From the March 2006 issue of Car and Driver.
A few months ago we rounded up five fleet-footed economy cars for a comparison test we glibly titled “Desert Foxes”, ahead of the previous-generation GTI but behind the now-extinct Ford SVT Focus. What held that Si back was a lack of soul and driver involvement owing to dull electric power steering and wimpy all-season tires. Compared with the Si’s that preceded that model, it almost seemed as if Honda were holding back on the fun. Making things worse was the fact that other markets outside the U.S. had a Civic Type-R that boasted a stiff chassis with serious performance tires, a more menacing exterior, and the 197-hp 2.0-liter shared with the Acura RSX Type-S. We felt as if Honda had sent us a bag full of stems and seeds while the rest of the world got the “kind” stuff.
The other entry in this two-car tournament is the fifth-generation GTI. Since the second-generation 16-valve GTI, there has been a kind of GTI drought. The powertrains didn’t disappoint (except for the GTIs with the punk-ass 115-hp 2.0-liter), but VW dumbed-down the suspension settings on gens three and four, ostensibly to create a more luxurious, grown-up GTI. We were left wanting. The new GTI seems to have learned from those missteps and perhaps from the excellence of the limited-edition 20th-anniversary GTI and the ballsy R32. VW has now brought to market a serious chassis complete with sticky performance tires. Making the most of the willing underpinnings is a 197-hp direct-injection 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, an engine that enlivens Volkswagens and Audis alike and is a torquey, relaxed alternative to the high-revving Honda mill.
Instead of dragging back all the cars from the “Cheap Speed” comparo, we’ve kept it simple by pitting icon against icon, top seed against top seed. Since both brands inspire a passionate following, fans of these cars have probably already made up their minds. So this comparison will likely invite more bashing of C/D in the loser’s online forums (and probably in the winner’s forums, too). For the first time in anyone’s memory, we have a tie in the “gotta have it” column. Usually, we have an instinctive idea of which car is going to emerge the winner in a comparison test before we tally the scores. Not in this comparo. We had to wait for the ballots to be counted before we knew which corner could celebrate.
Second Place: Honda Civic Si
It didn’t take more than a few miles of our 450-mile Southern California jaunt to discern that a sense of exhilaration has been returned to the Civic Si. The chassis, a strut front with a multilink arrangement in back, makes the most of each 215/45R-17 Michelin Pilot Exalto PE2. The Si gripped the skidpad at Willow Springs International Raceway to the tune of 0.91 g. That set of performance tires is a $200 upgrade but would be unsuitable for winter use. If you reside in the snow-tire belt, expect to spend even more on snow shoes for your Si. Cornering is about as neutral as you can find on a front-driver, and with the limited-slip differential, power can be put down at any time. The Honda resists understeer with a tenacity lacking in other front-drive cars. It almost always will happily tighten its line with the mere application of more steering. Feedback from the wheel is good, but it’s not in the same league as the kings of steering feel, the Porsche Cayman S and the Lotus Exige. You get the feeling you can trust the 2860-pound car to do exactly what you want, and although it might not be able to make you a perfect club sandwich at 4 a.m., you get the feeling it would if it could.
Turning the front wheels is a naturally aspirated 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with 197 horsepower at 7800 rpm, a mere 200 rpm short of the redline. Relative to the turbocharged VW, the Honda doesn’t make a lot of torque — 139 pound-feet at 6200 rpm — but thanks to variable valve timing, enough of the torque is available throughout the rev range to make the Si at least feel spry. As we quickly discovered on mountain roads outside Ojai, California, the engine goes from grimalkin to tomcat when the cam timing changes at 6000 rpm. A 0-to-60 run takes 6.7 seconds, but to make the most of the engine’s narrow power band requires an aggressive launch. We weren’t surprised that the rolling-start 5-to-60-mph maneuver took a longish 7.5 seconds because of the engine’s peaky nature.
Honda worked to intensify the cam switchover at 6000 rpm, and it now feels as if someone had flipped a switch and turned on some hidden power source, and there’s nothing subtle about it. Adding to the change in character is a tuned air intake that tunnels out of the engine compartment, into the fender area, and back to the intake manifold. By routing the intake through the fender, the sound of the engine switching to high-revving cams is amplified because the fender acts as a resonator. With the driver’s window down, the switchover sounds like a karaoke version of a Ferrari V-8 aria. The only negative aspect of the engine is its predilection to hang on to revs after you lift off the accelerator — a trivial annoyance.
The previous Si had a shifter that sprouted out of the dashboard. The new car returns the six-speed shifter to the console between the seats. Shift efforts are light, and the clutch engages smoothly and predictably. Our only gripe with the close-ratio gearbox is that the shift from fourth to fifth requires you to move the lever quite far to the right to find the fifth and sixth gear plane. We were also annoyed by the grabby brakes, whose all-or-nothing nature made smooth heel-and-toe downshifts difficult to master. Honda, however, recognizes the problem and promises that Si’s built after ours will have less-touchy brakes.
Should you be abducted by aliens and they let you see the cockpit of their ship, the Civic’s interior might trigger painful (maybe pleasurable?) flashbacks. A two-tiered display separates the analog tachometer—visible through the steering wheel—from the digital speedo that resides at the base of the windshield, above the rim of the wheel. The multifunction steering wheel is a squarish (almost flat at the top and bottom) affair that looks as if it could be part of a trophy for the winner of Alien versus Predator. Despite some initial wigging out, we pulled ourselves together and learned to accept the environment, even growing comfortable with the dual displays and world-of-tomorrow décor.
