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7 performance cars for less than $30,000 part two: Honda Civic Si vs. Volkswagen GTI

Tue, 12 Jun 2012

It's hard to fathom, but it's been more than a decade since the peak of the sport-compact craze saw modified Honda Civics cluttering the streets. Enthusiasts salivated over a Type R that wasn't (and still isn't) available on our shores, instead having to settle for the Si. Fast-forward to today and the debut of the ninth-generation Civic for the 2012 model year brings a new Si.

A 2.4-liter engine replaces the previous 2.0-liter for 201 hp and a healthy torque jump of 31 lb-ft to 170 lb-ft, but this comes at the expense of 1,000 rpm at the top end, for a 7,000-rpm redline. A six-speed manual and a limited-slip differential remain on the standard menu.

With our test car shod in Michelin Pilot Exalto summer tires, the Si puts the power down well out of corners. It still understeers when pressed, but even so, the Civic is capable of carrying plenty of speed through sweepers, with noticeable lean from a suspension that strikes a pleasing balance between performance and daily comfort. Throw in the smooth engine, slick gearbox, well-tuned clutch and brakes that held up well, and all of our testers were more than willing to take the Si out for a few more laps.

No sport-compact discussion is complete without the Volkswagen GTI, however. The definitive hot hatchback is still relevant a couple of years removed from its last major update, with its 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder producing 200 hp and 207 lb-ft of torque. That extra punch helped the GTI edge the Si in the speed tests. To 60 mph, the Honda needed 7.21 seconds, the Volkswagen just 7.05 seconds. The quarter-mile saw the Civic stop the timer at 15.65 seconds compared with the GTI's 15.34-second run.

Those victories were soon forgotten when we hit the road course. After a half session, the GTI's brake pedal went to the floor in the turn-one transition onto the infield. The cooked brakes required nearly 143 feet to stop from 60 mph, while the Civic got the job done in 129.4 feet. Testers also weren't fond of the GTI shifter's long throws and rubbery feel compared with the Si's, nor the lightly weighted steering of the German car.

What's to like about the GTI? As mentioned, the potent engine and balanced handling are its strongest assets. Like the Civic, it tends to push in corners, but the Dunlop SP Sport Maxx rubber provides a good amount of grip.

The takeaway? The old sport-compact guard is alive and well with both the Civic Si and the GTI. And both are available in more practical, four-door body styles. But if you go with a Volkswagen, upgrade the brake fluid and pads immediately if you plan any track outings.

BASE PRICE: $23,175

DRIVETRAIN: 2.4-liter, 201-hp, 170-lb-ft I4; FWD, six-speed manual

CURB WEIGHT: 2,877 lb

0-60 MPH: 7.21 sec (AW)

QUARTER-MILE: 15.65 sec (AW)

60-0 MPH: 129.42 ft (AW)

FUEL ECONOMY (EPA/AW): 25/24.7 mpg

2012 Volkswagen GTI 2-door

BASE PRICE: $28,615

DRIVETRAIN: 2.0-liter, 200-hp, 207-lb-ft turbocharged I4; FWD, six-speed automatic

CURB WEIGHT: 3,034 lb

0-60 MPH: 7.05 sec (AW)

QUARTER-MILE: 15.34 sec (AW)

60-0 MPH: 142.68 ft (AW)

FUEL ECONOMY (EPA/AW): 25/26.3 mpg

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