Hong Kong motorists love the pocket rockets that make driving fun with their great performance and style
Hongkongers have long loved nippy little cars, particularly for relaxing after a hard week. Successive generations of Volkswagen GTIs have revved along the south side since portable phones were the size of bricks, but local motoristas' love of pocket rockets arguably took off with the 2002 BMW Mini Cooper S.
Honda Accords and little Peugeots were always hot, but the 163hp Mini Cooper S introduced middle class Hongkongers to the short-burst joy of pint-sized power. By 2005, they were preening all over town, from the Subaru Impreza-infested traffic lights in Yuen Long to the supercar playground of Shek O Road.
Devotees learned how such cars have a dual personality: demure on inner-city chores one minute, and the next overtaking trucks like supercars, and for a fraction of their running costs. Pocket rockets seem small, but they have highly tuned engines, gearboxes and suspensions for significant speed. Drive one, and Hong Kong's compact, busy roads seem bigger and more fun. In a Volkswagen Golf GTI, for example, you can zip along the narrow Tai Tam Reservoir Road without worrying - as the fatter Jaguar and Bentley crowd might - whether your wing mirrors might "kiss" an oncoming vehicle.
These cars also tend to be easier to park and, for the past two years, they have become more fun as marques vie to tune the greatest speed and fuel efficiency from the smallest engines.
Hong Kong motorists have caught on to the city's increasing choice of fast, little cars, says Hong Kong Automobile Association vice-president James Kong.
"The performance of smaller pocket rockets, such as the Volkswagen GTI, has improved a lot," he says. "Buyers can enjoy sports car performance without paying high prices."
Lotus enthusiasts are doing just that, with the Elise. Still spartan and traditionally so low slung that it tests the modesty of alighting in short skirts, the basic 136-horsepower, 1.6-litre Lotus Elise (HK$559,000) is well suited to Hong Kong's cut-and-thrust congestion. Like the Toyota Prius and the Mini Cooper, it is also a car you can take anywhere, impress revheads and still project your social substance.
And the Elise thrives on Hong Kong's twisty back roads. "It is more popular because of its handling and feedback to the driver," says Eric Wong, chief executive of dealer Richburg Lotus. "Its cornering is faster and safer compared even to high-powered supercars because of its lower centre of gravity, with drivers sitting inside the chassis, as in Formula One."
This two-seater tops at 204km/h and can reach 100km/h in 6.5 seconds - two or three seconds slower than a multimillion dollar supercar, but fun enough outside Redhill.
Increasing road monitoring dampens revving in Hong Kong, however. The government has installed digital cameras at 155 signalised junctions to combat the jumping of red lights, with 40 more to come by 2015, says Transport Department spokeswoman Amanda Ng.
The Speed Enforcement Camera System was expanded last year, she adds, and there are now 20 digital camera units operating in about 110 camera housings on a rotational basis.
The police have also increased prosecutions of speeding offences from 192,268 in 2009 to 266,249 last year and a provisional 128,578 in the first half of this year.
So pocket rocketeers are having to adapt their drives. Elise enthusiasts say they have fewer tickets than their supercar counterparts because they avoid the long straights where the cameras are sited more frequently than lampposts, Wong says.
The Elise's arch-rival, the Mini Cooper Coupe John Cooper Works (from HK$477,800), is a squat, exhaust-popping street fighter with a natty spoiler that raises automatically at 80km/h. The 1.6-litre direct injection two-seater is comparatively plush, packs 211 horsepower for short bursts and reaches a ton in 6.4 seconds. With a theoretical top speed of 240km/h, it averages 6.6l/100km of petrol for a carbon dioxide spew of 153g/km.
Hot hatches are trending too, says Kenson Chan of Renault dealers Wearnes Motors (HK). "More people in Hong Kong are looking for cars with unmistakably sporty characteristics and a high level of travelling comfort," he says.
The French marque has just launched the limited-edition 265-horsepower turbo Megane RS Red Bull Racing RB8 (from HK$409,000) and the Clio RS200 EDC (for Efficient Double Clutch, from HK$269,800), which has Dieppe-based Renault Sport's acclaimed 200hp, 1.6-litre turbocharged engine and a new six-speed dual-clutch gearbox.
Stunning in yellow, the four-seater hatchback Clio has three drive modes and an R-Sound effect, a "fun application that reproduces the sound of several high-performance engines, including the Nissan GTR", the marque says. The Clio is also ready for Mid-Levels with gear-shift paddles, and it zips to 100km/h in 6.7 seconds and a top speed of 230km/h for a combined 6.3 litres/100km and 144g/km in carbon dioxide emissions.
The mobile Volkswagen Golf GTI continues to impress. The outgoing range's 267-horsepower, two-litre Volkswagen Golf R was the ultimate inner-city drive for well-off people who thought supercars were wasted in the confines of Hong Kong. The latest, 296hp version sprints to 100km/h in about 4.9 seconds, and should be as easy as its predecessor to control in town.
However, given the Transport Department's latest average journey time speeds (20.8km/h on Hong Kong Island, 23.9km/h in Kowloon and 40.4km/h in the New Territories), the seventh-generation, two-litre GTI (HK$349,880) now suffices instead, with 100km/h in 6.5 seconds for 6.4l/100km and 148g/km in carbon dioxide spew.
The long-awaited Audi S3 seems plusher, sleeker and might fit better into Jardine's Lookout, with a similar engine promising 380Nm of torque, 100km/h in 5.1 seconds and 6.9l/100km for 159g/km of carbon dioxide.
Peugeot returns with the well-styled and comfy 208 GTI (HK$269,900). Its award-winning 1.6-litre, 200-horsepower Turbo High Pressure engine growls to 100km/h in less than seven seconds.
If the Peugeot is distinctive, Ford's Focus ST (from H$325,900) is a classic. Having outsold the VW Golf GTI and Renault Megane Sport in Europe last year, it is delightfully brash in yellow, with a big mesh grille, bright duotone Recaro seats and a 250-horsepower, two-litre turbocharged EcoBoost engine that whacks 345Nm of torque via a six-speed manual gearbox to reach 248km/h, or a 100km/h sprint in 6.5 seconds. It also consumes 7.1l/100km of fuel for 169g/km in carbon dioxide emissions.
Meanwhile, Abarth has drawn collectors to feisty limited-edition models, such as the 695 Tributo Ferrari (HK$799,888) and Abarth Punto Scorpione (HK$488,000). Abarth's latest arrival at Swire Motors, the 595 Competizione (HK$439,000), has a small 1.4-litre turbo engine and a five-speed manual gearbox that produces 160 horsepower and 230Nm of torque in Sport mode at 3,000rpm.
Designed for purists, this little beast can reach 100km/h in 7.4 seconds, top at 211km/h and yet still consume 6.5l/100km for 155g/kg in carbon dioxide. Impressive performance, but car choices are changing in increasingly crowded Hong Kong, and pocket rockets are catching on. Just watch those cameras.