Category Archives: Quick Views

Short profiles with basic information.

Quick View – Pontiac G8

If you follow the site regularly, you may have noticed that there aren’t usually many Quick Views about American cars on the site. Well, actually, if you’re really astute, you’ll have noticed there aren’t any Quick Views for the Big Three’s products. There’s a reason for that – Ford, Chrysler and GM haven’t exactly been trying to compete heavily in the Generation Y market recently. Their business plans, for the most part, have been more along the lines of Tony Bennett’s – hang onto the people you hooked in thirty years ago.

2008 Pontiac G8 GXP

But, like the crooners of old, the American automakers are catching onto the problem of their model – sooner or later, your target audience gets too old to dance. In that case, aging brands have two choices – retire gracefully, or reinvent yourself. For aging musicians, the former is infinitely preferable – please, Mr. Bennett, no one wants to see you freestyle – but for legendary brands, rebooting the image is often just what the doctor ordered.

In the case of car companies, there’s only one way to really reinvent one’s self, and that’s with hot, new vehicles. A flashy ad campaign alone won’t cut it – you gotta have cars that people want. Detroit, to their credit, is finally starting to understand that, and the last few years have seen an influx of sweet rides that can match up to cars from pretty much anywhere on the planet. 

Among that list comes today’s contestant – the Pontiac G8. Now, before you unroll that four-foot American flag Fathead for the car’s roof, there’s a dirty little secret you should know – it’s not really American. It’s Australian. The G8 is, for the most part, identical to the Holden Commodore sedan, assembled Down Under and sent over here. While this might seem like cause for concern, fear not: this Aussie not only speaks with a convincing American accent, it kicks some serious ass – just like Hugh Jackman.

 

Hugh Jackman seen here kicking seri - shit! Wrong picture!

Hugh Jackman seen here kicking seri - shit! Wrong picture!

 

That's better.

That's better.

However, the G8 offers three different flavors, unlike Mr. Jackman, who only has two (ruggedly hairy and dramatically flamboyant). Your choice of trim level determines your engine, but don’t expect anything with less than six cylinders. Don’t look for any nancy-boy front-wheel-drive here, either; this is real Auss…er, American iron, and it only comes in rear-wheel-drive, just like Dad did it.

As you might imagine, this old-school four-door has some serious guts. Base models, packing a 265-horsepower, 3.6-liter V6, runs from 0 to 60 in 7.0 seconds, according to Car and Driver. GT trim levels haul down the blacktop courtesy of a 6.0-liter V8 that funnels 361 horses to the rear wheels – enough to reach mile-a-minute velocity in 5.3 seconds from a dead stop. Top-of-the-line  GXP models cut more than half a second off that, going from naught to 60 in 4.7 seconds while completely erasing memories of that shitty Grand Am your grandmother used to drive. All G8s come with an automatic with manual control (five gears in the base, six gears in GT and GXP); a six-speed stick (yeeeeeeaaah!!) is optional on the GXP.

But with great power comes great responsibility – in this case, a responsibility to ExxonMobil. (God, Stan Lee’s gonna shoot me for butchering that phrase.) Base G8s are EPA rated at 17 mpg city/25 mpg highway. The significantly ballsier GT, surprisingly, pulls down 15 mpg in town and 24 on the open road, very close to its wimpier brother. But physics (or Uncle Ben) finally catches up once one steps up to the GXP, which sucks gas at a rate of 13/20 city/highway.

2008 Pontiac G8 GXP

The lineup starts with the basic model, simply called G8, presumably to encourage Who’s-on-First-like confusion at Pontiac dealerships. Standard features include 18-inch wheels, electronic stability control, keyless entry and remote starter, and a 7-speaker Blaupunkt CD stereo with audio jack and control screen that looks like it should show some kind of a map but doesn’t, because apparently everyone Down Under is so badass they always know where they’re going. ABS, front-side-and-head airbags, and loads of other safety features come gratis, but you will have to pay to tan – sunroof is optional on all G8s. The base G8 starts at $28,250; check all the boxes, and that’ll go over 30 grand, but not much.

