Renaissance is a French word defined as a cultural movement. It is usually associated with art. Cars can't be art or so it has been said. But that shouldn't mean the car culture can have its own revolutions.
In 1982, during a time when the world was still feeling the effects of the previous decade's fuel crisis, the United States got its first taste of cheap performance with of the Volkswagen Golf GTI. Volkswagen proved that cheap and fun can be had in the same sentence. This would open the door for more sporty economy based (or Econosport ) vehicles as pocket rockets became desirable in the fuel conscious carburetor choked 1980's. Through this inspiration, the United States market would be blessed with such gems as the Dodge Omni GLH, Ford Escort EXP, Honda Civic SI and CRX SI. This was the first Econosport renaissance.
Throughout the 90's, America was invaded by high power Sports cars from abroad. Because of falling gas prices, the Honda CRX and Ford Probe would take a back seat to attention grabbing, rear wheel drive Japanese panty-droppers such as the Nissan 300ZX, Acura NSX and Toyota Supra. The 3rd generation Mazda RX-7 was being pitted against the Porsche 944 at nearly half the price. The lower end however, would produce some surprises. In 1991 Nissan introduced a small, lightweight, front wheel drive coupe with design cues reminiscent of the E30 BMW M3, called the Nissan Sentra SE-R. It was one of the best front wheel drive vehicle with sporting pretensions on the market. In fact, it was one of Car and Drivers 10 Best every year it was produced. During this generation there was also the Mitsubishi Eclipse GSX, Integra GSR and later the Integra Type R. The 90's produced some very distinctive and competitive front wheel drive vehicles, but they were overshadowed by the higher performance sports cars of the time. However, later in the 90's, tighter emission regulations and slow sales meant that the Japanese sports cars could no longer justify their continued production in the United States. The US production of the Mazda RX-7 stopped in 1995 and the Toyota Supra and Mitsubishi 3000GT in 1999. The Econosport cult would soldier on with the import tuning craze.
The subculture that inspired the movie "The Fast and the Furious" would be the driving platform for the second Econosport renaissance. Car companies would try to cash in on the modding community by once again offering sporty cheap vehicles, but this time offering performance altering modifications from the factory or an in-house tuning catalog. "Beforetomarket mods," as I call them. This period started in the United States around 2001, with the bug-eyed Subaru WRX. Japan had been cranking out homologated hot rods like the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution and the Subaru Impreza WRX for years but America had been denied the eastern world hotness of these Rally cars. The patience was well rewarded. A 227hp turbo 2 liter with all-wheel drive sounds like a setup for major win. The only small blemish was its high-ish price point at 24k. At a slightly more affordable end, Ford jumped into Econosport land with the SVT Focus which cost around $5k less than the WRX. Power was boosted from 130 to 170 horsepower, a 6 speed Getrag gearbox was standard and a more aggressive suspension setup would be the icing on the cake. The same year Mazda offered the Protégé MP3 at a price point similar to the SVT Focus of around $19k. Much like the Ford, this vehicle offered a bump in power, light weight Racing Hart wheels and a Racing Beat exhaust system from the factory. Two years later, Mazda would up the ante with a turbo version that would become the MazdaSpeed Protégé. From VW, the Mark IV GTI was offering the usual Recaro seats and BBS wheels. Honda continued to offer its bread and butter hot Civic SI during this era in addition to the pricier Acura RSX. Nissan would attempt a return to form Sentra SE-R in 2002 with a stiffer than stock suspension and a power bump over the base offering, starting at a reasonable $18k in Spec V trim which added a 6-speed manual transmission shared with the Maxima and a limited slip differential. Nissan would also offer a nice catalog of Nismo branded parts that could be purchased and installed by a Nissan dealer (provided you could find a mod-friendly dealer). Let's not forget the Mini Cooper S and its John Cooper works options. Dodge, who wouldn't be left out, also attempted to capture its own corner of the Econosport market with the Neon SRT4. This spicy bit of Americana cost about the same as the WRX but offered more explosive performance. Dodge also offered staged upgrade kits from the factory as well. Needless to say between 2001 and 2004, there was a whole lot of front wheel drive fun to choose from.
Today the Econosport market is littered with 200hp micro fire breathers. We also have higher powered offerings like the MazdaSpeed 3, Subaru WRX and Ralliart Lancer that come in at under 30k. And although they are gone, we also had a brief period of mini American Muscle with the Caliber SRT4 and the Cobalt SS. These types of vehicles and their litany of "beforetomarket" (Scion I am looking at you) options are all a result of the Econosport industry and its drive for cheap fun. And as for what I call the second Econosport renaissance, it is a trend that has gone from subculture to mainstream with flashy commercials and colorful ads that tout a wide range of performance enhancing bolt-ons that you can purchase from the manufacturer. After the late 60's Muscle car era, the second coming of the Econosport vehicle is one of my favorite time frames of automotive history. It changed the face of the Economy car and in my opinion, helped keep amateur motorsport alive during the economic recession.
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