Comparison Test: Affordable Everyday Fun Cars

Review by Jeff Wilson, Jonathan Yarkony and Jacob Black. Photos by Jeff Wilson and Chris Coughlin

Life is full of rules and restrictions; regulations designed, I suppose, for the betterment of humankind and to protect our own personal safety. But sometimes you can’t help but feel that all these rules are just choking the fun out of life.

No trespassing! Always wear sunscreen! Eat healthier food!  Don’t come to work without pants… again!

Enough is enough! We need to live a little!

There comes a point where a little break from reality becomes a necessity for survival and what we have here is an assemblage of machines that are the very antidote to our regulatory society. The best part? These cars are as much fun as an all-access pass to the Playboy Mansion (or I suppose Disney World – whichever you prefer), but without the crippling cost of admission.

We’ve gathered together some of the most coveted affordable fun-boxes available on the market. Each one of these in their respective performance trim (save for the Mazda) starts at under $30,000, making them reasonably affordable for most Canadians.

They all have four-cylinder engines and for what is believed to be unprecedented in autoTRADER comparison test history – all seven cars are equipped with an honest-to-goodness manual transmission.

Praise be to [insert preferred deity here]!

Before we go further, it should be noted that there are some absences in our congregation. Ford offers up not one, but two excellent hot hatches starting under $30K, and both worthy of any enthusiast’s shopping list. The Focus ST was unavailable at the time and its little brother, the Fiesta ST – a beloved little rascal – was recently (soundly and unanimously) beaten in a comparison test by the Mini Cooper S. Hyundai is apparently finished with offering bargain basement four-cylinder Genesis Coupes after this year, so it wasn’t invited to the party either.

That leaves us with these seven wonderful little scamps.

Enthusiasts around the world get excited when Subaru brings out a new WRX, their snorty little turbo-boxer-powered sedan known in a past life for being a rally champion. Volkswagen has long been recognized as the originator of the hot-hatchback genre with their acclaimed GTI lineage going back more than three decades.

Both are brand new for 2015 and both are in this test.

Mini’s turbocharged Cooper S is also up for a good time, showing off its new-for-2014 big kid clothes at the party along with a mildly updated (again) Honda Civic Si, sporting a slight power boost and bigger wheels.

Last year’s darlings – the BRZ and FR-S twins – are represented here by Toyota’s youth division to play with its rear-wheel-drive competitor, Mazda’s stalwart MX-5 roadster in its final showing before a replacement is due next year.

And not wanting to be bad hosts, we invited Nissan’s newest, err… sporting, umm, creation, the Juke Nismo RS; a hot hatch, or sports crossover, or… well, whatever it is, it was welcome to come out to play too because let’s be honest, you can never have too many affordable fun cars. And, well, it qualified on paper.

After a couple of glorious days of driving, photographing, arguing, name-calling and more than a few broken rules, we all picked a winner. In fact, we all picked the same winner. And it was a big win, too.

Seventh: 2014 Nissan Juke Nismo RS, Jonathan Yarkony

I’ve dodged it before, but the time has finally come for me to speak my piece about the Nissan Juke. Every car in this test brings with it some redeeming qualities, excelling at certain tasks as well as or better than any others. The Juke Nismo RS? It has awesome front seats, earning compliments as the favourites several drivers, but not enough to top the category. The steering wheel is pretty cool, too.

I could just stop there, but we’d be doing all our readers a disservice if we didn’t detail some of the Juke’s letdowns in this trim and this test. First of all, those seats: they’re great once you’re in them, and comfortable enough if you’re the right shape and size, but look out getting in because the tall thigh bolsters are a risk upon entry. One driver noted, “High, rock-hard bolsters make entry/exit a challenge.” It’s very easy to crash a leg or land awkwardly on the bolster if you don’t use the correct approach angle. Gentlemen, consider yourself warned.

