Eleven 1990 Compact Sports Coupes Compared

From the June 1990 issue of Car and Driver.

Everyone needs transportation. But not all of us have the inclination or the wherewithal to shower ourselves with Testarossas or Corvettes or even MR2s. Still, that doesn’t mean we have to forego stylish design or driving pleasure in the interest of practical transport. Quite the contrary. Some of the most competently engineered and slickly sophisticated automotive products on the market live in the economy segment, where hot hatches and spirited sporty two-doors mate great fun and affordable utility. By some reckoning, these are the best auto­motive buys in the world.

We jumped into the middle of this live­ly and competitive market to explore the choices available to the enthusiast who needs reasonable transportation but wants an affordable sporty car. Allowing a maximum price per car of $13,000—in­cluding air conditioning and a radio—we brought together every sports-oriented two- and three-door coupe and sedan we could get our hands on. Then we took off on a 900-mile highway/city/back-road jaunt. As expected, that drive taught us a lot about the eleven contestants that met our criteria.

Our fleet embodied a number of design and development philosophies, hinted at a wide range of engineering budgets, and represented four nations of origin. We were surprised by some of the cars, impressed by a few, and delighted by a couple. In the end, there emerged a grand total of four cars that we agreed we could enjoy as primary transportation. And a grand total of one earned our pick as the finest under-$13,000 sportster you can buy today.

Herewith, in alphabetical order, the eleven cars that paraded out of the park­ing lot of our Ann Arbor headquarters: the Chevrolet Beretta GT, the Chevrolet Cavalier Z24, the Dodge Colt GT, the Geo Storm GSi, the Honda Civic Si, the Honda CRX Si, the Plymouth Sundance RS, the Pontiac LeMans GSE, the Ponti­ac Sunbird GT, the Suzuki Swift GT, and the Volkswagen Wolfsburg Edition GTI. (The all-new Ford Escort GT was not yet available.)

Our plan was to head south and east, to the tightly furrowed Ohio foothills near the West Virginia border, which toss two-lane blacktop into marvelously three-dimensional driving venues. All told, our route was usefully varied, com­prising the freeway runs down and back, hard driving on the serpentine roads in southeast Ohio, and a final session of local around-town tiddling and general crystallization of opinion.

Almost immediately, the test fleet be­gan to form itself into a couple of clus­ters, based on road manners and general technological approach. One was Main­stream Domestic, anchored by the home­grown GM products from Chevrolet and Pontiac. Hustled through Ohio’s hills, the Beretta GT, the Cavalier Z24, and the Sunbird GT were able to deliver serious acceleration and grip—thanks to their strong engines and big tires. But they didn’t feel very satisfying in the process, seeming dated at best, crude at worst, de­pending on how hard they were pushed and how nasty the road conditions. The Plymouth Sundance RS was a fringe member of this group, delivering similar acceleration but with better composure.

The other major grouping was Main­stream Japanese, where the central play­ers were the Mitsubishi-built Dodge Colt GT and the two Hondas. As the trip pro­gressed, we continued to be impressed by the remarkable finesse, refinement, and smoothness built into these pains­takingly engineered machines. For years, the Honda Civic Si has been the stan­dard-bearer for low-priced refinement (as has the CRX, which is basically just a flashier, two-seat Civic). But the Colt GT proved refined, too, and had amenities such as power-assisted steering.

Just off center in this subcategory was the racy, slightly raucous Storm GSi that Isuzu builds for sale through Chevy’s Geo dealers. And out on a far edge was Suzuki’s new Swift GT, which makes some comfort compromises in order to be truly tiny.

That left two players that weren’t real­ly similar enough to form a cluster. Both, however, claim a European lineage, which distinguished them from the rest of the fleet: the LeMans GSE is an Opel design that arrives in Pontiac showrooms by way of Korea’s Daewoo assembly lines, and the Volkswagen GTI was the originator of the hot-hatch concept and is still an autobahn terror in Germany.

