STAGE 1: The kids are alright
Even cheap compacts can let it all hang out on race weekend.
Tom Forst: White-collar wage slave during the week, take-no-prisoners racer on Sunday.
Honda Civic Si: A bit long-in-the-tooth but still provides great value -- and an awesome sound track.
Volkswagen GTI: Luxury-car refinement and German sports car performance in compact-car clothing.
For longer than just about anyone else, Volkswagen and Honda have been filling the gap for the twenty-something enthusiast. Starting with an eminently affordable small car, each automaker then drops in a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine good for about 200 hp, swaps in a heap of suspension goodies, and adds a smattering of spoilers and badges. Just like that, the ubiquitous Civic and Golf are transformed into the legendary Si and GTI. Fun to drive, cheap to run, and tasteful enough to take to a job-a real job-both cars perfectly suit the up-and-coming, car-crazy young adult. But which is better?
To find out, we headed to Belle Isle in Detroit, where the Michigan Sports Car Club had turned a parking lot into a sprawling autocross course. Requiring little investment from the driver aside from a helmet, and posing little risk to the car, autocrossing is an ideal gateway to racing for a cash-strapped young person (although regulars find plenty of ways to invest obscene amounts of money). It also happens to be the perfect venue for sorting out two compact cars that post nearly identical performance numbers. To keep everything consistent and to get some real-world input, we brought along our own twenty-eight-year-old racing driver, Tom Forst. An industrial engineer from Ortonville, Michigan, during the week, Forst spends his weekends tearing up Waterford Hills raceway in a four-cylinder Fox-body Ford Mustang.
Much like war and J. R. R. Tolkien novels, autocrossing features a few moments of heart-pounding action separated by hours of boredom -- meaning we have a long time to wait. At least this gives Forst plenty of time to familiarize himself with his two steeds. He immediately takes to the GTI's mature, refined interior over the Honda's more utilitarian (read: cheaper-looking) cabin. He does, however, appreciate the Civic's thickly bolstered driver's seat. "It's really firm and holds you in place," he says.
We also get a chance to scope out the competition, who have parked in various demographic and automotive cliques. There are the mostly gray-haired men easing Chevy Corvettes off trailers in the center and a few young guns in heavily modified Dodge/Plymouth Neons near the Porta-John. There are also plenty of VWs like ours, including a 2010 GTI piloted by, surprise, an engineer in his mid-twenties. The Civic guys, for their part, are sequestered in a far corner, smoking and looking tough. The bumper sticker on one late-model Si reads, "I love hatrs." They also seem slightly younger than their German-loving peers, with one owner identifying himself as a twenty-two-year-old med student.
Finally, after about an hour of crawling toward the starting position in the ninety-degree heat, Forst gets his chance in the Civic. He looks pretty smooth and, unlike some of the other drivers, doesn't take out half the cones on his first go-round. His times, though, are a bit slow. Fourteen seconds off the lead in the first run, a few ticks better in the second. Like any good racer, Forst blames the car. "The Civic pushes like a truck," he grouses. And although the Civic comes with a limited-slip differential, not enough of its 197 hp makes it to the pavement, as the inner wheel squeals out of every turn (with the standard all-season Michelin tires, at least). Maybe this is why Mr. Hatr Lover is sticking to the parking lot.
After some more waiting, Forst gets to take a run in the GTI. His times immediately improve by about two seconds. Then four seconds. More telling is the smile on his face when he finds his way over to our spot in the shade. "There's a clear difference in the handling and feel of the car," he says. "You can feel when the back end is rotating and where it is." Clearly, the VW's fat rear antiroll bar and clever use of ABS to control wheel spin exiting corners -- the big advancements on the sixth-gen model -- are paying off.
