From the December 2007 issue of Car and Driver.
It seems like mere minutes since we were shocking and awing the 1578 residents of Bagdad, Arizona, with a similar assortment of giant-slaying subcompacts. However, since that test in May 2007, and identifying the Mazdaspeed 3 GT as our favorite little hooligan, the auto industry has birthed a few more turbocharged street runts.
These new torpedoes break down into two gangs, we discovered. The Sharks take reasonable compromise and trample it under stiff suspensions and fat rubber, flaring with eyeball candy and simmering with just-try-it styling. The Jets just play it cool, boy, with less pushy graphics and a lighter, quieter step to their sprints. Like the brawling punks of Bernstein and Sondheim’s 1957 West Side Story, each gang has endearing qualities as well as social diseases.
A cash payment of $22,995 snares the Dodge Caliber SRT4, a superpower-suffused version of Dodge’s economy shoebox wielding 285 horsepower from a 2.4-liter turbo engine and grille-fed intercooler. This Shark, sunburnt in $150 optional Sunburst Orange, had a price further fluffed by a $915 stereo, $1075 navigation system, and the 19-inch aluminum wheel and tire pack, which runs $450. Okay by me from America!
There’s also the totally, radically, belatedly redesigned Subaru Impreza WRX. The original civilian rally car returns larger, heavier, more mature, with a few traditional Rex cues—224-horse turbo flat-four engine and all-wheel drive—and a few tradition breakers, including full-frame windows (finally!) and a deluxe interior. This WRX was earmarked to the gills with $4100 worth of satellite radio and navigation equipment, plus a $75 rubber cargo tray (worth every cent) and a $163 armrest extension. When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way.
Volvo—of all the unlikely brands to be here! It joins the subcompact fracas with its ’08 227-hp C30 T5 hatch. The C30’s launch timing precluded us from comparing it with a VW GTI and Mini Cooper in Bagdad, perhaps the C30’s more natural gang affiliates. And car availability meant the only example with a six-speed manual was this base Version 1.0 model, fitted with soft-running all-season tires and lacking the optional sport suspension. At least its $23,920 price sits at the bottom (a $475 metallic-blue paint job is the only option). Somewhere, there’s a place for this Jet.
Finally, we invited the leader of the Sharks from our Bagdad comparo, the 263-hp Mazdaspeed 3. Stripped for fighting with zero options, it trades at $24,650, a gray 150-mph missile plunged into the heart of our price range. A car like that wants one thing only, and when it’s done, it’ll leave you lonely.
In the meantime, let’s mambo!
Fourth Place: Dodge Caliber SRT4
Is this Dodge’s new hot rod or just the box it came in? The high-seated, proto-SUV shape adopted for the regular-grade Caliber looks every bit the Shark behind the SRT4’s goalie mask of air ducts, spoilers, and screens, yet it’s still tall and trucklike and definitely doesn’t feel so pretty. A tailgate wing and the blocky rear bumper only pump up the visual heft, and the 19-inch rims and 225/45 Goodyears look like Sasquatch soles, even in this company. The line forms here for those who like their dance partners big-boned and square-shouldered.
Inside, the forms are big, too, the towering dash and the slab-o’-granite steering-wheel boss unchanged from those of the base car. It doesn’t say “speed” so much as “safe for kids.” Acres of hard, high-sheen black plastic advertise the cost cutting.
HIGHS: Planted through corners, gratifying shifter feel, gives good quarter-miles.
LOWS: A mug its own mother would slug, high-sheen plastics among the cheap bits, a bucking ride.
The SRT mojo is applied tastefully with carbon-fiber-print upholstery for the wheel and shift boot; white-face gauges include a cleanly integrated boost meter. Lavishly bolstered buckets with SRT embroidery suck torsos in and keep them there, but eventual back fatigue turned the minutes to hours on long hauls.
