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Small And Fast, But Efficient? 3 Hot Hatchbacks, Pros & Cons

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2013 Chevrolet Sonic RS, Catskill Mountains, NY, July 2013

2013 Chevrolet Sonic RS, Catskill Mountains, NY, July 2013

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More or less coincidentally, we've recently tested three hot hatchbacks: the Chevrolet Sonic RS, the Fiat 500c Abarth, and the MINI John Cooper Works Paceman All4.

(The Fiat was actually the Cabrio version of the Abarth hot-rod model with the roll-back cloth roof, not a hatchback--but for all intents and purposes, its performance was the same.)

The 2013 Chevrolet Sonic RS uses the same 138-hp, 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine and six-speed manual transmission as other Sonics.

The "RS" designation translates to unique 17-inch alloy wheels and lower-profile tires, a lowered ride height, tweaks to the front styling, and some very good leather-and-suede sport seats.

The 2013 Fiat 500c Abarth Cabrio is the newly added convertible version of the high-performance Abarth model. Its 160-hp 1.4-liter four is also turbocharged, driving through a five-speed manual gearbox.

The Abarth models often are seen in bright red paint (ours was) and include quite a few styling tweaks, special wheels, and one of the most alluring exhaust notes this side of a supercar.

Finally, the 2013 MINI John Cooper Works Paceman All4 is the JCW performance package added to a three-door hatchback MINI model that's derived from the far more practical five-door MINI Countryman crossover.

Its 208-hp, 1.6-liter turbocharged engine can be mated to a six-speed manual gearbox, but ours instead had the six-speed automatic option, along with all-wheel drive. While its two-tone black-and-red paint scheme was distinctive, we felt the final package left a lot to be desired.

We're missing a few slightly larger hot hatches here, including the Volkswagen GTI and MazdaSpeed 3--both of which are compacts, one size up the scale.

Each of the cars we drove had its pros and its cons:

STYLING

The Chevy Sonic RS is all but indistinguishable from a regular, garden-variety Sonic hatchback. It's either a performance car in disguise or simply a trim package for a regular economy-model Sonic.

2013 Fiat 500c Abarth Cabrio, Catskill Mountains, NY, July 2013

2013 Fiat 500c Abarth Cabrio, Catskill Mountains, NY, July 2013

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The Fiat 500c Abarth gets a lot of attention, though some of it probably comes as much from the exhaust note as its shape. But the brasher Abarth model is visually distinct from its plainer minicar siblings.

As for the MINI Paceman, it's a polarizing car: You either love or loathe the shape and styling. It grew on us as a shape, somewhat; it's a tall, aggressive three-door subcompact, and the JCW package adds a whole lot of performance stuff to the exterior.

Our Pick: For a hot hatch, we'd have to pick the Fiat on styling. It just screams "hot hatch" in all the right ways.

PERFORMANCE

Because the running gear of the Sonic RS is little changed from plainer models (the gear ratios are slightly different and the wheels are larger), it behaves pretty much like the regular one does.

That's a good thing; we really liked the turbocharged Sonic in its economy-car guise, but it's hardly going to set the tuner crowd on fire.

The 160-hp Fiat 500c Abarth, on the other hand, is noticeably, significantly, way-more-fun faster than the standard 101-hp 500 model. You have to learn to rev it, but in a small, light car, those horses go a long way.

2013 MINI John Cooper Works Paceman ALL4, New York City

2013 MINI John Cooper Works Paceman ALL4, New York City

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As for the MINI Paceman JCW, it's remarkably heavy for the interior volume--all-wheel drive doesn't help--and so its 208 hp just don't feel all that fast. We'd be curious to test a manual version to see if it did better. This one's not slow, it just doesn't live up to the extroverted John Cooper Works identity.

Our Pick: The Fiat 500c Abarth. You want a hot hatch? THIS is a hot hatch.

COMFORT & QUALITY

The Sonic RS, again, shares all the pluses of the basic Sonic--which is relatively roomy for a subcompact, has a nice interior with a cockpit-style dashboard, logical and easy-to-grasp controls, and clever infotainment options--plus some of the best sport seats we've sat in recently.

It rides quietly under most circumstances, and has by far the best rear seat (it's the only four-door, among other benefits).

The Fiat 500c is really only for two adults, and its short wheelbase makes it choppy on the road. Combined with low-profile tires, make it skitter sideways on broken pavement. You'll get the best out of it if you stay on nice, smoothly paved roads.


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