There are several new compact-performance vehicles that have been introduced, or are slated for a 2008–2009 release, into the U.S. market, each offering its own unique design aimed at attracting the most enthusiastic and individual of customizers.

"Never before have compact-performance enthusiasts had such a wide spectrum of genuine performance models to choose from, and as a result of gas prices, vehicle manufacturers are scheduled to continue their development of options slated under the traditional sports car threshold,” said SEMA Research Analyst Zack Krelle, who recently conducted a market forecast study on compact-performance vehicles. “Consequently, it is conceivable that this niche will refine and grow; something it has done for over a decade."

BMW released its 1 Series to appeal to consumers interested in an upscale, affordable car. Production began in 2004, with an update in 2007, but this is the first time the model has been released in the United States. Notable features include rear-wheel drive, dynamic handling and a powerful engine borrowed from the 3 and 5 Series sedans. If tuners find the price reasonable, the 1 Series has the potential to continue its overseas success. 

“The BMW 1 series uses the same engine as the 335i, so it’s a twin-turbo engine in a smaller platform,” said Daryl Sampson, Sales and Marketing Manager for Advanced Clutch Technology Inc. “The price point makes it attractive for younger enthusiasts that typically cannot afford the 335i. The demographic for the 1 Series is the same as the people who would be able to afford the Subaru STI and the Mitsubishi Evolution.”

Hyundai’s Genesis coupe, scheduled for a spring 2009 release, has the characteristics to disrupt the leaders. It boasts rear-wheel drive and big power, but is set to start at an attractive price point in the low-to-mid $20,000 range. The concept mock-up was fitted with trick parts, and it appeared to be accessory-friendly.

“The Hyundai Genesis coupe promotes Hyundai as a sport-compact performance brand, which prior to this hasn’t been their forte at all. The Genesis will catapult them into a tuner market,” said Sampson.

Infiniti released its new G Sedan, dubbed the G37, to replace its Skyline-based G35 predecessor. The exterior has been remodeled, the chassis has been strengthened, and the engine has been bumped up in power and features. It should continue to be a widely popular coupe.

“Infiniti has definitely hit the mark with their G37,” said Eric Breslow, Chairman of SEMA’s Sport-Compact Council. “The technology and performance are remarkable.”

Nissan’s much-hyped GT-R will make its North American debut in June 2008. While its output is impressive and bargain-based compared to similarly performing vehicles, it will be less attainable for enthusiasts than they would imagine. The buzz-machine has been cranked up so high over the course of its long development that the markup could be extreme when it hits the showrooms. Furthermore, concerns about its highly secure engine control unit (ECU) and turbochargers—which are integrated directly into the exhaust manifold—will require extensive and expensive work to improve upon. Nevertheless, Breslow maintains that the GT-R is “poised to be Japan’s answer to the Corvette.”

“The Nissan GT-R is probably the biggest thing in the sport-compact market right now. The price puts it out of range for a lot of the traditional sport-compact performance enthusiast, but in the last 10 years or so that market itself has grown up, so you are dealing with a little more of an affluent buyer. The people who would buy this car are the same as those who would buy the Porsche, because essentially you are looking at a $70,000 car,” said Sampson.  

Mitsubishi’s Lancer Evolution X, Subaru’s Impreza WRX STI and Volkswagen’s GTI R32 have all been updated. These famed all-wheel-drive, factory-tuned machines are good for daily driving and weekend track days, and all three models come with loads of power, big brakes and sticky tires. Aside from the Subaru becoming a hatchback, the formulas have not changed.

Not typically seen as a sport compact, the Smart Fortwo should be something on everyone’s radar. It has a huge global following and trendy appeal. Despite an array of overwhelming performance features, it could become a nice target for accessorizing. Wheel options could be problematic, as it has an uncommon three-lug bolt pattern.

“There are some very exciting new cars on the road these days,” said Breslow. “These cars all have their own personality ripe for tuners to customize."

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