words: Bryan Joslin | photos: Jamie Vondruska | video: John Larson

This article first appeared on Motive on October 26, 2007

Wasn't it just yesterday that sport compacts were nothing more than four-cylinder econoboxes with bigger wheels, louder exhausts, and questionable plastic appendages? The niche has come a long way since Hammer pants were acceptable club wear, but recent history has been particularly kind to the concept thanks to a hyperactive development pace — fueled largely by the addition of turbochargers to those wheezy little four-bangers. As evidence of just how far the game has advanced, we've collected four of the best examples, two of them fresh off the boat.

We rounded up the Volkswagen GTI and the Mazdaspeed 3, both of which have a couple seasons under their belts, and paired them against two new-for-2008 challengers, the Dodge Caliber SRT4 and the Subaru WRX. To shake down the differences, we booked laps at the 2.1-mile south track of the Autobahn Country Club in Joliet, Illinois.

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At a time when Dodge was busy stuffing a Hemi into anything that would take it, the Neon SRT4 was an anomaly — light, tossable, and endowed with a pissed-off turbo four that rasped unapologetically though its straight-pipe exhaust. The Neon went the way of the Volare last year, replaced by the boxy Caliber compact, and the performance version of Dodge's pug-nosed hatchback — the Caliber SRT4 — has recently been unleashed on our roads. Its 2.4-liter turbo engine, a forced induction version of the powerplant found in the base Caliber and the Jeep Patriot, puts out 285 horses, easily making it the most powerful car in our test.

The Caliber was also largest car of the group, a fact that makes its presence known behind the wheel. From the driver's seat it feels more like a compact pickup or a 1980s SUV with its wide, flat dashboard and broad hood overlooking the horizon. It's only when you step out that you realize the Caliber is not nearly as tall as it feels from inside.

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The driver's seat itself seems made for Midwestern physiques — roomy through the hips, I believe, is the polite phrase. It's deeply bolstered and looks great, but its width may not hold small-framed drivers snugly. Cloth inserts inside leather bolsters help keep occupants planted, though.

The seats are the high point of the interior, which is otherwise swimming in low-end plastics, plenty of it chrome plated. Ours was equipped with "Performance Pages," an optional in-dash performance meter capable of measuring 0-60 and quarter-mile times as well as logging fore/aft and lateral g-forces, and braking distances. It's an interesting feature, but only logs one set of data at a time, and on a 285-horsepower road rocket, you have to wonder where most drivers will be checking their quarter mile times.

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Strokable dashboard materials don't matter much, though, as it's power — sheer, unbridled power — that is the Caliber's raison d'être. Its 285 horsepower and 265 lb-ft mean the SRT4 is not only the most potent car in our bunch, but the most powerful sport compact under $25,000. It's just a shame that delivering that savage power to the pavement is its Achilles' heel. Dodge skipped out on the limited-slip differential that came standard in later Neon SRT4s, instead mitigating wheel spin with electronic differential lock by applying the brakes to the wheel that's spinning. This type of system works well for the occasional overambitious stoplight getaway, but on a performance car designed to be driven flat-out it means the brakes are constantly being applied to keep the car straight. Even though SRT engineers tried to quell torque steer by limiting boost in first and second gears, it still invades easily, pulling the car hard to the right and left as the tires scramble to hook up, and it's difficult to keep from straying off your line with anything less than a deathgrip on the wheel.

Consistent with the rest of the Caliber, our SRT4 featured the massive optional 19-inch alloys wearing Goodyear Eagle F1 performance rubber, the largest rolling stock of the group. Chosen to mitigate some of the Caliber SRT4's traction issues, the sticky 225-width tires make the car tramline on the highway, following waves and ruts in the pavement that require constant fiddling with the wheel to correct. On the track, the tires were still no match for the mountainous torque that, more often than not, was being fed to a single wheel when shooting out of a corner. Rather than sticking, the big Goodyears screamed in agony whenever the hammer was dropped, smoke pouring from the inside front fender.

The brakes, cribbed from the police-package Dodge Charger, didn't fade or taper off in their effectiveness during a full day of hot laps. But while the pedal was firm and responsive, it lacked any form of communication with the driver, making it difficult to modulate them going into a corner. We often found ourselves unable to ride the threshold of lockup, often venturing over into the spot where the antilock would kick in when we didn't want it to.

