2003 Econosport Sedans Comparison Test

  • Full Review
  • Pricing & Specs
  • Road Tests (1)
  • Comparison (1)
  • Long-Term

2003 Mazda Mazdaspeed Protege Sedan

(2.0L 4-cyl. Turbo 5-speed Manual)

  • Comparison Test
  • Editors' Evaluation
  • Editors' Picks
  • Top 5 Features
  • Consumer Commentary
  • Final Rankings and Scoring Evaluations
  • 2003 Dodge SRT-4 Specs and Performance
  • 2003 Mazdaspeed Protege Specs and Performance
  • 2003 Ford SVT Focus Specs and Performance
  • 2003 Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V Specs and Performance

Cheap cars that go fast. That's the premise behind every car in this test. It seems simple enough, but despite the fact that such a concept spawned the entire muscle car era of the 1960s, automakers are just now "rediscovering" the idea and once again building affordable cars that deliver serious performance.

Unlike their ancestors, these modern-day hot rods sport half the cylinders, a third less weight and sophisticated computers to keep everything in check. Based on inexpensive economy cars, they're small in stature, but big on fun.

Just last year we conducted this test with all the major players at the time and came away impressed with just how much performance you can get for around $20,000. Nissan's Sentra SE-R Spec V took first place for its blend of sizzling performance and a rock-bottom price. Barely a year later, competition in the segment has heated up thanks to the in-house tuning divisions of Dodge, Ford and Mazda.

Dodge's Performance Vehicle Operations (PVO) took the aging Neon and transformed it into a turbocharged terror renamed the SRT-4. Ford's Special Vehicle Team (SVT) added two doors to its already hot Focus coupe to create the four-door SVT Focus. And finally, Mazda's Mazdaspeed division created the Mazdaspeed Protegé complete with a turbo engine and an equally powerful sound system.

We pitted all four against each other in a classic sport sedan showdown. Their performance aspirations demanded more than just a few runs to the grocery store, so we took them out to the Streets of Willow road course in the high desert of California for some serious flogging. Hot summer temperatures kept the cars from turning record times, but they still proved themselves worthy of their performance car status.

In the end, one car stood out among the four as the clear-cut winner, but considering that each of the cars cost just $20,000, even the second, third and last-place finisher represents a performance bargain.

Fourth Place - 2003 Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V

First to worst in barely a year? Is it possible? In our last econosport sedans comparison test, the SE-R took home first place with its combination of athleticism on the track, quickness off the line and a rock-bottom price. We didn't love everything about it, but compared to the other cars in the test, the SE-R put together the best combination of performance and price in a four-door sedan.

This time around, the SE-R was still the same quick, agile and cheap sedan, yet it brought up the rear in last place. What went wrong?

Like the Focus, there's nothing wrong with the Sentra (well, the shifter's still wrong), but faced with quicker, more refined cars that cost only slightly more, the Spec V couldn't maintain the advantage it held barely a year and a half ago. It's still a smoking deal, and its manners around the racetrack are nothing to be ashamed of, but whereas before we could excuse its minor shortcomings, there's now no room for error.

Originally offered in the early '90s, the Sentra SE-R has undergone a few transformations before arriving in its current state. The Spec V represents its highest state of tune with exclusive features like a standard six-speed transmission, 17-inch wheels and an aggressively tuned sport suspension. The interior also gets a splash of graphics and trim, while the exterior is fitted with a deep front air dam and a rear spoiler. Although the SE-R received a slight refresh for 2004 that added revised exterior body panels and a few interior improvements, one was not available in time for testing.

In terms of numbers, the Sentra and the Protegé ran neck and neck in virtually every category. With 175 horsepower and 180 pound-feet of torque, the Sentra boasts impressive output from its non-turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder, but the power is history after 6,000 rpm so there's lots of shifting to be done. The standard six-speed manual makes the most out of the short power band, but the shifter has a hollow, imprecise feel that makes the constant gear swapping more of a chore than it should be.

Launching the Spec V is a no-brainer, as there's a heap of low-end torque and a standard limited-slip differential to help distribute the power. It scampered off the line to an 8-second 0-to-60 time and a quarter-mile of 16.2 seconds — a few tenths slower than the Protegé to 60, but nearly identical at the end of the quarter-mile. Wide-open acceleration runs don't do the Sentra's engine justice, however, as it's more impressive ripping around town where its ample torque and short gearing make it feel faster than it really is.

Even the relatively tight turns of the Streets of Willow road course were too wide open, as the Sentra always felt as though it was ready for another gear no matter how fast it was going. The limited slip that helps so much off the line also works wonders blasting out of turns at speed. Unlike the SRT-4 that spins its tires uselessly out of every corner, the Sentra hooks up and takes off — at least until it needs to be shifted again.

All SE-Rs get retuned shocks, a strut tower brace and thicker sway bars front and rear, but the Spec V steps it up a notch with even more aggressive spring and shock tuning to go along with the high-performance 17-inch tires. The stiff setup makes it a point-and-shoot proposition at the track, as there's little body roll and less tendency to plow through corners than the Focus. With no antilock brakes (they're optional), we expected lockup heading into fast corners, but it never materialized thanks to an easily modulated pedal. Minor torque steer demands a good grip on the wheel and the weighting could use some improvement, but overall it's an easy car to drive hard.

On the street, the Spec V retains it playful feel with plenty of on-demand power and quick reflexes. The tight suspension that keeps it so well planted at the track makes for a bumpy ride at times, but it's no worse than the SRT and better than the Protegé. The sport seats are light on side bolstering but heavy on long-range comfort, so the Spec V is a legitimate daily driver.

With gray-accented interior trim, our SE-R's cabin did seem like it was trying as hard to look cool, compared to the bright red accents of our previous test model, but the interior still can't match the Protegé's for refinement. Materials quality is average and the controls are where you would expect them to be, but compared to the Protegé, it's a step down. Rear-seat room is negligible, and the optional Rockford Fosgate sound system adds a subwoofer that takes up half of the pass-through, so don't expect to squeeze much in the trunk, either.

