If the first half of my automotive life was informed by Honda products, the second half was largely colored by “Sport Compact Car” magazine, which I still consider to be America’s finest automotive print magazine. From the age of 13 onward, I faithfully purchased SCC every month, enthralled by the idea of low-budget import car builds and sweeping California canyon roads. I liked that they took a different tack than most of the other tuner magazines; they weren’t as dogmatic as the other rags were with respect to the “Japan rules, America sux” dichotomy that seemed to pervade the lesser publications. There were no photo spreads of Asian women in flourescent bikinis. Unlike the editorials in Grassroots Motorsports, the budgets for their projects seemed realistic.
One shot that has stuck with me is this shot of an ancient 323 GTX sliding through the dirt; I can’t remember if it was an SCC project car or not, but it encapsulates what I always pictured Southern California to be; an automotive playground free of rust and full of roads that are appropriate for whatever driving conditions you could want. The 323 GTX’s near me are either terminally oxidized or going for absurd amounts of money ($6,000 for a barely running 26 year old Mazda that would amputate my legs in a crash? No thanks) but Mazda was kind enough to lend me a Mazdaspeed3 for my first trip to Los Angeles so I could live out my canyon run fantasies on the Angeles Crest Highway, albeit in front-drive form only. If that wasn’t enough, TTAC contributor Jeff Jablansky brought along his own Volkswagen GTI MKVI for comparison.
Second Place: Volkswagen GTI
In 2006, my father traded in his 2003 BMW 530i for a 2007 Volkswagen Jetta 2.0T. Stuck in the throes of ornery adolescent male entitlement, I was gobsmacked. How could he trade in the best sports sedan in the world for a lowly Jetta. It was automatic. It wasn’t even a GLI. His answer was a more polite version of “would you like to pay your own way through college?”.
It turns out that the sacrifice he made wasn’t a huge one as far as driving enjoyment went. The E39 was a superlative machine and felt like it was worth every penny of the $65,000 pricetag it commanded in 2003’s Canadian dollars. Except that the Jetta, even on crappy all-seasons, sending its power to the front wheels via an early iteration of VW’s 2.0T/DSG combo, was in some ways more fun. What it lacked in ultimate polish and rear-drive handling dynamics, it made up for in character. The rush of the turbo four, criminally underated at 197 horsepower, was a nice change from the BMW’s Astroglide-smooth six. The DSG was totally new technology at the time and was a revelation compared to the lacsidasical 5-speed auto in the 5er. I couldn’t understand my Dad’s aversion to manuals at the time, but I do now that I have to commute in Manhattan-esque traffic. If I were to get another hot VW, I’d probably opt for it as well.
Jeff’s GTI, also equipped with the DSG, is a generation newer and lacking a set of rear doors, but I felt immediately at home. The tan leather in the old Jetta is replaced by all black components and tartan cloth. The radio is newer and the climate control is digital, unlike the rental-spec manual HVAC and the truly awful audio system in the old Jetta. It looks the business outside as well, with its deep but not-quite-black paint and 18″ “Iron Cross” alloys.
This newest generation of the DSG is an exponential improvement; the previous version wasn’t quite as smooth and still displayed some of the quirks of a manual transmission, like rolling up on a hill or not creeping forward when you let off the brake. In sport or manual mode, shifts are crisp, the throttle is blipped and it does everything better than you ever could.
Unfortunately, the rest of the car lacks that same feedback. The steering is Hyundai-light at first, but builds in effort gradually. The brakes have an alarming amount of travel before you get any engagement. If it weren’t for the fact that this car seems to get better and better the further you push it, I would have written it off within a few minutes of driving it. The fact that it isn’t as rambunctious as the ‘Speed3 is what lets you go really fast. Getting back on the throttle upon corner exit will likely result in wheel-hop or torque steer in the ‘Speed3. In the GTI, you just move forward very rapidly with little drama. Utter competence but not a lot of exuberance or fun. This is the car that seems most appropriate for me at this stage of life; well-made, solid performance, the right badge. But I’d never be satisfied because I’d know that I left some motoring thrills on the table by opting for this car. But for people like my Dad, or Jeff’s folks – who have been known to take this car instead of their E90 M3 or first-gen X5, it’s perfect.
First Place: Mazdaspeed3
By any rational standards, this car should have lost. It is outdated and a replacement is on the horizon. I can’t stand the way it looks. If the Subaru B9 Tribeca looks like a flying vagina the gaping maw of the Mazdaspeed looks like some kind of gynecological abnormality that needn’t be discussed in a family publication like this one. Other things about the Speed3 I don’t like; the clutch, which is capricious in its engagement and has a pedal feel comparable to the Shelby GT500, the dark, gloomy interior, the red trim on the seats, more appropriate in a bordello than an automobile, the prodigious torque-steer, which seems to necessitate a pair of swiveling headlamps to show you which ditch you’re about to plow into at the top of second-gear.
Anyways, none of it matters. I love this car like I love somebody totally wrong for me. When you’re not grappling the wheel to fight torque steer, the steering is just as sweet as it is on the regular Mazda3, full of feedback and nicely weighted. So is the shifter, which is a model of precision and feel for transverse gearboxes. The Focus ST’s unit should be half as good. In higher gears, the torque steer issue fades away and you can enjoy all 263 horsepower, as the boost pressure builds up in a remarkably linear fashion. There is a bit of turbo lag, but nothing compared to, say, an original WRX. If you listen closely, you can hear the subtle burble of the exhaust, the near-imperceptible woosh and psshhht of the turbo going about its business. The brakes didn’t let up on Angeles Crest or the tighter sections of Latigo Canyon Road closer to Malibu. After driving it for a few days in Los Angeles traffic, I got used to the clutch and the car’s other quirks. The navigation system, borrowed from TomTom, is one of the better units on the market. I could get used to this car, as long as I had some kind of disguise to wear while driving it.
There is just one problem though. On that last canyon run, Blake Z. Rong of Autoweek brought out his Miata, with Fat Cat Motorsports coilovers, Flyin Miata sways, a tiny Nardi wheel and Cobra bucket seats. It made the MS3 feel like a plodding truck, even though it was hilariously slower than the ‘Speed3. I suppose that’s the price you pay for not having back seats or a usable trunk, which the MS3 does have. Hey, how much is a turbo kit for an NB anyways…?