If you bring up the Honda Civic or Volkswagen Golf to a car enthusiast, chances are their mind will instantly picture a Si, Type R, GTI or Golf R, which is natural for a car-loving gearhead. All of those models are sport compact icons offering higher levels of performance, but also at elevated price points.
Sadly, not everyone can afford stepping up to one of those $25,000 or $35,000 performance variants, but that doesn't mean they have to give up on joining the Civic or Golf family entirely. Both can be had in more affordable trims, and in sportier-looking two-door body styles, no less.
For around $20,000, you'll be able to drive home in either a Civic LX or Golf TSI S. But are these bargain-basement models worth it? To find out, we got up and close and personal with the pair on winding back roads, and around a tire-torturing autocross. In the end, deciding on a victor was more difficult than we imagined.
Honda Civic LX coupe
Following the arrival of the new Honda Civic sedan, which recently took part in a Roadshow Rivals comparison with the Hyundai Elantra and the Toyota Corolla, the Civic coupe also receives a full-on makeover for 2016. Our base Civic LX coupe carries a sticker price of $19,885, which includes destination charges.
The Civic coupe is actually a looker now, a welcome change following the previous generation's bland design. The new car looks aggressive with swoopy body lines, a healthy dose of chrome trim, and 16-inch aluminum wheels -- no steel wheels and hubcaps here. Inside, the design is also stylish with a layered dash design, nice materials, comfortable seats and intuitive controls for the audio and climate.
As for the technology menu, it's a little light here with a 5-inch color infotainment touchscreen, multi-angle rearview camera, Bluetooth, automatic climate system and auto headlights. More advanced features like Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and satellite radio don't become available in the Civic coupe until you step up to the EX model.
Power comes from a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with 158 horsepower, which won't make for jaw-dropping quarter-mile runs, but when working with the slick-shifting six-speed manual transmission, the Civic coupe feels peppy and never underpowered. The engine itself is smooth and likes to rev with peak power coming at 6,500 rpm, and the throttle response is nearly instantaneous. It's efficient, too, with 26 mpg city and 38 mpg highway EPA fuel economy figures.
On entertaining ribbons of pavement, the Civic coupe is light on its feet with responsive steering, and firmer suspension keeping body movement through corners and bends at a minimum. Ride quality is, for the most part, compliant, with impacts from bumps felt, but far from jarring.
For more extreme dynamics testing, a tight autocross course was set up, which immediately exposed the shortcomings of the Civic's Firestone FT140 all-season tires. Front-end push happens early in turns, but the suspension kept body movements in check. With better rubber, the coupe would be a good platform to campaign in a stock autocross class.
Volkswagen Golf TSI S two-door
Unlike the Civic coupe, there's no flash in the design of our $20,395 Volkswagen Golf TSI S two-door. If you've seen one, you've seen them all. Clean and conservative body lines for the hatchback help it age well, but don't evoke the same emotion as the Honda.
The straightforward design theme continues inside, with a slab-like dashboard design and simple controls for HVAC and infotainment. Material and build quality trumps the Civic's slightly with a leather-wrapped steering wheel, felt-lined door cubbies and tighter panel gaps. Being a hatchback, rear headroom and cargo room better the Honda, too.
Where the Golf does disappoint is in the drivetrain department. There's a 170-horsepower, 1.8-liter turbocharged I-4 sitting under the hood along with a manual gearbox featuring only five cogs. Low gearing requires frequent downshifts to get back into the power, even during regular driving. Fuel economy, however, is still quite good at 25 mpg city and 37 mpg highway.
Around corners and bends, the Golf is planted on the 15-inch Continental ProContact TX tires with a touch of roll, and steering is lightly weighted, but responsive to inputs. Ride quality is at the top of the class being well damped, aided by the tire's thick sidewalls.
Through the autocross, the VW features sharper turn-in than the Honda, but transmission gearing again hampered performance with the big drop in revs between gears bogging down progress through the course. Brake fade also became an issue following a couple of runs through the course, while the Civic showed no signs of its clampers falling off.
Not an easy call
With two storied nameplates that have numerous generations of refinement under their respective belts, picking a winner is difficult. Honda has returned to form with the new Civic from a design, build quality and performance standpoint, while the Golf soldiers on with small nips and tucks to its tried and true formula.
If anything, let's start by saying it is good to know that these $20,000 entry-level compacts are not four-wheeled penalty boxes. Neither looks cheap or is devoid of any regular features you'd expect in a modern car. You'll never feel like you're in a budget, cut-rate car in either option, and both are a fair bit of fun if you can't quite spring for the forthcoming Civic Si or Golf GTI. There's also time to modify later on, right?
There are obvious differences between the two, though. If on-road ride comfort and cargo space are most important to you, then the Golf will better suit you. For people who value design and a more user-friendly drivetrain, then the Civic is the ticket.
As difficult as it is, we have to pick a winner of this affordable, sporty compact shootout. As enthusiasts, the Honda spoke more to us with its great drivetrain and head-turning exterior. And while the Golf felt better in the autocross, a new set of tires is an easy fix for the Honda, while the Golf's tall transmission gearing is not so easy to fix. Thus, the winner of this Roadshow Shootout is the Honda Civic LX coupe, but by a razor-thin margin.