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FWD vs RWD Sport Compact Shootout
by Dave Pratte
Once upon a time the Honda Civic Si held a dominant position within the sport compact world. But these days its not only been dethroned in the performance department by the Mazdaspeed3, it’s in serious jeopardy of being pushed even further back in the pack by the likes of the new Ford Focus ST. And if that’s not enough to make the execs at Honda flop a sweat, suddenly there’s not one but two serious contenders for the sport compact title that are motivated by their rear wheels. We are, of course, talking about the Subaru BRZ and its twin brother from Scion.
Honda has recently fought back with the introduction of the limited edition HFP (Honda Factory Performance) model of the Si, the only performance-oriented machine left in their lineup. Having tested the HFP Civic on the street and around a couple of autocross style courses, both Editor-in-Chief Colum Wood and I were impressed enough by its improved handling and grip level that we felt a track dual between it and the highly touted BRZ would help provide a little clarity to the rapidly changing landscape within this “fun and affordable” youth-targeted market segment.
Hypothesizing about a car’s pace around a race track or down a drag strip – a hobby know as ‘bench racing’ among go-fast enthusiasts – is a time-honored tradition that Colum and I could not avoid here. I turned a 1-minute 28.5-second lap in the standard Civic Si coupe last summer, and given the stickier rubber and firmer suspension setup on the HFP version, I felt it would go at least 2-seconds a lap quicker and likely beat the BRZ in the process.
Colum, on the other hand, felt the BRZ would come out on top because of its much ballyhooed handling balance and the advantages associated with rear-wheel drive, first among them being the ability to “steer” the rear of the car with the throttle. Colum also rightly pointed out the BRZ is about 100 lbs lighter than the Civic (2,762 lbs for the Subaru and 2,874 lbs for the Honda), and if Jenny Craig and Sir Isaac Newton have taught us anything, it’s that weight is the enemy and the laws of physics are immutable.
I then countered that the Civic has a sizable torque advantage (170 lb-ft at 4400 rpm vs. the BRZ’s 151 lb-ft at 6000 rpm) that would offset the BRZ’s weight advantage, and that the Civic’s super slick shifting 6-speed transmission and highly effective Torsen limited slip differential would go a long way to overcoming the disadvantages of a front-wheel drive layout.
Colum then came back with some technical jibber jabber about the BRZ’s direct-injection 2.0-liter engine actually having a much broader powerband than the numbers suggest.
Apparently Subaru’s engineers intentionally flattened its torque curve so that most of its grunt comes on around 3000 rpm, a fact that would help the BRZ overcome an almost half-liter displacement disadvantage (2.0-liters vs. the Honda’s 2.4).
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