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.