Comparison: Four Fun, Sporty Runabouts Under $30,000
Time Bandits: Four Sporty Ways to Cheat the Clock
Twenty years ago, in the August 1994 issue of Motor Trend, we tested four sports cars whose averaged stats read like this: 0-60 in 5.5 seconds, quarter mile in 13.9 at 102.3 mph, 60-0 in 116 feet, and lateral acceleration of 0.92 g. The cars? Porsche 911 Carrera, Acura NSX, Chevrolet Corvette, and Chevrolet Camaro Z/28. Legendary nameplates, to say the least. For the day, they were heady cars touting heady stats.
Today, numbers like theirs are still heady, but are associated with nameplates with a bit less panache and histories not quite as storied (save for the bantam Brit, maybe). I'm referring to the sporty runabouts on these pages: the 2014 Honda Civic Si, 2014 MINI Cooper S Hardtop, 2015 Subaru WRX, and 2015 Volkswagen Golf GTI. Whereas the 1994 icons boasted averaged outputs of 279 hp and 280 lb-ft, these pocket rockets come in at 220 hp and 224 lb-ft. Thus, their numbers aren't as quick, but not far off, either: 0-60 in 5.9 seconds, the quarter mile in 14.4 at 97.4 mph, 60-0 in 106 feet, and lateral accel of 0.90 g. Keep in mind that the average inflation-adjusted price of the "oldies" is $77,559, a big leap from the $27,293 for the youngsters.
Let's meet those youngsters. The WRX, hot on heels of defeating the Ford Focus ST ("Practical Track-tion, Motor Trend, April 2014), enters this test as the defending champ. And what a stout champ it is, channeling 268 hp and 258 lb-ft through an all-wheel-drive system with torque vectoring. VW's all-new MkVII (seventh generation) GTI, whose optional Performance Pack ups output to 220 hp and 258 lb-ft, doesn't match the peak pop of the Subie, but counters with less weight, a new MQB platform, and torque vectoring all its own. With the largest engine in the group at 2.4 liters, and the only one not turbocharged, the refreshed Honda Civic Si is relatively low on torque (174 lb-ft), yet makes up for it with the sweetest of shifters and 205 hp at a VTEC-appropriate 7000 rpm. Last but not least is the all-new third-gen MINI Cooper S Hardtop, replete with a reworked platform and chassis and a fresh 2.0-liter good for 189 hp and 207 lb-ft. All the bandits came evenly matched, with six-speed manuals, summer tires, and minimal optional equipment, helping to keep the price tags under $30,000. We subjected them to our standard instrumented testing and thorough street and track evaluations. And when all was said and done, one had us looking back to the future.
4th Place: Mini Hardtop Cooper SUnlike with many last-place finishers, there's a lot to admire with the new Mini Hardtop. Despite growing in every dimension -- resulting in a much-welcome bump in interior and cargo volume -- this new Cooper S remains cute and tidy, instantly recognizable and easy to maneuver through tights spots. The all-new 2.0-liter turbo is a big improvement over its 1.6-liter predecessor, delivering better refinement and low- and midrange oomph, not to mention brisk 0-60 (6.3 seconds) and quarter-mile (14.7 seconds at 95.8 mph) times. And the updated chassis still provides the quick go-kart reflexes (0.86 g lateral acceleration and a 26.6-second figure eight) that we've come to love from Mini, but in a more mature, buttoned-down manner.
Alas, there was enough not to like to relegate it to fourth. Whereas the Civic had the best shifter, the Hardtop had the, well, far from best. Per associate online editor Nate Martinez: "The gearbox isn't precise -- it's easy to miss a shift when rowing quickly." In a performance vehicle, that's not good. The ride is improved, but still busier, choppier, and noisier than that of the others. As associate online editor Benson Kong put it, "Unavoidable when you're working with less than 100 inches of wheelbase and want a sporty ride and feel." Inside, all the judges were disappointed in the puny tachometer that was hard to read, the tacky fuel gauge that looked like an afterthought, and the cheap-feeling drive-mode selector at the base of the shifter. At least the engine on/off toggle looks and feels solid. Outside, the Mini, while still cute, has lost some of its adorability. Said senior features editor Jonny Lieberman, "The front looks like it's trying to spit out a mouthpiece."
At the track, pro racer Randy Pobst noted, "The Mini had a distinct tendency to dance around more than the Civic did -- it was a little wilder ride. I didn't feel as confident as I did in the Civic because both ends of the Mini were bouncing and moving around a little bit. It's not as much of a rotator as the old Mini. Not as much fun as the Civic, either, maybe because the handling didn't seem to be as much of one piece. It went more from a big understeer to a little bit of snap oversteer and then back again."
