Category Archives: Reviews

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

Review – 2009 Infiniti G37 Coupe AWD

The Good: Stylish enough to be Italian, powerful enough to be American, and packing enough geekery to be true to its Japanese heritage.

The Bad: A little soft in the turns, can’t have Sport Package and AWD, audio overkill.

The Verdict: The poor(er) man’s Maserati.

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In the analog automotive world, the term gran turismo usually refers to sleek, powerful cars designed for crossing continents. The term hearkens back to an age when road trips were romantic things, before the minivan and the rear-seat DVD player turned thousand-mile drives into things to be endured, rather than savored.

But those great touring cars are still around today, and while the term is usually thrown around in the context of six-figure exotics, there are plenty of less expensive cars ideal for endless road trips along both highways and byways.

The Infiniti G37 coupe is one of those cars. Leave its four-door brother for the “responsible” middle-managers with kids and jobs they detest; the two-door G37 is for those whose souls cry for the endless road trip, wanderers who need only a fine machine around them and an endless supply of rock and roll to be happy.

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And the G37 coupe delivers on both those counts. Equipped with the Premium and Navigation Packages, as my tester was, the G37 offers as many varieties of audio as your local Best Buy – AM/FM radio, Sirius XM satellite radio, CD player, iPod-specific connector, internal hard drive, and flash memory slot. Play it right, and you won’t hear the same song twice until James T. Kirk is left fatherless after birth, causing him to develop into a more dickish yet more svelte adult than he would have been otherwise.

All those tunes flow through an 11-speaker Bose audio system dubbed the “Infiniti Studio on Wheels.” While this “studio” won’t let you cut an acoustic version of “Waking Up In Vegas” (thank God), it will let you properly memorialize Michael Jackson with clean, crisp sound. Whether it’s worth the $3,000 for the Premium package is up to you; however, if it makes the choice any easier, it comes bundled with a moonroof and Bluetooth (which refused to work in my car, for some reason).

But to spend all your time listening to the radio would deprive you of the roar of the 3.7 liter V6 – and that would be a shame. Floor the throttle, and the engine (shared with pretty much every vehicle in the Infiniti lineup, and quite a few in the Nissan line as well) cuts loose with a throaty growl certain to make teenagers and dogs look your way. If you blindfolded the average person and asked them to identify what sort of car it came from, they’d probably be more likely to pick something from Italy than Japan.

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However, pull that blindfold off, and they might still make the same mistake. With curves and lines that could have been penned by Pininfarina, the G37 Coupe oozes the sex appeal of a much more expensive car. Admittedly, the tail end looks may have gone under the knife one time too many, but the front view sends blood places usually reserved for a Maserati – or Megan Fox – sighting.

The stylishness continues inside the cabin, where brushed aluminum sweeps across the dashboard and down the waterfall-like center console. It’s a good thing that console looks so nice, because your eyes will be glancing that way quite a bit; housed atop it is the large, vivid touchscreen display for the navigation and stereo.

The navigation system offers no fewer than three ways to control it – by touching the screen, using the control buttons below the screen, or via voice commands. While three control methods might seem redundant, they each have distinct benefits – for example, scrolling is best accomplished with the physical scroll knob, while voice control is great for times when you need both hands on the wheel.

The nav system itself is easy to follow and loaded with helpful features, such as real-time traffic conditions and lane diagrams to point you in the right direction during complex intersections. However, the system isn’t flawless – driving up the New Jersey turnpike, it inexplicably directed me through the long-term parking lot at Newark Airport on the way to the Holland Tunnel. And is it really necessary for the system to tell you not to take every exit on the highway?

Aside from the navigation, the other big techno gun in the G37’s road-trip arsenal is its laser cruise control. Sadly, this doesn’t involve vaporizing slower-moving traffic, but rather using an invisible laser beam to judge the distance from the car in front of you. If the Infiniti gets too close, it automatically slows to maintain the set distance.

The default, longest setting is strictly for driver’s ed class; people will be cutting in front of you so often, you’ll be in a constant state of slowing down. (Though as George Carlin said, given all the toll booths, that’s really all you do in New Jersey anyway.) Luckily, there are two shorter settings – or you can turn the laser off altogether.

But with 330 horsepower under the hood, you probably won’t want to use the cruise control very much. Putting it simply – this baby hauls. Car and Driver recorded a 0-60 time of 5.3 seconds for the Sport model, and you’ll probably want to try and break that every chance you can. It almost made the $45 I spent on tolls driving from NYC to D.C. worth it, just the floor the car out of the gate and rip up to speed across the broad post-toll expanse.

