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Faceoff

Speedy hatchbacks for young and old Add to ...

This pair of pocket rockets with turbocharged engines, tight steering, monster brakes and snazzy looks are not what anyone would call run-of-the-mill econoboxes.

The 2010 Volkswagen GTI is part of the six-generation Golf family dating back to 1970. Here, the turbocharged four-cylinder spins up 200 horsepower. Seems modest compared to the 263-hp Mazdaspeed3, but there is less performance separation between the two than the numbers would suggest.

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And there is the small matter of price. At $29,675, the VW is more than $3,000 less than the Mazda. However, a $3,000 rebate on the 'Speed3 narrows the gap almost entirely. Price-wise, these two are a wash.



2010 MazdaSpeed3

2010 VW Golf GTI

Looks

7.5/10 - That gaping front grille, the hood scoop, rear spoiler and the wedge-shaped back end are telling signs of the 'Speed3's racy bent. It's a look that speaks to under-30-somethings directly.

8.0/10 - The design is mature and tasteful and clean, with just a few hints of the performance potential under the skin.

Interior

7.5 - Decent room and the turbo gauge is a hoot. Sport seats have side bolstering, but more padding would help for long-distance comfort.

9.0 -Best in class. Chrome-trimmed buttons and brushed-metal accents are wonderful, and the flat-bottom steering wheel creates a race-car feel.

Ride

7.5 - This is tough. If ride includes handling, the 'Speed3 is a treat - a real track-killer for a front-driver. But ride comfort? This is a firm one.

8.0 - Firm but not punishing. If you want to air the GTI out, it will reward you with quick responses. But day to day, you can live with this car.

Safety

8.5 - Good crash test scores and lots of safety features, including a nice array of airbags.

8.5 - Like most cars these days, the crash test scores are good and the safety devices thorough.

Green

7.0 - The idea here is not to be a fuel miser, though if you don't punch it around, fuel economy is good.

7.5 - Not bad fuel economy for a hard-charging little rig - especially if you're easy on the throttle.

Overall

8.0 (out of 10; not an average)

8.5 (out of 10; not an average)



They're both five-door hatchbacks, too. So the designs are useful when you need your sporty little runabout to do double duty as a handy cargo carrier. In either one, it's easy to stuff in a mountain bike or golf clubs or snowboards, and so on.

The VW is the quieter and more fuel-efficient of the two. For space, they are almost identical overall, though with the back seat up, the Mazda has a cargo volume edge (481 litres versus 413 litres), while with the seat down, the roles reverse: 1,300 litres for the VW, 1,213 the Mazda.

The GTI's engine feels solid and spry when you mash the throttle. Power pours on evenly right into the upper reaches of the tachometer. The suspension is firm, but hardly punishing. The speed-sensing power steering has just enough low-speed boost to make parking easy, but when the going gets faster, the boost lightens. So there is good steering feel at a big range of speeds.

VW generally has a poor history for built quality, yet this GTI feels tight and solid, and the cabin is the sharpest of its class - more expensive looking than the 'Speed3. The chrome-trimmed buttons and brushed-metal accents are wonderful, and the flat-bottom steering wheel creates a race-car feel.

Sure, you'll need to adjust both the seats and steering wheel manually, but it's hardly a bother and adjustments are infinite, so anyone will find a way to get comfortable. The seats themselves? Best in class. Firm but not hard, with bolstering to help hold you in place when cornering, but not too much of it to make you feel squeezed.

The 'Speed3, as the name suggests, is first of all about going fast, turning sharply and coming to a quick stop. Like the GTI, the 'Speed3 was fully redesigned for 2010, so the whole package is well up to date.

The two car companies has certainly taken different paths to almost entirely the same place, however. The GTI is the more subtle looker of the two, whereas the 'Speed3 is bold in the extreme. That gaping front grille, the hood scoop, rear spoiler and the wedge-shaped back end are telling signs of the 'Speed3's racy bent.

Let's face it: the 'Speed3 is a high-performance scorcher. The 263-hp engine comes complete with turbo-boost gauge. Peek at it to see when you're really squeezing the life out of the turbo. High-tech items include adaptive headlights, push-button ignition and dual-zone climate control. Overall, this is one frisky ride.

In fact, perhaps it will prove too serious a pocket rocket for all but the most committed. Take the seats. The sports seats have side bolsters that hug your body almost too well. Yet for the long haul, I'd argue the GTI's seemed more supportive. The ride is firmer than the VW, too; you'll feel the bumps. And you'll also hear more engine roar when driving to the limit.

So which one? For the under-30 crowd, the 'Speed three offers more thrills and more visual "gee-whiz" appeal. For the over-40 crowd, the GTI is the clear favourite. It's a more mature package all-around.

Those of you in the middle, the 30 to 40 set, will need to test them both.

jcato@globeandmail.com

2010 Mazdaspeed3

2010 Volkswagen Golf GTI

Type:

Compact five-door hatchback

Compact five-door hatchback

Price:

$32,995; as tested, $34,390 including freight

$29,675; as tested, $31,040 including freight

Engine:

2.3-litre inline-four-cylinder, turbocharged

2.0-litre, inline-four-cylinder, turbocharged

Horsepower/torque:

263 hp/280 lb-ft

200 hp/207 lb-ft

Transmission:

Six-speed manual

Six-speed manual

Drive:

Front-wheel

Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km):

11.5 city/8.0 highway; premium gas

10.0 city/6.6 highway; premium gas

Alternatives:

Honda Civic Si, Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart, Mini Cooper S and John Cooper Works edition, Subaru WRX, Volkswagen GTI

Honda Civic Si, Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart, Mini Cooper S and John Cooper Works edition, Subaru WRX, MazdaSpeed3

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