The Best-Handling Car for Less Than $30,000

The Best-Handling Car for Less Than $30,000 The Best-Handling Car for Less Than $30,000
Archived Comparison From the June 1997 Issue of Car and Driver

When asked to describe car handling, we're tempted to answer in the manner of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who, when asked to define pornography, veered clear of that one by simply responding that "I know it when I see it."

Handling may be equally difficult to define, but we know it when we're in the driver's seat. Our goal here was to find the car that handles best. For purposes of this test, we have taken a very broad view of handling, one that encompasses everything to do with a car's dynamic behavior outside of pure driveline functions.

The major focus in our handling evaluations is on a car's behavior on winding and twisting roads. How willingly and predictably does a car make the transition from the straight to a corner, particularly during heavy braking? How does it behave as we increase the cornering speed from a tire-howling to tire-sliding pace? How does the car respond as we apply the throttle or the brakes in midcorner? How efficiently does the car manage the transition from pure cornering to accelerating back onto a straight?

In addition to exploring these obvious handling questions, we also paid attention to peripheral issues that affect the driver's ability to extract the best handling from a car. Smooth throttle response, after all, makes a car much easier to control when one is balancing cornering and acceleration at the limit of the tires’ adhesion. A grippy seat that holds the driver in place, combined with well-located controls, makes it easier to initiate smooth, precise control inputs. Consistent, linear braking response similarly eases the touchy task of entering a corner while the car is still slowing down.

There are handling challenges even when the road is straight. How stable is the car at a variety of speeds over different road surfaces? How good a sense of straight-ahead does the steering wheel provide? How natural do small steering-wheel motions feel?

We did not concern ourselves with ride comfort, except when a suspension allowed bumps to reduce our ability to control the car. Nor were we the least bit concerned with maneuverability at parking-lot speeds, which is probably what the average American driver defines as handling.

We last took a cut at this subject 13 years ago. After extensive track and road tests and some lengthy analyses, we declared a Chevy Camaro Z28 to be the best-handling domestic car and a Porsche 944 to be the best-handling foreign car. In a final shootout, the 944 was the last car standing.

This time, in an era of NAFTA and import transplants, a distinction between domestic plates seemed less relevant. Instead, we split up the best-handling contender list by price—more than and less than $30,000—and as before, we selected contenders with diverse driveline configurations.

In this issue, we present the first of a two-part feature: the six-car, less-than-$30K group. (The more-than-$30K test will follow in a future issue.)

BMW's 3-series was a shoo-in, with the 318ti Sport fitting in comfortably under the $30,000 bar. Mazda's MX-5 Miata, a lightweight, purpose-built roadster that has always been one of our handling favorites, was a natural for our list. Returning to the handling test one generation later was Chevy's powerful Camaro Z28, a car whose moves we've liked, despite its large size and live-axle rear suspension.

In addition to these three rear-drivers, we selected Honda's Prelude SH, which comes with a complex but trick electronically controlled, limited-slip front differential. Ford's Contour represented the front-drive sports-sedan contingent. Naturally, we selected the big-tired SVT model. The fleet-of-foot Eagle Talon TSi AWD rounded out our group as the only four-wheel-drive representative.