Want a sensible sports car? There are still plenty about, cars priced within the realms of affordability that remain able to entertain on your favourite twisting back road home from work.
If you’re shopping in this market, you might find it useful to have an expert’s starting point to what’s available. Which is where this guide might help.
Sensibly Powered – Suzuki Swift Sport Hybrid
The Swift Sport formula has never been defined by outright power. What’s always mattered more with this model line is light, chuckable agility, something this third generation car still specialises in thanks to its relatively feather-light kerb weight of only just over a tonne. Which is important if you embrace the Colin Chapman mantra that greater power makes you go faster in a straight line, but lighter weight makes you faster everywhere. This Swift Sport certainly still feels pretty fast everywhere – even in this mild hybrid form, in which guise power has dropped from 140 to 129PS. The 1.4-litre turbocharged Boosterjet engine under the bonnet is still basically the same though, despite embellishment with 48V electrified technology that includes a ‘torque-fill’ control feature to improve engine response at low revs and ‘Torque boost’ to make acceleration smoother.
These two things together account for a 5Nm increase in torque (there’s now 235Nm of it on tap), which, predictably, isn’t quite enough to compensate for this Hybrid variant’s 50kg weight and the slight power reduction just mentioned. As a result, the rest to 62mph sprint time falls by a second over the original version of this MK3 model: it’s now quoted at 9.1s. Top speed remains 130mph. I wouldn’t care too much about that if the accelerative benefits of the ‘torque-fill’ system were a bit more obvious. Still, in the mid range where it matters, there’s no doubt that this car feels a fair bit quicker than those figures suggest.
Especially when the road gets twisty. Kart-like driving dynamics have always been a major attraction for Swift Sport buyers and here, as before in this MK3 model, they’re further developed by a stiff front suspension system with Monroe shock absorbers front and rear. The sharply responsive variable ratio steering system helps too, plus the beefy brakes inspire confidence and there’s a fruity soundtrack from the specially tuned exhaust. Which is all good – for those times you can drive this car as it was designed to be driven. For those times when you can’t, this Swift Sport delivers a surprisingly absorbent ride and affordable WLTP-rated running costs – a 50.1mpg combined figure and 127g/km of CO2.
Something a little faster – Hyundai i20N
Hyundai’s wild, in-your-face i20 N super hatch variant will be of absolutely no interest to a typical mainstream i20 customer. Here, there's a 1.6-litre four cylinder turbo petrol powerplant developing 204PS and 275Nm of torque - pretty much what you'll get from a rival Ford Fiesta ST. The i20 N's performance figures near-replicate those of that Ford too; rest to 62mph in 6.7s (the ST is 6.5s) on the way to 143mph. There’s also firmer suspension with uprated springs, dampers and roll bars, plus Launch Control for Grand Prix getaways.
And there’s more; via blue buttons on the steering wheel, you can choose from a range of dynamic pre-set drive modes. Or select your own preferred settings from the cheesily-named 'N Grin Control' system. There are three each for engine response, steering weight, ESC intervention and the rev-matching function, plus you can alter the bassy note of the big-bore exhaust. You can imagine an owner of a more typical i20 feeling all this to be rather silly. But it sure is fun.
There’s plenty of kit too for the £25,000 asking price. You get bespoke matt grey 18-inch alloy wheels shod with sticky Pirelli tyres and featuring red callipers for the N Performance braking system; there’s also a full body kit. While the cabin gets race-style heated part-leather N Line sports seats, aluminium sports pedals and a black roof liner, plus all the features from ‘N Line’ trim. There’s a unique version of the 10.25-inch instrument cluster display and a central infotainment screen of the same size, which is where you access the many performance pre-sets of the Hyundai 'N-Grin Control' system. Other drive features include Launch Control, an ‘N Corner Carving Differential’ for extra traction through the turns and a Sound Generator to emphasise the meaty exhaust note.
Something fast – and fine for the family – Ford Puma ST
Properly sporty versions of supermini-based small SUVs are surprisingly rare, especially when they’re engineered as well as Ford’s fast small SUV, the Puma ST. As you’d expect, this car borrows much from its Fiesta ST showroom stablemate, including its lively 1.5-litre EcoBoost turbo engine, though that unit’s been tweaked here for extra torque, so as to compensate for this little crossover’s extra 100kgs of weight. As a result, this top Puma is able to match the Fiesta ST’s 0-62mph time of 6.7s (which is just a second behind a Focus ST). The top speed is 137mph and active exhaust valve technology amplifies the naturally sporty three-cylinder engine sound too.
Lots of other Ford Performance engineering changes feature here in a bid to give this fast Puma some real handling credibility. An optimised chassis features bespoke twist-beam, anti-roll bar and damper configurations. Steering response is 25% faster and the brakes are 17% larger than the standard Puma. Specially-developed Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tyres also help deliver the most agile Ford SUV driving experience yet, plus thick front and rear anti-roll bars add to cornering stability. If you want to go further, you can specify an extra cost 'Performance Pack' which gives you a unique-in-segment limited-slip differential to help get the power down out of tight corners.
Whatever your final choice of spec (prices start from just under £30,000), you’ll immediately notice how firmly this car rides the bumps – inevitably as the rear suspension has been stiffened by 50% - but you could live with it on the commute and at cruising speeds, this ST feels much like any normal Puma. Like any ordinary variant in this model line, the ST version features selectable Drive Modes, including a 'Sport' setting (accessible via this bespoke steering wheel button) and a special 'Race Track' option. As for efficiency, well there’s a combined cycle 41.5mpg reading and a 155g/km CO2 emissions figure.