From the February 2006 issue of Car and Driver.
In a perfect world, a guy who likes to unwind lonely driving roads on a brisk weekend morning owns an implement dedicated to just such an activity. A Mazda MX-5, for example. Or a Pontiac Solstice. Or a Honda S2000. Or...fill in your favorite sports car. But that ideal presupposes a big budget for grown-up toys, and/or the absence of parental obligations, which immediately add extra doors and seats to the equation. As much as we love 'em, sports cars are pure automotive self-indulgence, with a low practicality index. And the sad truth is, many of us are economically limited to one ride that has to serve a variety of everyday transportation functions, as well as satisfying your inner Michael Schumacher. Perhaps you've noticed this?
Take heart. Ownership of a car with four doors needn't mean the end of fun-to-drive, and to support this proposition we present this field of five sub-$30,000 sports sedans that are just the ticket, able to deliver speed with a soupçon of luxury, too. Okay, more than a soupçon. A modicum. And in a couple cases, a profusion.
As a conceptual group, our roundup of 30-grand sports sedans isn't new. It's one of our regular sports-sedan reality checks. Still, there is much that is new here-in fact, only one of these five packages is familiar. That would be the Acura TSX, a sophisticated sweetheart that's been on our 10Best Cars list since its 2004 debut. Modestly freshened for '06, the TSX prevailed in our last under-30-grand decathlon ("Sustainable Sports Sedans," October 2004) and, consequently, anchors this one. (As with our 10Best Cars protocol, the also-rans in that derby weren't invited to this one.)
The other everyday heroes are new for '06 in varying degrees, and only one of them—the Jetta GLI—has gone through our battery of instrumented tests (October 2005). The GLI is the liveliest member of the Jetta family, and it shares its chassis and components with the GTI, VW's famous hatchback hot rod. The Jetta's inventory of go-faster hardware includes a new 2.0-liter direct-injection turbo four that churns up 197 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque, a useful upgrade from the previous 1.8-liter turbo motor's 180 horsepower and 173 pound-feet, although the gain in output is mitigated by an increase at the scales.
The other force-fed car in the field is the long-awaited Mazdaspeed 6, with all-wheel drive and 274 horsepower available from a turbo version of Mazda's 2.3-liter four. That's almost enough to put the Mazda on an equal performance footing with bad boys like the Subaru Impreza WRX STI or Mitsubishi Evo, and it was more than enough to hustle the Mazda to the front of this pack in terms of sheer zoom-zoom.
As a refreshing change, a domestic entry made the starting grid, the GTP version of Pontiac's G6 sedan, with more authority in the suspension, more grip, and more muscle, thanks to more displacement-3.9 liters in a pushrod V-6, very all-American.
Beyond that, we found ourselves with an element of family feud. The Honda Accord has never been a player in one of our sports-sedan spectaculars, but for 2006 its extensive freshening includes the availability of a robust EX edition with a 244-hp, 3.0-liter V-6 and a six-speed manual. That combination is a first for Honda's bread-and-butter four-door, and an essential element in qualifying for this bash-a manual transmission was one of the basic requirements for invitation, and all five cars were equipped with you-shift-it six-speeds.
You might observe that a couple other prime everyday-hero candidates—the Audi A4 and the BMW 3-series—didn't make the cut. What's up with that? Money, that's what. As was true in our 2004 comparo, even the humblest of 3-series sedans, the 325i, carries a base price of $31,595, overflowing our 30-grand ceiling, and that presumes you could even find an unadorned 325i. This also goes for the A4. A basic front-drive A4 starts at $28,360, but in an age of steadily shrinking evaluation fleets, finding a base edition of any vehicle is akin to finding the last virgin in Las Vegas.
We drove the 280 miles to southeast Ohio, where we scorched the edges of our 13.5-mile driving loop. The Hocking Hills route is rich in linked turns, decreasing radii, whoop-de-dos, elevation changes, and bird watchers in L.L.Bean outfits, all in all ideal for gauging a car's SQ (sporting quotient). This time around, it had a profound impact on the outcome.
Fifth Place: Pontiac G6 GTP
We're nonpartisan in these derbies, but sometimes we can't help rooting for the home team, particularly when the home boys could really use a victory. So we entertained hopes for the G6, the first American car to play in a comparison of this nature in five years. For example, we hoped the high-performance version of the Grand Am replacement would be more entertaining than its less potent stablemates, which haven't run up big numbers on the C/D ecstasy meter. In short, we hoped the G6 would make a good showing.
And it did. But not good enough.
HIGHS: Torquey V-6, slick styling, respectable test numbers.
LOWS: Oppressive wind noise, primitive shifter, steering substitutes effort for road feel.
