Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution Review

If you've seen my photo, you know that my boy racer days are (or should be, anyway) long over.

So imagine my surprise when, on my way to pick up my daughter from ballet, a car pulls up next to me at a stoplight and starts revving like crazy. I glance over and there are two teenage boys...in an older Mitsubishi Evolution...drooling over the new one I'm driving.

I roll down the window.

"Hey, dude! Nice car!"

(I'm still trying to figure out which would have been worse..."dude" or "sir".)

I say "Thanks, yours too.", roll up the window and accelerate normally when the light turns green. This mystifies the boys who roar ahead and fall back, finally timing things so we end up side-by-side at a stoplight about a mile further up the road. I roll down the window again.

"So, dude...wanna race?"

"No, thanks."

"But, dude! It's an EVO!"

Had the light not turned green at that very second, I probably would have gone all Ward Cleaver on them and stuff (oh, no...teenspeak is catching), explaining that flooring a lightweight car with 300 horsepower can have serious consequences as regards public safety, insurance and the privilege to hold a valid driver's license. I could even have explained that the Evo isn't a drag racer, it's a purpose-built rally car...

Look, this car is crazy fast. One-eighth throttle induces an involuntary "whoa!" the first time you do it. More than that and there are G-forces at work. This is the car that makes me glad I'm not in my 20s anymore because I'd probably be dead before I could post the review.

What impresses me most is what Mitsubishi did to transform the basic Lancer into the fire-breathing Evolution. It goes beyond a hot engine and stiff suspension. There's a brace built behind the rear seat to control (maybe eliminate is the better term) body flex. The Recaro racing seats are nothing short of awesome. And everything feels like it's been upgraded about seven classes from what you'd find in a stock Lancer.

Yes, there's a price for this kind of serious machinery...$38,290 base (a $2,000 Rockford Fosgate 650 watt audio system sent the test vehicle to a $41,740 bottom line). More than double a Lancer's sticker. If this is your type of car, then I can't imagine one better. Just be careful, okay?

Nissan Altima Hybrid Review

In the past decade or so, I've probably driven 20 or more hybrids...ten of them Toyota Priuses. But the Nissan Altima Hybrid is the only one where someone stopped me...in traffic...wanting to talk about it.

We were at a stoplight and he and his wife motioned furiously for me to roll down the window. I thought maybe I had a flat...or a fire. Nope. They noticed the rather discreet "hybrid" badge on the trunk. It was a short red light, so a short conversation.

Until the next red light...when he had more questions. It took two more stoplights (by then I'd just left the window down) for him to get to the big question:

"What kinda mileage you getting?"

I blew his mind. I told him the truth. 35 in the city.

I think he may have driven straight to the nearest Nissan dealer. If I were in the market, I might do the same thing. The Altima Hybrid is the lowest-hype, least-gimmicky hybrid out there. If there wasn't a badge on the trunk and a discreet energy management display, you'd think you were driving a regular Altima sedan.

The window sticker showed an EPA estimated 35 city/33 highway. So I figured I might get 30 or 32 if I babied it. And then, because the car is so...normal...I drove it like any other car (yes, I play a Prius like a video game, trying to squeeze the mpg number ever higher).

Son of a gun. It got 35. And I wasn't being careful.

For most people, an Altima is about the right size for a sedan...so the hybrid option makes a ton of sense...improving the gasoline version's mileage by 35%...and at a reasonable price.

The sticker starts at $25,070. Loaded with leather, heated power seats, Bluetooth, A Bose 9-speaker AM/FM/XM/6-CD/mp3 audio system, rear passenger air conditioning vents and more, the bottom line was $30,375.

Yes, it's more expensive than the gasoline version comparably equipped...but not a lot more. And it's in line with prices for a well-equipped sedan. And you can spend that much on a loaded Prius, which is a much smaller car. Nissan's hit a serious bulls-eye here. Let's hope people (like that guy in traffic) notice.


Jaguar XF/Jaguar XF Supercharged Review

As a single finger touches the button on the console, the eye is drawn to motions in the cabin...the instrument cluster lights up...the air conditioning vents in the dashboard rotate into open position and a round knob glides upward from the console where it had previously been flush with the surface.

