Category Archives: Reviews

In-depth articles on cars including behind-the-wheel impressions.

Review – 2010 Mazda5 Touring (now with video!)

Hold up, sporting enthusiasts! Before you go any further, check out our first VIDEO REVIEW below!

The Good: More playful than “minivan” would imply; sleek styling; surprisingly affordable.

The Bad: Space rather limited; sliding-door stigma remains.

The Ruling: The minivan for people who hate minivans.

Minivan.

The very word is enough to make most men shudder. It conjures up images of middle-aged suburban fathers losing hair and gaining weight, forced to shuttle their ungrateful little bastards from one yuppie-child activity to the next. (“They have Pilates for first-graders now?”) The minivan screams sexless, joyless, suburban purgatory, a rolling reminder that the best days of your life will forever be in that rear view mirror.

The Mazda5, though, begs to differ. Just a glance at it brings hope to the downtrodden American men sought after by every company to broadcast a commercial during an NFL game. Far from the amorphous bulging shape common to traditional minivans and beer guts, the 5 cuts a svelte hole through the atmosphere, knifelike creases evading the wind while catching the eye. This minivan works out – a cardio-heavy regimen, admittedly, but park it next to a more conventional van and it looks downright stunning.

In fact, it’s almost a stretch to call the Mazda5 a van at all, at least by American standards. Lower, lighter and smaller in every way than pretty much any minivan in the states, the only thing truly tying it to its name mates are the twin sliding doors mounted between the B- and C-pillars. In size and stance, the Mazda5 has more in common with a good old-fashioned station wagon than the hulking machines with the chutzpah to call themselves “minivans.” If anything, the Mazda5 puts the “mini” back in minivan.

Thinking small allows Mazda to accomplish the nigh impossible – making a van fun to drive. Though packing only 153 horsepower from its 2.3-liter inline four-cylinder engine, the 5 still put a smile on my face when tackling the high-speed sweepers of the Palisades Interstate Parkway. At a mere 3479 pounds dry, the car accelerates, stops and turns very similarly to the compact Mazda3 on which it’s based. Rowing through the five-speed manumatic transmission makes the keeps things plenty lively for autocrossers forced into soccer practice-duty, and the suspension feels more sports-sedan-like than any other car with sliding side doors. (No, BMW, that’s not a dare.)

Not surprisingly, though, the small engine has to work pretty hard to motivate the 5 with any verve, so fuel economy can suffer. Follow the speed limits and act like your driver’s ed teacher is in the car, the EPA estimated mileage of 21 city/27 highway with the automatic should be pretty attainable; drive like the average automotive journalist (we’re still bitter that our driver’s ed teacher thought they knew more than us), and you’ll average about 23 mpg.

Fun as it may be to drive, the true test of a minivan is how well it moves people, and it’s here the Mazda finds its litheness coming back to bite it in the surprisingly small keister. The length and width that make the Caravans and Siennas of the world so much less fun to drive gives those bigger vans far more places to cram adults, kids, coworkers, hitchhikers, aliens – whatever form of carbon-based life form floats your boat. The 5, for its part, imparts various feelings of constriction on its occupants depending on where they sit. Driver and front passenger will probably go with “cozy;” middle-row occupants may choose “tight;” those exiled to the back row would probably say “claustrophobic” if their knees weren’t already jammed into their mouths.

With that third row seat in takeoff-and-landing position (upright and locked!), storage space is pretty scarce as well. Anyone harboring dreams about taking what I like to call the “Simpsons Vacation Load” – two adults, two kids, a baby and an old codger – better be prepared to pack light. (Luckily, they already wear the same clothes every day.)

But take two people out of that equation – say, Grandpa and Maggie – and the 5 makes more sense. Backseat squabbles are kept to a minimum thanks to second-row buckets, and with the third row partially or fully down, storage space becomes plentiful. Big windows all around give everyone a good view of the surroundings, and though it’s become de rigeur in the segment, I still think having power windows in the sliding doors is a long-overdue blessing. (I’m sure I’m not the only one haunted by memories of poorly ventilated 90s-era minivans, which in summer began to emulate Civil War-era hotboxes on wheels.)

The 5 doesn’t shy away from packing on features, either; my mid-level Touring model packed on automatic climate control, a six-disc CD changer, satellite radio, a moonroof and keyless entry for a little more than $22,000. Even the fully loaded Grand Touring model (which adds on leather seats, xenon headlamps, a nav system and Bluetooth) goes for a bit less than $24,000 – less than most midsized sedans these days offering those same features, and certainly lower than similarly equipped members of the minivan clan. The truly frugal can take home a base 5 for $18,745 or so – but they’ll have to know how to row their own gearbox for that price.

The Bottom Line:

The “minivan” word doesn’t really apply to the Mazda5, in all honesty. In reality, the 5 is a station wagon that just happens to have sliding doors. While it certainly gives away quite a bit in terms of space to bigger, boxier vans, for the average nuclear family, the 5 offers an ideal compromise. It has enough room for two adults, their 2.5 kids and their accompanying soccer gear; it’s enough fun to keep the front left seat from feeling purgatorial; and best of all, neither the monthly bank account nor the fuel bill will devastate the familial bank account. Much like the Simpsons themselves, the 5 is far from perfect – but by God, you can’t help but love it.

Base Price/Price As Tested: $22,000/$22,000

0-60: 9.4 seconds

Fuel Economy: 21 city/27 highway (EPA estimate); 23 mpg (observed)

Key Competitors: Kia Rondo, Dodge Grand Caravan, Chrysler PT Cruiser

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Review – 2010 Audi S4 quattro

The Good: Sports-car performance, sedan convenience, inspires Kobe Bryant-levels of confidence.

The Bad: Not as fuel-efficient as the EPA would have you think, transmission a bit rebellious.