These minor annoyances aside, the SE-R is still a car worth considering if you're looking for maximum bang for the buck. Quicker around town than the Focus and more user-friendly than the Protegé, the SE-R's performance is easy to enjoy on an everyday basis. It may not have all the speed and refinement of its competition, but with a base price under $18K, it has a good excuse.

Second Opinions:

Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says:
As the Spec V won last year's econosport sedans comparison test, the pressure was on Nissan to maintain its position. And as we all know, one year can be an eternity in the performance car marketplace. Last time around the Sentra won with a combination of rapid acceleration, prodigious torque and effective power management (read: an available limited-slip differential). We marked off for a balky shifter, questionable interior design and no ABS (though it's available as an option).

This time around the Sentra was exactly the same vehicle, but the competition has gotten better. The SRT-4 effectively erases the Sentra's one-time horsepower and torque advantage, and it does so with a shifter that doesn't make you grind your teeth as you swap gears. The SVT Focus (now available as a five-door) offers superior interior materials and a better design (and shifter), and the all-new Protegé power plant provides nearly identical acceleration times with far more refinement (and the Mazda's shifter is better, too). The Sentra still trumped every other competitor by including a limited-slip differential that allowed drivers to jump on the throttle earlier while exiting corners at the track. Unfortunately, the advantage of applying power earlier was largely erased by its lack of ABS, which meant braking had to begin earlier, too. If our test vehicle had included ABS, it might have pulled away from the Ford and Mazda at the track.

As it stands, the Sentra suffers from a lack of refinement in multiple areas. The shifter, though adequate in every way, feels clunky and uncooperative. And because the car uses such short gearing you're forced to deal with it more often than in the competitors. The interior is lined with hard plastic, and even the engine — as powerful and willing as it is — doesn't have the smooth confidence displayed by every other car in the test. All the Sentra can really offer is a factory limited-slip differential and a torque-monster motor. That just isn't enough anymore.

Third Place - 2003 Ford SVT Focus

When the SVT Focus debuted a little over a year ago, it redefined how good a $20,000 performance car could be. With its dialed-in suspension, track-ready brakes and stout four-cylinder motor, it offered exceptional all-around performance while maintaining the everyday drivability of a typical economy car.

The introduction of a four-door version this year promised all the performance and even greater functionality. With identical dimensions and minimal weight gain, there's no performance penalty, and the additional access provided by the full-size rear doors makes it easier to get the most out of its surprisingly spacious interior.

With all that going for it, how did the SVT still only manage a third-place finish? Consider it a nod to the competition more so than a slight to the SVT. While the SVT's performance and practicality are still impressive, both the Dodge and the Mazda deliver that little extra something that makes them stand out from the crowd. There's nothing inherently wrong with the Focus, but in a category that emphasizes personality as much as performance, it's a bit of a wallflower in this group.

Nowhere was this more apparent than at the track, where the Focus struggled to keep up with its turbocharged rivals. Its 0-to-60 time of nine seconds flat put it a full second behind the next fastest car and nearly three seconds slower than the SRT-4. A 17-second quarter-mile time was also well off the pace, but the margins were smaller toward the end so it was catching up on the high side.

With 170 horsepower from its 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, the Focus has as much power as the Protegé (170 hp), and nearly as much as the Sentra (175 hp), but with only 145 pound-feet of torque, it can't match the Protegé (160 lb-ft) or the Sentra (180 lb-ft) in the twist department. This makes for slow getaways from a stop and a few more gear changes along the way, but as with most small engines, once you get used to where the power is, it becomes second nature to keep it wound up.

The standard six-speed gearbox makes managing the power that much easier, but the shifter itself received middling marks for its ability to find gates easily. Most often cited as "rubbery" and "vague in the gates," the SVT's shifter lacks the notchy feel that makes the Protegé and Neon so confident through the gears. The rubber-ringed handle was considered better than most and the pedal placement is nearly perfect for heel-and-toe downshifting, but numerous laps on the road course left us wishing for more precise engagement.

Even with the less-than-perfect shifter and lack of low-end grunt, the Focus still turned in some of the quickest laps on the track. Much of the credit goes to the suspension, as it allows you to push the car right up to its limit and then keep it there with only minimal corrections. The SVT has more body roll than the Protegé, better steering than the SRT and brakes that allow for lots of speed heading into corners. If there is one car in this group that would make a great driving school car, the Focus is it.

If we had to pick one of the four as a daily driver, the Focus might get the nod there, too. The seats are supportive without getting in the way, the layout is straightforward and usable at a glance, and there's plenty of room for passengers, cargo or both. As capable as the Ford is on the track, the suspension rarely feels stiff on the street, soaking up road hazards without delivering the sharp jolts that you get in the Mazda and the Dodge. The steering can be heavy at times and the exhaust is more apparent than in your average ZX3, but on the whole, the Ford feels much less like a tuner car than its competitors.

Pop the rear hatch and you have an easily accessible cargo area with no nagging speaker intrusions from stereo components. Drop the rear seats and the cargo area expands to 43 cubic feet of space, more than any of the cars in the test. Flip the seats back up and rear passengers can enjoy the most head-, shoulder and legroom of any of the four cars.

Deciding if such utility and mild manners are what you're looking for is the tough part. For some, the SVT's forgiving setup might be just the ticket. It's less likely to make you feel like you compromised comfort in the name of performance, yet when pushed hard it offers all the capability you could ask for. Novice drivers will feel like Jeff Gordon behind the wheel, while experienced pilots will marvel at the car's ability to take a thrashing.