Mid-level G8 GTs are equipped pretty much like base models, with the exception of their bigger engines, a few trim pieces, and an upgraded 11-speaker Blaupunkt stereo. A Sport package is offered, unique to this model, as well. While they were first introduced a year ago, Pontiac gave into pre-inflationary nostalgia and based the GT a paper Lincoln under 30 large; today, they start at $31,775, but fear not – GM’s ever-present rebates knock a few percent of the price. (As I write this, Pontiac’s website says it’s taking $3,000 off G8s, but feel free to tack onto that all sorts of other offers, like college/graduate discounts.)

The hairy-chested G8 GXP offers even fewer differences beyond its engine – the choice of six-speed stick and standard heated leather seats are about it. Tires get bumped up to 19″, as well (both the bigger wheels and leather are options on lower models). GXPs start at $37,610 before rebates.

2008 Pontiac G8 GXP

So when the time comes to sign on the line, which one of these G8s is a Gr8 buy? (Jesus…that’s pathetic.) Well, there’s no real bad choice here. The base model is certainly tempting for some very sage reasons – other than the bigger engine, you give up little to the more expensive models, and you’ll have the satisfaction of saving money both at the pump and on the payment. The GXP, on the other hand, is just so goddamn cool it’s hard not to just suck it up and pay extra for what amounts to a four-door Corvette capable of holding its own with a manual BMW M5 (costing twice as much) in the quarter-mile. But ultimately, the Goldilocks solution is best here. The G8 GT gives up little in real-world performance to its big bro for a price that, with a few rebates, dips under $30,000. It’s a throwback to a better time – when a dollar was worth something, a family could survive in comfort on one person’s income, and America made the best damn cars in the world.

Grades: G8 base: B+, G8 GT: A, G8 GXP: A

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Quick View – Suzuki SX4

One of the nice things about being an automotive journalist is that every once in a while, a car comes along that catches you off guard. All too often, those in the business of writing about cars already know what to expect before they jump into one; we know a Toyota is going to be well-made but bland, a Buick is going to be quiet but ill-suited for carving S-turns, and a Porsche is going to be a blast to drive.

So when something comes along and surprises an automotive journalist, we tend to really sit up and take notice. Case in point: the Suzuki SX4. Now, while motorcycle enthusiasts might get a warm feeling down below at the name “Suzuki,” for car guys, the company is about as sexy as Rosie O’Donnell. 

That’s not to say the SX4, introduced back in 2006, is particularly good looking; the front end is reminiscent of a Toyota Corolla, the cabin looks a little tall for the car’s size, and the rear end is utterly forgettable. But compared to the rest of the compact car class, it’s certainly not unpleasant to look at – its looks are unlikely to be the deciding factor in either direction.

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 The lineup consists of two models: a sedan and a “crossover,” which in a sane world would simply be called a station wagon. The sedan serves as the bottom of the lineup, starting at at a mere $13, 299. For that, thrifty consumers get a 143-horsepower 2.0 liter inline four-cylinder engine – the same engine that powers the rest of the SX4 line – and a five-speed manual transmission, along with 15″ wheels, folding rear seats, anti-lock brakes, daytime running lights, and a tire pressure monitoring system. Climate control is of the old-fashioned variety – crank down those manual windows, ’cause there’s no AC here. And you’d better like the sound of your own voice, as the only source of music comes from your larynx – there’s no radio, either.

Step up to the LE sedan, and for $14,689, you can have your AC, your 4-speaker CD stereo, and your power windows and locks, as well as a four-speed automatic transmission if you want it. There’s also a “Popular Package” for the LE, presumably popular among the beancounters who split it off as a way to save some cash; for $15,139, it adds a leather steering wheel with stereo controls, a keyless entry system, and “performance-tuned” shocks that lower your ride hight a whopping 1 centimeter (.39 inches for the Imperial among us). 