The Verdict: A near-perfect harmony of speed, style and substance.

The best automobiles are more than transportation appliances. Sure, they move you from place to place just as well as any car, truck, golf cart or Segway – but they do so much more. They inspire passion. They inspire lust. And, like Hugh Grant in any number of estrogen-tastic romantic comedies, despite their flaws, you ultimately come to love them wholeheartedly.

The Audi S4 is one of those cars.

On the surface, the S4 doesn’t seem very different from the A4 on which it’s based. While the S4 receives unique bumpers, a mildly different grille and quad tailpipes in lieu of the A4’s twin pipes, only the hardest core of enthusiasts are likely to notice. It’s a stealthy approach to speed – in stark contrast to the in-your-face aggression of potential competitors like the BMW M3 or the Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG.

(Of course, Audi insists the S4 doesn’t compete with those macho models, instead preferring to stack its stealth sports sedan against the “regular” six-cylinder entry-level luxury sedans – specifically, the BMW 335i, which the S4 is locked onto like a Tomahawk cruise missile.)

The trend of stylish subtlety continues inside, where the biggest variation from the A4 are a pair of sport bucket seats up front – though a handful of other differentiators, such as S4-branded gauges and steering wheel, pop up around the interior. But lack of style was never really a problem with the A4 (at least from my point of view), and the S4’s differences, though minor, add a bit of panache to the car’s looks.

Pop the hood, though, and the changes become a lot more apparent. Instead of the turbocharged 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder in the A4, the S4 runs wild with a 333-horsepower supercharged 3.0 liter V6 capable of propelling the S4 from 0 to 60 in 4.9 seconds, according to both Audi and Car and Driver.

But those numbers seem so cold and abstract compared to those 333 horses. This car is fast. Whee! Fast. The supercharger has effectively no lag (a major advantage blowers have over turbochargers) – punch the throttle, and you’re thrown back into your seat and on your way to that inevitable court date. (“Reckless driving,” my ass…)

While the S4 is based off a front-drive platform (indeed, you can buy a FWD A4 if you really want, but good luck finding one), it thankfully comes with standard all-wheel-drive, which harnesses those gallivanting ponies and sticks them to the ground with the expected Germanic efficiency. Between it and the electronic stability control, even the slipperiest Vermont roads were easily negotiable.

That said, though, click off the ESP, and the S4 will hang its tail out in curves all day long if you want it too (especially on those aforementioned icy dirt roads). I spend the better part of ten minutes baking donuts in the fresh snow of an Asian fusion restaurant parking lot – including several continuous loops around a blue spruce in the middle of the lot. (And I don’t regret it one bit, Ma.)

While a six-speed manual transmission comes standard, my tester put the power down through a seven-speed dual clutch transmission. In the past, I’ve been quite happy with this type of transmission (both in the Audi TT-S and the Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart), and the S4 was no exception – in automatic mode, shifts are as smooth as a slushbox, while in manual mode, it cracks off shifts with Barry Allen speed.

Adding a seventh, higher gear to the mix adds some virtue to the car’s hefty serving of vice, allowing the S4 to reach an EPA-claimed 28 mpg on the highway and 18 mpg in town. Of course, the EPA test cycle was designed by an engineer who drives like Ralph Nader in a snowstorm, so real-world mileage is a bit lower; I averaged 22.45 miles per gallon over a week of mostly highway driving.

The dual clutch ‘box isn’t perfect, however. Even in manual mode, flooring the throttle in high gear causes the car to drop down several cogs to put you in the heart of the powerband again. In automatic mode, this certainly makes sense, but presumably any driver who’s enabled manual mode wants to make his or her own decisions – and if he/she wants to, say, test top-gear acceleration along the New Jersey Turnpike without being unexpectedly flung towards the Pennsylvania state line, that’s his or her perogative.

Less startling but more annoying, the aluminum paddles on the back of the steering wheel are on the small side – small enough to be all but invisible behind the spokes at 9 and 3 o’clock. I presume this was an intentional move to keep them out of the way for drivers who don’t want to be bothered with shifting for themselves – but it seems kind of a burn to the enthusiasts who, presumably, make up a hefty percentage of the S4’s clientele.

Quibbles aside, the S4’s powertrain makes for one hell of a fun ride; luckily, when the road turns curvy, the suspension and chassis proves more than capable of cashing the checks the supercharged V6 loves to write all over the pavement. As with true sports cars, the S4’s limits will almost always lie beyond those of your nerves (at least on public roads).

Push the car into turns, and it urges you on, encouraging and emboldening you. While the steering can be heavy at low speeds, it lightens up as the car builds velocity, never feeling floaty or disconnected. Few cars instill as much confidence in their drivers as the S4 does.

On a side note, this was the first Audi I’ve tested lacking the Audi Drive Select system, which allows the driver to adjust the suspension, steering and drivetrain’s responsiveness. To what degree the ADS improves non-“S” models, I’m still unsure, but given my experience with the S4, I’d be hard-pressed to imagine how the system could improve on the car’s dynamics – at least, not enough to warrant its $3,950 price.

Of course, sport sedans promise a measure of convenience along with performance – after all, as Mitt Romney learned, society tends to frown on strapping your dog to the roof of your car; there will be times you need that extra room. Not surprisingly, the S4 offers all the convenience of the A4 it’s based on – it just goes faster. Granted, it’s still on the smaller end of the sedan spectrum; it’s possible to fit three adults and a week’s worth of luggage into the car, but let’s just say my backseat-dwelling father would probably not enjoy repeating that drive from Boston to New York City anytime soon. (Especially since he had to share the rear bench with several large bags.)