On the other hand, those looking for all-out speed will be disappointed by its lack of straight-line acceleration. And if it's an outgoing personality you're looking for, the Focus comes up a little short in that department, too. Disregard those categories, however, and the Focus remains a solid choice that's bound to impress you more often than it leaves you wishing for more.

Second Opinions:

Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says:
We were fortunate enough to have both a three-door and five-door SVT Focus during this comparison test (those SVT guys are awfully generous). While the three-door went up against a Mini Cooper S, the five-door slotted perfectly into our "sub-$20,000 performance sedan" category. You'd expect the two Foci to feel essentially identical, what with their common platform, suspension components and drivetrain. But while the three-door felt like a capable and well-rounded pocket rocket, the five-door seemed more "relaxed."

Our sensations were backed up by the hard numbers, where the five-door model was about half a second slower to 60 mph and through the quarter-mile than its hatchback brethren. It also leaned over far enough to allow contact between the fender wells and tires when performing hot laps. Despite these issues, the ZX5 managed quicker lap times than both the three-door version and (slightly) better times than the Mazdaspeed Protegé. It lagged behind the SRT-4 and was about equal to the SE-R Spec V for lap times, but that's saying a lot considering the SVT's relatively slow acceleration figures compared to the Nissan and Dodge. Basically, the car's predictable nature, wide power band and excellent brakes made up for its lack of straight-line punch.

Like the three-door, the five-door Focus offers exceptional utility while being easy to live with on a daily basis. It's not the flashiest or the fastest, but may be the most functional.

Second Place - 2003 Mazdaspeed Protegé

After its third-place finish in our last econosport sedan comparison test, we surmised that with a little more engine the Protegé could make a legitimate run for the top spot. Not long after that, Mazdaspeed, the Japanese company's in-house tuning arm released a turbocharged Protegé that did just that. With 30 extra horsepower and a more refined suspension package, the Mazdaspeed Protegé looked like it would finally become the class of the category.

Unfortunately for Mazda, the Protegé ran into a brick wall on its rise to glory in the form of the Dodge SRT-4. By single-handedly recalibrating what it means to be fast in this category, the SRT made the Protegé's added dose of power seem tame. The fact that it couldn't outrun the SRT at the track, however, didn't completely dull our enthusiasm for the Protegé, as it still managed to impress with its terrific handling, quick steering and upscale interior. In fact, when it came to picking which car they would choose for themselves, the majority of our editors picked the Mazda over the SRT.

Based on the limited-run MP3 that debuted in 2001, the Mazdaspeed Protegé builds on the MP3's upgrades with an extensive array of heavy-duty speed parts. An intercooled Garrett turbocharger boosts horsepower from a lowly 130 to a more competitive 170, while the torque rating increases to 160 lb-ft from the previous 135 lb-ft. A heavy-duty clutch disc and pressure plate relay the power through a limited-slip differential and thicker driveshafts, with 17-inch Racing Hart alloys and high-performance Bridgestone Potenza tires providing the final connection to the road.

It adds up to a Protegé that's not only significantly quicker than the previous MP3, but one that's better equipped to handle enthusiastic driving as well. When it came to proving itself at the track, the Protegé turned in the second fastest 0-to-60-mph time with a 7.9-second run, barely edging out the Nissan Spec V (8.0), but well behind the SRT's 6.3-second time. The Mazda's best lap time of 1:26.8 was the slowest of the four cars, but it trailed the Ford and the Nissan by only a few tenths of a second.

Unlike most turbo power plants that lag down low and then explode with a burst of power, the Protegé's engine delivers a steady stream of thrust across a wide power band. Forget about hanging onto second to pull through long sweepers, this Protegé finally has the muscle to rip it in third. "Smooth and eager, Mazda has effectively cured the Protegé's only weakness," wrote one editor. The custom exhaust isn't as overbearing as the SRT's, but there's enough pitch change that bystanders will know that it's more than a stocker. Commentary on the shifter wasn't so kind, however, as most editors balked at the short shifter and its small aftermarket-style handle.

Handling was never a Protegé weak spot, but Mazdaspeed's improvements ratchet up the performance yet another notch, turning this economy four-door into a serious G-machine at the track. Thicker stabilizer bars, a strut tower brace and revised Tokico shocks keep it dead flat through turns allowing you to concentrate on modulating the newfound power and maintaining a correct line. The steering remains as sharp as ever, with a slightly quicker ratio making for less wheel spinning and quicker turn-in. The traction problem that plagues the SRT is never an issue with the Protegé's standard limited slip, and although they share the same horsepower ratings, the Mazda always seems more eager to get to the redline than the Focus.

Less radical street maneuvers are met with equal enthusiasm, as the Protegé maintains a manageable ride quality that's stiff, but rarely annoying. A few editors noted that its aggressive shock valving felt more like a homegrown street machine compared to the others, but most appreciated the Mazda's ability to supply ample feedback through the steering wheel and seats.

High-quality materials and plenty of well-placed metallic accents earned the Mazda top marks when it came to interior design. Already considered a high-class economy sedan, the Protegé's upgrades don't seem as tacked on as the others. A thick, grippy steering wheel, well-placed Sparco pedals and easily readable gauges are just a few of the reasons cited for the Mazda's high scores. The 450-watt Kenwood MP3 audio system proved to be more aggravating than anything, as its complicated operation made simple tasks a chore. Once dialed in, however, there's some serious kick, so if a factory-installed system is a priority, this is one area where the Mazda clearly stands above the Dodge.

For our purposes, performance was the deciding factor when it came to the final finishing order, and for that reason, the Mazda took a distant second to the SRT entry. The added power of the Protegé's turbocharged engine is certainly a welcome improvement, but now that Dodge has reset the standards, it's time for Mazdaspeed to reassess its parameters. As an all-around vehicle that provides equal parts performance, comfort and style, the Protegé is a complete package, but with a car like the SRT occupying the same price bracket, the boys at Mazdaspeed are going to have to step it up once again.