That's the first five seconds inside the new Jaguar XF. And it's meant to send the message that, nice as it was, the English gentleman's club era is over at Jaguar. No more cars meant to evoke the 50s and 60s (or reruns of Inspector Morse on PBS).

The exterior of the XF (which replaces the S-Type) sends the same message. Leaping cat hood ornament? Gone. Round headlights and driving lights surrounding an upright radiator? History. After being accused of going way too subtle in the redesigns of the XJ and XK, Jaguar's thrown away the rules on this one. There simply never has been a Jaguar that looks like this or that embraced current technology in the cabin the way the XF does.

My first impression was that Jaguar has built their version of a Lexus, but after a second tour in the XF (this time the 420-horsepower Supercharged model), I realize that's not accurate. It's a contemporary luxury sedan that reveals the Jaguar DNA in the driving experience.

Start with the XF in its standard form. 300 horsepower is more than adequate for excellent perofrmance...and economy is enhanced by a 6-speed automatic transmission...EPA estimates 16 city, 25 highway miles per gallon. Our tester had zero options. Zero. 19 inch wheels? Standard. Paddle-shifter? Standard. 320 watt Alpine audio system? Standard. DVD nav system? Standard. And a whole bunch more at a base price of $55,200. With transportation and handling charges, the bottom line was $55,975. And the experience was that of a much more expensive car.

And then there's the Supercharged...adding 120 horsepower to the mix, it's like driving a business jet. Takeoff speeds are attainable and it's only gravity and engineering that keep it from happening. Our tester also had the incredible Bowers & Wilkins Audio system. 14 speakers...with 440 watts of Dolby Pro Logic 7.1 channel surround sound. It's incredible, pure and simple. With Audi charging north of $6,000 for its Bang & Olufsen audio system, I braced myself for the bottom line on the Supercharged.

Are you ready?

$62,000...including the Bowers & Wilkins system.

Either way you go, you can't go wrong...but if $6,000 buys you the step up to the Supercharged, that's a major deal.

The XFR? 40 horsepower and $18,000 more than the Supercharged.

What can you say about that?

Ladies and Gentlemen, Jeremy Clarkson of Top Gear:

Saturn Astra XR Review

Small cars needn't be cheap. Not as in price tag, but as in materials and craftsmanship. Unfortunately, there's a history in this country of domestic automakers not doing their best work on small cars and of foreign automakers "Americanizing" the products they sell here (the low point of which had to have been the 1978 VW Rabbit and its color-keyed "Americans like this stuff" interior).

GM should be applauded for what it's done with the Saturn Astra. It has taken the car known as the Opel Astra in Germany, put it on a boat and shipped it to the States. Period. Yes, that means you actually have to read the owner's manual to find out what the symbols on the controls represent. But it also means that the controls haven't been switched out for cheaper plastics, that the suspension pieces haven't been traded for ones giving a softer ride at the expense of control and that stuff the Europeans get standard can't be made optional.

The Astra is exceptionally well-equipped. The 5-door XR comes with a 1.8 liter 16-valve four cylinder engine and a 5-speed manual, four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, remote keyless entry, tire pressure monitor, a theft deterrent system, air conditioning, cruise control, power windows, power door locks, a seven-speaker AM/FM/CD/mp3 audio system and 16 inch alloy wheels. The 3-door comes with all that, but with 17 inch alloy wheels.

You don't get something for nothing, of course, so the base price is where some of the competition reaches the bottom line...$16,925 for the 5-door and $17,875 for the 3-door. But stop there, with the cars as equipped, and you're about even. Our testers had upgraded sound systems, automatic transmissions and sunroofs added...the 3-door got a leather interior. If it was our money, we'd pass on all that (okay, we might spring the $595 for the Advanced Audio Package).

No, the Astra's not a pavement-burner with that 1.8 liter four...but it's more than adequate...and the EPA says both the 3-door and the 5-door will get 24 miles per gallon in the city and 30 on the highway. And they both feel like they're carved out of solid blocks of steel. German engineering and all that. GM deserves to be rewarded for leaving well enough alone with the Astra. Hopefully, hundreds of thousands of customers will do just that.


