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.