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-shopping
sensibilities. Looking good, having fun, we've almost reached the point where
these concerns are beside the point. To admit to a certain enjoyment of the
automotive experience is, well, selfishly non-PC according to an
ever-growing multitude of transportation Puritans.
And don't think the automakers haven't noticed. They're scrambling all over
themselves to come up with the right message (to say nothing of the right
product) that will appeal to a fussy and fickle, cynical and anxious
auto-buying public. The three sedans featured here may well represent this
circumstance in microcosm. What'll it be? High flash; high-tech; or high
value? This much, at least, is certain: Price tags have a unique way of
ordering one's priorities.
Here's how much things have changed: What's fashionable today is starting
off with a $15,000 car like Honda's Civic, dosing it up with $8,000 worth of
sexy electric-motor technology and even adding a $2,200 GPS navigation
system. Voila! A fashionable hybrid sedan that rates 49 mpg/city, 51
mpg/highway. (The base Civic DX gets 30 mpg/city, 38 mpg/highway.) No matter
how 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 for
walking or bicycling, too random for riding the bus. And then, there this
devilish, little bonus: Hybrid's are very fun to drive. With its instant-on
torque of 76 foot-pounds from an electric motor, combined with 123
foot-pounds from the 1.3-liter gas engine, there are almost 200 foot-pounds
available for sprinting from stop to stop in a vehicle weighing only 2,900
But it doesn't take long before sprinting becomes a mere memory, because
eventually all drivers of all hybrids start using the "feedback screen" in
the dash to monitor how much energy their driving styles are making as
opposed to consuming. It's positively riveting to watch how the Civic Hybrid
generates electricity while braking and gearing down, then gobbles it all up
again when starting from a stop.
But when the novelty wears off, it's still a Civic that costs about $8,000
more than it needs to. So you're still paying to play; except, now, the game
seems to have changed.
Forget everything you know about Mitsubishi's recent struggle to shed its
reputation as the "limp noodle" of the automotive pantheon. The all-new
Lancer is an attempt to begin afresh, and the fact that Lancer shares its
architectural platform with the Dodge Caliber and Jeeps Compass and Patriot
is a good step in the right direction.
With a punchy 152-horsepower inline-four, the Lancer is performance-oriented
but no scintillating performer. It's also loud, a circumstance that the
continuously variable transmission (CVT) does little to dispel. Aging
boomers 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 it
instantly finds the powerband's "sweet spot" for the motor it's mated to and
thereby maximizes engine efficiency. Still, it feels and sounds funny in
Based on newer, more onerous mileage-testing protocols for 2008 models, the
Lancer only manages 22 mpg/city, 29 mpg/highway. (Using 2007 methods, those
numbers would likely be two to three mpgs higher.) Even so, the Lancer's
forte isn't frugality but flash. In GTS trim, it's all about wings and
spoilers and 18-inch wheels and pizzazz. It handles reasonably well, and it
looks plenty aggressive; but it's a ton-and-a-half of sedan with four doors
and 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 all
about making a fashion statement, at a time when a lot of folks now think
that's a bit unfashionable.
Ho, hum. That about sums up the Nissan Sentra's reputation. Unless you've
actually driven the car, that is.
For $15,615, a basic 2007 Nissan Sentra 2.0 may not be the coolest looking
compact sedan. It's certainly not bristling with high-tech. But for the
money, it's easily the best value of the three cars featured here, and it'll
give 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 this
class 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 34
mpg/highway don't match Honda's numbers, Sentra is a larger and lighter
sedan with a bigger trunk. It is, in other words, potentially more
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-knit
upholstery. But at least there's a decent, entry level audio system with CD
and iPod jack. And for a car of this size and price range, the new Sentra
does a remarkably good job of keeping the cockpit quiet from wind and road
Buying an entry-level Sentra means not having to pay to look racy. It means
not having to pay for exotic, hybrid technology whose economics are still
questionable. It does, however, mean paying yourself dividends in terms of
value and versatility that are surprisingly often underestimated.