Move back a row and the seats are uncomfortable and short on space, with a narrow door opening making for difficult access and child-seat installation, though clearly it still is better than any of the coupes here. As a hatchback, there is a certain measure of utility if you fold down the rear seats, but the narrow, shallow trunk left it trailing the GTI, WRX and even Civic Si for cargo capacity.

There’s a nav system and a Rockford Fosgate stereo, but the stereo would only seem impressive compared to basic compact cars, and the nav is on a tiny screen with poorly rendered graphics – most portable units I’ve seen are superior. The interface features fussy buttons and tiny knobs and items on the screen are not very legible (though the Juke is not alone in this – the GTI’s screen isn’t much better, if you ask me). The panel below the screen has some neat items, like a torque gauge and g-force meter, but it’s all housed in a tacky plastic backing, with other lacklustre materials throughout the cabin. Brian Weeks noticed that the “friggin’ floor mats’ sole purpose apparently is to bunch up under the clutch.  Shred these into playground padding or something please.”

The steering wheel and seats are the exception, with alcantara inserts and hand grips that transcend this crummy interior. Jacob in particular loved them: “Best seats of the entire test. I love these seats. I think in years to come people will buy Juke Nismo RSs from wreckers just for the seats. The steering wheel is the same, it’s the best, raciest, sexiest and most comfortable in the whole group. Those seats, and that wheel offer up so much promise. Pity none of that promise is realized.”

Sitting in those seats holding on to that steering wheel, visions of a tight, racy driving experience fill the mind, but as soon as you push the start button, the off-key little turbo engine starts to drain one’s excitement. Wind the engine up and it only gets more distressed, wailing away unpleasantly like a strangled calf. Don’t get me wrong, with 215 hp at 6,000 rpm and 210 lb-ft of torque between 3,600 – 4,800 rpm, the Juke Nismo RS does get up to speed quickly enough, punching above its 1.8 litres once the turbo is spooled up and the torque steer dies off from this FWD hatch. Though not the least powerful, it scored last in the Engine ratings. Sure the MX-5 is relatively underpowered in comparison, but that engine is a joy to wind up and pulls far beyond what its ratings would suggest.

But shifting? As much as we love manual transmissions, the RS clutch was inconsistently weighted and soft, the shifter rubbery but slightly notchy in an unpleasant way and generally unengaging. We can’t help but think the CVT-AWD combo in the non-RS Juke Nismo is the way to go, that is if you really must have a warmed-over Juke. Jeff Wilson panned the overall driving experience as well, echoing the group’s sentiments: “The engine makes strange noises and provides decent thrust, but the shifter, steering and overall driving experience are lacking engagement and provide little joy to the driver.”

It doesn’t even impress on the livability side, some commenting “The worst ride and handling” – the high centre of gravity because of the raised crossover platform force Nismo to stiffen up the springs, compromising ride, but a dated chassis means it is sloppy and, well, kind of a hot mess. Steering gets absolutely horrendous in corners.

The Juke bombed out, placing dead last in every dynamic category and not only last but far short of the norm in Fun Factor. To a man, nobody wanted to spend a second more than he had to in the Juke. And we haven’t even touched on its ‘controvesial’ looks. My personal opinion is that the Juke is the single ugliest vehicle on the market. But hey, I’m just one man and I can admit that, as Jeff says, “The Nismo team has done a great job sprucing up the Juke with cool wheels and trim accents,” and an excellent colour combination, if I might add. Brian observed that “there are enough that love the froggy looks because I see a few around… in fact there are two on my street, including one that looks identical to our tester.  I have funky neighbours.”

I can understand people buying an ordinary Juke looking for a unique, distinctive look, but the Nismo team took the Juke a step (or few) beyond the chassis’ abilities for this Nismo RS creation. Part of me regrets inviting the Juke, because I feel bad dumping on the goofy little odd duck, but as consumer advice goes, unless you’re set on its one-of-a-kind looks (which you can get for less money and better execution in a simple Juke Nismo), stay away from this one as it is barely practical as a small crossover runabout and completely underwhelming as a fun or engaging hot hatch.

