Subcompact Culture is all about small cars. This includes subcompacts, compacts, micro cars, and more. Heck, even some vehicles that are a bit bigger. From news and reviews to cars shows and project vehicles: Subcompact is the small car blog.
One of our favorite annual motorsports events is the Oregon Trail Rally presented by the American Rally Association. After missing the last few events, we were able to return to the Columbia River Gorge to get in on the rally action featuring a host of vehicles, some of which were small and powerful. You can read more about our exploits over at our sister site, Crankshaft Culture.
The snap … the crackle … the pop. The hissing, growling, and popping that Fiat’s turbo-charged Abarth make is infectious. Their grunting and crackling sounds boost me as I swoop around corners, downshifting through all the gates in order to catch the steep downhill chicane successfully. Cornering in an Abarth makes me smile. Straightaways in an Abarth make me giddy. I didn’t want to leave the racetrack. I wanted to stuff my Abarth 500 and Abarth 124 Spider in my back pockets and run away forever.
FCA recently hosted a Skip Barber racing class / Fiat Abarth track day at Washington’s Ridge Motorsports Park. Several NWAPA journalists were on hand to experience the 500 and 124 Spider’s Abarth fury after taking a class from the legendary Terry Earwood via the Skip Barber Racing School.
Terry has been working with Skip Barber for over 35 years and has been an instrumental racer, teacher, and mentor in the automotive industry. Plus, he is awesomely hilarious and entertaining.
I’ve had little time on a paved racecourse as a driver, and found the Skip Barber class very beneficial. Learning about things like trailing-throttle oversteer or trailing-brake oversteer is, and how to prevent it, was important. This can help you understand how to smoothly and successfully navigate corners. Another thing we learned about was CPR. We all know what CPR is in medical terms, but CPR can also be a life-saving technique when encountering a skid. C: stands for correction—steer into the direction of the skid. P: pause, holding the correction to catch the slide. R: recovery, straightening the steering wheel to avoid a “hook-slide” caused by the second-reaction bounce. More lessons were taught. More laughs were had. We completed the morning’s classroom in time to head out to the track.
We took turns via a kidney-shaped road cone course and skid pad. Several colorful 500s and 124 Spiders sat poised for track time—both manual and automatic transmissions were offered. Each vehicle had a co-driver to guide you through the road course. We were coached when to start braking, how to brake or shift, and which angles to drive to complete directional changes successfully. We were told what did we do right, and how we can improve; it was great. Although I felt most comfortable in the 500 (we’ve previously reviewed 500 Abarths and written about this model numerous times over the last several years), but the 124 was also a kick in the pants to drive, too.
The skid pad was a bit unnerving for me, at least to start with. I’ve never skidded in a controlled environment before. A huge tanker truck doused water on the circular track, and of course, did so right before I drove—ensuring optimal skidding opportunities. As I drove in circles, I was told to keep increasing my speed. “Keep going … faster … smoothly … go, go, go!” As the Abarth started to skid, my heart jumped a bit, but my Midwestern snow-driving roots kicked right in and I steered into the skid to not lose control. I did things exactly as needed. “Keep looking where you want to go, not where you think you’re headed, however,” says a Skip Barber professional. Throughout this exercise, I skidded a lot but stole a quick glance or two to ensure I wasn’t going to throw my Abarth into Jersey barriers. But, as soon as I looked, I realized I gave up control. Even though I did very well at the skid pad, thanks to my snowy and icy upbringing, it was interesting to understand the actual dynamics of a skid in a controlled environment.
Back inside we went, and learned how to correctly apex different types of corners, when/where/why to downshift, correct and incorrect ways to brake, and so on. There’s a lot to learn before playing on the big track! After lunch we headed out to the racecourse. I quickly dove into whatever manual-transmission-equipped 500 or 124 Spider I could find. I didn’t care about color it was or if the 500 was a convertible—I needed my stick shift!
The only two rules were: don’t pass the pace car and after a few laps, go to the end of the line to let the next person lead. As my turn came up, I grabbed my loaner helmet, head sock, and hopped into a white manual 500 Abarth. The 1.4L, 160-HP MultiAir turbo four-cylinder engine brambled loudly as I got everything dialed in for take-off—and, we’re off!