Hustling the Caliber around the track is surprisingly easier than expected, with quick, precise steering and firm suspension willing to cling to a turn far longer than your butt senses it is safe to do so. It understeers predictably when pushed hard and deep into a turn, but unfortunately also lacks the inclination to change attitude mid-turn when lifting off the throttle or applying brakes. Further hampering the Caliber SRT4's chuckability is a stability control can never be fully deactivated — the dashboard pushbutton simply raises the threshold of when it will intervene. The SRT's lap times are quicker than they feel as the minivan driving position (especially compared with the other cars in this test) instills little confidence that your commands are going to be executed exactly as you hope. The SRT4's class-leading horsepower makes up for its slow times through the tight corners at Autobahn's south track by pinning its ears back on the straights. This enabled the Caliber SRT4 to make up lost ground, but still put it slowest on the track, even to the GTI with 85 fewer horsepower.

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Subaru made all-wheel drive okay for the masses in the '80s with snarky doorstop-shaped coupes and chunky high-riding station wagons, and has successfully dominated the world-rally scene with its growling WRX. The latest version of this venerable icon is just hitting the streets, and underneath that fresh sheetmetal lies a detuned version of the Legacy GT's 2.5-liter turbo boxer, with 224 horsepower being fed from a Mitsubishi TD04 turbo in place of the 243-horsepower Legacy's IHI VF40 blower.

While the rest of our collection was developed for on-road performance, the WRX is the direct result of improving the breed for grueling World Rally Championship races, many of which are held on dirt, gravel, and snow. This translates into a unique driving experience on both the street and the track. While the others squat low and take corners flat, the WRX's long-travel suspension sits taller on its axles and leans its way around corners. The WRX holds on pretty well, no doubt aided by all-wheel drive re-biasing torque to the wheels that still have traction, but the perception from the driver's seat is that it is ready to land shiny-side down when pushed hard. The WRX's compliant suspension is bolted to a more rigid body structure than before with small changes, such as the addition of window frames on the doors, adding up to a stiffer shell.

The amount of time it takes to fully embrace a Subaru's styling usually coincides with the time it takes to introduce a redesigned model, and the new WRX is no exception. Its styling is polarizing: You either quibble about it or you work for Subaru. Our four-door sedan looks a bit more conventional than the new five-door design, and the looks will undoubtedly work their way into our hearts in time for a redesigned car to come down the pike. The interior has been upgraded as well, with cleaner surfaces and improved materials. Thankfully the seats remain true to their purpose, holding us in place through all the leaning and listing. In fact, they're probably the best seats to come out of Japan for less than thirty grand.

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While the 2.5-liter boxer is carried over from the previous WRX, Subaru has retuned it for better low-end torque. Its 224 horsepower falls below the magical 100 hp/liter benchmark for modern performance cars, the only one in the group to miss that mark. It's also the only one equipped with a 5-speed manual transmission — the other three come standard with six gears. Perhaps that's the reason the WRX feels relatively flat in the lower revs, despite making 226 lb-ft of torque at just 2800 rpm. Higher revs suit the turbo motor's personality, especially on the track where it can stretch its legs a bit.

As the only car in our test with AWD, the WRX puts its power to the road better than any of the others. Mild understeer is the predominant attitude when driven hard, but that can be addressed with late braking. Once the power is back on, the chassis behaves quite neutrally, despite the body's propensity to pitch and roll. The transition of power from front to rear is seamless at speed, and the only tire squeal is from excessive slip angles in corners, never in a straight line. Even when launching the car from a standing stop, all four tires bite the asphalt and hurl the 3142-pound car down the road with authority.

If only the brakes bit as well. For 2008, Subaru's replaced the old WRX's four piston front and two piston rear calipers with single piston sliders that straddle the smallest rotors of the group. On the road the brake pedal offers fairly vague feedback, bordering on spongy, and with a few hot laps on them, the brakes lose what little firmness they originally had. Several times during the day, the WRX's brakes would get so hot that the pedal would drop straight to the floor, at times and places where none of the other three cars exhibited any significant loss of braking. After half a day of track driving, the front pads were nearly down to their backing plates, no doubt victims of the dramatic weight transfer as a result of the compliant suspension.

