Top 10 Forgotten Sport Compacts

By James Mackintosh, 16 April 2012

As time goes on, some cars are just forgotten.  Others achieve a semi-cult like permanent popularity that cannot be explained in simple terms, like outright performance or durability.  How else do you justify in the insane price tag of the original (E30) M3, after all?  If you look at it in plain terms, it's a 25-year-old German car with a peaky, temperamental engine that's not really that fast, exorbitant parts prices, a high probability of having been beaten to death by four previous owners, and an even higher probability of being beaten off a stop light by a modern V6 Mustang.

We know!

But that's not the point: people love the original M3 because of it's purity of purpose.  It was built to win races, and the road cars were built to allow it to race.  It's an intensely visceral experience, something you just can't get today.  That's why prices continue to climb, to the point where you can buy two clean examples of its successor (the E36 M3) for the price of a clean E30 M3.

But for every E30 M3, or Eclipse GS-X, or Honda CRX Si, there are a handful more sport compacts that just... disappeared.  You don't see them, or hear about them, or probably even remember them.  Why is that?  What are we missing out on?  Take a stroll through memory lane with me as I explore this topic.

10. 1991 Isuzu Impulse RS

The Impulse was Isuzu's sports coupe, built in two generations.  The first version was an attractive little door wedge, penned by Guigario and sold from 1985-1989.  It was actually based on the underpinnings of the Chevette, and had a rude little turbo single-cam under the hood.  Cool car, all but gone now.  That is somewhat remembered.  What isn't is the second-generation Impulse.

The 2G Impulse shared it's guts with the Geo Storm(!) and the Lotus Elan M100.  Which meant front-wheel-drive and a transverse-mounted 1.6L 16v I4.  Competitive in the micro-coupe segment back then, but nothing particularly amazing about it.  However, for 1991 only, Isuzu imported a small batch of Impulse RS models - small as in 800 cars total.  Under the hood was a turbocharged, intercooled version of the 1.6L twin-cammer, good for 160 horsepower and and 150lb-ft - this was the same motor used in the nearly as rare Lotus Elan SE.  However, the Isuzu had all wheel drive as well, which was unusual back then.  With a 2,700lb curb weight and 160 horses, the 5-speed Impulse RS could pull off an impressive 7.0 second 0-60 with a 15.6 second ET in the quarter mile.

Beyond the turbo/AWD performance, there was the Lotus-tuned suspension, the droopy looking headlights, and of course that unique offset NACA duct for intake to the intercooler.  These days, you never see Impulses at all - much less RS's.  If you're curious, here's a comparison test from a 1992 issue of Car & Driver that featured this unique Isuzu.

9. Mazda 323 GT-X

Everyone in the car enthusiast realm is familiar with the MazdaSpeed3 - or the Mazda3 MPS if you live overseas.  It's a huge bargain of a hot hatch: priced similarly to the 200-horsepower VW GTI, but packing a walloping 263-horsepower punch with 280 torque, courtesy of a boosted 2.3L direct-injection mill.  It's a torque-steering, tire-punishing monster of a hatch, conveniently disguised in a plain vanilla wrapper.  Great car.  But how about it's rally-bred ancestor?

The 323 GTX took the standard commuter-spec Mazda 323 and turned it up to eleven.  Under the hood was the 16v 1.6L B6T, boosted with an IHI RB5 turbocharger and intercooler, which produced 132 horsepower.  Hooked to a five-speed close ratio gearbox, the little 323 could do the 0-60 run in under 8 seconds - a good bit faster than competition at the time, such as the Golf GTI 16v.  The real party trick was the AWD, though: the 323 GTX was born for dirt, with a locking center and rear differential for extra traction.

Today, pretty much the only way to find a GTX is either having friends in the SCCA Rally scene, or scouring craigslist in the Northwest constantly.  Mazda had planned to import 2,400 GTX's a year, but the total ended up being just under 1,200 - 1,050 in 1988, and 150 in 1989.  Many of them at this point have been thrashed to death or junked due to rust or mechanical issues.  Still, very cool.