Second Opinions:

Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says:
The Protegé's greatest strength lies under its hood, where the turbocharged 2.0-liter's horsepower and torque ratings fail to convey the engine's superb power delivery characteristics. At 170 horsepower, it ties the SVT for the lowest peak power output in the group, but that figure doesn't explain how readily the torque appears while essentially suffering no turbo effects. I once owned a 1989 Dodge Shelby CSX with a variable nozzle turbo design that effectively removed lag and gave the car V6-like torque right off idle. I haven't felt that kind of power delivery from any other four-cylinder engine…until now.

Some people say turbocharging is "cheating" when it comes to performance, and the fact that Ford's SVT Focus makes the same peak number without forced induction gives some validity to the statement. But check the acceleration numbers and you see the Mazda beating the Ford by over a full second in 0-to-60-mph times. The Protegé even beat the more powerful and ultratorque-laden SE-R to 60 mph, though the Nissan managed to squeak past the Mazda by the end of the quarter-mile. And in terms of engine refinement and shifter operation, the Mazda made the Nissan feel like a classic muscle car in all the wrong ways.

I'm not thrilled by the color choices, and the audio head unit needs a serious rethink in terms of functionality. I'd happily exchange its MP3 capabilities for traditional volume and tuning knobs. But the seats are comfortable, the steering feel is almost BMW-like and the suspension balances ride quality and handling needs better than anything else in the test. Where the Focus feels a bit tippy and the Nissan and Dodge seem unnecessarily harsh, the Protegé was "just right." The SRT-4 obviously trumps it on power, but as a more civilized alternative to the Mopar, this one makes an excellent choice.

First Place - 2003 Dodge SRT-4

If you find it hard to believe that a car originally marketed as cute and cuddly is now the most ferocious $20K sedan on the market, you're not alone. The fact that Dodge took the time to inject a little life into its nearly decade-old econocar was surprising. The fact that it wiped the pavement with several well-established competitors is nothing short of shocking.

The abrupt transformation from homely Neon to tire-shredding SRT-4 comes courtesy of Dodge's Performance Vehicle Operations (PVO), a newly formed team of grease monkey hot rodders masquerading as upstanding corporate engineers. To them, the Neon wasn't an anemic little commuter car with cute headlights, it was a compact chassis just waiting for some serious power and the right suspension.

Their efforts have paid off, as the SRT-4 is a compact sedan that redefines the performance envelope of its class. The competition may have nicer interiors and better stereos, but when it came to raw power and performance, the SRT-4 ruled this test.

Like most vehicles to emerge from manufacturer speed shops, the SRT-4 benefits from a massive infusion of power thanks to a larger 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine force-fed by a Mitsubishi-sourced turbocharger. With up to 15 pounds of boost dialed in and plenty of cool air from a seven-row intercooler, the SRT's mighty inline four comes rated from the factory at 215 horsepower and 245 pound-feet of torque. That's a full 40 horsepower more than the Sentra SE-R Spec V and a whopping 60-point spread in their respective torque numbers. As if those numbers aren't impressive enough already, Dodge will increase the stated ratings to 230 hp and 250 lb-ft of torque on 2004 models.

Fire up the potent power plant and it roars to life with a muscular growl rarely heard from a set of stock pipes. No need to swap in new mufflers for a better sound on this puppy, it doesn't have any. At idle, the dual rear exhausts emit a mild but satisfying burble, while a smack of the throttle calls up a barely contained crackle that sounds more aftermarket than Dodge dealer.

Ease into first gear and the SRT feels as docile as any other Neon, with a low-effort clutch and a smooth take-up. The notchy five-speed is equally compliant, with a psuedo-chrome ball handle that's comfortable to grip, if not satisfying in its authenticity. Lay into the throttle and everything you knew about the Neon changes in an instant, as the turbo spools up to speed and unleashes a flood of power to the hopelessly overmatched front wheels.

Under full boost, first gear disappears in a torrent of tire smoke, but the big 17-inch Michelin Pilots dig in for second and never let up from there on out. The car pulls strongly through 6,000 rpm with only a minimal drop-off in power as it approaches its 6,240-rpm redline. The only notable weak spot is the shifter, as it takes its time getting into gear, allowing the turbo to lag behind on every shift.

Attempting to get numbers at the track was a lesson in wheelspin management. Hot temperatures and an uphill straightaway didn't help matters much, but the numbers speak for themselves. With a 0-to-60-mph time of 6.3 seconds, the Dodge was over a second-and-a-half quicker than its closest competitor, the Mazdaspeed Protegé (7.9 seconds). Its quarter-mile time of 14.9 seconds beat the Nissan's by a full second (16.2), while its quarter-mile speed of 94 mph was a full 10 ticks faster than its next closest competitor's.

Its speed is undeniable, but there's more to the SRT-4 than just horsepower. The Neon's flabby underpinnings were ditched as well, replaced with a full complement of thicker sway bars, retuned springs and beefy four-wheel disc brakes. The transformation makes for a car that feels lighter on its feet despite the fact that the SRT-4 is actually heavier than the standard model. Ride quality has been compromised, but not by much, as it remains compliant enough for everyday driving — just don't expect to sip your morning coffee without a few tongue scaldings.

On the tight Streets of Willow road course, the SRT was flat, fast and a cinch to place in the turns. Previous Neons had a tendency to bring the tail around when you got off the throttle, but the SRT stays put the whole way through. Its steering still can't match the Protegé for precision, and the Focus may have a slight edge in the brake feel department, but when it came to lap times, the SRT came out on top. Its time around the circuit could have been even quicker had it been equipped with a limited-slip differential ('04 models get one as standard equipment), as most of the turbo's power was wasted spinning the inside tire out of the turns.