However, the stock suspension doesn’t live up to the engine’s promise; the tires squeal around cloverleaves, and while “sportiness” is obviously on the car’s list of priorities, it’s a couple slots lower than enthusiasts would like. The Sport Package, which gets a 6-speed manual (or paddle shifters for the 7-speed auto, if you fail at driving), sport suspension, and stronger brakes, would probably make all the difference; however, my tester instead came with all-wheel-drive, and Infiniti doesn’t offer the two packages together. (BMW lets you get AWD and the Sport Package on the 3-series – so what’s up, Infiniti?)

The AWD certainly increases the car’s capabilities as a real-world vehicle, rendering it all but unstoppable; the car never slipped or faltered, even taking a tight uphill turn in the midst of a torrential rain storm. Personally, I’d rather grab the Sport package and drive a little more carefully during bad weather in exchange for the added performance and fun most of the time; but if you live somewhere where inclement weather is a concern, the AWD would make the G37 an ideal two-person car.

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Two people, mind you, not more – at least, not on a regular basis. Calling the car a four-seater isn’t quite a lie, but you might want to think twice about saying that in court. While there are two seats in back, they’re best reserved for people you really don’t like. Legroom is tight for anyone over 5’6”, headroom even tighter, and the low roof and small windows render the space rather claustrophobic. Four adults could squeeze into the car for a crosstown jaunt, but anything beyond ten miles would be cruel and unusual.

Cargo space is surprisingly adequate; I was able to squeeze most of a two-person Costco run into the trunk, with the rest comfortably residing in the back seat. And anyone who’s ever had a cat will appreciate the G37’s “butt button” – press it, and the trunk lid rises, just like when you touch the base of a feline tail.

Bottom line, the G37 Coupe makes for a great gran turismo; it’s gorgeous, flies along open roads, fits two people’s luggage easily, and offers enough music options to allow you to drive from Bangor to San Diego without hearing the same song twice. The AWD is a nice insurance policy, but by making it and the Sport Package mutually exclusive, the Infiniti lacks the performance bits needed to make the car into a true sport coupe.

If you consider yourself a real driver – someone who owns dedicated driving shoes and knew Clive Owen before he was cool from the BMW Films – you’ll want to take the Sport Package. However, anyone with a love for the open road (and $39,515) won’t be disappointed with the G37 Coupe in any form. It’s the sort of car you could drive forever and a day, from one new town to the next on an endless adventure. And for all the fun there is to be had on a race track, isn’t that the real magic of the automobile?

Base Price/Price As Tested: $39,515/$46,195

0-60: 5.3 seconds (Sport model; courtesy Car and Driver)

Fuel Economy: 18/25 city/highway (EPA)/ 22.6 (observed)

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Review – 2009 Audi A4 2.0T

The Good: Gorgeous inside and out; gadgets galore; as sporty as you’ll ever need.

The Bad: Surprisingly poor fuel economy; asking $47 grand for a four-cylinder car.

The Verdict: Don’t be afraid of downsizing.

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In the second and third installments of The Transporter film series, stubble-headed badass and pain enthusiast Jason Statham alternates between wrecking more people than Bruce Banner at a coffee-less Rageoholics Anonymous meeting, and piloting his Audi A8 from one laughably absurd stunt to the next. In the series, Statham’s Audi proves almost Kryptonian in its durability – whether it’s leaping between skyscrapers or scraping bombs off his car’s undercarriage with a one-legged ramp and a handy crane, the big sedan takes it as stoically as the Lone Ranger’s steed, with nary a scratch or flat tire for its troubles.

Indeed, the film’s reputation landed Statham in a starring role in this year’s best Superbowl ad, demonstrating the prowess of the newest Audi A6 while subtly pissing on Mercedes-Benz, Lexus and BMW. And while the decision to slide the British shitkicker behind the A6 instead of his usual, larger A8 was likely because the A6 has been rebooted with a supercharged V6, it also pointed out an important fact in the modern automotive world: downsizing is the new trading up. With the economy continuing a long, Titanic-like plunge, and the only thing preventing gas prices from skyrocketing is the frequent knocking of knuckles against wood, car buyers are looking to smaller, less expensive models.

But while Statham, in all honestly, probably needs that extra horsepower and leg room for his job as the world’s flintiest chauffeur, most of us can get by with a little less these days. In fact, moving down brings with it some advantages – easier parking, cheaper payments, and fewer digits on the gas pumps. (Usually.) Providing a prime example of this principle is the Audi A4, the smallest sedan in the German manufacturer’s lineup (and, in the unlikely event that Crank: High Voltage bombs at the box office, Mr. Statham’s next ride).

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The A4 went through a top-to-bottom redesign last year, scraping away the previous generations’ baby fat to reveal a svelte new design. Any similarities to Audi’s A5 coupe are more than just skin deep; the two cars share platforms as well as faces. And while much has been made lately of the obsession with “four-door coupes” such as Volkwagen’s Passat CC and Mercedes-Benz’s CLS, the A4 manages to take the coupe’s tight proportions and draw them out into a more conventional sedan shape without losing much of the two-door’s good looks. On several occasions, my oxygenated-blood-red tester drew comments from anonymous passerby, including a teenage boy who turned to his brother and said, simply, “Yo, that car is awesome.”