Shall we start with the Poncho's strong suits? The G6 was mid- to upper-pack in all five major test categories covering acceleration, braking, and handling. Despite its relatively old-fashioned valve operation--GM calls it "cam in block," feeling perhaps that "pushrod" sounds dated--the Pontiac's 60-degree V-6 has variable valve timing and generates generous torque (240 pound-feet) with an exceptionally flat curve. This produced runs to 60 mph of 6.2 seconds and a quarter-mile of 14.9 seconds at 95 mph, third best in both categories and all the more remarkable for its tall gearing and a bewilderingly hefty curb weight--3569 pounds, heavier than even the all-wheel-drive Mazda.
Excessive mass undoubtedly affected the G6's braking, skidpad, and lane-change numbers, too, but even so, they were solid. The Pontiac hammered home the second-best lane-change speed, was a close third on the skidpad despite its all-season Goodyear Eagle LS-2 tires (on handsome 18-inch wheels), and stopped from 70 mph in 167 feet, better than the Acura and the Honda.
For all its prowess in objective dynamic testing, though, the G6 drew low subjective marks on the Hocking Hills highways. There were logbook complaints about excessive up-and-down motion compared with the other cars, and insufficient roll stiffness. Although quick at 2.7 turns lock-to-lock, the hydraulic steering came in for carping: too heavy at high speeds, as well as numb. It was possible to hustle the G6 around our loop as quickly as most of the others, but it was more work than fun, requiring absolute concentration.
There were unhappy observations concerning the interior as well. All hands cited major wind noise, an apparent leak in the upper right-hand A-pillar area--a little more tolerable than Chinese water torture during freeway cruising, but not much. And the shift quality of the six-speed gearbox was persistently panned. Rubbery, said some. Others employed a time-honored technical term: klunky.
The G6's styling was seen as a plus, and its interior dÃÂ©cor, featuring cream-colored leather upholstery, made a nice contrast with the others' dark interiors. And the rear seat provided the most legroom, although the fast roofline made the center seating position untenable.
THE VERDICT: Competent, comely, and quick, but not quite ready for prime time.
So the G6 stacks up as merely adequate in a contest where better than average is the threshold of acceptability. The Pontiac would look more attractive with a price tag closer to the GTP's $24,835 base--ours was a loaded example--but the fundamental dissonance here lies with the car itself.
2005 Pontiac G6 GTP
240-hp V-6, 6-speed manual, 3569 lb
Base/as-tested price: $24,835/$29,335
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 6.2 sec
100 mph: 16.2 sec
1/4 mile: 14.9 @ 95 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 167 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.85 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 22 mpg
Fourth Place: Mazdaspeed 6
If you've peeked at the charts, you already know that Mazda's pumped-up 6 sedan was our performance champ, no contest. It whooshed to 60 mph in 5.4 seconds, a half-second quicker than the Accord, and covered the quarter-mile in 14 seconds flat. It was the skidpad champ, pulling 0.87 g, thanks to a set of sticky Bridgestone Potenzas (RE050A, 215/45) on 7.0-by-18-inch aluminum alloy wheels. That combination, plus big brake rotors that reduced fade, added up to an out standing stopping distance from 70 mph—155 feet, just a foot more than the best-in-test performance of the Jetta. That's sports-car braking, and a wonderful asset to have when charting a stretch of back road.
HIGHS: Power to burn, eager responses, good control layout.
LOWS: Psychotic-vacuum-cleaner exhaust note, low-rent interior, firm ride.
When we speak of back roads, we speak of this car's prime venue. The Mazda's combination of power, brakes, grip, limited body roll, on-demand all-wheel drive, and quick steering (2.6 turns lock-to-lock) made it great fun on our loop, a back-road bandito. Beyond that, the Mazda's turbocharged and intercooled 2.3-liter four was also a helpful traveling companion on freeways, with instant spool-up that delivered big lane-change power, even in sixth gear.
The downside to the Mazdaspeed package is a shortage of refinement. Consider feature content, for openers. Although the Mazda's as-tested price was third highest, it was the only ride without a sunroof, the only one lacking leather upholstery, and one of two lacking power adjustability of the front seats. Yes, yes, how we do suffer. But when it comes to luxury features for a given price, more is better.
The Mazda's rather severe interior trim also drew flack, particularly the hard, shiny plastic of the center console, center stack, dash, and doors. And if the styling troops have done a decent job of integrating the car's raised hoodline, required to accommodate the turbo's intercooler, they were defeated by the challenge of the enlarged grille opening that yawns in the lower front fascia. The bigger opening was needed to get more cool air in there, but it doesn't harmonize well with the other elements of the front-end design.