The first lap or two was at a slower speed as everyone became familiar with the racetrack. Tight turns, elevation changes and long straightaways were leaned—this course was gonna be fun. As we sped up, things got massively fun. The 500’s highly-bolstered bucket seats enveloped me as I shifted my way into extreme happiness. The Abarth-tuned chassis included performance upgrades like KONI frequency selective damping (FSD) front shock absorbers, which automatically provide dampening needed for a racetrack or uneven roadways. Add to that a lowered ride height, beefier rear suspension with stiff spring rates, larger brakes, and wider tires, and I quickly found myself in tarmac heaven.
As we continued to the final lap, I got the hang of how to enter, continue through, and exit apexes. It’s harder than you think; at least it was for me. The growl and popping noises from the engine, as well as its planted demeanor on track, gave me giddies as I rolled my way to the finish line. What an exhilarating experience!
The 124 Spider was equally as entertaining to drive on track. This roadster’s 1.4L MultiAir turbo engine, delivering 164 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque, was a hoot to navigate through the corners, as well as accelerate in the straightaways. Both the 500 and 124 Spider Abarth models offer up short-throw shifters, making the driver experience even that more engaging. Add to that Abarth’s well-known chattery snaps, crackles, and pops—and my awesomely entertaining track day will soon not be forgotten.
Photos courtesy Ian Cassley There was time when I wasn't sure which way I was going to go with my automotive obsession. I knew I wanted a project vehicle but didn't have much money. I wanted bang for the buck, something different, and something with potential to be fast or capable. I somehow found myself looking at Ford Festivas. Stay with me here ...
I found out there's a thriving band of fringe lunatics (my favorite type of automotive personality, since, well, I'm one of them) that is into modifying Ford Festivas. No, not Fiestas, Festivas. As in the late 1980s/early 1990s Ford econobox. These little runabouts were made by Kia (before Kia was sold in the U.S.), and also sold as the Mazda 121. They were slow, frugal, bare-bones vehicles, albeit with a willing chassis. Like any group of wonderfully eccentric auto enthusiasts, some people found out how to make the Festiva faster, handle better, and look cooler.
Enter Ian Cassely. Ian, who hails from Calgary, Alberta, has been a Festiva enthusiast for some time and runs the blogger site Econobox Café. There he's chronicled his Festiva builds, life with his Festiva, travels with his Festiva, and all things, well, Festiva.
WHY FESTIVA?Ian says that after more than 20 years with one job that provided a company vehicle, he started a new job that had a 50km/30 mile round trip commute. Because of this, they picked up a second vehicle.
"The main criteria for the purchase where fairly basic: great gas mileage, fun to drive, relatively inexpensive and easy to work on," he said. "The first car we picked up was a second-generation VW Jetta Carat that had been properly lowered on Tokico coilovers. It turned out that this met the first two criteria but not the third. When we decided to sell that and find something else I remember reading an article in the August 1988 edition of Motor Trend magazine written by Don Fuller featuring an '88 Festiva that they tweaked just a little. My favorite quotes from that article are 'On a winding mountain highway, it's an unqualified blast,' and 'There are few street cars that attack corners with more ferocity.'"
THE PROJECT BEGINSIn early 2001, Ian bought a 1992 GL Festiva with low miles. He had the vehicle for quite a while—12+ years—and did a ton of upgrades, all the way to the popular B6 engine swap. Of course, that engine wasn't left stock. It included things like a FMS lightweight flywheel, 2" custom exhaust, header, performance cam, and a ported and polished head. Suspension bits included Tein coilovers, stainless brake lines, adjustable sway bar, and upgraded brakes. It rolled on 13" Toyota mesh wheels wrapped in stickier Federal tires, and showcased a slew of bodywork and interior upgrades, such as Toyota MR2 seats and a custom steering wheel. Worldly exterior upgrades ranged from Kia Pride taillights from the UK to a Mazda 121 grille from Australia. Then, in December of 2015, after 400,000 km/248,548 miles, the engine died. Time for Festiva No. 2, which is the aqua car.
Ian was able to salvage many parts from Festiva No. 1 (as seen above) for Festiva No. 2. This includes the coilovers, many exterior bits, and parts of the interior. This one, however, would be turbocharged. Ian dropped in 1.6-liter turbocharged B6T powerplant from a 1988 Mazda 323 GTX. This included needed a new ECU and wiring for the new vehicle. I won't outline the entire built as the whole thing is on his site.
