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

Erik B. Johnson
Brian Konoske

With its aggressive chassis tuning and new limited-slip differential, the Si is impressively neutral at the limit, a trait we find all the more notable considering that it carries more than 60 percent of its weight on the front axle. But that 60 percent isn't a lot, comparatively speaking. At 2860 pounds, the Si weighs 500 pounds less than the VW and nearly 200 pounds less than the next lightest Cobalt SS. And although it was the featherweight, the Honda felt the most solid and the most planted. It also boasts wonderful brakes and the tightest steering ratio of the bunch, but the electric steering system is overboosted, lacks on-center feel, doesn't provide nearly enough feedback, and becomes annoying in real driving conditions, where it requires constant attention.

When the Civic Si goes on sale in December, Honda promises a price of less than $20,000, making it a tremendous bargain. It's well-equipped, too, with a seven-speaker, MP3-enabled premium stereo, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, six air bags, and aluminum pedals. In fact, the only options available to Si buyers are a satellite radio and navigation system and the Michelin Pilot Exalto performance tires found on our test car.

The Cobalt SS, which starts at $21,990, also represents a good deal at the $23,885 as-tested price, which included the $1500 Recaro/limited-slip performance package and side curtain air bags. Other options include a moonroof, OnStar service, and XM satellite radio.

With a base price of $25,620, the WRX is the priciest member of our group, but features such as automatic climate control and a six-disc in-dash CD changer are standard. A $2500 premium nets the WRX Limited, with a moonroof, leather seating, and heated exterior mirrors among the upgrades.

The Jetta GLI starts somewhat cheaper with a base price of $24,405, but our example blew past the Subie's sticker, thanks to nearly $4000 in options, including performance tires, upgraded wheels, and the aforementioned $3200 option package, which includes sport seats, a moonroof, and leather upholstery. Fully loaded, the GLI spills over the $30K mark, where fiercer competition plays. But it also represents a return to form and is the most upscale car here.

All four cars are great performers, more than willing to mix it up at high speeds, low speeds, and anything in between, and none is likely to disappoint its owner. The WRX's standard all-wheel drive-rare in this price range-and entertaining personality make it a fantastic choice, especially for those in the Snow Belt. The Jetta GLI is the most well-mannered competitor and perfect for the speed freak with a family, offering good rear-seat room and a large trunk. It's safe, too; the GLI matches the Si's six standard air bags and then goes a step further by offering optional rear-seat side bags. And although it felt the least cohesive, the Cobalt SS was the hot rod of our group-expected of a car bearing those storied initials.

The most complete car here, though, is the Honda Civic Si, due to its wonderful manners on both road and test course, its brilliant powertrain, and its tremendous value. Honda has atoned for the last-generation Si, which was unremarkable in nearly every way, and the Si badge is back on top of the hot-compact heap. Look for an Si sliding around a cul-de-sac near you soon.

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