Pricing: 2014 Nissan Juke Nismo RS
Base Price: $28,298
Options: Pearl White paint - $300
A/C Tax: $100
Freight and PDI: $1,695
Price as Tested: $30,393

Sixth: 2014 Mazda MX-5, Jonathan Yarkony

Don’t be so surprised. And don’t for a minute think that we love the MX-5 any less because of this result.

Before we get into the reasons that the Mazda MX-5 falls to sixth place, note the stickers on its simple, pleasing black flanks. This is the very same MX-5 I drove through the Smokey Mountains and Tail of the Dragon, and I’ve got the stickers to prove it.

But this isn’t simply a navigational rally on superlative driving roads for an intrepid couple, arranged by the manufacturer to highlight its greatest assets. This is a fierce challenge against potential competitors that consumers might consider, and a range of criteria that those consumers will likely weigh. However, if you’re considering a genuinely performance-oriented two-seat convertible under $40,000, well, look no further. Granted, there really isn’t much convertible competition at all at that price point, bur the VW Eos, which itself is an aging platform and just a comfortable cruiser, or a Mini Convertible that is also due for a reboot shortly are two possible options. The MX-5, however, strays into a performance realm that few convertibles under $50,000 reach, and few hardtops in this price range for that matter. The ones that do you’ll read about shortly.

Anyhow, despite being a dynamic and sensory masterpiece (its balance is perfection and its communication skills impeccable), there is more to an autoTRADER Comparison Test than pure handling, in which, for the record, the MX-5 placed second by mere decimal points. Two cars displayed similar balance while offering sharper reflexes – the MX-5, as it ages, seems softer compared to fresher arrivals, and that sharpness resonated with this group.

The MX-5 obviously gave up some points for practicality, lacking rear doors or seats, but where it really fell behind was on features, value and overall interior execution (where it scored last in several minor and major categories). Materials and functionality are a generation old, the interior seemed barebones, cramped, and yet it was still the most expensive car in the comparison, that power retractable hardtop a pricey affair, and the $6K price leap over a base car offering little more than that hard top and an extra gear in the manual transmission. Jacob captured the MX-5’s compromise, um, eloquently: “With so much competition it won’t get away with this woefully underequipped interior much longer. Of course, those are the thoughts you have in the parking lot. Once you’re on the road the only thoughts you have are, ‘OMG I love this car this car is so good OMG what a fun car OMG off ramp!’”

That pricey six-speed transmission is a gem, the super-short throws firm and notchy (in a good way), the clutch a Goldilocks weight that is neither WRX heavy nor FR-S light and absolutely perfect for bite feel. It makes working that ‘little engine that could’ such sheer unqualified joy. Power builds with rpm in traditional naturally aspirated fashion, linear all the way up to 167 hp at 7,000 rpm, and quite possibly making the sweetest sounds in the process. Sure I love me a stonking V8, but this was a brilliant quartet that hit just the right pitch and like the rest of the car, expressed the purity of purpose built into every panel, part and cohesion of this epic roadster.

Then again, the 140 lb-ft at 5,000 rpm meant it was objectively the slowest, even if that did little to diminish the fun factor – it was second by one decimal point to the leader in Fun Factor. Jeff Wilson, a former NC Miata (that’s Miata geek-speak for this generation MX-5) owner went on and on about its charms: “No matter how menial the errand run, this car goads its driver into a qualifying event every single time.  It's a car that's designed solely for fun.  It's the weakest in power, but out on the road, you won't care.  The engine loves to rev and makes pretty good noises doing so.  Apparently it has a stereo in it and a foldable hard top.  Who needs the radio?  Not me.”

If all you want to do is drive the wheels off a machine, this is the one, its low power meaning you can exploit more of it in a, um, responsible manner. Well, at least it is one option, because others are just as much fun to push, but have more to offer in other areas as well, and Jeff’s tale is a case in point as to why the MX-5 falls so far in this comparison – he gave it up once he had a child.

