Grease-covered hot-rodders in the 1950s did it. Gearheads of the '60s and '70s did it. And, more recently, the tuner culture did it. But the days of the do-it-yourself upgrade now may be behind those of us burdened by the crush of everyday responsibility. Folks with a new family, for example. We barely have time to toast a bagel in the morning, much less hop up our ride. What we need is a car for those of us whose inner speed demons won't shut up, people with real-world salaries and the need to carry more than one passenger.
Today's manufacturers are happy to oblige, and we've just tested four of their best offerings. The Honda Civic Si, the Subaru Impreza WRX, the Chevrolet Cobalt SS Supercharged, and the Volkswagen Jetta GLI each provide plentiful performance, practicality, and style, plus serious fun, at prices that nearly any schmo can afford. With cars like these-and more on the way, such as the next Dodge SRT4 and the Mazdaspeed 3-there's no need to hunt for performance in a parts box, because it's right there on the showroom floor. These four begin life as relatively ordinary-looking economy cars. Serious performance, however, needs to be backed up with a serious look, and all have received the requisite tweaks inside and out.
In dressing up the Civic Si, Honda's stylists had an excellent starting point, as the all-new Civic coupe is much less homely than the outgoing Si hatchback. Only the addition of a low-slung rear wing, an i-VTEC decal, and minor changes to the front fascia, headlamp cluster, and grille differentiate the latest Si's exterior. Interior changes include suedelike trim, red instrumentation, and Si-badged sport seats with aggressive side bolsters-although highway jaunts revealed them to be serious restrictors of comfort. It looks as if a bin and cubbyhole factory exploded inside, with perfect slots for cell phones and MP3 players, huge cup holders, and a center armrest that will hold the entire OutKast oeuvre five times over-twenty-five CDs in all.
The Cobalt's SS makeover includes new front and rear fascias, side sills, gorgeous eighteen-inch wheels, and a ridiculous rear spoiler worthy of its own flight pattern. In spite of that wing-which vibrates in the rearview mirror at any meaningful speed-the Cobalt SS looks the most aggressive and the most purposeful of our quartet, with a poised-to-strike, rear-up stance that clearly communicates its muscular SS ancestry. The Chevy's cabin changes are less notable, with SS-specific trim, a boy-racer boost gauge mounted to the A-pillar, and leather seats rounding out the modifications.
The VW and Subaru sedans undergo less obvious metamorphoses in a nod to their more family-oriented intentions. The Impreza WRX adds a functional hood scoop, seventeen-inch wheels, and WRX STI-inspired side sills over a regular Impreza, while the Jetta GLI gets a blacked-out grille, a new chin spoiler, and seventeen-inch wheels-upgradable to the sexy eighteens on our test car.
The Subie's cozy but dated cockpit is tarted up with a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, aluminum pedal covers, and a pair of comfortable sport seats that are great for long hauls but aren't very good at keeping you planted during hard driving. Overall, the cabin is ergonomically friendly, but material quality and aesthetics are major bummers, and there aren't enough places to stash stuff.
The Jetta GLI's cabin is a wonderful place to spend an afternoon drive, thanks to one of the best steering wheels in the business, rich materials, and seats to die for. Those seats, however, are part of a $3200 package; the standard chairs have less bolstering and lack the very cool headrests of the optional seats.
Comfy seats and cup holders are great and all, but the reason you'll buy one of these cars is because of how it drives. To find that out, we took our foursome on some spirited runs over the back roads around Ann Arbor and then headed to South Bend, Indiana, where the Tire Rack opened the gates of its world-class test course.
Right away, the Cobalt SS established itself as the most outgoing member of the group (did we mention the wing?). It's a bit rough around the edges, but this minuscule muscle car never failed to bring a grin to our faces. Its gutsy, 205-hp, supercharged 2.0-liter Ecotec four delivers good low-end grunt, its brakes are decent enough, and the car demonstrates that the General finally has learned how to properly tune steering feel in a front-wheel-drive chassis.
The Chevy's engine note, though, sounds like a weed whacker, and the car's poor damping delivers a flinty ride over rough roads, hardly helped by the heavy eighteen-inch wheels. The addition of a sixth gear would also be welcome, since the SS's five-speed manual is geared longer than a mile of Nebraska freeway.
At the Tire Rack, the Cobalt spun its inside front wheel like a fan blade, which is surprising, considering that our test car was shod with a set of sticky Pirelli P Zero Rosso performance tires and had the optional limited-slip differential, which comes bundled with a set of supportive Recaro sport seats.
Wheel spin also afflicted the Volkswagen, although to a smaller degree. (To be fair, it does without a mechanical limited-slip device.) The portly German also demonstrated an affinity for understeer during hard cornering, although it was easily corrected by the superb steering-even better than the Cobalt's-and the compliant throttle. Long pedal travel makes it difficult to modulate the GLI's brakes, but they demonstrated good bite once engaged and brought the car to a stop from 70 mph in the shortest distance, 163 feet.
