Back in September, I wrote a piece lamenting the death of Honda’s high-perofrmance hallmark, the twin-cam VTEC 4-cylinder engine. It was just the sort of article many of you are fed up with: a lengthy piece filled with flowery prose and Honda fanboy-ism sprinkled with a condescending explanation of the auto industry’s inner workings. Miraculously, it was fairly well-received. But I’ve had a change of heart.
November and December let me get behind the wheel of two fairly different cars: the Acura ILX 2.4 and the Ford Fiesta ST. Despite the bad rap it gets in the media, I was fairly excited to drive it. The Honda Civic Si sedan gets a lot of guff for being quantitatively underwhelming compared to the current crop of sport compacts, but it’s what I call a “Goldilocks” car: it just feels right, similar to how the Acura TSX does. How bad could a Civic Si be with a better interior and more grown-up looks?
It turned out to be a bit of a letdown. The ILX is definitely a softer car than the Civic Si and lacks the composure and solidity of the Euro-Accord based TSX. The K24 motor was also less charming than I remembered it to be. The new, emissions-friendly, long-stroke VTEC motors work well in a CR-V or an Accord Sport, but don’t deliver the kind of excitement one would expect in a modern-day Integra GS-R sedan.
The Fiesta ST, on the other hand, was a revelation, one of the most thrilling drives I’ve had in a long time. Nothing else on the market brings such a hypomanic intensity and sheer driving thrills in an accessible and practical package except for, well, an older Civic or Integra with a VTEC swap and a dialed in chassis. In a larger car like an Escape or Fusion, the 1.6L Ecoboost feels overburdened, and delivers fairly poor fuel economy. In the Fiesta ST, it delivered a combined 26 mpg even though the throttle spent a lot of time getting hot and heavy with the floor mat. Whatever Ford’s powertrain group has done to squeeze some more power out of the tiny turbo mill has not only paid dividends on the spec sheet, but virtually eliminated turbo lag.
Driving the Fiesta ST made me a lot more optimistic about where the next generation of affordable performance car is going – especially with respect to the death of naturally aspirated engines in these types of applications. In all likelihood, Honda’s messaging will spin the new Civic Type-R (gallery below, since it was introduced in concept form today at Geneva) and the NSX’s turbo engines as congruent with the newest Formula 1 regulations, and as a link to Honda’s return to Grand Prix racing. Knowing what I know about The Big H, the adoption of forced induction was not so much voluntary, but an inevitable concession to emissions and fuel economy requirements around the world. But I’m no longer worried. Bring on the turbo VTEC era.