8)  Nissan NX2000

Today, the B13 Sentra SE-R has achieved that cult-like popularity that I was talking about earlier.  You don't see people loving and restoring '91 Sentra base models, but take a trip to a local Japanese car show and you'll probably see a clean, lowered, modified SE-R.  Some publications have likened it to a modern Datsun 510 or BMW 2002tii - high praise.  But what about the SE-R's funkier, stiffer, T-toppier, egg-shapier brother, the NX2000?  The what?

The NX line (NX1600 and NX2000 in the US) replaced the unloved Pulsar in 1991, and left our shores after 1993.  The NX1600 was the commuter special - a fuel efficient 1.6L from the normal Sentra.  The 2000 used the well known SR20DE shared with the SE-R, good for 140 horsepower and 130lb-ft torque, with 7,000+ rpm to play with.  There were improvements over the SE-R, though: the NX2000 had larger brakes, a wider track with the same wheelbase, lower height, wider wheels, and a double-row radiator that helps to prevent the overheating issues SE-R's are known for.

Weight was about the same as the SE-R, so straight-line performance was similar: just under 8 seconds to sixty.  The main appeal of the NX2000 lied in three areas: it's rarity, those T-Tops, and the bizarre egg-shaped design.  They aren't seen on the road with any regularity today, but chances are if you're into autocross you've been beaten by one-  I have.

7. Audi Coupe Quattro

Audi's motorsports heritage today is broad and well-known.  They dominate LeMans racing like it isn't a challenge, year after year, regardless of rule changes, gas or diesel, open or closed roof, or any errant Peugeots.  However, before they made 24hr endurance racing their bitch, they were known for domination in other motorsports - DTM, Rallying, that sort of thing.  And while the original Quattro is still a legend, the car that replaced it is - wait, they replaced the Quattro?

Well, it wasn't exactly the same.  But the Audi Coupe Quattro - based on the Audi 90 sedan - was cool in it's own way.  The body styling of the Coupe brought Audi firmly into the 90's, with gentle contours and a graceful fastback shape.  However, some of the old coolness remained.  Under the hood was a naturally-aspirated 2.3L inline five cylinder, fitted with a four-valve head for better breathing and more RPM's - almost 7,000, according to Audi's dyno sheets.  The 20v was rated at 168 horsepower and 162 lb-ft of torque, and your only transmission option was a 5-speed manual.  It wasn't all that fast - although the company claimed 8.1s to sixty, most publications got closer to 9.  But as an all-around car, pretty good.  Plus, you know, five-cylinder howl.

The Coupe GT was unique- an all-weather capable sports coupe with a characterful engine and a very Audi interior.  Audi only imported them here in 1990 and 1991, and they're an uncommon site today.  Maybe if they had brought over the turbocharged 20-valve S2 Coupe (with the engine and drivetrain from the original UrS4/S6) they would've done better - or been better remembered.

6. Suzuki Swift GTi

"Wait, that looks like a Geo Metro.  Get the hell outta here."  Fair enough: The Suzuki Swift and the Geo Metro were, in effect, the same car.  This was during the era where GM thought the best way to fight the imports - was to just import them.  A reasonable strategy at the time, I guess.  But while the Geo/Chevy Metro always focused on maximum fuel economy for minimum price, it's Suzuki sibling was allowed to let it's hair down a little more.  Thus: the Swift GTI.

While regular Metros got by with a 1.0L 3-cylinder with 55 screaming horsepower (although those horses were more like Shetland Ponies), the GTI had a 1.3L twin-cam all aluminum four cylinder, good for an even 100 horsepower, mated to a close-ratio 5-speed manual.  Doesn't seem like a lot of power?  Well, the Swift GTI weighed in at 1,768 pounds.  That's lighter than a federal-spec Elise.  Further adding to the mighty mite's appeal were things not seen on compacts at the time - four wheel independent suspension (McPherson struts up front, trailing arms in back) and four wheel disc brakes.  With so little mass and tightly packed gears, the GTi could do the 0-60 run in the mid 8-second range: which was legitimately about half as long as a 3-cylinder took, and probably led to a lot of disappointment for V6 Camaro drivers back in the day.  Fuel economy suffered greatly, but that's all relative: it still delivered 32mpg highway!