About the only area where the SRT-4 doesn't clean the competition's clock is in the interior department where its cheap controls and low-grade plastics reminded us of its ancient Neon roots. There are some attempts to dress it up with fake metallic accents and some fancy gauges, but it can't match the Protegé or the Focus when it comes to overall design. There is one bright spot in the interior, however, as the SRT scored big points for its Viper-inspired sport seats with side bolsters so prominent you practically have to crawl around them just to get in.

A cheapo interior and an average stereo might be enough to deter some buyers, but if those factors even enter your mind you're not the kind of driver the PVO engineers had in mind anyway. This is an econosport sedan that takes the goal of maximum performance for minimum dollars very seriously, and the numbers prove it. The Protegés, Focus SVTs and Spec Vs of the world better take notice — the SRT-4 is the new king of speed on the cheap and they don't stand a chance.

Second Opinions:

Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says:
It almost seems like Dodge read our last Econosport Sedans Comparison Test and decided to one-up the Nissan's winning formula. It took a basic economy sedan and stuck in the most powerful engine it could muster. But instead of depending solely on horsepower to get the job done, the Dodge boys included a functional shifter, high-quality instrumentation and ABS as standard equipment — all while keeping the price under $20,000.

As performance car bargains go, this one sets a new benchmark. Zero to 60 mph in less than six seconds (we only managed a 6.3, but that was uncorrected in the high-altitude desert with high temperatures), the quarter-mile in 14.9 seconds and 60-to-0-mph braking in less than 120 feet. Those acceleration figures are between one and two seconds quicker than anything else in the test which, as drag racers know, is an eternity. And the Dodge is good for more than just straightline shenanigans. Its lap times were also better than the next fastest car (SVT Focus) by more than a second. The shifter, while not as refined as the Ford's or Mazda's, is still fully functional and far better than the Nissan's. The ABS system provided exceptional stopping force with no discernable noise or vibration. Handling, always a strong point with the base Neon, was similarly up to spec with exceptional steering feedback and body roll control.

It is often said you can't tell everything about a car by simply looking at the spec sheet. But Dodge is keenly aware that the market for these cars is ever watchful of the spec sheet, and in this area the SRT-4 simply blows the competition away. What makes the SRT-4 a winner is looking beyond the spec sheet and finding an all-around functional sport sedan with a realistic price tag.

Conclusion

Getting performance on the cheap used to mean giving up a lot along the way. Not so anymore, as the latest crop of inexpensive sedans proves that there's plenty of fun and functionality to be had for $20,000.

In the Sentra's case, you can get a sizable chunk of go-fast parts for as little as $18,000, unheard of just a few years ago. The fact that the SE-R finished fourth shows just how far the competition has come in the past 18 months. Although still likable and fun to toss around, the Sentra is no longer the fastest vehicle out there. Combine that with an average interior and a clunky gearbox, and you have a car that falls just short of its rivals.

The Focus suffered from almost the same kind of competitive backlash. While 170 horsepower and a retuned suspension might have been good enough last year, the segment now demands something more to stand out. Its subdued styling and soft acceleration made it almost invisible in this test, but out on the track it still proved itself worthy of the hard-core enthusiast. If you're looking for the best compromise between performance and practicality, the Focus has plenty of both.

Reinvigorated with turbocharged power, the Protegé is now a fast sedan with few faults. It delivers remarkably precise handling for a car in this class, while the turbo delivers a broad band of power that's more usable than you might expect. Unique interior and exterior styling gives it a look to match its abilities. The Protegé is an excellent economy sport sedan for those who are willing to give up a little speed for a higher-quality interior.

The easy victory for the SRT-4 proves there's no replacement for displacement, or in this case, a big four-cylinder and a turbocharger. Dodge clearly went for the throat with the SRT, and although it still lacks a bit in the refinement category, there's no getting around the fact that it's the fastest thing on four wheels for $20K. Add in the sweet suspension and you've got yourself an economy sport sedan with no equals.

Evaluation - Drive
Evaluation - Ride
Evaluation - Design
Evaluation - Cargo/Passenger Space

Evaluation - Drive

Engine Performance
Vehicle Score Rank
Dodge SRT-4 9.7 1
Mazdaspeed Protegé 8.3 2 (t)
Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V 8.3 2 (t)
Ford SVT Focus 7.0 4
Transmission
Vehicle Score Rank
Dodge SRT-4 7.7 1
Ford SVT Focus
7.3 2
Mazdaspeed Protegé 6.7 3
Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V 5.0 4
Braking
Vehicle Score Rank
Ford SVT Focus 9.3 1
Dodge SRT-4 8.3 2 (t)
Mazdaspeed Protegé
8.3 2 (t)
Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V 6.7 4
Suspension
Vehicle Score Rank
Ford SVT Focus
9.7 1
Mazdaspeed Protegé 8.7 2
Dodge SRT-4
8.0 3
Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V
7.3 4
Tires
Vehicle Score Rank
Dodge SRT-4 8.3 1
Mazdaspeed Protegé
8.0 2
Ford SVT Focus
7.7 3
Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V 7.0 4
Steering
Vehicle Score Rank
Mazdaspeed Protegé 9.3 1
Ford SVT Focus
8.7 2
Dodge SRT-4
7.7 3
Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V
7.3 4
Visibility
Vehicle Score Rank
Mazdaspeed Protegé 8.0 1
Ford SVT Focus
6.7 2 (t)
Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V
6.7 2 (t)
Dodge SRT-4
6.0 4
Fun to Drive
Vehicle Score Rank
Dodge SRT-4 9.0 1
Ford SVT Focus 8.3 2 (t)
Mazdaspeed Protegé 8.3 2 (t)
Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V 7.7 4

