Ask five different people what defines a sport compact car and you'll get five different answers. Look it up on Wikipedia, the everyman's encyclopedia known for its everyman definitions and you get this: "a high-performance version of a compact car...often compromising cargo space, seating, gas mileage, drivability and reliability."
Here's the three-word definition we like: small, sporting, inexpensive. And because these cars are frequently the only transportation their owners have, reality says we should add a fourth: practical.
This test is performed in that spirit. That is, find the best small, sporting, inexpensive and practical car sold in the U.S. today. We narrowed the field to six that we feel are genuine contenders: the 2006 Chevrolet Cobalt SS Supercharged, 2006 Honda Civic Si, 2007 Mazda Mazdaspeed 3, 2006 Mini Cooper S, 2006 Subaru WRX and 2006 Volkswagen GTI.
One of the three words in our definition of a sport compact car is "inexpensive." Naturally, this means different things to different people, so for this test we planned a price cap of $25,000. Much as in the real world of car buying, it was impossible to get our test cars optioned the way we wanted, so the Mazdaspeed 3 and Subaru WRX TR both exceeded our limit. If you mentally delete the Mazda's $1,750 navigation system and the Subaru's $579 premium sound package, however, harmony is restored.
When you remember that most sport compacts are born from economy cars, you'll be impressed with each test car's list of standard performance features. All six are powered by four-cylinder engines ranging in displacement from 1.6 liters to 2.5 liters. Only the Civic, however, lacked forced induction. The GTI, Mazdaspeed and WRX pack a turbocharger, while the Mini and the Cobalt are supercharged.
Of the six cars, the Civic Si, GTI, Mazdaspeed 3 and Mini Cooper S come with six-speed transmissions. The Cobalt SS, Civic Si, Mazdaspeed 3 and Mini all have mechanical limited-slip differentials, while the Subaru WRX TR features all-wheel drive.
Speed is critical in this category, which is why we value performance-oriented features so highly. The practicality of four (or five) doors, real-world rear-seat accommodations and folding rear seats can't be ignored, however, so we've factored that into our evaluation, too.
Testing enthusiast cars means a comprehensive combination of both real-world driving and track tests. We drove these sport compacts to work in stop-and-go traffic, loaded them with kids and groceries, and generally got on with the mundane details of life. Then we replaced the grocery bags with racing helmets and headed for the Streets of Willow Springs, a 1.8-mile road course featuring relatively low-speed turns appropriate for street cars. After a day of lapping to figure out which compact had the most sport, we headed to our usual test facility to record results from our standardized acceleration, braking and handling tests.
Let's face it, though. Most owners will drive these cars quickly on real-world roads far more often than they'll see a racetrack, so we included 400 or so miles of the best two-lane blacktop that California can deliver between L.A. and Monterey. Then we turned around and headed back home on the freeway just to round things out.
Sixth Place: 2006 Chevrolet Cobalt SS Supercharged
Chevy's 2006 Cobalt SS Supercharged is a surprisingly competent car. It's clear GM's engineers are capable of tuning for performance, even though they started with the least capable platform in the group. The Cobalt's steering and brakes surprised most editors, delivering a crisp, precise feel unlike that of any car GM has ever offered in this segment. What's more, its engine produces adequate power and delivers it in deadly effective style through a limited-slip differential. Our Cobalt hit 60 in 7.1 seconds and covered the quarter-mile in 15.2 seconds at more than 95 mph — respectable midpack numbers.
The Cobalt makes the right kind of numbers in our handling tests, too. It turned the second quickest lap time at the Streets of Willow (1:34.90), pulled 0.87g around the skid pad, and zipped through the slalom at 67.5 mph. It also stopped in just 121 feet from 60 mph, and had excellent brake feel.
Unfortunately, there's still a lot of the worst of GM in the Cobalt SS Supercharged. This short-coupled coupe offers the least usable passenger package in the group, and its interior materials (aside from the Recaro seats) are far below the quality level set by the other contenders. The double-throwdown, combat-style rear wing just shows you that a styling cliché can't disguise a weak people package. Add it all up and despite the Chevy's encouraging performance, it lacks the refinement and utility necessary to compete here.
Fifth Place: 2006 Volkswagen GTI
The 2006 Volkswagen GTI offers upscale interior quality and feel, the practicality of a hatchback and a distinctly German driving experience. Ultimately, though, its suspension is tuned so softly that it simply doesn't handle as well as its competition. As a whole, it lacks the hardware and tuning to perform with the quickest cars here, and it's the least involving car to drive as a result.