The GTi- which was rebadged the GT for 1990-1994 - was always high on value, with an initial base price of $8,995.  Slow sales and a high propensity of having the crap beaten out of them means Swift GTi's are hardly ever seen today.  Suzuki still makes a successor - the Swift Sport - but they don't sell it here.  Shame, that.

5. Toyota Corolla FX-16

Quick, what's the Toyota from the 80's that has the 1.6L 4A-GE engine that revs like crazy?  If you said MR2 and AE86 Trueno/Sprinter/Corolla, then you got two out of three.  You (and everyone else) forgot about the FX-16.

Today, the AE86 Corolla is remembered mostly because of Initial D and the popularity of drifting - fastback styling, rear wheel drive, light and balanced, it's a great car to take on your local touge.  But the AE86 was just part of the E80 Corolla family - which was the transition point for the Corolla from RWD to FWD.  The AE85 (SR-5, 8-valve) and AE86 (GT-S, 16-valve) were RWD, while the rest of this generation was FWD - including the AE82, which was the basis for the 3-door FX-16 hatchbach.  Convoluted name, yes.  But mounted transversely up front was the Yamaha-designed 4A-GE 16-valve motor, good for 108 horsepower in federalized emissions spec.  This engine and transaxle was later moved rearward to create the MR2 sports car.

The FX-16 was assembled at the GM/Toyota NUMMI joint venture plant in California - which made it the first mass produced American car with a four valve head, if I'm doing my math right.  The 4A-GE would rev out to 7,500 rpm and had a frenetic dual personality thanks to flaps in the intake runner which opened at higher RPM, and with only 2,300lbs of car to move around it was reasonably quick for it's day.  There was also an uplevel GT-S trim, which included stiffer suspension, more amenities, and aesthetic changes.  Today, you hear about the AE86 constantly - but usually you only hear about the FX16 when one wins a LeMons race.

4. Saturn Ion Redline

Once upon a time, when GM's misunderstood Saturn brand existed, they made a sport compact car.  And it was a fairly good one, if you'd believe it - perhaps something of a "polished turd," but polished nonetheless.  The Ion Redline was the fraternal twin to the original Cobalt SS, before all the turbocharging and Evo X lap-time beating and Mustang baiting.  The Cobalt SS still has a pretty rabid following here, thanks to it's ratio of performance and mod-ability to the dollar.  The Ion is largely forgotten, mainly because it's... a Saturn Ion, which was a fairly terrible car in standard form.

Really, there wasn't much to like about the Ion.  Sure, it had a roof that kept rain off your head, an engine to move you, wheels to keep you off the ground.  The plastic body panels created an ultra-bland slug of a car, with less style than a Frigidaire.  The interior seemed to have been sourced from the McDonalds Happy Meal Toy parts bin, and the center-mounted instrument stack was most effective at annoying anyone who drove it.  Early models could be ordered with a Continuously Variable Transmission that was good at two things: converting gasoline into noise without the byproduct of acceleration, and blowing up shortly after the warranty expired.  If you were to look up "half-assed GM engineering" you'd see the Ion.

The Redline was a different story, though.  Under the hood was the LSJ - a highly modified version of GM's ubiquitous Ecotec engine.  The stroke was reduced from 94.6 to 86mm, to create a "square" 86x86mm bore/stroke, yielding 2.0L displacement.  The reciprocating assembly was strengthened, and an Eaton M62 supercharger with an integrated air-to-water intercooler core was added.  The transmission was swapped out for one from a turbo Saab (good idea?), and the net result was 205bhp and 200lb-ft of torque.  Because it uses a roots-type blower, power delivery is very linear - and the potential for modifications are high.  Hot Rod Magazine got an LSJ to dyno out at 372whp and 291wtq using a Magnuson TVS 1900 supercharger (the smaller brother to the one used on the ZR1), Comp Cams, 64lb/hr injectors, and a header and exhaust.  Not that big of a budget?  Using an Eaton M90 (the same blower used on zillions of 3.8L V6 Buicks/Oldsmobiles/Pontiacs) still yielded peak power in the 330's.  Want to go fast for cheap?  This is a good place to start.

