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To find the best sub-$30,000 speedsters, we put them through more rigorous tests than usual in our challenges and added days to the usual three-day comparison testing.

For the Cars.com/USA TODAY/MotorWeek $30,000 Cheap Speed Challenge, the testing included a day at Byron, Ill., Dragway to get 0-to-60-mph times, quarter-mile times and 60-to-0-mph braking distances and a day on the road-racing course at the Autobahn Country Club in Joliet, Ill., to test the field's sporting credibility.

The cars also got our usual tests, including a mileage drive of more than 220 miles of city streets, rural roads and highways to measure real-world fuel economy. Eight drivers rotated through the eight cars and drove normally (which was pretty briskly in this array of vehicles); windows were up, air conditioning on.

The experts then spent a day driving all eight entries back-to-back over the same route to judge ride, handling, acceleration and braking in the real world. And there was a day for the consumer judge to be briefed on and drive all the cars.

The judges:

Consumer judge: Joe Weiss, 38, a quality assurance manager from Chicago, who's in the market for just such a car.

Cars.com: Joe Bruzek, road test editor; David Thomas, managing editor; Joe Wiesenfelder, executive editor.

USA TODAY: James R. Healey, auto writer.

MotorWeek: Brian Robinson, producer.

We set a maximum price of $30,000, including destination charge. Automakers could provide their best configuration for the price cap. Ten cars fit the bill for type of vehicle, but only eight were evaluated.

Mini was out because it did not have a Cooper available to test that met the price cap. Honda's Civic Si lost a tire in a Chicago pothole and repairs could not be made in time for track days, so it was scratched.

The eight that finished the contest, alphabetically: Fiat 500 Abarth, Ford Fiesta ST, Hyundai Veloster Turbo, Kia Forte5 SX, Nissan Juke Nismo RS, Scion FR-S, Subaru WRX, Volkswagen Golf GTI.

The score is out of 1,000 possible points. Experts' evaluations were worth 50%; the consumer judge's, 10%; track performance, 30%; and the fuel economy rank was worth 10%.



The results:



1 --2015 Volkswagen Golf GTI

Points: 878 (out of 1,000)

Price as tested: $26,915

Drivetrain: 2.0-liter turbo four, 210 horsepower, front-drive, 6-speed dual-clutch automatic

Acceleration/braking: 0-60 mph, 6.76 seconds; 1/4 mile, 15.15 seconds / 60-0 114.2 feet (best)

Mileage test: 1st, 32.8 mpg (25/33/28)

What they liked: Feels like it's in a whole other class, Robinson said. It behaves more like a midsize performance sedan than a sporty compact. Above average on the track ... and on city streets it was more fun to drive than any of the other cars, Thomas said.

Bruzek said, It accelerates, brakes and handles with the best of the Cheap Speed cars, but with fantastic ride quality and real interior room, said Bruzek. Wiesenfelder found the brakes to be supremely confidence-inspiring.

Performance enthusiasts may love manuals, but the (dual-clutch automatic) in the GTI is the way to go, Thomas said. Refinement is the GTI's watchword, Wiesenfelder said, describing everything from its drivetrain and suspension to its interior quality and quiet cabin.

What they didn't: A performance car this good deserves better steering feel, Wiesenfelder said. The GTI multimedia ... remains at least a step behind in usefulness and user-friendliness, Healey said.

This car is fast, but the Subaru blows everything away, said Weiss, our in-market shopper. I'm not giggling like I did in the WRX. And our model was missing basic items such as a backup camera and a USB port, Bruzek pointed out. If you don't like plaid seats, you have a problem, Thomas said.

Bottom line: Best performance bang for the buck, bar none; it's one of the most comfortable cars here, Robinson said. This is the one I would buy right now.

2 -- 2015 Subaru WRX

Points: 807

Price as tested: $29,290

Drivetrain: 2.0-liter turbo four, 268 hp, all-wheel drive, 6-speed manual

Acceleration/braking: 0-60 mph, 5.86 sec.; 1/4 mile, 14.46 sec. / 60-0 120.9 ft.

Mileage test: 7th, 29.7 mpg (21/28/24)

What they liked: This was the pick for consumer judge Weiss: This car is really fast. Wow!

You really have to experience its neck-snapping off-the-line acceleration to appreciate it, Wiesenfelder said. With its all-wheel drive, the WRX rockets out of corners, Bruzek said.

It's easy to forget that the WRX is a functional everyday car with a usable back seat, large trunk and all-wheel drive, Wiesenfelder said.

