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.