Stock engine ...
What he ended up with was a super-clean, quick, and great-looking Festiva. And let's just put things in perspective on this build:
63 @ 5,000 rpm
132 @6,000 rpm
136 ft lbs
New turbocharged engine.
Yes, that's a 109.5% increase in horsepower and 109% increase in torque. Yee haw!
Someday I'd love to check this little car out in person. It looks great, no doubt is a kick in the pants to drive, and represents one of my favorite things: taking a low-performance vehicle and turning it into a miniature rocket ship.
If you’re a gearhead, you no doubt know what a sleeper is. If you’re unfamiliar, a sleeper is a vehicle that may not look like much, but it’s actually a high-performance vehicle in a dowdy package. Think wolf in sheep’s clothing. Think high horsepower with hubcaps. Not all sleepers need to look super boring; they can simply be a platform that’s not generally associated with performance that is a surprising performer.
For years, I’ve had a few projects I’d love to undertake. And while they’ve been done before, these are ones I’d love to build and love to own. Here are three of my dream projects. Leave your dream sleepers in the comments.
V-8 Powered Suzuki Sidekick
Scott Hamlin's LS Powered 1996 Geo Tracker - YouTube
I loved our 1995 Suzuki Sidekick dubbed the Teal Terror. However, the name was a bit tongue-in-cheek as it only had 95 hp—hardly terrifying. And while the Teal Terror was a good little off-roader, I’d love to build a fire-breathing V-8 on-road rig that’d be fun to drag race but still be streetable.
I’m thinking an LS or a 5.0-liter V-8 out of a Mustang or something along that size; an engine with plenty of potential to provide horsepower with that hairy-chested V-8 growl. A two door Sidekick or Geo Tracker can weigh as little as 2,134 lbs so there’s some serious power-to-weight ratio potential. It’s a body-on-frame construction, but it’d need to be reinforced to accept the extra power and weight. But man, a short-wheelbase 2WD V-8 powered Sidekick could be a real handful in a good way. And of course, it would have to be equipped with electric exhaust cut outs for full V-8 sounds.
Frankly, I’m getting giddy just thinking about this project.
My first car was a 1992 Mitsubishi Expo LRV. This three-door miniature minivan was super practical and totally versatile. It was even fun to drive with its 1.8-liter 113 hp mill hooked up to a five-speed manual transmission. However, it wasn’t very fast.
In the mid-to-late 1990s, I was in college and got access to the internet. This allowed me to do all sorts of research on cars, and I found out that my unpopular Expo was also called the RVR (Recreational Vehicle Runner) in Japan. The RVR was available with a variety of engines including my gas-powered 1.8-liter, a diesel mill, and the legendary 4G63 engine found in the Eclipse and Lancer Evolution. Ever since finding this out, I’ve wanted to swap in a 4G63 into an Expo LRV (also known as the Eagle Summit Wagon and Plymouth Colt Vista) to create a very fast pregnant rollerskate of a car.
This swap has been done and is well documented, and I’ve even found a Eagle Summit/Mitsubishi RVR/LRV/Vista Tuners group that caters to modifying these cars. You can go full-on AWD and make yourself a tall Evo eater. However, I’d skip the AWD complexity and go FWD. All the info is out there to do the swap, and you could make one hell of a sleeper. Imagine pulling up to the line with your little tall wagon knowing you have 200+ hp under the stubby hood.
From the 1980s through the 1990s, the Ford Escort was Ford’s compact car. Available in a variety of configurations, there was something for everyone. Whether it was the basic hatchback, or the versatile wagon, Escorts (and they’re Mercury Tracer twins) had Mazda DNA and even sometimes Mazda powerplants. Such was the case with the sporty second-generation Escort GT which utilized the twin-cam Mazda BP engine. This powerplant had plenty of potential to scoot the Scort 0-60 in under nine seconds stock.
What I’d love to do is swap in the Mazda BP powerplant from the Escort GT into an Escort wagon. Of course it’d have to have the silky five-speed manual transmission, and maybe a little boost added, if you know what I mean. I know this has been done before but I’d love to have a small sleeper wagon that is not only great at hauling ass, but also good at hauling groceries.