Chrysler’s Street and Racing Technology department is known for baking real meat in its burritos, and the SRT4 is no exception. The best power-to-weight ratio (11.1 pounds per horsepower) didn’t produce the quickest drag times, but the SRT4’s 14.4-second quarter-mile at 101 mph and gold-medal lane-change performance showed its strengths.
At street level, the Caliber chisels away doubts prompted by its styling. Lines through the corners were tight and bracingly fast and faithfully adhered to by the sticky tires. Mid-turn weaving was occasional on uneven surfaces, the consequence of the snorting 2.4-liter four’s 265 pound-feet of torque pulling the steering around. Always threatening to tear the front rubber loose, the engine’s rabid twist is tamed by subtle applications of the left or right front brake to shift torque away from the smoking tire. This virtual limited slip, superior to a real mechanical limited slip, claims Dodge, operates with a slight jerkiness that was offensive to some, unnoticed by others.
The body remains flat on its firm springs and anti-roll bars, but it also bucked more over bumps, having an altogether harder, harsher ride than the others. Sensations through the wheel, artificially light on center and artificially heavy off, are duller than in the Mazda or Subaru. However, the clipped, direct motions of the Dodge’s six-speed lever were judged the most satisfying of all the shifters.
The old Neon-based SRT4 had a boomy track-rat crudeness that has been expunged from the quieter, slightly plusher, more thoroughly integrated Caliber SRT4. Yet a persistent tinny feel—the hood prop falling off in our hands, the wads of foam insulation sliding around in inadequate glue, the various engine rattles on shutdown—kept our hearts from fully defrosting for it.
THE VERDICT: A running shoe trapped in a running shoe’s box.
2008 Dodge Caliber SRT4
285-hp turbo inline-4, 6-speed manual, 3177 lb
Base/as-tested price: $22,995/$25,585
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 5.8 sec
100 mph: 14.0 sec
1/4 mile: 14.4 sec @ 101 mph
Braking, 70-0 mph: 176 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.84 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 22 mpg
Third Place: Volvo C30
Thoroughly outgunned on this playground, the little glass-rumped cosmopolitan from the way, way north had us uttering the word “Volvo” as if for the first time. An enormously civilized and well-packaged bundle of Euro-chic efficiency, our base C30 was a delight betrayed only by its overly elastic suspension and drab interior hued in three shades of Scandinavian winter.
HIGHS: A cuter butt than any in Hollywood, quiet inside and composed on the road, pass-it-quick power.
LOWS: Floats on softer springs, interior has the blahs, melt-away brakes.
The lone car here lacking rear doors, this Jet sacrifices back-seat accessibility for its fascinating body shape. A low roof and a fast sloping hatch set in extra huggable hips garnered double takes for the C30 all up and down the high roads leading to our test venue in southeast Ohio. Those who don’t spend a few moments absorbing the C30’s mile-high taillights pouring like strawberry syrup down the corners and over the flanks need to get their curiosity in for a tuneup.
A C30 stands apart in this group for other reasons. Sporting a soft suspension and wearing all-season tires, it’s no shocker that the C30 tanked in the braking, lane-change, and skidpad tests. This cabin offers only four seatbelts, the rear ones accessed by awkwardly climbing over and around the front ones. The turbo engine has an unnatural five holes, from which a stirring exhaust note was never expected and never delivered.
Some anomalous test numbers, however, tell the story of a slingshot punch from the five-cylinder engine.
Lightest at 3134 pounds, the C30 was the slowest from 0 to 60 mph at 6.3 seconds—Houston, we have wheelspin!—but the quickest from 5 to 60 at 6.5 seconds. The Volvo was also fleetest in the 30-to-50 top-gear slog. You say you want usable power more than big horsepower numbers? The C30 serves it up, no waiting. Lift your foot, and it also vanishes, no waiting. The engine shuts down abruptly when the fat boost blows off.