On the bright side, the Cooper S boasts not only the best EPA fuel economy, but also top numbers in our Real MPG testing, where it returned 33 mpg combined. If you can live with the rough NVH when commuting, the Mini's dividends are there; otherwise, there are three better options.
3rd Place: Honda Civic SiThe Si might very well be the best third-place finisher … ever. Not only was it the cheapest of the group (by $3615), but Pobst ranked it tops in terms of fun factor and driver confidence at the track. "That new Civic Si is a real playground ride of a FWD car, a lot of fun. It's not a car that will blow your mind in a straight line, but it's peppy and the engine is smooth and loves to run." While not fond of the soft suspension setup, which made the car feel like it had a lot of body roll, Pobst loved the chassis otherwise, especially the brakes. "With just the right amount of a light brake, it will actually rotate into a corner. Whenever a FWD car will do that, it turns me on. A trail brake should be very light in any car, just enough to light the brake lights. The Honda Civic likes that, which is sporty and racy. That's my favorite handling characteristic."
Further, everyone ranked its six-speed manual the finest of the foursome. "I'd go so far as to proclaim the Si's transmission the best manual in the business," Lieberman noted. Pobst said, "The shifter may very well be the best one I've ever tried in anything, ever. Not just the shift mechanism, but whatever is going on in the gearbox. It's almost like the synchros aren't there. It is so slick and so quick into the next gear. I wish they were all like that." So do we.
On the road, though, the Si didn't excite us quite as much. The once-hip space-age interior now seems oddly dated. Same goes for the fast-forward exterior, which appears like an unbalanced amalgam of "what the kids see as cool."
Unlike the others, the Civic lacks the instant gratification of low-rpm turbo torque, relying on wait-for-it high revs. And as Kong observed, "Honda did a nice job developing a car that conveys its fun intentions without going overboard on a super stiff ride and high-effort controls, but the chassis/steering and engine work in opposite directions of each other: The chassis/steering get softer/lighter the more you push on it, whereas the engine feels better the more you step on the gas." Even with the most amazing shifter on the planet, the Si left us feeling a wee bit disconnected.
2nd Place: Subaru WRXLieberman voted the WRX in first place, and here's why: "If going fast down a twisty road is your goal, check out the WRX. Great power. Great gearing for the real world. You don't need the torque vectoring because the car's so stable -- just switch everything off and enjoy. Flinty yet sporty ride even on bad surfaces -- that makes the car feel fun. Solid brakes. Just a blast. Engine even sounds pretty good for a little turbo, especially when compared to the Mini and the GTI."
To support Jonny's case, the WRX was the quickest in all acceleration stats as well as around Streets of Willow. Its Real MPG combined number proved 1 mpg better than that of the lighter front-drive GTI. And the other judges heaped plenty of praise, too. Martinez: "It not only goes, it also changes directions with an impressive immediacy and control. Its grip level is immense." Kong: "The objectively quickest and most immediate here. Feels relatively plush on very big suspension movements (its control has been tuned well) -- none of that abruptness you get in the Mini." Pobst: "Gives me a sense of quality and strength, like the drivetrain and the parts in the steering and suspension are well-made. I like the damping a lot. Whereas the Civic felt too soft and the Mini seemed to be bottoming and having snapping reactions, the Subaru was very happy over some pretty wild stuff. The rally heritage comes to mind."
The divide from second to first was fractionally close, but the little things kept the WRX from the win. The gearbox felt notchy compared to the fluid GTI's (and downright clunky next to the Civic's); the brakes offered up a nice, firm pedal, but lacked any sense of linear progression, resulting in a gee-I-hope-it-stops impression; and the interior lacked the polish and quietness of the VW's. The WRX is an immensely quick, fun, and capable car; it just hasn't graduated from finishing school.
1st Place: Volkswagen Golf GTIAfter testing director Kim Reynolds ran the Golf GTI around the figure eight, he asked me, "Did we invite the GTI to the next Best Driver's Car?" "No, why?" I said, thinking he was implying that if we had invited it, we should rescind the offer because it wasn't worthy. "Well, we really ought to," he said. "It's fantastic." How fantastic? Kim's lap of 25.1 seconds placed it 0.4 second ahead of the WRX, a car that has 48 more horses, all-wheel drive, and wider 235-series tires. Moreover, the GTI's 0.96 g of maximum lateral grip nearly equals the 0.97 g of the WRX's big brother, the rally-freak STI. But it gets better. In 60-0 braking, the GTI's huge binders (13.4-inch discs up front and 12.2 in back, part of the $1495 Performance Pack) halted the 3088-pound hatch in a mere 100 feet. Neither the STI nor the Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG nor the BMW M235i can match that. Suffice it to say, VW engineers have worked magic with the GTI's all-new MQB platform.
