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Review – 2010 Mazdaspeed 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, come on! That was gold!)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bottom Line:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Spy Shots – A Trio of British Luxury Cars

Pour yourself a pint of Bass and whip out that Grey Poupon, ’cause it’s time for an all-British, all-luxury future car round-up! In fact, in honour of these English saloons, we’ll be using the British spelling wherever applicable!

First up: the all-new Jaguar XJ. Now, the current XJ has been around since 2003, more than long enough for a new model; however, considering the ’03-’09 version looked about as similar to the 1994-2002 version as a jaguar does to a leopard (relevant humor! Yay!), it’s fair to say anyone holding their breath for a new-looking XJ has long since asphyxiated.

However, with Jaguar busting out a full-court-press of stylish, inventive new models capable of clawing (hah hah!) their way to the top of the segment, it’s time for a fresh take on the company’s full-size sedan.  Jaguar will be officially unveiling their new S-class and 7-series fighter on July 9th, but until then, they’ve given us a “preview” image to whet our appetites.

That's not a sunroof; that's for Austin Powers to jump through.

That's not a sunroof; that's for Austin Powers to jump through.

Test mules have also been spotted roaming about. Below, a fairly finished-looking XJ tries to camouflage itself with a BMW-like psychedelic body coating. (I would have just assumed it was an attempt by Jag to try and inspire fond ’60s memories in Jaguar fans, but no, they even stuck on a fake BMW grill.)

jaguar-xj-spy-2

According to Britain’s CAR Magazine, the upcoming XJ will be the lightest car in its class, due to extensive use of aluminium. Engine choices Stateside will be limited to a 5.0-litre 380-hp V8 or a 503-hp supercharged version of the same; Europeans also get diesel and V6 choices. A stylish, modern interior (like Bang & Olufsen modern, not IKEA modern) will come with a bunch of cool electronics, such as dual-display monitors (letting driver and passenger see different things on the same screen, which is pretty cool shit), digital instrument panel displays and – I swear, we’re not making this up – “improved electrical reliability.” Wow, this IS a new chapter for Jaguar!

(CAR’s drafted a couple artist’s conceptions of the new car, which can be seen below.)

NewJaguarXJ2010Photo_02

NewJaguarXJ2010Photo_001

Next up in our English revue (I think that’s actually French, but whatever. American arrogance rules!) comes another replacement for a model that’s been around since Larry King was riding to school on a woolly mammoth – the Bentley Arnage. First introduced in 1998, the Arnage continued Bentley’s then-tradition of obese luxury cars – but like a fat man with diarrhea, it could sure move fast when it needed to, thanks to its 4.4-litre 350-horsepower twin-turbo BMW V8. (Yes, back in 1998, you needed two turbos to get 350 horses out of a V8.)

But then BMW and Volkswagen started brawling over Rolls-Royce and Bentley, and when the dust settled and VW had snagged the alphabetically (and pretty much every other way) superior brand, BMW retaliated by cutting off their fancy new engines. So VW stuffed Bentley’s old six-and-three-quarter-litre V8 into the cars. And when we say old, we mean old; the engine traces its basic structure to a General Motors V8 from the 1950s, and was first used to power a Bentley in 1959.

Since then, the Arnage has trucked along mostly unchanged; a power boost here, some added legroom there, a new transmission for fun. In 2005, Bentley introduced its first all-new car developed under Volkswagen, the Continental GT; despite sharing a platform with the $90,000 VW Phaeton, it proved a massive success, becoming the ride of choice among royalty and rappers alike. Its spin-offs, the Continental Sedan and GTC convertible, only served to further overshadow the slower, pricier, and uglier Arnage.

But after over a decade on the market, the Arnage is finally riding off into the sunset (apparently it’s going to Dublin), paving the way for what Bentley is describing as the “all-new Grand Bentley.” The image below is the only hint Bentley’s giving of what the new car will look like, but given the (admittedly veiled) image, we can probably expect evolutionary styling – think a sleeker-looking Arnage.

new_grand_bentley_images_1

Powertrain details haven’t been made available, but expect either a 600+ horsepower version of the Continental’s twin-turbo W12 or a souped-up version of the old 6.75-litre V8 again making 600 or more horses. (At this rate, the 6.75 V8 is on track to become the automotive engine version of the B-52 bomber.) Pricing will probably be somewhere between $250,000 and $300,000, with options to include anything you can goddamn think of, because it’s a Bentley. They made station wagon versions of the Arnage.