What they didn't: Interior materials are hard to swallow at nearly $30,000, Bruzek said. Healey dismissed the Stone-Age multimedia controls and logic.

And Thomas noted that the tester was the most expensive in the group with the worst gas mileage, and with no options on the sticker.

Brakes were a sore point. Though they began our testing with good numbers, I don't recall them feeling exceptional even from the start, Wiesenfelder said, Did we roast them? Possibly. But we exposed them to the same driving we did all the others.

Bottom line: Perfect for the Midwest, Weiss said. All that power and all-wheel drive.

3 -- 2014 Ford Fiesta ST

Points: 750

Price as tested: $25,610

Drivetrain: 1.6-liter turbo four, 197 hp, front drive, 6-speed manual

Acceleration/braking: 0-60 mph, 7.61 seconds; 1/4 mile, 15.72 sec. / 60-0 127.2 ft.

Mileage test: 3rd, 31.2 mpg (26/35/29)

What they liked: Fiesta provokes you into having a ton of fun. It's no impostor, as it showed in track tests, said Healey. The clutch action and shifting were juuust right for this type of car, Thomas said. He added, It has just enough practicality to it while still being quite small, a bonus for city dwellers.

Wiesenfelder said, I was impressed with back-seat space for a car of this size. Robinson called the Recaro-brand seats worth every penny.

What they didn't: But others disagreed. Narrow Recaro seats don't provide much wiggle room ... and constantly force anything in your pockets out, such as cellphones, wallets and more. I'm a skinny guy and still found them too tight, said Bruzek.

There was consensus that the ride was harsh. The test is full of firm-riding cars, Wiesenfelder said, but this one took the cake. Bruzek said the styling looks more comical than aggressive, and Thomas thought the interior was cheap, with rough plastics. The tiny screen for MyFord Touch was pretty worthless.

Bottom line: This car is so much fun, Robinson raved. It's about time for us to get a real-deal ST model here in the States. I'm still not sure that most of America is ready for this car because of its ultra-stiff ride, but give it a chance; it is awesome!

4 -- 2014 Kia Forte5 SX

Points: 748

Price as tested: $26,865

Drivetrain: 1.6-liter turbo four, 201 hp, front drive, 6-speed automatic

Acceleration/braking: 0-60 mph, 7.5 seconds; 1/4 mile, 15.81 sec. / 60-0 127.1 ft.

Mileage test: 8th, 29.5 mpg (EPA 21/29/24)

What they liked: Hugely roomy, given the competition, Bruzek said. Its suspension is surprisingly capable, and it looks the part of cheap speed with 18-inch wheels, dual-exiting exhaust and blackened exterior trim. Said Thomas, Features-for-the-price is a Kia strong suit, and it sure shows here.

What they didn't: It fell short as a driving experience in this group. No fun allowed, said Healey. 'Thank goodness' was our first thought when the laps were done. Robinson dinged the fair amount of roll in corners, while Wiesenfelder found that on the track it just wasn't interested in downshifting when I wanted it to. Bruzek: The SX's automatic transmission is good for a family car, not a performance one.

Bottom line: Said Wiesenfelder, Truth be told, Kia doesn't make an equivalent to the STs, Abarths and NISMOs of this lot, but if ever (Kia) does, the Forte5 suggests it could field a strong competitor.

5 -- 2014 Scion FR-S

Points: 736

Price as tested: $28,642

Drivetrain: 2.0-liter non-turbo four, 200 hp, rear drive, 6-speed manual

Acceleration/braking: 0-60 mph, 7.68 seconds; 1/4 mile, 15.84 sec. / 60-0 131.5 ft.

Mileage test: 2nd, 31.9 mpg (EPA 22/30/25)

What they liked: Responsive handling that most in this group can only dream about. The balance is perfect and the whole car seems to rotate around you, Robinson said. Great to have this car in the test to remind us that front-wheel drive is inherently inferior, Wiesenfelder said. In addition, he noted that the engine has a nice, even power band and the gear ratios are spot-on.

What they didn't: High RPM and droney exhaust note at highway speeds make you wish for another gear or two, Robinson said. Not enough go, said Wiesenfelder: More horsepower and torque would raise this car to another level. Bruzek found it way under-tired; sliding is fun for a while, but I want more grip. Several noted the very small back seat and Spartan interior.

Bottom line: An affordable track star that you can drive right home, Thomas said.