Mercedes-Benz ML 320 BlueTec Review

Noise? No.

Smell? No.

Slow acceleration? No.

Trouble passing emissions? No.

Must not be a diesel, right? Think again. Mercedes-Benz new BlueTec has done what a lot of people said was impossible just a few short years ago...passed tough new emissions testing in all 50 states without substantial and expensive reformulation of diesel fuel.

How clean is it? Well, I stood by the tailpipe of our idling ML320 test car last week and couldn't detect a trace of diesel smell.

Those tough regulations have kept many diesels off the U.S. market for the past few years. A shame, too, since diesels have huge benefits including great fuel economy and long engine life.

If you've avoided diesels like the plague since the dark days of the 1980s, when smell, slug-like 0-60 times and (in the case of GM diesels) questionable reliability were the norm, the ML320 BlueTec would be a perfect introduction to the state of the art. First, there's no waiting for the glow plugs to heat up to start (that one's been gone for a decade or more), neither the inside nor the outside of the ML320 BlueTec smells like a city bus pulling away from a stop, it doesn't clatter like diesels used to and it performs much like a gasoline-powered engine...but with multiples of torque and miles per gallon.

A gasoline-powered ML320 is probably a 16-mile per gallon vehicle in the city. The BlueTec version we tested did 23 and a half. The trip computer showed 550 miles range when we started...and it actually crept close to 600 on the freeway. Yes, diesel fuel costs more than gasoline these days, but the difference in economy tips the scale in the BlueTec's favor.

And then there's longevity. Mercedes' gasoline engines are well-engineered...200,000 miles with proper maintenance should be no sweat. A Mercedes diesel? 400,000 or 500,000 is more like it. And there are million-mile examples out there.

If you're shopping for a luxury mid-size SUV but want clean air, better mileage and a long-term payoff on your investment, the ML320 BlueTec makes a very strong case for itself.

Ford Focus Coupe Review

Just in time for rising gas prices (and tightening consumer credit), Ford has freshened the Focus Coupe.

This is a great time to have a competitive product for under $20,000 (under $18,000 is even better)...and the Focus, decently equipped, can slot in around $17,000. For that, you get a roomy (by subcompact standards) coupe with better-than-decent performance and very good fuel economy. We'd pass on the trick lighting that can make the footwells and the cupholders light up in seven different colors...but we'd definitely keep the SYNC audio system that allows you to hook up your iPod or other digital music device and then control it by voice.

We're still not getting the truly great stuff...the European Focus...but the U.S. version is way better than a lot of reviews from journalists ticked because we don't have the Euro-spec version yet would have you believe.


Ford Mustang Bullitt Review

(Note: This is a 2009 model. Read the review of the new 2010 Mustang GT here.)

If, in 1968, Ford had introduced a car that looked like the 1928 Model A, there would have been more stockholders selling shares than dealers selling cars. But pop culture is a funny thing...and a 40 year flashback can work...as long as it's the right 40 years.

The Ford Mustang Bullitt is a car that trades on two images...one, of a car...and two, of the man who drove it: Steve McQueen.

The 60s were full of cool cars on TV and in the movies, but you don't see Dodge trying to rush a Dodge Dart GTS Mannix edition to market, do you? Steve McQueen was beyond cool (for the record, I like Mike Connors, too).

If you haven't seen the movie Bullitt (is that possible?), buy it. McQueen is Frank Bullitt, a San Francisco cop and it's a good story, but the movie is best known for a 7-minute chase scene featuring McQueen at the wheel of his Highland Green Mustang GT (with decidedly non-stock wheels, blackout grille and a lack of badging) and a couple of murderous thugs with a '68 Dodge Charger.

Despite some continuity errors (the Charger loses six hubcaps and that green VW bug is everywhere), it's widely regarded as one of the best, if not in fact the best movie chase scene ever. See it once and it's burned into your brain.

But even before the big scene, McQueen and the Mustang peg the cool-meter. There's just something that says...yeah, he'd drive that car. And he's so cool, we'd all like to have it rub off on us.

