Affordable sports cars make their debut

An affordable car that is fun to drive can be hard to find. Price is always a barrier that needs to be conquered, especially in the entry sports car segment. With the recent introduction of a few vehicles, we are faced with some decisions. Deciding between appearance and all out American horsepower can be difficult.

The Mini Cooper S is the first car to come to mind. The entry price is less than $20,000, with a supercharged 163 horsepower 1.6L inline 4 and a 6-speed manual transmission that guarantees this car will be a blast to drive. More power can be had with the “John Cooper Works” upgrade, which bumps horsepower to 200. The first three years of scheduled service is free, but with a limited number of cars available, you can expect to pay a dealer premium to get your hands on one. The new car pays homage to the original, with rounded headlights, 2 doors and more room inside than the exterior suggests. Options include xenon headlights, a full-panel sunroof, navigation, leather; the list continues. In fact, the options make it easy to make this car your own. Since Mini is owned by BMW, you can expect the same attention to detail and quality that can be found in BMW’s own line of vehicles.

Another car worth a look is the Saturn Ion Red Line. With an estimated price at less than $20,000 and featuring a 200 horsepower supercharged 4-cylinder engine, the Red Line is designed to be a ready-to-go performance car.

“Ion Red Line is a street car that is also at home on the racetrack,” claims Saturn. It has special body panels, a lowered suspension, a rear wing, aggressive 17-inch wheels, a low-restriction 2.25-inch exhaust and larger brakes.

Don’t expect a regular Ion with a supercharger bolted on, either. The Red Line features an engine with lower compression, a stronger transmission, and other differences that won’t be so noticeable.

With production starting in early 2004, this car could be a strong contender to the already popular and more expensive Toyota Celica GT-S, Mitsubishi Eclipse GT and Acura RSX.

Dodge got in the tuner game when they strapped a turbo to a Neon and called it the SRT-4 in 2003. With the most power of this group, rated at 230 horsepower and 250lb.-ft. of torque, this 2.4L 16 valve 4-cylinder engine provides the most “bang for the buck.”

For 2004 the SRT-4 gets a much-needed limited slip differential mated to the 5-speed manual to help keep the tires from skidding. The price also gets bumped to just under $21,000. Zero-to-60 comes in a turbo-rushed 5.8 seconds. Seventeen-inch wheels are standard, as well as the normal power group options like power windows and locks. Perhaps the only thing strange about the SRT-4 is the manual windows in the back seat, probably placed there to keep price and weight down.

Exteriorly the SRT-4 has a mild wing in the rear and slight changes to the front-arm dam, which allows good airflow to the front-mount intercooler which peeks through it. The interior is modern, with white-faced gauges, a boost gauge for the turbo and good, bolstered seats.

These three cars show us that automotive manufactures are serious about providing fast and fun cars that won’t break the bank. By taking unnecessary items out or making certain equipment optional, these cars keep prices in check with reality.