While some automakers are pulling out of the subcompact marketplace, Nissan has recently announced its all-new 2020 Versa sedan.
The Versa (and now dead Versa Note) have been keeping Nissan at the top of the heap in terms of subcompact sales volume for a long time; the company has always moved quite a bit of them. And for 2020, there will be more to like about Nissan's smallest sedan.
Technology is a top priority in the all-new Nissan Versa, featuring available Nissan Safety Shield 360, a prime example of Nissan Intelligent Mobility that helps provide front, side and rear safety monitoring and intervention technologies. Standard safety features include automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, rear automatic braking, lane departure warning and high beam assist. Available equipment includes blind spot warning, rear cross traffic alert, intelligent driver alertness and intelligent cruise control.
Other tech features often reserved for more expensive segments are standard in the 2020 Versa, including remote keyless entry, push button start and power windows. Popular features like heated front seats, Automatic Climate Control, Apple Car PlayTM and Android AutoTM are also available.
Obviously, the design is totally different. It's wider, lower, and—of course—longer than the previous Versa. The car picks up some of the design language found on Maxima and Altima, too, especially on the rear C-pillar and front grille. The overall look is quite premium for a subcompact. The interior also picks up hints from other Nissan design language.
Under the hood, Versa will feature a new 1.6-liter four-cylinder making 122 hp and 114 lb/ft of torque paired with either a CVT or five-speed manual, up from the last generation's 109 hp and 107 lb/ft of torque.
Color is also a carefully considered element of the new Versa’s appeal. Eight dynamic colors are offered, including Electric Blue Metallic, Monarch Orange Metallic and Scarlet Ember Tintcoat.
It's good to see that not every single automaker out there is abandoning its small cars or simply turning them into crossovers. It's likely this Versa will continue to be a big seller to both consumers and fleets. Looking forward to checking this out in person.
Have you noticed the uptick in the popularity of all things '80s and '90s? Heck, there are even car shows for them. Ever heard of Radwood?
With this newfound interest in '80s and '90s vehicles, I got to thinking about some of my favorite small cars from the era. Of course, I have to mention the little Subaru Justy picture above. With a tiny engine but mighty 4WD, these little things went everywhere.
Hopped-up Ford Fiesta
There were also cars like the steadfast Toyota Tercel, the the Suzuki Swift and Geo Metro twins, my favorites—the Dodge Colt/Mitsubishi Mirage/Eagle Summit triplets (and their tall wagon cousins), the Ford Fiestas (made by Kia), and many more.
Pontiac LeMans (made by Daewoo)
Oh, don't forget the Daewoo-built Pontiac LeMans. Yeah. About that ...
The '80s and many of the '90s subcompacts were definitely more Spartan that pretty much any new vehicle offered in North America today. People who complain about the features on modern, inexpensive runabouts, such as the Nissan Versa or Mitsubishi Mirage, have probably never spent time in a 1986 Chevrolet Sprint.
The Chevrolet Sprint (which was actually manufactured by Suzuki)
In fact, many of these "economy cars" were called "penalty boxes" due to their lack of features and boxy style. And while many of them didn't offer many accouterments or much power (a 1986 Chevrolet Sprint hatchback offer a screaming 48 hp), they did offer great fuel economy and basic transportation for not much money. Granted, you didn't want to get into an accident with a dump truck. But does anyone want to get into an accident with a dump truck?
Dodge Colt GT
I'm partial to the cars we grew up, which would be Mitsubishi. I always wanted one of the Dodge Colt GTs or turbocharged Mitsubishi Mirages. Someday, I still aspire to own one. I also was smitten with the Suzuki Swift GT or GTi (as well as the attractive girl in high school that owned one, but that's another story).
What were your favorite small cars from the '80s and '90s?
Car and Driver is reporting that while Toyota has axed the Yaris liftback for 2019, in 2020 it could return with Mazda2 underpinnings.
Toyota already replaced the Yaris sedan with the Yaris iA, based on the Mazda2 sedan, which we reviewed when it was initially launched as a Scion. I said that while it had a willing chassis, it had a minuscule back seat and wasn't too exciting. I'm also not generally a big fan of small sedans. But the idea of a of this coming as a hatchback warms my gasoline-powered heart.
