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
Ian Dawson

Honda gave the suspension a deep-tissue massage, bestowing on the timid Civic chassis a more responsive ride and more body control. With its great stability and composure, the Civic Si almost feels smug, gliding over the road rather than digging into it. It has no coarseness, no idiosyncrasies. Like a grade-school goody-goody, the Civic Si never does anything wrong--and that's why you want to load up its jock with Icy Hot. That said, the Si's main chassis shortcoming is its stock tires. The ability to control the car's slip angle with the throttle was hampered by the tires' refusal to share their thoughts with the pavement and their inability to break away progressively. Put some fine smoked meats on this thing, and watch it transform.

0201 Ford Svt Focus Nissan Sentra Se R Spec V Mazda Mp3 Volkswagen Gti 1.8t Honda Civic Si 10

There's no quick fix available for the Sentra SE-R Spec V, unfortunately. This car's advantage over all other Sentras is its Torsen-type front limited-slip differential. Although it helps put the power down, the Torsen corrupts the steering feel, with a too obvious inert phase while the differential redistributes power. Whatever the opposite of fluid is, that's the Sentra. You have to think hard when driving it hard and wait forever to settle the front end. The best parts about its handling are its substantive chassis feel and well-controlled body, but these assets fade into the background on the Spec V's balance sheet.

Interior and Equipment

The term hot hatch has its negative connotations, conjuring up images of superheated driver compartments and live chicken births. But the interiors of these cars are, for the most part, well trimmed and comprehensively equipped.

0201 Ford Svt Focus Nissan Sentra Se R Spec V Mazda Mp3 Volkswagen Gti 1.8t Honda Civic Si 11

The $17,539 Sentra SE-R Spec V has an impressive amount of standard equipment, including a riot of custom bodywork and well-bolstered and supportive seats. The seats are trimmed in fabric even a Santa Monica Boulevard transvestite hooker would find tacky. Options on the Spec V include a $749 air bag and ABS package, as well as a $549 Rockford Fosgate sound system with 300 watts and an eight-inch subwoofer.

Like the Sentra, the $17,995 SVT Focus deploys some disappointing materials, such as the mouse-fur headliner and the tumor-like remote radio controls on the steering column. What this car lacks in quality, how-ever, it makes up for in overall packaging smarts. Optional are a $395 Winter package, which includes traction control, heated front seats, and an engine-block heater; a $595 power sunroof; and the $675 Audiophile package that brings with it another ridiculous and strangely shaped subwoofer. The tragedy of the subwoofer is not that many owners will use it for the faithful reproduction of some mind-numbing, bass-heavy techno music, but that it compromises the Focus's 18.6-cubic-foot cargo hold. Otherwise, the Focus's high roof, great ergonomics, and elevated seating positions make it the most user-friendly interior here. SVT even moved the pedals and retrimmed them in aluminum and rubber to facilitate heel-and-toe downshifts.

0201 Ford Svt Focus Nissan Sentra Se R Spec V Mazda Mp3 Volkswagen Gti 1.8t Honda Civic Si 12

The $19,000 Civic Si is nearly as airy as the Focus, featuring Honda's famous low cowl. The hoodline fosters an intimate relationship with the road and a feeling of ergonomic rightness. Its three-door wedge shape provides for a functional body; its hatch swallows a commendable 15.7 cubic feet of luggage.

Subdued is the operative word here. The few buttons on the Si's instrument panel are large and easy to use, just as the instruments themselves are highly legible. The options list is similarly minimalist; all that's offered are side air bags. Like the coupe Civic Si that disappeared last year, the new Si gives you the hot engine and lets you do the rest.

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