The Bottom Line:

For anyone seeking maximum driving excitement for around $50,000 without sacrificing utility, the S4 is as good as it gets. It’ll take winding back roads like a sports car at noon and let you drive octogenarian ladies to and from dinner at night. The S4 packs 95 percent of the fun of a sports car with 100 percent of the comfort and handiness of a four-door luxury sedan.

As an automotive journalist, people often ask, “If you could have one car, regardless of price, what would it be?” Usually, I’ll respond with my supercar crush du jour, then offer a quippy remark about the fun factor overwhelming the little inconveniences – crappy gas mileage, hefty insurance rates, lack of room, tricky behavior in town, and so forth.

But today? I might just tell them, “Audi S4.”

Base Price/Price As Tested: $48,125/$53,450

0-60: 4.9 seconds (courtesy Car and Driver)

Fuel Economy: 18 city/28 highway (EPA estimate); 22.45 mpg (observed)

Key Competitors: BMW 335i/335xi, Ford Taurus SHO, Cadillac CTS

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Review – 2010 Mazdaspeed 3

The Good: Powerful engine, lots of performance for little money.

The Bad: Torque steer can be intimidating, uncooperative shifter.

The Verdict: A sports car for the poor – with room for four.

When arranging for us to test the Mazdaspeed 3, the Mazda PR representative seemed almost a little contrite about our opinion of the regular Mazda3 we reviewed last August. “I hope it finds your favor better than the Mazda3 did,” he remarked in an email.

We were a little puzzled. After all, it wasn’t that we disliked the 3; it was a playful little economy car, even if it was laden with malapropos features like heated leather seats and xenon headlamps that turned with the front wheels. It was just awfully pricey – $24,455 is a lot to pay for a compact car.

But if they were concerned we were going to be harsh on the Mazdaspeed3 for the same reasons we took the regular 3 to task for…no worries, Mazda. Because the Speed 3 is not an overpriced compact car. It’s a vastly underpriced sports sedan.

Like any good sports car, the Speed 3’s greatness ultimately boils down to two factors: the engine and the suspension. And this engine is a doozy – a 2.3-liter inline four-cylinder with a hefty turbocharger bolted to it, pumping the little engine up to 263 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque. Given the car weighs a mere 3,221 pounds dry, this adds up to some serious whee!

But unlike most cars with this much power, the Mazda directs all that power to the road through the front wheels, and the front wheels alone. When so much power is directed through the same wheels being used to aim the car, it results in torque steer – when the force of the engine is strong enough to tug the car off course. In most front-wheel-drive cars, the condition is too slight to be noticed – but in the Speed 3, it’s as subtle as the latest Roland Emmerich film.

Mazda’s official line is the torque steer adds to the car’s fun factor, and while I certainly wouldn’t want the front wheels doubling as the drive axle on most performance cars…I gotta agree with the good folks at Mazda. It is pretty damn fun – once you get used to combating the wrenching wheels. (Though extensive driving may lead to the development of Popeye-like forearms.)

But the torque steer wouldn’t be much fun if the car didn’t blitz off the line like Reggie Bush. (And yes, I know that defensive players blitz, while Reggie is an offensive player.)

(Ed: Actually, Terrell Owens is an offensive player – Reggie is just a running back. Zing!

Oh, come on! That was gold!)

Sorry about that. The point being, this little sucker is fast. Given a twenty-foot gap to accelerate between the stop sign and the angry traffic of the FDR Drive, I revved up the engine, dumped the clutch – and wasn’t entirely sure I hadn’t been rear-ended by a Super Duty.

Having the turbo on your side means you’ve got power pretty much whenever you want it. Turbo lag is just apparent enough to be noticeable, without giving you the sort of hyperdrive effect seen on such cars as the old Porsche 930. By highway speeds, the tight-ratio six-speed manual gearbox has the engine spinning fast enough to make passing power available right frikkin’ now – and that’s just a safety feature, dude.

As for that stick shift – while I have to award major props to Mazda for only offering the Speed 3 with a manual transmission, the tranny itself does have a couple flaws. While running the engine at higher RPM on the highway is great for keeping the turbo in play, it doesn’t do much for fuel economy. And sixth gear is located awkwardly far down and to the right; several times I tried to upshift from fifth gear only to be shunted back into fourth. A firm hand is required to enable top gear.

As for the car’s handling, the suspension and tires don’t let the promise of that ballsy engine down. The Speed 3 romps around corners with glee; from the first turn you take, it’s apparent the car wants to be driven hard. Steering feel is a bit heavy at lower speeds; however, it loosens up as velocity increases, and while it may not be the most communicative steering rack out there, it’s not really complaint-worthy, either.

Thankfully, Mazda managed to find a pleasant balance between sporty and ridiculous in the car’s styling. While some automakers tend to slap all sorts of gaudy accoutrements on their sporty low-priced models, Mazda was content to leave the already wild-looking 3 more or less alone. The biggest difference can be seen up front, where the Speed 3 boasts a deep hood scoop and a gill-like guard on the front air intake that only plays up the regular 3’s marine life resemblance.

In addition, the Speed 3 only comes in 5-door hatchback form, which prevents it from suffering from the odd-looking pinched rear common to the sedan version of the 3. Be it in regular or speedy form, the hatch is by far the more coherently styled of the Mazda3 lineup.

Inside, things remain pretty similar to the conventional 3. The seats, while cloth instead of leather, are just as comfortable as the bovine thrones in the Grand Touring edition we tested several months ago. The only real differences are a handful of little touches – red trim on the seats and shifter, and a small electronic boost gauge between the tach and speedometer to tell you how much exhaust the turbo is forcing back into the engine.

As for options, the Speed 3 forgoes many of the fancy options hoisted on our last high-end tester – and is little the worse for wear. My tester was equipped with the only big-ticket item on the options list: the $1,895 Tech Package, which adds a 10-speaker Bose stereo with 6-disc CD changer and satellite radio, a keyless entry system allowing the driver to lock, unlock or start the car without removing the key from his or her pocket, and a navigation system.