The new model may or may not actually called the “Grand Bentley” when it goes on sale either next year or the year after that (isn’t it wonderful when nobody knows anything?); let’s hope it’s called something else, because I’m not ready to deal with trying to figure out whether the full name would be the “Bentley Grand Bentley” or just the “Grand Bentley.”

Finally, let’s take a look at the all-new Aston Martin Rapide, caught for the first time without camouflage this week in the UK by a sharp-eyed CAR Magazine reader named Simon Gregg (and man, are his Google hits spiking). While the car is supposed to be officially revealed this fall at the Frankfurt Auto Show, one was driving around in the nude on public roads for some reason.

aston_martin_rapide_read_spy

Then again, I don’t think any of us really have a problem with such a beauty going around in the buff, do we? (At least, that’s what I keep telling Jessica Biel when I see her. Which is rarely.) When it comes to styling, Aston’s been knocking it out of the park like Barry Bonds on the ball-shrinking juice lately, and the Rapide manages to pull off four doors without looking awkward or staid. (Okay, the car’s tail looks a little…elevated in the picture below, but maybe it’s just excited. Or aroused.)

Look, Stephen - she's presenting!

Look, Stephen - she's presenting!

The Rapide should go on sale early next year, equipped with the 470-horsepower 6.0-litre (okay, that’s getting old) V12 found in the DB9. Hopefully, an “S” model with the DBS’s 510-horsepower V12 (and Daniel Craig looks) will be along soon after. Expect to pay around $175,000 for your Rapide – more than the competing Porsche Panamera Turbo, but hopefully less than the Mercedes-Benz S65 AMG.

aston_martin_rapide_read_spy_1

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Toyota Announces College Grad Discounts

A mere five months after General Motors announced they’d be offering discounts for college students and recent graduates, Toyota has decided to jump on the bandwagon by offering $1,000 rebates to recent college graduates.

But Toyota’s terms are quite a bit more limited than GM’s, which may or may not have anything to do with the General’s searing desperation. Where GM’s college program is open to all college students and anyone who’s graduated in the last two years, Toyota’s is only available to people out of college less than two years, or who are less than six months from graduating.

Toyota also tags on a few more terms in the fine print: you have to show Toyota proof of employment within four months of your purchase, and the suits at Toyota Financial Headquarters have to declare your salary sufficient to cover your car payments and a place to live – so if you were thinking about buying a Sienna and living out of it, tough luck.

In addition, the selection of vehicles that falls under the program is much more limited. If you want the discount, you can only choose from the Yaris, Corolla, Matrix, RAV4, Tacoma, or Camry – and not even the Camry hybrid. GM, by contrast, offers college discount pricing on every new model except the new Camaro, the Corvette ZR1, and the Saturn Vue Hybrid. Want a 556-horsepower Cadillac CTS-V? How about a Corvette convertible? Or a Hummer H2? Yes, any of them can be yours for the wholesale price, so long as you can flash the sheepskin. (Though why you’d want the Hummer is still beyond me.)

Sorry, folks. It's still $103,970.

Sorry, folks. It's still $103,970.

However, Toyota’s program does give you some benefits GM doesn’t offer: no down payment, no payments for 90 days, one year of free roadside assistance, and the ability to apply the discount to both new and certified used Toyotas. With GM, you get what you see.

So how do the two programs stack up? Well, let’s do a quick comparison – Toyota Camry versus Chevy Malibu, four-cylinder mid-level models, nothing wild. The Malibu LT1 costs $23,225 retail after destination charges, while the Camry LE goes for $22,400 before discounts. The college degree knocks the Camry down to $21,400, while bringing the Malibu down to $22,421. So it looks like a win for the Camry…

…unless you factor in the $2,500 in potential rebates available on the Malibu that can drop the price to $19,921.

