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Rock ‘n’ Rolling Small Cars Dominated by Ford Focus ST

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Photographer: Morgan J Segal/Hyundai Motor America via Bloomberg

The 2013 Hyundai Veloster Turbo has a suggested retail price of $21,950.

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Photographer: Morgan J Segal/Hyundai Motor America via Bloomberg

The 2013 Hyundai Veloster Turbo has a suggested retail price of $21,950. Close

The 2013 Hyundai Veloster Turbo has a suggested retail price of $21,950.

Photographer: Morgan J Segal/Hyundai Motor America via Bloomberg

An interior view of a 2013 Hyundai Veloster Turbo. The hatchback Turbo features front-wheel drive and a no limited-slip differential. Close

An interior view of a 2013 Hyundai Veloster Turbo. The hatchback Turbo features front-wheel drive and a no limited-slip differential.

Source: BMW of America/Mini USA via Bloomberg

A 2013 BMW Mini Cooper S Roadster. The soft-top convertible Roadster starts around $30,000. Close

A 2013 BMW Mini Cooper S Roadster. The soft-top convertible Roadster starts around $30,000.

Source: BMW of America/Mini USA via Bloomberg

A detail of the engine of a 2013 BMW Mini Cooper S Roadster. The 1.6-liter four-cylinder turbo-charged engine boasts 181 horsepower. Close

A detail of the engine of a 2013 BMW Mini Cooper S Roadster. The 1.6-liter four-cylinder turbo-charged engine boasts 181 horsepower.

Source: Chrysler Group LLC via Bloomberg

A 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth. This two-door hatchback makes for a great city car. Close

A 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth. This two-door hatchback makes for a great city car.

Source: Chrysler Group LLC via Bloomberg

A detail of a 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth wheel. Abarth's distinctive logo, a scorpion with large pincers, pretty much says it all -- a small package best handled with care. Close

A detail of a 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth wheel. Abarth's distinctive logo, a scorpion with large pincers, pretty much says... Read More

Source: Ford Motor Company via Bloomberg

A detail of the grill on a 2013 Ford Focus ST. It is available in its new signature production color, Tangerine Scream, as well as five other options in North America. Close

A detail of the grill on a 2013 Ford Focus ST. It is available in its new signature production color, Tangerine... Read More

Source: Ford Motor Company via Bloomberg

A 2013 Ford Focus ST starts around $24,500. Close

A 2013 Ford Focus ST starts around $24,500.

Source: Ford Motor Company via Bloomberg

View of the interior of a 2013 Ford Focus ST with Recaro sports seats. The vehicle sports a 2-liter four-cylinder engine capable of 252 horsepower and 270 pounds per foot of torque. Close

View of the interior of a 2013 Ford Focus ST with Recaro sports seats. The vehicle sports a 2-liter four-cylinder... Read More

Source: Subaru via Bloomberg

The 2013 Subaru BRZ features a 2-liter four-cylinder engine with of 200 horsepower and 151 pounds per foot of torque. Close

The 2013 Subaru BRZ features a 2-liter four-cylinder engine with of 200 horsepower and 151 pounds per foot of torque.

Photographer: Trevor Pearson/Subaru via Bloomberg

An interior view of a 2013 Subaru BRZ. Developed in conjunction with Toyota, it is a rear-wheel-drive two seater. Close

An interior view of a 2013 Subaru BRZ. Developed in conjunction with Toyota, it is a rear-wheel-drive two seater.

This is the time of the small car. The car you want to own, the one you’ll brag about. The rock ‘n’ roll small car.

Americans are being offered the best crop of compacts in recent memory, if not all time. Hot hatchbacks, rear-wheel-drive hellions, impish convertibles and turbo-charged tykes, all crying out for very modest dollars.

And they’ve responded by buying: the U.S. saw a 50 percent increase in small car sales this September.

Not long ago, purchasing a compact or subcompact meant compromising, giving in or even giving up. For every Volkswagen GTI with a furious little engine built for fun, we were awash with tinny toys like the Ford Aspire, Geo Prizm, and Hyundai (005380) Excel.