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Volkswagen is generally credited with creating the first "hot hatch," and when the first 110-hp 1.6-liter GTI rolled out back in 1976, it was a big deal to put a hundred horses through the front wheels. Today's GTI makes twice that, thanks to a turbocharged 2.0-liter 16-valver, but in this pack, 200 horsepower makes it the weakling of the bunch.

The challenge, as those earlier Volkswagen engineers had predicted, is delivering a lot of torque through the front wheels, whose suspension geometry and weight burden change dramatically under hard acceleration. Unlike the Mazdaspeed 3's helical limited-slip diff or the WRX's viscous AWD, the GTI joins the SRT4 in opting for a cheaper open differential in the front, and relying on the car's ABS to brake a wheel when it spins. And like the Caliber, the only real problems arise at the exits of tight turns with the accelerator on the floor: Understeer and an open differential conspire against the otherwise gifted chassis as the overburdened tires attempt to pull the car through.

The GTI was the only European car of the bunch, so interior refinement and road noise were in a different league. The standard sport seats — black cloth bolsters flanking tartan-look plaid upholstery — are supportive in the right places if not the most deeply bolstered, and are the most adjustable of the group.

Like every car in this comparison, the steering wheel is wrapped in leather and has integrated audio controls, although the GTI's wheel is the most highly sculpted, with deep thumb insets at three and nine o'clock. That same wheel delivers accurate inputs to the electromechanical steering system, which serves up a numb on-center feel with a synthetic heft, but absorbs the jounce of the GTI's 18-inch alloy wheels without sending it to your wrists.

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Too bad the shifter and pedals don't communicate as well. Moving the stick through the gears is a mixed bag; the shifter itself moves crisply and has little slop in the action, but Volkswagen managed to connect the shifter's cables to a sensory deprivation tank. The clutch pedal offers similar resistance without real communication, and it should go without saying that the drive-by-wire throttle experience feels as weighted and linear as a 1980s-vintage arcade game. The middle pedal is the one salvation, painting a decent mental picture of what's happening at the car's outboard corners.

In a world where even family sedans are pushing 300 horsepower, 200 horses doesn't seem, on paper, to be much for a modern sport compact. But thanks to a small turbocharger that spools quickly off the line, that 200 horsepower is backed by a linear torque plateau of 207 lb-ft that starts at 1800 and runs up to 5000 rpm, endowing the GTI with a spry nature that makes it easy to point and shoot in everyday driving. Although it was the smallest engine of the bunch, it delivered the least peaky performance. The engine works smoothly — racing to its redline and soft-acting rev limiter — and fairly silently, despite the plumbed-in intake tract that is designed to resonate under the dash at full throttle.

On the track, however, the little German was running out of steam while the others were still charging hard, as evidenced by its slowest top speed of the group. Despite the significant power deficit, the GTI's fully independent suspension and nicely balanced chassis meant that it managed to turn fast laps, outrunning the Caliber by a full second and nipping at the heels of the more powerful WRX. Heavy braking is straight and predictable, and although the pedal feel is soft and pliant, it isn't indicative of fade and drivers can learn to work with it. The rear wheels can be coaxed into steering with the right combination of throttle lift, turn-in, and braking.

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Mazda is no stranger to the sport compact scene either, having once built the all-wheel-drive, turbocharged 323 GTX. The modern successor to that cult classic is the Mazdaspeed 3. Based on the acclaimed Mazda 3, the factory hot-rod version makes 263 horsepower from its 2.3-liter four.

Since its introduction in 2004, the Mazda 3 has earned the respect of front-drive enthusiasts for its balanced, capable chassis and distinctive styling, and the Mazdaspeed version builds on those strengths, making it a genuine hot hatch. Direct injection and turbocharging add 107 horsepower to the standard output while 12.6-inch front and 11-inch rear Volvo-sourced brakes, a sport suspension, and a helical limited-slip differential keep all that power under control.

The Mazdaspeed's front end is dominated by 20-mm wider front fenders and a hood that's raised to feed air to the top-mounted intercooler. The rear bumper is similarly styled for an aggressive but cohesive look. The lowered suspension allows the standard 18-inch wheels to sit nearly dead-center in the fenders. Inside the sporting motif continues, with deep cloth-upholstered sport seats and red stitching on the shift knob and steering wheel. In short, the Mazdaspeed 3 looks like what our British friends refer to as "the business."

