2003-2004 Ford SVT Focus, 2001-2005 Honda Civic Si, 1999-2003 Mazda MP3, 2000-2005 Nissan SE-R Spec V, 1999-2003 Volkswagen GTI 1.8T

Eddie Alterman
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Ian Dawson
0201 Ford Svt Focus Nissan Sentra Se R Spec V Mazda Mp3 Volkswagen Gti 1.8t Honda Civic Si 13

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."

0201 Ford Svt Focus Nissan Sentra Se R Spec V Mazda Mp3 Volkswagen Gti 1.8t Honda Civic Si 14

Conclusion

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.

0201 Ford Svt Focus Nissan Sentra Se R Spec V Mazda Mp3 Volkswagen Gti 1.8t Honda Civic Si 15

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.

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