While this last point was a small consideration, you would expect that the lightest car (1,182 kg) with the smallest engine (1.6L I4) would be a lock to nail down fuel consumption, but it was one of the worst in both observed and EPA combined ratings. SkyActiv can’t come soon enough for this one.

The MX-5 kind of came to this gunfight with a knife. Okay, perhaps a sword, or bow and arrow. But definitely not a gun. The MX-5 is a precise, traditional roadster that remains one of the most brilliant handling machines with a clarity of mission that it fulfills with rewarding engagement. Unfortunately, in all the areas of practicality, design, interior and technology, not to mention an inflated price for the expensive folding hardtop, the MX-5 simply cannot compete as an all-round car. That being said, we still adore this thing through and through, and recommend it highly as the convertible of choice and a track car extraordinaire for beginners and experienced lappers alike.

Pricing: 2014 Mazda MX-5
Base Price: $36,045
Options: $0
A/C Tax: $100
Freight and PDI: $1,795
Price as Tested: $37,940

Fifth: 2015 Scion FR-S, Jonathan Yarkony

The Scion FR-S enjoys the privilege of winning in two of the most coveted categories: Looks and Handling. They are not unrelated.

Pure sex appeal. Hot hatches can be charming and sedans are practical, but coupes are the cars that draw the eye, the low roof and sloping hood with big bulging fenders evoking all sorts of carnal thoughts. However, an enthusiast will note that the low roof and low hood also translate into a low centre of gravity, and those in the know will remember that this Toyota is packing Subaru engineered flat-four engine also keeping that centre of gravity low and balance ideal.

They are also two categories that can instantly close a deal. For some, one glance at the FR-S would be enough to make it a first choice in the realm of affordable cars. One drive, perhaps even one corner is all it should take for someone that values the feel of a true sports car.

The FR-S’s other category win was Steering Feel, the firmly weighted wheel, though wrapped in poor quality perforated leather with rough stitching, absolutely sang with the joy of diving into turns, the response immediate, and the tension palpable. For some hyperbole, let’s turn to Jeff Wilson: “Wow is this thing ever frisky!  It changes directions more rapidly than a housefly on a caffeine kick.”

I’d forgotten how incredible the steering in this thing is, and with the lowest centre of gravity, grip and balance are superb even on a set of durable, efficient tires, though they are not so sticky as to keep you captive and allow a bit of slip and play – the suspension tuning and hyper-sharp steering on the FR-S is such that it invites a bit of tail-out antics. Bring it on. Then again, not all found the lack of grip endearing. “Too bad about the tires though. With very little provocation, it'll chirp and squawk and break loose, which might be fun, but puts it at a disadvantage in outright performance compared to some of the more serious rides in this group,” says Jeff Wilson. Why so serious?

The engine, however, is not as eager. The horizontally opposed boxer-four makes the requisite 200 hp, but it can only muster 151 lb-ft of torque, so while you can throttle steer on the edge of adhesion taking an on-ramp, you may need to look elsewhere if power-sliding around big empty parking lots is high on your priority list. Jeff echoes my sentiments: “Scion rates this thing at 33 hp more than the Mazda but I sure don't feel those horses. The coarse, slow-revving engine needs more beans to be engaging.” It seems like it needs another 2,000 rpm to come into its own as it’s just starting to pull when you have to shift (or clumsily bounce into the rev-limiter as I did several times). Jacob Black concurs: “The engine needs more grunt, I’ll say that ‘til the day I die. Wonderful car to drive, horrible tinny interior.”

Ah yes, the interior. There’s a reason Scion can deliver the FR-S at under $30K even with the Freight charge factored in (the only car other than the Civic Si to do so). These are economy car materials and entry-level systems, including audio, gauges, fit and finish, scoring last or second-last in several livability categories. Of the cars with rear seats, the FR-S was least accommodating.

