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A Burst of News – Cheap Sports Cars from Kia, Nissan and Mazda, Aston Martin Cygnet Revealed, and Two Unusual Ferrari 599s

For the last Burst of News of 2009, we’ve decided to keep things short, since, let’s face it, you’re still playing with your new Christmas toys and already pre-gaming for New Year’s Eve.

First out of the gate, some excellent news for all fans of cheap speed (and apart from drug dealers and overprotective mothers, who isn’t?). With Toyota and Subaru’s jointly developed rear-wheel-drive coupe coming down the pipe, other Asian automakers are scrambling to pump out small, inexpensive sports cars to compete with the Toyobaru. (While Toyota is now calling the concept version the FT-86, we still prefer the portmanteau.)

According to Inside Line, Nissan is considering a new small sports car for the 2011-2012 time frame, to slot under the 370Z. Should the coupe receive the green light, it will likely pack a 200-horsepower, 1.8 liter turbo four cylinder, along with the same six-speed manual/seven-speed auto choices from the Z. Insiders say styling may resemble the company’s 2005 Foria concept – which would be a shame, ’cause the Foria is kinda homely to our eyes. As for a name, we’re hoping Nissan axes the 240SX moniker for our shores. (Note to Nissan: don’t use the letters “S” and “X” next to each other in your car’s name.)

"I shall call it...MINI-Z!"

Okay, fine, here's the Foria.

While Mazda would seem to already have a strong foe for the Toyobaru in the Miata, it seems they’re not content to place all their hopes on The Car That Saved The Roadster. Instead, they’re replacing the Jack LaLanne-like RX-8 with a new RX-7. Given the name change, it’s likely the new car will ditch the tiny suicide doors of the RX-8 and return to the two-door layout of the prior RX-7. A new version of Mazda’s Renesis rotary engine will be plopped under the hood, likely pumping out between 200 and 250 horsepower. According to Inside Line, Mazda hopes to keep the price around $25,000 when the car hits the streets – hopefully as early as 2011.

Adieu, wacky RX-8. You will be missed.

However, Toyota and Subaru are facing threats from across the Sea of Japan, as well. AutoCar claims Kia is drafting up plans for a RWD sports car based off the Hyundai Genesis Coupe’s platform, and featuring styling similar to the Kee Coupe Concept. However, in a surprisingly earnest admission, Kia design director Peter Schreyer says the company needs to “grow a little more in stature” before the marketplace would be ready to accept such a sporty Kia, adding the car could be ready in around five years. We say: Kia, grow a pair and put this baby on the market in two. Charge a grand less than Toyota and Nissan, and with the Genesis Coupe’s chassis and a cleaned-up version of the Kee body, you’ll sell every one you can crate over here.

This is of course in addition to the Honda CR-Z Hybrid headed for our shores in latter 2010; while the CR-Z’s front-drive hybrid layout means it won’t exactly be a direct competitor for the spate of RWD coupes, you can bet at least a few people will be cross-shopping the Toyobaru and Co. with the Honda.

Thanks to Temple Of VTEC for this leaked CR-Z image.

For some folks out there, though, cost isn’t an issue when it comes to buying a car. We here at CCO, sadly, don’t belong to that fraternity of rock stars, trust fund babies, and un-dateable social media founders; however, should our platinum-plated ship come in (a Powerball ticket also would do it), most of us would put the Ferrari 599 Fiorano right at the top of our list of purchases. (As in, we’ve figured out how long it would take to get to Miller Motorcars of Greenwich, CT and place our order.)

So when we saw what one wealthy bastard fellow had done to a perfectly good 599, we wanted to pull an Elvis and put a couple .44 Magnum hollow-points through our television. No, we don’t browse the Web on our TV – it’s just that the prick gentleman in question happens to be the son of John Walson, inventor of cable television.

"Hello, U.N.? I'd like to report a crime against humanity."

Edward Walson (bet he doesn’t like being called Eddie, either) used a portion of his shit-tastically huge inheritance to commission Ferrari’s Special Projects Division (Motto: “Cooler Than Your Job”) to whip up this golden turd after being inspired by a one-off Ferrari from the 1968 Federico Fellini film Tony Dammit. This is like asking Lockheed’s Skunk Works to take an F-22 Raptor and attach two extra wings because you always wanted an X-Wing starfighter.