Which one’s a better program? Well, Toyota’s offers more benefits if you’re able to meet their conditions, but their car selection is pretty weak – they don’t even offer Scions in the deal, and the models they are letting grads choose from are all pretty far into their life cycle. Plus, none of them are going to make your drive particularly thrilling.

GM’s terms aren’t quite as good (the discount usually ends up being less than a grand, unless you factor in other offers), but at least they give you some better choices. Sure, you still might not be able to swing a Corvette ZO6, but it might be enough to nudge a Cobalt SS or Pontiac Solstice within your reach.

(You can read all about Toyota’s program at their website.)

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GM College Grad Pricing

This doesn’t come under any of the usual headings of this site, but it seems worth mentioning. General Motors is currently offering a discount program on almost every single one of its cars exclusively for college seniors and recent graduates.  

It looks pretty easy: all you do is log onto http://www.gmcollegegrad.com, fill out a few forms, and bam! You’re eligible for what GM calls “supplier pricing,” which sounds an awful lot like “wholesale” to me. The conditions, surprisingly, are few and far-between. All you need is a college diploma from the last two years, a document from your college saying you’re gonna graduate in the next six months, or proof you’re in grad or nursing school. That’s it. That degree can be for anything from an associate’s degree to a Ph.D. 

The only other condition is that you have to hang onto the car for at least six months, presumably so no smart-minded entrepreneur tries to make a profit snatching these things up and turning them over. However, if you buy a Corvette, you’ve got to hang onto it for two years, which makes me think of that line from the 1998 Disney animated film Oliver and Company: “If this is torture, chain me to the wall!”

You know how awesome that movie is? Billy Joel was the voice of the canine Artful Dodger. Damn.

But yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, and he’s bringing us the gift of discounted Corvettes. That’s right – Corvettes, Escalades, CTS-Vs, Solstices, every GM car you might have harbored a fantasy about cruising up and down the Sunset Strip in is available for college students to snatch up. The only exception is the new Corvette ZR1, which isn’t really surprising, given its astronomical price tag, Ferrari-fighting performance, and $60,000-a-gallon paint. (Seriously.)

Even more wonderfully, GM is kind enough to let scholars combine these deals with the incentives available on almost every one of their models, usually in the form of cash on the hood. Even better, you can check these incentives on the GM College Grad site, so you can know exactly how much you’re gonna be paying when you walk in. According to their site, only “new and unused” cars are available under the agreement; next thing you know, they’ll be insisting you pay with “real and non-counterfeit” money.

So, in honor of this, I’m ticking off the GM cars I consider worth owning. I’m including both the original MSRP and the price with all discounts taken in; adding options will change it around, so feel free to play around on their site and spec one out yourself.

Buick

Enclave: GM’s new line of large, car-like SUVs offer better handling and marginal fuel savings than their truck-based siblings (i.e. the Suburban), and the Enclave is the best-looking of the otherwise similar bunch. Should you feel the need to buy a SUV for daily driving, the Enclave will do you well. Go for the CX trim level with all-wheel drive. $750 incentive cash, too.

MSRP/Discounted: $37,805/$35,226

Cadillac

CTS/CTS-V: The new CTS is by far Cadillac’s best car, capable of standing up with the best of the segment – BMW 3-series, Infiniti G37, Acura TL, etc. If you’re just going for the base car, make sure you spring for the direct-injection engine that adds around 40 horsepower; whether you go with optional all-wheel-drive or standard rear-wheel-drive depends on how much snow you get and how much you want to spend on snow tires. But if you can go whole hog and get the 556-horsepower CTS-V, DO IT. $2000 incentive on all models.

CTS Direct Injection RWD: $39,180/$35,258

CTS-V: $59,995/$53,884

Escalade Hybrid: Feeling oxymoronic? Want to show the world how environmentally sensitive you are by buying a SUV that gets the same gas mileage as a taxicab? Well, as the ads say, this Bud’s for you. I’m assuming if you buy a truck-based SUV you’re gonna be driving through crappy weather, so get all-wheel-drive. $1000 rebate on all Escalade models.