Since VW's FSI direct-injection technology effectively eliminates turbo lag, the GLI feels surprisingly similar to a normally aspirated car. The 200-hp, 2.0-liter engine pours on the power smoothly and provides strong midrange pull, allowing the GLI to post a 7.5-second 30-to-70-mph passing time-the best of the group. The car's 3360-pound curb weight, however, keeps it from being truly swift.
Traction was a problem with the WRX as well, but since it has standard all-wheel drive, we can't attribute it to the mechanicals. Instead, the blame falls on the all-season Bridgestone Potenza RE92s, and there's no performance rubber option. During high-speed maneuvers, though, that same lack of adhesion facilitates hero-quality four-wheel drifts.
For 2006, Subaru tightened the steering, beefed up the brakes, and increased the flat-four's displacement to 2.5 liters, giving its rally rocket a more refined overall character and increased ability. And although the WRX suffers from a notchy shifter and a heavy clutch and could still use more low-down grunt, none of that significantly tarnishes the driving experience-it's still very entertaining and tossable. Oh, yeah; it's fast, too. Once the turbo spools up its 13.5 psi of maximum boost and dispatches all 230 ponies to the four corners, it's off to the races-the Subaru blasts to 60 mph in 5.8 seconds, more than half a second quicker than the next-fastest, the Chevy Cobalt SS. It also is quickest covering the quarter-mile, at 14.6 seconds.
The best powertrain is in the Honda, where a sweet-shifting, six-speed manual is mated to the same high-revving, great-sounding, 2.0-liter i-VTEC four found in the Acura RSX, here pumping out a robust 197 hp at 7800 rpm without the aid of either a turbo or supercharger, unlike the other three vehicles. The Si has only 139 lb-ft of torque, but it pulls smartly through bends when both the Cobalt SS and the GLI-cars with 60-plus-lb-ft torque advantages-are in the throes of wheel spin.
With its aggressive chassis tuning and new limited-slip differential, the Si is impressively neutral at the limit, a trait we find all the more notable considering that it carries more than 60 percent of its weight on the front axle. But that 60 percent isn't a lot, comparatively speaking. At 2860 pounds, the Si weighs 500 pounds less than the VW and nearly 200 pounds less than the next lightest Cobalt SS. And although it was the featherweight, the Honda felt the most solid and the most planted. It also boasts wonderful brakes and the tightest steering ratio of the bunch, but the electric steering system is overboosted, lacks on-center feel, doesn't provide nearly enough feedback, and becomes annoying in real driving conditions, where it requires constant attention.
When the Civic Si goes on sale in December, Honda promises a price of less than $20,000, making it a tremendous bargain. It's well-equipped, too, with a seven-speaker, MP3-enabled premium stereo, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, six air bags, and aluminum pedals. In fact, the only options available to Si buyers are a satellite radio and navigation system and the Michelin Pilot Exalto performance tires found on our test car.
The Cobalt SS, which starts at $21,990, also represents a good deal at the $23,885 as-tested price, which included the $1500 Recaro/limited-slip performance package and side curtain air bags. Other options include a moonroof, OnStar service, and XM satellite radio.
With a base price of $25,620, the WRX is the priciest member of our group, but features such as automatic climate control and a six-disc in-dash CD changer are standard. A $2500 premium nets the WRX Limited, with a moonroof, leather seating, and heated exterior mirrors among the upgrades.
The Jetta GLI starts somewhat cheaper with a base price of $24,405, but our example blew past the Subie's sticker, thanks to nearly $4000 in options, including performance tires, upgraded wheels, and the aforementioned $3200 option package, which includes sport seats, a moonroof, and leather upholstery. Fully loaded, the GLI spills over the $30K mark, where fiercer competition plays. But it also represents a return to form and is the most upscale car here.
All four cars are great performers, more than willing to mix it up at high speeds, low speeds, and anything in between, and none is likely to disappoint its owner. The WRX's standard all-wheel drive-rare in this price range-and entertaining personality make it a fantastic choice, especially for those in the Snow Belt. The Jetta GLI is the most well-mannered competitor and perfect for the speed freak with a family, offering good rear-seat room and a large trunk. It's safe, too; the GLI matches the Si's six standard air bags and then goes a step further by offering optional rear-seat side bags. And although it felt the least cohesive, the Cobalt SS was the hot rod of our group-expected of a car bearing those storied initials.
The most complete car here, though, is the Honda Civic Si, due to its wonderful manners on both road and test course, its brilliant powertrain, and its tremendous value. Honda has atoned for the last-generation Si, which was unremarkable in nearly every way, and the Si badge is back on top of the hot-compact heap. Look for an Si sliding around a cul-de-sac near you soon.