Much like the Cobalt, the turbocharged GTI speeds to 60 mph in 7.2 seconds and reaches the quarter-mile in 15.3 seconds. It has respectable cornering grip on the skid pad at 0.83g, and runs through the slalom at 65.2 mph. Although the numbers are good, the VW's soft, long-travel suspension slows down its steering response, so it's not as much fun to drive. The brakes produced a 128-foot stop from 60 mph, but they faded quickly on the open road. On the track, the GTI cranked out a 1:37.15, the second slowest lap time recorded.
Our editors like the GTI's quality interior materials and simple, functional design. Its folding rear seats add to its function for those using it as an only car and it's probably the best around-town daily driver here. However, quality and utility without performance isn't the complete package we're looking for.
Fourth Place: 2006 Mini Cooper S
Although it's due for replacement by a revised version by the time you read this, the 2006 Mini Cooper S still awes us with its brilliant proportions. It's big enough to be practical, yet the combination of light weight and a responsive powertrain delivers outstanding driving dynamics. At 2,660 pounds, the Mini is the lightest car here by 175 pounds. The steering effort is perfectly weighted and the chassis is perfectly balanced. Even better, this car is also a bargain at $22,450 — including a limited-slip differential.
When it comes to performance, the Mini has the least powerful engine in the group and it shows. It beat the Si to 60 mph by a tenth of a second, but couldn't hold the advantage through the quarter-mile, where it was the slowest car in the test at 15.6 seconds. We love the Mini's feel when driving quickly, but our car lacked the stickier tires offered by the sport package, so its handling limits were relatively low. Its 0.78g skid-pad performance and 64.9-mph slalom speed are completely unimpressive in this group, and the car had the longest stopping distance at 131 feet and the slowest lap time at 1:38.05.
The Mini is a really small car, which helps its handling but cramps its living quarters. Its huge speedometer mounted in the center of the dashboard away from the driver's line of sight also frustrated some editors. Still, because of the Mini's undeniable fun factor and timeless styling it finishes ahead of two faster machines.
Third Place: 2006 Honda Civic Si
This is the least expensive car in the test, and it'll set you back only $21,085 with summer tires. It also comes with a standard limited-slip differential, a high-strung 2.0-liter i-VTEC engine and a six-speed transmission that makes the out-of-sight power delivery (197 hp at 7,800 rpm) usable. The 2006 Honda Civic Si is a hell of a lot of car for the money.
Our test car had the optional summer tires, improving its cornering grip and boosting driver confidence on the track. The perfect combination of front-end grip and steering feel brings the Si to life when you're searching for that extra bit of speed on a twisty back road. And as much as you abuse the brake pedal or simply brake too late, the Si seems to keep tracking through the corner, which should keep even the most reckless drivers out of the ditch.
For all the capability of the Civic's chassis, this car is not exactly quick, taking 7.5 seconds to reach 60 mph, hitting the quarter-mile mark in 15.5 seconds and registering only a 3rd-place finish on the track at Willow Springs with a lap time of 1:36.20. The engine is involving, but it hasn't the displacement (or boost from a supercharger or turbocharger) to run with the big dogs. The Civic also brought home a 3rd-place finish in the slalom at 67 mph and another 3rd place on the skid pad at 0.86g.
Most of us were unimpressed by the look of the Civic's massive two-tiered dash, but this car is certainly a quality machine assembled with excellent materials. The Civic's only two drawbacks are its two-door body and, ultimately, a significant power deficit to the WRX and Mazdaspeed 3. Of course it's now available as a sedan, so only a boost in horsepower remains on our Civic wish list.
Second Place: 2006 Subaru WRX TR
If the fun factor were the only important criteria in this test, the 2006 Subaru WRX TR would have walked away with the trophy. Its combination of big-bore turbo power and all-wheel-drive grip with ass-out chassis tuning is unmatched here. It's the only car in the group that can be thrown into a corner sideways and still exit with respectable speed. Although this handling strategy might not reward precise driving, the car has a rough-and-ready capability that's perfect for the real world.
Thanks to traction afforded by all-wheel drive, the WRX hit 60 in just 5.9 seconds (just like the Mazdaspeed 3), and then broke the quarter-mile traps in 14.3 seconds. Nevertheless, weak tires hold it back. Its stopping distance is a lengthy 135 feet, cornering grip on the skid pad is just 0.82g, and the slalom speed is compromised at 64.7 mph. A fairly soft suspension calibration also keeps the WRX from showing much on the road course, where it was timed at 1:36.45.
When we're behind the steering wheel, we love the WRX's driver-oriented cockpit, which places the tachometer in the middle of the instrument panel and has the simplest and easiest-to-use climate controls in the group. The Subie's supportive seats help make the most of an upright driving position with excellent all-around visibility. The WRX, even after all these years, still offers an almost unbeatable combination of speed, utility and value. However, it of course did get beat.