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From there, there’s a $600 leap up to the Sport trim level ($15,739), but for the money, it actually comes with a couple surprising niceties. The car’s shoes get pumped up to 17″ tires and alloy wheels, rear disc brakes get swapped for the crappier drums, and the car receives a built-in navigation system. Unlike most manufacturer systems, the Suzuki’s unit is removeable – you can take it out if you’re worried about it being stolen, or need a guide while wandering the roads like David Banner.

Next up the sedan ladder is the Technology Package, which adds fog lamps, Bluetooth, real-time traffic updates for the nav system, and cruise control for $16,539. Finally, the top of the lineup is occupied by the Touring Package, retailing at $18,639. To justify the extra two grand, the pack throws in automatic climate control, a Keyless Go-like system that allows the car to be unlocked and started using a radio transmitter, a 9-speaker satellite-radio capable stereo, electronic stability control, and a mandatory 4-speed automatic transmission.

sx4sport_e11

But the far more interesting version of the SX4 is the crossover. With its hatch back and half-inch increase in ground clearance, this little wagon (which really looks more like a slightly bloated 5-door VW Rabbit than a longtail Chevy Caprice) holds an edge of convenience over its sedan brother. Besides the exterior, the biggest difference between 4- and 5-door SX4 lies deep beneath the floor, where the crossover’s optional all-wheel-drive system lies. Unlike most AWD systems on the market, which are always active, the Suzuki has three modes. On dry roads, drivers can leave the car in 2WD mode and let the front wheels pull the car. (Ostensibly, this is to save gas, but in reality the added weight of 4WD systems tends to be what degrades fuel economy, not the number of wheels being driven.)  AWD mode sends 95 percent or so of power to the front axle until it senses slippage, at which point it can distribute up to half the power to the stern wheels. Finally, for really slippery work, the driver can lock the axles, splitting power evenly between them.

The SX4’s pricing and features tend to line up approximately with the Sport trim levels of the sedan. The base crossover, at $15,939, gives you the handy GPS (though strangely, only on front-wheel-drive models), the 4-speaker stereo, power windows/mirrors/locks, and keyless entry, among the other basics. The Technology Package ($16,689) throws on the leather steering wheel, cruise control and the GPS on AWD models; Bluetooth and real-time traffic also come with it. Finally, upgrading to the Touring Package ($18,539) throws in just about everything the average Joe Plumber (too dated already? Eh, screw it.) would want: automatic climate control, complete keyless access with the radio transmitter, heated mirrors and seats, and 9-speaker stereo. All Crossovers come with 16″ wheels.

sx4_e11

I recently had a brief chance to drive the SX4, and while I wasn’t able to do anything possibly close to exploring the limits of its performance,  it performed quite nicely on an everyday driving loop of frosted Vermont roads. The AWD kicked in on the snowy parking lots but was mostly innocuous on dry roads; there was an unusual grinding sound on turns that seemed to come from the rear axle, but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt before condemning that as a malfunction or design failure. (Just be sure to listen up for it yourself, should you take one for a test drive.) I can vouch quite nicely for the seat heaters, however.

Otherwise, the experience was pretty much unexceptional – which is a pretty remarkable feat for Suzuki. Nothing in the car screamed “cheap,” even if it was pretty obvious that it wasn’t a Bimmer inside. Plus, Suzuki is vouching for their cars with a massive warranty: 7 years/100K miles on the powertrain, with bumper-to-bumper for 3 years or 36,000 miles. Free roadside assistance is available, 24/7, during that time (or distance), as well.

