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Cross Purposes - Honda Civic Si Volkswagen GTI

We pit the Honda Civic Si and VW GTI head to head on an autocross course

John Huffman
Jun 22, 2006
Photographer: Ben Kruper
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No cars introduced in the last year are more relevant to Sport Compact Car readers than the all-new 2006 Honda Civic Si and the just-as-all-new 2006 Volkswagen GTI. On paper, they're a well-matched pair of sport-oriented, $20K, 200-horsepower front-drivers. In real life, buyers will be cross-shopping them constantly. And when it comes to on-track competition, they will consistently be pitted against one another. There's never been a more glaringly obvious comparison test in the history of this magazine. Now here's the dilemma: This comparison is so self-evident that it's already been done by Motor Trend, Automobile, Car and Driver, Road & Track, MPH (God rest its adolescent soul), Edmunds.com, Ladies' Home Journal, Vogue Thailand, and Cat Fancy. SCC can't avoid this comparison, and yet what can we do that doesn't repeat what everyone else has done?

After much unrealistic and grandiose mis-planning, it was decided to narrow the question for our test to one simple aspect of performance: autocrossing. And instead of just delivering our vaunted editorial opinion, we'd put autocrossers of various experience in the driver seat and get their opinions too.

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So we borrowed a GTI from VW ($22,260 base price and $24,175 as tested), a Civic Si from Honda ($20,540 base, $22,790 as tested) and then called up The Tire Rack (www.tirerack.com) and asked them to send us two sets of wheels wrapped in P225/45ZR17 Avon Tech R-A competition radials -- one for the Civic and one for the V-Dub. Since both cars would be running on the same make, model, and size tires, we'd factor that out of the competition. Plus, the Tech R-A is both a popular and excellent autocross tire with a high-grip racing compound and slick-faced tread surface with two circumferential tread grooves. Since the Tech R-A is born with a 4/32-inch tread depth, there was no need to shave them before heading to the course, but The Tire Rack did heat-cycle them before wrapping them around silver 17x8 OZ Ultraleggera wheels for the VW and gold 17x8 Ultraleggeras for the Honda. Each set retails for $1,704, with the tires mounted and balanced from The Tire Rack. It was just a matter of finding an autocross to attend.

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The Place, The Event
Conveniently, the San Diego Asebring Drivers had organized the San Diego Region Solo II Championship for the April weekend we'd have the cars together, and they were ludicrously accommodating of us -- we'd be able to run the Civic Si and GTI virtually the entire day no matter what class was running at any particular time. And the course the Asebring Drivers had constructed in the parking lot of Qualcomm Stadium was nothing less than spectacular.

So Editor Edward Loh and Associate Senior Editor James Tate would drive the GTI down from Orange County while I came down from my house in Santa Barbara with the fresh sets of wheels and tires in the bed of my Toyota Tundra and the Civic Si on a U-Haul trailer behind it. And, incredibly, that all worked out and we found each other at about 10:00 a.m. that Sunday.

The western end of the Qualcomm Stadium lot has been used for Solo events from about the moment the city-owned stadium itself was opened back in 1967. In fact, the west lot seems almost designed for Solo with a gentle slope up towards its perimeter edge that adds an elevation change rare for a parking lot autocross course. Also, the lot is huge so the course laid out by Asebring that weekend was a long and relatively quick one; most curves had generous radii, the straights were long enough to build real speed, there were corners tight enough to demand good braking, and the surface was consistent and pretty grippy. In short, while it's not the Nrburgring, as far as autocrosses go, this one was about 1.1-mile's worth of glory. And it was a good test of both cars.

Our thanks go out to Charlie Bieri and everyone at Asebring for their generous hospitality and infinite patience.

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The Civic Si, The GTI
Volkswagen decided the best way to achieve performance from its 2.0-liter four in the GTI was to cap its iron block with an aluminum, DOHC, 16-valve cylinder head and then plumb in a turbocharger to heave some boost into it. The result is a rated 200-horsepower at 5,100 rpm and a generous 207 lb-ft of peak torque at a stunning, is-it-a-diesel low, 1,800 rpm. In the test machine, it fed a six-speed manual transaxle, but VW's excellent Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG) six-speed automatic is offered as an option.

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Honda, on the other hand, evoked entertaining power from its 2.0-liter four in the Civic Si by topping its aluminum block with an aluminum, DOHC, 16-valve cylinder head and equipping that head's valvetrain with the latest i-VTEC electronic variable valve timing and lift control. So the result is a rated 197-bhp at a screaming 7,800 rpm and a slight 139 lb-ft of peak torque at 6,200 rpm. If you're desperate to break past the 200-horsepower mark, your Honda dealer might suggest you buy and keep one of the company's 3.5hp EU2000i inverter generators in the trunk. The only transmission offered is a close-coupled six-speed manual.