First Place: 2007 Mazda Mazdaspeed 3
Mazda's 2007 Mazdaspeed 3, the new guy on the block, is unquestionably fast (155-mph top speed), quick (14.2-second quarter mile) and grippy (0.88g on the skid pad). The Mazda had the quickest segment times at the Streets of Willow, not to mention the quickest overall lap time of 1:33.65. It also stopped short at 116 feet from 60 mph. Doesn't really matter how you spin it, the Mazdaspeed 3's performance is unmatched in virtually every category.
Just as important, the Mazdaspeed 3 also felt right. The controls delivered great feedback and inspired confidence. On rough roads this car wasn't always as composed as we'd like, but only the WRX was better over a less-than-perfect surface. The 3 is quick, communicative and powerful — the perfect dance partner.
This five-door hatchback also combines the most practical body style in this group with the best interior. We've always loved the Mazda 3's monochromatic black interior, and the new seats are very supportive yet make no compromise in comfort. With four real doors, room for five and a hatchback, it's the most usable shape in the test. But it's not cheap — at $26,300 it was the most expensive car here.
Texas hold 'em
After two full weeks of flogging these sport compacts, every last card was on the table. And the 2007 Mazda Mazdaspeed 3 had the full house. Its undeniable speed in every situation and its practical five-door hatchback body made it not only the fastest car here, but also the easiest package to live with. It comes with a huge list of standard features which make its above-average price easier to justify. Put simply, it's impossible to go this fast, have this much fun or be more practical for less money.
Subaru's fast, sideways-driving WRX TR finished a distant 2nd, but proved to be more fun than any other car in the test on the right road. Honda's smart Civic Si impressed us with its laser-precise controls that truly bring the car to life during hard driving. The Mini Cooper S wound up in 4th despite brilliant dynamics and styling. VW's softly sprung GTI was 5th and the supercharged Chevy Cobalt SS just couldn't hack it in this well-rounded field and finished 6th.
The manufacturers provided Edmunds these vehicles for the purposes of evaluation.
Inside Line Editor in Chief Scott Oldham says:
Married-Scott-With-Two-Kids buys the Mazdaspeed 3. It has four doors, room for the baby's stroller (barely) and outruns the other five cars with ease. Looks good, too, MSWTK would just have to deal with the 3's rough ride, abrupt clutch and crude steering kickback some defend as feel. Unlike some, he digs the Mazda's Knight Rider sound system graphics. Says it brings out his inner Hasselhoff, whatever that means.
On the other hand, Single-Scott-With-No-Kids buys the Mini Cooper S. It may be the slowest of the bunch, but the little Mini is a true driver's car with the purest steering of the pack, an inherent tossability and timeless styling. Even at the end of its product cycle (the 2007 Mini Cooper is all-new), the Mini's substantive feel and lithe athleticism are a unique combination, while its lofty levels of refinement remain the benchmark for its price point. It's such a nicely finished machine, if BMW stuck the Roundel on its beak, nobody would have squawked.
SSWNK can't help but smile every time he drives one. Truth is, neither can MSWTK, which is why he should forget about the Mazda and wait out the larger 2008 Mini Traveller. In the meantime, he can spend his days listening to NKOTB, eating KFC and reading GQ.
Senior Content Editor Erin Riches says:
I'm single, pushing 30, gainfully employed, and I like to drive, but not to the point that I can't be satisfied with anything less than an Evo or 911. That makes me pretty close to the target buyer for these cars, and it's a role I embrace: I've given serious thought to buying four of the cars in this test.
Right now most of my thoughts are going to the Subaru WRX TR and the Mazdaspeed 3. The Mazda is the one I'm trying to steer friends to, because you get so much engine for the money and the car is a terror coming around corners with that limited-slip differential. Plus, there's rock-solid stability at high speeds, hatchback utility and exterior styling that truly suits the car's proportions, even with the Mazdaspeed's domed hood. But the ugly WRX still has a strong pull for me. I like that it's all-wheel drive and I like its scrappy, less refined character. I also like the Subaru's longer-lasting power band.
However, the award for the most interesting power band goes to the Civic Si's feverish 2.0-liter. I love the way it turns up the heat at 5,800 rpm, at which point the Mazda is already winding down. The Si's lack of torque is a drawback, considering the bargain prices on the other two, but the fact that mileage doesn't dip below 20 when you drive it hard makes a big difference when you're buying your own gas. Still, Honda needs to offer a full-on Type-R version, chassis upgrades and all, to go up against the Mazdaspeed.
Of the remaining three, I'd take the elegant Volkswagen GTI in a quiet moment, but possibly wish that I hadn't later on, as its polished highway manners give way to a disappointingly reserved demeanor on back roads.