You care about going fast, and you're okay with making that happen in an early '90s front-wheel-driven hatchback. That's mostly because your Visa card says you're only good for fifteen grand, which, lucky for you, is really all you'll need.
As it turns out, $15,000 can buy you a whole lot, especially when you start with the right sort of car and with the right sort of aftermarket support - like Honda's fifth-generation Civic hatchback or Volkswagen's Mk2 GTI 16v. Each has more than two decades of tuning experience to their name, which means the chances of you picking one up and making it go faster without embarrassing yourself just got a whole lot better.
But figuring out which continent you ought to pledge your automotive allegiance to won't be easy, and there's a whole lot of reasons why both cars have stood time's test. To learn more about what makes each so special and how exactly they stack up against one another, we tapped into the minds of Honda expert Brian Gillespie of Hasport Performance and VW mastermind Raffi Kazanjian of Euro Sport Accessories.
HONDA: You'll need to set aside $2,000-4,000 for a '92-'95 Civic hatchback that won't look like a turd and that hasn't been salvaged. The Internet will tell you that you can buy one up for a cool grand, but don't be surprised if that $1,000 Civic doesn't have an engine. A never-modified specimen with a paint job that you won't be ashamed of will push you toward that $4,000 mark in a hurry.
VW: The GTI commands a bit more. According to Kazanjian, who's been modifying Mk2s since they were new, you'll need to muster up between $3,000-6,000 for the '90-'92 16v model we're talking about with its 2.0L engine. You're already tempted to buy that engine-less shell that Craigslist says you need but keep in mind that, most of time, you'll need a whole lot more to complete that car than what's missing from that engine bay, which means that, all of a sudden, you're calling Visa (or mama) for a credit bump.
HONDA: We can sit here and compare the Si's 125hp single-cam engine with the GTI's 16-valve mill all day long, but you've still got at least 11-grand left, which means you'll be chucking whatever D-series engine you've got for something bigger. Not interested in an engine swap? Gillespie would like to have a word with you. "The things you've got to do to a D-series to make it do what a B-series will can be expensive," he says. "And you'll never get the same sort of power." Ouch.
VW: Kazanjian still has faith in the GTI 16v's original twin-cam, 134hp, water-cooled mill that lays down 133 lb-ft of torque but admits that there are engine swap options that'll make you even happier.
ABOUT THOSE ENGINE SWAPS
HONDA: Keep things simple by sticking with an OBD1-compatible B-series engine and transmission that's got a hydraulic-activated clutch, like the second-generation Integra GS-R's B18C1. Everything you'll need to make it work can be sourced from that car and will run you no more than $4,000. "It's a self-contained swap," Gillespie says. "You don't need to do anything to it; you can get 200 hp out of it with a header and a basic tune."
VW: You think what the GTI needs is the VR6 swap that the Internet says you want but Kazanjian says it's just too much for that car. The alternative, he says, is to keep that 16-valve head you've already got, find the other 2.0L bottom end from the Mk3 GTI's eight-valve engine for a couple hundred bucks, and build the engine that VW didn't. You'll have money left over so swap in some forged pistons, rebuild that bottom end using the factory forged crank and rods, and you've got yourself something that'll handle 400 hp and all for less than $3,000. "This is a really good combo," he says. "With the right cams, header, and exhaust, you're looking at about 170 hp to start."
MATTERS OF GIRTH
HONDA: The early '90s was a simpler time, which means the Civic isn't bogged down with a slew of airbags or nanny controls that add to its heft. Honda's stripped-down and mileage-minded VX tips the scales at just over 2,000 pounds but add about another 400 pounds to that if you've got to have an Si. "Performance-wise, the VX or CX is ideal," Gillespie says about the featherweights, but goes on to point out the advantages of the Si, like its rear disc brakes and VTEC ECU that can be reconfigured to work with whatever B-series swap you plan on doing. And the Si's original D16Z6 engine that you no longer need, it'll fetch you an easy $700.
VW: The GTI 16v's curb weights aren't as varied and barely approach that 2,300 pounds mark. According to Kazanjian, which GTI 16v you end up with is of little consequence. Here, weight variances are negligible unless you're able to score a non-sunroof, non-A/C model, which is as rare as it is unpractical.
HONDA: The formula for modifying Honda's archetype Civic is straightforward: lower it, find yourself some rims and tires, and then look for more power by means of its intake and exhaust systems. Skip any of these steps and you're only cheating yourself. "Tires make the biggest difference," Gillespie says about where you ought to start, followed by coilovers. "You want the ability to adjust things like ride height and alignment so you can exploit those tires." Find yourself the right sway bars—or factory ones from the right Civic or Integra—and you've just gotten away with all of this for less than $4,000.
VW: Kazanjian concurs, noting that springs and shocks or higher-end adjustable coilovers ought to come first along with the right wheels and tires. "Upper and lower stress bars also really stiffen up these cars and take away the creaks and squeaks," he says, "which are a good sign that the car's not flexing as much." An airbox that draws fresh air from outside as well as a cat-back exhaust complete what Kazanjian says are the most basic, requisite mods that just about any GTI 16v ought to have.
HONDA: But you're not interested in basic, requisite mods, which means it's time to get serious. According to Gillespie, brakes should be next if you plan on spending any amount of time at the track. Unless you've got an Si, those rear drums have got to be ditched in favor of the Si's discs and calipers or those from any second-generation Integra, for example. Along with the right aftermarket pads and steel-braided lines, according to Gillespie, "it'll get you a long way." If you're still lacking stopping power—which you won't be with that nearly stock GS-R swap—now would be the time to consider a big-brake kit. And you still haven't maxed out your budget.
