Ford Focus SE Hatchback
0 to 60: 7.4 seconds
EPA estimated fuel economy (city/highway): 26/36
The chassis of the latest Focus is fantastic, and it's remarkable that Ford is able to repurpose this platform for so many other vehicles. The car is solid on highway hauls, forgiving over massacred pavement, yet capable in corners. The steering, too, is sharp without being high-strung. But you'd better vote manual gearbox or you'll be missing out on half the party.
The Focus is a great little speedster that is the opposite of a Golf (especially a GTI): Cops don't see a Focus and think "tuner," and that's exactly why it belongs here.
Hyundai Elantra GT
0 to 60: 8.3 seconds
EPA estimated fuel economy (city/highway): 26/37
We hear all the time that Americans don't buy hatchbacks. Wrong. Every crossover in America is a hatchback in diguise (especially now that so many of them are sinking back to carlike ride heights), so hatchbacks rule the road. Part of the reason we love these cars is that a carmaker can squeeze more utility out of a smaller vehicle by adding a fifth door. This is why the Elantra GT is appealing. It's a compact sedan with extraordinary utility, plus 51 cubic feet of storage space with the rear seats folded (the latest lot of small crossovers coming along don't do much better). The Hyundai boasts excellent fuel economy too.
The Elantra may not beat its competitors to 60 mph, but unlike a lot of midsize and compact sedans, it will stand up to a reduced-radius on-ramp at 70 mph with minimal lean and highly predictable steering. For more grip, ditch the all-seasons in favor of summer performance tires.
Hyundai and Kia designs are growing exceedingly easy on the eye, prompting people to react to cars like the Elantra GT with, "but that doesn't look like a Hyundai." That lingering bias against the brand could be your friend, allowing you to drive on by while a car with more prestige gets pulled over.
Mazda 3i SkyActiv
0 to 60: 7.9 seconds
EPA estimated fuel economy
The fact that you can get a Focus-size Mazda 3i with a five-speed manual for $15,200 should make a lot of budget-conscious driving enthusiasts happy. But the 3 you want gets the direct-injected SkyActiv engine, which is more fuel-efficient and adds a sixth gear. Like the Elantra GT, the 3i doesn't stake its driving reputation on horsepower; it's here because it's probably the most engaging compact sedan for the money. Steering, transmission, handling—they all come up face cards if not outright aces on the 3i.
Just get it in a mild-mannered color so the flashy looks don't attract unwanted attention from law enforcement. Sensible people drive silver Mazdas. Speeders drive bright orange ones.
0 to 60: 5.6 seconds
EPA estimated fuel economy (city/highway): 29/34
Yeah, that's a lot of bones for a hybrid, but we're talking about one of the highest-performance hybrid cars you can buy. The combo of a 3.5-liter Atkinson cycle direct-injection V-6 and a pair of electric motors adds up to 338 hp, an eye-popping time off the line, and acceleration on par with or better than many of its conventionally powered competitors.
The 450h is only 0.2 seconds slower to 60 mph than the fastest GS, yet the best gas-powered version of this car only manages 19/28 fuel economy. It might take you a while to earn back the extra money you spent on the hybrid through fuel savings, but Lexus is betting that a good many customers are willing to pay the premium, and don't want to suffer the horrid fuel economy a V-8 delivers in stop-and-go traffic.
And while it might not be fair, it's going to be easier to argue your way out of ticket or avoid getting one at all if you're driving a hybrid Lexus as opposed to the F-Sport edition (not to mention any car with an AMG or M on its trunk).
2013 Infiniti M35h
0 to 60: 5.2 seconds
EPA estimated fuel economy (city/highway): 27/32
Mate the 302 horses of Infiniti/Nissan's ubiquitous 3.5-liter V-6 to a 67-hp electric motor and you get serious mojo. And, for folks allergic to CVTs, a seven-speed autobox comes with this car. No typo: The champion of CVTs, Nissan/Infiniti, goes conventional for its transmission on the M35h.
Where the Lexus is serene, the M35h will withstand some horseplay. Power comes on quickly (even too quickly), and the car gets a nearly 50/50 weight distribution because of the battery placement. That yields more stable high-speed handling, all in a car that otherwise settles down for normal commuter mode. Neither BMW's $61,845 Active Hybrid 5 Series nor Porsche's Panamera Hybrid (a cool $96,000) is faster to 60 mph.
Honda Accord LX
0 to 60: 7.7 seconds
EPA estimated fuel economy (city/highway): 27/36
Chuck the latest Accord hard around a few double-yellow country roads and you'll learn that the latest family mover from Honda is quick, capable, and consistently stable even when you're not driving it like a member of polite society. When pushed to the limit the Accord seems to shrink around the driver, feeling nimble right to the edge of adhesion. Remember: This Honda is meant to sell by the tens of thousands every month. That the Accord manages to be so much more than dull, reliable transportation is good news for fans of stealth speed.
Yes, a CVT stands between the Accord driver and more spirited shenanigans. But Honda will happily sell you a six-speed manual-transmission Accord, though it will ding your fuel economy down to 24/34. And at least this CVT is quite good; it responds at least as quickly as a six-speed automatic would.
Buick Regal GS
0 to 60: 6.4 seconds
EPA estimated fuel economy (city/highway): 19/27
Buick sold ten times as many units in China last year as it sold in the U.S. That means the turbocharged, 270-hp edition of the Regal was not necessarily made with American buyers in mind, and that's just fine with us. A car like the GS shows that if the marketplace is more international, American carmakers can respond with products that are more engaging and flat-out fast.
Drive a GS and you'll find it corners like no Buick made in the 1970–2000 era. It may be front-wheel-drive, but torque steer is largely absent. Even the six-speed manual slots through its gates cleanly. Mash the throttle in third gear and watch the speedo or you'll get into trouble. The Regal GS is perfectly stable at very high speeds, hugging the Interstate like an alternate-universe Mercedes-Benz C-Class.
On the outside, though, Buicks still look Middle-America conservative, like they're primarily driven by men in plaid sport coats and yellow golf trousers. The blasé looks are a bonus if you're shopping for the un-3-Series.
0 to 60: in 8.6 seconds
EPA estimated fuel economy (city/highway): 22/30
Don't throw stupid money at the answer to a question nobody is asking (Porsche Cayenne Turbo, BMW X6M, etc.). For "normal" dough, the CR-V handles confidently with ride quality that is solid, never darty.
One huge but often overlooked factor in the midsize crossover category is good outward vision. Too many of these boxes have major aft-corner blind spots, but the Honda isn't one of them. It's also faster to 60 mph than a Ford Escape and doesn't require special fuel. The Mazda CX-5 delivers better fuel economy (26/32) and can play in the corners. But when you're trying to get out of a semi's way on the freeway, you'll wish you were in the Honda.