By on June 20, 2013


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

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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

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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.

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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…?

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26 Comments on “Generation Why: California Dreaming – A Hot Hatch Comparison...”

  • avatar
    Athos Nobile

    Derek, you Euro hot hatch lover should ask some coin to come down here and try the following: Megane RS265, Astra OPC, Polo GTi, Focus XR5, Peugeot RCZ, Pulsar SSS (ok it’s Japanese)…

    • 0 avatar

      I have friends and relatives to visit in Melbourne and Townsville. Maybe I’ll stop by the Nobile household along the way. Jack tells me the Megane is amazing.

      • 0 avatar
        Athos Nobile

        The Megane surely has the ingredients. The suspension seems very good, you get “super struts” at the front, and the structure is stout.

        I sat in one a couple of months ago but didn’t like much the driving position. Too much dashboard expanse. Car however, is nicely finished.

  • avatar

    For the record, Sport Compact Car was one of the best car magazines ever. I always liked that the pages were filled with techincal details and real-world projects. It was a magazine just for car guys.

    Cars in this class are among the most fun to drive in my opinion. They can be surprisingly fast and I cannot tell you how many times I have gleefully blown the doors off of guys in cars that were reputed to be much more powerful. Light weight and a maniac behind the wheel will do that…

    • 0 avatar

      Second that. Anyone remember the suspension article by Dave Coleman in which he coined the term “Dave point”? No other car magazine would go into technical details like that.

      • 0 avatar

        His column was superb. Very technical. Speaking of which- I always thought Import Tuner’s ‘Power Page’ was superb. They showed you exactly how much (if any) power a particular mod adds by doing back to back dynos.

    • 0 avatar

      SCC was great, the only down to earth car guy “tuning” magazine.

      I was thinking the other day how great a purpose built machine like a Corvette is. But when I get down to it, I am a lover of tarted up economy cars.

  • avatar

    On the earlier DSG transmissions, once they replaced the mechatronic units, drivability in most units improved.

    For about three years, my wife and I owned a MKV Jetta Wolfsburg 2.0T and a MKV GTI. I found the transmissions to behave very differently. I don’t have any idea is they program shift points based on the car, but the GTI transmission was MUCH better. The Wolfsburg did get 4 MPG better than the GTI, but my right foot could have been the culprit.

  • avatar

    Your father deserve a “Father of the Year” award for giving up that 535i for your college education. He told you “the sacrifice he made wasn’t a huge one” because he didn’t want to burden you with guilt … I hope you graduated with honors


  • avatar
    thats one fast cat

    Complete agree about SCC – what a magazine. I still have all the copies that I purchased several years ago. It is a shame it isn’t digitized — The Slip Angle and Suck, Squish, Bang, Blow columns were gold.

    PS — I believe the 323 story was from SCC and actually made me want to get one. They did build a “rally beater” — a Datsun 510 to compare contrast with the (then new and very exciting) 2002 WRX.

  • avatar

    Ah. SCC. When it died, us Nisso-philes still had Nissan Performance Magazine (online only), which had most of the cast, who were also very active on NissanForums before the site owner literally sold out. NPM followed NF into oblivion.

    We still have MotoIQ, which is lovely… but it’s not quite the same as having a magazine with sections and regular features… still lovely… but some of the fun stuff you could do on a print budget, like the 14-second Sentra… ain’t going to happen no more.

  • avatar

    I love the hot hatches, I just do. How do you argue with fun and practical?
    Now that I got that out the way, I don’t consider the GTI a true hot hatch. It is fast, it’s handling it superb, sublime even but, it is too refined to be a true hot hatch and it does not have enough power.
    Don’t get me wrong though because it is still an immensely good car and it is a lot of car for it’s size and price.

  • avatar

    I have a 2012 Mazdaspeed3 that has put more smiles on my face than I dare to count. I don’t think I have ever exited an onramp going less than 80mph, regardless of lenth.

  • avatar
    Kyree S. Williams

    You had to bring up the B9 Tribeca “vagina-grille” thing again, didn’t you? :P

    • 0 avatar
      Ryan Knuckles

      That’s “flying vagina” to you, pal.

    • 0 avatar

      “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…”

      Wow. First time I’ve ever heard this… are there any car guys who really think this or is it just a Derek Kriendler thing?

      Either way, I’m wondering if you’ve ever seen a vagina before because it sure as hell doesn’t look like either of those! lol. (For that matter, a breast doesn’t feel like a bag of sand either so be careful out there!)