While Walson and Ferrari call it the P540 Superfast Aperta, the rest of us would rather just call it  a mistake. So if you happen to see this monstrosity parked on the street, please, do every car lover (and person with sight) a favor and drive your car into it at high speed. (Safety first, though – reverse into it, please.) If this 599 could talk, it would be begging to be put down. Don’t make it suffer.

Blessedly, our other piece of Ferrari news today is much sunnier. According to Quattroruote (the article’s in Italian), the Italian automaker will be unveiling its new hybrid system in a 599-based concept at the 2010 Geneva Motor Show. Fuel economy is expected to receive a 35 percent bump, allllll the way up to 14 miles per gallon. Should the electric motor power the front wheels as we previously reported, Geneva will be unveiling a 599 with all-wheel-drive, improved handling and more miles per gallon. It’s as though God heard the prayers of every Ferrari-lover in New England.

A Ferrari 599 GTB, in what is obviously New Hampshire.

Finally, Aston Martin has released a few images of the completed version of its Cygnet concept, and it looks as adorable as a cartoon owl. Which is to say, pretty damned un-Aston Martin like.

The Aston Martin Cygnet

Owly

The Cygnet – which we remind you is pretty much a Toyota iQ under those pretty headlights – remains a concept for the moment, though Aston’s press release reiterated the company’s desire for the car to “become a production reality,” in an apparent effort to negate the machismo imbued upon the brand from the last three Bond movies. (And that Daniel Crag musk doesn’t come off easily.)

If Aston really wants an environmentally friendly micro-car for their line, we’d like to make the same suggestion we made to Mercedes-Benz when they brought to Smart over here (and by “made,” we mean “yelled at a billboard”): MAKE IT ELECTRIC. Yank out that dinky gas engine and strap in an electric motor with enough torque to chirp the tires. If it’s supposed to be a city car, low-speed performance is far more important than top speed. You only need enough juice to make it 50-75 miles, anyway; any further than that, and your driver will probably want to take their other Aston anyway.

Anyway, that’s it for us this year! Happy New Year, and here’s to an exciting and successful 2010!

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A Burst of News – Hyper Lamborghinis, AWD Ferraris, Electric Rolls-Royces, two new luxury sedans and one less Italian cop car…

We at CCO would like to welcome you to a special Holiday Burst of News. It’s pretty much the same as any other Burst, except our hearts are filled with the unique form of adrenaline brought on by massive amounts of Thanksgiving food, Black Friday debt, and ChristmuHanuKwanzaa excitement/stress. So you’ll excuse us if we occasionally pause to scream our heads off.

Our first gift this holiday season, however, comes from the good folks at Lamborghini. According to company sources speaking to CarsUK.net, Lambo is summoning up their very own hypercar capable of competing with the Ferrari Enzo and the rest of the highest echelon of automotive performance. Rumor has it the car, which will be based off the Murcielago-replacing Jota, will be named Urus, after the enormous primordial ancestor of modern cattle. (That’s not a joke.)

They really could just cut and paste the Reventon body on the Jota chassis, and I don't think any of us would mind.

While the Jota’s suspected 700+ horsepower 6.0 liter V12 and carbon fiber/aluminum chassis mean it probably won’t be much of a slouch, the Urus should blow it away, thanks to intensive weight-reducing strategies and the introduction of an 800+ horsepower V12. Price hasn’t been announced, but if you’re hoping for less than half a million bucks, you’d be better off praying for JFK’s resurrection.

But while Lamborghini is trying to out-muscle Ferrari’s old hypercars, the folks in Maranello are working on something quite different. The company confirmed last month they are developing an electric-powered all-wheel-drive system for their future vehicles.

That’s right, folks. Not only will the Ferrari of Tomorrow have four-wheel-drive…it’ll be a hybrid.

The 458 probably won't get the hybrid system. We just wanted to look at it again.

Company insiders told AutoCar the system’s first use will be driving the front wheels of the company’s front-engined GTs, effectively giving each axle a separate powertrain – the electric motor up front, and a gasoline-powered V12 powering the rear. But the system is designed to improve handling and acceleration, not fuel economy – so we don’t have to worry about Ferrari drivers getting all smug or anything.