About that navigation system…well, it’s not the greatest factory guidance system out there. The screen is conveniently mounted high on the dash, close to the driver’s eyeline; however, it’s about the size of a Triscuit. The only way to control the system is via small buttons on the steering wheel, meaning the driver can’t delegate programming duties to a passenger. Plus, while the computer claimed to automatically dim the screen at night, it failed to do so in my car – forcing me to drive around with a blindingly bright square of light in my eyeline. Ultimately, I had to pull over and manually switch it over to night mode – and switch it back and forth every twelve hours or so.

Still, for all its faults, the navigation system did seem as though it had been put together for people who love to drive. While heading back to New York City from Pennylvania’s Bucks County late one night, the system pointed me down a series of increasingly smaller and windier rural New Jersey roads instead of sending me straight to the four-lane highway I’d taken on the way down. I don’t think the back roads were any quicker – but they were certainly more fun.

The Bottom Line:

Even in this day and age, when automakers are making 550-horsepower sport-utilities and muscle cars roam the streets once more, the Mazdaspeed 3’s combination of performance, frugality and usability stands out. For less than $24,000, Mazda has created a car that can seat four adults or carry a good amount of cargo while performing like an honest-to-God sports car.

This is the kind of car that reminds people who love to drive where that love comes from. It was in pursuit of cars like this that led me to start College Cars Online – affordable, fun cars suited for young people. If we awarded a College Cars Online Car Of The Year (we’re not – but stay tuned for next year), the Mazdaspeed 3 would be at the head of the pack.

Base Price/Price As Tested: $23,945/$25,840

0-60: 5.8 seconds (courtesy Car and Driver)

Fuel Economy: 18 city/25 highway (EPA estimate)

Competitors: Subaru Impreza WRX, Volkswagen GTI, Honda Civic Si

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Review – 2009 Audi TT-S Roadster

The Good: Sweet-shifting transmission, stellar handling, looks like a roadster should.

The Bad: Turbo lag kind of a bummer, flatulent exhaust can be grating.

The Verdict: Convertible fun in a balanced package.

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While automotive journalists and racing drivers alike often extol the virtues of closed-roof sports cars, there is simply no substitute for the experience of a convertible. Sure, chopping the roof may give up some structural integrity and motorized tops may add weight, but no amount of lightness or strength can replace the feeling of racing along with the wind in your hair, nothing between you and the sky. For most of us, driving a convertible is as close as we’ll ever come to flying.

That said, the Audi TT-S Roadster is a wonderful substitute for a jetpack.

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Thankfully, little of the TT coupe’s clean, elegant styling is lost in the transformation from hardtop to softtop. The styling modifications baked in with the high-performance S package thankfully avoid the gaudiness all too often associated with “sportier” models; if anything, the front lip spoiler and raised wheel arches draw a strong link to Audi’s outstanding R8 supercar. And while “Brilliant Red” might not be the best choice for every car, it sat on the TT-S’s hull like the car was born to wear it. Put it this way – pull up in this car at a party, and you won’t have any trouble snaring some ass. And I don’t mean farm animals. (Unless that’s how you roll.)

The car’s expensive looks and feel are all the more impressive, given that under the skin, the TT-S is little more than a Volkswagen Rabbit (nee Golf), sharing its chassis (hence the car’s rather diminutive size) and engines – in the case of the TT-S, an uprated version of the GTI’s 2.0 liter turbocharged inline-four cranking out 265 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque.

All this juice is routed to all four wheels through the Volkswagen Group’s dual-clutch gearbox, formerly known as DSG but currently called S tronic. Whatever you call it, the dual-clutch box operates almost seamlessly. As with the dual clutch tranny of the Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart, the TT-S’s gearbox offers multiple ways of choosing your next gear.

Leave it in automatic, and it’ll shift itself without a second thought. Slap the shift lever sideways into Sport mode, and the car assumes you’re trying to recreate Ronin, holding gears close to the redline to keep the engine on the boil. And if you prefer manual override, you can pick your own gears using either the lever or the small metal paddles affixed to the back of the wheel, which feel great but can be hard to find during turns. In automatic mode or under hard acceleration, it snaps off shifts like rifle fire; driving sedately in manual mode, there can be a pause between toggling the shift paddle and the desired effect, but the gap is short enough to effectively be a non-issue.

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Slightly more annoying than the transmission’s quirks is the tendency of the quite exhaust pipes to burp quite loudly on every upshift. While it certainly adds a welcomed sense of fuck yeah! during hard-charging acceleration, it can grow a little tiresome while tooling around town. A system that restricts the belching to hard-core acceleration would certainly be appreciated.

Still, there’s little to complain about in regards to the car’s performance. Acceleration runs towards the back of the sport roadster class – not surprising, as the TT-S is quite a bit less powerful than competitors like the Porsche Boxster S, the awkwardly named BMW Z4 sDrive35i, or even the Chevrolet Corvette convertible. However, unless you’ve got the car’s competitors at hand for direct comparison, you’ll only be disappointed with the TT-S’s acceleration if you’re trading down from a Ferrari.

To access that power, though, you’ll have to punch through some turbo lag early on. Below 3000 rpm, the four-cylinder feels a touch anemic; once past that point, though, things stay interesting all the way up to the redline. Still, driving around New York City, I often found myself dropping a gear in order to keep up with traffic. (Then again, if all you need to deal with traffic in New York is a downshift, consider yourself lucky. I usually need something in a 12-gauge Remington.)