However, it's not all grim news for the Civic, which, it must be noted, is about $2500 cheaper than our GTI despite coming equipped with a navigation system. For one, it can be the more engaging of the two cars on the street, where its quick steering and howling 2.0-liter squeeze out more adrenaline than the more relaxed GTI and its lower-revving turbo engine. "The Civic is a fun car to drive -- it just wouldn't be the one I'd bring out here," concludes Forst. The Si also showcases Honda's continuing devotion to, and mastery of, the manual gearbox. The VW's six-speed manual, by comparison, feels a bit rubbery and gives Forst considerable trouble on one run.
At the end of the day, though, the Civic's charm simply cannot overcome the German hatch's unyielding superiority. There's little doubt, in Forst's mind or ours, that the GTI is the better choice for the up-and-coming twenty-year-old, both as comfortable, upscale transportation to work during the week and as a cone-slicing weapon on the weekends.
HONDA CIVIC Si :
Engine (Base/As Tested) : $22,955/$24,805
Engine: 2.0L I-4, 197 hp, 139 lb-ft
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Engine (base/as tested) : $23,990/$27,255
Engine: 2.0L turbo I-4, 200 hp, 207 lb-ft
Transmission: 6-speed manual
GET A GRIP
Comfortable and in control. Bionic driving gloves, $40 at
STEP ON IT
Snug yet flexible for precise pedal inputs. Oakley Race Low 2, $90 at
Record your on-track antics in high-def.
Flip ultra HD, $200 at theflip.com and panavise 809-PG mount, $43 at www.panavise.com
HIT THE STREETS
Hot Import Nights events transform major cities into motor cities with car shows, tuner parts, and fast driving.
STAGE 2: Dad's night out
A sexy sports car is just the trick for escaping the responsibilities of one's thirties.
Jay Caldwell: Divides his time among his business, his family, and his 1971 Chevrolet Chevelle convertible.
Ford Mustang GT: The pony car has grown up but can still lay down the rubber, thanks to its fabulous 5.0-liter V-8.
Nissan 370Z: The Z is celebrating its fortieth birthday but doesn't rest on its laurels.
If you've read thirty-two-year-old Ezra Dyer's column this month, you're fully aware of how the thirties can change the priorities of even the most devout car nut. (If you haven't, he's on page 26. Go ahead, we'll wait.) The house, the kids, the job. They don't seem to leave much time for indulging in cool cars. This, however, is precisely why vehicles like the Ford Mustang GT and the Nissan 370Z thrive. Priced beyond the means of all but the most spoiled of youths, they serve as perfect getaway vehicles from the crushing responsibilities of adulthood.
The desire for just such an escape takes us to Detroit's annual Woodward Dream Cruise in a grabber blue Mustang GT premium and a fortieth-anniversary-edition Nissan 370Z. With us is a real, live thirty-eight-year-old, Jay Caldwell of Shelby Township, Michigan. As the owner of both a local Meineke Car Care and a pristinely restored 1971 Chevrolet Chevelle convertible, Caldwell certainly fits the bill as a car guy. But he's also a busy family man with a two-year-old daughter and a car-crazy nine-year-old son. Racing? Forget it. "I'm too old for that. I'd rather go out for ice cream with my kids," he says with a laugh.
Good thing. Because not much racing is happening as we pull onto Woodward Avenue in Ferndale, just north of Detroit. Instead, clumps of Corvettes, Chargers, and Trans Ams are creeping along at no more than 20 mph, the air shimmering with big-block heat and unfiltered exhaust fumes. Even among this impressive crowd, our two rides stand out. The 370Z's distinctly modern and, yes, Japanese lines provide a refreshing contrast to the vintage American muscle car overload around us. Even our model, which marks four decades since the 240Z's arrival on our shores with special gray paint and unique interior touches, has few overtly retro touches. "The Z has a ton of history, but it doesn't try to relive the old days," comments Caldwell. And yet he's also drawn to the Mustang, which recalls the 1960s with every crease in its sheetmetal. He particularly admires Ford's attention to detail, such as the sequential rear turn signals. The 5.0 badges don't hurt, either, and drivers of lesser Mustangs nod in deference as we pass.