The system will probably first be used in the successor to the 612, which will probably be breaking cover sometime in the next year or two. Don’t expect to see any hybrid Ferraris on the streets until 2014 or so, which still sounds ridiculously futuristic whenever we think about it. When they do come, the hybrid system will probably add a hefty tithe to the Monroney – but if you can afford a four-seat Ferrari, you probably ain’t too worried about it.

Speaking of mansion-priced cars, Rolls-Royce is hoping to take the wraps off an electric version of its Phantom uber-sedan sometime in the next year or so, also according to AutoCar. The Powers That Be at Rolls want to have the car on the road by 2012, in time for the London Olympics – which, entirely coincidentally, happen to be sponsored by Rolls-Royce’s parent company, BMW!

While it appears stoic, the Phantom is silently judging you for being too poor to afford it.

Rolls employees claim they aren’t particularly concerned about the added mass of the lithium-ion batteries needed to hold the car’s juice, as the conventional Phantom already pushes three tons. And while you could certainly argue a 6,000 pound sedan decorated with twenty-seven cows’ worth of leather and more wood than a freshman class trip to the Playboy Mansion is hardly eco-friendly, don’t bother telling the electric Rolls’ owners – because while they can certainly hear you, they just don’t care.

If you’re in the market for a more modest luxury sedan, however, there’s no need to fret. BMW and Audi both have unveiled the newest members of their families in the last couple weeks – BMW brought out its new 5-series, while Audi rolled out the new A8.

First up: the 5, which continues BMW’s recent trend back towards more conventional styling. The “flame surfacing” of the Bangle years admittedly remains, but at least the front end no longer appears surprised and the rear no longer frustrated.

Here in the States, only two models will be available at launch – the 550i, powered by a 407-horsepower version of Bimmer’s blissful turbocharged 4.4-liter V8, and the 535i, which comes with the latest turbocharged, 306-horsepower version of the company’s equally sweet 3.0-liter inline six. The best-selling-yet-least-arousing 528i will arrive a couple months later; however, BMW makes up for it by boosting power to 258 horses and 228 lb-ft of torque – gains of 28 for both figures over the current models. ZF’s new eight-speed automatic comes standard on the 550i, and optional on the six-cylinder models.

After debating it over several rounds of drinks at the local bar, we here at CCO ultimately came down in favor of the new 5er’s looks. (Also, we unanimously agreed that “Livin’ On A Prayer” is, like, the greatest song in human history.) While it seems almost a tad forgettable from certain angles (at least in pictures), it certainly bears a strong resemblance to the 3- and 7-series – and given that that was presumably the idea, it’s safe to call this one a success.

However, we aren’t particularly fond of the look of Audi’s new A8.  From the front, the car seems oddly reminiscent of the current Hyundai Sonata, and the LED running lights – which lend the A4/A5 family a futuristic strength, like the glowing eyes of Iron Man – angle down in just the wrong place, giving the A8 a strange resemblance to Droopy Dog. Audi is trumpeting the new A8 as the front line of its new designed theme, dubbed “Vorsprung durch Technik;” while our German is a little rusty, we can only assume said phrase translates to, “Let’s just make the A4 bigger and go pound a beer.”

"I always come to mope in front of the Brooklyn Bridge, because I'm artsy."

Thankfully, though, the interior looks like all you’d expect and more from Audi’s most luxurious model. The design is beautiful, and while we’ve heard some mixed opinions on the Interwebs about the A8’s handlebar shifter, we rather like it. And considering that shifter connects to the same eight-speed automatic as in the 5-series – and that the transmission connects all four wheels to a 372-horsepower 4.2 liter V8 – the A8 ought to be a pretty sweet drive for such a large car.

Of course, if you’re not thrilled with the A8’s styling and are willing to sacrifice a bit of space for it, Audi will be more than willing to take a deposit on their upcoming A7 four-door-coupe. According to AutoCar, the long-rumored A6-based pseudo-coupe will be unveiled at the Moscow Auto Show in August 2010.