As for performance, not many people seem to have tested the SX4 with their stopwatches; The Truth About Cars got one from 0 to 60 in 8.3 seconds, which sounds around right. Fuel economy in the city ranges from 20 to 23 miles per gallon in the city, and 28 to 31 on the highway; the heavier AWD crossover tends towards the bottom of those numbers, but it’s still pretty good for what it is. 

So, what’s the ruling on the field? From here, it looks like Suzuki is arriving about where Hyundai was 10 years ago in this country – finally starting to make products worthy of a second look from bargain-hungry consumers. (Indeed, Hyundai also hooked customers in with an appealing warranty to back up their vehicles as a show of their reliability.) The SX4 seems to be a good little car, especially in crossover form. Offering all-wheel-drive in a reliable, fuel-efficient package for $16,000 or so sounds awful good these days, and the value only increases at higher option levels. The crossover would probably make a great car for anyone fitting that description – be it empty nesters, young families or teenagers with concerned parents.

sx4_e02

(Also, I hear Suzuki is offering a $750 college student discount; however, I haven’t been able to find anything more recent than 2007 on it. For now, just take it with a grain of salt, and be sure to ask about it if you’re considering one.)

Grades: Sedan: B-; Crossover: A-

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Quick View – Mitsubishi Lancer

The Mitsubishi Lancer is one of those cars that brings up very different connotations, depending on how old you are. If you’re old enough to have been paying attention to cars back in the mid-80s, the car probably brings up memories of the craptacular Dodge Colt or Lancer, cars so tiny and tinny that sitting in one for more than 30 minutes was illegal under the Geneva Convention. 

lan08_pglgprev_ex_1en-us

However, for those who just received their licenses within the last few years (and let’s be honest, that’s probably most of the people reading this), the Lancer is actually a cool car – utterly unthinkable only a decade or so ago. Most automotive scholars chalk this sudden uptick in interest to a sole factor: Evolution.

No, not the process by which random mutations are selected for and spread throughout a species. I’m talking about the Mitsubishi Evolution, the hopped-up, tricked-out, manufacturer-pimped special version of the Lancer designed to Boldly Go Where No Mitsubishi Has Gone Before: pop cultural significance. Growing out of the company’s desire to compete in the World Rally Championship, the first Evo appeared in 1992. Since then, there have been nine more versions, each marked by a successive Roman numeral, making the current Evolution X the official car of Wolverine.

Indeed, the Evo packs enough punch to be a good ride for America’s favorite mutant. Every version of the car has come with a turbocharged 2.0 liter four-cylinder engine, all wheel drive, and a slew of other speed-increasing options. The Evo I cranked out about 244 horsepower; today’s Evo X rips out 291 horses. (However, the Evo has put on about half a ton of weight in that time, so don’t expect those extra 45 horses to give you much of an edge.) And that was just to start with. The Evo proved one of the most popular rides among hot rodders around the turn of the century. Starting in Japan (the Evo wasn’t available stateside until a couple years ago) then continuing here, would-be Vin Diesels boosted, pumped and hopped up their rides with wild paint jobs, spoilers large enough to double as flatbeds, and ridiculous power levels. It’s not uncommon to see stories and videos all across the Web about Evos capable of 220 mile-per-hour top speeds or 9-second quarter-mile times.

The regular Lancer, however, is far more modest. Instead of attempting to tear open Ferrari-like holes in the atmosphere, the Lancer is content to be a solid small sedan. Excluding the superhuman Evo X, today’s car comes in four trim levels. Starting at the bottom of the list is the DE, which comes with a 152-horsepower 2.0 liter four-cylinder engine routed through either a 5-speed manual or a continuously variable transmission (CVT). Should you decide to spring for this model, you’ll find your $14,340 gives you power windows and mirrors, 16″ wheels, a 140-watt 4-speaker CD stereo, adjustable rear headrests (fancy!) and a “multi-information display,” which sounds like something Commander Data would use but is probably just a tiny screen that tells you time and temperature. You also get no fewer than seven airbags, including one for the driver’s knee. It’s only a matter of time until, in a crash, every inch of you impacts an airbag.

lan08_pglgprev_ex_2en-us

(This might be a good time to point out that, according to Mitsubishi’s website, opting for the CVT on the DE lifts the price a whopping $2250, or about 16 percent of the base price. For the other models, the difference is about $1000. Given the price jump between the stick-shift DE and the automatic is actually greater than the gap between the DE and the ES, I’d suggest learning how to work that clutch pedal and getting the added features, but that’s me.)

