Escape From Suburbia: 2006 Honda Civic Si vs. Volkswagen Jetta GLI vs. Subaru WRX vs. Chevrolet Cobalt SS

Erik B. Johnson
Brian Konoske

Grease-covered hot-rodders in the 1950s did it. Gearheads of the '60s and '70s did it. And, more recently, the tuner culture did it. But the days of the do-it-yourself upgrade now may be behind those of us burdened by the crush of everyday responsibility. Folks with a new family, for example. We barely have time to toast a bagel in the morning, much less hop up our ride. What we need is a car for those of us whose inner speed demons won't shut up, people with real-world salaries and the need to carry more than one passenger.

Today's manufacturers are happy to oblige, and we've just tested four of their best offerings. The Honda Civic Si, the Subaru Impreza WRX, the Chevrolet Cobalt SS Supercharged, and the Volkswagen Jetta GLI each provide plentiful performance, practicality, and style, plus serious fun, at prices that nearly any schmo can afford. With cars like these-and more on the way, such as the next Dodge SRT4 and the Mazdaspeed 3-there's no need to hunt for performance in a parts box, because it's right there on the showroom floor. These four begin life as relatively ordinary-looking economy cars. Serious performance, however, needs to be backed up with a serious look, and all have received the requisite tweaks inside and out.

In dressing up the Civic Si, Honda's stylists had an excellent starting point, as the all-new Civic coupe is much less homely than the outgoing Si hatchback. Only the addition of a low-slung rear wing, an i-VTEC decal, and minor changes to the front fascia, headlamp cluster, and grille differentiate the latest Si's exterior. Interior changes include suedelike trim, red instrumentation, and Si-badged sport seats with aggressive side bolsters-although highway jaunts revealed them to be serious restrictors of comfort. It looks as if a bin and cubbyhole factory exploded inside, with perfect slots for cell phones and MP3 players, huge cup holders, and a center armrest that will hold the entire OutKast oeuvre five times over-twenty-five CDs in all.

The Cobalt's SS makeover includes new front and rear fascias, side sills, gorgeous eighteen-inch wheels, and a ridiculous rear spoiler worthy of its own flight pattern. In spite of that wing-which vibrates in the rearview mirror at any meaningful speed-the Cobalt SS looks the most aggressive and the most purposeful of our quartet, with a poised-to-strike, rear-up stance that clearly communicates its muscular SS ancestry. The Chevy's cabin changes are less notable, with SS-specific trim, a boy-racer boost gauge mounted to the A-pillar, and leather seats rounding out the modifications.

The VW and Subaru sedans undergo less obvious metamorphoses in a nod to their more family-oriented intentions. The Impreza WRX adds a functional hood scoop, seventeen-inch wheels, and WRX STI-inspired side sills over a regular Impreza, while the Jetta GLI gets a blacked-out grille, a new chin spoiler, and seventeen-inch wheels-upgradable to the sexy eighteens on our test car.

The Subie's cozy but dated cockpit is tarted up with a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, aluminum pedal covers, and a pair of comfortable sport seats that are great for long hauls but aren't very good at keeping you planted during hard driving. Overall, the cabin is ergonomically friendly, but material quality and aesthetics are major bummers, and there aren't enough places to stash stuff.

The Jetta GLI's cabin is a wonderful place to spend an afternoon drive, thanks to one of the best steering wheels in the business, rich materials, and seats to die for. Those seats, however, are part of a $3200 package; the standard chairs have less bolstering and lack the very cool headrests of the optional seats.

Comfy seats and cup holders are great and all, but the reason you'll buy one of these cars is because of how it drives. To find that out, we took our foursome on some spirited runs over the back roads around Ann Arbor and then headed to South Bend, Indiana, where the Tire Rack opened the gates of its world-class test course.

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