The glorified traffic jam also gives Caldwell a chance to take in how the interiors of the Mustang and the 370Z have matured with their recent updates. Caldwell at first seems to prefer the Mustang for practical reasons-he finds the stereo crisper and cleaner and likes the idea of having a back seat for his kids. But he wavers when he sinks into the Z's red leather driver's seat and settles his hands on the perfectly positioned steering wheel. "You become a part of the Nissan," he says.
Finally, as dusk descends and we edge past 8 Mile Road, which marks the dividing line between Detroit and its northern suburbs, the traffic eases up. Welcome to Mustang territory. "This one's just brute power," Caldwell says as he gives the GT a bit of throttle. The heavy police presence prevents us from submitting to spectators' calls to race, but our separate closed-course testing confirms that the 412-hp 'Stang owns the 332-hp Nissan by about a second both in the 0-to-60-mph sprint and through the quarter mile. And then there's the sound. Whereas the Z's aging VQ V-6 is all noise, vibration, and harshness, the Mustang's new V-8 is loud and menacing when it should be and nearly sewing-machine smooth the rest of the time. The Nissan wins some points for its novel manual gearbox, which not only has slightly smoother throws than the Mustang's stick but also impresses Caldwell with its ability to match revs automatically on downshifts. "I do like that," he confirms. Ride quality is mostly a wash between the two cars, save for when just the right frequency of potholes hits the Mustang's live rear axle and sets its occupants bouncing.
By 10:30 p.m., the party's over, as police are demanding that the muscle-car-loving spectators go home. Plus, Caldwell needs to get back to being a family man. But he's enjoyed the escape provided by each of these sporty cars, albeit in different ways. "I wish I could combine the best elements of both cars," he notes. He's reticent to pick a winner, but he admits that his son would have less trouble picking between the two. "I think Sam would like the Mustang." We can't help but agree. If we were going all out on a racetrack, we'd likely pick the lighter, more sophisticated Z. But here on the streets, where a real thirty-something will actually drive it, the more comfortable, more refined Mustang seems like the smarter choice. Ford's V-8-powered pony car remains visceral and brutish enough to please any testosterone-addled teenager but has evolved such that it also meets the more demanding tastes of the thirty-somethings who can actually afford one.
FORD MUSTANG GT
Price (base/as tested): $30,495/$41,830
Engine: 5.0L V-8, 412 hp, 390 lb-ft
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Price (base/as tested): $31,160/$40,160
Engine: 3.7L V-6, 332 hp, 270 lb-ft
Transmission: 6-speed manual
More track time means you'll be wanting a lighter and cooler helmet. HJC Motorsports Si-12, $700 at www.hjc-motorsports.com
LOG YOUR LAPS
Record your times at the racetrack, and then download the results the next day. mylaps car transponder, $399 at www.mylaps.com
HONE YOUR SKILLS
Go to a racing school, where a professional instructor and some time on a track will help you learn the fastest way around the pavement.
STAGE 3: Adults have all the fun.
More power, more speed, and more fun in the most unassuming packages.
Jim Zamberlan: A fan of German metal, manual transmissions, and the occasional track day.
BMW M3: A veritable legend that has long stood atop the automotive pantheon for its effortless speed and rewarding feedback.
Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG: It makes more horsepower and torque than the M3, but the C63 is unquestionably the underdog here.
With the BMW M3 and the Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG, perfectly adult wrappers mask the penchant for juvenile mischief, making these sport sedans ripe for the professional who's also a speed freak. Four doors and their familiar body shapes proclaim "practical!" "upscale!" "stable!" when parked in the corporate corral. Yet the subtle styling cues are enough that anybody who knows a clutch pedal from a brake recognizes that they're looking at two credible track cars.
