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Nashville Scene Muscle Buffin'

Honda and VW sport compacts redefine the muscle car for the 21st century

By Marc K. Stengel

AUGUST 7, 2000:  Precisely 30 years ago, auto buffs of America were enthralled with the muscle car. And that included me, even though my own entry into the fray occurred a bit later behind the wheel of a '72 Chevy Monte Carlo. My car fielded a 402 c.i.d. (i.e., cubic-inch displacement) "big block" V8 with a factory rating of something like 300 gross horsepower.

Back in the '60s and '70s, muscle car fanatics willingly subscribed to a grand self-delusion perpetrated by the automakers. Since "gross horsepower" ratings measured an engine's output at the crankshaft--in other words, before any serious work was done--they were artificially, unrealistically high. How high is evidenced by the "net ratings" that began to appear in '72 and that attempted to describe how much power actually reached the driving wheels. Overnight, my stunning Monte Carlo was demoted by 20 percent to "240 net." It was still a beast. Moreover, it and its cohorts--the Chevelle SS, Pontiac GTO, Olds 4-4-2, Dodge "Hemi" Charger R/T--positively dominated the streets. American heavy metal ruled.

But an interesting thing happened on the way to the 21st-century showroom. American heavy metal not only doesn't rule anymore, it scarcely even exists outside of certain historical specimens like the rarefied Chevrolet Corvette or the anachronistic Pontiac Firebird. Muscle cars themselves, however, haven't so much disappeared as morphed. Today, instead of rear-drive, big-block V8s swilling fuel at a rate of 8 miles per gallon (as in the case of my Monte Carlo), there are sporty imports with exotic powertrains driving the front wheels and attaining as much as 30 mpg on the highway. Today's "sport compact car" is the only muscle car that the latest auto buff generation has ever known. The delicious irony is that these are the direct descendants of Japanese and European economy cars we once so gleefully put to shame with our self-congratulatory ratings of "300 gross horsepower." Now it's more than clear that while Goliath boasted, David took aim.

Honda Civic Si coupe

On a constant-dollar basis, Honda's $18,049 Civic Si (as tested) costs about what you'd have spent three decades ago for a typical $5,000 muscle car with a pushrod V8. Can the Honda's tiny 1.6-liter twin-cam four-banger even compare? Is 160 horsepower even in the same league?

As it turns out, yes. For one thing, today's sport compact car is a sophisticated package of horsepower, stopping power, and cornering power. That, arguably, is three times more capability than you could credit to sleds of yesteryear that would git-up-'n'-go but then struggled to stop or corner. In contrast to the '70s, when might meant right and only "bigger" was better, cars like the Civic Si impress the masses with a less-is-more magnificence. Look again at that 160 horsepower: Honda's race-replica VTEC motor, a 1.6-liter inline-4, is almost three times more efficient than my old Monte Carlo's 6.6-liter V8. In automotive terms, what's more efficient is generally also lighter, nimbler, longer-lasting, more economical, even safer. After all, a car that reacts more responsively and more efficiently is also more likely to avoid some potentially dangerous situations, possibly even extricate itself from others. And this is not even to mention such standard features on the Si as four-wheel disc brakes, dual airbags, and four-wheel independent suspension that no '60s muscle car ever even had a chance to wear.

There remains, however, a timeless sense of the exotic with today's sport compact muscle cars. In the Civic Si's case, what is most exotic is the car's sophisticated variable valve timing--VTEC--that creates power at unusually high rpms, just like a Grand Prix racing motor. Even though torque is an especially puny 111 ft.-lbs., the Si sprints off the line in a wail of revs. At speed, a peaky, nervous powerband keeps the enthusiast driver well entertained with a need for judicious gear choices while tossing through the twisties. If, in olden times, the muscle car was a strong man in the circus, today's Civic Si is an acrobat in Cirque du Soleil.

Volkswagen Golf GLS 1.8T sedan

Whereas Honda's Civic Si depends on a trick valve train, Volkswagen takes a more "atmospheric" approach to building its modern-era muscle car. VW's Golf has appeared mid-year with this jewel of a turbocharged motor that makes its power by ramming higher-than-normal atmospheric pressure into its four small cylinders. Checking in at 1.8 liters, the 1.8T produces a reasonably muscular 150 horsepower with virtually none of the delayed onset of power known as "turbo-lag." Even more entertaining, particularly in light of the Civic Si's high-rev/low-torque personality, is this Golf motor's high-torque/low-rev specs, with 155 ft.-lbs. maxing out at a mere 1,740 rpms (compared to Honda's torque peak at 7,000 rpm).

In practical terms, this turbocharged Golf sedan behaves much more like the grunty V8s of yore, when strong acceleration off the line was mostly taken for granted. Kitted out with VW's GLS trim, and featuring a $1,175 luxury package of power and comfort conveniences, the four-door Golf 1.8T I tested is somewhat less pure-sports than its two-door Honda rival. This is further accentuated by the lack of independent rear suspension. Nevertheless, the VW Golf is a sporty compact mainstay among the current crop of postmodernist performance buffs.

You could say that today's so-called muscle-car enthusiasts simply don't know what they're missing since they've never had a stint behind the wheel of a "402 big-block." I have, and I certainly don't think that our neo-muscle-car scene is misguided in the least. After all, these cars are spirited sprinters in their own right with clever interiors packaged into manageable small exteriors. They stop harder, turn quicker, and get 26 miles per gallon/city, 31/hwy. (as in the Honda Si). They're muscle cars, all right. But this time around, they're exercising the one in your head.

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