The Audi’s sense of style continues into the cabin, too. Audi has been known for years for producing some of the classiest interiors in the automotive world, and the A4 is no exception. Every panel fits neatly into its place, and controls execute their tasks with solid clicks, with none of the chintziness you might find in the products of other car companies, who shall remain nameless in order to preserve the infinitesimal amount of dignity they have remaining after begging Congress for money. The materials, too, were top-quality; my tester’s “Cardamom beige” leather interior was nicely accented with “ash almond beige” wood trim, though I doubt anyone would ever refer to their car as having a “cardamom and ash almond beige” interior. (And if somebody does, I sure as hell don’t want anything to do with that jagoff.)

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Those cardamom-wrapped seats (sorry) are pretty good places to spend some time, as well. The front seats offer more than enough room for even the lankiest of people – at 6’4”, I didn’t even need to push the front seat back all the way to make room for my Conan O’Brien-like legs. The back seat isn’t quite as nice as the front – this is a pretty small car, and that back seat has only six-tenths of an inch more legroom than the rear bench of a Honda Civic. Still, my 5’8” girlfriend was able to sit behind me in relative comfort, and the Audi was able to transport me, her and my parents about with ease during a weekend trip up to Stowe, Vermont.

The Audi A4, seen with the famous Ice Penis of Stowe.

The Audi A4, seen with the famous Ice Penis of Stowe.

But these days, a car has to have more than leather seats and brand cache to be considered a luxury ride – it’s all about the options. The crazier and fancier the shit you can load onto your car, the better. Thankfully, Audi hasn’t held anything back on the A4, so anyone downsizing from a larger, more expensive model won’t feel like they’re losing out in the gadget race.

The first technological wonder you’re likely to notice is the MMI (Multi-Media Interface) system, and with good reason – it’s the one you’re going to be using the most. Located below the gearshift lever, the MMI uses a silver-dollar-sized knob to control most of the car’s secondary systems. Arrayed around the dial are eight buttons, each of which brings you to one of the system’s main menus – one for the navigation system, one for the radio, one for the telephone, etc. Each button brings up a menu display on the large color screen atop the dash; once at the menu you want, you navigate through the submenus with the wheel, and press down to select. It’s a little disconcerting at first, especially when you just want to change the radio station, but I was able to get accustomed to it within a day or two.

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The navigation system, for its part, consistently figured out every attempt to confuse it I threw at it; when I deviated from the path it told me, it rerouted me on a new path based on my course change. (Sorry, New York State Assembly, you can rename the Triborough Bridge after any Kennedy you want, I’m still not paying the $5.) In addition, the nav also displays nearby restaurants, gas stations, hotels, and schools (the latter a little inexplicable – when was the last time you needed to find the nearest school in an emergency?). But setting the navigation system is a chore – dialing out an address one letter at a time with the click-wheel makes hunt-and-peck typing seem efficient. The system advises you to stop the car before inputting coordinates – but seriously, who’s gonna do that? If I had the time to pull over, I’d look at a map.

The other fancy feature installed on my tester was the Audi drive select system. Designed to control the car’s handling and performance, the system lets you choose how much the steering, throttle and shifts are, as well as how buttoned-down the suspension is. The program offers four settings – comfort, sport, auto, and an individualized setting you can adjust as you like.

While I spent most of my time on auto, flipping through the various settings didn’t seem to produce much of a difference. The sport setting made the car’s handing a little more taut, as you’d expect, and held the car in lower gear longer; likewise, the comfort setting made those nasty Lexington Avenue potholes a little gentler on my butt. But ultimately, it didn’t really seem to produce much of a difference – especially not given the option’s nearly three-grand price. My advice? If you know you’re the sporty type, spend the $1,950 on the sport package, which includes sport seats, sport suspension and shift paddles (which I frequently wished for on windy back roads).

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The rest of the features of the car, though, were wonderful. The 505-watt Bang & Olufsen stereo (14 speakers, baby!), coupled with a 6-disc CD changer and Sirius XM satellite radio, can only be described as “kick-ass;” listening to the newest Springsteen album was almost as good as seeing him live. (Except with fewer crotch slides.)  The A4’s keyless go system meant the car sensed the key in my pocket and unlocked automatically, then let me start the car with the touch of a button; I never realized how much of a pain in the ass it was to dig out my car keys until I drove this car.

The rear-view camera and rear sonar, designed to aid in parallel parking, was a welcome balm after the endless hunt for a spot in New York City. And while the car was also equipped with side assist (designed to keep you from plowing into a car in your blind spot) and voice command tech (designed to make you feel like Jean-Luc Picard), I wasn’t able to figure them out during my time with the car, which I completely credit to me being to stubborn to look in the owner’s manual.

