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Who would think that a tiny snail could cause such a ruckus? However, where once performance-oriented Honda products relied on revvy, naturally-aspirated engines, the company has turned to the forced-induction side, embracing turbocharging throughout the range. For the Civic Si, that means a turbo’d, small-displacement four-cylinder engine now goes directly up against the likes of the VW GTI, which has been turbocharged for nearly two decades. Which one does the pocket-rocket dance better?

Tech specs

2018 Honda Civic Si Coupe

Brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

  • Price, as tested: $29,090
  • Engine: 1.5-litre turbocharged four-cylinder
  • Transmission/Drive: six-speed manual / front-wheel drive
  • Horsepower: 205 hp
  • Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 8.4 city, 6.2 highway

2018 Volkswagen GTI Autobahn

Brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

  • Price, as tested: $39,045
  • Engine: 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder
  • Transmission/Drive: six-speed dual-clutch automatic / front-wheel drive
  • Horsepower: 220 hp
  • Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 9.6 city, 7.2 highway

Looks

Civic Si: Building on an already very aggressively styled basic car, the Civic Si pumps up the volume with lots of faux aerodynamic bits, a colossal rear wing, and a Lamborghini-sized rear tailpipe that looks like the business end of a vacuum cleaner. It is loud, brash, and overexuberant, perhaps better suited to the readers of Sleeve Tattoo And Vape Pen Monthly, rather than The Globe and Mail. Consider this an homage to all those modified Civics inspired by the Fast and the Furious franchise, rather than the descendant of the clean, simple lines of the original Si.

GTI Autobahn: Inoffensively handsome is probably not what you want to have listed on your Tinder profile, but where the GTI is concerned, it works. While this is a sportier version of the buttoned-down Golf, you have to look closely to see the clues: discreet fender badges, twin exhaust pipes out back, a smattering of red lining around the headlights and grille. Where the Civic shouts, the GTI murmurs, and for enthusiast drivers who prefer a little subtlety, that’s a good thing.

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Interior

The seats in the Si offer a good amount of bolstering without being uncomfortable.

Brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

Civic Si: If the Honda’s exterior is a little juvenile, it’s all grown up on the inside. The Si is a mono-spec car, meaning that just one trim level is available, and it’s well sorted. The seats are flat-out excellent, offering a tremendous amount of bolstering without being uncomfortable. There’s a tremendous amount of space in the cargo area between the seats, and the carbon-fibre-look trim isn’t overdone.

This being a coupe, there are some practical drawbacks for rear-seat passengers. However, the rear seats are big enough to accommodate either a child seat or an adult for a short trip. Fast families should note that the sedan version of the Si doesn’t come with much of a weight penalty, and is also a little less expensive.

The GTI’s tartan seats are a callback to the original 1980s vehicle.

Brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

GTI Autobahn: If you want a little whimsy in your German hot-hatchback, why not find it on the inside? The GTI’s tartan seats – a callback to the original 1980s machine – are a no-cost option and look great. The rest of the interior is a mix of no-nonsense layout and upscale trim that looks more expensive than it actually is. BMWs used to all be like this.

Performance

The Si’s chassis and handling are excellent, lively, quick and thrilling.

BRENDAN MCALEER/The Globe and Mail

Civic Si: At first, the Honda’s new turbocharged engine is a bit of a letdown. While the ferocious Type-R grabs headlines with its 300-plus horsepower 2.0-litre engine, the Si’s 205hp rating doesn’t really seem to quite bridge the gap. We were expecting a little more.

Further, the 1.5-litre engine isn’t a patch on the old Si naturally aspirated engines in terms of character. It’s got plenty of torque now, and rowing through the gears is fun, but you’ll run right into the rev-limiter at first since the engine simply doesn’t make much sound.

However, consider that most Honda products haven’t been about peak power production, but the way they use it. Here’s the good news: The Si’s chassis and handling are simply excellent, lively, quick and thrilling. The six-speed manual feels notchy at first, then precise. The steering tucks into corners with eager accuracy. There’s a vitality here that’s missing from some of Honda’s oldest rivals, and if the new turbo engine doesn’t demand high rpms any more, its gutsy torque combines with the Si’s true limited slip differential to blast out of corners. Add in a proper two-mode adjustable damping suspension, and the Si is a real driver’s car.

The GTI is the ideal all-rounder, capable of handling pretty much any conditions.

Brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

GTI Autobahn: While not really new technology, the GTI’s stout 2.0-litre engine has gobs of torque and solid horsepower. It too is more than a few ponies down from the highest-performance variant, the Golf R, but with only the front wheels to drive, acceleration is snappy and instant.

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Unlike the Si, which is manual only, Volkswagen offers two transmission choices for the GTI. While the last six-speed manual I sampled wakes the car up a bit in the personality department, the DSG dual-clutch is probably better suited to the GTI’s temperament. Depending on driving mode selected, it can be either slickly efficient in traffic, or bang through the gears when the road gets twisty.

With that hefty, flat-bottomed steering wheel in your grasp and willing chassis and engine at your command, the GTI is very satisfying to drive. It’s the ideal all-rounder, capable of handling pretty much any condition.

However, it’s not really joyful. Apart from the tartan seats, this is a pretty clinical car – capable, yet perhaps not charming. It was fun enough to liven up day-to-day tasks, but never had me dreaming of a weekend adventure.

Technology

The Si's interface is disappointing, with no volume knob and some odd menu choices.

BRENDAN MCALEER/The Globe and Mail

Civic Si: Drivers won’t love the Si’s interface, which can be frustrating to use. Honda has struggled here for a while now, and although the new Accord has an effective and intuitive infotainment system, the Civic still lacks a volume knob and has a couple of odd menu choices. Further, as it’s a mono-spec car, there’s no upgrade available for onboard navigation.

The GTI has a sleek infotainment system and high-end Fender audio.

BRENDAN MCALEER/The Globe and Mail

GTI Autobahn: Most of the gaping price differential between these two cars is down to the trim, and you can get a more basic GTI at a closer price point. However, if you’re looking for a premium experience, VW has you covered with a slick-looking infotainment system, high-end Fender audio and a driver-assist package with lane-keeping and automated cruise control. You have to pay for these options, but they’re on offer.

Cargo

Civic Si: Again, those needing space for extra passengers should check out the four-door Si. However, the Si coupe’s 289-litre trunk is fine for the grocery run, though a little smaller than lesser trims.

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GTI Autobahn: Being a hatchback, the Golf easily trumps the Civic in capacity, with 646-litres behind the rear seats, or 1,462-litres when they’re folded flat.

Verdict

Civic Si: As a single trim that mostly gets things right, the Civic Si takes Canada’s favourite passenger car and makes it dance. Trading high-rpm fun for some turbocharged torque makes it more tractable in day-to-day use, and when you get on a twisting backroad, it shines. The Si gets better the more you drive it, and who could ask more than that?

GTI Autobahn: As an all-round proposition, the GTI is hard to beat. The only real issue is the price tag: when you’re this close to $40,000, the Golf R’s extra power and all-wheel-drive start looking very tempting. Alternatively, you could pare your GTI to a more basic layout, to better the argument against the Civic Si’s strong play for value. The brash Civic is more fun to drive, but not as good as a jack of all trades. In a world of turbocharged rivals, the GTI still brings the boost.

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