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Plus, when the roads start winding, the Audi grabs hold like an angry cat on carpet. Compact car or not, the Rabbit/Golf’s capable handling has often been celebrated, and the lowered ride height and AWD of the Audi only add to it. Should you desire, you can turn cloverleafs into G-force simulators with relative ease (but make sure your soda lid is screwed on tight).

Unfortunately, all that performance makes for quite a bit of temptation, and even if you’re lucky enough to avoid speeding tickets (good luck with that), playing with this Audi can cost you at the pump. The EPA estimates fuel economy at 21 city/29 highway; however, achieving the higher figure likely requires driving with the top up at 55 miles per hour, and if you’re driving your TT-S like that, you should just pull over and give the car to the nearest teenager. My tester’s low fuel light popped on after just 330 miles.

Inside, the TT-S boasts the same sort of quality seen all along the Audi line. You sit low in the car, with the high doors creating a mild case of “bathtub effect.” In keeping with the nature of the car, sporty touches abound, from the snug seats to the metallic finish on the shift lever and paddles and the thick, flat-bottomed steering wheel similar to the one in the Lamborghini Gallardo. (Lamborghini, like Audi, is owned by the Volkswagen Group – along with Bentley, Bugatti, and a host of European carmakers American audiences have probably never heard of.)

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Of course, no matter how committed you are to soaking up the sun – or in the case of Irish people like myself, risking melanoma – eventually some sort of event will occur (thunderstorm, hole in the ozone layer, Mothman attack) that will cause you to raise the top. Thankfully, the TT-S makes it easy; press and hold one button, and the top will rise or fall as you desire, even while driving at low speeds. While power hard tops have come into vogue in the last several years, the TT-S doesn’t suffer for choosing canvas over metal; the top boasts a glass rear window, feels nearly as strong as a hard one, and was just as effective at keeping warmth in and noise out.

The Bottom Line: From its humble roots in the Volkswagen family, the TT-S has grown into a genuine sports car. While it may lack the mid-mounted engines or hefty V-8s of other roadsters, the little Audi still kicks ass and takes names while making you feel like an action hero. Sure, it’s not the perfect convertible for everyone – there are faster roadsters, more convenient roadsters, flashier roadsters and cheaper roadsters – but the TT-S strikes a nice balance between value, size and style. Lay your eyes on one, and it’s hard to look away; drop the top, crank up your favorite Foo Fighters song and floor it through a couple of gears, and you’ll be hooked.

All figures are for 2010 models; the car is effectively unchanged from 2009.

Base Price/Price As Tested: $54,950/$54,950

0-60: 5.1 seconds (courtesy Car and Driver)

EPA Fuel Economy: 21 city/29 highway

Key Competitors: BMW Z4 sDrive35i, Porsche Boxster S, Mercedes-Benz SLK350, Chevrolet Corvette.

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Review – 2009 Audi A5 3.2 quattro

The Good: Playful chassis, movie-star looks, surprisingly versatile.

The Bad: Needs more power, S5 only a few grand more expensive.

The Verdict: About 100 horses shy of being a great sports coupe.

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Just like people, some cars are destined to stand in the shadows of their siblings. The Porsche Cayman may be considered by many to be the superior driver’s car, but the 911 will always be the car that stirs the hearts of 12-year-olds of all ages.

Likewise, the Audi A5 is doomed to sit one row behind its brother, the S5. Rocking a 354-horsepower V8 and aggressive bodywork, the S5 is a sinfully lustful piece of machinery, capable of dropping jaws and seducing women with a glimpse.

And then there’s the (barely) more prosaic A5, waving, “Hey, I’m cool too! What about me?”

To be sure, without an S5 nearby for comparison, the A5 will suck in gold-digging women and midlife-crisis-afflicted men for blocks around. With its long hood, taut lines, narrow headlights and wide grill, there’s a predatory mien to the A5, as if it fuels itself by stalking the streets at night, hunting for unlucky deer and pedestrians.

The car is so good-looking my tester’s black paint job seemed detrimental, hiding the car’s creases and blurring its crisp lines. Anyone purchasing an A5 ought to consider something a little more vivid. I mean, you’re not buying this car to blend in.

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Anyone with experience sitting in an Audi (or frequent readers of this blog, for that matter) won’t be surprised to hear the interior continues the stylish trend set by the sheetmetal.  Controls and materials are Audi standard – which is to say, top of the class. The interior is a feast for the senses, and controls fall easily to hand. The only variations from the Audi status quo are the sport seats partially upholstered in Alcantara (fake suede) that came along with the sporty S-line package.

Those seats lived up to their name, proving supportive while I wound the car through the twists and turns of north central New Jersey. Highway slogs, however, weren’t quite as ideal in the chairs; while comfortable at first, a not-quite-pleasant case of numb butt seemed to creep in sooner than one would like. Still, given they were designed more for spirited driving than cross-country expeditions, it’s a minor complaint.

The rear seats, however, proved another story. I’ve always been of the view that people ought to only buy as much car as they’ll need most of the time – that is, if you usually only drive around with one passenger or by yourself, you should get a coupe, not an SUV or sedan. But the backseat of the A5 was…well, let’s just call it inconvenient. It proved quite suitable as a parcel shelf, helping me and my girlfriend move most of her possessions from one apartment to another across Manhattan; however, any living creatures you want to put back there had better either weigh less than 100 pounds or lack limbs. Even large anacondas and Mini Me-sized amputees will probably want out of there before too long, as the scarcity of headroom and lack of view makes for a claustrophobic ride.

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But stick to the front seats – especially the one on the left – and the A5 makes for a pretty thrilling ride. It only takes a couple of turns to realize this is a true sports coupe – not a luxury sedan given a stylish makeover, but a two-door car aimed at people who love to drive.