But enough about features, I hear the car fans clamoring. What’ll she do? Well, there’s plenty of good news and a dash of disappointment here. Let’s start with the good stuff, of which there was plenty. My car was equipped with the 2.0 liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, which puts out 211 horsepower and a mighty impressive 258 pound-feet of torque; all of that was sent to all four wheels through a 6-speed manumatic automatic transmission. While Audi also offers a V6 in the A4, after a few days with the four-cylinder, I can’t imagine why anyone would ever buy the six.

While the four is down 54 horsepower to the six, it actually has 15 more pound-feet of torque than the bigger engine. As a result, real-world performance is pretty much equal: Car and Driver ran the four-pot from 0 to 60 in 5.7 seconds, the same as the V6. My tester started to lose steam around 85 miles an hour, but for almost all the driving you or I will be doing, the four is the Goldilocks engine – just right.

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Likewise, handling and braking are just fine; the quattro all-wheel-drive system grips tenaciously on dry roads and ice alike, and it’s ultimately transparent in day-to-day driving. Audi’s been equipping its cars with all-wheel-drive for years now, and not only have they got it down to a science, the other German manufacturers are paying them the ultimate complement by stealing their idea; Mercedes-Benz now offers AWD on everything from their cheapest car (the C-class) to their priciest sedan (the S-class).

The only real quibble I had with the powertrain was the fuel economy. While the EPA rates the A4 2.0T at 21 mpg city and 27 mpg highway, my car only eked out 23.6 miles per gallon during a mostly-highway-cruising jaunt. I suppose it’s possible the disparity was due to my cruising speed of 75 miles per hour (as opposed to the EPA’s test drivers, who I doubt ever break 55), but even so, it was disappointing – especially given that my prior tank, much of which consisted of stop-and-go Manhattan driving, managed at least 22 miles per gallon. (I wasn’t able to calculate exact mileage, as I was unsure how much fuel was in the tank when the car was dropped off.) In comparison, the EPA rates the V6 model at 17/26; I’d be interested to see what kind of real-world mileage it gets.

But saving gas isn’t the purpose of this car; if you’re looking for bragging rights at the pump, buy a Prius. Audi’s game is stylish, sporty luxury, and the A4 delivers that in spades – but it does so at a price. In this case, $46,675. Yes, that’s right – it’s a four-cylinder compact car that costs almost $50,000. It’s the sort of stat that takes your breath away, especially if you’re the sort of person (like me) who grew up driving Hyundais and Subarus. But it’s not the size of the ship that matters, but the motion of the ocean, right? And this Audi, four-cylinder engine or not, has all the right moves to compete in its class.

While it may be down two cylinders against its competitors, its power outputs and performance are right in line with other base-model compact luxury sedans; Mercedes-Benz’s C300 puts out 228 horsepower, while BMW’s 328xi makes 230 horses. And the Audi’s pricing lines up quite nicely, as well; a loaded 328xi and a loaded C300 4MATIC come in at $48,220 and $45,750, and don’t even bother looking for adjustable suspension or rear-view cameras on those models. And when compared to the V6 model – which, when identically equipped, costs $3,750 more – the four-cylinder makes even more sense.

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So in the end, what’s the ruling on the field? Well, while its price may look intimidating at a glance, Audi has put together a luxury sedan that fits the zeitgeist very well. By offering the high-end options and cool new technology in its smallest, cheapest sedan, it gives buyers a chance to feel like they’re having their cake and eating it too.  In a crummy economy, that’s a rare bargain. And if Mr. Statham’s feeling the pinch of hard times, he shouldn’t worry about downsizing – the A4 will take good care of him.

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Review – 2008 Mitsubishi Eclipse GS

The Good: Smooth styling, solid powertrain, does everything asked of it pretty well…

The Bad: …so long as you only need to chauffeur one person.

The Verdict: A poor man’s GT car.

For most of the 20th century, Mitsubishi registered on the radar screens of America’s car buyers about as well as a B-2 stealth bomber. While an economic powerhouse in its native Japan, owning everything from nuclear power plants to banks, it languished as a second-rate foreign manufacturer in the States, sucking on Toyota and Honda’s exhaust fumes. Rice-rocket nerds drooled over Japanese-market Evolutions they couldn’t get, but otherwise, nobody really cared in the states.

Then in 2003, with one simple ad, Mitsubishi went from “those guys who make crappy cars, right?” to “those guys with the really cool car commercial.” All it took was a few bars of a Dirty Vegas song, some blurry nighttime photography, and a coupe with pretty decent looks, and suddenly, people were talking Mitsubishi.

