lexus IS300 or the monster Honda Prelude engine into a Honda Civic. These modifications can also be cosmetic, such as the replacement of a front bumper or headlights with its JDM counterpart.
Small cars with high power ratings can be formidable racing vehicles, and racing sport compacts has become so popular that the NHRA in the US and ANDRA in Australia now have special classes for sport compact racing.
The Australian National Drag Racing Association has no less than 7 dedicated classes catering for the popularity of Sport Compact Drag Racing;
1 - Pro Rear Wheel Drive 2 - Sport Modified 3 - OZ Modified 4 - Front Runner 5 - All Motor 6 - Sport Rear Wheel Drive 7 - Sport Front Wheel Drive
All these classes are officially sanctioned by ANDRA and are recognised through a series of successful events and National Records (www.andra.com.au)
Some highly modified sport compact dragsters can accelerate from 0-60 mph in less than four seconds, however, larger cars with V8s are capable of doing their whole quarter mile in this time with the same (or less) money invested.
It is also worth noting that sport compact cars have been the backbone of the latest motorsport discipline to emerge - drifting - since its beginnings.
Sport compacts are one of the fastest growing segments of the performance car market. Manufacturers such as Honda, Toyota, Mazda, and Nissan have begun producing 'pre-tuned' sport compacts, such as the Honda Civic Si, Toyota Corolla XRS, Mazdaspeed 3, and the Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V. These models are often rebadged versions of models previously created for other markets, or simply a trim level that was not available in the United States.
Manufacturers of automobiles in the United States have now begun to respond to the explosion of this market segment. General Motors has responded with a new Ecotec four-cylinder engine, which is designed specifically to be tuned. The engine is offered in the Saturn ION Redline and the Chevrolet Cobalt. Ford now offers many bolt-on performance parts for the Ford Focus.
Toyota has gone so far as to create an entire division dedicated to producing customizable sport compacts, Scion. They place special emphasis on providing aftermarket-style accessories, such as decals, exhaust tips, and superchargers.