The 2011 Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) is still a few months away, but organizers have already started the publicity campaign aimed at getting people excited for the biggest gathering of vehicle accessory and aftermarket manufacturers in the country. This year, SEMA will be giving out an award for Hottest Compact Car for the very first time in its history, a title that will be based on just how prominent that particular vehicle’s presence is at the show. We thought it would be fun to start the speculation early about which compacts might be nominated for this prestigious title, which is given to the automobiles which are judged to have been embraced by the aftermarket industry at the show.
Let’s take a quick look at 10 potential Hottest Compact Car nominees for this year’s 2011 SEMA show.
01. 2011 Kia Forte Koup
Just a few short years ago it would have been difficult to imagine Kia taking home any hardware for “hottest” anything, but vehicles like the 2011 Kia Forte Koup have helped the brand dramatically remake its image. Not only is the Kia Forte Koup a looker, thanks to its angular sheet metal and pleasing proportions, but it also offers decent performance when its ordered with the available 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine.
With 173 horsepower and 168 lb-ft of torque on tap, as well as the option of either a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission, the 2.4-liter Koup has plenty of guts, and in SX trim the two-door compact car comes with a sport suspension system and 17-inch wheels to help improve handling. Even with so much to offer, the Kia Forte Koup remains very affordable, keeping in line with the Korean company’s overall philosophy of providing a long list of features for a reasonable MSRP.
02. 2012 Honda Civic
The 2012 Honda Civic has been completely redesigned for the current model year, and there’s nothing aftermarket manufacturers love more than a new palette on which to experiment with their designs and products. The Honda Civic has always been an icon in the compact world, and the new edition looks ready to pick up exactly where the previous generation left off.
Available as a coupe or a sedan, the 2012 Honda Civic is a less rounded interpretation of the older model’s design language. From the perspective of SEMA, the most interesting edition of the Civic is the Si, which offers a stiff suspension system, an aggressive exterior body kit, sport seats and an upgraded interior. The Civic Si also gains a more impressive drivetrain, a 2.4-liter unit (larger than in 2010) that pumps out 201 horsepower and 170 lb-ft of torque, managed by a six-speed manual transmission. Although it has only recently gone on sale, the 2012 Civic Si’s strong reputation and history with performance companies might make it an early favorite.
03. 2011 Ford Fiesta
The 2011 Ford Fiesta stands out as possibly the first genuinely fun-to-drive compact car to have been introduced by an American automaker in a decade. The Ford Fiesta is offered in both sedan and hatchback body styles, each of which benefit from the same willing chassis and European-inspired good looks. The Fiesta provides performance mavens a crack at a Detroit-branded compact that is actually worth tuning, and it it’s very reasonable to expect that its attractive lines will grace many a SEMA display at the upcoming event.
The inexpensive Ford also offers reasonable power to go with its 40-mpg highway fuel economy rating, as its 1.6-liter, four-cylinder engine produces 120 horsepower and 112 lb-ft of torque and can be matched with the first six-speed dual-clutch automated manual transmission available at its price point. A traditional six-speed manual gearbox is also offered with the Fiesta.
04. 2011 MINI Cooper
The 2011 MINI Cooper is a bit of a dark horse for SEMA recognition. Positioned as something of a premium option for compact car buyers, the MINI Cooper has always been known for its tight handling and the availability of the upgraded John Cooper Works editions (which offer more power and a number of chassis goodies). The aftermarket has also embraced the Cooper, although not with quite the same passion as Japanese compact cars, possibly because of the more low-key subculture surrounding the make.
It’s impossible to deny that the 2011 MINI Cooper in S trim offers a tasty bundle of features upon which to build a compelling custom car. In particular, the Cooper S provides a turbocharged, 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine that grinds out 181 horses and up to 192 lb-ft of twist. This power, sent to the front wheels, is enough to launch the Cooper S to 60 miles per hour from a standing start in just 6.6 seconds. Transmission choices for the Cooper S include a six-speed manual or a six-speed automatic.