Toss the Audi into a curve, and it claws its way around the bend with glee. Body roll is minimal, and the suspension doesn’t give in easily. This car wants to play, wants to dance around slower vehicles and through weaving two-lanes. As in the best cars, when you’re driving the A5, those yellow “winding road” signs are less a warning and more an invitation.

And, lo, what’s this sprouting from between the seats? Why – it’s a stick shift! Praise the Lord and pass the gasoline! Yes, while the A5 can be had with the six-speed automatic common to nearly every Audi, my tester came with a six-speed manual with a baseball-sized shift knob that fell right into the palm of my right hand. While shifts aren’t quite as crisp as those of BMWs or Hondas – who tend to set the standard for pleasant shift feel – it’s still a joy to use, and further indicates the Audi’s goal of being perceived as a sports coupe, rather than a two-door luxury car.

Paradoxically, though, choosing the manual also forces you to deal with a frustrating indicator under the speedometer telling you to upshift. As if its existence alone weren’t bad enough, the light often starts blinking ridiculously early – often telling me to shift up to the next gear at a mere 1800 rpm. Clearly, it’s designed to maximize fuel economy – but follow its guidance, and you’ll find yourself frequently outaccelerated by passing scooters. Razor, not Vespa.

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(Devastatingly, though, as of the 2010 model year, Audi no longer offers the six-speed stick on V6-motivated A5s. You might be able to find some new ‘09s still on dealer lots if you look, but finding them might be hard, given the American preference for slushboxes. However, Audi now offers their torquey 2.0 liter turbocharged I4 in the A5, and it’s still available with a manual.)

Unfortunately, even winding the most out of the A5’s 3.2 liter V6 won’t result in earth-shattering acceleration. Five years ago, 265 horsepower would have put the Audi at the top of its class; these days, however, it just can’t hold its own against engines like BMW’s silky smooth 300 horsepower twin-turbo inline six or Infiniti’s snorty 330 horsepower V6. And given that the S5 starts at $1,490 less than my tester, the A5’s place in the lineup becomes a little unclear.

Still, my loaded model was strapped down with nearly 14 grand in options, which cost-conscious customers could consider chopping (alliteration five!).  The S-line package (including sport suspension, tires and the aforementioned sport seats) is probably worth the $2,900 if you’re a performance driver; it also makes the $2,950 adjustable suspension seem somewhat redundant.

Likewise, the technology package ($2,200 for a rear parking camera and sonar, turning headlights, a blind-sport warning system and keyless entry) and the rockin’ Bang & olufsen sound system ($850) seem worth the money for a choice ride like this; however, I for one could do without the $1,900 premium package (though it does include those badass LED daytime running lights) and the navigation system (handy, but not worth $2,390 – not when a top-of-the-line Garmin GPS system costs $500).

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The Bottom Line: The Audi A5 is an honest sports coupe – a two-door vehicle bigger than a real sports car, but still capable of handling itself with as much glee as Fox’s Wednesday night lineup. Sadly, though, there’s little to distinguish it from its faster, sexier sibling, the S5, beyond a smaller engine.

The A4 and S4 sedan manage to stand apart because of their more utilitarian nature; there are plenty of people out there who want a capable luxury sedan, but don’t crave driving the way David Duchovny does poontang. Coupe buyers, though – especially ones looking at performance-oriented ones like the A5 – are more likely to be interested in the extra grunt of its V8-powered sibling.

But if you can’t stretch to the S5 and are forced to make do with the A5, you probably won’t regret it. After all, they say it’s better to drive slow cars fast than fast cars slow. And that way, you give the bystanders more time to stare.

Base Price/Price As Tested: $40,700/$54,715

0-60: 5.8 seconds (courtesy Car and Driver)

Fuel Economy: 16 city/27 highway (EPA estimates)

Key Competitors: BMW 3-series coupe, Infiniti G37 Coupe, Audi S5.

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Review – 2009 Mazda3 s Grand Touring

The Good: Playful handling, you’ll never have trouble finding it in the parking lot.

The Bad: Hefty price for a compact car – a really compact car.

The Verdict: A good little car trying to be more than it is.

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In the economy car market, buyers tend to consider one factor above all others – price. Admittedly, cost plays a role in most vehicular transactions (unless you’re lucky enough to be cross-shopping Ferraris and Lamborghinis, in which case, screw you), but especially so in the cheaper segments of the market, where buyers tend to be…well, let’s just say it: poorer. If they had more money, logic goes, they’d buy a larger car.

So the $24,445 sticker price of my Mazda3 came as quite a shock. “Who in their right mind would spend 25 grand on this tiny car?” I asked myself.  Yet while passersby on the sidewalk clearly heard me, their responses involved veering away from the man talking to himself instead of answering my question.

If you need a sedan for that kind of money, a Honda Accord EX automatic runs only $670 more, with great handling and interior room that seems limo-like in comparison. Even within Mazda’s own ranks, the larger Mazda6i Touring automatic can be had for $23,600.

In general, added performance tends to be the main reason compact buyers tolerate higher price tags – but the 3s only offers 167 horsepower from its 2.5 liter four-cylinder. A Honda Civic Si sedan can be yours for $22,815 and offers thirty more horsepower and a racier suspension – and hell, Mazda’s own MazdaSpeed 3 goes for $23,945, and offers 263 horsepower and a lot more driving fun.

So how does Mazda justify this price? In a word repeated three times: features, features, features. The 3s is loaded with enough gear to make a Mercedes blush: xenon headlights that turn with the steering wheel, rain-sensing wipers, dual-zone automatic climate control, Bluetooth (which refused to work on my tester), and heated leather seats with power controls for the driver. An optional 10-speaker Bose stereo and moonroof also came on my tester; however, it lacked a few other options, such as a navigation system. Check off every option possible, and you’ll be confronted with a $26,285 tab.

