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TEST DRIVE: Honda Civic Si and VW GTI

David Haueter samples two under-$30,000 sporty cars in latest test drive series…

Photo: David Haueter

It’s great to drive 400+ horsepower cars that are built for speed, but the reality is that many of us either can’t afford to own cars like these or need something that’s just as practical and thrifty as it is fun to drive.

Thankfully, there are still cars out there that will happily take you to work or the grocery store but are also fun to drive and won’t break the bank.

Two great examples are the Honda Civic Si and the VW GTI. Both cars start at prices under $30,000, are available with manual transmissions, and are tuned to offer an involved driving experience with exploitable performance. Both offer a great blend of performance and practicality with the benefit of economical running costs.

Honda’s “Si” models have been around for decades and used to be at the top of the food chain in the Civic lineup.

That honor now goes to the Civic Type R, with the Si model positioned between the Type R and the standard Civic models. It may not be as brash as the Type R in appearance, but that may be a good thing if you haven’t warmed up to the in-your-face styling on the Type R. The Si model has its own rear wing and design touches, but it’s a lot more understated.

Photo: David Haueter

Under the hood of the Civic Si is a 1.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder motor that puts out 205hp and 192 lb-ft. of torque, which is enough to get it to 60mph in around 6.5 seconds. The engine is smooth and tractable and mates up to a six-speed manual transmission. There’s no automatic transmission option on this car.

The Civic Si has some other slick performance features like adaptive dampers and a helical limited slip differential, and comes standard with active safety features. It only comes in three colors (blue, black, red), and is a relative bargain with a starting price of just $25,200. If you opt for the HPT model that’s just $200 more, you’ll also get high-performance summer tires rather than all-seasons.

The Civic Si is a pleasure to live with and drive every day.

There’s plenty of room inside with comfortable and supportive front seats and everything seems to be built pretty well considering the bargain price on this car. It is a Honda after all. The infotainment center wasn’t all that intuitive at first but is easy to use once you get used to it, and the ergonomics and position of the seat to the steering wheel, pedals and shift lever is spot on.

Photo: David Haueter

I drove the Civic Si from New Jersey to southern Virginia, and that trip revealed the cars multi-faceted character.

The Si was comfortable to spend long hours in on the interstate (while delivering an impressive 36mpg), but it was also fun to drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway and the back roads around VIR, with good balance and grip and a nicely damped suspension.

This car is lively and truly fun to drive, aided by a weight of just 2,906 lbs., which is 218 lbs. less than even the VW GTI. Gear changes are precise with a transmission that’s well matched to the power band of the engine, and the brakes had good pedal feel.

After spending a week in the car, I wanted to buy one, even though I’m not a fan of the rear styling. It’s a bargain, with performance that’s a level above the standard Civic and it’s a better daily driver than the Type R. Well done Honda.

Photo: David Haueter

The VW GTI is a hot hatch legend. My first experience with the GTI came in college in 1985, with a friend that had a first generation model that we would drive all over on the twisty roads in Rockland County, New York. Like the Civic Si, the GTI is a level above the standard VW Golf models but below the less common “R” models.

The GTI is stealthy and doesn’t stand out as much as the Civic Si does. Even though it has more aggressive aero and exhaust and larger wheels and tires, it doesn’t look that much different overall than the standard Golf model but has significantly better performance.

Powering the GTI is a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder motor that produces 228hp and 258 lb-ft. of torque, which takes it from 0-60mph in around 5.7 seconds – almost a full second quicker than the Civic Si. Our test car had VW’s optional DSG dual-clutch automatic transmission ($800), but a 6-speed manual transmission is still standard equipment on this car.

The GTI comes in three different flavors that add different levels of options. The base S model starts at $28,695, the mid-level SE is $32,665 and the top of the line Autobahn edition is $36,945. The Autobahn edition that we drove features, among other things, adaptive shocks and summer performance tires that improve handling.

Photo: David Haueter

The GTI has a much more austere feeling in the cockpit than the Civic Si, though that could be a good thing depending on your tastes.

The leather seats that are part of the Autobahn package are firm but comfortable, and I like the flat-bottom steering wheel and the analog gauges. It was an “old school” feel to it, but everything feels right. It doesn’t have as much storage nooks as the Civic Si but is very practical with the classic hatch design.

I put about the same amount of miles on the GTI as the Civic Si, with a round-trip from New Jersey to Ohio.

Even with its shorter wheelbase, the GTI was just as comfortable on the highway, aided by the adaptive suspension that has a Comfort mode in addition to Sport. The motor was gutsy and pulled strong when passing tractor-trailers uphill and the transmission was well-suited to the engine, with quick, seamless shifts.

Photo: David Haueter

GTI’s have always been fun on the back roads, and this latest one is no exception. Handling is confident and controlled, but there is a touch of torque-steer when you get hard on the throttle.

It feels faster than the Civic Si (which it is) and the brakes were also highly effective, with 13.4” vented discs up front that would bring the car to quick stops with utter composure.

I would be happy to own either of these cars, and VW has a new GTI as well as a new Golf R coming for the 2022 model year that promise to raise the bar even higher for the quintessential hot hatch. Honda also has a new Civic coming for 2022 that is a bit more restrained in some of it’s styling features.

As much as I liked the GTI, the Civic Si would be my choice if I had to pick one today, despite some questionable design features.

It’s just as much fun to drive, is more economical, has more room inside (especially the back seat), and is a better overall value. You can’t go wrong with either of these cars though, if you’re looking for a practical, fun to drive car that’s under $30,000.

David Haueter has been an automotive writer and photographer for the past 20 years. His writing and photos have been published in Roundel, Bimmer, Forza and Excellence and SportsCarInsider as well as other automotive and racing magazines.

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