As Car and Driver pointed out, it'll likely be powered by the same 1.5-liter engine making 106 hp. I assume it'll also be mated to either the six-speed auto or the six-speed manual (yay!). And while I still haven't fully warmed up to the fish-face fascia, I think I prefer the package without a trunk—full-on hatchback style.
I'm a fan of most Mazda products, and was bummed when they discontinued the Mazda2. So seeing that it may be coming over in some form is great. I could very well see buying one of these in the future.
It should be said that Toyota has not officially stated this is going to happen, but all signs are pointing to "yes," which makes Toyota one of the few companies to continue offering a small car in its lineup. In fact, has always offered a small car in its lineup. This includes the Yaris, Echo, and Tercel.
Well, here we are, 16 days into 2019 and The Rage, our 2017 Mitsubishi Mirage, has new shoes.
If you'll remember, I had shod the hatchback with 15x6.5 (et 38) MB Revolts with 195/50/15 Yokohama S.Drive tires. Almost immediately, however, I found that 195s on the Mirage were too wide. We had extreme rubbing on the rear under hard cornering, while driving over bumps, and with any passengers. This was to the extent where the wheel well's lip was taking strings of rubber from the sidewall. In addition, unless you're racing a mirage, a 195 is more tire than this car will ever need. In fact, even in racing it might be more tire than it needs. I mulled over rolling and pulling the fenders, but after doing some measurements, it'd take significant massaging to get those 195s to fit without rubbing, and they still might rub. They had to go, and they did. I rolled around on the stock, lilliputian 165/65/14 low rolling resistance Dunlop Enasaves for a while until I figured out what to do.
I knew I wanted something narrower than the 15x6.5 wheels, I wanted something with more offset than 38mm, and wanted a tire size of 185mm at a maximum. I considered running a 14" wheel and tire, but the wheels look too small to me. What I really needed was a narrow 15" wheel with a high offset. And after searching for tires, I decided I'd run the factory-optional 175/55/15 tire size. But there were still decisions to be made.
I looked at pretty much every wheel available for sale new in North America, but all the wheels were still not the right specs—there's hardly anything narrower than a 15x6.5. I didn't want stock wheels, I wanted something with a different, sportier style. Then I found Japanese auto parts seller, Croooober (yes, with four "o" letters). Unlike other places to buy wheels from Japan, Croooober also will ship them to you directly. This eliminates the need to find a middleman to ship them, saving time and (potentially) money. Crooober allows you to refine your search by specifying the offset, width, diameter, bolt pattern, and condition of a wheel. So I was able to dial in a 15x5 with an offset from 40mm to 47mm. There were scads to choose from in all sorts of styles and price ranges. I ended up finding a set of these 5Zigen Pro Racer GN+ wheels in bronze. They were lightly used with very few blemishes. They are a kei car fitment with a 15x5 size with a +45 offset—perfect for the finicky Mirage fitment. Plus, they weigh just about 12 lbs. Shipped to my house from Yokohama, Japan, these wheels cost just a tick over $400. Now for tires.
The 175/55/15 tire size isn't terribly common, and there aren't a whole lot of "sticky" options. While perusing my choices, I looked into the Nankang AS-1, an ultra-high performance all-season tire. It would be far stickier than the stock 165/65/14 Dunlop Enasave, and offer more grip than the OEM-optional 175/55/15 Yokohama Avid S34FA. (Additionally, the AS-1 is $46 less per tire than the Avid S34FA.)
Before mounting and balancing the setup, I made sure the center bore was right, and it was. I took the tires to get mounted, balanced, and installed. I was very happy with the look! Frankly, I love it.
I've had the setup now for over a week and I really like it. The AS-1s have offered a quiet, comfortable ride, and the right amount of grip for a street tire, even in spirited situations. In the rain, it's felt confident and planted, and despite the Mirage's mushy steering, The AS-1s have offered an improvement in overall handling. Keep in mind, I have never intended my Mirage to be a track toy, but rather a fun-to-drive commuter that is entertaining, frugal, and not too harsh. I'm very impressed with the Nankang AS-1 thus far, and look forward to more time with them.
