Introduction This is a tough crowd. Both machines offer brilliance — in different areas. By Josh Jacquot Date posted: 04-06-2006 Admit it: You're among the biased masses. You've already taken sides. You've already found your own winner. Hardened enthusiasts like you make comparing the 2006 Volkswagen GTI to the 2006 Honda Civic Si even harder. Thanks a lot. Actually, truth be told, we're not impervious to the pull of our historical favorite either, which is why we put these cars through the ringer. We spent 10 days driving them back to back over wet mountain roads and freeway expansion joints, blasting them through our usual haunts and taking them to the track to split some hairs and bust some myths. In the process we learned a lot about the two darlings of front-drive performance. But it wasn't until the final points calculations were in that we could declare a winner. When the tally was complete it wasn't just close, it was a squeaker of the tiniest margin, a photo finish of fast. Axis powers face off Thankfully, for the sake of equity, we were able to acquire both cars in this test with similar equipment. We skipped the GTI's Direct Shift Gearbox option that adds another $1,075 to its base price. The DSG transmission isn't enough of a performance benefit to justify its extra cost, especially since the base GTI with a manual transmission already costs $1,780 more than the Civic Si. For review, the GTI comes with 200 turbocharged horsepower, 207 pound-feet of torque and six manually selected gears. Our Candy White GTI came standard with Interlagos plaid front seats (which are eight-way adjustable) and the meatiest three-spoke wheel we've wrapped our fingers around. The GTI comes standard with a flurry of electronic controls which, presumably, drive up its price. Antilock brakes, Electronic Brakeforce Distribution, Anti-Slip Regulation, Electronic Differential Lock and Electronic Stabilization Program are all included in the base price. It was also fitted with the optional power sunroof, satellite radio, in-dash six-disc CD changer and rubber floor mats that added $1,555 to its base price, bringing the total price with destination fee to $24,175. Honda's Civic Si comes with an i-VTEC-motivated 2.0-liter four-cylinder pumping out 197 hp at 7,800 rpm. Honda relies on engine speed instead of boost for motivation, so torque is only 139 lb-ft. Like the GTI, the Civic comes with a six-speed manual transmission as standard equipment, but unlike the GTI, it uses a helical limited-slip differential to put power to the ground. Civic Sis are available with navigation or summer tires for additional cost, but our test car had neither. Its as-tested price including destination was only $20,840, which on paper seems like a bargain compared to the GTI. But cars aren't driven on paper. Second Place: 2006 Volkswagen GTI The GTI's numerous electronic aids dull its response to hard driving but it still looks bitchin'. It's all very simple, really: Loving the 2006 Volkswagen GTI depends on your priorities. It is, after all, an excellent car. It's just not as focused as the Civic Si when it comes to driving quickly. However, if performance were weighted a little less heavily, the GTI would have won this test. It offers a flexible powertrain (with more than one transmission option) and a more usable cargo area than the Civic. And for many people, it's still as capable as the Civic when driving quickly. But when we start splitting hairs like we're forced to do in a contest this close, a few GTI shortcomings begin to emerge. Look closely at the specs and you'll see that the GTI is a little pudgy on the very relative scale of compact performance. Note that the engine delivers its peak power at 6,000 rpm, yet it redlines at 6,500 rpm, leaving a relatively flat top end. Add up those little details and, for better or worse, they define the GTI. The hard facts VW's 2.0-liter turbocharged, direct injection engine gives the GTI 200 hp and 207 lb-ft of torque. If this were a contest of usable powertrains, the GTI would win hands down. Most people, even most enthusiasts, prefer the GTI's rip-snortin', off-the-bottom torque to the Si's spin-it-till-you're-dizzy power delivery. And with 207 pound-feet of torque delivered at a low 1,800 rpm it's easy to see why. You've barely got to open the GTI's throttle to get a shove most cars in this class never deliver. There's also 200 horsepower at 5,100 rpm to accompany the low-rpm grunt. It's a potent combination that will roast the tires into steaming piles of black goo with the traction control switched off. At the track the performance was, for all practical purposes, a dead heat with the Si. Through the quarter-mile the GTI cranked out a 15.3-second pass, which is only a tenth slower than the Honda. But the VW was a tenth quicker to 60 