Right away, the Cobalt SS established itself as the most outgoing member of the group (did we mention the wing?). It's a bit rough around the edges, but this minuscule muscle car never failed to bring a grin to our faces. Its gutsy, 205-hp, supercharged 2.0-liter Ecotec four delivers good low-end grunt, its brakes are decent enough, and the car demonstrates that the General finally has learned how to properly tune steering feel in a front-wheel-drive chassis.
The Chevy's engine note, though, sounds like a weed whacker, and the car's poor damping delivers a flinty ride over rough roads, hardly helped by the heavy eighteen-inch wheels. The addition of a sixth gear would also be welcome, since the SS's five-speed manual is geared longer than a mile of Nebraska freeway.
At the Tire Rack, the Cobalt spun its inside front wheel like a fan blade, which is surprising, considering that our test car was shod with a set of sticky Pirelli P Zero Rosso performance tires and had the optional limited-slip differential, which comes bundled with a set of supportive Recaro sport seats.
Wheel spin also afflicted the Volkswagen, although to a smaller degree. (To be fair, it does without a mechanical limited-slip device.) The portly German also demonstrated an affinity for understeer during hard cornering, although it was easily corrected by the superb steering-even better than the Cobalt's-and the compliant throttle. Long pedal travel makes it difficult to modulate the GLI's brakes, but they demonstrated good bite once engaged and brought the car to a stop from 70 mph in the shortest distance, 163 feet.
Since VW's FSI direct-injection technology effectively eliminates turbo lag, the GLI feels surprisingly similar to a normally aspirated car. The 200-hp, 2.0-liter engine pours on the power smoothly and provides strong midrange pull, allowing the GLI to post a 7.5-second 30-to-70-mph passing time-the best of the group. The car's 3360-pound curb weight, however, keeps it from being truly swift.
Traction was a problem with the WRX as well, but since it has standard all-wheel drive, we can't attribute it to the mechanicals. Instead, the blame falls on the all-season Bridgestone Potenza RE92s, and there's no performance rubber option. During high-speed maneuvers, though, that same lack of adhesion facilitates hero-quality four-wheel drifts.
For 2006, Subaru tightened the steering, beefed up the brakes, and increased the flat-four's displacement to 2.5 liters, giving its rally rocket a more refined overall character and increased ability. And although the WRX suffers from a notchy shifter and a heavy clutch and could still use more low-down grunt, none of that significantly tarnishes the driving experience-it's still very entertaining and tossable. Oh, yeah; it's fast, too. Once the turbo spools up its 13.5 psi of maximum boost and dispatches all 230 ponies to the four corners, it's off to the races-the Subaru blasts to 60 mph in 5.8 seconds, more than half a second quicker than the next-fastest, the Chevy Cobalt SS. It also is quickest covering the quarter-mile, at 14.6 seconds.
The best powertrain is in the Honda, where a sweet-shifting, six-speed manual is mated to the same high-revving, great-sounding, 2.0-liter i-VTEC four found in the Acura RSX, here pumping out a robust 197 hp at 7800 rpm without the aid of either a turbo or supercharger, unlike the other three vehicles. The Si has only 139 lb-ft of torque, but it pulls smartly through bends when both the Cobalt SS and the GLI-cars with 60-plus-lb-ft torque advantages-are in the throes of wheel spin.