Step up to the ES, and you’ll also get cruise control, audio controls on the steering wheel, air conditioning, folding rear seats, keyless entry, and anti-lock brakes for $16,540. An uprated exterior, with body-colored trim and chrome, also gives the impression that you care at least a little about your car’s appearance. There’s also an ES Sport pack, which adds on a leather-wrapped steering wheel, fog lights, front and rear air dams and a spoiler, so you can brag to people without a lick of car knowledge that you drive the kind of car “from The Fast And The Furious” and they won’t immediately dismiss you as a dick. (The delayed dickage – er, ES Sport – package runs $17,340.)

The third trim level is the GTS, and here, things start to get interesting. Power is bumped up to a 168-horsepower 2.4 liter four, and the CVT receives magnesium paddle shifters and six fake “gears” to play around with. (And yes, making a gearless transmission for improved efficiency then programming it to think it has set gear ratios is as stupid as it sounds. But still fun.) In addition, the GTS comes with a bevy of additional standard features: sport bucket seats, Bluetooth, automatic climate control, two more stereo speakers, 18″ wheels, a sportier suspension and “high-contrast gauges” are among the cream of the crop. (However, low-contrast gauges provide a much better excuse for speeding if you get pulled over, so I guess that last one’s a toss-up.) Best of all, the GTS starts at $18,590, still low enough below 20 grand that you might feel like you’re getting a deal.

mitsubishi_lancer_gts_2009_dashboard_dashboard_640x480

The top of the range, the Ralliart, serves as a no-longer-missing link between the Evo and the regular Lancer. (This also marks the official starting place at which you can brag about your Lancer, just so you know.) Powered by a detuned version of the Evo’s boosted engine, the Ralliart cranks out 237 horses, put to the ground through its very own all-wheel-drive system (lesser Lancers are front-wheel-drive), just like its big brother. The Ralliart also gets its own paddle-shifting six-speed manual transmission, just like the Evo; however, the Ralliart’s is a single-clutch system, while the Evo gets the dual clutch version. Needless to say, the difference is far too complex for me to go into here in depth, but just assume that when it comes to clutches, two is better than one. (If you want more info on the subject, try this link and that link.)

The Ralliart also gets FAST-Key (a radio transmitter that unlocks the car when you’re within a couple feet), sportier controls, several traction control systems, and a more badass exterior, all for $26,490. This price jump, however, lifts it out of the econocar price classes and into the mix with some pretty impressive machinery, like the Honda Civic Si, the Chevrolet Cobalt SS, and its natural competitor, the Subaru Impreza WRX.

As for performance, as one might expect, the wide range of models provides an equally broad rangeof bragging rights. Base models do the naught-to-60 in 8.8 and 9.1 seconds with the manual and automatic transmissions, respectively, according to Edmunds.com; the GTS stick-shift, they found, did it in 7.7. The Ralliart, on the other hand, will rip off 5.5 second 0-to-60s if you do it right, according to Car and Driver. Gas mileage is about what you’d expect; 22 city/30 highway for the 2.0, 21/28 for the 2.4, and 17/24 for the Ralliart. 

So what’s the verdict? For me, I’d probably do some extensive shopping before buying a DE or an ES – the competition is pretty strong these days in the cheap-car market. The Ralliart is perfect for anyone who wants a bargain-priced Evo, and presents a strong case even against the other cars in the sports-compact class; however, the GTS seems like the best buy of the bunch. If you’re looking for a car for less than $20,000 that doesn’t feel like punishment, the GTS’s bigger engine and added features (for not too much cash) will probably make you very happy.