At Streets of Willow, the GTI continued to shine. Not only did Pobst laud the stout brakes and new EA888 engine's willingness to rev and pull high into redline, but he actually liked -- yes, liked -- the stability control system. "This is one of very few times I've ever driven a car that had stability control on where I think it was actually kind of helpful and it was not annoying. It was actually entertaining. These earlier stability controls systems are starting to look dumb and this GTI is clearly another generation." Pobst continued, "I feel there's a lot of roll but the shocks are damping it well, so it's controlled. The whole car feels sophisticated."
In the real world, the GTI didn't falter a bit. Within this group, its ride and steering were deemed best and its gearbox second-best (to the world's best Civic's). It only feels a smidge slower than the speed-demon WRX, a fact backed up by its 0-60 and quarter-mile times (5.7 and 14.2 at 99.9 mph, respectively). And there's a refinement to the GTI that exudes quality and ingenuity. Lieberman said, "Look at the mastery evident in the surfacing. Feel the silky way the steering wheel turns. The paint. The paint! I've never seen paint this high-quality on a car stickering for less than $30K. It's such an impressive piece of engineering effort that frankly I'm gobsmacked." Per Kong, "What I appreciate the most about the GTI is its subtlety and devotion to said subtlety. It never feels the need to get in your face like the Si (LOOK AT MY SCREAMING ENGINE), Cooper S (LOOK AT MY SPORTING RIDE AND SMALLNESS), and WRX (LOOK AT MY LOUD NOISES)."
Calm, cool, and collected. And damn quick. Just as the ultimate time bandit should be.
Slot Cars: Two races in oneIf you look closely at the speed plot, you'll see we have two separate races going on: the WRX versus the GTI, and the Cooper S against the Civic Si. In the slower pairing, the Mini stomps on the Honda virtually everywhere around the course. Here and there the Honda matches the Mini's cornering grip, but the Civic is overwhelmed on the straights.
The second matchup is faster, way closer, and ultimately a head-scratcher. Despite being laden with 15 percent more pounds per hp, the GTI is a mere two-tenths astern the WRX by the lap's conclusion, meaning just a 0.2 percent longer lap time. And that's despite the GTI grabbing a tremendous advantage approaching Turn 1 via an avoided extra gear change. The VW also has a higher peak speed on three other short-shoot segments and the swiftest cornering through Turn 8. But the Subie ekes its way back into the lead with quicker acceleration exiting Turn 2 and solidifies matters until the entrance to Turn 11, when the VW re-passes it under stronger braking. The WRX noses ahead again exiting Turn 11, and wins by 26 feet. The mph graph above is a bit misleading: In actuality, a lot more time is spent during slow-speed cornering than what appears here in a distance-based graph.
|2014 Honda Civic Si||2014 Mini Hardtop Cooper S|
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT||Front-engine, FWD||Front-engine, FWD|
|ENGINE TYPE||I-4, alum block/head||Turbocharged I-4, alum block/head|
|VALVETRAIN||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl|
|DISPLACEMENT||143.7 cu in/2354 cc||121.9 cu in/1998 cc|
|POWER (SAE NET)||205 hp @ 7000 rpm||189 hp @ 4700 rpm|
|TORQUE (SAE NET)||174 lb-ft @ 4400 rpm||207 lb-ft @ 1250 rpm|
|REDLINE||7100 rpm||6500 rpm|
|WEIGHT TO POWER||14.3 lb/hp||14.5 lb/hp|
|TRANSMISSION||6-speed manual||6-speed manual|
|SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multi-link, coil springs, anti-roll bar||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multi-link, coil springs, anti-roll bar|
|BRAKES, F;R||11.8-in vented disc; 10.2-in disc, ABS||11.6-in vented disc; 10.2-in disc, ABS|
|WHEELS||7.5 x 18-in, cast aluminum||7.0 x 17-in, cast aluminum|
|TIRES|| 225/40R18 92Y|
Continental ContiSportContact 5P
| 205/45R17 88W|
Pirelli Cinturato P7
|WHEELBASE||103.2 in||98.2 in|
|TRACK, F/R||59.2/59.9 in||58.5/58.5 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||178.8 x 69.0 x 55.0 in||151.9 x 68.0 x 55.7 in|
|TURNING CIRCLE||37.7 ft||35.4 ft|
|CURB WEIGHT||2936 lb||2734 lb|
|WEIGHT DIST., F/R||61/39%||63/37 %|