We recorded complaints of the Mazda's stiffer-than-most ride quality and road noise, although most were willing to accept that trade-off in favor of the car's quick handling responses. But the other element that goes with this high-performance package--engine noise--was hard for our test crew to accept. The turbo four was serene at idle, but in freeway cruise mode, the Mazda's interior noise levels were highest of the pack. The Jetta generated louder readings at wide-open throttle, but there was a raspy, industrial quality to the Mazda's exhaust note at full cry that grated on all who heard it.
THE VERDICT: Long on punch, short on polish.
"Like the Hoover that ate Godzilla," observed one tester. The bottom line: The Mazdaspeed guys nailed the sports part of the deal, but this car needs a little time at charm school.
2006 Mazdaspeed 6
274-hp inline-4, 6-speed manual, 3554 lb
Base/as-tested price: $28,555/$28,555
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 5.4 sec
100 mph: 14.5 sec
1/4 mile: 14.0 @ 99 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 155 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.87 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 21 mpg
Third Place: Acura TSX
It's rare for anyone to emerge from a drive in the TSX spouting anything but superlatives. In our 2004 comparo we summed up the smallest Acura's appeal thus: "If this were a puppy, it would be wagging its tail from the shoulders on back, so happy, so eager to play." That still applies today, illustrated by excerpts from the logbook of our '06 test car: "Such a treat to drive this car after herding some of the others around the course. So much more certainty, so much more precision." "This is a case of all the parts working together--quick responses, crisp steering, excellent brakes, minimal body roll, and it's all so easy." "Just brimming with confidence. Even on a long, dull interstate, you can feel the athletic tension of the chassis, all ready to burn up some twisties. Bravo!"
Yet here's the Acura TSX, the defending champ and a 10Best Car for 2006, languishing in third place.
HIGHS: Sweet engine, snick-snick six-speed, gazelle moves, uptown interior.
LOWS: A few ponies shy of perfection, i-VTEC not necessarily as asset here, wants real rubber.
As much as we love this car's precision, refinement, and athletic nature, every story we've published about it has made some sort of apology for its relatively modest power. That trait didn't hurt the TSX too much in our 2004 shootout, and it's not a huge issue in our 10Best evaluations, which don't include objective test data. But in this comparison, the power shortage was costly.
All of this added up in the objective scoring, and none of it positively.
The scorecards held a couple other shocks. In the '04 comparo, the TSX scored best in the two big editor preference categories--"fun to drive" and "gotta have it," which helped offset its relatively modest performance scores. This time, the test crew gave the nod to the Jetta in both brackets.
THE VERDICT: A sophisticated lightweight in the middleweight title fight.
In '04, we called the TSX the "class of the less-than-30-large field." It's still classy. But to reclaim its crown, the TSX needs to spend some time at the gym.
2006 Acura TSX
274-hp inline-4, 6-speed manual, 3267 lb
Base/as-tested price: $28,505/$30,505
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 7.2 sec
100 mph: 19.1 sec
1/4 mile: 15.7 @ 91 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 177 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.80 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 25 mpg
Second Place: Honda Accord EX V-6
Accords have earned a spot on our annual 10Best Cars list in 20 of the 24 years we've been handing out these trophies, including this year. We consider the Accord to be the best family sedan in the business, hands down. But until now, we've never thought of it as a sports sedan. Competent, yes. Reasonably entertaining to drive, sure--as family sedans go. But how would it go versus four-doors aimed at a slightly higher performance standard?
There was some head shaking among the test crew when the list of combatants was revealed. After all, the only elements separating this Accord from others with V-6 engines are that six-speed manual and the patches of imitation carbon-fiber trim in the cabin. This Accord gets the same 17-inch wheels as the Accord coupe, but all the V-6 Accords get new 17-inchers, wearing rather wimpy 215/50 Michelin Pilot HX MXM4 all-season tires. Similarly, this Accord has revised suspension bushings, but that, too, is something it shares with the other V-6 Accords.
HIGHS: Plenty of smooth power, handsome interior, superb seats, lots of room.
LOWS: Hints of first-gear torque steer, could use more roll stiffness, lacks visual pizazz.
Could it keep pace with the other players? Oh, yeah. Although those tires held the Honda back in the braking and skidpad exercises, the power of that superb V-6—upgraded by four horsepower for '06—dragged it into a third-place tie with the handy little Jetta in the lane change, and it was second only to the more potent Mazdaspeed 6 in acceleration runs. It was the only car besides the Mazda to crack the six-second mark in 0-to-60 sprints--5.9 seconds--and it did so without audible drama.