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To be sure, they’re nice features to have – some more so than others. Heated seats, for example, are awfully handy come the colder months, as they usually take less time to warm up than the entire interior of the car, and the high-powered swiveling headlights could save your life if they light up a Sasquatch in the road that much earlier. But for the most part, they’re like whipped cream on top of your Ben & Jerry’s – nice to have, but hardly necessary.

Luckily, the basics of this particular sundae are quite tasty even without all the toppings. The cheapest of the range can be had for a mere $15,795 – but at that price, you’d better know how to use a clutch, because you can’t get an automatic on the bargain-basement i SV model. Nor can you have air conditioning or power locks, so it’s perfect for anyone who feels nostalgic for driving back in 1979. (Sadly, a CD player is standard, but you could always cover it up with electrical tape.)

The best bet of the range is the i Touring model, which offers a Goldilocks-like mixture of features (16” wheels, Bluetooth, power locks with keyless entry, traction control and cruise control) and price ($18,250 – a little more if you want the automatic). However, that model – like all Mazda3s with an “i” suffix – comes with a 148-horsepower 2.0 liter four-cylinder engine. If you want the bigger 2.5 liter, you’ve gotta step up to the s Sport; it’ll cost $1,240 more than the i Touring, but at least they’re kind enough to throw in electroluminescent gauges and a “welcome lighting system.”

Luckily, both i and s models come with the same suspension setup – meaning even stripper models should be plenty of fun when the road turns twisty. Mazda has done a good job in the last decade making sure “zoom-zoom” isn’t just a slogan whispered by one of those creepy kids from The Bloodening.

On the highways and byways of Westchester County, the Mazda3 proved a willing playmate (does that sound dirty to you, too?), bobbing and weaving through tight turns and long sweepers quite happily. For its part, the engine provides adequate power; while it’s not likely to be confused with the Batmobile anytime soon, the 3s accelerates with enough verve to keep from feeling underpowered. (However, spirited drivers will definitely want to become accustomed to the manual shift gate of the 5-speed automatic…if they haven’t decided to buy the MazdaSpeed3.)

Still, one might expect a little more performance – or at least craziness – out of a car with the sort of styling the 3 exhibits. No dowdy Corolla looks here – this Mazda isn’t afraid to let its freak flag fly. Mazda describes the car’s styling as “Nagare inspired,” after a recent concept car, but given its Japanese heritage, angular headlights and utterly enormous maw, “anime inspired” would probably be a better way of describing it. (Though “whale inspired” might work too, given that it looks like it could suck in its body weight in krill every day.)

Birds, however, did not seem fond of the styling. And they voted with their poop.

Birds, however, did not seem fond of the styling. And they voted with their poop.

Inside, the sporty design theme continues onto the dashboard, where a high-mounted display makes glancing over to check the radio frequency quick and easy. The large central-mounted audio controls are pleasantly easy to use –more so than many of the complex computer systems in far more expensive cars, even.

Still, the interior has a ways to go before it could be considered perfect; the interior plastics seem awfully hard; it would be excusable in a $15,000 car, but when you add on ten grand of options to that same car, it doesn’t seem like too much to ask for a classier feel to the interior. And what’s with the retro pixilated display for the radio? Yeah, red is better for night vision, but is there any reason it has to look like it’s from the Reagan administration? Maybe Mazda and Mitsubishi share a supplier.

Interior room is tight at best, cramped at worst. Even the front seats are a little tight for people of Conan O’Brien-like proportions (such as myself), while the back seat is just about useless with someone my size up front. It’s small enough to be a potential deal breaker for potential buyers – though if they’re considering the Grand Touring model, they might just sacrifice the leather seats and buy a much more accommodating Mazda6 instead.

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The Bottom Line:

The Mazda3 is a fun-to-drive little car ideal for those who want to stand out. Lanky people might want to look elsewhere, but if you fit inside, you’ll probably be quite happy.

The Grand Touring model isn’t the best deal in the lineup – at this price point, buyers are more likely to cross-shop with larger sedans better able to fit their lives. Most people will probably consider cheaper trim levels that offer most of the important features for a much more reasonable monthly payment.

But whether you spend 15 or 25 grand, you’re still getting the same car beneath the surface – a playful compact that’ll make you smile along with it.

Base Price/Price As Tested: $23,050/$24,445

0-60: 7.7 seconds (courtesy Car and Driver; manual transmission model)

Fuel Economy: 22 city/29 highway (EPA estimates)

Competitors: Honda Civic, Subaru Impreza, Toyota Corolla, Ford Focus

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Review – 2009 Audi Q5 3.2 quattro

The Good: Sporty handling, willing engine, carlike ride and a trucklike view.

The Bad: “Convenience” options can border on pointless, doesn’t make as much sense as an A4 Avant.

The Verdict: Top of the class – if that’s your style.

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As the nearest Star Trek fan will tell you, natives of the planet Vulcan differ from humans in two major aspects – pointy ears, and an infallible belief in logic. Unlike hotheaded humans, Vulcans make their decisions entirely with their brains and rarely with their hearts.

The Audi Q5 would be a flop on Vulcan. Sure, pointy-eared car shoppers would appreciate the traction-amplifying all-wheel-drive system, the refined powertrain, and the comfortable seating, but ultimately, they’d probably just find the Q5 illogical. After all, the station wagon version of Audi’s A4 is lighter, just as fast, and more fuel-efficient – and it’s cheaper to boot.

Luckily for Audi, though, the Q5 is only for sale on Earth, where emotions tend to play a large part in the car-buying process. And here in America, the Q5 will almost certainly outsell the A4 Avant year in and year out, thanks to our nation’s rather irrational love of tall, four-wheel-drive vehicles.