With all of the cool of a modern-day Miami Vice (and none of the Colin Farrell mullets), the ad not only launched Dirty Vegas into Chumbawumba-esque realms of one-hit wonderland, but started pulling pop-and-locking young people into showrooms. Suddenly, it was…almost…cool…to have one.

Of course, by then the Eclipse was already three years old, and it wouldn’t be long before a new model came along – so in 2006, the new Eclipse rolled onto American shores for the first time.

And it was hot.

If the old model was Carrie-Anne Moss in The Matrix, this new Eclipse was Gisele Bundchen in her birthday suit. People took notice of the car, not the background music of the ads.

And two years later, the Eclipse still looks good. In the flesh, it looks like a curvier version of the Civic coupe (and who doesn’t like curves?). Even if the side mirrors look kind of oddly placed from the outside of the car, they work fine from within.

The inside of the car, while unlikely to be confused with an Audi anytime soon, is also well-designed, with smooth forms and clean lines dominating inside. The front seats in my GS tester were very supportive and comfy; however, don’t even consider putting anyone legally taller than “midget” in those back seats, especially if the driver is close to six feet high. Those back seats are probably more useful for groceries and other loose cargo one doesn’t want rolling around the wide-but-shallow expanse beneath the glass hatch.

Inside, controls fall conveniently to hand; in a world of ever-increasingly complex automotive audio systems, the Eclipse’s stereo is simple and easy – though I think if I was in charge of Mitsubishi, I’d mark up the price of the car $20 in order to buy a display that doesn’t look like the face of a Chinatown Casio. And if the screen itself weren’t distractingly crappy enough, the blemish it’s mounted into – which raises up on the dash like a shield volcano – certainly is.

On the road, the 2.4 liter inline-four’s 162 horsepower motivates the car with gusto, if not heavy-duty excitement. If you’re looking to increase your stoplight-drag cred, the 263-horsepower V6 is probably for you; good luck matching the EPA’s 20 city/28 highway fuel mileage estimates for the four-cylinder, however. 

But for average buyers, the four-cylinder is probably all the engine needed. Despite being a little on the loud side, it never seemed thrashy or unsuited to its duty. Even pulling away from a stop, it seemed to have enough torque to keep you from having to row the gears too much to keep up with traffic.

Handling, too, seemed perfectly adequate on the loops and curves I threw it over. I’ve driven a BMW 335xi sedan on the same road, and while the Bimmer is obviously in a different class of vehicle than the four-cylinder Eclipse, the Mitsu didn’t really show any more body roll than the 3-series – an admirable trait.

Finally, I shouldn’t leave without taking a moment to remark on the paint color of my tester. Mitsubishi calls it “sunset pearlescent,” because apparently they’re too cool to just call it “copper,” but whatever it’s called, it’s beautiful. My pictures, taken beneath overcast skies, can’t do it justice. The Mitsubishi guys know it, too; they charge an extra $130 for it, but if I were buying an Eclipse, I’d find a way to spring for it. 

Other than the paint, my Eclipse GS was pretty much stock; equipped with a five-speed manual transmission and coming standard with 17″ wheels, keyless entry and cruise control, it retailed for $20, 129. Skip the copper coat, and you can have a 2008 Eclipse rolling out the door for less than 20 grand (before they add on destination charges and taxes, but hey, you can tell your folks you bought a car for less than 20 grand without lying). Mitsubishi has bumped up the price $100 for the 2009 models, but in my opinion, they don’t look as nice – they’ve got a basking shark mouth-esque front that clearly is trying to ape the new styling of the Audi line. 

Too bad. Apart from that new maw, it’s a decent little car – with a very nice wrapper.

GRADE: B

Thanks to Joel Gelinas and Burlington Mitsubishi for their help with this report.

  

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Review – 2008 Dodge Caliber SXT Sport

The Good: Plenty of features for the money, stands out of a crowd.

The Bad: Doesn’t like to dance, fit and finish needs work, stands out of a crowd.

The Verdict: 2008 outside, 1998 inside.

Dodge, like most American carmakers, hasn’t been one to jump on the alphanumeric jumble name-train for its cars. While this certainly tends to give their cars more character (I don’t care how cool the cars themselves may be, “Explorer” is much more badass than “F430”), it can lead to the cars themselves receiveing names with little connection to each other. Within Dodge’s own stable, at least, there seems to be some categorizing: there’s the animal section (Ram and Viper), the anger-management division (Avenger and Challenger), and the 80’s hair-rock group (Journey).

Joining the Dodge Magnum in the NRA section is the Dodge Caliber, the company’s smallest car. Introduced in 2006 to replace the perennially emasculating Neon, the Caliber’s hatchback design seems to make it destined to replace the Neon-based Chrysler PT Cruiser in the near future as well. 