Evaluation - Ride

Seat Comfort Front
Vehicle Score Rank
Dodge SRT-4 9.0 1
Ford SVT Focus 7.7 2
Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V 7.3 3
Mazdaspeed Protegé 7.0 4
Seat Comfort Rear
Vehicle Score Rank
Mazdaspeed Protegé 7.3 1
Ford SVT Focus
7.0 2
Dodge SRT-4
6.7 3
Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V
5.3 4
Wind & Road Noise
Vehicle Score Rank
Dodge SRT-4 7.7 1 (t)
Ford SVT Focus 7.7 1 (t)
Mazdaspeed Protegé 7.3 3
Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V 6.3 4
Rattles & Squeaks
Vehicle Score Rank
Ford SVT Focus
8.3 1 (t)
Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V 8.3 1 (t)
Mazdaspeed Protegé 8.0 3
Dodge SRT-4 7.7 4

Evaluation - Design

Interior Design
Vehicle Score Rank
Dodge SRT-4 8.3 1
Mazdaspeed Protegé
7.3 2
Ford SVT Focus
6.3 3
Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V 5.7 4
Interior Material
Vehicle Score Rank
Mazdaspeed Protegé 9.0 1
Ford SVT Focus
8.3 2
Dodge SRT-4
6.7 3
Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V
6.0 4
Climate Control Design/Operation
Vehicle Score Rank
Dodge SRT-4 8.3 1 (t)
Ford SVT Focus 8.3 1 (t)
Mazdaspeed Protegé 8.0 3
Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V 7.3 4
Audio System Design/Operation
Vehicle Score Rank
Ford SVT Focus
8.0 1
Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V 7.0 2
Dodge SRT-4
6.3 3
Mazdaspeed Protegé
2.7 4
Secondary Control Design/Operation
Vehicle Score Rank
Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V 8.7 1
Ford SVT Focus 8.3 2 (t)
Mazdaspeed Protegé 8.3 2 (t)
Dodge SRT-4 7.7 4
Exterior Design
Vehicle Score Rank
Mazdaspeed Protegé 8.3 1
Dodge SRT-4 7.0 2
Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V 6.3 3
Ford SVT Focus 5.3 4
Headlight Illumination
Vehicle Score Rank
Dodge SRT-4 7.3 1 (t)
Ford SVT Focus 7.3 1 (t)
Mazdaspeed Protegé 7.3 1 (t)
Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V 7.3 1 (t)
Overall Build Quality
Vehicle Score Rank
Mazdaspeed Protegé 8.7 1
Ford SVT Focus
7.6 2
Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V
7.3 3
Dodge SRT-4
7.0 4

Evaluation - Cargo/Passenger Space

Entry/Exit
Vehicle Score Rank
Ford SVT Focus
7.7 1 (t)
Mazdaspeed Protegé 7.7 1 (t)
Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V
7.0 3
Dodge SRT-4
5.3 4
Expanding/Loading Cargo
Vehicle Score Rank
Dodge SRT-4 8.0 1
Ford SVT Focus 7.3 2 (t)
Mazdaspeed Protegé 7.3 2 (t)
Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V 6.3 4
Storage Space
Vehicle Score Rank
Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V 7.7 1
Mazdaspeed Protegé 6.7 2
Dodge SRT-4 6.3 3
Ford SVT Focus 5.3 4
Cupholders
Vehicle Score Rank
Mazdaspeed Protegé 7.0 1
Dodge SRT-4 6.7 2
Ford SVT Focus
6.3 3
Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V 5.0 4

Personal Picks

Personal Picks
Vehicle Total Points Percentage
Dodge SRT-4 9 75
Ford SVT Focus 7 58
Mazdaspeed Protegé 10 83
Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V 4 33

Recommended Picks

When it comes to buying a performance sedan, there's more to consider than just how fast it goes. While many of these vehicles are stripped of excess features in order to save weight and costs, there are still a few options to consider when making your purchase decision. We asked each editor to pick the top five features they would want on their econosport sedans and then crunched the numbers. Any feature that was standard on all cars was not eligible.

Top 5 Features

Recommended Picks
Vehicle Total Points Percentage
Dodge SRT-4 9 75
Ford SVT Focus 7 58
Mazdaspeed Protegé 10 83
Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V 4 33
Top 5 Features
  Dodge SRT-4 Ford Focus SVT Mazdaspeed Protegé Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V
Antilock brakes S S S O
Sunroof N/A O N/A O
Side-impact airbags O S N/A O
CD changer N/A O N/A N/A
Limited-slip differential N/A N/A S S

Key:
S: Standard
O: Optional
N/A: Not Available

Antilock brakes: Antilock brakes (ABS) make tire skids a thing of the past; just mash the pedal and let the computer do the work. Only the Nissan put this feature on its options list.

Sunroof: Although it hardly qualifies as a performance-enhancing feature, the all-important sunroof makes these small sedans feel that much bigger.

Side-impact airbags: These effective safety devices help protect the driver and front passenger in the event of a side-impact collision by providing a protective barrier between the door and the driver or front passenger. Only the Nissan offers this important piece of protection.

CD changer: Once again, this hardly contributes to the car's overall performance, but when you're commuting or taking a trip, not having to shuffle CDs is always a welcome convenience.

Limited-slip differential: This device distributes power to the wheel with the most traction, thereby eliminating excessive tire spin on one wheel.