And out on the street it lives up to its promise. The 2.3-liter turbo engine exhibits some turbo lag but always has torque on tap. Highway driving requires only one gear — sixth — for virtually any speed. Want to cruise at the double nickel? No problem, and you'll be thrilled with your fuel economy. Need to pass a line of semi trucks? Mash the throttle and hold on while the little hatch achieves warp speed without downshifting.

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The suspension, even though it's the firmest of our test group, doesn't transmit road shocks and niggles through the body shell as readily as the Caliber, especially over the perpetually pockmarked and frost-heaved primary and secondary roads around Chicago. Passengers may find the ride a bit uncomfortable for long trips, but that's their problem.

The Mazdaspeed 3 draws heavily from the design philosophy and ethos of the MX-5 Miata. The shift action, for instance, is firm and precise, the brake and gas pedal are ideally placed for heel-and-toe downshifts, and it has the most direct and natural steering feel of the bunch. Not surprisingly, it was the most engaging car to drive, both on the street and the track.

And it's on the track that the Mazdaspeed 3 really shines. It not only turned the fastest lap but also delivered the second-highest top speed. The only car in the group with a limited-slip differential, it had none of its competitors' problems with getting power to the ground. The brakes also held up extremely well, with a firm, high pedal throughout the day.

The Mazdaspeed was the only car that felt 100 percent at ease when driven at its limits. It wanted to neither plow its nose through a turn nor back into the tire wall at high speed, and its chassis was remarkably willing to become a hooligan special, jumping into the role of oversteer king at the drop of the throttle mid-corner.

The one problem we encountered on the track centered around a slightly vague shifter under engine load. It's as though the rocking of the engine on its mounts changes the geometry of the shift cables, resulting in a ghostly third gear that would be there one time, and disappear the next. Our tester was a heavily abused press-fleet vehicle that had been pummeled for 12,000 miles before we got it, and second gear downshifts often ground, and sometimes popped back into neutral once the throttle was applied. So this may be an anomaly with our particular car. All said and done, the Mazdaspeed 3 put the biggest smile on our face.

Conclusion

The Dodge Caliber SRT4 brings a uniquely American take on performance to the table. It's brash, it's swaggering, and once it works up a head of steam, there's not a lot that can keep pace with it. It's not a graceful dancer, unless you're thinking of the tutu-clad hippos from Disney's Fantasia, and while the Caliber posts impressive absolutes — cornering grip, braking, acceleration — it feels as though it were designed solely to beat the benchmark without much thought given to the driving experience between those extremes. The Caliber SRT4 seems more suited to the drag strip than the road course, overcompensating for its chassis shortcomings with raw power.

Subaru's new WRX is capable of turning fast laps, but it's hamstrung by a squishy suspension that lets the car bob about more than most drivers will feel comfortable with, and less-than-capable brakes which were at the end of their service life after half a day of hard driving. Partly because of its rally provenance, the WRX feels less at home on the track than it does blasting up a dirt hillclimb course. Track day enthusiasts may want to wait for the more powerful WRX STI due out later this year.

The GTI is a jack of all trades. It makes a great everyday car that can comfortably move four people and their gear, while retaining the ability to be enjoyed on a track or at an autocross. Its chassis is immensely capable, allowing the GTI to keep pace with its more powerful peers, though once the road straightens out, it's left behind by the other three. This comparison isn't just a drag race, though, so while the GTI is the least powerful, it's also very easy to deal with as a daily driver.

At the center of the podium is the Mazdaspeed 3, which rose to the top as both a capable daily driver and a track toy. Its inputs are finger-light and non-taxing, even in the most heinous Chicago congestion, and when not in boost, the Mazdaspeed 3 is as carefree to live with as its non-turbocharged siblings. But on the track, the Mazdaspeed's personality flips and it tackles even the most arduous road course with aplomb, with enough power and traction to put it ahead of the pack. Which is why, of all the different philosophies of speed that our quartet draw upon, our gleaming silver Mazdaspeed 3 takes home the gold.