I'm about 90 days out from going to Trashcanistan again, and oddly enough, it isn't a gun that I'm planning to blow my combat pay on. I really want a fast car, but to get something really fast, you have to pay quite a bit up front, and then continue paying for exotic engine oils, frequent maintenance that can only be done at a dealer, and tires that cost more than the gross national product of Paraguay. On top of that, I'm only 25, so the insurance man gets very nervous when I'm in the same place as a supercharger.
But let's examine my definition of "fast" for those of you who don't watch Top Gear constantly. The track has 12 turns and is 1.76 miles long. A Ferrari Enzo can do it in 1:19.0, a Lamborghini Murceliago can do it in 1:29.0, and an Audi S4 Quattro can do it in 1:30.9. A really good hot hatchback should do the track in the low 1:30s. Basically, to break the 1:30.0 mark, you have to spend about $60,000 on the car up front, plus all the high-dollar maintenance that such machines require down the road--let alone insurance costs.
So I've narrowed the field to three cars that I can afford, are cheap to own, and are reasonably fast according to the boys at Top Gear. Here they are in no particular order:
2004-2009 Honda S2000
237 hp@7800rpm, 162 ft/lb torque @ 6800rpm
Top Gear test track time: 1:37.4 (Very Wet--estimated 1:33.4 dry)
The S2000 is a much loved, simple, nimble roadster that is fun, cheap to run, and reliable. The only problem with this car is that American insurance companies don't like it because it is fast, cheap, reliable, and lots of middle-aged men wrap themselves around telephone poles in them. Insurance for me, as a third car for a married 25 year old male police officer is about $350/6 months for a $1000 comprehensive deductible and no collision coverage. That's sort of a lot, given that Honda doesn't make S2000s anymore, so you're paying lots of money to insure a second or third-hand car. I've found quite a few S2000s on the internet for $14,000 to $20,000 depending on year and miles. Not terribly expensive up front, but insurance might be a deal breaker.
Another slight against the S2000 is that all the power and torque comes at the very top of the rev range. Now, I haven't driven one, so I don't know how annoying it is, but my other two choices have more power more of the time. Also, I don't like convertibles, but I'd learn to live with it for such a nice little simple roadster.
2007-2010 Mini Cooper S John Cooper Works
208hp @ 6000rpm, 192 ft/lbs torque @ 1850-5600rpm
Top Gear time: 1:34.2
I have a friend with an older JCW that is supercharged (2007 and newer are turbo) and it is really, really nice. The interior is interesting and very comfortable. Also, it is quite fast and planted through the corners. The supercharger sounds great when you wind it up, but when you just want to drive somewhere like a normal person, it all settles down and you can just drive it like a small hatchback. I also think the Mini looks great. This car has four seats, and I can fit in the rear seats. You can fit stuff in the back as well.
The primary drawback to this car is that it is fairly rare, and is therefore appropriately expensive. A new one will start around $30,000, and good luck finding a used one--but you just might luck out like my buddy did. Also, Minis only run on premium gas, and a JCW will only get you about 25mpg if you drive like an undertaker.
2007-2010 VW Golf GTI
200hp @ 5100-6000rpm, 207 ft/lbs torque @ 1800-5000rpm
Top Gear time: 1:33.7
The GTI, like the Mini, has torque all across the rev range, and all that power is discreetly tucked away in the body of a 3-door hatchback. The Golf isn't as sharp looking as a Mini, and the interior isn't as interesting, but I will reserve judgment until I drive one. The best part is that this was faster around the TG track than a JCW, but is cheaper to buy and there are lots of them only a year or two old with around 20,000 miles on them for $17-$19,000. The GTI is just a bit bigger than a Mini, so the rear seats should be more useful, and it will hold a bit more stuff on your weekly run to the store. Also, the new GTI gets about 31mpg on the highway. New VWs get three years of free service from the dealer, and aren't a lot more expensive than a lightly used 2007 or 2008.
The drawback to the Golf is the sort of bland styling. It isn't offensive, it just isn't really anything. It's a bit of an off-the-rack business suit. But that could be a good thing because it probably won't draw any extra attention when you're dive-bombing backroads at full speed. The JCW Mini will beat a GTI in a sprint to 60mph, and it looks better, but right now the GTI is at the top of my list.