I tested a mid-level SXT model, with a base price of $16,840; mine went for $17,785, after delivery charge and the eloquently named “Customer Preferred Package 23E,” which included swaths of blue on the seats and center console, steering wheel audio controls and the equally well-titled “Popular Equipment Group.” On top of that, the Caliber throws in a bevy of standard features that range from the  obvious (cruise control, keyless entry) to the convenient (115-volt power outlet) all the way to the curious (interior lamp that doubles as a flashlight?). The glovebox even includes an air-conditioned pocket for drinks. Expect to hear from MADD on that one.

On the technical side, the Charger comes standard with a 1.8 liter, 148-horsepower inline four-cylinder engine, connected to either a five-speed manual (as in my tester) or a continuously-variable automatic. The higher-level R/T model comes with a larger, 172-horsepower engine, while the top-level SRT-4 comes fully loaded (sorry) with a 268-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder.  The SXT gets 24 mpg in the city and 29 mpg on the highway, according to the EPA.

From the outside, the Caliber doesn’t really bring to mind any sort of firearm cues; in fact, it sort of looks like a Jeep Liberty and a PT Cruiser were put in the same cage and made to watch car porn until they copulated. (However, “Liberiser” just sounds kind of dirty, which might be why they went with “Caliber.”) The car looks biggest at the front, dominated by its enormous headlights and maw-like crosshair grille; but by the time your eyes reach the back end of the car, the sheetmetal looks awfully pinched together. And in this case, the looks are quite honest; the cargo compartment of the car seems very small, which seems to negate the advantage of a hatchback.

Inside, the Caliber seems open and airy; it fits tall drivers well. However, the center console takes a strange angle down by the driver’s knee – not much of a problem at first, but it could get hairy after a few hours. The windshield seems a little low, as well; the top of it lined up with my eyes. Strangely, there appeared to be some strange distortion along the top of the windshield that made me feel cross-eyed; tall folks with good posture should try before they buy.

Like the Malibu, though, the interior seemed busy with hard plastic pieces jutting every which way. Unfortunately, the lower-quality materials seem to extend throughout the cabin, lending a rental-car feel to it no different from the Dodge vehicles of ten years ago – disappointing, in light of the advances made in interiors by many other manufacturers in that time.

Thankfully, all the interior controls are fairly intuitive and easy to find. The climate control is managed with three giant knobs – but oddly, the defroster and air conditioning are controlled by rubbery buttons the size of a pinkie toenail inside the center dial. It wouldn’t seem strange, except for the fact that there’s five inches of hard plastic that seems set aside for buttons only a few inches lower. Why not move them down and make them manageable?

The only other major ergonomic pain in the ass are the steering-wheel mounted radio controls, which for some reason are mounted on the back of the wheel. As such, it’s impossible to use them intuitively;  I kept switching to AM radio when I was trying to turn up the volume. 

On the road, the Caliber performs adequately for a car in its size class. Acceleration is moderate – if you need to roast the tires, save up for the SRT-4. MSN Autos (the only mainstream site I could find with acceleration figures for the SXT) states the automatic SXT runs from 0 to 60 in 9.8 seconds and does the quarter mile in 17.7 seconds at 82.1 mph. However, squealing the tires is pretty easy – the Caliber seems to do this every time you turn at more than 30 miles an hour. The handling seems secure enough despite this (though I didn’t have the chance to perform any handling tests), but it seems a little scary at first to hear the tires squeal in protest in a normal turn.

Of course, you might not notice the squealing tires if you tend to drive sedately; but you’re likely to notice the seats no matter how fast or slow you go. Unfortunately, they’re another area where the Caliber could use some improvement. Down low, they’re fine – but in the upper back area, it feels like there’s a fireplace log jammed into the cushion, which does nothing for comfort, let alone posture.

In the end, the Caliber comes off as a rather cheap car. While it will certainly draw attention with its mutated hatch looks, inside, it doesn’t come off as anything special. It’s not a bad car – it’ll do everything asked of it without complaint (except the tires), but it’s nothing worth getting excited about. If you’re looking for basic transportation with a new look, the Caliber will do you well; otherwise, there are plenty of other cars that offer more fun, better looks and higher quality worth considering.

  

Thanks to Kyle Adams and Goss Dodge for their help with this report.

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Review – 2008 Chevrolet Malibu 1LT

The Good: Amazing body, recording-studio-quiet interior, an American car to be proud of.

The Bad: Engine needs more oomph, interior seems a little tight for such a big car.

The Verdict: Sensible shoes in a snazzy box.

For the most part, American cars haven’t had a whole lot of love heaped upon them lately. While they still have their fans, especially among consumers who want to “buy American” (the coveted “git-‘r-done” market) or among legacy owners who’ve been buying the same brand for decades, American manufacturers have tended to concentrate on trucks while leaving passenger cars to the Japanese and Germans. But the tide has started to turn of late, as Ford, Chevrolet and Dodge have begun channeling new energy into their family car lines, with the new Chevy Malibu being the latest entry into the fray.