Escalade Hybrid AWD: $74,465/$70,177

Chevrolet

Cobalt SS: While the regular Cobalt is a pretty pedestrian compact, strapping a 260-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder engine (among other performance mods) makes one hell of a badass econobox. (Car and Driver managed to blast one form 0 to 60 in 5.5 seconds, on the way to a 156-mph top speed.) Both coupe and sedan cost the same, so even those who need four doors can play. $1500 cash on the hood, by the way.

$24,095/$21,749

Corvette: Do I really need to say more? The base car will make you happier than almost any car in the world, and it only gets better from there.

Coupe 1LT: $49,415/$44,937

Convertible 1LT: $54,070/$49,145

ZO6 1LZ: $74,775/$67,861

HHR: Chevy counts this little PT Cruiser ripoff as a truck, but it’s as much a truck as Michael Jackson is white. (Or sane.) Still, for what it’s worth, this little guy is pretty stylish, roomy, and cheap. It even comes in panel-van versions (for the aspiring band) or in SS trim (for the really cool bands). $1000 incentive on all models.

LS: $19,380/$17,739

LS Panel: $19,690/$18,036

SS: $25,475/$23,567

GMC

Yukon Denali: While this SUV might just seem like a cut-rate version of the Escalade, it’s in fact a steal right off the bat. The Denali packs just about all the Escalade’s features (including the fun 403-hp motor) into a classier-looking package that won’t leave you feeling like Diddy. Plus, that simple badge switch saves you about six grand. $1000 incentive cash.

$53,580/$48,816

Hummer

There is no reason to buy a Hummer. Especially now that the badass original is gone.

Pontiac

G8: Pontiac’s new sedan makes the Bonnevilles and the Grand Prixes of the past two decades seem like a bad dream. Based on an Australian product, the G8 is sweet enough you might start saying “It’s a Pontiac” with pride, not shame. The performance-minded should spring for the V8-powered GT, which blows away a BMW 550i for half the price – well, even less, now. $1500 cash on the hood.

G8 base: $28,875/$26,320

G8 GT: $32,240/$29,538

Solstice: Personally, I prefer the styling of its Saturn Sky sibling, but the Solstice is cheaper out the gate, so I’m giving it the slot on the list. Sadly, it looks like GM has marked up the prices recently: when it came out a few years ago, Pontiac was advertising that the Solstice started at $5 less than twenty grand; as you can see, it’s gone up a good bit since then. If you’ve got cash burning a hole in your pocket, the turbocharged 260-hp GXP gives you a little more straight-line fin, but both cars will make you smile.

Solstice base: $24,895/$23,509

Solstice GXP: $30,105/$28,491

Saab

9-3: Yes, remarkably, Saab is owned by General Motors, and as such should be a full participant in this program. I say might, because the GM website mentions something about seeing your Saab dealer for more details, but hey, you have to see any dealer for more details. Saab’s quirky lineup hasn’t been changed much in the last decade or so, so the only model really worth anyone’s time is the smaller 9-3. Basics are best here; four-door, not convertible or station wagon is the way to go. Leave the all-wheel-drive to the other Swedes – front-wheel-drive is fine for you. And for God’s sake, don’t go throwing thousands of dollars of options on it. Ikea-esque minimalism is the way to go here. $2000 incentive on all Saabs, not just the 9-3.

9-3 Touring Sedan FWD: $31,135/$28,243

Saturn

Astra: This little baby is another import – however, unlike the Aussie G8, this baby’s from across the other ocean. Replacing the tepid Ion (a car so forgettable, Saturn loaned one to Car and Driver and never remembered to pick it up), this Vauxhall-in-celestial-garb comes in 2- and 4-door hatchback forms. Unfortunately, GM’s “supplier pricing” website doesn’t offer pricing info on it, but given the $16,495 base price on Saturn’s own website, you’ll probably save only a couple hundred more.

Finally, I noticed on GM’s list of incentives (which covers “new and unused” 2008 models as well as 2009) there were a few figures which seemed, well, incredible enough to list.  I don’t necessarily like these models, but I figured I’d give you the discounts anyway; for 2008 models, I used the 2009 MSRPs and wholesale prices, so the ’08s might actually be a little cheaper than I’ve listed.