Running south on U.S. 23 and then east on Interstate 70, a pattern emerged that would come into sharper focus as our drive continued. Here, all the cars did just fine, thanks. Each of them—big and small, domestic and imported­—was comfortable enough and capable enough to feel acceptable (even likable) during freeway-cruise duty. But when humming along straight and level, at modest speeds, on smooth surfaces, they all should be good. That’s the least taxing operating mode and the easiest part of engineering an automobile. No matter what, a car must be good on the highway. And these eleven cars are.

The GTI has the most civilized ride of the group and the Sunbird the least. Yet each treats its occupants well at 70 mph on the long concrete slab. Even the Suzuki, with its dinky wheelbase, rides well enough—as long as the freeway’s surface quality holds up. The relatively massive Beretta puts its bulk to use in smothering minor road imperfections, but it has a short­coming: ill-shaped seats that let it down in the hour-after-hour ratings. On the other hand, the Volkswagen, both Hondas, the LeMans, and the Colt earned extra credit for the support and comfort of their seating.

Noise affects long-range habitability, whether it comes from the powertrain, the chassis, the wind, or all three—as it does in the little Suzuki. Engine racket is disappointingly high in the LeMans, and the Storm also emits more than the aver­age amount of buzz from up front. The V-6s in the Chevrolets, however, are no­tably smooth and quiet at cruise.

Sitting behind the wheel for several hundred freeway miles provides a fine opportunity to examine the interior treatment of an automobile. The Colt and the two Hondas clearly win this der­by, and with such excellent examples of clean styling and intelligent function sitting right there, we wonder why other carmakers miss the mark. Sadly, it ap­pears our own home team is simply building to the wrong standard. The Sunbird is the most serious offender, with an instrument panel that assaults the eyes with garish forms, neon colors, and oversized switchgear. The Beretta man­ages to look both overstyled and too plain inside, and all the domestics posi­tion the driver deep in the car behind a high cowl. It’s a bit like sitting in a hole.

In stunning contrast, the Civic’s low cowl, low beltline, and generous win­dows make the car feel light and lean and open. And from the driver’s seat, the thing looks racy, sporting a short, fall­away hood and sweeping lines (accentu­ated in the CRX by the roof tapering down behind your head to an imperti­nent little ducktail). And the instrument panels in the two Hondas (and to almost the same extent, in the Colt) look clean and businesslike, with legible gauges and logically arrayed buttons, switches, and indicators. These Japanese cockpits work, and there’s no reason for other makers not to copy them.

Other highs and lows in the depart­ment of the interior: The GTI’s Teutonic driver’s compartment looks sharp and works well, and the car’s upright, boxy shape provides plenty of rear-seat room; the Swift’s instrument panel has been styled rather than designed, and it incorporates a few too many shapes and textures; the Le­Mans doesn’t feel at all rich inside, and some of the switches are so well integrat­ed into the black-plastic dash you can’t find them; and the Sundance has used re­straint and better material quality to modernize its cabin within the existing architecture.

We left the Interstate at New Concord, Ohio (which claims astronaut and sena­tor John Glenn, Jr., as a native son), and set up a base of operations for our backroads research at Coshocton’s Roscoe Village Inn. What followed was an inten­sive investigation of dynamic behavior on thrilling stretches of state routes 83, 60, 26, and 800—and the stark discovery that some of these cars were developed for such serious driving duty, and others clearly were not.

The critical test took place on a partic­ular type of curve found all through rural Morgan and Washington counties. Pic­ture narrow two-lane blacktop with a faded center stripe and the shoulders un­paved. It follows tightly rolling terrain in a way that often has it cresting a brow while bending sharply, invisibly, one way or the other. The surface is steeply crowned and heavily patched.

All eleven of our affordable sportsters drive their front wheels, which typically makes a car benign—if not always live­ly—in hard cornering, thanks to protective understeer. Yet there was a world of difference in how these various cars managed The Test. The combination of cor­nering load and surface roughness was tough enough; faced with a sudden unweighting of the tires at the top of each blind crest, and maybe a little driving torque from the engine, a couple of these cars become inconsolable.