The effort devoted to the Malibu is apparent from the first moment you lay eyes on it – it’s an honestly good-looking car. In an era when automotive design seems increasingly dominated with origami shapes and strange angles, the Malibu’s well-proportioned front end and sculpted sheetmetal make its primary competitors, the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, look like Klingon shuttlecraft in comparison. 

The model I tested was a mid-level 1LT, one notch above the base LS model. Even in LS form, the Malibu comes laden with standard features, from keyless entry and traction control to front, side and curtain airbags. The 1LT package only adds on a few dalliances such as electronic stability control (a more advanced form of traction control) and 17-inch wheels – not worth the $1285 difference between the models. (1LTs start at $20,930.) My tester also came with the “power convenience pack,” which added a power driver’s seat, remote starter, and power adjustable petals for $665; all three options also come on the 2LT model, one rung higher on the Malibu ladder. All told, my Malibu went for $21,595.

All Malibus but the top-level LTZ get their grunt from a 2.4 liter, 169-horsepower inline-four cylinder engine; the LTZ gets a 252-horsepower 3.6 liter V6. (However, some cheaper models can select the V6 as an option, while the LTZ driver can also get the four cylinder if he/she wants.) Mine sent the power to the front wheels through a four-speed automatic transmission; a six-speed automatic like the one standard with the V6 should become standard on the four cylinder soon. My 1LT four-cylinder was rated at 22 miles per gallon city, 30 mpg highway; expect these numbers to improve a little with the six-speed transmission.

Inside, the Malibu looks almost as nice as it does out. Hands fall on soft, compliant materials in most places they land; one strange exception was the window sill, which could really use a little more padding, considering how many people like to rest their arm there. (On a related note, like all too many cars, the Malibu’s locking mechanism sticks straight up out of the door and into your arm. Will someone please tell the manufacturers that people like to stick their arms out the side window?) Metallic-looking plastic sets off the radio controls as it does in many cars, but the plastic used in the Malibu looks much less cheap than in most other cars. Still, a closer examination of the interior reveals an awful lot of seams where pieces of interior trim jigsaw together.

The cockpit itself is tight, wrapping around the driver in a way that could either be interpreted as cozy or constraining; the charcoal color scheme inside mine definitely pushed it closer to the uncomfortable end of the spectrum. The view out the windshield and windows isn’t particularly good, either; quite a few smaller cars, such as the Honda Civic, offer a much more expansive (and safe) view.

The back seat gets better marks, simply on the grounds that it lets a six-foot-four man sit back there without goring his eyes out with his own kneecaps. However, the Happy Meal-solid plastic on the back of the front seats likely means those knees would be hurting if the car stopped in a hurry. (Wear your seat belt!)

So what’s it like on the road? The first word that comes to mind is quiet. Chevy touts the Malibu’s “acoustic laminated glass” and “extensive sound deadening,” and rightly so; you could hear a mouse fart at highway speeds.

But performance, at least on my tester, was somewhat of a downer. While the suspension did a fine job of soaking up speed bumps and potholes without making the car feel like the Queen Mary, the four-cylinder four-speed combo just doesn’t have the guts to move the 3,436-pound Malibu around quickly without digging deep into its rev range (and in turn, hurting fuel economy); low-range grunt seems especially weak. The Malibu had difficulty keeping up with stop-and-go rush hour traffic; sudden greens force the engine to rev into the neighborhood of 4,000 rpm just to keep pace. Car and Driver magazine recorded an 8.7 second 0-60 time for the Malibu LT; a comparable Honda Accord did it in 8.2 seconds, while a similarly equipped Toyota Camry did it in 8.9.

 The addition of the six-speed transmission, whenever it comes around, will probably improve the problem, but for now, the four-cylinder Malibu just doesn’t feel like it has the guts to keep up with its primary competition, the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. (Equivalent Camrys and Accords weigh about 200 pounds less, and offer five-speed transmissions.) Consider it the price of being able to hear the mouse flatulence.

So what does that leave Chevy, and us, with? Well, certainly not a performance machine; then again, anyone looking for a sporty ride for this sort of money is more likely to look at the smaller, faster Civic Si or Volkswagen GTI – or even a Cobalt SS within Chevy’s own stable. The Malibu, instead, is just supposed to be a good old-fashioned family sedan, the sort of car American manufacturers dominated the roadways with for decades. Today, though, the family sedan market is dominated by cars from the Land of the Rising Sun – and they’ve been doing it better for quite a while now. The Malibu is a good shot; it’s brilliant, in fact, compared with the brand’s passenger cars of only a couple years ago. And now that gas prices might well have put the Big Three’s pickup truck cash cows out to pasture for the foreseeable future, we can expect to see a lot more resources flowing into cars like it. If you need a good mid-size sedan, you probably won’t go wrong with the Malibu. But you’ll have more fun in an Accord.