mph (6.7 vs. 6.8 seconds). Braking distances were a wash. The GTI hauled down from 60 in 126 feet — only 2 feet shorter than the Si. Through the slalom, however, we began to notice a trend that would haunt the GTI through the rest of the test. It's heavy and it's tall. Its turbocharged engine did a good job of masking the weight when accelerating, but there's no hiding its 400-or-so-pound deficit when it came time to turn. It's also nearly 5 inches taller than the Civic (58.4 inches vs. 53.5 inches), which didn't help. It snaked its way between our carefully spaced cones at 66.1 mph, 2.6 mph slower than the shorter, slimmer Civic. Hard driving, head pounding Seventeen-inch wheels are standard on the GTI. Eighteen-inchers are optional. It's the details that begin to pile up against the GTI which hurt its performance score. At the top of the list is slower steering than the Civic (15.6:1 vs. 13.6:1), which requires more monkey motion behind the wheel to accomplish the same amount of work at the tires. In addition, it simply doesn't tell its driver as much about what's going on at the tire's contact patches as the Civic. The limit is always a bit ambiguous, which stifles confidence. More annoying are the GTI's abundance of electronic controls. Many GTI fans will no doubt see the GTI's numerous electronic aids as added value, but we found them unnecessary and often annoying. Plus, the alphabet soup VW uses to name them (ABS, EBD, HBA, ASR, EDL, EBA, ESP) is ridiculous. The GTI's Electronic Differential Lock (EDL), for example, is not a substitute for a real mechanical limited-slip differential like the helical device used in the Civic. In fact, EDL does nothing to bias drive torque. The GTI's transaxle uses an open differential which, using the ABS sensors to detect slip, applies brakeforce on the wheel that's slipping. This has the exact opposite effect of a real limited-slip differential, lowering cornering speed instead of increasing it. Plus, during hard driving, EDL waits until the inside tire is spinning to apply the brake. It's an ineffective annoyance that simply doesn't cut it in an enthusiast car. And it can't be disabled. Then there's VW's Anti-Slip Regulation, which retards timing and reduces fuel delivery when the going gets fun. VW tells us it's disabled when the stability control (ESP) is switched off with the console-mounted switch, but we had other problems that prevented our verification of this claim. The GTI refuses to tolerate any driving style that uses left-foot braking. Overlap the throttle and brake even slightly and the GTI cuts power for a few seconds. This is no doubt a product of VW's attorneys who surely have "don't sue us" tattooed on their foreheads. It's infuriating to be forced to change your driving style to accommodate the least-common-denominator driver who occasionally steps on the wrong pedal. The power cut left us shaking our heads as the Civic's taillights disappeared into the hills. As if to add insult to injury, it was this instant that the GTI's already-too-soft brake pedal began to sink even closer to the floor. Drive the GTI hard for very long and there's noticeable brake fade that ruins whatever confidence is left. And if you're trying to hang with a Civic Si up or down a mountain road, a soft middle pedal is a good indication that it's time to surrender. The GTI experience This is the steering wheel every sports car should have. Note the flat bottom and thumb detents at 3 and 9 o'clock. On the upside, the GTI might just be the better "everyday" car. If smoking tires and brakes aren't high on your priority list then you might prefer the pricier hatchback for its interior alone. Plop yourself down into the plaid sport seats, which are among the most supportive we've experienced, and you'll appreciate some fine German design. In front of you is an instrument cluster that's straightforward and traditional, with two large gauges — tachometer on the left and speedometer on the right. Framing those gauges is a thick three-spoke steering wheel that should be the industry standard for feel and styling. Heating-A/C, fan speed and mode are controlled with three simple knobs and three buttons — an interface we found easier to use than the Civic's. Start the GTI and there's a deep, burbling engine note that increases in volume once the throttle is opened under load. It's a gorgeous tone that's rare in the world of turbocharged cars. Accelerate hard and it expands to fill the entire cockpit at redline. The GTI's rear seat is easier to access than the Civic's thanks to the higher roofline and a front seat that really gets out of the way. There's also more room for actual humans in the back than in the Civic. The GTI's rear seats have the typical 60/40-split-folding function but also incorporate a ski pass-through, which