2003 Dodge SRT-4

"I remember in 2000 reading an article on Dodge bringing a supercharged Neon to the market. At the time I owned a first-generation Neon, and was very satisfied, but I knew I had to get it. I waited to hear more of this car but nothing, so I forgot about it. Finally in 2002 I read about Dodge unveiling of the turbocharged SRT-4. All I could do was hope that it was as good as they made it out to be. Dodge, you have made me proud to own one. The design may not be all new, but it turns a lot of heads. I am constantly being complimented on my car, and respected by street racers. When I am driving my car all that comes to mind is sweeeet! The Dodge SRT-4 rocks!!!!!" — Srt-4 lIFE, June 22, 2003

"The sole point of buying this car was to get the fastest stock vehicle for my money (limit $30,000). The looking started a couple of years ago, and covered the RSX, RSX Type-S, WRX, WRX STi and the new Z. With zero to 60 from 5.4 to 5.9, and 14-second quarter-mile at 102, the SRT-4 blew everything else away in its price range ($19,500), let alone $10,000 above. Warning: this car cruises at 100 mph like it was 60, and doesn't even strain at 140. Rock on, Dodge!" — celsius, June 28, 2003

"This car is designed for me, Willow Springs, street fun, rallies. Best car up to $35K!! I love the race seats — especially on high-speed continuous turns. I love the brakes, stops absolutely straight. I love the power to weight (the 'real' power-to-weight ratio). I love the looks, and the attention from everyone. I love the four-door race car!!" — mt2, June 13, 2003

2003 Mazdaspeed Protegé

"I purchased my Mazdaspeed less than a week ago, and while I'm still definitely in the honeymoon phase, I can say without a doubt this car is the best driving experience available under $30,000. It's a steal at $20,000, and with the limited production, it's not going to be the depreciation nightmare most economy cars are. If you can find one, drive it; compare what you get, and you'll return to the Mazda dealership without a doubt in your mind about your decision." — Maxwell House, Feb. 26, 2003

"The individual pieces of this vehicle are not overwhelming, but when put together, this vehicle is incredible to drive. The steering feel, and complete balance and composure through the twisties, brings the biggest grin on my face; and what a deal. At a bit over $20K this car kicks ass. I'll leave an RSX, 330i, IS 300, in my dust on straits, and lose an SRT-4, and WRX behind in the twisties. I only wish I didn't live so close to some of the best driving roads in the country…my front tires are going quickly." — llan, July 1, 2003

"Owned my MSP for roughly three weeks, and it is an absolute blast to drive. It is quicker than most cars excluding SRT-4, WRX, EVO, etc. but it has handled every corner I have thrown at it with ease so far. No sliding, screeching or unpredicted behavior. This is a car for the person who wants to go fast everywhere, not just light to light. I would recommend the SRT-4 if you just want 0-60 at the same price." — VTUHwang, June 18, 2003

Ford SVT Focus

"Fun for under $20K. It's a great package for the price. Handling and stopping are tops on my list. It's not a drag car, but the six-speed Getrag transmission is geared for backcountry roads with lots of curves. It's a super everyday driver with good performance for a 2.0-liter engine with 170 hp. SVT did a great conversion on the Focus to make it a fun car to drive and own. If you're looking for a sports compact car, I would drive them all and include the 'SVT Focus' on my list. I did and I am happy with my purchase." — J.D., May 23, 2003

"The SVT is a screaming deal, especially if you could get it with the $2,500 rebate. This is one very fun car. Superb handling, great acceleration, very comfortable ride for a performance car, decent gas mileage and very spacious interior (lots of headroom). All these make the SVT a great commuter car. I've driven Porsche, Audi, Saab, Mercedes and others and the Ford Focus SVT ranks one of the highest in terms of fun to drive. The only complaint I have is the over aggressive bad-boy styling." — Ayccya, April 2, 2003

"I bought one of the first SVT Focus cars produced (number 455) and I am completely satisfied with my purchase. Zero problems and major grins every time I twist the key. No one makes a car offering this kind of quality and performance for under $25,000. I love the subdued styling and Euro flair. Car performs as well on the track as it does on the street. Sweet exhaust note that really wails at 7,000 rpm. Don't order the traction control since it will slow the cars 0-60 acceleration by about a half second. Without it the SVT will clip 60 in 6.9 to 7 seconds." — Dave Gilmore, March 20, 2003

2003 Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V

"After test-driving several of Nissan's competitors, including the Hyundai Tiburon and the Acura RSX, I chose to purchase the Nissan SE-R spec V. This is a fantastic car! The engine and transmission are solid. The engine produces plenty of power throughout the power band. I decided against the Rockford Fosgate system because I'm going to install my own but the RF radio package is well worth the money. My favorite part of the car is the suspension, it's absolutely fantastic. Firm yet not bouncy. You have total control of the car. A top-of-the-line Spec V shouldn't set you back more than $18,000 which is a value that none of the other cars can touch." — chemboy, May 9, 2003

"An exceptional car for the price. Gives you a real sports car feel. The 175-horse engine and six-speed stick really move. The 17-inch performance tires and sports suspension hug the road like a tight leather glove. The interior is functional and user-friendly and is enhanced by the Rockford Fosgate stereo. Bottom line — The Toyota Corolla is 'cute,' and the average SUV is so big you feel like you're sitting in your living room. This car ROCKS and makes you appreciate driving again." — Marcus, April 24, 2003

"I looked at this car along with the Protegé, Cavalier and Focus. After driving them all, this car was by far the best choice. It is FAST and FUN. It has room for my family (two car seats) and still puts a smile on my face when driving. The seats are supportive and well bolstered. The R/F stereo is exceptional (although not world-class). I got leather put in on all seats and inserts and would highly recommend this. My only complaint is that reverse is located on the right side of the shifter (off of 5th/6th) and there is only a detente to push through to get there. You can end up there in spirited up and downshifts (at high speed)." — JMKLF, March 10, 2003

Final Rankings

Final Rankings
  Dodge SRT-4 Ford SVT Focus Mazdaspeed Protegé Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V
Personal Rating (10% of score) 75.0 58.3 83.3 33.3
Recommended Rating (10% of score) 75.0 58.3 83.3 33.3
Evaluation Score (20% of score) 74.9 75.7 76.9 68.9
Feature Content (20% of score) 20.0 46.7 40.0 46.7
Performance Testing (20% of score) 100.0 48.0 46.0 38.0
Price (20% of score) 95.1 90.4 92.5 100
         
Total Score 81.0 64.0 68.3 56.5
Final Ranking 1 3 2 4

Scoring Explanation

Personal Rating: Purely subjective. After the test, each participating editor was asked to rank the vehicles in order of preference based on which he or she would buy if money were no object.

