It can be tough being the middle child, constantly vying for attention and approval of others.
Thirty years ago, the Volkswagen GTI and Honda Civic Si didn’t need to worry about the Golf R or Civic Type R stealing all their performance limelight the way they do now. Nor were there efficient, overachieving siblings like the eGolf or Civic EX-T claiming all the praise for minimalist fuel consumption. No, times were easier then, when these cars were the top-dogs in their respective model lineups.
But not anymore.
These models need to work hard for their accolades, and the competition has grown from outside their respective families too, with the likes of Hyundai’s formidable Elantra Sport and Ford’s wild and woolly Focus ST, to name a few.
Each has matured into safe and spacious, quick and comfortable cars equally suited for weekend autocross exploits as they are for family-hauling duties, but is one better at these tasks than the other?
It goes without saying that nobody who was around to remember the Civic Si or the GTI 30 years ago has aged anywhere near as well as these two athletic machines. The Mk 7 GTI has been around a few years already, basically making it a senior citizen by automotive cycle standards. And yet, its styling remains every bit as handsome and pleasing as it was in 2014. Nobody else does the two-box hatchback style with as much class as VW, thanks largely to the restraint exercised by the stylists who have evolved the GTI over time, rather than chasing (or pushing) styling trends. Simplicity ages well, and this GTI is still going to look great for years to come.
ALSO SEE: 2017 Honda Civic Type R Review
Honda, on the other hand, has taken a different approach. After the past few generations looking a little frumpy, the new Si (especially in coupe format) is quite striking, especially from 20 paces. Its profile is long, lean and raked, and appears to be a proper sports sedan. It’s also visibly larger than the GTI in every obvious dimension except height.
There are angles to it that are overdone, though nowhere near as vulgar as the scooped and spoiler-happy Type R. The giant lobster-claw tail lights are still just weird despite the familiarity that thousands of other Civics have brought. And there’s an awful lot going on up front too, with oversized black cut outs that are supposed to resemble giant air intakes, but do little more than house the small fog lights. The headlight housing is menacingly squinty with rows of LED bulbs.
Even the choice of wheels highlights the differences between the two design philosophies. Volkswagen has fitted the GTI with an evolution of the giant Cuisinart blades they’ve been successfully using for more than a dozen years. The Honda’s are a busy, twisted multi-spoke design that’s trendy right now.
|Vehicle||Volkswagen GTI||Advantage||Honda Civic Si|
|Engine||2.0L turbo 4-cyl||-||1.5L turbo 4-cyl|
|Torque||258 lb-ft||VW||192 lb-ft|
|Transmission||6-speed dual clutch auto/manual||-||6-speed manual|
|Cargo Capacity (cu-ft)||23/53||VW||14.7|
|Cargo Capacity (liters)||651/1,500||VW||416|
|US Fuel Economy (MPG)||25 city/34 hwy/29.5 combined||Honda||28 city/38 hwy/33 combined|
|CAN Fuel Economy (L/100 km)||9.7 city/7 hwy/8.5 combined||Honda||8.4 city/6.2 hwy/7.4 combined|
|US Starting Price||$25,595||Honda||$23,900|
|CAN Starting Price||$29,495||Honda||$28,490|
Both companies have paid careful attention to making the driver’s cockpit not only the command center for performance driving, but also a comfortable place to access the car’s considerable technology and amenities.
The Volkswagen’s interior is familiar and serious with controls and textures that will be familiar to anyone who’s driven any VW product in recent years. Our mid-trim “5-door Autobahn” adds a bit of whimsy with its Clark plaid seats – a look that’s either loved or hated, it seems. Best of all, the GTI still presents its speedometer and tachometer in big, ol’ round dials, just the way it ought to be.
Honda continues to draw inspiration from the video game world for its dashboard, with a digital display nestled beneath an over-arching tachometer.
Both cars offer Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity in their infotainment systems that work really well. Volkswagen’s 6.5-inch touchscreen is flanked by rows of redundancy buttons that help make for quick and easy operation. It also features both a volume and tuning knob – simple things, but after fiddling with the Honda’s slider thingy to adjust the volume on the 7-inch touchscreen, it’s a welcome throwback to a less-digital era. Plus, the GTI’s Fender-tuned audio system sounds much better than the Honda’s.
The seats in both machines offer sufficiently aggressive bolstering to help keep drivers in place during cornering fun, but aren’t so wild as to be confining or uncomfortable for long-haul drives. Heated front seats are standard fare in each, with the Honda also offering rear seat passengers the benefit of toasty buns, too.
Backseat passengers will also appreciate the Honda’s remarkably generous rear leg room that’s nearly 50 mm greater than the Volkswagen’s, although if they’re tall of torso, they’d prefer the GTI’s greater rear head room.