05. 2011 Scion tC
05. 2011 Scion tC
Like the Honda Civic, the 2011 Scion tC has also been totally redesigned. More of a refinement, visually, than a dramatic change, the Scion tC coupe presents a more butch version of itself than it did for 2010. The 2011 Scion tC’s new looks also come with a fresh motor, a 2.5-liter, four-cylinder unit that generates 180 horsepower and 173 lb-ft of torque that is matched with either a six-speed automatic or a six-speed manual transmission (with the latter coming standard). Given that the Scion brand prides itself on offering its own in-house customization program, and that the manufacturer has a history of working with SEMA participants on a number of interesting vehicle projects and contests, it would not be a shock to see the tC dominate this year’s show floor.
06. 2012 Fiat 500
The 2012 FIAT 500 is this year’s SEMA wildcard, an all-new entry onto the American compact car scene from a company that hasn’t operated on this side of the Atlantic in many, many years. The Fiat 500 offers Italian styling, a 101-horsepower, 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine that also develops 98 lb-ft of torque, and the choice of either a five-speed manual transmission or a six-speed automatic.
The novelty factor surrounding Fiat’s return to the United States, combined with the undeniable charm of the 500’s design weigh heavily in its favor in terms of how many SEMA presenters might choose to use the compact as a canvas at the upcoming show. It will also be interesting to see just how much room there is under the hood to work in any power-adding turbochargers or superchargers to give the pint-sized car an extra boost of acceleration.
07. 2011 Volkswagen GTI
The 2011 Volkswagen GTI is another sport compact mainstay, a hatchback that combines a higher level of interior accommodations than most of its brethren as well as a ready, willing and able turbocharged power plant located between the front fenders. The two-door Volkswagen GTI’s 2.0-liter, turbo four-cylinder motor provides 200 horsepower and 207 lb-ft of torque, sent to the front wheels through either a six-speed manual or six-speed dual-clutch automated manual transmission.
Combined with its 18-inch wheels, full-on sport suspension system and grippy front seats, the GTI delivers the feel of a true driver’s car without the bone-jarring thunks over highway expansion joints that some of its less refined competitors have to offer. Look for the Volkswagen to be featured mostly among the SEMA exhibitioners who are more focused on the luxury aspect of the compact segment.
08. 2011 Honda CR-Z
The 2011 Honda CR-Z might seem like an odd choice at an aftermarket performance and customization show. After all, the Honda CR-Z – being a hybrid - has not exactly set the world on fire in terms of performance. It has, however, already attracted considerable attention from tuners who are in love with the overall CR-Z package, if not its stock drivetrain. Engine swaps and radical re-tunings of the compact two-seat Honda have already hit the show circuit, aiming to improve on the 112 horsepower and 107 lb-ft of torque that its four-cylinder gasoline / electric hybrid pairing produces. The dynamic looks of the Honda CR-Z definitely work in its favor, and the chance to transform a battery-powered car into a performance beast might be too strong a temptation to resist for some of SEMA’s heavy hitters.
09. 2011 Kia Soul
The 2011 Kia Soul makes it onto this list because it has essentially taken the place of the Scion xB in the minds of many customizers. Not quite as practical but just as square and much smaller than the redesigned xB, the Kia Soul is a quirky compact choice that appeals to aftermarket designers looking to make their mark with an unusual stylistic statement. The Kia Soul’s tall roofline and upright proportions are complemented by the availability of either a frugal base engine or a peppier 2.0-liter four-cylinder unit that generates 142 horsepower and 137 lb-ft of torque, with a pair of transmissions (a four-speed auto and a five-speed manual) also in the cards.
10. 2011 Hyundai Elantra
The 2011 Hyundai Elantra is probably the most surprising entry on this list. Until this yeah the Hyundai Elantra has never attracted the serious attention of the aftermarket industry, no matter how competently it went about its job as a compact commuter sedan. A radical repositioning of the Elantra, part of Hyundai’s decision to redesign most of its lineup, has thrust the automobile into the limelight and made it a legitimate contender against market leaders like the Civic.
The 2011 Hyundai Elantra is undeniably gorgeous compared to the more sedate model that it replaces, and it also offers a more intriguing drivetrain. The vehicle’s 1.8-liter, four-cylinder motor offers up 148 ponies and 131 lb-ft of torque, and is ripe for the development and installation of a turbo kit that could transform the Elantra into a real sleeper – regardless of whether its six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission is selected.