That said, anyone who decides to take a Q5 home isn’t likely to regret his or her choice. Once one accepts the inherent compromises of the SUV form, this Audi becomes the sort of car people recommend to their friends – often without prompting. (“Catch the game last night, Steve?” “No, but I love my new Q5!”)

It certainly helps that the Q5 doesn’t feel very SUV-like from behind the wheel. Motivated by the same 270-horsepower 3.2 liter V6 as the A4 (with which the Q5 shares its platform), the medium-sized SUV prowls the streets with the verve of a smaller – or at least shorter – vehicle. The run to 60 takes 6.5 seconds, according to Car and Driver – only eight-tenths of a second slower than the V6 version of the A4 sedan.

Strange as it might seem, though, SUVs doubling as rocket sleds isn’t exactly news. Porsche, Mercedes-Benz and BMW all make sport-utes capable of ripping off 0-60 blasts in the low five-second range or quicker; hell, the Hemi-powered Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 does the sprint to mile-a-minute velocity in 4.5 seconds, and it costs more than $10,000 less than my loaded Q5.

But the SRT8 is more concerned with novelty than utility – a third or fourth car for sophisticated rednecks and NASCAR drivers. The Q5 wants to be your first car, the one you can commute to work in during the week and take out for a weekend drive on your favorite windy road, while still traversing the worst Mother Nature can throw at you on your way to Grandma’s house for Christmas. (And if Grandma happens to live up a washed-out dirt road, you’re still good to go.)
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Impressively, the Q5 doesn’t lose much momentum when the road turns windy. On tight mountain roads, the Audi wound through turns with similar aplomb to its smaller A4 sibling (are you seeing a pattern here?). Anyone used to more traditional SUVs – or even the others in the Q5’s class – will probably find the Audi’s handling revelatory.

Like the A4 reviewed here last February, the Q5 came with Audi Drive Select, a system that allows you to manipulate the suspension, steering and throttle response with the touch of a button. The system seemed a bit more useful here than in the A4; “dynamic” mode seemed a little more buttoned down and forceful in the twisties, but “comfort” mode just seemed floaty, even potentially nausea-inducing. I left it in “auto” at least 90 percent of the time, and odds are most buyers will do the same. Better to save the $3,000 the system costs for gas money.

As for the rest of the Q5’s optional gadgets, they tended to land somewhere between usefulness and gimmickry. The blind spot warning system, which illuminates amber lights on the side mirrors if there’s a car lurking in your blind spot, ranked towards the helpful end of the spectrum; however, the yellow glow tended to get washed out in direct sunlight, which could spell trouble if drivers become dependent on the system. And the panoramic glass roof opens wide enough to finally fulfill Homer Simpson’s wish for “a sunroof for the husky gentleman.”

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The electronically-closing tailgate, however, just seems stupid. In theory, it seems like a good idea to have a powered backup method of closing the hatch – say, for when someone’s hands are full, or if the car is owned by Verne Troyer. But the button to close the hatch is on the hatch – meaning you still have to have one hand free to reach up and touch it. Worse, there’s no way to manually override the plodding system – any attempts to quickly shut the gate by hand are stymied, as the electronics keep the door from moving even an inch.

Ultimately, though, a car is judged not on its electronic toys and options, but in how well it goes about whatever task it’s designed for – in the Q5’s case, carrying four or five people in comfort and style over any road. Style isn’t a problem; like most Audis, the Q5 leads the pack in classiness. From the outside, the Q5 strikes an eye-catching balance between muscularity and curviness, like Jessica Biel during her Blade 3 days.

Inside, the theme is pretty much standard Audi corporate interior – lots of leather and a clean design. Like most luxury cars these days, a center-console-mounted knob controls the navigation system/stereo/missile targeting system/etc; Audi’s is called MMI, or “Multi-Media Interface.” As I’ve said before, it’s one of the easiest of the systems to use, but it still requires attention you should really be giving to the road. (Luckily, redundant controls on the steering wheel allow you to at least control the radio without looking too far off-course.)

As for the interior accommodations, well, let’s just call them “adequate.” The front seats are comfy during long hauls and sweeping curves, and offer plentiful room. The back seat is a little tight for full-sized adults, though; they’ll fit (at least two of them would – but don’t put anyone you like in the bitch seat), but passengers won’t be confusing the Q5 for the large A8 sedan anytime soon.

Still, the moderately-sized back seat is an acceptable compromise, given the Q5’s proportions. Only someone trading up from a Yaris would consider this Audi a “big truck;” compared to its Jelly-Bellied giant brother, the Q7, the Fiver seems downright compact. Unless you really, really need that third row of seating the Q7 offers, the Q5 will be a more satisfying choice – and if you need to seat seven people that badly, there are quite a few dealerships that would be happy to put you in a very nice minivan.

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Bottom line, though, it’s hard to make a logical case for the Q5 – but that goes for the entire small luxury SUV class. For the money, every manufacturer offering one of these vehicles – Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Lexus, Infiniti, and so on – also offers a similarly-sized sedan or wagon with superior performance and fuel economy. Most of them can be had with all-wheel-drive, and most of them are cheaper than their SUV equivalents.

If the Q5 makes a better case for itself than most of its competitors, it’s because it sits atop the class. Stacked up against the A4 Avant, it’s just about as quick, offers more cargo space and seats you a few inches higher off the ground for a few thousand dollars more. Enthusiasts looking for an all-weather people mover with added room for grocery runs will probably choose the lower, lighter Avant. But if the SUV looks and king-of-the-world seating position appeal to your heart, the Q5 will make you happy every day you climb behind the wheel.

Base Price/Price As Tested: $38,175/$52,950

0-60: 6.5 seconds (Car and Driver)

EPA Fuel Economy: 18 city/23 highway

Key Competitors: Lexus RX350, Mercedes-Benz GLK350, Audi A4 Avant

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