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Sunday, August 31, 2008

Guilt free fun- flipping OPEC the bird

Large SUVs, 600-hp speedboats, and big-displacement toys sound like a good idea when gas costs $1.86 a gallon, but when you return from the gas pump with the same bowlegged waddle you sport after your yearly colon-cancer screening, wretched excess rots in the driveway.

People far, far higher up the pay scale than we are (including grocery baggers) tell us high gas prices are here to stay, despite the current relief. Suddenly, your neighbor’s ratty ’88 Charade you hated for de-bourgeoisifying the hallowed aesthetic of your gated community is starting to seduce you like the dorky girl next door who becomes hot in all those ’80s movies. There’s only one problem: All three cylinders of a Daihatsu Charade will fill your life with suck and agony meted out mile after painful mile.

Speed and fun, at least around this office, are itches that must be scratched, and fortunately, there are cars that serve up both while managing to expel a minimum of carbon atoms and burn fewer of the remaining bills in your wallet. Horsepower, like fuel economy, is a product of efficiency, and these vehicles balance both to their best advantage.

2009 BMW 335d
23 mpg city/33 mpg highway (est)

If diesel vehicles need an ambassador to win over die-hard skeptics, we nominate the BMW 335d. The skeptics’ criticisms will be charges of rattletrappery, billowing clouds of stinky doom, and anemic performance. Beyond making mincemeat of these once-deserved diesel put-downs, the BMW 335d will win them over with total refinement, fine moves, and billowing clouds of stinky tire smoke.

BMW quite aptly describes the 282-hp, 3.0-liter twin-turbocharged engine as a “sporting diesel.” There are some 428 pound-feet of torque lying in wait, about equaling the hallowed Corvette’s, yet the 335d will still return an estimated 33 mpg on the freeway, a much better number than recorded in the real world by many so-called economy cars.

We reckon the 335d will sprint to 60 mph in under six seconds, all while doing the things we count on the 3-series to do well: be comfortable and balanced, change direction decisively, and in general make us happy. It will also be expensive with a capital F, but perhaps you can convince the loan manager that all that money you’ll be saving on gas will be applied to your horrifically large monthly payment.

2009 Mazda MX-5 Miata
21 mpg city/28 mpg highway

The Mazda Miata is perhaps the only modern sports cars for which outright speed isn’t a fundamental design directive. The marketplace is increasingly saturated with cars that are shockingly fast—a Toyota Camry V-6 whups the Miata in a quarter-mile battle. A V-6 Camry will not, however, give you a jones for meandering ribbons of tarmac or even feel like you’re involved with anything more than a digital transportation device.

The Miata is a proper front-engine, rear-drive simple-and-balanced driving proposition, powered by an efficient and miserly 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with just enough oomph to rotate the car on corner exit. Driving the Miata is an analog experience, and you’ll find yourself wearing a smile because driving it is fun and rewarding, rather than fast and boring, or—as is the case with many sports cars—so fast that approaching the limit invites the possibility of dark moments with bridge abutments.

2009 Mini Cooper S
26 mpg city/34 mpg highway

It’s a real shame the Mini Cooper ownership experience has been ruined by the population of tattooed art-school dropouts who wear skinny jeans and ironic eyeglasses and have claimed it as their own. Lured into dealerships by espresso, wi-fi, and conformity, they leave in numbers driving a fine machine that in turbocharged S form is just about the most ace combination of fun and fuel efficient that trust funds can buy.

Fear not, enthusiast: Roll down your windows to prove that your upper lip bears no thin mustache and you aren’t listening to electro, and pour yourself into the nearest set of mountains. A fantastic chassis, a six-speed transmission, and 192 pound-feet of torque will help you dispatch stacked hairpins with confidence; it’s this car’s poise that helped it best such machines as the Mazda Miata and Volkswagen GTI on our Lightning Lap. You can also be confident you won’t need to stop for gas on the way home, that you’ll be able to fit in a parking spot once you get there, and that cops will be too busy busting hipster-helmed Minis for coke possession to notice your imprudent velocity.

2008 Porsche Cayman
20 mpg city/29 mpg highway

The Porsche Cayman looks, moves, and is priced like a proper sports car. It does an awfully good job, however, of pretending it’s an economy-minded automobile when cruising, consuming no more fuel than such pedestrian fare as the Mitsubishi Lancer or Scion tC. Moreover, it does so with a 2.7-liter six-cylinder engine making a respectable 245 horsepower. Your 50-something grand isn’t being spent on snorting horsepower, but on the fine fit and finish expected of Stuttgart, steering with better communication skills than Bill Clinton, and chassis balance that makes the 911 feel unsorted.

If you can afford a Cayman, maybe you can afford the Cayman S; 10 grand more nets you a bigger flat-six producing another 50 horsepower and a driving experience transformed from friendly to frenzied. There’s a fuel-economy penalty of 2 mpg, but that still makes the Cayman S, which sprints to sixty in under five seconds—and into your all-time favorites instantly—as miserly as a six-cylinder Ford Fusion. Direct injection debuts in the 2009 Cayman, meaning more power and more fuel economy. For 2010, we expect the Cayman will fold our laundry as well.

2009 Chevrolet Corvette
16 mpg city/26 mpg highway

Surely a big pushrod American V-8 growling epithets through twin exhaust pipes must have a drinking habit on par with Ike Turner’s. Certainly the massive tires that help make the Corvette into a dynamic worldbeater must create all sorts of mileage-killing rolling resistance. Hell, Vette owners probably run down chipmunks for sport and do burnouts over their shallow graves while opening canisters of Freon, such is their disdain for the environment and hatred of better citizens who drive hybrid vehicles. Surely, right? One problem: The Corvette gets better highway mileage than many hybrids, including the Chevy Tahoe hybrid, Lexus GS450h, Lexus LS600hL, Lexus RX400h, and Toyota Highlander hybrid.

Chevy’s secret? Torque, 428 pound-feet of it, that, when parlayed through a sixth gear so long it could stall many a lesser engine, allows the Vette to putter along on the highway at an engine speed that would be considered a high idle on most cars. The 6.2-liter V-8 also slingshots the Corvette—in its slowest form—to 60 mph in four seconds flat, within striking range of just about any speed machine made. Maybe 26 mpg isn’t fuel efficient to Vespa jockeys, but for a car with the Vette’s speed and fun potential, it’s untouchable.