As we gather around the metaphorical trash fire and tuck into our collective can of pork 'n' beans, it's comforting to ponder the abundance of terrestrially priced, pretuned performance cars currently on sale. Peering into the recessionary abyss, we enthusiasts can find solace in the sight of cars such as the Ford SVT Focus, the Honda Civic Si, the Mazda MP3, the Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V, and the Volkswagen GTI 1.8T--cars that represent something often ignored in the plush times just past: real bang for the buck. When NASDAQ-giddy nuns were out-bidding one another for Cadillac SUVs, high price seemed an important part of automotive legitimacy. Now value is king, and we're forced to look a bit more critically at what our money is buying. This is no bad thing, but it's clearly no longer about the Benjamins, baby.
True, the huge gains in dynamic, accelerative, and qualitative performance happening at the exalted end of the motoring spectrum have trickled down, sprinkling their holy waters--chassis stiffness, rich materials, robust engines--onto the mass machines. But this does not fully explain the passion coursing through the pocket-rocket segment: Other forces are at work. Maybe it's the aligning of some astral planetary gearset. Maybe it's that street-racer movie with the shaved-head kid and the special-ed dialogue. Or maybe it's that manufacturers have gotten hip to the four-cylinder hot-rod revolution that's been happening under their noses for a decade, finally proffering well-cranked platforms for further aftermarket explorations. Whatever it is, this bevy of democratized performance cars couldn't have come at a better time. Cars like the ones assembled here provide richness of another sort, the kind that too much money can't buy.
Going and Stopping
The essence of any tuned car is its engine, and these five cars all have had their powerplants upgraded in some important way. The most powerful engine on test is the GTI's 1.8-liter turbo four--and it needs it, as this is the most corpulent car here, busting the scales at 2920 pounds. The GTI, once synonymous with quivering tossability, is some 100 pounds flabbier than our next-heaviest car, the Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V. With all that avoirdupois, the GTI carves out a new subset of the market--call it luxury hatchback--and the engine is correspondingly refined. This four produces 30 more horsepower than the 1.8T of last year's Golf, giving it power equivalent to the base Audi TT. It feels even better in this application, thanks to a refined engine calibration and an even flatter presentation of torque (174 pound-feet from 1950 to 5000 rpm). It is the fastest to 60, which comes up in 7.4 seconds, and the quickest through the quarter-mile (15.9 seconds). But this powerplant really shines in the midrange, with a 30-to-70-mph sprint quicker than every car but the Civic.
If only its shifts were as quick. The GTI's five-speed hates to be rushed through the gates. It feels soft, balky, and not particularly satisfying in use. That said, you have the option of limiting your encounters with it. On our local track, the 1.8T's abundant torque let us leave the tranny in third with no appreciable loss in exit speed.
Getting into corners, hard on the GTI's brakes, was when we most frequently glimpsed the face of death. The brake pedal feels inflated, and you have to kick the tar out of it to get the hydraulic pressure up. Nevertheless, the GTI was solidly mid-pack when braking from 70 mph, getting the job done in 185 feet.
Almost as powerful, and almost as portly, is the 175-horsepower Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V. We're guessing there are a lot of home-builts out there that shame the SE-R on many fronts: refinement, shift quality, and stylistic restraint.
Funny, because when we think of the SE-R, we tearfully recall the decade-old Sentra SE-R, which was as fluent and eager a front driver as you could find back in the day. And when we hear the Spec V designation, our minds call up the mighty Skyline GT-R V-spec. It may be that our fond associations with both labels amplify the disappointment this car brings. Though it has a fine and torquey 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine featuring continuously variable valve timing, certain aspects of the Spec V's powertrain limit its usability. The rev limiter cuts in just 100 revs above the car's 6000-rpm power peak, frustrating us on the track. We were always running out of second gear in corners, and banging it into third left a gap. And by banging, we do mean shoving, cajoling, cursing its plasticky six-speed into gear. Those who pine for the crude pleasures of 1980s Atari joysticks will love it.
This car returns good numbers, peeling off second-best quarter-mile runs in sixteen seconds flat, third-best lateral-g numbers of 0.87, and second-shortest braking from 70 mph (184 feet). After a few days with it, though, we were left thinking that good numbers are this car's main goal. But the road to automotive greatness does not run through the dyno lab. Great cars reward the human behind the wheel, not the accelerometer inside the g-Analyst.