Unfortunately, again, a “Made in America” badge became a warning flag. The Beretta was a handful (not helped by its sheer size), and both the Cavalier and the Sunbird turned wild and woolly; they’d shake, skitter, and lunge spasmod­ically as the suspension and steering tried to find which way was up. All three suf­fered pronounced torque steer—espe­cially the Pontiac, whose heading was easily upset by the radical power delivery of its strongest-of-the-field turbocharged engine. Either General Motors doesn’t consider this kind of driving relevant, or it does too much development work on the smooth, flat surface of its Milford, Michigan, proving grounds.

The Plymouth Sundance RS could also feel untidy over these whoops, but it was generally more composed, and it did a better job of getting its prodigious tur­bo power to the road. Yet the pace setters in the hills were clearly the foreigners, with the composed and beautifully damped GTI shining brightest. The Hondas and the Colt grouped tightly just a whisker back of the VW, all feeling steady and well-mannered despite terri­fying combinations of cornering speed, surface roughness, and unweighting. In turns tight enough to pull road speeds way down, the manual steering of the Civic and the CRX became heavy, while the excellent power-assisted systems in both the Colt and the GTI remained easy and quick. The Geo Storm, also with power steering, felt pleasingly delicate and light to the touch, even if its chassis poise fell fractionally short of the stan­dard set by the leaders.

Both the Pontiac LeMans and the Suzuki Swift turned in mixed perfor­mances in southeast Ohio. The LeMans’s German-designed chassis afforded a re­assuring degree of stability and control (though the body rolled a lot in bends), but the ragged-sounding engine detracted from the fun of whipping the car through the twisties. And though the en­thusiastic little Swift squirted around pretty well under the urging of its dimin­utive 1299cc engine, its abbreviated wheelbase gave it a tendency to step out in back—and even threaten to swap ends, if the driver hurtled up to the limit of tire grip and then suddenly chopped the throttle.

Our impressions settled in during the freeway drone back to Ann Arbor (by way of the spectacular U.S. Air Force Mu­seum at Wright-Patterson Field in Day­ton). And during the city-loop testing that followed, we probed and prodded for final details: the Sunbird’s engine gives it tremendous on-boost lunge, the Swift’s back seat is nearly inaccessible, the Colt’s driving position is perfect, the LeMans has good seats, the Cavalier’s engine sounds neat, humans can’t sit in the Storm’s back seat, the Beretta has lots of powertrain windup as you get on and off the throttle, the Civic seems huge in­side for its size, the Sundance’s turn-sig­nal/wiper/headlight-beam control stalk feels absolutely Japanese in its crispness and logic, the CRX maneuvers in traffic like Marcus Allen, and the GTI has the most grippable steering wheel in creation.

Then the score sheets trickled in, with the all-important Overall Rating num­bers expressing each tester’s sense of the relative merits of these eleven sporting automobiles. Certain names, those of the cars that had floated to the top as we searched for good moves and good feel, stayed at the top. Others languished at the bottom. After living with the cars and examining them the way we did, the results held no surprises.

The four most sophisticated and re­fined automobiles of this group finished in a tight group at the top, the Dodge Colt GT taking the win by a slim margin over the Volkswagen GTI (91 points to 90, out of a possible 100). Next came the Honda Civic Si (89 points) and the CRX Si (87 points). Virtually every one of our testers deemed the top four finishers suf­ficiently capable, accommodating, and entertaining to serve as sole transportation for any right-thinking enthusiast. The Colt took top honors by essentially matching the Civic on the functional, er­gonomic, and subjective fronts and then pressing its value advantage (more com­fort and convenience features for less money). The GTI earned its fine finish­ing spot by having the best ride and han­dling, making it the most fun to drive when the road turns playful.

A respectable distance back of the lead quartet, the rest of the field spread itself out. In fifth place (79 points) was the Geo Storm GSi, an entertaining, space-shippy coupe with only a few rough edges. Then in sixth, dead center in the pack, came the first of the domestically built cars, the Plymouth Sundance RS (73 points). “Much better than I expected” was the gist of most comments on Chrysler’s coupe. Suzuki’s quirky little Swift GT (72 points) poked into seventh place, its unique dimensions and rock-bottom price ($10,324 as tested) not quite managing to offset its bare-bones feel.