When the A7 hits the U.S. streets sometime in late 2010 or early 2011 to engage the Mercedes-Benz CLS and BMW X6 in a Teutonic battle of “Bizarro-world coupes,” expect it to come equipped with similar engines to the A6 – naturally aspirated and supercharged V-6s, and if Audi’s feeling generous and gas is still cheap, the 372-hp V8 from the A8. According to Audi design director Stefan Sielaff, there will even be an S7 – likely featuring a turbo/supercharged V8 – for those of you who like testing the patience of law enforcement.

This is Audi's Sportback Concept. Expect the A7 to look like this, except with more Orange Country trophy wives behind the wheel.

Rumor has it U.S. prices should start somewhere around $46,000, but since the A6 starts at $45,200, we wouldn’t be surprised to see the A7 on the painful side of $50K when it hits our shores. Mercedes and BMW both charge significantly more for their faux coupes than the sedans/SUVs they’re based on, so Audi will probably follow the same logic – even if AutoCar claims there will only be a “small price premium.”

But while Audi is chopping up the higher end of the luxury car market into ever-smaller slices, BMW wants to slot yet another model into its rapidly burgeoning M line. According to AutoCar (who seem to have more anonymous sources than Seymour Hersh), someone in BMW’s high-performance division claims creating a more affordable model to slot in under the M3 is a top priority.

Details are few and far between at this point, but since the car would be based on the next-gen 1-series, there’s plenty of time for info to leak out. However, we do know two things: the car will (hopefully) be priced in the mid-$40K range, and BMW may dust off the old M1 badge for it. We’ve got our fingers crossed for a 365+ horsepower version of the company’s turbo I6 under the hood…

Of course, if Audi and BMW are hard at work crafting fun new toys for us to play with, the good folks at Mercedes-Benz can’t be far behind. In this case, rumor has it the company is working on whipping up a smaller sports car based on the new SLS.

At least from this angle, we don't have to look at its ass.

According to PistonHeads, the new model would be designed to compete against the Porsche 911. The ‘Heads claim the follow-up to the SLS – can we call it the SaLT? – will use a V8 of somewhere between 5.8 and 6.2 liters, complete with cylinder cut-off. Given that AMG spent a shit-ton of cash developing its current 6.2 liter engine and said engine has proven suitable in everything from C-class compacts to R-class megawagons, it’s probably safe to assume the Salt will just use a revised version of that engine. Expect to see the finished product in about five years.

Finally, we have another piece of tragic supercar news to round out this update. After a year of service, the Italian State Police’s Lamborghini Gallardo LP560-4 was totaled a couple weeks ago near the northern city of Cremona. Thankfully, neither of the officers inside were injured when the Lambo swerved to avoid a car and slammed into a group of parked vehicles.

NOOOOOOOOOOOO!

(Photo courtesy autoblog.it)

Before the accident, the Gallardo was primarily used to provide rapid response to accidents and for high-speed organ transport – because while a helicopter might be faster, the doctors wouldn’t be able to say, “They’re driving your new heart here in a Lamborghini.” No word yet on whether Lamborghini will replace the vehicle, but here’s hoping they will. In fact, here’s hoping automakers here in the States decide to follow suit and donate some choice vehicles to our local police forces. How ’bout a couple Corvette ZR1s for the Michigan State Troopers?

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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.

DSCN2240

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.

DSCN2232

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.

DSCN2418

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 Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart

The Good: Dual-clutch transmission more appliance than gimmick, good mid-range power, the badass looks of an Evolution for a discount.

The Bad: Economy car interior, a backseat only children could love, and it’s not that much of a discount.

The Verdict: The Coke Zero Evo.

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The trouble with jacks-of-all-trades is, as the aphorism points out, they don’t usually master any of them. This is just as true in the automotive world as anywhere else. For example, minivans promise the space of a van and the driving experience of a car, but end up giving you a top-heavy ride and room for only seven people. Same with sports sedans – they promise the comfort and convenience of a sedan with the performance of a sports car, but often end up compromising on one of those goals in favor of the other.

The Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart is a compound compromise. Not only is it a sports sedan, it’s the reduced-calorie version of Mitsubishi’s gonzo Lancer Evolution. The Evo gets a twin-turbo 291-horsepower 2.0-liter inline-four; the Ralliart makes do with a single-turbo version making 237 horses. The Evo also receives some heftier go-fast parts – bigger brakes, tighter suspension, and so forth. In exchange for all this, the Ralliart shaves a few grand off the sticker price.