  • avatar

    The MS3 is plain fast on anything other than the tightest roads. Stable as a Panamera as well. I ended up trading a sports package equipped 335i in disgust, in no small part due to experiencing what a clumsy blunderbus that thing was downhill Cerro Noroeste compared to an MS3 at half the price. Only upside was the BMW dealer was sufficiently ashamed of this, that he gave me pretty much an invoice deal on a then new V8 M3 to compensate…. :)

  • avatar

    SCC was great, but there is no need to slag the other ‘import rags’. I still have a bunch of Super Street from that era. The writing style was grating, but the photography was excellent and the featured cars were always excellent and a big source of inspiration. Not everything has to revolve around technical discussions.

    GRM was the other end of the scale. Their project cars were all butched up with duct tape and bailing wires. I’m sure they were plenty functional and plenty fast, but let’s be honest- they made sports cars UNsexy.

  • avatar

    …i find your comment about the miata particularly apt…

    …our daily runabouts are a lotus elise and a mazda MX-5, so when my wife and i recently found ourselves shopping for a third utility car to fill the touring/passenger/cargo role, our natural candidate was the mazdaspeed 3…in fact, we’d shopped through all the options and selected our dealer well in advance, anticipating a quick test drive followed by an immediate purchase, not realising how strongly our accustomed nimble handling would color the 3’s driving experience: it felt positively leviathian by comparison!..certainly i’d expected some measure of tradeoff for the utility gained, but where i’d imagined a slightly slower, pushier, broader brush painting deeper down the same spectrum as our miata, i was greeted by a numb and lumbering driving experience coupled with plodding throttle response, sloppy steering, and ridiculously busy switchgear – a water buffalo in bejewelled raiment…

    …needless to say, we were very disappointed by the mazdaspeed 3, and so we spent several more months exhausting hot-hatch alternative after alternative with depressingly-poor driver feedback, until one night on a lark we clambered into a mazda 2 to be greeted with a revelatory familiarity – the sort of refreshingly crisp and communicative handling i’d hoped to find in the ‘speed 3 from the beginning – and bought our mazda 2 the very next day…

    …they say there’s no substitute for lightness, but i think the mazda 2 has more going in its favor than just that: its compact footprint and wide wheelbase, its communicative steering, its carefully-balanced weight distribution and supension tuning are all wonderfully in synch, delivering the same sort of driving experience by which our daily drivers have spoiled us…sure, it’s somewhat anemic on power, but its drivetrain is very well-tuned for the platform and delivers quite nicely when you grab it by the scruff of the neck and wring it out in similar manner to our high-strung daily runabouts; as a momentum car it adroitly pulls through traffic with no trouble at all, offering plenty of pace for decisively assertive street driving…

    …the mazdaspeed 3 is more of a muscle car, really: fun for what it is, but not at all a driver’s car by comparison to a properly sporting platform…despite leading its segment as a driving experience, it’s a product of its segment’s nature to fall flat when held up to the standard real sports cars set…

    …i still think the mazdaspeed 3 is a very cool car, but despite the real-world speed it offers, one needn’t settle for a plodding driving experience in order to get a comfortable interior, back seats, and substantial hauling capacity…

  • avatar

    I remember the 323 GTX, it was indeed a SCC project car, but if I remember correctly it did belong to Dave Coleman. God I miss that mag.

  • avatar

    Did your exposure to the SoCal motoring environment change your perspective on cars or car culture? …or your perspective *on* our car culture?

  • avatar

    I read this comparison with interest, as I have lived with both these cars since 2010.

    Either the US versions differ greatly from the AUS spec ones, or the comparison time was very short, as the GTI is easily the preferred ride in our house, over the Mazdaspeed (MPS in Australia).

    There are very few things that the MPS does better than the GTI. Dry 3rd gear acceleration, and servicing cost is about it. Yes the MPS offers more equipment, and is cheaper. But in nearly every area, the car is inferior.

    Airconditioning performance in the MPS is unacceptable. The GTI is only okay, but when it is hot outside, we will always take the GTI. The MPS is hard riding, torque steering, boomy and drumming. When we need to take a long freeway run, funny the MPS is never the preferred ride. But curiously the MPS isn’t preferred for a twisty road blat either. Maybe it is because I have specified the ACC system on the GTI, but I think even the non ACC car is a better handler and more fun than the MPS.

    The seats in the MPS, do offer power adjustment, but they are flat, thin and unsupportive. In vigorous cornering you slide , aided by the “I can’t believe it is not vinyl” leather.

    The Bose stereo is truly awful. Factory GTI stereo isn’t fantastic, but even with the combo of Belgium/ Chinese speaker components, it is more listenable than the Bose in a MPS luxury. Dynaudio compared to Bose is a truly unfair comparison.

    But the ultimate recommendation comes for regular driver of the MPS, who kicks herself for not enduring the then waiting list and getting the GTI.

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