Ford tried a Bullitt edition a few years ago, before Mustang's re-design...and it didn't really work. But now that Mustang looks like a Mustang again, the effect is dead-on. It's achieved by taking a Mustang GT Premium coupe (base price $27,020) and adding the Bullitt Package (interior revisions including a 60s-era Ford font on the gauges, 3.73 limited slip axle, 18" wheels that look like the movie car's mags, and packed exhaust tips for $3,310).

In reality, you get a better car than McQueen drove. This one's faster, can actually go in directions other than a straight line, and comes with the killer Shaker 500 audio system, including AM/FM and an mp3 capable 6-disc CD changer. Our tester also had Sirius Satellite radio. Steve was stuck with just AM (though KFRC and KSFO in 1968 weren't exactly punishment).

And you'll get way better mileage, even if you drive it like Steve...the EPA says 15 city, 23 highway. All for a price of $34,705 as tested. So, go buy the movie and then go test drive one of these...and then tell me with a straight face you're not at least tempted.

Toyota Prius Review

Once strange, the shape of the second-generation Toyota Prius hybrid is now instantly familiar...the Beetle of the new milennium. Given how many have been sold and are on the street, it's hard to remember that Toyota was taking a big chance a few years ago with a radical design. In fact, they were. In 2004, they sold 54,000 of them. Last year, it was 181,000...with 190,000 expected to leave dealer lots in calendar 2008.

Sales figures aren't the only thing that has grown on the Prius...so have sales prices. The 2004 model was a loss leader at $20,000 base...and most buyers kept it simple. The Prius we drove recently started at $23,770 and got the $5,925 Touring package. That's leather-trimmed seats and steering wheel, voice activated DVD GPS navigation, a 9-speaker JBL audio system with AM, FM and a 6-CD changer with mp3 and WMA capability, satellite radio capability (though not an actual XM subscription), Bluetooth hands-free phone capability (again, it's prep, not the actual system), vehicle stability control, backup camera and more.

Bottom line: (insert drum roll here): $30,554. Now, that was helped by an Extra Value Package discount of $1,750...dropping the final price to $28,804, but there's still an element of sticker shock in knowing that this car can now break 30 grand.

Beyond that, it's the same as it ever was...roomy beyond its exterior dimensions, extremely safe (four-star frontal, rollover and rear seat side crash ratings, five stars for front-seat side crashes), and very economical. The EPA's new methodology for estimating fuel economy gets the Prius down from its original pie-in-the-sky 60 MPG to a much more achievable 48 city/45 highway.

If you like this Prius, now's the time to buy. The third-generation arrives sometime next year as a 2010 model. Early photos suggest it will look the same, but different...and price creep is inevitable.


Infiniti M35 Review

Some guys like convertibles. Some like coupes. I like 'em all, but I have a strong appreciation for sedans. Not only do you get practicality, you also get the most structural rigidity...which translates into security, handling and feedback.

Infiniti's M35 is a jewel, pure and simple. After 15 years of an automotive identity crisis, Nissan's upscale division has found its place in life the past 5 years or so...making Acura salesmen work harder. A silky smooth 275-horsepower 3.5 liter V6 with a five-speed automatic move the M35 with authority...and still deliver 16 city MPG and 23 highway, according to the EPA.

If you bought one without options, it would cost $43,050 and you'd be getting an exceptionally well-equipped car. But step up to the option list and the car gets better. $1,650 buys a sport package with rear active steering, a sport-tuned suspension, alumnium trim and 19 inch wheels. The Technology Package is $3,350 and stirs in a Hard Drive Navigation System with touchscreen, a lane guidance system to tell you when you're drifting over the lines on the pavement, XM NavTraffic (providing real-time traffic information on the nav screen), a rear view camera, voice recognition, an interface system for iPod and a 9.3 gigabyte hard drive for storing your favorite music.

Total price: $48,765. Read the sticker first and maybe you'll say "ouch." Drive the car and you'll be figuring out your loan payments within minutes.

Volvo XC70 Review

Timing is everything. Eight or nine years ago, Volvo took their V70 station wagon, added all-wheel drive and called it the "Cross Country". Sales were modest.

So about five years ago, Volvo whipped up a bigger crossover SUV on the S80 sedan platform and called it the XC90. Sales were much stronger, thank you.