The engine wasn't the whole picture though - the Redline had retuned suspension (stiffer and lower springs, stiffer bushings, thicker sway bars, retuned dampers), Recaro buckets, upgraded 4-wheel disc brakes, and a somewhat obnoxious bodykit.  The Competition Package added a "ladder tach" on the steering column (a string of LED lights that told you when to shift), a limited-slip differential, and fog lights.  The performance was about the same as the Cobalt SS - even though the Saturn was slightly larger and had more rear room, as well as reverse-hinged rear doors to ease access, the plastic body panels kept weight roughly identical, meaning a 6.0s 0-60 and mid-14s quarter mile times.  But then, just as now, no-one associated Saturn with performance.  Sales were always slower than it's Cobalt twin, and today an Ion redline is a rare site.  Along with the Sky, it's really the only reason to miss the brand.

3. Ford SVT Contour

"America's 3-series" was how the press described it.  A small family sedan from Ford, blessed with a SVT-fettled engine and suspension, with a hint of Euro Snob in the form of it's Mondeo underpinnings.  Why the hell isn't the SVT Contour a collector's car at this point?  Beats me.

It's not even a case of making a silk purse out of a sow's ear.  The basic Contour/Mondeo was loved by the press for the stuff that matters - suspension composure, steering response, refinement, and in V6 form - power.  US consumers never bit for a simple reason - too small, too much money, why wouldn't I just buy a Camry?  As the Twitter crowd says, SMDH.  Even  your standard rental-spec 4 cylinder auto base model Contour was more fun to drive than a gussied up Camry.  The SVT though, that was the business.

The 2.5L Duratec 24v V6 received a fairly thorough revamp.  Up top, the cams gained more duration, and the upper and lower intake manifolds were ported for better flow.  Compression was raised .3 points to 10:1, and the larger throttle body from the 3.0L Duratec was fitted.  Larger fuel injectors, a retuned ECU, and other minor tweaks raised power from 170 to 195, and later 200.  Redline was increase to 6,750rpms as well.  The clutch was upgraded and the flywheel lightened, and cooling systems were upgraded with a larger radiator and the addition of an oil cooler too.

The rear brakes were converted to discs, and every component of the suspension was upgraded as well.  Inside, leather sports seats and white-faced gauges set the SVT apart, and the hot Contour had a very subtle body kit to differentiate it from the regular models.  The SVT model was around for three years (98-2000) and only about 11,000 were made.  These days, it's a rare site - some succumbed to a design flaw involving poor baffling in the crank case which lead to oil starvation, some were wrecked, and some were treated like a normal Contour- driven hard until something major went wrong, and sent to the junk yard.  Which is a shame.

2. Dodge Shelby CSX-VNT

Quick, what was the first production gas-engined car with a variable geometry turbocharger?  Porsche 997 Turbo?  Nissan something or another?  Nope!  It was the one the last Shelby-badged Dodge performance cars in the 80's!

These days, the Turbo Mopars from the 80's fall into two camps.  Camp one is in the junkyard.  Camp two is stripped out with a huge turbo, roaring down the drag strip.  But back in the day, Turbo Dodges were one of the cheapest ways to go fast, before the head gasket blew and it went to the junk yard.  The CSX-VNT was the culmination of ol' Carroll's quest to boost every friggin' FWD Dodge in the world, and it was pretty neat.

