2006 Acura TSX vs. Honda Accord, Mazdaspeed 6, Pontiac G6, VW Jetta
First: 2006 Volkswagen Jetta GLI
In a perfect world, a guy who likes to unwind lonely driving roads on a brisk weekend morning owns an implement dedicated to just such an activity. A Mazda MX-5, for example. Or a Pontiac Solstice. Or a Honda S2000. Or. fill in your favorite sports car. But that ideal presupposes a big budget for grown-up toys, and/or the absence of parental obligations, which immediately add extra doors and seats to the equation. As much as we love ’em, sports cars are pure automotive self-indulgence, with a low practicality index. And the sad truth is, many of us are economically limited to one ride that has to serve a variety of everyday transportation functions, as well as satisfying your inner Michael Schumacher. Perhaps you’ve noticed this?
Take heart. Ownership of a car with four doors needn’t mean the end of fun-to-drive, and to support this proposition we present this field of five sub-$30,000 sports sedans that are just the ticket, able to deliver speed with a soupçon of luxury, too. Okay, more than a soupçon. A modicum. And in a couple cases, a profusion.
As a conceptual group, our roundup of 30-grand sports sedans isn’t new. It’s one of our regular sports-sedan reality checks. Still, there is much that is new here-in fact, only one of these five packages is familiar. That would be the Acura TSX, a sophisticated sweetheart that’s been on our 10Best Cars list since its 2004 debut. Modestly freshened for ’06, the TSX prevailed in our last under-30-grand decathlon (“Sustainable Sports Sedans ,” October 2004) and, consequently, anchors this one. (As with our 10Best Cars protocol, the also-rans in that derby weren’t invited to this one.)
The other everyday heroes are new for ’06 in varying degrees, and only one of them-the Jetta GLI-has gone through our battery of instrumented tests (October 2005 ). The GLI is the liveliest member of the Jetta family, and it shares its chassis and components with the GTI, VW’s famous hatchback hot rod. The Jetta’s inventory of go-faster hardware includes a new 2.0-liter direct-injection turbo four that churns up 197 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque, a useful upgrade from the previous 1.8-liter turbo motor’s 180 horsepower and 173 pound-feet, although the gain in output is mitigated by an increase at the scales.
The other force-fed car in the field is the long-awaited Mazdaspeed 6, with all-wheel drive and 274 horsepower available from a turbo version of Mazda’s 2.3-liter four. That’s almost enough to put the Mazda on an equal performance footing with bad boys like the Subaru Impreza WRX STI or Mitsubishi Evo, and it was more than enough to hustle the Mazda to the front of this pack in terms of sheer zoom-zoom.
As a refreshing change, a domestic entry made the starting grid, the GTP version of Pontiac’s G6 sedan, with more authority in the suspension, more grip, and more muscle, thanks to more displacement-3.9 liters in a pushrod V-6, very all-American.
Beyond that, we found ourselves with an element of family feud. The Honda Accord has never been a player in one of our sports-sedan spectaculars, but for 2006 its extensive freshening includes the availability of a robust EX edition with a 244-hp, 3.0-liter V-6 and a six-speed manual. That combination is a first for Honda’s bread-and-butter four-door, and an essential element in qualifying for this bash-a manual transmission was one of the basic requirements for invitation, and all five cars were equipped with you-shift-it six-speeds.
You might observe that a couple other prime everyday-hero candidates-the Audi A4 and the BMW 3-series-didn’t make the cut. What’s up with that? Money, that’s what. As was true in our 2004 comparo, even the humblest of 3-series sedans, the 325i, carries a base price of $31,595, overflowing our 30-grand ceiling, and that presumes you could even find an unadorned 325i. This also goes for the A4. A basic front-drive A4 starts at $28,360, but in an age of steadily shrinking evaluation fleets, finding a base edition of any vehicle is akin to finding the last virgin in Las Vegas.
We drove the 280 miles to southeast Ohio, where we scorched the edges of our 13.5-mile driving loop. The Hocking Hills route is rich in linked turns, decreasing radii, whoop-de-dos, elevation changes, and bird watchers in L.L.Bean outfits, all in all ideal for gauging a car’s SQ (sporting quotient). This time around, it had a profound impact on the outcome.