The Sport Compact Craze

I remember back in the early 1990’s, it seemed that every lad under the age of 21 lusted after owning a sporty little Honda or Acura. Having the barebones “stock” car wasn’t really enough, as the novelty of owning the basic car wears off pretty quick. We’d then pinch and save, to spend our hard earned cash on aftermarket goodies. Many of us were going through school, and couldn’t afford much, but to modify them with supposed go fast parts, and “aesthetic” items were all the rage.

That was a long time ago to me now, and while modifying cars will never go away, as long as we are still using the internal combustion engine and have 4 wheels. Many of us still care about appearance and performance of our rides, but a lot of the “ricer” look has died down. While I won’t go into what “ricer’ technically means, I will say it carried a bad connotation, and few of us realized it then.

Modifying and “dressing up” sport compact Honda’s and Acura, wasn’t limited to only these Japanese imports, however. While they are held responsible for birthing this “ricer” stigma, it wasn’t long before we saw Cavaliers, Sunfires, Sunbirds and Neon’s rolling around with racing stickers and big wings on the trunk lids. Volkswagons were always a part of the sport compact craze and the GTI was perhaps the original “hot hatch,” but the ‘Dubbers liked to keep their distance and maintain a more dignified and refined look.

Typically a “riced” out Honda would have a body kit, which could include obnoxious, busy looking bumper covers, or replacement bumpers, rocker panel covers, replacement hoods and fender with aggressive flairs, and of course the quintessential oversized high wing on the trunk, to complete the shopping cart look. Lowering the vehicle was essential, to compliment the plus sized performance rims, which would be wrapped in low profile wide sticky tires.

Racing stickers were a staple add on, and we later joked that each sticker was worth X amount of extra horsepower. Typically the stickers (steal me stickers) were to proudly advertise which manufacturers parts were installed on the vehicle. Sometime, however, the stickers were used to make up for the lack of modifications on the car, I’m afraid I was guilty of that at the time. Lets not forget the sound systems, how often have we heard a driver’s music half a minute before we even see his car go by?

Last, but not least, the staple “modification” on all riced out sport compacts was the fart can muffler. “Loud but proud” should have been the motto, as they did little to add performance to those tiny engines, all by themselves. All they really added was noise pollution as they sounded like a bucket full of angry hornets. To this day, they are still used, though I believe regulations are finally cracking down on these racket makers. On top of mufflers, we had intakes, bored out throttle bodies, ignitions, port work, headers, the list goes on. If you actually added up the horsepower increase claims from each manufacture, you could nearly double your factory rating. These claims we mostly puffed up advertising and lies.

It wasn’t all bad though, and even now, tastefully modified sport compacts can still be found. A slight suspension drop with lowering springs or coilovers, slightly larger diameter wheels than stock, with matching performance tires. No body kits or aftermarket wings, but some JDM market goodies for Japanese imports always seem to look good. A larger piping exhaust, to complement any engine breathing modifications is still needed and welcome, providing the muffler is baffled, or at least chambered. Add to that, a tasteful classy colored paint job, or leave it original, and what we have is a slightly dressed up vehicle that does the brand justice.

Its not always about show though, legitimate go fast goodies were all the rage and will still be for a long time, for anyone who can afford it. Turbochargers, nitrous oxide, large lobed camshafts and port work, entire engine performance rebuilds and engine swaps.

Myself, being into Honda civics and Acura Integras, I was blessed to have the opportunity to satisfy my needs the plethora of direct “bolt in” engine swaps being available. Perfectly good engines were being shipped over from Japan by the boatload (and still are), and I performed more than a few of these swaps. Fortunately I didn’t have the money to blow on ugly body kits and chrome rims and turbocharger back in the ’90s. When I finally had the money, I had a more mature outlook and I developed a sense of wanting to keep things refined and simple. My favourite swap, which I swill own today, was a JDM Integra GSR engine swapped in to a ’94 civic cx hatch. Bolt in low 14 second quarter mile swap, right there. While it was impressive as a mustang beater way back, it’s nothing to brag about now as factory Neon turbo cars and Cobalt turbos can match that, and they’re everywhere.

Fortunately the ricer phase seems to be dying off. Maybe partly because young people don’t have as much money to throw around after paying their smart phone bill, but I think it’s more than that. Cheap simple cars are gone, forever it seems. You can’t just simply pop a new chip into your car anymore, modifying has become harder and more expensive. Most of the sport compact cars from the ’90s era seem to be on their last leg and are rusting out. That’s the image I see when I “hear” a rice rocket car from a bygone era go by. Mismatched body kit colors, fart can, cheap wheels, rusty quarter panels, faded paint. This is not to say that nobody will try to rice out a new model car, but I’m just not seeing it anymore. Where are all the stickers and the blacked out tail lights? Are we maturing? I hope so.

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