The CSX stood for Carroll Shelby Experimental - and fellow nerds will recognize it as the prefix for legit Cobra chassis, as well - and the VNT stood for Variable Nozzle Turbocharger.  The CSX itself was a Dodge Shadow, a somewhat dowdy 3-door hatchback that was a continuation of the K-car platform.  Under the hood was the single-cam Dodge 2.2L Turbo engine, with a variable-geometry Garrett turbocharger and air-to-air intercooler.  Although the VNT engine produced the same horsepower as the Turbo II (174bhp), torque output was up 25 lb-ft to 225.  The vanes in the turbo would close down at lower RPM to lower flow but increase speed to promote spooling, and open at higher rpm to increase flow rate - the same thing the turbos in your rich neighbor's 997 Turbo do.  This gave the CSX-VNT more low-end flexibility than the regular CSX.  Mated to a Getrag A555 transaxle, the CSX-VNT was good for a 7-second 0-60 and mid 15's in the quarter.  The big change was in-gear flexibility.  Car & Driver tested a regular CSX and a VNT, and while the standing start acceleration numbers were about the same, the 30-50 and 50-70 numbers (in fifth) were vastly different.  The regular turbo took 15 and 12 for each, and the VNT did them in 11.7 and 8.5 - meaning from a highway roll, the VNT would roll on some seriously more expensive car.

Other interesting details?  Besides this being the last Shelby-badged Dodge, the VNT was also the first production car with composite wheels.  The body kit is probably the most tasteful one Kaminari ever made.  And with a total production run of 500 units, the likelihood of seeing one is between slim and none.  Probably because they're all in junk yards.

1. Mitsubishi Starion/ Dodge-Chrysler Conquest

Today, there's a minor cult following for the Supra, 300ZX, and RX-7.  Did I say minor?  I meant fanatical, bordering on alarming.  Clean Supra Turbos fetch well into the $20,000 dollar range now, the 300ZX is widely considered a landmark of sports car design, and the RX7 can be found pounding around your local race track or drift circuit, sometimes with a Corvette engine under hood.

That was the 90's.  Back in the 80's, it was Supra, RX7, 280ZX, and... Starion.  The other RWD Japanese turbo sports car.  Mitsubishi's predecessor to the 3000GT and Eclipse, the Starion was a little bit weird.  The body shape seemed to be a Japanese interpretation of the Porsche 924 (and later the 944, when the Starion gained box-flared fenders.)  Instead of the Z's and Supra's smooth sixes was a gigantic four cylinder - a 2.6L 4G54 single-cammer with a turbo.  There were a few more weird things: The Starion was one of the earliest adopters of balance shafts to quell vibrations (since Mitsubishi created the technology.)  All Starions in the US had 3 valves per cylinder, and two throttle-body injectors.  There was ABS, but only on the rear wheels.

Early models had flat sides and no intercoolers; later models gained the box flares and an intercooler to bump power from 143 to 177bhp.  The Starion got a constant stream of improvements over it's life cycle, 1983-1989.  It was also sold as the Dodge and Plymouth Conquest from 84-86, and as the Chrysler Conquest from 87-89 - a captive import, the Chrysler badged versions had no actual differences.  The Starion/Conquest were strong performers by the standard of the day, considerably more powerful than the Supra and RX-7 when it first came out - but by the late 80's they were feeling old fashioned, with competition going to smoother turbo sixes, and domestic muscle finally producing enough power to make people care with cars like the Camaro IROC-Z and 5.0L HO Mustang.

Go to a car show today, and chances are you'll see a bunch of Supras, RX-7's, and Z-Cars - but good look spotting a Starion anywhere.  Which made the spotting that inspired this article all the more strange.

A completely mint late-model Conquest spotted in a local Chinese food parking lot.  Not a dent or scratch anywhere, leather interior with automatic, looking more 80's than a Hall & Oates video - very cool.

This article was obviously focused on US-market vehicles: I'm sure than Europe has scads more.  What do you think I missed?  Leave us a comment in the box below!

If you're a gangster, you may notice a lot of these images are from old issues of the now defunct Sport Compact Car, including the Saturn and Mazda.  That's because SCC was on point, and Primedia is on my sh*t list till the end of time for killing it.  If you miss it like I do, check out MotoIQ - where a lot of former SCC writers and editors have found a new home.

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