Grades: DE/ES: C+, GTS: A-, Ralliart: A-

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Quick View – (the) smart (car)

I’d like to start this post by mentioning, much as I did with the Quick View on the Mini, that apart from in the title, I will be capitalizing the name of the Smart car in the way the English language requests we treat proper nouns, and not continually refer to it as the “smart,” as the folks at Smart headquarters in Germany would like. Apparently they read a lot of e.e. cummings while on the john over there, and didn’t realize that naming their new car the “smart” would just be “silly.”

(And since Smart is owned by Mercedes-Benz much the way Mini is owned by BMW, now nobody can accuse me of brand favoritism. Ha!)

But other than its name, the Smart car seems at first glance an admirable automobile. Designed as the ideal car for Europe’s narrow city streets, tiny parking spaces and expensive fuel, the Smart is designed to take up as little room as possible while making plenty of room for its occupants. Kind of like the Mini. (You’ll probably notice a lot of similarities between those two as time goes on.)

The Smart was first proposed, strangely enough by Swiss watchmaker Swatch, apparently seeking a new market to cover with funky-colored Hello Kitty pictures. While the Hello Kitty Kar campaign may have never taken off, the other focus of the car – to make a vehicle as long as a parking spot is wide, allowing them to perpendicular park in a parallel spot and really fuck with Driver’s Ed teachers everywhere – turned out to be a good idea. Swatch sent out some feelers to find someone accustomed to building devices larger than a quarter, and eventually found a willing partner in Daimler-Benz (parent company of Mercedes-Benz. Don’t ask why one name is different.).

The first Smarts launched onto European roads in 1997, eventually experiencing heavy financial losses and disputes that caused Swatch to pull out of the partnership. Daimler-Benz, undaunted, pulled Smart along by introducing several new models. To complement the initial model, called the “Fortwo,” Smart unveiled a four-door hatchback called the “Forfour,” a sleeker, lower “Roadster” model, and a few other odds and ends along the way.

Of course, most of this was happening back in the glorious days of the late 90s and early 2000s, when we Americans couldn’t have given two farts about a fuel-sipping microcar. Gas was cheap! An oilman was president! The world loved us! Global warming a problem so far in the future, we’d find a way to deal with it  between the Terminator uprising and the Borg invasion. Life was good.

Then, suddenly, it all hit the fan.

So when the second-generation Smart was being readied a couple years ago, a few notable folks in America happened to let slip that they, in fact, might be interested in bringing this little car to our shores. Suddenly, it’s 2008, and voila! Smarts are available for legal sale in the land of Comin’ Again To Save The Motherfuckin’ Day.

So, now that we understand how these little cars came to be, let’s take a look at them. The current, second-generation Smart comes in three flavors here in America: “pure” (el cheapo), “passion” (political statement), and “passion cabriolet” (Hollywood political statement). All three are powered by the same engine, a 1.0-liter three-cylinder cranking out an epic 70 horsepower and an equally stunning 68 lb-ft of torque. Car and Driver tested a 1815-pound Passion coupe, and managed to coax a 14.4 second 0-60 time out of it. Transmissions are equally limited, the only choice being whether you choose to slot the five-speed semiautomatic transmission into “manual” and “automatic.” 

So, if all the engines line up the same, what sets the different models apart? Well, let’s start with a radio. Yes, that’s right, the base “pure” model doesn’t come with a radio. It’s equipped for one, coming with an antenna, twin speakers, and an iPod jack, but the radio itself is conspicuously missing. Here’s what the “pure” does come with: 15″ wheels and tires, a tire pressure monitoring system, leather-wrapped steering wheel and gearshift, coin holder (ooh!), ABS and ESP, four airbags, and keyless entry. Air conditioning, metallic paint, a radio, power steering (holy shit!), and something called a “silver metallic tridion safety cell,” which sounds incredibly awesome but, given that it only costs $175, probably isn’t.