Finally, the remaining four automo­biles grouped themselves at the bottom, scored down for falling out of touch with the level of refinement necessary to be considered a legitimate enthusiast’s car today: Chevrolet’s Cavalier Z24 (68 points), followed by a ninth-place tie be­tween the Chevrolet Beretta GT and the Pontiac LeMans GSE (65 points), and the Pontiac Sunbird GT (64 points) bringing up the rear.

11th Place: Pontiac Sunbird GT

What does it mean when the clear, hit-it-out-of-the-­park acceleration king finishes an embarrassing last in the overall scoring? For one thing, it means that we insist that cars be enjoyable to drive, no matter how quick they are. For another, it means that sheer power and fat tires are poor substitutes for balance, finesse, accuracy, and predictability.

Pontiac’s 165-hp Sunbird GT is the only car here that breaks into the sevens in the 0-to-60-mph sprint and into the fifteens in the quarter-mile. It also ties the Geo Storm GSi for the roadholding crown, churning out 0.82 g on the skidpad. So why don’t we love it?

HIGHS: Boosted performance.
LOWS:
Poor chassis manners, boy-racer styling.
VERDICT:
A lusty, garish old sporty car that likes straight, smooth roads.

Because the wheel feels numb, torque steer accompa­nies almost every application of power, and any patched or ripply stretch of pavement completely upsets the chas­sis. Hook through a turn where the road falls away at the apex and the Sunbird shakes its head, spins its inside front tire, and takes several swings to decide what direc­tion it’s going to head. Driving this car fast is work.

In addition, the Sunbird suffers from pogoing ride mo­tions, poor low-rpm throttle response, and a generally disappointing interior. At least the car’s appearance is in step with its performance: The overdone plastic add-ons are anything but subtle, and the busy instrument panel implies that you need something to distract you from the car’s road manners.

The J-car is an old platform now, and the more mod­em competitors in this group never let you forget that.

1990 Pontiac Sunbird GT
165-hp turbocharged inline-4, 5-speed manual, 2728 lb
Base/as-tested price: $12,149/$12,889
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 7.7 sec
1/4 mile: 15.9 sec @ 87 mph
100 mph: 23.8 sec
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 199 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.82 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 25 mpg

9th Place (tie): Pontiac LeMans

A lot of us wanted badly to like the Le Mans, but it re­buffed our advances time and again. The concept makes sense: design and develop the pieces in Germany, where people know about high-speed handling, then go build them in South Korea, where people know about cheap manufacture. Unfortunately, the cheapness makes a stronger impression than the handling, leaving us with the sense that another good idea has been gut-shot by the cost accountants.

HIGHS: Good seats, fine chassis, utility.
LOWS:
Engine racket, perceived lack of quality.
VERDICT:
A multicultural experience that has lost much in translation from the bahn-burner original.

Tinny-feeling doors with cheap-looking trim panels make for a poor first impression, and the plastic dash doesn’t improve anything. Actually, once underway the LeMans does some things well: The chassis is benign, compliant, and well-damped in hard cornering, the steer­ing is smooth and accurate, and the seats hold their occu­pants comfortably and securely. But a driver just can’t work up much enthusiasm for spirited running. The 96-hp Australian-built engine is loud, rough, slow to rev, and generally happy only at low rpm (unlike the German twin-cam unit that Opel puts in its version). And the vague shift linkage doesn’t welcome your hand.

True, the unique humpback styling—which some staffers like—does provide lots of headroom and a fairly large cargo hold. And the $11,551 price of the Le Mans, the second-lowest in the test, makes it worth considering as cheap transportation. But it shouldn’t feel cheap­ especially when other cars, ones only slightly more cost­ly, manage to feel vastly richer.