Our Mirage continues to please as a fun, fuel-efficient commuter. It was cheap to buy, has been cheap to maintain, and is still getting around 40 MPG, even on the wider non-low-rolling-resistance tires. And now that it doesn't rub over all the bumps, it's much more pleasing to pilot.
Well, here we are in 2019. And now that it's 2019, we can reflect on the small car sales of 2018.
Pretty interesting year, frankly. A number of automakers, including Ford, announced it was going to stop selling sedans in favor of CUVs and SUVs. We saw slumping subcompact sales, too. But how bad (or good) was it?
The biggest year over year change came from the Toyota C-HR, the smallish FWD crossover, which had a 92.7% gain in sales vs. 2017. But that's where the huge gains end.
The Kia Rio and Hyundai Ioniq hybrid both posted gains over 30%. The top five gains are rounded out by the MINI Countryman and Chevrolet Trax.
The 2018 Toyota Yaris Liftback had the biggest sales drop on our 2018 sales list.
The biggest drops in sales—and there some biggies—were anchored by a 77.6% decline in Toyota Yaris liftbacks. At the time of this post, Toyota still hasn't announced a 2019 Yaris Liftback. And, with sales of just 1,940 units all year long, it wouldn't surprise me if they simply won't offer it any longer. Down 67.2% was the Smart ForTwo. Frankly, I'm not really sure what's going on there. I know they're all EVs these days, and maybe that's why. It's been on a continual downward spiral for quite some time, however. The little Fiat 500 has also been clinging to life the last couple of years. For 2018, overall sales were down a dismal 58% with just 5,370 units moved. Rounding out the bottom five, are the Hyundai Accent, which was down 50.7%, and the not-so-miniature MINI Cooper Clubman, down 43.3%.
The 2018 Mitsubishi Mirage line outsold the Chevrolet Spark for the first time since its introduction.
Of particular interest to me is the continual sales rivalry between the Chevrolet Spark and the Mitsubishi Mirage, two of the least expensive cars for sale on the U.S. market. For the first time since its introduction, the Mirage outsold the Spark. Impressively, both cars had year-over-year sales gains with the Mirage up 8.6% and the Spark up 4.5%. Despite the large increase in CUV, SUV, and truck sales, these to pint-sized cars are still racking up sales—proof people want inexpensive, small vehicles. Granted, we don't know the breakdown of consumer vs. fleet sales. Regardless, sales were up. 2019 PREDICTIONSI predict that 2019 will be very similar to 2018 in the subcompact market. We'll hear more small cars are going away in favor of small CUVs. However, I'll bet the Mirage and Spark continue to soldier on as economy car champs. We shall see! Onto the chart:
So, what's going on with the Yaris Liftback in the U.S.? I've repeatedly been on Toyota.com to see if there are any updates for the MY2019, but it still says 2018 Yaris ...
There has been speculation that Toyota will abandon the liftback platform in favor of simply offering the Mazda-built Yaris iA sedan as its sole subcompact offering. The Liftback has been a slow seller for Toyota in recent years, so it wouldn't be surprising if it did go away. In fact, Yaris Liftback sales are down a staggering 78.2% compared to 2017. Only 1,842 have been sold all year. I have reached out to Toyota's media contact for more information about what's going on the the Yaris Liftback for the U.S. market, and will report back when I hear from them.
YARIS EN MEXICO You don't need to go too far to get a different flavor of Yaris, however. Our neighbors to the south in Mexico get a far different Yaris liftaback than we do in the U.S. or Canada.
This is the Mexican-market Yaris, based on the XP150 platform (vs. the XP130 in the U.S./Canada). It's similar to the Thai market version. It's more modern looking and its design language is more in line with some of the other models sold. It's powered by a 1.5-liter engine making 107 hp and 104 lbs/ft of torque through either a CVT or 5MT. I'm not sure if this is based on the 1NZ-FE engine or not, but the size and power outputs are similar to Yaris models in the U.S./Canada.
Speaking of Canada, Toyota.ca lists the Yaris Hatchback as a 2019 model, so I'm not sure what's going on there.
It will be a surprise to few if Toyota has officially axed the Yaris Liftback. And, with the trend towards CUVs, and SUVs in favor of not just small cars but all cars, it will not be a shock if it's being retired. More soon.