Tuned as an urban errand runner, the C30’s Mazda 3-derived multilink legs sag under the g-forces of country-road cornering. The brake pedal also got long as a hard-driving day wore on. For better back-road acumen, go for the “Dynamic sport suspension,” $575 by itself on the 1.0 (Volvo charges a one-time $300 fee with the first of any “custom build” options, including the suspension) and standard on the 2.0, which is also fitted with larger, 18-inch wheels and lower-profile tires. But be prepared to trade in the absorbent ride that makes freeway plods a relaxing, stress-free stroll in the base car.
The widest car at 70.2 inches proved roomy even for rear-seaters, who get ergonomically scalloped buckets and expansive windows to look through. The “flying buttress”–er, “flying VCR remote”–center console with its Sony-inspired knot of black buttons is a bit of hand-me-down Swedish whimsy from the S40/V50. The plain gauges, the rubbery shifter, and the listless gray plastic trim applied in vast unbroken sheets are hand-me-down items from all Volvos. None of which dissuaded anyone from declaring this happy hatchback an ideal daily driver.
THE VERDICT: The aging boomer’s Mini Cooper.
C30! We just met a Volvo named C30, and suddenly that name will never be the same again.
2008 Volvo C30 T5 Version 1.0
227-hp turbo inline-5, 6-speed manual, 3134 lb
Base/as-tested price: $23,445/$23,920
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 6.3 sec
100 mph: 15.6 sec
1/4 mile: 14.8 sec @ 97 mph
Braking, 70-0 mph: 184 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.82 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 23 mpg
Second Place: Subaru Impreza WRX
It was swimming with the Sharks only last year, but the WRX emerges from its complete makeover as a confirmed Jet. The lines of the mini-wagon are more taut (if not excessively handsome). The roof looks lower, the rear-end rake is steeper, and the flaring hood scoop is now tamped down into a narrow cheese shaver. There’s no body-color stitching on the upholstery, no epileptic boost meters, no race-boy adverts embroidered on the seats. The black and titanium trim is so understated—red-numbered gauges notwithstanding—that the car should really be called the Impreza LX.
Disappointment? It can’t be measured in milligrams. This ’08 WRX is so capable and willing, such a leap in livability and refinement over its predecessor, that the words “budget BMW” actually crossed our lips without causing gags.
HIGHS: Rock solid and refined, comes closest to rear-drive moves, the torque is spread thick.
LOWS: Understated inside to the point of Accord-ness, looks dumpy next to the Mazdaspeed, worst mpg.
Unfortunately, some of the old WRX remains for nostalgic types. The Evinrude-esque putter of the 224-horse, 2.5-liter flat-four is just as lame, although more damped in the quieter cockpit. The engine’s four-armed intake tract has been changed from aluminum to plebeian black plastic. It might be lighter and cheaper, but it won’t encourage WRX lovers to crack their hoods at the hamburger stand.
Five-on-the-floor seems about as outdated as three-on-the-tree in a world full of six-speeds. The ratio spacing is almost identical to the Caliber’s but without the second overdrive. No surprise that the Rex’s recorded 20-mpg average is at the bottom. The turbocharged boxer spreads its torque thickly around 3000 rpm, so the extra gear was only missed on the interstate. Little joy was derived from shifting, anyway, the stick’s floppy connection to the transmission seemingly done with bungee cords.
So much for the bad. Our back-road bash brought out the WRX’s manifest improvements, including a new solidity in the ride, competence to the brakes, and fluidity in the suspension and steering. Arcs are traced cleanly with well-greased and reactive steering, the suspension restraining roll and pitch but letting the body down over dips and bumps as gently as a ballerina in slippers. Or a BMW on Michelins, we thought. As in a Bimmer, Subaru’s new chassis filters out everything you don’t need to know to go quick with confidence.
And quick it is, the WRX’s all-wheel drive supplying much appreciated rear-drive throttle response in this group. Injudicious right feet easily overwhelm the front tires of the other cars, especially the hyper-boosted Mazda. But the WRX responds to mid-turn gassing by tucking in the front end and tightening the line. From this, great drives are made.