The high point of the interior is the driver’s seat, which, although difficult to get down into, holds you in place with its alcantara inserts and high bolsters, but is well contoured to offer good comfort and adjustable enough to find a suitable driving position. Jeff loved “the view of the fender tops through the windshield, helping the driver place this car where it needs to be at all times.” Unfortunately, the view in every other direction was severely restricted, making parking and driving in traffic a chore.

The manual transmission is anything but a chore. At times it feels like they reverse engineered the MX-5 shifter feel, but the clutch is absurdly light – switching between the WRX and this was a shock either way. Though a bit more weight would be welcome in the clutch, more response from the brakes should be a priority. Although they do build progressively and bring the car down from speed adequately, they just feel weak and vague early in their travel.

There is no question that this is the purist’s sports car of the bunch, with perhaps the greatest handling potential (a simple tire swap should give it grip for days), the practical and economical compromises might elicit regret from those that aren’t truly committed to a dedicated performance car, while the power deficit might leave the performance crowd looking elsewhere for not much more money. The Scion FR-S is sexy, with a wholly visceral and masterful driving experience, but it trails in too many areas to come out on top in this comparison.

Pricing: 2015 Scion FR-S
Base Price: $26,670
Options: Premium Display Audio System with Navigation - $1,025
A/C Tax: $100
Freight and PDI: $1,695
Price as Tested: $29,490

Fourth Place: 2014 Honda Civic Si Coupe, Jeff Wilson

This is the part where I get to say, “I told ya’ so!”

Early on, a few of our merry evaluators had dismissed the Civic for its front-wheel-drive orientation and lack of torque, but I figured Honda’s little ripper would quietly work its way up the rankings to at least a mid-pack placement for a number of good reasons. And looky here, it bested the two rear-wheel-drive “pure enthusiast” cars in this test. Seems that maybe there’s more to a contemporary fun car than just tail-happy antics.

First and foremost, the Civic is an undeniable value leader in this group. Although its sticker price isn’t as low as some of the others, it comes fully kitted out. Good stereo? Check. Navigation? Check. Sunroof? Check. Heated seats? You betcha’! And even a funky camera mounted in the passenger side mirror to show the driver what lurks in the blind spot. This is all standard fare in the Si (then again, it only comes in one trim.

But features and gadgets don’t necessarily make a car fun; that part comes from the driving experience, and the Civic does just fine there, too. Honda has been lauded for its stellar stick shifts, and the legend lives on. Throws are short and precise with a clutch action that is nicely weighted, providing good feel. It’s the sort of transmission with which you rifle off shifts at the track, then use to go teach your niece how to drive standard.

Despite its best-in-class ranking for its transmission, Senior Editor Yarkony rightly suggests that overall it “feels a generation behind, and that manual transmission I so love has left room for others to eclipse it.”

Honda has also held steadfast on their racy, high-revving VTEC engines that encourage drivers to zing the tach to stratospheric heights again and again. This behaviour is certainly fun, and tends to bring out the hooliganism in its driver, but also grabs the attention of everyone around as if you’re calling them out to race. Then somebody’s mom in a family sedan will calmly pull away on a wave of torque the Civic just doesn’t have. The extra few horsepower Honda claims for 2014 aren’t felt (up 5 to 205).

Honda’s sportiest Civic handles better than Editor Jacob Black had thought it would, and that seemed to be the sentiment of most who climbed out of the Si after a drive. Still, nobody rated the Civic’s handling best in the bunch either, falling short in our steering feel and handling measures. As a trade-off, the ride comfort was deemed second only to the Volkswagen.

Mid-pack or lower ratings were the order of the day for styling and ergonomics, though it should be said that while some of the drivers still complained of the two-tiered gauge layout, their legibility and effectiveness are undeniable. The seats, however, drew the ire of a few contributors, myself included, who could find no truly comfortable position.

Placing fourth amongst this esteemed group is still an admirable feat for the Civic Si. As an everyday driver for all seasons and occasions, a few raw edges and sporting compromises are fair trade-offs considering the tremendous value it affords.

