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

Erik B. Johnson
Brian Konoske

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.

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