Suddenly down-sizing is the hip thing to do. No surer proof is there than the sudden-seeming appearance of sexy-looking, sporty-behaving coupes. Remarkably, the three vehicles featured below manage to combine $20,000-affordability, 5-passenger seating and laudable fuel efficiency with genuinely sports-oriented performance. But if you think they're copycats of one another, think again; their personalities could not, in fact, be more different.
Moreover, the 2006 Chevrolet Cobalt SS, the 2006 Honda Civic Si and the 2006.5 Volkswagen GTI each hail from different continents and from different engineering philosophies. Collectively (and respectively), this trio runs the gamut of engine technologies, from supercharging to variable valve timing to turbocharging, each with its own particular advantages and peculiar foibles. They're as different as chocolate, vanilla and strawberry; delicious on their own; but a masterpiece when sampled together.
The crowd that flocks to Honda's magisterial Si coupe, on the other hand, couldn't be more different. And for such a sophisticated car costing just $20,490, the marvel lies not in its exotic technology but in its apparent overqualifications for the marketplace.
With a mere 2.0 liters of un-supercharged, un-turbocharged (i.e., normally aspirated) displacement, Honda manages to extract 197 horsepower. But here's the kicker: it does so with only 139 maximum foot-pounds of torque. Moreover, max hp arrives at a stratospheric 7,800 rpm, and torque doesn't peak until 6,100 rpm. If the implications of these numbers are lost on you, fret not. The Civic Si is not your kind of coupe anyway.
Instead, the Si's junior-Formula One credentials are targeted at the experienced, heel-and-toeing, late-braking, road-race-loving sportscar aficionado who loves Honda's click-click six-speed manual and doesn't tremble in fear at a 7,500-rpm engine roar.
For all six of these fellows in the U.S., Si's four-wheel double-wishbone suspension, laser-sharp steering balance and 2,877-pound curb weight represent the equivalent of a Rembrandt discovered at a yard sale. It's a spectacular technological value for a dedicated few, whereas the rest of the driver-ed crowd merely wonders, "Whassup with that?" Well, here's what's up for some: a monthly insurance premium for the Si can easily outdistance the car payment itself.
Thanks to Honda's iVTEC variable-valve-timing engine technology and the rest of Si's racing-derived engineering, this upscale but affordable Civic is a jewel indeed. So too, however, are pearls before swine.
While the "truckies" at General Motors are frantically trying to keep the bottom from falling out from beneath the pickup and SUV market, it seems that a handful of fun-loving souls at Chevrolet has been taking advantage of the commotion to transform the humble Cobalt econocar into a mostly convincing street racer.
In time-honored Chevrolet tradition, the Cobalt's "SS" designation suggests something super-sporty underhood; and the letters don't lie. Plugged into an otherwise unassuming 2.0-liter four-banger is a supercharger that punches out 205 horsepower and 200 foot-pounds of torque amidst a satisfying mechanical whine.
The Cobalt weighs just 2,991 pounds, and torque reaches its maximum at a decent midrange of 4,400 rpm. The result is tire-screeching get-offs on the way from zero-to-60 in seven-or-so seconds. With no traction control available, the screeches are plentiful indeed.
The result is a Cinderella transformation of Chevy's ho-hum secretary-car into a legit street-jock; and the crisp-shifting five-speed manual transmission puts icing on the cake. Then again, because Detroit DNA simply does not allow for the existence of subtlety in that town, there are styling cues that scream, "Watch this, Mom!" As for the hot-rod 18-inch wheels, they're okay. But that basket-handle spoiler over the trunk lid? "You gotta be kidding" is the only suitable adult response.
Supercharger performance is all about instant acceleration gratification, and the Cobalt SS delivers plenty of that. It boasts a sporty handling package, but with only torsion-bar, semi-independent rear suspension, the SS's credentials are a bit sub-par. Still, with optional racerboy Recaro seats and all that engine hustle, there's undoubtedly a crowd that will flock to the spunky Cobalt SS with its $22,385 as-tested price and 23 mpg/city, 29 mpg/highway economy (using regular).
So now it's Deutschland's turn. Volkswagen's Golf- (now Rabbit-) based GTI is spiffed-up for mid-year with the installation of a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder making 200 hp, instead of the previous (and still available while supplies last) 1.8 turbo rated 180 hp.
Best of all, the 2.0 is a torque monster, delivering 207 foot-pounds that grind into action at a mere 1,800 low-end rpm. No wonder the GTI boasts traction- and stability-control as standard equipment. Otherwise GTI would have to stand for Get Tires Inspected after every front-wheel burnout.
The GTI's styling cues are subtle but unmistakable: This is not your ordinary compact people-mover. Just the same, it's the best-conceived layout for daily-driver chores among the three coupes featured here, thanks particularly to the easiest rear-seat access and the largest trunk.
But what's with the "I'll have fries with that" curb weight? At 4,340 pounds, GTI outweighs the Chevy by 1,349 pounds, the Honda by 1,463. For the genuinely sporty-at-heart, it's Honda tofu (or even a Chevy NutriSystems shake) over VW schnitzel any day.
The point is that all that roly-poly bulk, exacerbated by GTI's relatively tall stance, dulls the handling of this VW at its sportiest-in spite of the trick four-wheel independent suspension, six-speed manual and 17-inch wheels. But for most folks, that's not a deal killer.
Instead, the GTI is perhaps a better combination of the plucky and the practical than either of its two rivals here, and it still maintains very favorable 23 mpg/city, 32 mpg/highway (albeit using premium) despite its ample girth.
So is chocolate, vanilla or strawberry the best? You won't find the answer here. In the case of these three fun-loving, rival coupes, taste is in the hands of the steering-wheel holder.
5-pass., 2-door; FWD, 2.0-liter DOHC inline-4 w/ supercharger, 5-sp. manual; 205 hp/200 ft.-lbs.; 23 mpg/city, 29 mpg/hwy., w/ regular; trunk: 14 cu. ft.; tow: 1,000 lbs.; base price: $19,900; as-tested, incl. 4-wheel ABS disc brakes, 18-in. wheels, HVAC, AM/FM/CD, front & opt. side airbags: $22,385
5-pass., 2-door; FWD, 2.0-liter DOHC inline-4 w/ turbocharger, 6-sp. manual; 200 hp/207 ft.-lbs.; 23 mpg/city, 32 mpg/hwy., w/ premium; trunk: 15 cu. ft.; as-tested, incl. 4-wheel ind. suspension & ABS disc brakes, 17-in. wheels, HVAC, AM/FM/CD, front/side/head airbags: $21,990
5-pass., 2-door; FWD, 2.0-liter DOHC "iVTEC" inline-4 w/ vvt, 6-sp. manual; 197 hp/139 ft.-lbs.; 23 mpg/city, 32 mpg/hwy., w/ premium; trunk: 11.5 cu. ft.; as-tested, incl. 4-wheel ind. suspension & ABS disc brakes, 17-in. wheels, HVAC, AM/FM/CD/XM, front/side/head airbags: $20,490