I coulda had a V8

2009, Kia, Borrego LX V8

What a bummer! Why didn't somebody tell me that prices of $5 a gallon for gas and $150 a barrel for crude might not last forever? Here I went and bought a sardine-tin of a car this summer that scarcely has room enough for the two hamsters powering the thing by treadmill, while my rambunctious family of five have to sit in each other's laps. Now gas is heading for three bucks and change while crude is approaching $100 a 30 percent drop. Man! And to think think: I coulda had a V8.

It was all the Kia folks could do not to wince at this summer's media launch of their new seven-seater Borrego SUV, available with both a V6 and a V8. "It's a new category for us," they'd say; "so anything we sell is a net positive." The eternal optimism of spin is what keeps the planets in their respective orbits, I suppose.

But here's the honest truth: the new Borrego SUV is a classy, refined vehicle that's a far cry from Kia's econocar reputation of yore. It is arguably the nicest and most sophisticated Kia yet made; and even in these days of fuelish uncertainty, the Borrego price range of from $26,245 to $32,995 gives Detroit's Big Three yet another reason to wish the Koreans would just mind their own business over yonder in Asia.

Interior refinements combined with supple V8 power and a choice of rear- or all-wheel-drive represent the heart of this Kia's cachet. Let's face it: large active families can easily justify a seven-seater SUV; and a tow rating of 7,500 pounds is more than ample for the sort of ultra-light RV trailer that can transform family vacations.

Mated to its six-speed automatic transmission (which Kia shares with BMW's X5), Borrego's new 337-horsepower V8 pulls smoothly and confidently at highway speeds. Surprisingly, moreover, its highway mileage bests that of its 276-hp V6 sibling (15 mpg/city, 22 mpg/highway for the V8; 17/21 for the V6).

Inside, cabin appointments are entirely upscale, featuring center-row seats that slide and recline and third-row seats even adults can tolerate.

Present timing may not be auspicious for a V8 SUV, but Kia thinks its compact and capable Borrego still has a role to play for large, active families. With its conspicuous attentions to quality construction and efficient power, Borrego has plenty to brag about indeed.

In some quarters these days, you'd think driving a pickup truck were the moral equivalent of blowing second-hand cigar smoke into your dear mother's face. Until you need a landscaper, plumber, carpenter, mason or any other kind of tradesman for whom hauling and towing are essential career descriptions.

Let's face it: Pickup trucks aren't going anywhere, so why not insist upon the most functional, efficient pickups to keep our economy humming. Certainly that's what Dodge has in mind with the recent debut of its all-new Ram pickup. Available in a variety of regular, quad- and crew-cab models at prices ranging from $21,270 to $43,240, the new Ram trucks also boast three different powertrains a 3.7-liter, 215-hp V6; a 4.7-liter, 310-hp V8 and a new fuel-efficient 5.7-liter, 390-hp Hemi V8.

For $31,630, the Ram 4.7-liter SLT Crew Cab model provides seating for six in a noticeably plush, car-like interior. But it's two important exterior innovations that are truly revolutionary. With a rear suspension incorporating coil springs instead of traditional leaf springs dating to the 19th century, the new Ram rides equally comfortably and securely whether the cargo bed is empty or full.

And then, with its optional and exclusive RamBox cargo system, Dodge's newest truck sports a pair of lockable 7.5 cubic-foot "saddle bags" over each wheel well. In addition, a moveable partition stored at the front of the cargo bed can be deployed to manage box space or even to extend it out over the tailgate thanks to folding armatures. Inside, there are provisions for under-floor storage with removable drain caps to accommodate either wet or dry cargo.

America will never be without pickup trucks, but the new Dodge Ram bears witness that efficiency and creativity are as important to a work truck these days as to a family sedan.

Why are all the finest pleasures guilty ones? More to the point, why does the seductive, powerful and fast new Dodge Challenger have to debut now, in the midst of a Puritan guilt-feast of fuel-consumption scorn?

When Dodge promised to bring back the classic muscle car, no one was holding their breath; but now that the graceful-yet-surly looking Challenger has arrived, no one can catch their breath. This is a car that exudes all of the glory of Dodge's hot-rod heyday. And can you believe it! the new Challenger not only accelerates like Hemis of yesteryear but also corners and stops in ways its '60s-era forebears could only pretend to do.

The 21st-century Challenger is available with three different powertrains: a 3.5-liter, 250-hp V6 ($21,995); a 5.7-liter, 372-hp Hemi V8 ($29,995); and a 6.1-liter, 425-hp Hemi V8 ($39,995). In middle-of-the-pack R/T trim, Challenger represents a thoroughly enjoyable, thoroughly domesticated five-seater that's equally adept at storming the backroads and running the carpool. For all its retro-looking instruments and controls, Challenger boasts a fully modern interior featuring six airbags, "opera lighting" nighttime accents, MP3 and Bluetooth connectivity and keyless ignition. Forty years ago, these were surely the stuff of science fiction.

But there's nothing make-believe about this modern muscle car that sprints zero-to-60 in 5.5 seconds and hits the quarter-mile in 14 flat. Meantime, its 5.7-liter Hemi is posting mileage ratings of 15 mpg/city, 23 mpg/highway. You'll raise eyebrows when you say it these days, but go ahead and have some naughty fun anyway: "Make mine a V8 with a splash of Challenger shaken and stirred, if you don't mind."

By Marc Stengel

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Images of the 2009, Kia Borrego LX V8

2009 Kia Borrego LX V8 front view
2009 Kia Borrego LX V8 front view
2009 Kia Borrego LX V8 rear shot
2009 Kia Borrego LX V8 rear shot
2009 Dodge Ram 1500 Crew Cab front view
2009 Dodge Ram 1500 Crew Cab front view
2009 Dodge Challenger R/T front shot
2009 Dodge Challenger R/T front shot