1990 Pontiac LeMans GSE
96-hp inline-4, 5-speed manual, 2364 lb
Base/as-tested price: $10,764/$11,551
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 10.8 sec
1/4 mile: 17.8 sec @ 76 mph
100 mph: 60.6 sec
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 202 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.76 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 28 mpg

9th Place (tie): Chevrolet Beretta GT

Almost everyone likes the way Chevy’s lean and clean Beretta looks; unfortunately, it doesn’t drive very lean or clean unless you’re just tooling down the highway. We have no complaints about the V-6 engine, stroked from 2.8 liters to 3.1 for 1990 and developing 135 hp. And as the biggest car in this test (2815 pounds and a 103.4-inch wheelbase), the Beretta not surprisingly takes up more road than some of the more nimble runners. But the subjective sensations the car gives can’t all be attributed to its size. The suspension goes sloppy on nasty roads, ready torque steer kicks in on rough surfaces, and throttle movements can create lots of cradle rock as the powertrain shifts on its flexible mountings. Despite good test-track numbers, the Beretta is a low-excitement, low­-stress, low-aspirations car.

HIGHS: Shapely sheetmetal, V-6 engine, good free­way ride.
LOWS:
Poor seats and interior layout, disappoint­ing back-road handling.
VERDICT:
A biggish sportster that doesn’t take to being pressed.

Our $12,925 GT model also drew criticism for seats that don’t fit and an interior layout that doesn’t quite work. The styling inside seems forced, and simple logic does not always take your hand to the switch you want.

And yet, even if the Beretta doesn’t compete with much success in this crowd, it must get credit for making the cut at all. This is a big car and a pretty roomy car, and it still comes in under the $13,000 limit. For many peo­ple, that—and the undeniably attractive exterior shape­—will offset the car’s deficient interior and lack of rough­-road poise.

1990 Chevrolet Beretta GT
135-hp V-6, 5-speed manual, 2815 lb
Base/as-tested price: $12,500/$12,925
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 8.5 sec
1/4 mile: 16.3 sec @ 83 mph
100 mph: 27.5 sec
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 200 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.80 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 21 mpg

8th Place: Chevrolet Cavalier Z24

The J-cars felt springy and unsteady when they were introduced in 1981, and though they have been dramati­cally upgraded since then, our expectations have in­creased as well. Viewed critically as a performance car, the Z24 seems well past its prime—if it ever really had one. And why not? No other car in this test (except the Sunbird—the Cavalier’s sister car) showed up on a plat­form that is in its ninth year of production.

Still, in what seems to be the style of cars developed on the billiard-table pavement of the Milford proving grounds, the Cavalier Z24 plants its big tires resolutely as long as you don’t fling it around too quickly on challeng­ing roads. Certainly, the engine does its part. The new 3.1-liter V-6 is tuned to deliver a bit more power (140 hp) than it does in the Beretta, and it moves the 2738-pound Z24 with authority—and with a stirring six-cylinder snarl. Partly because of the smooth power delivery of the en­gine, the Z24 upsets its chassis much less under throttle than does the turbocharged Sunbird.

HIGHS: Growling V-6.
LOWS:
Unrefined chassis, disappointing amount of space for the car’s size.
VERDICT:
A pleasant enough sporty two-door, but don’t ask too much of it.

Compared with its Pontiac sibling, the Z24 is also re­strained aesthetically. The cars share many sheetmetal panels, but the plastic dress-up add-ons on the Cavalier leave it looking clean and handsome by comparison. For $12,830, the Z24 gives you a pleasing automobile for lunging around town (it recorded the second-fastest 0-­to-60-mph time), but you can’t expect too much from such an old warrior.

1990 Chevrolet Cavalier Z24
140-hp V-6, 5-speed manual, 2738 lb
Base/as-tested price: $11,505/$12,830
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 8.4 sec
1/4 mile: 16.4 sec @ 83 mph
100 mph: 26.6 sec
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 195 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.79 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 22 mpg

7th Place: Suzuki Swift GT

Here’s a curious little runner, a zippy motorized skate­board, sort of a refugee from the Japanese microcar wars. We tried to take it seriously, but the Swift’s sheer small­ness made it seem like something less than a real automobile.

