Pay to play
Marc K. Stengel, Fri, 29 Jun 2007 08:00:00 PDT
Do you want to save the world? Or are you just trying to save some money?Suddenly, it seems, these are the issues that dominate our car-shoppingsensibilities. Looking good, having fun, we've almost reached the point wherethese concerns are beside the point. To admit to a certain enjoyment of theautomotive experience is, well, selfishly non-PC according to anever-growing multitude of transportation Puritans.
And don't think the automakers haven't noticed. They're scrambling all overthemselves to come up with the right message (to say nothing of the rightproduct) that will appeal to a fussy and fickle, cynical and anxiousauto-buying public. The three sedans featured here may well represent thiscircumstance in microcosm. What'll it be? High flash; high-tech; or highvalue? This much, at least, is certain: Price tags have a unique way ofordering one's priorities.
Here's how much things have changed: What's fashionable today is startingoff with a $15,000 car like Honda's Civic, dosing it up with $8,000 worth ofsexy electric-motor technology and even adding a $2,200 GPS navigationsystem. Voila! A fashionable hybrid sedan that rates 49 mpg/city, 51mpg/highway. (The base Civic DX gets 30 mpg/city, 38 mpg/highway.) No matterhow you look at it, it's going to take a whole lotta drivin' to turn that$8,000 premium into a smart investment.
But, of course, that's not the point. Buying a hybrid isn't an investment;it's penance for the venal sin of needing to go places that are too far forwalking or bicycling, too random for riding the bus. And then, there thisdevilish, little bonus: Hybrid's are very fun to drive. With its instant-ontorque of 76 foot-pounds from an electric motor, combined with 123foot-pounds from the 1.3-liter gas engine, there are almost 200 foot-poundsavailable for sprinting from stop to stop in a vehicle weighing only 2,900pounds.
But it doesn't take long before sprinting becomes a mere memory, becauseeventually all drivers of all hybrids start using the "feedback screen" inthe dash to monitor how much energy their driving styles are making asopposed to consuming. It's positively riveting to watch how the Civic Hybridgenerates electricity while braking and gearing down, then gobbles it all upagain when starting from a stop.
But when the novelty wears off, it's still a Civic that costs about $8,000more than it needs to. So you're still paying to play; except, now, the gameseems to have changed.
Forget everything you know about Mitsubishi's recent struggle to shed itsreputation as the "limp noodle" of the automotive pantheon. The all-newLancer is an attempt to begin afresh, and the fact that Lancer shares itsarchitectural platform with the Dodge Caliber and Jeeps Compass and Patriotis a good step in the right direction.
With a punchy 152-horsepower inline-four, the Lancer is performance-orientedbut no scintillating performer. It's also loud, a circumstance that thecontinuously variable transmission (CVT) does little to dispel. Agingboomers will deplore the CVT's "slipping clutch" sensation; but in fact,that's the way it's supposed to feel. The beauty of a CVT is that itinstantly finds the powerband's "sweet spot" for the motor it's mated to andthereby maximizes engine efficiency. Still, it feels and sounds funny inpractice.
Based on newer, more onerous mileage-testing protocols for 2008 models, theLancer only manages 22 mpg/city, 29 mpg/highway. (Using 2007 methods, thosenumbers would likely be two to three mpgs higher.) Even so, the Lancer'sforte isn't frugality but flash. In GTS trim, it's all about wings andspoilers and 18-inch wheels and pizzazz. It handles reasonably well, and itlooks plenty aggressive; but it's a ton-and-a-half of sedan with four doorsand seating for five.
It's also a $14,000 car that's been dolled-up to an as-tested sticker of$20,615. The new Lancer GTS, refined as it is upon its new platform, is allabout making a fashion statement, at a time when a lot of folks now thinkthat's a bit unfashionable.
Ho, hum. That about sums up the Nissan Sentra's reputation. Unless you'veactually driven the car, that is.
For $15,615, a basic 2007 Nissan Sentra 2.0 may not be the coolest lookingcompact sedan. It's certainly not bristling with high-tech. But for themoney, it's easily the best value of the three cars featured here, and it'llgive all other rivals in the compact sedan category a run for the money.
What's more, with a six-speed manual transmission (which is rare for thisclass of car), the new Sentra is quite fun to drive. It redlines promptly,and it shifts easily. On the freeway, its 140 horsepower feels adequate,unless the car's full with five occupants. And even if 28 mpg/city and 34mpg/highway don't match Honda's numbers, Sentra is a larger and lightersedan with a bigger trunk. It is, in other words, potentially moreversatile.
What the Sentra is not, however, is gorgeous. Its silhouette is anonymous,and its base-model interior is a mixture of fuzzy felt and double-knitupholstery. But at least there's a decent, entry level audio system with CDand iPod jack. And for a car of this size and price range, the new Sentradoes a remarkably good job of keeping the cockpit quiet from wind and roadnoise.
Buying an entry-level Sentra means not having to pay to look racy. It meansnot having to pay for exotic, hybrid technology whose economics are stillquestionable. It does, however, mean paying yourself dividends in terms ofvalue and versatility that are surprisingly often underestimated.