Nissan claims this car is for older, more affluent males and not just young hot-rodders who make up the core of this buying segment. Which, when you think about it, seems a sound strategy: Anyone who buys an SE-R Spec V expecting more than a vehicular hairpiece will be disappointed.
A more rewarding experience awaits at the wheel of the 170-horsepower Ford SVT Focus. The most astounding thing about this car is that the stock ZX3's inherent grace hasn't been destroyed in SVT's quest for speed. The engine is a version of the 2.0-liter Zetec four from the ZX3. Through the addition of variable intake-cam timing, a dual-stage intake manifold, and equal-length exhaust headers--as well as changes to the compression ratio (up from 9.6 to 10.2:1) and redline (up from 6750 to 7200)--the SVT Focus gets a 40-horsepower edge over the ZX3. Power feeds the front wheels through a dual-mass flywheel and a six-speed Getrag gearbox. The combination of the two makes for some easy rowing, abetting 0-to-60-mph runs in 7.7 seconds, or two seconds faster than a ZX3.
The area of the base Focus that needed work was its brakes, and SVT has lavished serious attention here. It replaced the Focus's rear drums with discs, filling the SVT's seventeen-inch wheels with 11.8-inch rotors at the front and 11.0-inchers at the back. As you'd expect, the pedal remains firm and responsive during track work. Even we obdurate leadfoots had trouble cooking these suckers.
The Honda Civic Si may be ten ponies shy of the Focus, but its four-cylinder is a sparkling example of the engineer's art. Instead of using the 1.7-liter from the stock Civic, Honda plugged the Acura RSX's 2.0-liter under the Si's rhomboid hood. There are a few differences in the way the two engines are trimmed out--the Si, for example, gets a second-order balance shaft--and these make the Civic's 160-horsepower i-VTEC the creamiest four-cylinder engine we've ever driven. The power delivery is utterly linear, thanks to a continuous valve-phasing system called VTC that eliminates the two-stage camminess of previous VTEC engines. The Civic Si's tranny, whose gearshift is mounted high in the best European delivery-van tradition (okay, rally cars, Alfas, Fiats, and Citrons have it up there, too), mates with the engine in that predestined, smoke-gets-in-your-eyes kind of way. The soft-core stuff is absent in the braking system, though. The middle pedal works with neck-snapping, slam-your-head-into-the-wheel authority.
If your bag is handling rather than going, look to the Mazda MP3. Like the Sentra SE-R Spec V, the MP3 is a comprehensively and aggressively farpitzed version of the base car, to the extent that little resemblance remains between the two. Whereas the base Proteg is finely balanced, with an engine that delights in overpowering its chassis's grip, the MP3 could use more poke. Its extra ten horses (still the least in this group) are hardly enough to break loose the fat 'n' stickies lashed to the seventeen-inch rims. It is rumored that Mazda had plans to call this car the MPS, for Mazda Performance Series, until it figured out that there was no extra performance.
The engine is thrashy enough to create the illusion of power, but the MP3 was substantially slower to 60 than the GTI. Luckily, the shifter and the pedals match the precision of the chassis. Both feel stiff and stalwart, even if the MP3 tied with the Civic for the longest stopping distance.
Handling and Ride
All five cars have strut-type front suspensions with either multi-link or beam rears. But, as my former pool boy once advised, "It's not the meat, it's the motion." After all, BMW uses front struts, and its suspensions seem to work just fine. Chassis excellence frequently happens in the tuning, and perhaps the most finely honed chassis of these five cars belongs to the SVT Focus.
SVT admits the base Focus gave it an almost unfair advantage. This is currently the best front-wheel-drive chassis on the road, adapting instantly to any surface, be it broken or glass-smooth. The Focus is at once controlled and compliant, with a lift-throttle steerability that responds precisely and predictably to the most minute changes in throttle opening.
On top of that, the SVT Focus heaps additional magic, something that a rundown of all its modifications can't convey. Here they are anyway: stiffer springs front and rear, reduced power assistance for the rack-and-pinion steering, and reworked dampers. The SVT Focus still rolls a bit but only as a means of communication. The steering is fine and linear, with the same gradual input arcs that give the stock Focus its substantial depth: The car can transform from laid-back highway cruiser to road-munching monster. All it takes is a little more steering lock and a little more pressure on the throttle. In terms of ride, the SVT is, not surprisingly, a little less relaxed than the stock item, and, with the tires boosted to track pressures, the ride got choppy, especially on Michigan's most moonscaped roads.