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With the GTI weighing in at 3,143 pounds and the Civic at 2,871 pounds, the Honda actually has a slight power-to-weight advantage over that Vee-Dub. But the GTI's plump portion of low-end grunt gives it an advantage at the dragstrip where Motor Trend measured it ripping to 60 mph in just 6.3 seconds and completing the quarter-mile in 14.7 seconds at 94.8 mph. The Civic is so close behind, however, that the difference is almost academic -- it gets to 60 mph in an identical 6.3 seconds and runs the quarter in 14.9 seconds at 94.7 mph. Yes, SCC could have duplicated these tests, but this magazine now shares office space with MT and its editorial director is also MT's. We'd have ended up with the same results using the same cars. So why bother? Get over it already.

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It's hard to imagine two cars equipped with 2.0-liter fours that deliver their power more differently than these two. Around town the VW is absolutely wonderful; even at part throttle it pulls with easygoing authority. This is as close as a four-cylinder production engine has ever come to imitating a small V-8, so if your goal is to recreate the everyday sensations of large displacement with small displacement efficiency (albeit on a diet of premium fuel), then this is your car too.

In contrast, the Civic Si's engine runs like the economy car powerplant it is from idle to about 6,200 rpm when the VTEC kicks in, and then it opens up as if the crankshaft had rockets connected to each journal. In everyday use, the Civic powerplant is perfectly adequate, and it delivers decent fuel mileage while swilling down premium unleaded. It's also uncannily smooth and relatively quiet despite the fact that it will spin to its 8,000-rpm redline with startling rapidity and then giddily stay there all day. It's an adequate engine for commuting, but the VW powerplant is torquier.

0608sccp_06z+honda_civic_si+interior_view Photo 8/13   |   Cross Purposes - Honda Civic Si Volkswagen GTI

The GTI is a more practical car than the Si in just about every other way too. The hatchback body is more flexible in accommodating cargo than the Civic coupe; the VW's rear seat is more accommodating for average-size humans; the GTI's front seats are more generously proportioned than the narrow-ass Civic thrones. VW's dash, ventilation, and other controls are more conventional and easier to deal with than the multitiered mish-mash of digital readouts and analog dials in the Civic. You sit more upright in the GTI too, with better visibility. And, if you want an automatic, there just isn't a better one around than the GTI's DSG.

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But if you're buying one of these cars purely for practical reasons, why read this article? And in every other performance parameter, the Si simply walks over the GTI. Both have MacPherson strut front suspensions and multilink independent systems out back, but the suspension tuning on the GTI is much softer. The electric power steering in the Honda is more precise and offers better feedback than the VW's; the Si's six-speed offers more precise shifts than the GTI's; and on the stock 215/45R17 Michelin Pilot Exaltos, the Civic managed 0.89G on MT's skidpad, while the GTI, shod with wider 225/45R17 Continental ContiProContacts achieved 0.83G. Throw in slightly better braking performance for the Honda and, despite the power disadvantage, our expectations were that the Civic Si would prove the better autocrosser when we got it to the track.

0608sccp_14z+honda_civic_si_volkswagen_gti+rear_view Photo 10/13   |   Cross Purposes - Honda Civic Si Volkswagen GTI

Improvisation
Unfortunately, when the wheels and tires arrived at my house, I hadn't noticed that one set of wheels was addressed to someone else in Oregon. The tires were the right size and model Avons on those wheels, but the bolt pattern didn't fit the Civic. We discovered this just as we were preparing to swap rubber in San Diego. Big problem. In 15 years of dealing with The Tire Rack over literally dozens of tests and cars, this is the first time I've ever had a problem, and clearly the problem was with the shipping company, not The 'Rack.

Fortunately, Steve Coe, owner of C2 Motorsports (www.c2motorsport.net) in San Diego, happened to be at the event and offered to help us out by opening his tuning and race shop for us. Coe, a former member of Dan Gurney's All American Racers team when it campaigned Toyota prototypes in IMSA road-racing competition, then dug in and worked to take the Avons off the wheels with the wrong bolt pattern -- and take the stock Michelins off the stock Civic wheels -- and put the Avon slicks on the Civic's stock 17x7-inch alloy wheels. We owe Steve big time. Go spend a lot of money with him.

We finally got in some laps, and the results were that everyone was quicker in the Honda. But go ahead and read what they had to say. Not everyone came to the same conclusions about it.

By John Huffman
2 Articles

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