The Accord also won respect on our Hocking Hills loop, albeit grudgingly. There were logbook comments about a relative excess of body roll and ride-versus-handling trade-off, but with the stability control switched off it was clear the Accord could handle all the challenges without apology. In fact, there were only two persistent complaints concerning the Accord's mechanical operations. Some drivers felt full clutch engagement occurred a little too high in the pedal travel, even though this is an issue Honda has improved for 2006 models. And there were little hints of torque steer at full throttle in first gear, something the Mazda avoided, owing to its all-wheel drive.
Other elements of the Accord's popularity were predictable. It was a clear favorite in the comfort-and-convenience scoring, finishing ahead of its cousin from Acura, thanks in part to the roomiest interior of the bunch. In fact, there wasn't much to pick between the two Honda products in terms of creature comforts. The Accord's butter-soft leather complemented a set of power-adjustable heated bucket seats that some thought were the best in the test. The interior design was elegantly upscale. Ambient noise levels were comfortably low. And a final plus, the Accord tied the Jetta for second-best observed fuel economy at 24 mpg, with one important distinction: The Accord's V-6 can do this on regular unleaded, whereas the Jetta drinks premium.
THE VERDICT: An unsuspected tiger in a business suit.
At $29,850, the Accord was this gang of five's second-most-expensive choice. That, and its family-sedan persona, plopped it in second place. But for the guy whose everyday-hero concept includes luxury and roominess, as well as hustle, the Honda is tough to beat.
2006 Honda Accord EX V-6
244-hp V-6, 6-speed manual, 3351 lb
Base/as-tested price: $27,850/$29,850
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 5.9 sec
100 mph: 15.0 sec
1/4 mile: 14.5 @ 98 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 180 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.80 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 24 mpg
First Place: Volkswagen Jetta GLI
In our October 2005 issue, we tested a new GLI, one of the first ones off the boat. The results were underwhelming: 0 to 60 in 7.1 seconds, the quarter-mile in 15.5 seconds at 92 mph, 0.83 g on the skidpad, and 70-to-0-mph braking in 169 feet. Another GLI was in the field for our 2006 10Best Cars event last month, and it didn't make the cut.
With that keenly in the memory bank, our expectations for the GLI were not particularly high. And they sunk lower still during the first two or three legs of the drive to southeast Ohio, as various wheelmen struggled to make the odd angle of the driver's seat acceptable.
"Feels like I'm sitting in a giant martini glass," wrote one tester. "Posterior sunk low, thighs forced upward. Have VW check out a manual Honda seat, please. Soon."
HIGHS: All-pro tailback moves, torquey turbo motor, sports-car braking.
LOWS: Rubik's Cube seat adjuster, cramped rear quarters.
But as the miles went by, and continuing efforts with the VW's, uh, unique manual seat-adjustment system--a jack-style lever controls seat height and bottom-cushion attitude, and a large wheel set at the outside junction of the cushion and the back rest adjusts rake--produced a more comfortable position, acceptance of the GLI grew. Then we went into the Hocking Hills round robin, and acceptance morphed into real enthusiasm.
"What a hoot to drive," wrote one tester. "This is what the GLI is built for."
"This is a terrific car on the driving loop," wrote another. "Easy to get pinpoint location in corners and squirts out of 'em with great gusto."
Another scribbler summed it up: "On the Hocking Hills loop, this car rules ! Eager turn-in, nice balance, great grip, good power, outstanding steering."
To be fair, the Mazda was its equal on the twisties, but the Jetta's feline responses were complemented by smoother ride quality and an exhaust note that was sporty rather than raucous.
At the test track, the Jetta surprised us again, running up acceleration and braking numbers that were distinctly better than those of the preproduction edition tested in October: 0 to 60 in 6.4 seconds, the quarter-mile in 15.1 seconds at 93 mph, and 70 to 0 in a phenomenal 154 feet, a testimonial for the most aggressive tires in this group (Bridgestone Potenza RE050As, 225/40-18).
Although decoding the mysteries of the seat adjustments defused our biggest GLI complaint--once adjusted, the Jetta's buckets compared well with those of the TSX and Accord--there were other minor demerits. The rear seat was cramped. Like the Pontiac G6, the Jetta is essentially a grown-up compact, but unlike the G6, the growth hasn't done much for passengers in the aft cabin. There was also some minority kvetching about the dark ("Teutonic coal bin") interior dÃÂ©cor and the unusual design of the alloy wheels--"looks like the slicer blade on a Cuisinart."
THE VERDICT: A Jetta that finally lives up to its name.
But it's clear that the GLI's dynamic virtues outweighed any small reservations.
2006 Volkswagen Jetta GLI
197-hp inline-4, 6-speed manual, 3356 lb
Base/as-tested price: $24,405/$27,605
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 6.4 sec
100 mph: 17.3 sec
1/4 mile: 15.1 @ 93 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 154 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.86 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 24 mpg
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