Marc K. Stengel, Wed, 31 Jan 2007 08:00:00 PDT
Fans of the "rocumentary" movie-spoof This is Spinal Tap will understand the concept right away: If the maximum on your dial only reaches 10, then the 11 on my dial must mean mine's better. That illustrates the operative principle behind the plethora of "sports" packages that proliferate among auto offerings of every stripe. Sure, there are folks who will settle for the "10" of a base model; but for a discriminating few, the "sport" model is one click of the dial better.
Maybe so; maybe not. It all depends upon the wants and whims of the driver. But you can count on this much: Sport packages are premium profit opportunities for the automakers, who use the seductions of added performance and limited availability to distract buyers from the surcharges required to pay for the privilege. This is not to say that a little extra sportiness can't be fun, as drivers of the following three models can surely attest. But when that shiny, limited-edition model beckons, "Hey, Sport!" make sure you aren't paying for it with chump change.
Acura's got it all figured out. The five-passenger TL sedan, already a canny blend of technical sophistication and value pricing, provides Acura with the perfect canvas for showing how a "sports package" ought to look. In the specific instance of the model tested here, a steel blue TL showed up with dusky "grey chrome" alloy wheels and racy brake calipers peeking out from behind spidery spokes. You'd have to be a confirmed and militant pedestrian not to succumb to this car's whiles.
It's the look that gets you, of course, not the mealy-mouthful of a name: "TL Type-S" sounds about as sexy as gargling. But at least the name means something. In Type-S trim, Acura's popular mid-size sedan gains 28 extra horsepower from a 0.3-liter increase in engine displacement. The resulting 286 hp and 256 foot-pounds of torque light a spark under this 3,500-pound sedan. Acceleration is brisk, and the engine sings. But the uninitiated need to remember to hold on. Like all Honda-derived motors, this 3.5-liter V6 is a high-revver, and power climaxes where many unsuspecting motorists fear to tread.
A six-speed manual gearbox is another extra-sporty cue. It's as crisp as any racing shifter-another Honda/Acura trait-but it's not always precise. Wedging into third, between first and fifth, often requires a stutter-step. This can be distracting, to say the least, when you're really "doggin' it" in the twisties.
Compared to a base-model Acura TL, the Type-S featured here boasts a $5,000 surcharge for the extra power and a raft of audio and comfort features. Is it worth it? Only your wallet knows for sure; but O! What a hot looking car.
Up to this point in its history, Saturn has succeeded in revolutionizing the automobile only by producing models that are no fun to drive. So it's pleasing beyond measure to drive the new Aura XR mid-size sedan and declare...Wow!
This is an all-new kind of Saturn only insofar as it's a car unabashedly plagiarized from General Motors' German unit, Opel. Specifically, Saturn Aura is Opel Vectra with different badging; and, for once, the Euro pedigree comes through unadulterated by any North American fingerprints.
Aura is refined, powerful, attractive, athletic-everything, in short, that Saturns have traditionally not been. In sporty "XR" trim, Aura earns a twin-cam 3.6-liter V6 whose 252-hp output betters the 3.5-liter base model by 28 horses. There's even a six-speed automatic transmission that deftly slices the powerband into seamless gear shifts. And Opel-um, Saturn-pulls this off at a price some $12,000 less than the aforementioned Acura TL Type-S.
That's enough to earn the Aura XR a WIDA Index rating of 34.3 to the Acura's 28.6, chiefly because the Saturn offers comparable torque, passenger room and fuel mileage, but doesn't require premium fuel. And, Aura's trunk is 15 percent bigger than the TL's.
But compared to a base model Aura, the XR version featured here is a whopping $7,000 more expensive, as-tested. That's some surcharge for 28 extra ponies, leather seats, sunroof and satellite radio. Here's another way to look at it, though: Saturn has wandered the wilderness for so long, why not celebrate a little now that Aura has seen the light of day?
Is it even fair to talk about the plodding DTS Clydesdale in the same context as Acura's and Saturn's spunky Quarter horses? Certainly so, if the issue concerns "sport packages"-or, as Cadillac calls it in the case of its full-size DTS sedan, a "performance package."
For an additional $12,000 over the base-model DTS, Cadillac's DTS Performance sedan features the same 4.6-liter "Northstar" V8, the same behind-the-times four-speed automatic and the same uninspired fuel economy found in the base version. Suspension tweaks stiffen handling a bit, but the combination of 292 robust horsepower with two tons of steel and rubber are hard to tame in anything other than a nautical sort of way. Cadillac's DTS is a floater, but at least it's a "performance" floater.
And it truly does have charms that its WIDA Index rating of 22.0 doesn't readily acknowledge. For one thing, the cockpit is huge and chock-full of the latest comfort, convenience and entertainment gadgets. And unlike their German counterparts, they're all easy to use! If you want satellite radio, one touch gets you there. Air-conditioned seats? One touch. Navigation directions? Well, a bit more than one touch, but at least no manual is required.
In the DTS, you don't so much drive it as loll around in it-while your luggage, by the way, lolls around in its own cavernous 19-cubic-foot trunk. This may not be a particularly athletic driving style; but it's one heck of a way to travel, sport.
4-door sedan, 5-pass.; 3.5-liter SOHC V6 w/ vvt; FWD, 6-sp. manual; 286 hp/256 ft.-lbs.; 20 mpg/city, 29 mpg/highway w/ premium; trunk: 13 cu. ft.; std. equip.: 4-wheel ABS disk brakes & ind. suspension, 17-in. wheels, front/side/head airbags; base price: $38,125; as-tested $38,795; WIDA Index: 28.6
4-door sedan, 5-pass.; 3.6-liter DOHC V6 w/ vvt; FWD, 6-sp. auto; 252 hp/251 ft.-lbs.; 20 mpg/city, 28 mpg/highway w/ regular; trunk: 15 cu. ft.; std. equip.: 4-wheel ABS disk brakes & ind. suspension, 18-in. wheels, front/side/head airbags; base price: $23,945; as-tested $26,919; WIDA Index: 34.3
4-door sedan, 5-pass.; 4.6-liter DOHC "Northstar" V8; FWD, 4-sp. auto; 292 hp/288 ft.-lbs.; 17 mpg/city, 24 mpg/highway w/ regular; trunk: 19 cu. ft.; std. equip.: 4-wheel ABS disk brakes & ind. suspension, 18-in. wheels, front/side/head airbags; base price: $48,540; as-tested $53,300; WIDA Index: 22.0