6 -- 2014 Hyundai Veloster Turbo

Points: 732

Price as tested: $27,260

Drivetrain: 1.6-liter turbo four, 201 hp, front drive, 6-speed manual

Acceleration/braking: 0-60 mph, 7.94 seconds; 1/4 mile, 16.06 sec. / 60-0 135.0 ft.

Mileage test: 5th, 30.5 mpg (EPA 24/33/28)

What they liked: The shift lever's short height and short throws make it a delight, Wiesenfelder said. The engine's power delivery is smooth and without much lag, Bruzek said, though it never comes on fierce like the Fiesta ST.

Healey liked its predictable track handling and road handling, too. Thomas found it weirdly practical: The third door does make the back row more usable than a standard coupe. I've had my two little kids in it, and they did great, even in car seats.

Distinctiveness. In a world of look-alike transportation, it's one car that truly stands out, Robinson noted. Value in features for the money.

What they didn't: The Veloster loses composure when pushed hard, Bruzek said. The best in the group hunker down and get around a corner without a fuss. Steering remains numb and vague, said Wiesenfelder.

Pushing it hard wasn't a great experience despite decent acceleration. On the track, there was no escaping how poorly it handled, said Thomas. For Robinson, the looks 'overpromise' and 'underdelivered' performance.

Bottom line: Bruzek: Perfectly fine as a street car ... with its turbo noises, fantastic manual shifter and signature funkiness. It's easily outshined once you start pushing the car with any serious performance driving.

7 -- 2014 Nissan Juke NISMO RS

Points: 684

Price as tested: $28,345

Drivetrain: 1.6-liter turbo four, 197 hp, front drive, 6-speed manual

Acceleration/braking: 0-60 mph, 7.18 seconds; 1/4 mile, 15.5 sec. / 60-0 124.2 ft.

Mileage test: 4th, 31.2 mpg (EPA 25/31/27)

What they liked: This subcompact SUV does not handle the track like anything else I've experienced, Thomas said. The high seating position and dynamics of the car gave a new sense of exhilaration to my track runs. He also found that the Alcantara simulated-suede touches were terrific, especially on the steering wheel.

The engine makes good power for coming off corners, though the chassis doesn't always seem to know what to do with it, Robinson said. To be a serious competitor among cars like this, a vehicle really does need an abundance of power, Wiesenfelder said. NISMO has it. Steering is nearly as precise as the Scion FR-S, Bruzek said.

What they didn't: There was torque steer strong enough to nearly yank the steering wheel out of my hands, Wiesenfelder said. Torque steer during turbo lag? The worst of both worlds.

And then there were the seats. Scaling the wall that is the bottom cushion's side bolster every time you get in and out could easily be a source of regret for an owner, Wiesenfelder said. Bruzek complained about the choppy ride quality with little handling reward.

Bottom line: For a crossover, it's a pretty poor execution, but for a performance car trapped inside a crossover body, this thing is pretty remarkable, Robinson said.

8 -- 2014 Fiat 500 Abarth

Points: 621

Price as tested: $25,995

Drivetrain: 1.4-liter turbo four, 160 hp, front drive, 5-speed manual

Acceleration/braking: 0-60 mph, 8.76 seconds; 1/4 mile, 16.57 sec. / 60-0 129.6 ft.

Mileage test: 6th, 30.3 mpg (EPA 28/34/30)

What they liked: Impressive grip on the track, Thomas said. The steering feel is quite good, Wiesenfelder said. Nimble and darty at high speeds.

Said Wiesenfelder: Grippy Pirelli P Zero Nero tires proved the Abarth can handle a turn on a racetrack, defying the tipsy feeling experienced on the street. I was shocked to learn that replacements cost less than $100 apiece.

Healey and other judges liked the appearance of the Abarth edition. It tries hard to project a high-performance image through its exhaust note and appearance, said Healey. Its engine/exhaust sound at start-up never gets old, said Robinson.

What they didn't: Others found the exhaust note droned or simply annoyed them over long stretches. Robinson found the Abarth to be a real snoozer off the line, while Healey said it was both too small to be useful and too expensive to be worth it.

Wiesenfelder noted, There's no escaping the tipsy feeling you experience anytime you take a sharp corner in street driving. Weiss said, The gearbox is horrible. It's like a stick in Jell-O. And Bruzek said the Abarth's skittishness during emergency braking is less than ideal.

Bottom line:
An absolute joy on the road course, Bruzek said. Off the track, however, it's oddly less confident in every regard: braking, acceleration and handling.

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