Next up the line is the Passion coupe, which throws in most of the above, except power steering and the silver metallic tridion safety cell. (I just had to put that in again. I mean, come on! Doesn’t that sound like something they’d have on the starship Enterprise? You know, the ship is being engulfed by a space amoeba and is about to be torn apart until Spock rerouts power through the silver metallic tridion safety cell, giving them enough time for Scotty to fix the warp core and they blast the hell out of there? Good times.)

But the options for the Passion don’t stop there. (I’d like to point out that both “additional instruments” and “solid roof” are listed as optional on the car.) Premium stereo costs $350, while the “comfort package” gives you good ol’ power steering, heated leather seats, and auto-off headlamps.

The line tops out at the Passion cabriolet, a fancy German word for convertible, which comes with the super-stereo standard in order to counteract the wind roar that shows up when you lower the “infinitely adjustable” power soft top. (Silver metallic tridion safety cell remains optional, but highly recommended, especially if you choose to forgo aftermarket phasers for your Smart.)

Of course, one place the Smart wins a lot of its friends is on price – and that price is damned low. Crazy low, it seems, for a car that was built by Mercedes-Benz. The Pure starts at $11,590. Yes, under twelve grand can buy you a German-engineered two-door with an engine, four wheels, an entire driveable car. (Space travel not recommended unless you purchase the silver metallic tridion-

Okay, enough of that tridion joke. You’ve beaten it to death.

Are you kidding? It’s still got miles to go! Besides, how could you beat it to death, it’s a silver metal-

Cut it out. Now. I am so not joking about this. 

All right. Can I make one more joke about it?

No.

What about if it’s not a Star Trek joke, just a joke about-

No.

What about if I told you that this entire dialogue was actually the joke, and you’ve been playing along the whole time?

(thinking)

Shit.

A-hem. Anyway, the better equipped Passion coupe starts at $13,590, while the Passion cabrio begins moving off dealer lots for $16,590.

The other way the Smart makes friends is its cuteness. Cuteness is, admittedly, in the eye of the beholder, but it’s probably safe to say the Smart manages to look sweet in the same way a ladybug does. (However, if you ever see a red Smart with black polka-dots, they probably have some serious loneliness issues. Get them a pet.) 

However, the Smart does have two unfortunate strikes against it. First of all, its small size – while attractive in principle – does make it a bit intimidating to drive on American roads, with American-sized cars and trucks and American-sized lanes. For those handful of places in the U.S. where the streets resemble those of Europe’s cities, the Smart’s size will indeed be a boon – for everybody else, it’ll probably just be a reminder that your car will always be a bit of a stranger in a strange land.

The second, less forgiveable flaw, is the fuel economy of the car. The Smart is rated at a mere 33 miles per gallon in the city and 41 on the highway; with only 70 horsepower, you’ll probably be seeing figures a lot closer to the latter if you intend to keep up with traffic. C/D only got 32 mpg. You can get similar mileage from a lot of other cars in its price range – and you won’t feel like Spam in a can doing it.

So, in review: the Smart is tiny, weak, and doesn’t get the mileage it seems it should – but it’s the cheapest car you can buy these days, and it’s not bad to look at. For some, it will be the perfect car; for the rest of us, however, there are smarter choices available.

Even if they don’t come with silver metallic tridion safety cells. YES!

  

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Quick View – Honda Civic

Today’s Quick View features the Honda Civic, in honor of it becoming the best-selling car in America for the month of May. (If you’re curious, it outsold the runner-up Toyota Camry by the spooky margin of exactly 2008 units.)