VW: Every Mk2 GTI 16v was sold with four-wheel disc brakes and, according to Kazanjian, they're quite capable. Better pads and steel-braided lines will reveal an obvious improvement if you're doing anything memorable on the race track, and if you really need them, cross-drilled or slotted rotors can make things even better. "This is a really light car," he says, "so the brakes that are already on it are typically okay." The GLI was sold with 10-inch rotors and bigger calipers that bolt up to the GTI but, according to Kazanjian, you'll probably never need them.
THOSE WHEELS, THO
HONDA: You've got a naturally aspirated B18C1 underneath your hood that, at best, is pushing 200 hp, which means you ought to be concerned about weight. "A 15x8" wheel is really good for naturally-aspirated setups," Gillespie says, going on to explain how heavier 16- or 17-inch rims can slow things down an awful lot. In terms of tires, you can finagle a 225 into place with 15-inch rims; anything larger and you'll be rolling fenders.
VW: The GTI doesn't afford as much room, which is why Volkswagen thought you'd appreciate the car's puny, 14x6" wheels. Kazanjian says 15x7" is a more appropriate size that still fits and allows 205-series tires provided you're willing to put up with minor clearancing. If that makes you uneasy, look to 195/50-15s that'll fit right into place without modification.
BUT HOW LONG WILL THEY LAST?
HONDA: Rust ought to be the worst of your fears and, even then, significant amounts of it are typically limited to cars native to wetter climates. "Another problem is suspension bushings," Gillespie warns. "They'll most likely need to be addressed." Lucky for you the aftermarket's got this handled and you'll walk away with something better than what Honda thought you needed. That B18C1 swap, on the other hand, Gillespie says its lifespan will be determined "by how you drive it and how well it's been tuned." Take care of it and you can expect 250,000 miles of relatively trouble-free operation. "Or blow it up in a weekend," he says, by over-revving or neglecting it.
VW: Volkswagen's Mk2 chassis isn't any less durable than the Civic's. In fact, according to Kazanjian, its primer and specialized undercoating make it better, which means rust and corrosion aren't an issue and, in his words, "is why they last so long." Underneath the hood, according to Kazanjian, the catalytic converters, oxygen sensors and, when equipped, EGR valves are all failure-prone. An oil leak at the distributor that can foul up the combustion process and a transmission that's likely to self-destruct if you don't take the right precautions are other points you've got to consider.
HOW TO BUNGLE ONE UP
HONDA: Making Honda's fifth-gen Civic worse than what you started with isn't hard and you need only visit a car show to confirm all of this. Excessively low ride heights and too much negative camber are what Gillespie says are the two most common ways to make a Civic handle worse. "When people add these fat-lip wheels with too much negative offset, they wind up having to do some crazy stuff to the camber to get it to work," he says. "You also don't want to build an engine with [excessively] high compression or a tune that's too aggressive. You want a nice fat torque curve that'll make it easier to drive. Life's not a drag race."
VW: Cutting the factory springs to lower ride height and failing to upgrade the suspension's strut mounts are, in Kazanjian's experience, the two most common ways GTI owners have made their rides worse. "Neglecting maintenance is another common problem with these cars," he goes on to say. "Some of these cars have got all the right performance mods but poor maintenance." Poor maintenance like corroded grounding points and cracked intake boots that both lead to poor drivability.
SO YOU WANT TO GO RACING?
HONDA: Safety measures aren't exclusive to the Civic but that doesn't make them any less critical. It's what Gillespie says you need to be concerned with if you plan on hitting the track before worrying about things like more horsepower. "Having a proper race seat is key and will make you a better driver by keeping you from sliding around," he says. The right harness and roll bar to go along with it are just as important.
VW: Getting those maintenance items sorted out before hitting the track is Kazanjian's advice. The GTI's engine is an interference design, which means when that timing belt snaps or slips, those valves and pistons just got awkwardly close to one another. "I also recommend a lower-temp thermostat and fan switch, just to be safe," he says. Performance-wise, Kazanjian recommends brake pads suitable for the track, fresh brake fluid, and an alignment. "The GTI requires a bit more initial camber than the Civic does," he advises, which is an easy fix by means of the car's lower strut mounting points.
WHAT MAKES THEM SPECIAL
As much as you'd like to think that Honda's and Volkswagen's hatchbacks were widely and immediately lauded as pillars of the small-car-performance movement when introduced, the truth is that most who cared about going fast thought little of either one. The Civic was considered nothing more than an able commuter and the GTI, well, a poor remake of the Mk1, at best. Times and opinions have changed and, today, the fifth-generation Civic is considered Honda's most capable FWD performer ever, and the Mk2 GTI VW's high point of water-cooled production cars.
HONDA: Ask Gillespie and he'll tell you that it's the Civic's double-wishbone suspension that makes it the car you want. "The engine bay is also huge," he says, "big for a Honda, and it's tall enough to put just about anything in it."
VW: Practicality and the sort of fun-factor that only a 2,200lb, early '90s hatchback can provide are what Kazanjian says make the GTI the winner. "It just puts a smile on your face," he says. Things as simple as the car's gear ratios are what he says make the GTI so enjoyable: "They're really tight. You're at 3,500 RPM on the freeway," which means downshifting to pass something like a Civic hatchback isn't necessary. "The Mk2 is the reason I got into this business," Kazanjian says. "It's a no-nonsense car that might need more maintenance than something Japanese, but can be more fun to drive."