|HEADROOM, F/R||37.7/34.3 in||40.3/36.9 in|
|LEGROOM, F/R||42.2/30.8 in||41.4/30.8 in|
|SHOULDER ROOM, F/R||55.1/52.2 in||50.6/47.8 in|
|CARGO VOLUME||11.7 cu ft||8.7 cu ft|
|ACCELERATION TO MPH|
|0-30||2.3 sec||2.2 sec|
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH||3.3||3.2|
|QUARTER MILE||15.0 sec @ 93.5 mph||14.7 sec @ 95.8 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||110 ft||111 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.86 g (avg)||0.86 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||26.9 sec @ 0.66 g (avg)||26.6 sec @ 0.66 g (avg)|
|1.6-MI ROAD COURSE LAP||92.46 sec||90.93 sec|
|TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH||2600 rpm||2300 rpm|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$23,980||$27,595|
|AIRBAGS||Dual front, front side, f/r curtain||Dual front, front side, f/r curtain, front knee|
|BASIC WARRANTY||3 yrs/36,000 miles||4 yrs/50,000 miles|
|POWERTRAIN WARRANTY||5 yrs/60,000 miles||4 yrs/50,000 miles|
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE||-||4 yrs/Unlimited|
|FUEL CAPACITY||13.2 gal||11.6 gal|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB ECON||22/31/25 mpg||25/38/29 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS., CITY/HWY||153/109 kW-hrs/100 miles||135/89 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB REAL MPG,||0.77 lb/mile||0.66 lb/mile|
|CITY/HWY/COMB||25/32/28 mpg||30/38/33 mpg|
|RECOMMENDED FUEL||Unleaded premium||Unleaded premium|
|2015 Subaru WRX||2015 Volkswagen Golf GTI|
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT||Front-engine, AWD||Front-engine, FWD|
|ENGINE TYPE||Turbocharged flat-4, alum block/heads||Turbocharged I-4, iron block/alum head|
|VALVETRAIN||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl|
|DISPLACEMENT||121.9 cu in/1998 cc||121.1 cu in/1984 cc|
|POWER (SAE NET)||268 hp @ 5600 rpm||220 hp @ 4700 rpm|
|TORQUE (SAE NET)||258 lb-ft @ 2000 rpm||258 lb-ft @ 1500 rpm|
|REDLINE||6700 rpm||6800 rpm|
|WEIGHT TO POWER||12.3 lb/hp||14.2 lb/hp|
|TRANSMISSION||6-speed manual||6-speed manual|
|AXLE/FINAL-DRIVE RATIO||4.11:1/2.74:1||3.24:1 (1-4); 2.62:1 (5, 6, R)/2.38:1|
|SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multi-link, coil springs, anti-roll bar|
|BRAKES, F;R||12.4-in vented disc; 11.3-in disc, ABS||13.4-in vented disc; 12.2-in vented disc, ABS|
|WHEELS||8.0 x 17-in, cast aluminum||7.5 x 18-in, cast aluminum|
|TIRES|| 235/45R17 94W|
Dunlop Sport Maxx RT
| 225/40R18 92Y|
Bridgestone Potenza S001
|WHEELBASE||104.3 in||103.6 in|
|TRACK, F/R||60.2/60.6 in||60.6/59.7 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||180.9 x 70.7 x 58.1 in||168.0 x 70.5 x 56.8 in|
|TURNING CIRCLE||35.4 ft||35.8 ft|
|CURB WEIGHT||3294 lb||3088 lb|
|WEIGHT DIST., F/R||60/40%||61/39%|
|HEADROOM, F/R||39.8/37.1 in||38.4/38.1 in|
|LEGROOM, F/R||43.3/35.4 in||41.2/35.6 in|
|SHOULDER ROOM, F/R||55.6/54.2 in||55.9/53.9 in|
|CARGO VOLUME||12.0 cu ft||22.8 cu ft|
|ACCELERATION TO MPH|
|0-30||1.6 sec||2.2 sec|
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH||2.9||2.6|
|QUARTER MILE||13.7 sec @ 100.2 mph||14.2 sec @ 99.9 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||104 ft||100 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.93 g (avg)||0.96 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||25.5 sec @ 0.73 g (avg)||25.1 sec @ 0.76 g (avg)|
|1.6-MI ROAD COURSE LAP||88.34 sec||88.54 sec|
|TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH||2200 rpm||1950 rpm|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$29,290||$28,305|
|AIRBAGS||Dual front, front side,f/r curtain, driver knee||Dual front, front side, f/r curtain|
|BASIC WARRANTY||3 yrs/36,000 mi||3 yrs/36,000 miles|
|POWERTRAIN WARRANTY||5 yrs/60,000 mi||5 yrs/60,000 miles|
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE||3 yrs/36,000 mi||3 yrs/36,000 miles|
|FUEL CAPACITY||15.9 gal||13.2 gal|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB ECON||21/28/24 mpg||25/34/28 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS., CITY/HWY||160/120 kW-hrs/100 miles||135/99 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB REAL MPG,||0.82 lb/mile||0.68 lb/mile|
|CITY/HWY/COMB||26/29/27 mpg||23/31/26 mpg|
|RECOMMENDED FUEL||Unleaded premium||Unleaded premium|