Pricing: 2014 Civic Si
Base Price: $26,710
Options: $0
A/C Tax: $100
Freight and PDI: $1,495
Price as Tested: $28,305

Third Place: 2014 Subaru WRX, Jacob Black

A word of advice: never, ever let a 2014 Subaru WRX sneak up on you. This thing is bulk scary. Far and away the most hard-core of the cars in this group, the WRX packs the best engine you can buy for under $30,000 with the raciest clutch-and-gearbox combination going. After six other cars, I wasn’t prepared for the capability or savagery of the WRX.

The clutch pedal is the heaviest here, and even the steering is weighty and solid. The gear lever is the same. “What’s that noise?” It’s the turbo going “whoosh” and it’s glorious. This engine gives me happy feelings in my ear holes.

“Vroom! Whoosh! Vroom! Roar!”

“Yay!”

Jeff Wilson says the WRX makes the rest of this pack feel like toy cars and I agree with him.

It is also superbly practical with four doors, split-fold rear seats and a deep boot. Plus it has AWD for those snowy times, even if the AWD’s real purpose is launching this missile out of corners. “Thanks to sticky tires and all-wheel-drive grip, it can yank itself out of corners with smile-inducing fun,” says Jeff.

“Good thing too, for when the turbo comes on boil, there is serious thrust here – more than anything else in our test.”

The WRX is a rocketship, and if it were me, this is the one I’d reserve for a track day – no matter that there is an MX-5 and an FR-S here. This thing has mid-corner grip for days, and buckets of power to match. With the others you have to say things like “oh it’s not as grippy, but it feels better.” Or “sure, it’s not as powerful, but at least it’s RWD” – with the WRX you only have to say “Wait, I thought I’d lapped you already.”

So if this thing is so good – why didn’t it win?

Everyday livability is sadly still lacking, and as Jonathan says, “While the interior finish is much improved, it is still a sore spot, and because of its mechanical greatness and cost of AWD, came with a shorter feature list for near as much as the GTI.”

Jeff chimes in, “The interior is typical Subaru, which is to say a generation out of date and finished in mediocre materials.  The ring attaching the shifter boot to the shift lever rattled annoyingly with shifts.”

Radio and infotainment as well as ride comfort and noise/vibration/handling were also not up to the lofty standards set by the two Germans ahead, and the WRX also scored the worst in both observed and EPA-rated fuel economy. Hardly surprising when you consider the 268 hp/258 lb-ft turbocharged boxer-four engine!

And what’s a little extra fuel when the WRX will put an ear-to-ear grin on your face every time you plant your foot on that throttle?

Pricing: 2015 Subaru WRX
Base Price: $32,495
Options: $0
A/C Tax: $100
Freight and PDI: $1,650
Price as Tested:

Second Place: 2014 Mini Cooper S, Jeff Wilson

You know how some people grow powerfully and inexplicably attached to silly things that are probably more trouble than they’re worth? I’m talking about those cute things that make you smile and act like you’re younger than you are; things like Jack Russell Terriers or children. That’s me with Mini’s new Cooper S.

The VW is the better all-round car and deserves its trophy, but it’s the car that placed second here that I most want to park in my garage and say “Hey, loving wife, look what followed me home… can we keep it?”

The styling is ridiculous and some people surely dislike that about the Mini. But most of us in our test group find it endearing. Senior Editor Yarkony gushed, “How can you not love this little guy? Goofy styling inside and out – I love it!” Have you noticed how much he uses the word goofy? It’s no accident.

Others, like Jacob and Brian appreciated the styling too, but not the Volcanic Orange hue, a colour I’d happily order for my Mini.

One thing that nobody disputed is that the Mini is fun to drive. Barrels of it. The power from the BMW-based 2.0L turbo four-cylinder is nowhere near the top of this class, and yet propelling the 1,200 kg Cooper S seems surprisingly effortless for only 189 hp. (Perhaps this is another case of BMW underrating its outputs?)