On paper, the Volkswagen’s hatchback format enables greater cargo capacity, bringing to light a disappointing fact: the Civic hatchback cannot be ordered in Si trim.
By modern standards, 200 horsepower is a pretty modest sum, particularly for sporty machines like these. Minivans regularly eclipse that figure by 60 or more ponies, and even direct competitors like the Focus ST and Subaru WRX put out much bigger power numbers. And yet, each of these cars still feels spritely and fun, particularly zipping around traffic-congested cities.
Our GTI test car was fitted with VW’s excellent 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine and DSG dual-clutch automatic transmission. While we’d prefer the engagement of rowing our own gears, there’s no denying the car is quicker when the cyborgs do the work. It also enables the GTI to have two entirely different personalities.
In “Normal” mode and with the transmission in “D”, the GTI does a pretty good impression of a benign economy car, with modest thrust and fuel-saving shift points. In “Sport” mode and with the steering wheel-mounted paddles employed, the GTI absolutely comes alive, making excellent use of its 258 lb-ft of torque.
The Civic Si, on the other hand at 1.5-liters, is down half a liter in engine displacement to the Volkswagen, resulting in a 66 lb-ft deficit of twist. And with curb weights only 34 kg apart, the similar power outputs (205 for the Si, 210 for the GTI) draws attention to the Honda developing its power at higher RPMs than the Volkswagen. The GTI is definitely the quicker car.
ALSO SEE: 2017 Honda Civic Si Review
The little turbocharged four-cylinder in the Civic Si provides an entirely different character than any Si before it. Gone are the days of stratospheric-revving and VTEC power delivery. This new engine is all about usable mid-range for easier day-to-day driving. And it’s not particularly melodic in doing so, either. Worse still, when driving the Si with any sort of gusto, the revs hang a moment between shifts, making gear changes less-than-smooth. Truthfully, the Si’s engine tune doesn’t feel much different than the same engine used in less sporting Civic models.
Of course, acceleration isn’t everything and there are few manufacturers who make a better manual gearbox than Honda, so it’s no surprise the Si’s is a joy to use. Shifts are short and precise and the clutch is light enough to even make stop-and-go-traffic sufferers never regret having a stick shift. It’s just as well, too, since Honda doesn’t offer an Si with anything but a manual.
Where Honda has really upped its game versus last year’s Si, is in the handling department. The Civic is lithe and nimble, yet feels impressively planted. Grip is very good and the steering, while light and somewhat vague (like most modern electrically assisted steering systems), is at least quick and precise.
The GTI, long an example of just how good a properly tuned front-wheel-drive car can feel, remains an impressive back-road dance partner with its good steering feel and composure. What keeps the GTI so endearing, though, is the solid feeling it provides. It possesses that certain density or mass (without feeling heavy) that’s found in many European cars that make them so confidence-inspiring at speed.
One unquestionable trait the Civic Si has always offered its owners is impressive value for dollar, and this new one is no different. With a starting price of $23,900 ($28,490 in Canada), Honda doesn’t nickel and dime buyers with expensive option packages to get the most desirable features. The Civic Si comes one way – loaded with all the features – requiring the buyer to only choose a color (which, by the way, won’t cost extra no matter which hue is chosen).
The GTI also starts at under $30,000 in both Canada and the U.S., but that’s for a base model with no options. A competitively equipped 5-door like our test car, even without the DSG transmission, will still set a buyer back quite a bit more, easily hitting the mid-$30K range. That’s a pretty big cost disparity between the two in a category that is certainly price sensitive.
The Civic Si is not only well-equipped and has good value versus the GTI, but also compared to the Subaru WRX or the Focus ST, which are both more expensive. Only Hyundai’s new Elantra Sport tops it for value.
None of the competitors come close to the Civic’s fuel efficiency, however, with the government rating the Si at 28 mpg in the city, 38 on the highway and 33 combined (8.4L/100 km city, 6.2 highway and 7.4 combined) versus the GTI’s ratings of 25 mpg city, 34 highway, and 29.5 combined (9.7 L/100 km city, 7 highway and 8.5 combined).
The Verdict: 2017 Honda Civic Si vs Volkswagen GTI
There is a heck of a lot to like with the new Honda Civic Si. The improvements to its nimbleness and handling especially deserve special recognition. Rowing a Honda six-speed transmission remains one of life’s simple pleasures, and the excellent value the Si represents can’t be ignored.
And yet, the GTI just feels (though certainly is) more expensive. It’s a car that seems worth spending more money because the buyer gets a more polished and higher performing machine. Throw in the added practicality of its hatchback and the sophisticated styling, and the Volkswagen remains too good to pass up.
Also, make sure to check out this hot hatch comparison!
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Honda Civic Si