Our second-favorite handler was the Focus's corporate cousin, the Mazda MP3. The only thing that limits its entertainment value is, ironically, its prodigious amount of grip. To overpower the tires, you have to carry uncomfortably high speeds into corners to get the rear end to rotate when you back off the throttle.
Everywhere but on the track, the MP3 feels unnecessarily stiff. The newly added Tokico struts front and rear are definitely track-tuned, backed up by larger-diameter anti-roll bars and almost 20-percent-stiffer springs. Plus, the tires seem to be extensions of the wheels, without much sidewall damping. But this car's body control and steering are great, the latter providing a lot of feedback with a minimum of g loads in the tires.
The Volkswagen GTI poses an opposite dilemma to the MP3. Its engine too easily overdrives its chassis--a low-tech combo of struts up front and torsion beam in the rear. Although you mostly notice the chassis's limitations in extreme handling maneuvers, in such situations a strange thing happens: The GTI is fun in spite of itself. We found endless joy in horsing the GTI around, its outer front wheel truffling for fungi while the inner rear scanned the skies for Sputnik. There's so much drama, so much tire squealing, so much trail-braking necessary to settle the car's front end, that the GTI becomes exhilarating.
There's a nice immediacy to the GTI's controls, too, thanks to the sport package that firms up the dampers and steering and generally makes the car more wieldy. And the car's ride is exceptional, with a regal float reminiscent of old Mercedes sedans. But if the GTI works well on the track and brilliantly on the highway, it falls all over itself on twisty backroads. There is too much weight shifting around for this car to feel controllable. The GTI works best in solid-state maneuvers, such as sliding sideways across your neighbor's lawn.
In the irrational exuberance department, the Civic Si contrasts with the GTI. Its chassis is refined and finely balanced, its understeer easily modulated by its throttle, but the overall impression is of a certain soullessness. The Civic Si performs all its functions efficiently, elegantly, and without much fire or personality. The steering, for example, is a high-tech rack-and-pinion unit with assist provided by an electric motor, but it feels artificial. Angling the wheel off center produces a hiccup in the steering, making the initial part of turn-in too numb.
Honda gave the suspension a deep-tissue massage, bestowing on the timid Civic chassis a more responsive ride and more body control. With its great stability and composure, the Civic Si almost feels smug, gliding over the road rather than digging into it. It has no coarseness, no idiosyncrasies. Like a grade-school goody-goody, the Civic Si never does anything wrong--and that's why you want to load up its jock with Icy Hot. That said, the Si's main chassis shortcoming is its stock tires. The ability to control the car's slip angle with the throttle was hampered by the tires' refusal to share their thoughts with the pavement and their inability to break away progressively. Put some fine smoked meats on this thing, and watch it transform.
There's no quick fix available for the Sentra SE-R Spec V, unfortunately. This car's advantage over all other Sentras is its Torsen-type front limited-slip differential. Although it helps put the power down, the Torsen corrupts the steering feel, with a too obvious inert phase while the differential redistributes power. Whatever the opposite of fluid is, that's the Sentra. You have to think hard when driving it hard and wait forever to settle the front end. The best parts about its handling are its substantive chassis feel and well-controlled body, but these assets fade into the background on the Spec V's balance sheet.
Interior and Equipment
The term hot hatch has its negative connotations, conjuring up images of superheated driver compartments and live chicken births. But the interiors of these cars are, for the most part, well trimmed and comprehensively equipped.
The $17,539 Sentra SE-R Spec V has an impressive amount of standard equipment, including a riot of custom bodywork and well-bolstered and supportive seats. The seats are trimmed in fabric even a Santa Monica Boulevard transvestite hooker would find tacky. Options on the Spec V include a $749 air bag and ABS package, as well as a $549 Rockford Fosgate sound system with 300 watts and an eight-inch subwoofer.
