At the foot of the northernmost runway at Los Angeles International Airport, tucked up against the side of a parking garage and equipped with outdoor seating that provides patrons with up-close-and-personal views of a Boeing 747’s landing gear, sits a bustling In-N-Out Burger joint.
Part of the In-N-Out fast-food chain that blankets the southwestern part of the U.S., this particular restaurant is notable for its LAX location, within clear view of visitors and tourists who are landing on the adjacent runway as well as those who are traveling down Sepulveda boulevard as they depart Southern California. This convenient spot capably serves the multitudes that have gotten hooked on the delicious hamburgers, fresh-cut French fries, and homemade milk shakes that In-N-Out has served since 1948, people who need their fix as soon as they step off the plane or want to indulge just one more time before they head for wherever home is. In-N-Out is successful because it makes inexpensive, pleasurable, quality food, and people love to have a good time on a dime rather than a dollar. Of course, there are compromises to be made. The menu is limited to burgers, fries, shakes, and sodas. There’s usually a line to reach the counter, and the wait for your order number to be called is interminable while sitting on the cold, hard swivel seats, head swimming in the intoxicating aroma of grilled onions and grease while your stomach growls uncontrollably. But when that red plastic tray of yummy goodness lands on your table, the wrapper of the cheesy Double-Double is peeled back, you take that first eager bite, and your taste buds revel in the toasted bun, the crispy lettuce, the creamy dressing, and the steaming beef, you feel like you’ve gotten far more than your five bucks worth of happiness. Bang for the buck: we Americans want it in everything, not just food. With the run-up in gas prices during the past year, this in-bred emphasis on value has become increasingly important when it comes to our choice of vehicles, too. Smaller, fuel-efficient, but still well equipped models are more appealing than ever, and consumers are becoming increasingly educated about the effects of global warming, making it even more important to burn as little fuel as possible. These shifts in the market have most experts predicting that compact cars are back to stay in a big way, and help to explain the media frenzy over and dealer mark-ups on econo-boxes like the new Honda Fit and Toyota Yaris. Clearly, until household budgets can swallow the new reality of paying three bucks for a gallon of gas, small cars will be high on consumers’ shopping lists – if not for a primary vehicle, then as a commuter car and grocery getter. Enthusiasts have been hit harder than many people by rapidly escalating gas prices, because they typically choose performance models with larger engines and fatter price tags. Because they make bigger loan payments and pay more at the pump, people who love to drive are also eyeing the small car market with renewed interest – but not vehicles like the Fit and Yaris equipped with fuel-sipping engines and little horsepower. Instead, these consumers are seeking out the “cheap thrills” on the market, cars that take the value inherent in compacts while adding go-fast goodies that make them genuinely fun to fling down a favorite road. Commonly called sport compacts, these performance-tuned pocket rockets are available in a range of models and styles, from roadsters like the Pontiac Solstice to crossover SUVs like the Mazda CX-7. To find out just how easy it is to blend performance and practicality into a single vehicle, we decided to round up a selection of sport compact coupes that were new for 2005 or 2006. (Well, two are actually three-door hatchbacks, but that’s close enough.) After a week of driving the four cars during the typical SoCal commute, on twisty mountain roads, and at a local race track, we found each to have it merits, but only one proved to match In-N-Out Burger’s irresistible blend of price, quality, and tasty goodness, making it the four-wheeled equivalent of a Double-Double with grilled onions and extra pickles.