From the November 2020 issue of Car and Driver.
The iron triangle principle says that you can’t hit the center of a Venn diagram with work that is cheap, quick, and good. But the Honda Civic Si, Kia Forte GT, and Volkswagen Jetta GLI prove that you don’t have to settle for just two of these attributes in a car. These hot hatches trapped in sedan bodies exemplify the traditional sport-compact formula. They are affordable small cars made pluckier with more potent engines, sportier chassis, and appearance tweaks that signify these are not rental-grade econoboxes.
This is the kind of car that’s easy to get excited about: accessible performance in a practical package, all for significantly less coin than the average price of a new car. While each of these cars is good, we set out to find the one that is best.
The Civic Si made its name with a long run of high-strung, revvy, naturally aspirated four-bangers. The current model, which arrived for 2017, traded that heritage for a 205-hp turbocharged 1.5-liter inline-four with a low 6500-rpm redline, but we’ve still found plenty to like about it. As the 10th-generation Civic nears the end of its run, Honda has bestowed on it styling, gearing, and equipment updates. Our test car stickers for $26,355, which includes a $200 option for summer tires.
The Jetta GLI has always lived in the shadow of the hallowed Golf GTI, but the newest iteration—which joined the hatch on VW’s MQB underpinnings last year—is good enough that it shared a 2020 10Best award with its stablemate. Our loaded Autobahn example with a six-speed manual, 228 horsepower, and optional no-cost summer rubber is the most powerful car here but also the only one that crests $30,000.
The name Forte GT doesn’t carry the weight that the Civic Si and Jetta GLI monikers do, but Hyundai-Kia’s performance-car efforts have gained credibility recently—as proven by the riotous Hyundai Veloster N—under the leadership of former BMW M boss Albert Biermann. Though its 201-hp turbo 1.6-liter inline-four makes the least power in this group, this $25,090 Forte GT matches the others in concept, all the way down to its optional $200 set of summer tires.
Driving on the highway and back roads to determine the best, we relished in shifting for ourselves while (figuratively) looking down on the sea of crossovers that surrounded our medium-spicy trio of sedans. Because can you really be a true car enthusiast without at least a little bit of a superiority complex?
Kia Forte GT
Highs: Handsome looks, punchy power delivery, nice price.
Lows: Sloppy shifter, lackluster steering feel, noisy suspension.
Verdict: A competent sedan that’s just shy of earning a sport-compact merit badge.
The Forte may be cheap, but we’d gladly pay a little more for a better experience behind the wheel. Compared with the Civic and Jetta, the Forte is less direct and communicative in the steering department, its body motions are less controlled, and its shifter action is sloppier. Any one of these deficiencies wouldn’t be a deal breaker on its own, but add them all up and the result is a car that’s simply not as satisfying to drive as the Honda or the Volkswagen.
The Forte held its own at the test track. Its 0.93-g skidpad result was midpack, its 157-foot stop from 70 mph was the shortest of the group, and its 6.7-second 60-mph time was only 0.1 second behind the Civic’s. But on the open road, the Forte fell behind the others. We had to work harder in the Kia to keep up with the Honda and the VW. “The Forte just seems out of its depth here,” said staff editor Drew Dorian after a lap of our back-road loop.
Busy ride motions eroded our confidence when driving quickly, and unseemly suspension noises made for a less-than-refined demeanor on the freeway. The 1.6-liter is smoother than the Civic’s 1.5, and its turbo boost comes on strong and early, but you won’t find a lot of joy rowing the vague shifter and kicking the numb clutch pedal.
What the Forte lacks in dynamic charms, it makes up for in aesthetics. Its shape is well proportioned and attractive, and the tasteful red accents, 18-inch wheels, and subtle spoiler included with the GT treatment enhance the package rather than embarrass the driver. We appreciate the simplicity of the analog gauges, which are easier to read and more pleasing to our eye than the others’ digital instruments.
Taken on its own, the Forte is an energetic version of a decent compact car. Entertaining? Sure. But it doesn’t reach the level of driving bliss found in the Civic and Jetta.
Honda Civic Si
Highs: Eager handling, satisfying gearbox, good fuel economy.