Like the Sentra, the $17,995 SVT Focus deploys some disappointing materials, such as the mouse-fur headliner and the tumor-like remote radio controls on the steering column. What this car lacks in quality, how-ever, it makes up for in overall packaging smarts. Optional are a $395 Winter package, which includes traction control, heated front seats, and an engine-block heater; a $595 power sunroof; and the $675 Audiophile package that brings with it another ridiculous and strangely shaped subwoofer. The tragedy of the subwoofer is not that many owners will use it for the faithful reproduction of some mind-numbing, bass-heavy techno music, but that it compromises the Focus's 18.6-cubic-foot cargo hold. Otherwise, the Focus's high roof, great ergonomics, and elevated seating positions make it the most user-friendly interior here. SVT even moved the pedals and retrimmed them in aluminum and rubber to facilitate heel-and-toe downshifts.
The $19,000 Civic Si is nearly as airy as the Focus, featuring Honda's famous low cowl. The hoodline fosters an intimate relationship with the road and a feeling of ergonomic rightness. Its three-door wedge shape provides for a functional body; its hatch swallows a commendable 15.7 cubic feet of luggage.
Subdued is the operative word here. The few buttons on the Si's instrument panel are large and easy to use, just as the instruments themselves are highly legible. The options list is similarly minimalist; all that's offered are side air bags. Like the coupe Civic Si that disappeared last year, the new Si gives you the hot engine and lets you do the rest.
The Mazda MP3 takes the opposite approach, seeing to most of your aftermarket needs for a mere $18,500. From the Racing Beat sport exhaust to the Racing Hart seventeen-inch wheels, the MP3 is a turnkey package. Mazda has even provided its own, hard-to-use stereo. This Kenwood MP3/CD player features swirling graphics and swimming LED dolphins and plays discs encoded with up to 1000 hours of MP3 compressed-audio files. Still, we question the wisdom of naming a car after a radio. The 1970s equivalent would be something like the Oldsmobile eight-track, and would you want to admit to owning that today?
The MP3 system also brings with it another ludicrously oversized subwoofer. For the most part, though, the MP3 provides a spacious and tastefully done interior, including a Nardi wheel and aluminum pedals.
Although it expresses its luxury in restraint--restrained lines, fabrics, and colors--the VW GTI doesn't skimp on material quality. A few years ago, we reported on Ferdinand Pich's then-risible plan to steal Mercedes-Benz customers with VW's superior quality. Nowadays, this doesn't seem so unrealistic. From the soft-return grab handles to the brogan-appropriate leather to the simple curve of the dash, the $19,460 GTI is a feast for the tactile senses. And this level of quality and appointment isn't just for the hot-rod model; it's there on the base Golf, too.
The GTI's interior is a persuasive thing--a few of us acknowledged that this is the car we'd buy based solely on the relationship of respect the GTI builds with its driver. Online editor Greg Anderson said, "This is the one I'd buy. The rest of these cars look and act like toys, where the GTI is as usable as it is fast."
These cars are defined by their various approaches. Some, such as the Sentra SE-R Spec V and the MP3, do most of the customizing work for you, packing scads of aftermarket interior and body parts onto their spec sheets. Others--the GTI and the Civic Si--give you the engine and suspension and let you do the rest. They are blank canvases. The Focus, however, navigates the space between the two philosophies. It gives you more mechanical content than you could ever hope to install this cheaply and tunes it expertly.
Although the MP3 and the SE-R Spec V provide tremendous value, they saddle you with the manufacturers' stylistic choices. Of the two, we're more taken with the MP3 for its chassis composure and high-end content. The GTI and the Civic Si provide higher quality but less gear. If you have a little cash socked away for aftermarket extras and your tastes run to the classics--quality and luxury--the VW and the Honda are both fine choices. Though torn between the Honda and the VW on the reliability issue, our preference is for the GTI, for its hooliganism and because it feels a class above all the other cars on this test.
But the SVT Focus strikes the optimal balance. By far the most engaging driver of the group, the Focus is almost BMW M3-like in its seamless integration of important and expensive tweaks. Motor gopher Tony Quiroga found another, perhaps better, comparison: "Even if its overall refinement can't match the Civic's, the Focus is an amazing handler. This is the Lotus of the group."
Moreover, the Focus is cheap enough to allow for the ritual tweaking expected in this class. A heavily decaled and replumbed Civic, for example, does not have the stigma that an opera-windows-and-landau-top-bedecked Chrysler might. Plus, there is ample room across the Focus's tall bodywork for your own neon-hued homage to Jackson Pollock. In short, these cars were made to accept your personal stamp. So why would you let a car company do it for you? Even in these lean times, when conspicuous consumption is out, self-expression shouldn't be.