Turbo tributes & tribulations
Marc K. Stengel, Thu, 26 Jul 2007 08:00:00 PDT
In case you haven't noticed, our transportation choices have become a bag ofmixed greens. There are hybrids for the credulous; electric motors and fuelcells for the futurists; and diesels for the realists. Lost within this menuis "turbocharging." Once the preserve of hot-rodders hoping to goose morepower from pint-sized powerplants, turbocharging has been undergoing a quietevolution into an eco-option. The idea is that those same pint-sizedpowerplants can be made to feel like gallon-sized ones while improvingefficiency and conserving fuel.
In principle, turbocharging is elegant and effective. The engine's exhaustpressure is used to power a small turbine that, in turn, compresses intakefuel-and-air for a bigger bang that then powers increased exhaustpressure, and so on and so forth. It's a virtuous cycle, and it really works.
Depending on your temperament, turbocharging may in fact work too well.Turbo motors are often nervous, skittish thoroughbreds. They're either offor on; at full stop or at full gallop. Turbo motoring is fun; but if you'renot in a fun-loving mood, turbo-motoring won't meet you halfway. That's when"fun" begins to feel like a prickly pear in the pants. But you can at leastconsole yourself with all the great fuel economy you're achieving.
If turbocharging is relatively unnoticed as a "green" technology, theMazdaSpeed3 is relatively unnoticed among turbocharged vehicles. Of thethree models evaluated here, this super-sporty five-door wagon offers thebest combination of performance, road manners and practicality. And it's theleast expensive of the lot.
The secret lies with two simple considerations: power and weight. Mazda's2.3-liter turbo inline-four uses a twin-cam design and variable valve timingto produce 263 horsepower and an astonishing 280 foot-pounds of torque. Witha curb-weight almost 200 pounds lighter than the Saab 9-3 SportCombi or VWJetta GLI, the MazdaSpeed3 is a rocket. Torque reaches its maximum atrelatively higher rpms, but there's so much of it that skittishness is mutedand turbo-lag while commuting is almost non-existant.
What's more, this Mazda sport wagon is fun to drive. The cockpit isdriver-oriented and very European. It's a true five-seater, and the wagondesign affords decent headroom for adults sitting in back. Cargo space of 16cubic feet is analogous to that of a full-size sedan, yet it expands toabout 30 cubes with rear seatbacks folded.
Six airbags and 18-inch wheels are standard, along with sporty bodywork, fora base price of $23,995. An optional nav system brings the as-tested priceup to $26,300. But this is a car that's going places, so paying extra fornavigation might well be worth it.
Here's the lowdown on Saab's 9-3 turbo sport-wagon, or SportCombi inSwedish: It's big and roomy. And heavy. And slow. Sometimes even scary, asyou discover when you say, "Giddyup!" and ol' SportCombi decides to play"One-potato, two-potato" before deciding to get out of its own way. Withthis turbo-wagon, you need to plan your on-ramp accelerations with aDay-Timer.
The fault, and it is indeed a fault, lies with the 2.0-liter turbo-four. Thereare twin cams, but only 210 horsepower and 221 foot-pounds dedicated tobringing 3,320 pounds of car up to speed. Perhaps it's a lack of variablevalve timing; but for whatever reason, turbo lag is frustratingly apparent.As a result, the 22 mpg/city, 30 mpg/highway fuel rating has all the allureof a false economy.
Inside, the SportCombi is roomiest and most versatile of the three turbosevaluated here. In addition to seating five, it will package cargo within anSUV-like range of from 30 to 72 cubic feet. Safety is a strong suit forSaab, of course, and ABS brakes and six airbags come standard. So do 16-inchwheels, which combine with Saab's distinctive, unusual styling to render theSportCombi's exterior rather eccentric. Base price is $27,495, which growsrather lofty after adding goodies like a moonroof, 17-inch wheels andothers. Price as-tested then rises to $32,510. That's asking a lot,literally, for a vehicle that suggests tepid performance is more than offsetby moderate improvements in fuel economy.
Volkswagen's Jetta GLI Fahrenheit is an exercise in flagrancy. There's theall-yellow-all-the-time paint scheme, for starters. And it isn't justrestricted to the interior. There are chrome-yellow accents fleckedthroughout the interior of the Fahrenheit, as well.
And then there's the performance. But, wait a minute! Here's another2.0-liter turbo, as in the Saab, but it only makes 200 hp and 207foot-pounds of torque. And the Jetta's 25 pounds heavier than theSportCombi, to boot. But look: maximum torque appears at a low-low 1,800rpm. And that means, when you tip the accelerator even a little bit, you'reunderway like a sprinter off the blocks. Where the Saab is glacial, theFahrenheit is volcanic, hence, one must assume, the name.
Fuel economy is the best of the three reviewed here, at 25 mpg/city, 32mpg/highway. Of course all three models require premium fuel, which is ahidden "turbo tax," so to speak. Jetta's interior is satisfyingly Teutonic,with a great layout for instruments and controls, and firm but comfortableseating. But in more ways than one, this unmellow yellow Fahrenheit is akids' car. It's not just the paint-scheme. It's also the fact that thesloping rear roof line transforms any tall, rear-seated adult intoQuasimodo. Of all three five-seaters described here, this one seems leastversatile for hauling five grownups about town. Better, perhaps, to fold therear seatbacks and expand the 16-cubic-foot trunk.
At $29,970, as-tested, the VW Fahrenheit slides in just under the magic"$30K" threshold. But that's still a whole lotta hard-earned green to askfor so much frisky yellow.