is a nice feature in a hatchback. Combined, this cargo flexibility and the GTI's hatchback shape make it slightly more user-friendly than the coupe-only Civic. On the outside the VW retains the well-proportioned lines we've come to expect of the GTI. Fourteen-spoke 17-inch wheels are standard and look better than the bizarre-shaped optional 18-inch wheels. The tally The VW badge doubles as a hatch release on the GTI. Despite a few gripes when it comes to driving hard, we're impressed with the 2006 Volkswagen GTI. Use it like most people will and it'll serve you faithfully as a sporty, functional and entertaining hauler of people and gear. Bottom line? You get a good car for your money with the $24,175 VW, even if it does cost more and communicate less than the Si. Unpimped: There are no wings or spoilers on the Mk V GTI. What Works: Flexible engine, usable shape, excellent combination of utility and performance. What Needs Work: Too heavy, too pricey, not as sharp as its competition. Bottom Line: The new GTI is a huge improvement over the car it replaces. Depending on your priorities, it might just be the better car for you. First Place: 2006 Honda Civic Si Push hard and the Si's helical limited-slip differential allows precise control and cornering speed the GTI can't match. After a disappointing effort with the last Civic Si, Honda knew the new car had to truly reinvigorate the name if it were to have any clout with enthusiasts. Luckily, the latest Si impresses even before the throttle dents the firewall. Read the specs: 197 horsepower, limited-slip differential, $20,840 base price (including destination). That's a good start. And when the go pedal does hit the floor it's clear that serious effort was spent making sure the 2006 Honda Si is as capable as its specs suggest. The Si is a very different car from the standard Civic, which lacks any hope of performance in its personality. In the Si there's real steering feel asking you to push harder. Its chassis feels as if it's been tuned by someone who knows a thing or two about going quickly. And the engine, which must be spun to make power, is comfortable spending extended periods of time at high rpm. This is a real performance car. At home on the track The Si's 2.0-liter K-series engine pumps out 197 hp and 139 lb-ft or torque. Flog the Si and it feels right at home. Simple as that. It begs to be driven hard. It never feels like it's going to fall apart, like its engine is suffering or like its brakes might overheat. It puts power down gracefully, fluently communicates its intentions and is tuned so that an average driver can go quickly without risk or regret. But even with this relatively mild-mannered tuning, it's still a major kick in the ass. You're not going to beat up on any EVOs or STis in the mountains, but your buddy in the new GTI doesn't have a chance if you drive the Civic to its potential. This was most easily demonstrated in the slalom, where the Civic smoked the GTI by more than 2 mph (68.7 vs. 66.1). You've got to push really, really hard before the Si will understeer, but that's its chosen attitude at the limit and it has two hidden benefits. First, understeering cars are usually fast through the slalom, as is the case here, and second, understeer makes the Si more predictable for less experienced drivers. Our Civic test car felt right at home peeling off consistent quarter-mile times. Proving that its high-revving engine is potent, if not flexible, its 15.2-second pass beat the GTI through the quarter-mile by one-tenth of a second. We also found the Si easier to launch than the GTI. Despite a 68 pound-feet torque deficit, the Civic could still easily smoke its tires from a standstill. We had to modulate wheelspin to get quick quarter-mile times. Its sharp clutch engagement made hard launches and quick shifts easy, but being smooth required more effort than we'd like when we weren't at the track. The Si stopped from 60 in 128 feet — about 2 feet longer that the GTI. Driver's car The Si has a conventional trunk that offers more secure storage than the GTI's hatchback. However, that security comes at the expense of flexibility. As VW's marketing crew was busy unpimping every auto they could get their hands on, Honda's engineers were working to make the Civic a driver's car. And the difference shows when driving both cars back to back over the same road. The Civic rolls less, feels lighter and gives its driver the information necessary to squeeze out the last few tenths when pushing hard. That won't matter to many drivers, but to anyone who's in this game for the driving experience, it's a difference that makes a difference. The Honda's helical limited-slip differential is a perfect example. It's an expensive addition to a car that competes in a very price-conscious market, and there