Recommended Rating: After the test, each participating editor was asked to rank the vehicles in order of preference based on which he or she thought would be best for the average consumer shopping in this segment.

24-Point Evaluation: Each participating editor ranked every vehicle based on a comprehensive 24-point evaluation. The evaluation covered everything from exterior design to cupholders. Scoring was calculated on a point system, and the scores listed are averages based on all test participants' evaluations.

Performance Testing: All vehicles were tested for 0-to-60 acceleration, time through the quarter-mile, speed at the quarter-mile and 60-to-0 braking distance. In addition, timed laps around the Streets of Willow road course were also factored into the final performance score.

Feature Content: For this category, the editors picked the top 5 features they thought would be most beneficial to the consumer shopping in this segment. For each vehicle, the score was based on the amount of actual features it had versus the total possible (10). Standard and optional equipment were taken into consideration.

Price: The numbers listed were the result of a simple percentage calculation based on the least expensive vehicle in the comparison test. Using the "as tested" prices of the actual evaluation vehicles, the least expensive vehicle received a score of 100, with the remaining vehicles receiving lesser scores based on how much each one costs.

Vehicle
Model year2003
MakeDodge
ModelSRT-4
Drivetrain
Engine typeinline 4
Displacement (cc/cu-in)2.4
Horsepower (hp @ rpm)215 @ 5,400
Torque (lb-ft @ rpm)245 @ 3,200
Transmission type5-speed manual
Track Test Results
0-60 mph (sec.)6.3
1/4-mile (sec. @ mph)14.9 @ 94.3
60-0 mph (ft.)115.7
Fuel Consumption
EPA fuel economy (mpg)22/30
Dimensions & Capacities
Curb weight, mfr. claim (lbs.)2,939
Length (in.)175.7
Width (in.)67.4
Height (in.)56.5
Wheelbase (in.)105
Turning circle (ft.)38.9
Legroom, front (in.)42.2
Legroom, rear (in.)34.8
Headroom, front (in.)38.4
Headroom, rear (in.)36.7
Shoulder room, front (in.)53.4
Shoulder room, rear (in.)52.8
Warranty
Bumper-to-bumper3 years / 36,000 miles
Powertrain7 years / 70,000 miles
Corrosion5 years / 100,000 miles
Roadside assistance3 years / 36,000 miles
Vehicle
Model year2003
MakeMazdaspeed
ModelProtege
Drivetrain
Engine typeinline 4
Displacement (cc/cu-in)2
Horsepower (hp @ rpm)170 @ 6,000
Torque (lb-ft @ rpm)160 @ 3,500
Transmission type5-speed manual
Track Test Results
0-60 mph (sec.)7.9
1/4-mile (sec. @ mph)16.3 @ 75.6
60-0 mph (ft.)117.3
Fuel Consumption
EPA fuel economy (mpg)24/30
Dimensions & Capacities
Curb weight, mfr. claim (lbs.)2,843
Length (in.)174.6
Width (in.)67.1
Height (in.)55.5
Wheelbase (in.)102.8
Turning circle (ft.)34.1
Legroom, front (in.)42.2
Legroom, rear (in.)35.4
Headroom, front (in.)39.3
Headroom, rear (in.)37.4
Shoulder room, front (in.)53.9
Shoulder room, rear (in.)53.4
Warranty
Bumper-to-bumper4 years / 50,000 miles
Powertrain4 years / 50,000 miles
Corrosion5 years / Unlimited miles
Roadside assistance4 years / 50,000 miles
Vehicle
Model year2003
MakeFord
ModelSVT Focus
Drivetrain
Engine typeinline 4
Displacement (cc/cu-in)2
Horsepower (hp @ rpm)170 @ 7,000
Torque (lb-ft @ rpm)145 @ 5,500
Transmission type6-speed manual
Track Test Results
0-60 mph (sec.)9.1
1/4-mile (sec. @ mph)17 @ 83
60-0 mph (ft.)115
Fuel Consumption
EPA fuel economy (mpg)21/25
Dimensions & Capacities
Curb weight, mfr. claim (lbs.)2,750
Length (in.)168.1
Width (in.)66.9
Height (in.)56.3
Wheelbase (in.)103
Turning circle (ft.)39.1
Legroom, front (in.)43.1
Legroom, rear (in.)37.6
Headroom, front (in.)39.3
Headroom, rear (in.)38.7
Shoulder room, front (in.)53.7
Shoulder room, rear (in.)53.5
Warranty
Bumper-to-bumper3 years / 36,000 miles
Powertrain5 years / 36,000 miles
Corrosion5 years / Unlimited miles
Roadside assistance3 years / 36,000 miles
Vehicle
Model year2003
MakeNissan
ModelSentra SE-R Spec V
Drivetrain
Engine typeinline 4
Displacement (cc/cu-in)2.5
Horsepower (hp @ rpm)175 @ 6,000
Torque (lb-ft @ rpm)180 @ 4,000
Transmission type6-speed manual
Track Test Results
0-60 mph (sec.)8
1/4-mile (sec. @ mph)16.2 @ 84.7
60-0 mph (ft.)155.2
Fuel Consumption
EPA fuel economy (mpg)22/28
Dimensions & Capacities
Curb weight, mfr. claim (lbs.)2,710
Length (in.)177.5
Width (in.)67.3
Height (in.)55.5
Wheelbase (in.)99.8
Turning circle (ft.)38.4
Legroom, front (in.)41.6
Legroom, rear (in.)33.7
Headroom, front (in.)39.9
Headroom, rear (in.)37
Shoulder room, front (in.)52.6
Shoulder room, rear (in.)52.6
Warranty
Bumper-to-bumper3 years / 36,000 miles
Powertrain5 years / 60,000 miles
Corrosion5 years / Unlimited miles
Roadside assistance3 years / 36,000 miles
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