 

Thanks to Mike Poulin and Shearer Chevrolet for their help with this report.

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Review – 2008 Subaru Impreza Outback Sport

The Good: Packed with features, bullet-train handling, all-weather capability.

The Bad: Spooky roar from the roof rack, poor gas mileage for its class.

The Verdict: The Labrador retriever of small cars – does most things well and likes to get dirty while doing it.

Throw a rock in a New England parking lot, and you’re likely to hit a Subaru. The Japanese brand has found a niche among flannel-clad Maine residents and maple syrup-chugging Vermonters for one main reason: it offers all-wheel-drive on every single car it sells. For environmentally-conscious New Englanders, Subarus are a perfect fit: all the traction of a sport-utility vehicle during the 359-day long winters, with the fuel economy of a regular car.

Yet like any jack-of-all-trades, Subarus can’t compare with the specialists they copy; they’re no competition for true SUVs off-road, and aren’t able to match the mileage of most cars their size on the pavement. Even so, they prove themselves up for just about anything the harsh northern climate can throw at them.

The Outback Sport I tested is a perfect example of the average Subaru. It comes with only one engine, a 2.5 liter, 170-horsepower four-cylinder ‘boxer’ engine – the boxer name referring to the horizontal layout of the engine’s pistons, which look like they punch each other when the engine is running. As mentioned earlier, fuel economy isn’t particularly good for a compact car – the EPA rates it at 20 miles per gallon city and 27 highway. My tester got 26 mpg in mixed driving, the majority of which was a 225-mile drive from Boston to central Vermont.

From behind the wheel, the Outback Sport never feels particularly lithe, probably a side effect of the added mass of its all-wheel-drive system.  The steering is heavy and not particularly communicative, but it’s direct; there’s little lag between turning the wheel and the car following suit. There’s a bit of body roll during the emergency lane change, where the car darts from one lane to the next, but not enough to feel any loss of control. However, I’d expected the car to be more planted, as Subaru’s own literature cites reduced body roll as one of the main benefits of the boxer engine’s lower center of gravity.

The Subie shines brightest on dirt roads, where its all-wheel-drive lets it claw around corners at speeds that would send most cars flying into the woods; not surprising, given the Impreza’s winning record in rally circles. If you do manage to break the tail loose coming around a turn, the stability control reels you back in – but it also has a way of messing up your intended line if you’re sliding on purpose. (Fortunately, the stability control can be turned off with a button hidden by the driver’s left knee.) Acceleration is adequate; Car and Driver ran the regular Impreza 5-door, which weighs 44 pounds less, from 0 to 60 in 8.4 seconds. The engine can seem a little low on grunt at low revs, but things pick up past 2500 rpm.

My tester, like all Outbacks, came in a two-tone paint job that plays up the long ridges of the body and makes it much easier to look at than the regular Impreza, even if it does seem to have a salt-and-pepper muzzle. And like all Outbacks, it came as a 5-door wagon. Well, calling it a wagon is being generous; no grown Labrador would be able to fit comfortably in the 19 cubic feet of space behind the rear seats (though it does come with a puppy-proof rubber mat for the cargo bay), especially given the way the rakish rear cuts into the space.

But aside from the smaller-than-ideal cargo area, the inside of the Outback Sport impresses. The two-tone treatment extends to the front seats, where the black dashboard segues through metallic-looking plastic trim into the beige interior. Controls fall right at hand and are easy to figure out, with the only exception being a few obfuscating buttons on the radio. (I’m pretty fluent in both acronym and L33T-speak, and I still have no idea what the hell the “PTY/CAT” button stands for.

But Outback Sports may make their most friends, apart from the apple cider set, with the bevy of standard features that are optional or not found on other cars in the price range. A 6-disc CD changer, iPod jack, steering wheel audio controls, heated seats and a tire-pressure monitoring system all come with the car, along with more common items such as power windows and keyless entry. The Outback Sport even comes with front, side and curtain airbags, along with a sensor in the passenger seat that activates the passenger airbag only when it senses someone heavy enough. (Unfortunately, it also connects to the seatbelt warning system, which loudly beeps every thirty seconds if it senses the passenger isn’t buckled up – so Skipper the chocolate Lab isn’t riding up front with you either unless you buckle him in. I suppose New Hampshire-ites will simply have to accept the beeping as part of “living free.”)

All in all, the Outback Sport proves itself a capable little car for its price range. While those who prefer their four-wheeled fun on paved roads may want to look elsewhere (or cough up the extra four grand for the WRX), the Sport promises to keep its driver safe, warm and comfortable no matter what the world outside may throw at it – not unlike Skipper.

Base Price/Price as Tested: $19,995/$19,995

  

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