HIGHS: Tiny package, go-kart feel.
LOWS:
Noise, vibration, harshness.
VERDICT:
A nimble little scooter, best used close to home.

Of course, at just $10,324 fully equipped, the Swift doesn’t charge you like a real automobile does. And there’s no denying that the car’s diminutive scale has ap­peal. Around town, it nips through traffic and hooks around street comers with great élan. It slips into tiny parking spaces. It even cruises acceptably—unless the road surface is bad. Expansion strips on concrete free­ways are the worst. The short-wheelbase Suzuki hobby­horses over these rhythmic disturbances and sets your guts a-bouncing.

The little sixteen-valve, 1.3-liter engine makes an even 100 hp and responds to a right foot as eagerly and imme­diately as some other Suzuki fours respond to a right wrist. And because the car weighs only 1852 pounds (the only car in this group under a ton), the powerplant can generate respectable acceleration. But it makes a racket doing so.

Inside, there is evidence of underdevelopment. The dash looks busier and more cluttered than necessary, and only a contortionist can make it into the back seat (though regular people can actually sit back there). The Suzuki makes some sense as an urban guerrilla; it just doesn’t seem grown up yet.

1990 Suzuki Swift GT
100-hp inline-4, 5-speed manual, 1852 lb
Base/as-tested price: $9399/$10,324
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 8.7 sec
1/4 mile: 16.6 sec @ 83 mph
100 mph: 36.3 sec
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 192 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.76 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 32 mpg

6th Place: Plymouth Sundance RS

This may seem like a backhanded compliment, but everyone was surprised by how well the Sundance worked—and how much it has been improved. The basic recipe is that of a modest-aspiration Detroit sedan: high cowl and beltline, strong but coarse powerplant, a chassis intended to be cheap to build, and buyer appeal rooted more in perceived durability than graceful road moves. But within the obvious limitations of these origins, Chrysler engineers have coaxed and cajoled the Sundance down a pathway toward refinement and have given the car respectable capabilities.

With 150 turbocharged horses available to propel its 2765 pounds, the Sundance RS works up speed prompt­ly. And it sails down the Interstate, riding well and track­ing true. Even its back-road manner is fair, with decent grip and good maneuverability.

HIGHS: Power, revised interior.
LOWS:
Quick steering, lack of emotional appeal.
VERDICT:
An unpromising design that has been pushed and shoved toward reasonable levels of refine­ment and performance.

Unfortunately, the Sundance doesn’t have a sporting line on its body. Without the purposeful wheels and tires to provide some flair, it would look every bit the anony­mous econobox.

At least the interior is now a much better place to work—most of the plastic chrome, gaudy materials, and clumsy switches have been axed. In fact, the Sundance’s steering wheel, with a soft-grip surface and an airbag housed in the hub, is itself a completely modern piece. The rest of the car may not measure up yet, but at least it’s on the way.

1990 Plymouth Sundance RS
150-hp turbocharged inline-4, 5-speed manual, 2765 lb
Base/as-tested price: $12,529/$12,969
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 8.5 sec
1/4 mile: 16.4 sec @ 83 mph
100 mph: 26.2 sec
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 205 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.77 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 23 mpg

5th Place: Geo Storm GSi

The high-sport model in Chevrolet’s import lineup, the Isuzu-built Storm makes strong impressions and po­larizes opinion. The shapes and forms, both inside and out, are original and strong, with a theme that people variously characterize as aircraftlike, space-capsulish, modernoidal, or just too much. Especially with the added rear spoiler and rocker-sill extensions that come with the GSi package, the car’s style looks a little too tacked on. And the window treatment in the rear quarter area seems unnecessarily fussy. But the dead-on views both front and rear show pretty good “faces,” and, in any case, no one can accuse the Storm of being inconspicuous.

HIGHS: Rev-forever engine, radical styling.
LOWS:
Noisy engine, radical styling.
VERDICT:
A zippy-handling sports runabout from the planet Zarkon.