The shifter works great too, again revealing its solid BMW roots. If you really want to show off for your driving enthusiast friends, don’t tell them that in Sport mode, the Cooper S is doing the rev-matching for you on your downshifts, and you’ll look like an ace pilot. Plus, when backing off the throttle, those centre-mounted twin peashooters emit all sorts of little pops and belches. What character! What fun!

Jacob Black moaned about the Mini growing in size versus its earlier self and yet still admitted that its handling is great and turn-in is crisp – just perhaps a bit less than the previous generation. If anything, a slight softening of the razor-edge steering has only made it feel more GTI-like – which is not entirely a bad thing. The ride is no longer a torturous affair as it was in earlier Coopers either, though it did rank near the bottom of our group for that measure.

But hey, growing up means more responsibilities and sometimes those responsibilities require a bit more usable space. A couple of kids will fit in the Mini’s back seat no problem or if you fold those seats down, you’ve got a pretty big cargo box to contain your wares. Sure the GTI, WRX and Juke afford a greater space and accessibility, but the Cooper S is a great compromise between dedicated sports car and fun econo-box.

So the Mini is fun to look at, fun to listen to and fun to drive, but there are more practical reasons to love this little puppy. The ergonomics – long an aspect that tried Mini owners’ patience – are dramatically improved with the state-of-the-art infotainment system being awarded the top prize in our group. Seats that were widely praised for their comfort and support, plus great outward visibility and a fantastic stereo all make motoring around in the Mini a great thing.

To top all of this off, the Cooper S can be a sensational value too. While our evaluation only placed this loaded-up Mini mid-pack in the subjective Value ratings, the reality is that the Cooper S has the best EPA fuel consumption ratings here, plus if you waive the sunroof, navigation, stripes and a few other frivolous items, you can have a Cooper S that’s every bit as fun for less than $30,000. Throw in free maintenance for three years and the Cooper is a veritable bargain now.

In this group the Cooper S may not be as refined, practical or powerful as our winner, nor does it allow the tail-wagging antics of the rear-wheel-drive sports cars, but in terms of combining the best compromise between daily-life reality and idiotic grin-inducing fun, there is no better choice in this bunch.

Pricing: 2014 Mini Cooper S
Base Price: $25,490
Options: Loaded Package (comfort access, dynamic damper control, rain-sensor with auto headlamps, automatic climate control, essentials package) – $2,100, LED Lights package – $1,000, Wired Navigation Package (front centre armrest, on-board navigation, integrated visual display, Bluetooth and USB audio, MINI connected wire package – $1,850, 17-inch Cosmos Spoke Black – $740, Anthracite Roofliner – $250, Black Bonnet Stripes – $130, Performance Tires – $50, Black Roof and Mirror Caps – Free.
A/C Tax: $100
Freight and PDI: $1,655
Price as Tested: $33,365

Winner, Winner Chicken Dinner: 2015 Volkswagen GTI, Jacob Black

The 2015 Volkswagen GTI is a seriously trick rig, and it took out the most convincing win I’ve seen in my time at autoTRADER.ca. That’s not even close to doing it justice. The GTI won so convincingly that we had to send the scoresheets through four sets of eyes just to make sure we believed it. There it was in black and white though – or maybe it was shades of grey; after all the GTI spanked the opposition so hard they had to use the safe word.

Of the 30 categories in our rigorous scoresheet it claimed 18 wins and was never lower than third in any of the others. For the first time ever, the same car was chosen by all seven testers as the winner – no dissent, no arguing, no over-exaggerated gloating from Jonathan “I always pick the winner” Yarkony.

Everyone likes this thing so much and for good reason. The interior is simple, elegant and user-friendly, but there is still some nifty “cool factor” to be had. The seats are made of tartan and win. The shift lever rocks. Installing child seats is a breeze – thank you four doors, and flat seats!