However, Mitsu deserves a lot of credit for not shaving off two handy performance bits during the cost-cutting: the Evo’s all-wheel-drive system and its dual-clutch automated manual transmission, known at Mitsubishi by the Air Force-grade acronym TC-SST. While the former feature is rather common these days (see our featurette on all-wheel-drive), the dual-clutch transmission has mostly remained the provenance of high-priced sports cars; the Ralliart is the cheapest car in America to offer it as standard equipment. (Seriously, who ever thought of Mitsubishi as leading the charge to bring racing technology to the people?)

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It doesn’t take much time behind the wheel to see why Mitsu felt confident plopping this tranny into every Ralliart. (Sorry, RuPaul, not you.) While the transmission’s automatic mode isn’t as consistently smooth as a traditional torque-converter automatic transmission, I never had any problems with it, even in New York City stop-and-go traffic. It’s good enough you could leave it in auto all the time without complaint…

…but you’d be doing yourself a disservice. No, this transmission shines brightest when you slide the gearshift over into the manual notch and let your fingers do the driving. Steering-column-mounted paddles behind the wheel let you flick through the gears without taking your hands off the leather-wrapped rim; slap the right paddle to upshift, pull the left to downshift. Suddenly, merging onto the freeway feels like coming out of the pit lane at Indy – floor the gas and flick your right fingers three times, and you’re ten over the limit by the time you hit your blinker.

And if you forget to uphift, don’t worry; the transmission is smart enough to know you’d rather bounce off the limiter and upshifts all by itself rather than introduce your forehead to the steering wheel. Should you prefer the forearm-strengthening motion of a regular manual transmission, you can also shift with the lever. Whether you use the paddles or the gearshift, it’s a logical, intuitive system. Porsche could learn a thing or two from Mitsubishi here.

Wait, did I just say Porsche could learn something…from Mitsubishi?

BOOM! (That’s the sound of my brain exploding.)

Swiffering.

As a whole, the Ralliart performs impressively. Performance isn’t quite at the balls-to-the-wall level of the Evo, but the lesser Lancer grips turns like a 15-year-old grabbing second base for the first time and hurls itself down the road fast enough to put a devilish smile on your face. The sole turbo pumps the engine without significant turbo lag; unlike some cars, you won’t be constantly reminded of the engine’s forced induction by a sudden burst of whoa! halfway through the rev range. That said, strong midrange power is the engine’s best characteristic – you’ll never need to worry about whether you’ve got enough oomph for a (reasonably sane) passing maneuver.

Unfortunately, you can’t spend all your life driving switchbacks and idyllic back roads – and if you could, you’d buy a Lotus, not a sedan. And it’s when you start considering day-to-day life in the Ralliart that the luster starts to fade.

Stock photo - my tester wasn't equipped with a navigation system.

Stock photo - my tester wasn't equipped with a navigation system.

For example, those optional Recaro front bucket seats that hold you so well in the turns start to get a little uncomfortable after a few hours in the saddle. It’s far from a dealbreaker – the seats are still awesome, and given that they come packaged with the 650-watt Rockford Fosgate stereo and xenon headlights, I wouldn’t buy this car without them. But my gangly-assed legs were too long to fit comfortably under the steering wheel, so I had to kink my throttle leg out to the side – causing the bolster to render much of my quadriceps numb. Those seats are nice, but they’re not worth getting deep-vein thrombosis over.

But bolsters aside, the Recaros are the best thing about the interior. Sadly, that’s not so much praise for the front seats as it is unhappiness with the rest of the inside of the car. The back seats seem better suited for the 12-and-under set; for the rest of us, its tight quarters will likely turn games of shotgun into scrums as people claw for the only decent passenger seat.

Interior quality needs some improving as well. The Ralliart’s hard plastics and fake-fur headliner would seem cheap in the $15,000 base Lancer; at twice that price, it just seems inexcusable. I’m glad Mitsubishi decided to spend the money on the performance bits, but it’s hard to justify a 30 grand car with this kind of interior.

The other major annoyance inside the Ralliart was the red, Atari-grade digital information cluster between the speedometer and the tach. It was perfectly legible, day or night – but the blocky low-fi graphics are so dated and cheesy, I half expected to find Pong in the trip computer functions.

It wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t for the fact that ALL secondary information (beyond speed and rpm) is displayed on this – including the gas gauge. Due to its pixellated nature, I was never sure how much gas I had left; the “miles to empty” feature on the trip computer would tell me I had used up three-quarters of the distance I’d started with, but the gauge seemed to be informing me I still had half a tank. Note to Mitsubishi: the gas gauge is probably not a good place to experiment with new ideas.

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Luckily, the outside of the car does a lot to restore the badass image Mitsubishi wants this car to have. Thankfully, they didn’t water down the Evo effect for the Ralliart; the two cars look similar enough to be easily confused (indeed, I overheard a few passersby who mistook it for the tougher model). The enormous grill is done right – it looks menacing and hungry, as opposed to some Audi models that sport the slack-jawed look of Luke Skywalker after Darth Vader dropped a certain paternity bombshell.

But the Ralliart’s similarity to the Evo just draws out the identity crisis this little Mitsubishi faces. It’s trying to be a cut-rate performance car, and to a large extent, it succeeds – it has all the performance anybody would ever need. Problem is, the people who buy cars like this want all the performance they can get; if they didn’t, they’d spend the money on a nice Camry instead. The people who would buy this car are probably gonna be people who aspire to an Evolution – but an Evo starts at $33,685, and my Ralliart cost $30,065. (All prices here and below include destination charges.) It’s hard to imagine people not trying to stretch into the Evo.

But intra-brand competition aside, it’s still hard to know where the Ralliart is trying to belong. At that price, it’s facing some pretty stiff competition on both the “sport” and the “sedan” ends of the spectrum. If someone were looking for a kickass performance car, a Ford Mustang GT with Track Pack runs $30,340, while a base Nissan 370Z goes for for $30,650. Sure, each gives up some back seat room, but they’ll both rip off 0-60 times at least half a second quicker than the Ralliart, and look much better doing it.

On the other hand, if someone’s looking for a sedan that happens to be fun to drive, an Acura TSX retails for $30,120. It’s not as fast as the Ralliart, but it’s tossable, fun-to-drive and comes with an interior that looks like it belongs in a car costing $50,000.

But of course, the Ralliart’s real foe lies in the Subaru dealerships. The Ralliart exists almost entirely due to the Subaru WRX; to put it in SAT terms, Ralliart:Evolution::WRX:STI. The STI and the Evo have been butting bumpers for half a decade, but until now, Mitsubishi hasn’t stacked up a challenger to the lesser WRX.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like this first shot at the Rex will be the one to claim the prize. The WRX packs 265 horsepower, roughly 10 percent more than the Ralliart; Car and Driver ran one from 0 to 60 in a slightly ridiculous 4.7 seconds. In addition, assuming the WRX’s interior is like the Impreza I just drove (stay tuned for that review next week), it’s a far nicer place to spend time than the Ralliart. And the Subaru is cheaper to boot: the Premium model equivalant to my Ralliart goes out the door for $28,190, but a stripper model with all the go-fast bits can be bought for $25,690 – $1,475 less than the Ralliart. (Subaru also offers a choice between sedan and hatchback/miniwagon body styles).

So in the end, the Ralliart, in spite of its twin clutches and ripped shitless exterior, is all about compromise – between utility and performance, between econocar Lancer and bat-outta-hell Evolution. But in trying to compromise, it ends up looking like a perennial runner-up no matter what angle you’re looking at it from. To make this car a winner, Mitsubishi either needs to compromise a little less on the quality – or compromise a little more on price.

Base Price/Price as Tested (inc. destination): $27,165/$30,065

0-60: 5.4 seconds (courtesy Car and Driver)

EPA Fuel Economy: 17/25 miles per gallon

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Featurette – All-Wheel-Drive

(The Featurette section is a new series of articles about the little things in today’s automotive world that most of us probably don’t think too much about, but are either important enough or cool enough that we should know more about them. So, enjoy!)

All-wheel-drive is one of those automotive technologies that, like navigation systems or stability control, quietly sneaks into the mainstream while nobody’s watching. Like those systems, it’s something you probably did without on your first car (be it your shitbox or your parents’), but the next time you saunter into your local showroom to pick something out, you might just find it lurking under the chassis like Robert DeNiro. (Or, even worse, Sideshow Bob.)