Dynamically, the 130-hp coupe acquits itself pretty well. Among the eleven cars in this test, it ties for third in 0-to-60-mph acceleration and in top speed, and it ties for first in roadholding (most drivers enjoyed its secure twirling-road manners). Power steering and low-effort shifting and pedal action give the Storm a light, nimble feel. The driving position and the comfortable seats also earned high praise.

Less popular was the amount of noise the engine makes when working hard. And anyone who actually ex­pects to climb into the Storm’s back seat should note how the roof section thickens to accommodate the hatch hinges—right where a rear-seat passenger would like to put their head.

We look forward to Isuzu’s own version, the new Im­pulse, with four-wheel drive and Lotus Elan-spec power.

1990 Geo Storm GSi
130-hp inline-4, 5-speed manual, 2438 lb
Base/as-tested price: $11,650/$12,825
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 8.5 sec
1/4 mile: 16.6 sec @ 82 mph
100 mph: 29.9 sec
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 193 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.82 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 27 mpg

4th Place: Honda CRX Si

Most everything that can be said about the Civic—it’s refined, it’s sophisticated, it’s well engineered, it’s fun to drive—also applies to the CRX Si. The big difference: On the CRX, a 7.8-inch chunk has been lifted out of the wheelbase, with the cockpit tightened up behind the two seats that remain.

The change is more than just dimensional. It creates an entirely different kind of automobile, for better or for worse—one with a completely different mission profile. If the Civic Si is one of the most practical members of our group, the CRX Si most assuredly defines the dedicated-­sportster end of the spectrum. On the other hand, the CRX is extremely economical, and it does have excellent luggage space. And at less than $13,000 ($12,846, to be precise), it unquestionably qualified for inclusion in our sportster review.

HIGHS: A Civic cloaked in sexy running togs.
LOWS:
Passenger space your life has to fit.
VERDICT:
Tremendous sporting appeal for those whose needs match the limited accommodations.

In certain conditions, the longer-wheelbase Civic may have a marginal edge in stability over its sawed-off sibling, but overall the CRX puts its closer-coupled pro­portions to good use. Nimble, lively, and responsive, it is an expert at darting in and out of traffic or hooking through fast sweeping bends. And it’s a surprisingly proficient all­-day freeway cruiser. The wisdom of its formula is evident in its performance: The Honda CRX Si has the highest top speed and ties with the Swift for the highest observed fuel economy of the group.

You just have to decide if everything—or, actually, ev­eryone—you need to transport will fit inside.

1990 Honda CRX Si
108-hp inline-4, 5-speed manual, 2229 lb
Base/as-tested price: $11,130/$12,846
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 9.3 sec
1/4 mile: 16.9 sec @ 81 mph
100 mph: 30.9 sec
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 177 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.79 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 32 mpg

3rd Place: Honda Civic Si

Some of us in the auto-critic business have commented on the matter of cars as personal statements with a re­mark such as, “Hey, if it was only about transportation, we’d all be driving Honda Civics.” Which is to say, the Civic is, in most critical ways, the archetype for sensible, reasonable personal transport. It is economical and reli­able and roomy, sure, but so are other cheap cars. Unlike them, however, the basic Honda bespeaks engineering competence. And that feels good. You find it in the smooth, free-revving character of the 108-hp engine, the perfect action of even the most minor switch, the hand­somely drawn lines, and the exemplary build quality.

HIGHS: Inspired design, impeccable engineering, re­markable refinement.
LOWS:
Heavy low-speed steering.
VERDICT:
Perfectly conceived for its task, with so­phistication that shames cars at every price level.

But Honda is a company that made its name in motor­cycles, remember, so it understands the concept of driv­ing fun. And that may be the real magic of the Civic. For all its solid virtues, it’s a kick to drive. That makes our test Si one of the best $11,966 purchases anyone—en­thusiast or not—could contemplate.

In this test’s final tallying, the Civic was just edged out by the Colt GT’s perceived value (light-touch power steering and other amenities for a little less money) and by the GTI’s unbeatable combination of back-road prow­ess and peerless utility. Still, the Civic’s trip log bursts with praise for its direct, positive feel and the quality evi­dent in every aspect of its execution.

