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.
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.
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.
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.