Lows: Minus Unrefined engine, unseemly exterior design, dated interior.
Verdict: Still spry and thrilling but showing its age in other ways.
That the Si is still this good this late in its life cycle speaks to the inherent greatness of the 10th-generation Civic’s chassis. We loved driving the Honda through curves. It feels alive and eager in a way that few other cars do. It’s the Miata of the group, with that elusive combination of responsiveness and compliance baked into the tuning. It moves in a delightfully organic and fluid way. “Best steering, best shifting, most willing, and most fun,” said director of vehicle testing Dave VanderWerp.
So why didn’t the most fun car take the prize? Because it’s not always the best car to drive. The short gearing that makes the Civic feel so lively on back roads also makes the buzzy 1.5-liter drone annoyingly on the highway. Compared with the GLI, the Si is a whopping nine decibels louder at wide-open throttle when both vehicles are in Sport mode, which might seem fun until you realize that much of the Honda’s noise is fake. And some of the interior details undermine the experience, such as the seats with fixed headrests and no adjustable lumbar. The metal shift knob feels expensive and cool to the touch, unless it spent the past hour and a half baking in the sun; then it’s going to scald your hand.
We also feel self-conscious being seen in the Civic. Fake vents, a silly spoiler, and black wheels had already gone out of style when this car launched in 2017, and they aren’t coming back into fashion anytime soon. The Civic is looking dated inside, too, with drab materials and an infotainment system in need of design and functionality improvements.
The Civic came close to winning it all. Though slower, less refined, and less spacious than the Jetta, it earned top marks in fuel economy (a thrifty 31 mpg), skidpad grip (an impressive 0.95 g), and our subjective handling score. But in the end, our experience with this Si mostly served to get us excited about the great potential of the next one, rather than wanting the one that’s here right now.
Volkswagen Jetta GLI
Highs: Great ride-and-handling balance, strong turbo four, roomy rear seat.
Lows: Engine lacks character, some cheapness inside, it’s not a GTI.
Verdict: It takes itself a little too seriously, but this sport compact does everything.
If the Civic Si channels the spirit of the Miata, then the Jetta GLI drives like a budget Audi A4. It does everything right when cruising, tracking straight and damping impacts from expansion joints and cracks while maintaining a hushed cabin. Its tall gearing allows the 2.0-liter inline-four to spin at 2500 rpm at 80 mph, where the other two hum annoyingly above 3000.
Admittedly, the Jetta’s handling isn’t as lively as the Civic’s. But the GLI is hardly a Buick LeSabre. It possesses all the core traits that make a car satisfying to drive fast—crisp steering with great on-center feel, controlled body motions, and deft wheel control—even if it’s missing that extra bit of zip found in the Honda. Its lowest-in-test skidpad result of 0.91 g is still impressive, and the Hankook Ventus S1 Evo3 summer tires feel grippy and predictable on the road. They also imbue the GLI with responsive initial turn-in.
At 6.0 seconds to 60 mph, the Jetta is the quickest car here, although it doesn’t feel like it. The smooth and strong turbo four is so well isolated from the cabin that it sometimes disappears from the driving experience. We wish it would shout louder to add a bit more drama. Shift action from the six-speed manual is pleasing.
We wouldn’t complain about the Jetta GLI’s interior if it weren’t for the existence of the Golf GTI, which offers better materials and a more upscale design but commands a $2350 premium over a base GLI. Blank switches and hard plastics cheapen the experience here. Despite that, the Volkswagen is the most premium and comfortable vehicle in this trio. Seat comfort in both the front and rear of the Jetta is tops, and the GLI justified its high price in this test with luxuries including ventilated front seats and leather upholstery.
Nine out of 10 C/D staffers would recommend a GTI over this version with a trunk. But even if the GLI is only about 90 percent as fabulous as VW’s iconic hot hatch, an A-minus version of one of our favorite cars still ends up being damn good. The GLI’s win might seem conditional in that context, and its margin of victory over the Civic was small. Sure, the GLI isn’t as riotous as the Si, but maturity matters here, too. Unlike a Miata, no one buys a sedan in this class as a second car. The GLI is the compact sports sedan we’d most like to drive day in and day out.