Now, if you’ve got $22,000 or more and buy a boring car, it’s your own darn fault.

Hyundai was once a major source of punishingly bad small cars. Now the South Korean brand gives us zingy hatches like the Veloster, released last year.

Turbo Engine

The Veloster is entertaining, but the 138-horsepower 1.6- liter engine didn’t quite get the job done. Now they’ve added a turbo model with 201 hp and a standard six-speed manual transmission.

The suggested retail price of the Veloster Turbo is $21,950. As tested, my 2013 model-year car came in just over $25,000. Gas mileage is 26 city, 38 highway.

Hyundai’s interiors and electronics are good, but the handling and ride characteristics needed work. The Veloster Turbo proves those areas are coming along nicely.

With front-wheel-drive and no limited-slip differential, the hatchback may not be a serious canyon carver, but is very good at bombing down boulevards. An accessible mix of amenities and driving entertainment.

In my recent review of the Fiat 500 Abarth ($22,000; $26,050 as tested), I was clearly taken by the piccolo Italian chariot. A few weeks ago I had the chance to let it lope around a racetrack and wondered how it would hold up. (Can you even imagine taking most small cars on a track?)

Changing Gears

No racecar, it pushes wide on corners and the front end dives under hard braking. Yet there’s something intensely likable about the upright seating position, the way you can see through the windows, and rowing through the gears with the long stick shift.

Giggle-inducing good times, even on a track. I’m enamored with this car. (MPG 28 city, 34 highway.)

BMW-owned Mini always has a troop of cadets ready to muster for those who like their kicks in small packages. Perhaps the simplest offering is the Cooper S Roadster, a topless version of the two-door Coupe model.

It’s little more than a soft top, turbocharged engine (a 1.6-liter four-cylinder with 181 hp), two seats and a sophisticated suspension. That recipe is best when zipping around back roads like those I drove in early October; leaves carpeting the asphalt, the top down and heat blasting.

Gas Pedal

The car pivots from its center, and is tuned to steer with inputs to the gas pedal.

It gets 27 mpg city, 35 highway. Too bad it starts around $30,000 (and $33,000 as tested), so it is as expensive as many larger, more complicated cars.

When it comes to happy gifts from the small-car gods, I’m especially thankful for two 2013 models, the $24,500 Ford Focus ST and $26,265 Subaru BRZ.

The Focus comes as both sedan and five-door hatchback, a cute and likable entry. The ST model is less cute and more fiery, with Recaro sports seats and a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine which makes 252 hp, 270 pound-feet of torque. It has a specially tuned suspension meant to get it to slip and slide at will. (Gas mileage is 23, 32.)

Subaru’s BRZ, meanwhile, is a rear-wheel-drive two seater. Extremely light, it does without turbos to its 2.0-liter four- cylinder engine (200 hp; 151 lb-ft of torque; 22, 30 mpg).

Developed in conjunction with Toyota, which released its version as the Scion FR-S, nobody has made a new car like this since the original Mazda Miata.

Dueling Banjos

A colleague and I took the cars onto a road course to race against each other, like dueling banjos. After all, both were created with an eye toward trouble-making on a racetrack. (The same could be said for me and my buddy.)

I started with the BRZ. On the first big bend, I gave it a dose of gas and turned the wheel, creating a tire-screaming drift.

I let off the gas slightly, flicked the wheel, straightened and made for a straightaway. Glancing into the rear-view mirror, I found the Ford right on my tail.

Around and around we went. I couldn’t shake the Focus ST, which was also sliding around the place like we were driving on oil. I let him pass.

We switched cars. The Ford is front-wheel-drive, but engineered to turn on a dime. I was soon on the Subaru’s tail. I was whipsawing the wheel about wildly, playing with my driving line. Under these conditions, the Ford was quicker than the Subaru.

Exiting, I pulled off my helmet and my head steamed in the cool air. Totally rock ‘n’ roll.

(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Rich Jaroslovsky on gadgets and Greg Evans on television.

To contact the writer of this column: Jason H. Harper at Jason@JasonHharper.com or follow on Twitter @JasonHarperSpin.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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