2009 Hummer H3T: $5,500 incentive. ($32,045/$24,665)

2008 Cadillac Escalade, all models: $6750 incentive. (Escalade AWD: $64,485/$53,815)

2008 Cadillac STS, all models: $6000 incentive. (STS V6 RWD: $46,725/$38,416)

2008 Chevrolet Silverado 1500 Extended/Crew Cab: $5,500 incentive. (Work Truck Ext. Cab Medium Bed 4WD: $29,330/$29,812)

2008 Chevrolet Silverado 2500HD: $6000 incentive. (Work Truck Regular Cab Long Bed 4WD: $29,570/$21,614)

2008 Saab 9-7X: $7,250 incentive. (9-7X 4.2i: $43,390/$33,789)

2008 Saab 9-3, all models: $4750 incentive. (2.0T Touring: $31,135/$25,493)

2008 Saab 9-5, all models: $5250 incentive. (2.3T Sedan: $41,180/$34,344)

So get out there and buy some GM iron! After all, these deals won’t last long. I mean, the company might well be bankrupt within six months, and then you’ll never see these deals again! (That is, if you ever see a new GM vehicle again.) Do your part! Save the economy! Buy GM! Baseball! Hot Dogs! Apple Pie! Etc! America – fuck yeah! Wooooooo!

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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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Quick View – MINI Cooper/Clubman

Despite all the differences between them, there are some things that men and women come together on. Martinis.  Billy Joel. A good pillowtop mattress.

Among automobiles, the Mini tends to be the point directly between Mars and Venus. (Earth?) Women tend to love its puppydog looks, comfy interior and the fact that they can say, “Isn’t it cute?,” while guys love it for its optional turbocharged engine, sporty suspension, and the fact they can say “Yeah, it’s made by BMW.”

The Mini, of course, wasn’t always made by Bavarians who specialize in four-wheeled Viagra capsules. Originally, the car hailed from Great Britain, where it was designed and built in response to a late 1950s fuel shortage as a way of getting maximum space from the minimum car. The original Mini was a good deal smaller than today’s, maxxing out at just 10 feet long – two feet shorter than today’s Mini.

While indelibly linked with the swinging ’60s, thanks in part to a role in the 1969 film The Italian Job, the old Mini continued in one form or another all the way until the year 2000, at which point BMW (owners of the Rover group – the same people who make Land Rovers – since 1994) decided to sell off the cash-hemorrhaging Rover brands. However, it held onto the Mini name, relaunching it as an entirely new car in 2001 and forever linking it to the retro-crazed 1990s/2000s, thanks in part to a role in the 2003 film The Italian Job.

(I’d like to take this opportunity to point out that the new version of the car is technically known as the “MINI,” in all capital letters; however, I’m going to continue to refer to it as the “Mini,” mostly because I don’t want it to look like I’m SCREAMING at YOU several TIMES a PARAGRAPH.)

The current Mini is the second-generation of the new iteration, introduced in 2006. For the most part, the changes were minimal – a little larger, a little heavier, turbochargers instead of superchargers in the performance versions. The model range also is nearly identical, with only one major addition (which I’ll get to in a bit, hang on.)

The base model sold in the States is the Cooper, which comes with a 1.6 liter, 118-horsepower four-cylinder engine and a choice of 6-speed manual or automatic transmission, a rarity among small cars; either way, the Cooper returns about 37 miles per gallon on the highway and 28 in the city. Anti-lock brakes, a full suite of front-side-and-curtain airbags, keyless entry, CD stereo, and a climate-controlled glovebox for keeping drinks cold/preserving fragile archaeological relics all come standard, along with an options roster longer than John Goodman’s shopping list. The base Mini starts at $18,700, but expect to see that rocket upwards once you start tacking on things like Keyless Go, sonar parking sensors, or a navigation system.

Above the Cooper lies the Cooper S, whose primary distinction from the base Mini is the turbocharger strapped to its 1.6 liter engine, boosting power to 172 horses and cutting the 0 to 60 time down by almost two seconds. Torque is increased from 114 lb-ft to 177, available at a much more useable 1600 rpm. However, gas mileage takes a beating, dropping to S models are best distinguished from their base brethren by the scoop in the center of their hoods. In terms of features, the S adds traction control, foglamps, a small rear spoiler and aluminum pedals (ooh!) Again, leave off the fancy options, and a Cooper S can be yours for $21,850.

