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Can Honda reclaim the crown as king of the front-wheel drive sport compact segment?

Unlike the Honda Civic Si’s dominance of the sport compact scene during the ‘80s and ‘90s, these days the more powerful and aggressively styled MazdaSpeed3 rules the front-drive roost (and the VW Golf GTI isn’t far behind). But with the introduction of the all-new 2012 Civic Si, Honda has a golden opportunity to strike back and reclaim the title as king of the FWD pocket rockets. To find out if Soichiro Honda would be grinning from ear to ear or frowning in disapproval, we brought the 9th generation Civic Si and the MazdaSpeed3 to Toronto Motorsports Park for a knockdown, drag ‘em out, head-to-head shootout where the only things that matter are acceleration, braking, and grip.

THE COMBATANTS

With a whopping $5 between the two on price (our Civic Si coupe came equipped with the optional Navigation package and thus lists at $23,705 versus the Mazdaspeed3 at $23,700), your credit limit isn’t going to be the deciding factor here. Where these two front-drive performance cars differ the most is under the hood – the MazdaSpeed3 uses a 2.3-liter direct injection turbocharged engine to produce 263-hp at 5500 rpm and a stump-pulling 280 lb-ft at 3000 rpm, while the Civic Si generates 201-hp at 7000 rpm and 170 lb-ft at 4300 rpm thanks to its naturally aspirated 2.4-liter engine.

Although it may seem like Honda brought a knife to a gunfight given the horsepower and torque gap between it and the Mazda, in a world controlled by the laws of physics mass is also an important variable. With the Civic tipping the scales at a relatively svelte 2,877 lbs and the surprisingly hefty MS3 weighing in at 3,272 lbs, the playing field should be at least somewhat leveled, especially when you consider that weight not only affects acceleration but also braking and handling.

In terms of slowing all that mass down, getting it around corners, and putting power to the ground, there’s less to differentiate these two machines. Both use 6-speed manual transmissions, gear-type limited slip differentials, and MacPherson strut front and multi-link rear suspension layouts. Both also come equipped with upgraded braking systems and the usual stability and traction control systems (which we turned off during track testing since these always result in slower and less consistent lap times in dry conditions).

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

You only get one chance to make a first impression, and as I launch the new Civic Si coupe down the 1,500-ft long front straightaway at Toronto Motorsports Park, the extra torque of the 2.4-liter engine is immediately apparent, as is the 7,200-rpm fuel cutoff. An Si-badged Civic that doesn’t rev to 8000-rpm and scream like a banshee while doing it? Hmm. This will take some getting used to.

After a 4-3 downshift and a brief but determined stamp on the brake pedal, I pitch the car into the long right-hand Turn 1 at close to 90 mph. The Si’s initial response is a startling amount of body roll followed by a healthy dose of understeer. But hey, just about every production vehicle has some turn-in understeer designed into it as a safety precaution, and once the Si’s stiff chassis takes a set the front tires begin to find some grip. I’m back to full throttle as the inside tire clips the red-and-white curbing and that’s when the superb helical limited slip differential helps pull the Si out of what initially felt like a failed experiment in weight transfer and suspension tuning.

The MazdaSpeed3, by contrast, feels far more eager to turn into a corner and carve a parabolic arc that simultaneous induces a grin and preserves momentum. Body roll feels absent compared to the Honda, and the MS3 even exhibits a willingness to forego understeer in favor of a touch of trail braking-induced oversteer, especially through the tight and twisty esses of Turns 4 and 5.

And the power, oh the glorious turbocharged power! Although it runs out of steam rather suddenly around 6000 rpm, the 3000 rpm leading up to it deliver an “in your face, VTEC!” kick in the pants. The Torsen limited slip differential does a surprisingly good job of directing the gobs of torque to the wheel with the best chance of not converting all that energy into tire smoke, and although torque steer is an annoyance when punching the gas at cruising speeds, out on the racetrack it’s virtually undetectable.
See the full review and watch the VIDEO at AutoGuide.com
 
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