Analysts, along with most non-lobotomized people, believe the sudden jump in sales is due to the way gas prices seem to be rising at the same rate the gas flows into your tank. However, don’t assume the sole reason for the Civic’s popularity is the 36 miles per gallon the EPA says it gets on the highway and the sweet, sweet sound those numbers make when said to Americans paying $4 a gallon. The Civic is popular because it’s a damn good car.

Civics, like Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans, come in almost every variety you’d ever want. The basic models – DX, LX and EX, in order of increasing features – come in both two-door coupe and four-door sedan forms. All three of them share a 1.8 liter, 140-horsepower inline four-cylinder engine powering the front wheels through either a 5-speed manual or automatic transmission. Aside from features, the three are essentially identical. The bare-bones DX gives you power windows and 15″ wheels, and is probably best to steer clear of; especially when upgrading to the LX brings a more powerful stereo with iPod jack, air conditioning, cruise control, keyless entry, and 16″ wheels. The EX adds onto that anti-lock braking, steering-wheel-mounted audio controls, power moonroof, two extra speakers, and an available navigation system with XM satellite radio. (There’s also an EX-L model, which is basically just an EX with heated leather seats.)

In addition, the sporty Si model is also available in both coupe or sedan forms. The Si gets outfitted with a 197-horsepower, 2.0 liter inline-four hooked to the road through a 6-speed manual transmission. Too lazy to shift for yourself, pal? Then keep on walking. The Si also gets a limited-slip differential, sportier suspension and 17″ wheels to suck itself to the road, and a tiny rear-wing spoiler that probably doesn’t do jack in terms of helping on that front. Beyond that, it’s also loaded up with everything the EX has, but adds a 350-watt stereo with a subwoofer and admittedly badass aluminum pedals. But all that sportiness catches up at the pump; the Si gets just 29 miles per gallon on the highway.

Then there’s the Si’s Bizarro twin, the Civic Hybrid. Like Superman’s twisted double, the Hybrid and Si seem similar at first – both lie at the expensive end of the Civic spectrum, with features to match. But where the Si is all about speed – sweet, beautiful speed – the Hybrid lives for frugality. It gets the weakest engine of the Civic line, a 110-horsepower 1.3 liter inline-four that gets some (but not much) help from a small electric motor. Where the Si gets more gears than the rest of the Civics, the Hybrid gets fewer – it uses a continuously variable automatic transmission without set gear ratios to maximize economy. It gets most of the EX features as well, with the addition of automatic climate control – the only car in the Civic line with the option.

Finally, there’s the oddball – the GX natural gas-powered sedan. As you might imagine, being powered by compressed natural gas gives you the enjoyment of never having to stop at the Exxon station; unfortunately, it also probably means you’ll be pushing your car a lot, since CNG stations are as common as sober frat boys during college pledge week…or drunken volunteers during public radio pledge week. (For the record, Vermont and Maine each have one station, New Hampshire three, and Massachusetts eleven – but Vermont’s is private, along with two of New Hampshire’s, and the sole Maine station advises people to “call ahead.”) The GX drinks (inhales?) its fuel into a 113-horsepower 1.8 liter inline-four connected only to a 5-speed automatic. It gets the same 160-watt stereo as the LX and EX, but is forced to channel it through two mere speakers. 

The only divisive issue about the car really is its looks. After generations of conservative styling, Honda seems to have gone in a whole new direction with this Civic’s cyborg-trout looks. The two-tier dashboard may put some people off, too, but it doesn’t take too long to adjust to. If you don’t mind its looks, the Civic probably has a model you wouldn’t mind taking home with you.

Base prices:

Honda Civic DX sedan/coupe: $15,010/$14,810

Honda Civic LX sedan/coupe: $16,960/$16,760

Honda Civic EX sedan/coupe: $18,710/$18,710 (with leather: $19,910/$19,910)

Honda Civic Si sedan/coupe: $21,310/$21,110

Honda Civic Hybrid: $22,600

Honda Civic GX: $24,590

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