For those of non-Irish origin, the Mini also comes in convertible versions of the Cooper and Cooper S. Unlike most convertibles, the Mini’s top offers an intermediate sunroof position that lets you be blasted with UV rays without messing up your hair. (It’s really more of a targa top, but Mini might well have feared 1980s Z28 IROC associations with the T-top moniker.) Of course, the top fully stows in the back, as well as sealing up against the weather.

The Cooper convertible has not been updated to the second-generation body and powertrain as the regular Mini has. Power and torque drop by three each; 0 to 60 times lose four-tenths of a second, and fuel economy falls to 23/32 city/highway, mostly due to the convertible’s added weight and the fact that the manual transmission only has 5 gears instead of 6, and the automatic is of the continuously-variable variety instead of the 6-speed. Otherwise, options and standard features tend to be the same as in the hardtop Cooper, with the exception of those changes mandated by the folding roof. 

The Cooper S convertible makes do with the old supercharged 1.6 liter four-cylinder; the engine makes 168 horsepower and gets 21 mpg in the city, 29 on the highway. A 6-speed manual is standard, a 6-speed automatic optional. Cooper convertibles start at $22,600, while Cooper S convertibles begin at $26,050.

The newest addition to the Mini family is the Clubman, a stretched version of the Cooper. 9.4 inches of added length give the Clubman room for a half-door along the right-hand side of the vehicle and allow actual-sized humans to sit in back without eating their kneecaps. It also comes with two horizontally-opening rear doors, instead of the regular Mini’s hatchback, for apparently no reason except to be different. The base Clubman model is pretty much identical to the Cooper, other than the added space; fuel economy and power output is the same, and acceleration suffers by four-tenths of a second, again due to added weight. Dynamic stability control also comes standard on the Clubman; in addition, the rear seats fold flat, making transport of large items easier. Base Clubmen start at $20,600.

The Clubman S, as you might imagine, just takes the Cooper S and sticks a few more inches on it. Fuel economy and power are the same; acceleration to 60 drops three-tenths of a second. Again, Dynamic stability control and flat-folding seats come standard, along with a $24,100 pricetag.

There’s also a high-performance John Cooper Works edition of both Cooper and Clubman available, with souped-up (208 horsepower) versions of the turbo engine, along with other options. The Works edition of the Cooper starts at $29,200, while the Clubman is the only Mini to break the 30-grand barrier with a base price of $31,450.

However, it’s easy enough to push the prices on regular Minis up into heady territory; I configured a Cooper S on Mini’s website, and even without a leather interior, navigation system or automatic transmission, my car listed for $26,850.

Bottom line: the Mini is a unique car. There are plenty of far more practical rides out there for the same money,  and plenty of sportier ones as well. But few cars on the road bring about the same sort of emotional reaction as the Mini. If you get it, you’ll want one despite the cost; if you don’t, you’ll cross it off your list early and never look back. 

Also Consider: Volkswagen Rabbit, Mazda3, Honda Fit.

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Preview – 2011 Subaru Impreza Coupe

British magazine Auto Express claims Subaru will be wheeling out a two-door version of its Impreza by 2010, presumably making it a 2011 model. 

The magazine says the car, being co-developed with Toyota, will use a 180 horsepower boxer four-cylinder (presumably the same engine currently making 170 horsepower in the Impreza) and a turbocharged version from the extra-high-performance WRX STi, making around 300 horsepower.

They also claim that base-level models will be rear-wheel-drive, but this seems doubtful over here, considering Subaru’s main selling point in the U.S. is its all-wheel-drive reputation. Besides, Auto Express says the high-performance version will offer all-wheel-drive, so why take it off to put it back on?

Expect to see the base coupe go for around $23,000 when it comes to the States, with the turbocharged version priced just below $30,000. It looks pretty hot in the picture, but keep in mind it’s just a drawing at this point. You can read the Auto Express article here.

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