A snore to look at, the WRX keeps its assets hidden from view. Subaru surely is saving all the red-hot visuals for the forthcoming and pricier STI. Could it be? Yes, it could. Something’s coming, something good.
THE VERDICT: A budget BMW in a plain beige wrapper.
2008 Subaru Impreza WRX
227-hp turbo flat-4, 5-speed manual, 3198 lb
Base/as-tested price: $25,495/$29,833
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 5.8 sec
100 mph: 16.9 sec
1/4 mile: 14.4 sec @ 94 mph
Braking, 70-0 mph: 170 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.83 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 20 mpg
First Place: Mazda Mazdaspeed 3
A Shark draws the final blood by bringing a gun to a knife fight. Where have we seen that ending before? Always fast, often loud, and occasionally unpredictable, this 263-hp gangbanger rivets your attention and wins our devotion. It’s a poster-boy Shark, and it’s also a Jet at its most relaxed moments.
HIGHS: Felonious power, crisp steering, Porsche brakes, fits of giggling.
LOWS: Wheel-wrenching torque steer, spongy shifter, dash rattle.
The Mazdaspeed 3 shows its chops at the track with the quickest 0-to-60 and quarter-mile times, shortest braking distance, and highest skidpad number. Power, grip, brakes, agility—it’s all there in quantities so prodigious as to encourage pure evil in the hearts of men. On a busy two-lane the Mazdaspeed 3 flies past a line of semis so effortlessly as to convince you of your immunity to traffic. It attacks turns with a viscous bite and sticks to pavement with Fixodent-quality adhesion. Throttle-response delay can be counted in thunderclaps. Concentrate, because it also steers itself under full throttle, the front tires having radar for the divots and camber pitches that heighten the innate torque steer.
It booms, it whooshes, it wails. It demands that your best sweaty-palmed driving skills be applied to the light steering and alloy pedals, and it rewards, delivering a type of demonic, antisocial fun in the same vein as burning ants with a magnifying glass.
Drop it into sixth with the ropy, imprecise shifter, and the 3 untenses. Road impacts are damped by a suspension exhibiting ample wheel travel. The five-door body supplies respectable rear-seat legroom augmented by a comfortable seatback angle, and there’s decent baggage area (although it’s slightly smaller than the Dodge’s and Subaru’s). Mazda offers a clever fold-away navigation screen for those who want it.
Details set the Mazdaspeed 3’s cockpit apart. Fancy fabric lines the doors, and painted trim rings circle the vents and speaker grilles. Perfectly spaced red-stitched chevrons march up the inside of the steering wheel. The stereo’s red LEDs flash left or right depending on which way you’re seeking radio stations. Back-seat riders get a fold-away center armrest.
The list goes on: The brake pedal’s rubber grip dots are configured to encourage proper heel-and-toeing. Two brightness controls for the backlit gauges—one for daytime with headlights off, one for night, headlights on—mean you don’t have to fuss with the meter every time the sun sets. The headlight dip angle is even adjustable.
Based on a low-priced car, the Mazdaspeed 3 never feels cheap. Nor is it uncomfortable. The front buckets’ bolsters are plump and hold fast—there’s even a crotch blister for holding, uh, whatever.
Lumbar is adjustable, as is the wheel telescope, ensuring orthopedic satisfaction on long hikes. Indeed, the Mazda’s worst offense is its ability to generate repeated court summonses.
Gee, Officer Krupke, what are we to do?
THE VERDICT: It may cause jail time, but never boredom.
2007 Mazdaspeed 3
263-hp turbo inline-4, 6-speed manual, 3202 lb
Base/as-tested price: $24,650/$24,650
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 5.6 sec
100 mph: 14.2 sec
1/4 mile: 14.2 sec @ 100 mph
Braking, 70-0 mph: 160 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.87 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 21 mpg
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