Going fast is just one part of the sport compact ownership experience: looking good is important, too. You don’t want to be revving your little engine and blasting the latest track from Snoop loud enough to shatter storefront windows only to have the honeys see you in some raggedy-ass hooptie (though it would seem many of today’s youngsters don’t mind if the honeys see them in raggedy-ass hoopties, proving the maxim that negative attention is still better than no attention at all – Ed.). Your ride has got to be hot, yo. Don’t forget, though, that design is just important inside the car, where the layout and operation of the controls makes it easier to get that turn signal flipped on, that stereo cranked down, and those windows powered up for privacy before Johnny Law decides to issue a citation – again.
Chevrolet Cobalt SS Supercharged: Fourth Place
Chevy ruined the Cobalt SS Supercharged with The Wing. The Wing is too big. The Wing attracts the wrong kind of attention. The Wing blocks rear visibility. We don’t like The Wing. We wish The Wing would just go away. Aside from The Wing, the Cobalt’s main problem is a dearth of storage areas, which means there’s nowhere to put all the little things we carry around with us today – cell phones, iPods, Blackberrys, etc. Add to this shallow cupholders that have difficulty holding just about any kind of beverage, and the Cobalt makes the daily grind that much more difficult.
Otherwise, from a design perspective, the Cobalt works. Interior décor includes enough silver plastic, chrome accenting, and light-gray coloring to keep the cabin from resembling a black hole, and for extra cost you can even specify red, blue, or yellow seat and door panel inserts. The control layout is simple, with clearly labeled buttons and knobs controlling the stereo and climate systems, and other secondary switches are located right where you expect to find them. We also think the Cobalt SS is a good looking car except for The Wing, and each of us pointed specifically at the 18-inch wheels as a positive characteristic of the car.
You know what that means, right? Next year, The Wing will get larger – might even be accompanied by an oversized “aero package” – and Chevy will redesign the wheels.
“The muscle car of compacts. Gorgeous 18-inch alloys, nice body kit, just get rid of the rear spoiler or change to a less conspicuous one. The rear wing also cuts visibility. Nice interior appearance – just don’t touch anything and put sunglasses on before looking at the low-grade, high-gloss plastics in sunlight.” – Blackett
“Lose the spoiler. Otherwise, this is a nice, simple design with spectacular wheels. But c’mon Chevy, you’ve got to do cupholders better than this. Too shallow, no padding, nothing to grip the drink. My latte is fallin’ if I shift hard.” – Chee
“Wing is too big and heavy. Car still looks good, though, and the wheels look sharp. Seats look good with ‘SS’ embroidered on them. Very basic, simple dash controls.” – Perry
“Fantastic wheels. Good looks. But that wing has got to go. It’s ugly, and it causes a major visibility problem. Boy racer boost gauge is nice nod to aftermarket. Simple controls with clear markings, but I think the cruise control in our test car was broken – I couldn’t get it to work.” – Wardlaw
Scion tC Supercharged: Third Place
Love it or hate it is the design theme for the 2006 Scion tC Supercharged, and our staff’s division about what to love and what to hate resulted in a third-place ranking for this car. With the tC, Scion wanted to reach buyers who dream about owning a luxury car like a BMW or Lexus, but can afford little more than a mainstream Toyota. Thus, the car receives a sleek roofline, handsome 17-inch alloy wheels, and upscale design cues inside and out. That panoramic glass sunroof and the side signaling mirrors come standard, for instance, and if that kink in the C-pillar reminds you of a certain German brand, so be it.
Inside, Scion took a similar tack, giving the tC plenty of silver metallic plastic trim and a unique pattern for the dashboard and door panels designed to resembled fine Japanese parchment. The stereo is hidden behind a cover, a snazzy looking satellite-ready Pioneer head unit with a CD player that can also be outfitted to connect to your iPod. The climate system is similarly stylized, and these two components follow a distinct form-over-function philosophy. Good thing the rest of the controls are straight out of the Toyota parts bin, meaning that they are clearly labeled, and operate with precision befitting a Lexus let alone a Scion. Of course, Scion and aftermarket companies give buyers plenty of options to customize the interior, from LED lighting in the cupholders to special air fresheners.
Regardless how owners trick their tCs out, one thing is certain. This is a clean, contemporary design that should age well.
“The Scion’s 17-inch wheels are second only to the Cobalt’s in terms of appeal. Nice swept back, smoked headlight lenses. Love the open roof and the signaling side mirrors. Hate the grain on the dash and door sills, and why cover the radio with that crappy cover? Speaker grilles make it hard to use the door panel pockets.” – Blackett
“Nicest exterior design of the lot – a well-executed, stylish coupe. Love the sunroof, the easy layout, the obvious buttons with big, clear graphics that clearly communicate the point.” – Chee
“Funky design, but it grows on you. Understated yet aggressive, with no obnoxious wings. Need to lose the stupid ‘Supercharged’ badges. Strange gauge cluster, horrible shift knob, and silly radio cover – but I give points for originality. Stereo has small controls and too many buttons.” – Perry
“Bland but stylishly upscale with simple forms and surfaces as well as great-looking wheels. Wheelbase looks too long for the Scion’s proportions, though. Nice brushed metal appearance for gauges. Cool, unique grain on dash and door panels. Terrific mesh cloth and seat insert fabrics. Kick-ass shifter. Slick stereo cover. Center console iPod jack. Fussy stereo and climate control design – form seems to precede function, and white-on-silver markings are hard to see.” – Wardlaw
Volkswagen GTI: Second Place
Evidently, our editors are able to find beauty in cars that is greater than skin deep, because the 2007 Volkswagen GTI landed in second-place for its overall design. The car won significant points for its interior control layout, the only demerits awarded to odd markings for some secondary controls, a cruise control stalk hidden behind the steering wheel, and a trip computer that defied logic in its operation. Furthermore, the GTI is littered with handy spots to stash stuff, from one-liter water bottles that can be secured in the door panels even when slamming around a race track to a huge glove box. We even liked the plaid cloth seat inserts and the real brushed aluminum trim was a hit with our staff.