Of  course, the salesman will probably throw a little extra spit in his hair and swing by to brag about how much “safer” all-wheel-drive is. But you don’t trust him! Here’s a man who still wears a beige tartan suit jacket he bought at Sears all the way back when Roebuck and Inc. were still with the place. His house has fake-wood laminate wallpaper. You do not want to trust anything he says.

So then, what exactly is the deal with all-wheel-drive?

Well, let’s start with the basics – what is it?

All-wheel-drive, or “AWD,” basically means power goes from the engine to all four wheels. Historically, most cars have been either rear-wheel-drive (RWD) or front-wheel-drive (FWD), each of which provides its own advantages. RWD usually makes for a better balanced car, as it shifts more drivetrain weight to the back axle, away from the  heavy engine. It also usually results in better performance, as each set of wheels can concentrate on one task – the front wheels on steering, the rear wheels on pushing.

FWD, however, improves traction by placing the drive wheels under the heavy engine, increasing the percentage of the vehicle’s body weight over them. It also increases interior space by eliminating the driveshaft between the engine and rear axle. However, making the front wheels handle both steering and propulsion can prove too much to handle, especially in powerful cars; this can result in torque steer, where the car weaves uncontrollably under hard acceleration. Plus, lightening the rear can cause the back end to swing out on slippery roads.

AWD, in theory, offers the best of both worlds. By putting power to all the wheels, it maximizes traction, making the vehicle safer and improving performance.

(On a side note, don’t confuse AWD and four-wheel-drive [4WD] – it’s a common rookie mistake, but easily remedied. 4WD is defined by one of two features – a low range, and/or an off-switch. A low range is a second set of gears designed to improve low-speed performance, and is designed for off-roading. An off-switch – well, it’s pretty self-explanatory, but basically allows the driver to put the vehicle into two-wheel-drive mode on dry roads. 4WD tends to be found in trucks and SUVs designed for off-roading; AWD is usually found on cars and car-based SUVs.)

Sounds good so far, right? Well, don’t go checking that AWD box on the order form just yet. (Unless you’re just screwing around on the build-your-own section of a carmaker’s website- which is how we spend about 80 percent of our unsupervised time here at CCO.)

First off, adding AWD almost always adds mass. Manufacturers have been working on reducing the  weight of their AWD systems, but for the most part, you’re still looking at a gain of around 100 pounds or more. As a result, fuel economy usually dives a tad. A BMW 328i with rear-wheel-drive gets 28 highway mpg, while its AWD counterpart gets 25; after 15,000 miles of highway driving, the RWD car will have used 64 fewer gallons of premium gas – or $176 worth at $2.75/gallon.

The added weight can also have a negative effect on performance. Note the italics, though. Whether or not AWD slows your car down or speeds your car up comes down to how fast your car would be without it. For cars with engines capable of pushing the U.S.S. Enterprise into warp speed, AWD’s increase in traction reduces wheelspin, enabling the car to put down more power more quickly (and overriding the detrimental effects of weight gain). However, wimpier cars (that is, most of them) don’t have those sorts of problems with traction under acceleration, so the AWD system only serves as a burden on the drag strip.

(AWD also provides improved handling, but again, that’s in large part a matter of how quickly you’re taking those turns, and most cars don’t take them fast enought to make a significant difference.)

There’s a second downside to AWD systems: they  usually add cost, too. Different manufacturers tack on different amounts, but you should plan on paying at least $1000 more for the feature.

So should you spring for all-wheel-drive next time you buy a new car? Well, if you take away one point from this feature(tte), make it this. On most cars, all-wheel-drive is a safety feature, not a performance feature. Its primary focus is to give you added traction in slippery situations. If you live somewhere like Vermont or Minnesota, where snow can sit on the ground for six months, it’s probably worth the extra money. If you live in the Sunbelt and are worried about the five days a year you venture north, save the cash for your A/C bill and just drive slowly if things get slick. And if you’re somewhere inbetween? If AWD makes you feel more secure and you don’t mind the cost, go for it – but a good set of all-season tires and an attentive driver will be just as safe 95 percent of the time.

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Quick View – Suzuki SX4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grades: Sedan: B-; Crossover: A-

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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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