We're verifying that credibility at GingerMan Raceway in South Haven, Michigan, where we've laid down a mere $60 for a couple hours of open track during a Tuesday night test-and-tune session. Our driver is a serious German car fan, forty-six-year-old Jim Zamberlan. After his high-school graduation gift -- a Triumph Spitfire -- was totaled in a parking lot, Zamberlan picked up his first Teutonic machine, an '86 Volkswagen GTI. He currently owns a 2010 Audi A4 Avant and a 2004 Volkswagen R32 that he takes to the track a few times per year.
After Zamberlan runs his initial laps in the C63, we're relegated to the parking lot while a Formula Continental driver shakes down his open-wheel car for the coming weekend's race. "I've always been a manual guy," Zamberlan pronounces. "Certainly, I can see the appeal of a good automatic transmission, because you immediately feel like Michael Schumacher with the rev matching. But at the end of the day, I'd probably buy a three-pedal car." Only one car here -- the M3 -- is available with a manual transmission, and both cars we've brought to the track use automatics with seven forward gears and paddle shifters on the steering wheel.
Zamberlan takes off for another twenty-minute session, this time in the Melbourne red M3, and returns knowing he's just driven the better track car. "It's clear to me that, in the right hands, this is ultimately the more capable car," he says, acknowledging that the C63 understeers more readily than the BMW. In addition to a more nimble chassis, the BMW offers greater range in character with electronically adjustable dampers, the ability to alter shift speeds in the dual-clutch gearbox, and the convenient "M" button on the steering wheel to activate your preferred settings. The Mercedes relies on passive dampers that are tuned for a livable ride that's still confident on the track.
Mercedes-Benz's $5950 AMG Development package stretches output from 451 hp to 481 hp, and the additional 2.2 liters of displacement over the BMW gives the C63 an additional 148 lb-ft of torque. That's an absolute boon for daily driving, but on the track, we're playing at the top end of the tachometer, and the BMW keeps up while humming happily and aggressively so close to its 414-hp peak at 8300 rpm.
The C63 tops its massive torque with an intoxicating exhaust note, something that absolutely enchants Zamberlan. "To me, it's so unexpected that the Mercedes would sound better." The M3's exhaust is decadent as well, but the graceful crescendo is more like that of a high-strung racing car than the deep, rowdy fracas of the AMG. Our M3 also emits a disappointing heat-shield rattle akin to what you'd expect from a modded mid-'90s Honda Civic every time it takes off from a stop.
Peering through the passenger window, Zamberlan calls out the BMW's nondescript cabin: "That does not look like a $60,000 interior." The Mercedes seats also provide better lateral support than those in the M3, particularly from the bottom-cushion bolsters, reminding Zamberlan of the stock König buckets in his R32.
"I just felt comfortable in the Mercedes, period," concludes Zamberlan. "I would get more out of it faster." And what about that automatic transmission? "If I'd driven an M3 with a manual, would I change my mind? I don't know, but I will grudgingly admit that the Mercedes' seven-speed auto was very, very good."
"If every day was a track day, I'd probably go with the M3 just because I'm fairly positive that, given time and familiarity with the limits of both, I could post a faster lap in the BMW," Zamberlan suggests. "But in the real world, I just connected more with the C63 than I did with the M3, and while the Mercedes' ultimate limits may be slightly lower in the hands of someone far more skilled, I enjoyed it immensely on the track."
Price (base/as tested): $57,575/$66,775
Engine: 4.0L V-8, 414 hp, 295 lb-ft
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
MERCEDES-BENZ C63 AMG
Price: (basae/as tested): $60,325/$77,105
Engine: 6.2L V-8, 481 hp, 443 lb-ft
Transmission: 7-speed automatic
If you have to ask...
Slip into a full racing suit before sliding behind the wheel. SPARCO PROFY, $949 AT www.sparcousa.com/
RELIVE THE STRESS
Capture every turn with video, audio, vehicle data, and lap information.
Race-KeepeR SE STarts at $1395, www.race-keeper.com
MAKE A PILGRIMAGE
No race fan's life is complete without a journey to attend one of the classic races. Try skipping the ovals of NASCAR and Indy and head for the world's oldest endurance race, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. www.lemans.org