The logbook registered only a couple of ergonomic gripes. The optional navigation system integrated with the stereo proved easy to use, but the volume knob is set too high and far away from the driver. We ended up turning the fan-speed knob more than once, mistaking it for the volume knob. Sport seats come standard in the Si, and their bolstering, shoulder support, and grippy fabric keep you in place. However, we wish the height adjustment allowed us to lower the rear portion of the cushion, something we might not have noticed if the GTI hadn’t spoiled us with the adjustability of its seats.
To regain some of the Civic faithful, Honda resisted a big price increase for the ’06 Si. If you find yourself on The Price Is Right and Bob Barker asks you to guess how much a Civic Si costs, say $20,540, because the cars on that show are always strippers. Our loaded test car had more options than a Wharton School of Business graduate, lifting the price to a still-reasonable $23,240, which is nearly $5000 less than the estimated cost of our comparably equipped GTI.
Any car that receives a perfect score in the fun-to-drive and handling categories is something we wouldn’t kick out of the garage. But the Civic Si loses to the GTI for the same reason a Caterham will probably never win a comparison test: No matter how good the chassis might be, the entire vehicle must come under scrutiny. In the end, the Si’s handling wasn’t superior enough to overcome gaps in the rest of the package. However, if you’re only after a great chassis, the Si is the car to have. As a former Caterham owner, I’ll understand.
2006 Honda Civic Si
197-hp inline-four, 6-speed manual, 2860 lb
Base/as-tested price: $20,540/$23,240
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 6.7 sec
100 mph: 16.8 sec
1/4 mile: 15.1 @ 95 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 179 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.91 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 19 mpg
First Place: Volkswagen GTI
Despite the high as-tested price, an estimated $28,000, the GTI won out because it’s a more complete car than the Si. Refinement and attention to detail permeate each part of the VW. It’s as happy darting through mountain roads as it is blasting down a freeway at triple-digit speeds. The GTI never seems to be out of its element, no matter what you ask of it. Even with a full load of passengers or cargo, the GTI shines.
A lot of its charm stems from the 2.0-liter direct-injection turbocharged engine. The four-cylinder responds instantly to throttle inputs and has a swell of 207 pound-feet of torque that peaks at a low 1800 rpm and never seems to taper off. This is a turbo that has the immediate throttle response of a naturally aspirated engine — there is no turbo lag. If you find yourself in too high a gear, no matter; the engine will pull the 3220-pound GTI with gusto from nearly anywhere in the rev range. Stay on the go pedal, and the GTI actually shifts 100 rpm north of the redline. It’s an engine that is eager to please and never sounds stressed or behaves as if you were asking it to do something untoward.
Complementing the engine is Volkswagen and Audi’s optional Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG) that uses two separate clutches to automatically engage and disengage gears. There’s no clutch pedal on the floor; a computer does all the fancy footwork. Shifts are startlingly fast, and unlike BMW’s sequential manual transmission, the VW system is thoroughly seamless as the gearbox pushes the clutch in on one gear at the precise moment the other clutch engages the next gear. Leave it in drive and use it as a regular automatic, or use the shifter or the paddles mounted on the steering wheel to call up changes. Downshifts never upset the chassis; sometimes the only way to know if a downshift has occurred is to look at the tachometer. Our U.S.-spec tester proved to be a bit slower than a European GTI we tested in December. The slower acceleration of the U.S. car can likely be traced to the lack of launch-control programming in the DSG’s brain. Euro GTIs allow the engine to rev before the clutch engages for a controlled-wheelspin launch, but the U.S. car refuses to engage in such shenanigans. VW tells us next year’s model will have launch control. Although many of us still prefer the involvement of a traditional clutch and shifter, the DSG works so well that we’d have to think long and hard about not spending the extra dough for it.
Although the GTI didn’t achieve the Si’s handling marks, it didn’t have any trouble staying in the Honda’s rearview mirror on our test route. GTIs bound for our shores have an extra 15 millimeters (0.6 inch) of ride height, which we were told is required to meet bumper-height requirements. The extra suspension travel occasionally can be felt in quick left-right maneuvers, where the car’s body can be felt moving more than does the European model. The extra body motion also makes the GTI feel as if its center of gravity were about a foot higher than the hunkered-down Civic’s. The GTI ends up being able to do just about everything the Si can do, but it does it without the grace of the Honda.
From behind the wheel, the heavier and larger GTI feels less agile than the Si. With the seat adjusted at a low setting, the dash looms at nearly shoulder level. Adjust the seat skyward, and you get the feeling you’re driving a really short van. Aside from the minor groaning about the height of the dashboard, the rest of the interior was universally praised. Materials and build quality are top shelf, and the steering wheel reminds us of the flat-bottomed wheel in the Ferrari F430. Piling into the back of the GTI’s cabin proved to be a pleasant surprise, like flying coach and finding you’ve been assigned an exit row. Room in the back of the Honda was quite unbearable, with little head- or legroom. Imagine a coach seat with limited recline, next to the lavatory, and you get an idea of how far we can stretch the airline analogy.
And so the victor is the GTI. One logbook entry summed up the difference between the two cars perfectly: “Hard to argue against the GTI with its comfort, pace, refinement, space, and interior quality. It doesn’t have the graceful and impressive handling of the Si, but it gets the job done.” Dubbers can rejoice—the GTI is back.
2006 Volkswagen GTI
197-hp inline-four, 6-speed manual, 3220 lb
Base/as-tested price: $23,500/$28,000 (est.)
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 6.6 sec
100 mph: 17.0 sec
1/4 mile: 14.9 @ 95 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 171 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.87 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 16 mpg
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