What didn’t bowl us over was the GTI’s exterior styling. First, the profile is that of a traditional two-box hatchback, which doesn’t quite measure up to, say, images of Angelina Jolie’s lips or Brad Pitt’s pecs on the sexiness scale. Second, our test car was equipped with the standard silver-painted multi-spoke 17-inch alloys, not the gorgeous 18-inch brushed aluminum wheels that are available as an option. Third, the GTI’s wide-eyed look and mustachioed countenance are quite unappealing. Good thing, then, that once you’re sitting inside the Volkswagen GTI, gripping its lovely flat-bottomed steering wheel that is bulging in all the right places, enjoying its smart design and simple control layout, you can’t see what the GTI looks like on the outside.
“Stands out most among the group. Aggressive, boxy, but with subtle details like the wheels and red-trimmed honeycomb grille. Attractive and upscale interior using real alloy trim – only VW can carry off plaid seats. Stereo delivers poor sound and loses its signal too easy.” – Blackett
“If this is what my fast looks like, it needs to go on a diet. The GTI is a bit dowdy, too subtle for what it is, in my book.” – Chee
“Flies under the radar with its tame look and basic wheel design. The GTI’s steering wheel is awesome, and I like the aluminum trim. The stereo and climate controls are simple and basic, but the steering wheel buttons use symbols with which I am unfamiliar.” – Perry
“If you cannot appreciate Euro-purposeful design, this car holds zero appeal. Plus, it’s a hatchback. Love the plaid seat inserts and brushed aluminum interior trim. Rubber floor mats are an interesting addition. Plenty of storage spots, and thoughtful touches like the hand grips on the steering wheel and the adjustable center armrest. Excellent stereo and climate control layout. Trip computer is befuddling.” – Wardlaw
Honda Civic Si: First Place
Representing an amalgam of futuristic design cues, the 2006 Honda Civic Si is a bit off-putting at first, but is easy to love with familiarity. Better yet, this is a car certain to age well, looking as contemporary 10 years from now as it does wacky today. In reviewing the staff’s notes, it’s clear that each of us finds specific elements of the Civic Si appealing, from the way the hood and front fenders meet to the design of the steering wheel. Fortunately for Honda, enough of these individual elements blend together to create an appealing whole, even if the result is a little strange.
If there is room for criticism, it’s with the compromises that come with ordering the optional navigation system. Controlled using the touch screen, voice commands, the little joystick, or a combination thereof, the navigation system itself is relatively simple as this technology goes. But because the radio is bundled with the unit, user-friendliness suffers. For example, our Civic Si had a teeny, tiny little volume knob, and no tuning knob. The buttons surrounding the touch screen are also small, and the screen itself suffers from glare even when set to its highest contrast.
What lands the Honda Civic Si in first place for design, however, is that style hasn’t won out over practicality. This car is not different for the sake of being different. Take the dashboard design, for instance. It sure looks like a jumbled mess, but when you’re sitting in the car, using the controls and displays, it works brilliantly. We might still be trying to make up our collective minds about the Honda Civic Si’s appearance, but there’s no doubt that it takes the win in the design category.
“The Civic looks sleek and aggressive on the road, not as impressive sitting still. Love the smoked headlights, tiered hood and fenders, and subtle ‘Si’ badges. The interior is funky, but you get used to the split-gauge design quickly. Honda includes an iPod jack, but radio buttons are small with optional navigation system.” – Blackett
“Simple, logical, driver-oriented interior with gorgeous steering wheel. Very intuitive layout, love the big tach, and enjoyed using the digital readouts up top.” – Chee
“Very stylish, with flowing lines and sharp-looking wheels. I would lose the VTEC decals. High marks for effort on the interior. I like the display at the top of the dash, the simple tach, and the great steering wheel design. Everything is easy to see and access. Hated having to go through navigation acceptance screen to access the radio every time I restarted the Civic.” – Perry
“Call it ‘cab-way-forward.’ The Civic straddles the fence between appealing and distasteful. Resembles a bell curve in profile. Fantastic wheel design. Interior has a jumbled appearance with far too many cut-lines, panels, and parts. Space-age steering wheel is cool, and while I dislike the HUD-style gauges at the top of the dash, they do work well. Stereo controls compromised by navigation system – small volume knob, no tuning knob. That’s too bad – all other controls are simple and easy.” – Wardlaw