The engine is engaging, second only to the WRX with its whoosh and burble and incredible turbo thrust. With 210 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque the 2.0L turbo is a punchy – if not perfect – performer. The handling is not as sharp as many of the others in here, but the feedback through the wheel is excellent and the brake feel is great. Even without razor-sharp response the GTI has solid balance and a beautiful soft ride.

The GTI is so good it had Senior Editor Jonathan Yarkony channeling the Orleans:

“This is still the one,” he practically sang. “The hatchback configuration, those perfect plaid seats, the newfound power, excellent balance and handling, a superb shifter (though a slightly weird clutch), and quality materials right down to the soft-touch plastic on the back of the steering wheel where your fingertips land when properly gripping that perfect steering wheel.” At this point we stopped letting Jonathan talk, and he staggered off muttering something about a Mk1 GTI from the 80s.

If you’re looking for a balance between practicality, livability and performance, then the GTI is the ideal choice. Jonathan had just one other complaint; the “1992-quality navigation resolution”.

Jeff Wilson was less enamoured, but admitted that the GTI was empirically superior to its competitors. “Volkswagen has evolved and fine-tuned the original hot hatch to what we see here today: engineered mastery.  The problem is, it's over-engineered,” he said.

“There is no rawness.  No emotion.  And much less fun than the most exciting cars in this group. It's exceedingly capable of on-ramp speeds 20 km/h faster than in the MX-5, but half the fun in doing so.”

But this test (Mr. Wilson I’m looking at you), is about affordable, everyday fun cars and as Jeff notes:

“The GTI is the best highway cruiser in this bunch.  Wind and engine noise are well suppressed and the engine turns at less than 2,500 rpm at 120 km/h.  The ride is smooth and the stereo is loud, full and crisp.  This is the grown-up's choice in this group and would not be out of place with the VW badges replaced by the four-ring logo.”

That balance of performance, refinement and everyday livability is undeniable. The GTI is easy to drive, easy to use and easy to punt around a racetrack at reputation-improving speeds – all at the same time.

And that’s why the GTI won this test by such a large margin – it’s a compromise that never feels like a compromise. It just feels good.

Pricing: 2015 Volkswagen GTI
Base Price: $32,895
Options: $695
A/C Tax: $100
Freight and PDI: $1,395
Price as Tested: $35,085

Life is full of rules and restrictions; regulations designed, I suppose, for the betterment of humankind and to protect our own personal... 8/5/2014 10:28:06 AM
2014 Nissan Juke Nismo RS 2014 Mazda MX-5 2015 Scion FR-S 2014 Civic Si 2015 Subaru WRX 2014 Mini Cooper S 2015 Volkswagen GTI
Base Price $28,298 Base Price $36,045 Base Price $26,670 Base Price $26,710 Base Price $32,495 Base Price $25,490 Base Price $32,895
A/C Tax $100 A/C Tax $100 A/C Tax $100 A/C Tax $100 A/C Tax $100 A/C Tax $100 A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,695 Destination Fee $1,795 Destination Fee $1,695 Destination Fee $1,495 Destination Fee $1,650 Destination Fee $1,655 Destination Fee $1,395
Price as Tested $30,393 Price as Tested $37,940 Price as Tested $29,490 Price as Tested $28,305 Price as Tested $34,245 Price as Tested $33,365 Price as Tested $35,085
Optional Equipment Pearl White paint - $300 Optional Equipment None Optional Equipment Premium Display Audio System with Navigation - $1,025 Optional Equipment None Optional Equipment None Optional Equipment Loaded Package (comfort access, dynamic damper control, rain-sensor with auto headlamps, automatic climate control, essentials package) – $2,100, LED Lights package – $1,000, Wired Navigation Package (front centre armrest, on-board navigation, integrated visual display, Bluetooth and USB audio, MINI connected wire package – $1,850, 17-inch Cosmos Spoke Black – $740, Anthracite Roofliner – $250, Black Bonnet Stripes – $130, Performance Tires – $50, Black Roof and Mirror Caps – Free. Optional Equipment $695
Optional Equipment