is no substitute for the difference it makes in performance. The fact that the Si's engine falls right back into the powerband when shifted at redline is no accident either. And if that shift happens to come midcorner, the limited slip is there to pour down power with confidence. The Si never spins an inside wheel, and steering feedback is enhanced with real at-the-limit feel before it's too late. We love the Si's snappy shifter and tiny shift knob that encourage drivers to snick through gears quickly without the need to manhandle the powertrain. There's little wasted energy making the Si go quickly. Even its tires are smaller than the GTI's (215/45 vs. 225/45) but it still manages to transmit more confidence. Han Solo's chariot Bizarre styling dominates the Civic's interior. We prefer the GTI's more conventional displays and controls. We still haven't warmed up to the Civic's ridiculous A-pillars, which extend its greenhouse into the hood past the strut towers. From inside the car they offer a distinctly Millennium Falcon feel to the Civic's front-seat passengers. Riding shotgun we can almost hear Han Solo barking bravado as he smokes a GTI through the hills. "I told you I'd outrun those imperial slugs…." But from the driver seat the lack of solid three-quarter visibility makes the Star Wars novelty wear thin in a hurry. And then you've got to deal with the two-tiered instrument panel that displays speed digitally above the center-mounted tachometer. Center mounting the tachometer always earns kudos in a performance car, but the digital speedo busts the deal for us in this case. It's simply a poor way to display information that's constantly changing. The heating and A/C controls all have a quality feel, but they are overcomplicated. The Civic's climate control consists of nine knobs and two buttons, which accomplish the same thing the GTI does with three knobs and three buttons — a far simpler affair. Honda did a nice job of knocking off VW's seat-height adjuster on the driver side. The horizontal lever is pulled up to move the seat higher, and pushed down to lower it. We found it easy to find a comfortable driving position in both cars using this feature and the tilting-telescoping steering wheel. The Civic's rear seats are smaller and harder to get into than the GTI's — even for smaller-than-average people. The seatbacks fold down to expand capacity from the trunk, but the coupe body style doesn't swallow large cargo as easily as the hatchback GTI. Good enough for the win The Civic's low-slung lines are a stark contrast to the GTI's more traditional two-box proportions. The Civic began this contest with a solid head start by being exactly $3,335 less expensive (after options). The cost/value relationship is subjective for every buyer, but no one will deny this is a significant difference. You simply get a lot for your money with the Civic Si. It offers a no-compromise driving experience for less money than the GTI. And in a test where performance is weighted heavily, the Civic does more right than it does wrong. What Works: Sharp reflexes, powerful engine, brilliant limited-slip differential. What Needs Work: Wring-it-out power delivery, awful dashboard design, questionable exterior styling. Bottom Line: Fast, cheap and effective. The dogfight This contest was close almost everywhere. Both cars have similar power, offer similar features and have similar build quality inside and out. Plus, their performance numbers were a wash. Quarter-mile and 0-60 times were only one-tenth of a second apart. But there were two critical areas that made a difference in this battle: weight and cost. The GTI has more of both and together they were enough to tip the scale in the Si's favor. Yanking around about 400 pounds of extra ballast hurt the GTI's connection to the road, and the additional $3,335 it takes out of your wallet won't do your children's college fund any favors. These two factors combined to turn our scoring system against the German hatchback. However, the reality is that it's an exceptional car — and probably more versatile than the Si given its shape and configurable cargo area. Its engine is also far more flexible than the Honda's and its chassis is a huge improvement over previous GTIs. The Civic, too, is a nice machine. Despite design features we can't stand, like the two-tiered instrument cluster and A-pillars that rival the span of Golden Gate Bridge, there's no denying that it's sharper than the GTI when it comes to hard driving. And it's a heck of a lot less expensive. In a class where most buyers will use these vehicles as their only car, practicality and performance both count. Costing 15 percent less, possessing better handling and being just as quick or quicker make for a strong argument in the Honda's favor, giving the Civic the win.