If your rich uncle insists you show some savvy to earn your inheritance, buy a Civic Si. You’ll all be happy.

1990 Honda Civic Si
108-hp inline-4, 5-speed manual, 2210 lb
Base/as-tested price: $10,245/$11,966
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 8.5 sec
1/4 mile: 16.5 sec @ 81 mph
100 mph: 30.5 sec
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 183 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.78 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 28 mpg

2nd Place: Volkswagen GTI

Volkswagen has revamped its model line to include two GTis. One sports an eight-valve engine, simple trim, and a base price under $10,000; the other (coming soon) will have its sixteen-valve engine stretched from 1.8 to 2.0 liters and will wear everything from fender flares to Recaro seats. We’re talking about the 105-hp eight-­valver here, designated the Wolfsburg Edition, which rang up a total of $12,040 including the sunroof, power steering, and air-conditioning options.

The GTI is not particularly outstanding in any individ­ual performance category, but we all raved about it. Why? Because its chassis is so expertly sorted for fast running and its cockpit so well set up for the business of driving that you find yourself being caught up in the fun.

HIGHS: German ride quality and handling, huge interior.
LOWS:
Boxy styling, balky shifter.
VERDICT:
A true driver’s car—one that just hap­pens to be affordable and practical.

Moreover, the GTI is extremely practical. It has the roomiest rear seat in the group. And despite its taut road manners, the GTI enjoys the best ride of the bunch.

In many ways, the GTI is a dated commodity. Some drivers are bothered by the too-vertical windshield and the unfashionably high cowl. But those concerns disap­pear after the first fast turns, when the GTI demonstrates the qualities that set it apart from the field. Even droning down the Interstate, the damping and the chassis isola­tion of the VW—communicative but still comfortable­—tell you the autobahn influence is alive and well.

“Fahrvergnügen” may be a clumsy ad line, but it’s a thor­oughly viable concept.

1990 Volkswagen GTI
105-hp inline-4, 5-speed manual, 2377 lb
Base/as-tested price: $9995/$12,040
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 10.2 sec
1/4 mile: 17.5 sec @ 78 mph
100 mph: 43.0 sec
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 184 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.78 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 29 mpg

1st Place: Dodge Colt GT

HIGHS: Comfort, refinement, utility, enthusiasm for the road.
LOWS: Overstyled body, maybe.
VERDICT: Amazing smoothness and richness for the money, a delight to drive.

Here is our winner, and we can’t praise it highly enough. In almost any category you can name—build quality, handling, comfort, value—the Mitsubishi-made Colt GT scores at or near the top of this heap. Although the Colt trails much of the group in straight-line perfor­mance, its engine revs willingly and seamlessly, and its shifter stirs smoothly. And the Colt’s decisively superior slalom prowess, excellent braking, and respectable skidpad grip translate into the sort of responsive, fluid handling that serious drivers appreciate. Try it once through a series of challenging corners and you’ll be convinced.

For $12,150, the Colt GT delivers first-order driving pleasure. And it is so clean, modern, and tidy in its design and execution that we just like being near it. Its back­road poise is impressive, its 123-hp engine responsive, its controls light to the touch yet positive, its interior roomy and useful, its list of amenities pleasingly long. More than any car in this review, the Colt looks and feels richer than its price. And how many products can you say that about today?

The body configuration mirrors the Civic’s mini­-bread-van shape and provides similarly generous space inside. The Colt’s sheetmetal may lack the Honda’s crisp­ness and grace, but even then the Dodge has something special to offer: Our test car sported the brightest, most brilliant yellow paint you’ve ever seen.

1990 Dodge Colt GT
123-hp inline-4, 5-speed manual, 2556 lb
Base/as-tested price: $9121/$12,150
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 10.1 sec
1/4 mile: 17.4 sec @ 79 mph
100 mph: 36.5 sec
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 188 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.78 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 28 mpg