Now, though, fluctuating gas prices have a lot of drivers thinking bigger is not necessarily better. Just in time, Volvo brings us...the Cross Country...but now it's called the XC70.

Frankly, it's a great move...bolstering a strong product with an association to the popular XC90. The XC70 is everything a Volvo wagon should be...strong, safe, rugged...and stylish inside. They haven't caught Audi yet, but Volvo interiors are among the best in the business.

Lower to the ground and lighter in weight, the XC70 handles better than the XC90 and gets better gas mileage, too (the EPA says 15 city, 22 highway). $36,775 is the base price. Our tester added metallic paint, a premium 12-speaker, Dolby ProLogic II surround sound system with AM, FM, CD and Sirius satellite radio, a Premium Package with a moonroof, leather, real wood inlays, a cold climate pakcage and alloy wheels, driving the bottom line up to $44,065.

Cheap? Only in comparison to a similarly loaded XC90 or other vehicle in its class. But if you don't need the extra weight and bulk of the XC90...the XC70 seems just right.


Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid Review

Would a 38 percent increase in fuel economy put a full-size SUV back on your shopping list? Chevrolet is hoping the answer is yes, because that's what they've done with the Tahoe Hybrid.

Putting a gasoline/electric hybrid system under the hood of the Tahoe runs the EPA estimated gas mileage up to 21 city/22 highway. Hybrids' ability to run on purely electric power at low speeds and to shut off at stoplights and in drive-throughs means bigger gains in city driving than on the open road.

Driving the Tahoe Hybrid is like driving any other Tahoe...very pleasant...made more so by the fact the gas gauge is taking a lot longer to move off of "F"...and by the silent running on pure electric power in parking lots and slow-moving traffic.

My only objection was a cosmetic one...the test vehicle came with no fewer than nine "Hybrid" badges...including three huge tape graphics (across the top of the windshield and along the bottom edge of each side). The week we had it, I took it to a church picnic, where one of my friends, a senior GM engineer, just smiled and said "Marketing."

Admittedly, those badges might reduce the dirty looks in the Whole Foods parking lot, but I bet three of them would work just as well as nine.

The main thing about the Tahoe Hybrid is that it's a first...the first full-size hybrid SUV. Hybrids need to move beyond compact cars to be profitable for the automakers and helpful to the environment. The Tahoe Hybrid is a terrific example for every automaker to follow.

Subaru Impreza 2.5GT Review

Somewhere out there, there must be a group of drivers for whom the Subaru Impreza is too mild and the Subaru Impreza WRX too wild...because Subaru has just split the difference with the new Impreza 2.5GT.

The 2.5GT looks like the rally-inspired WRX...but instead of the 265 horsepower turbocharged intercooled engine mated to a 5-speed manual, it comes with a 224 horsepower turbocharged intercooled engine coupled with a 4-speed automatic. Now, before you start bemoaning the loss of those 41 horses, that's actually the same power output as the '08 WRX...so the WRX gets a big boost and the 2.5GT moves in to take its place, at least as far as horsepower is concerned.

The 2.5GT uses a different all-wheel drive system than the WRX, and has less agressive suspension elements and tires. Still, 224 horsepower in something as relatively small and light as a Subaru Impreza is nothing to take lightly. If Subaru hadn't upgraded the WRX for the performance purists, the 2.5GT would be one of the hottest compacts around. As it is, it's a great blend of performance and comfort.

Audi Q7 Review

Don't like a certain vehicle after a test drive? Try one with a smaller engine.

Now, that may seem all wrong (especially coming from a car guy), but every now and then, the weight of the bigger engine goofs up the handling just enough to make the extra power anything from unpleasant to unusable.

Case in point: The Audi Q7. The first one of these I drove about a year and a half ago had the V8 engine...I couldn't put my finger on it, but there was something about it that was just....un-Audilike.

A recent week in the 3.6-liter V6 made it clear...it was the handling. See, the Q7 is a big SUV (based on the same platform as the Volkswagen Touraeg and Porsche Cayenne). Getting decent handling out of something this size is a neat trick to begin with. Put all that weight on the nose, and it's no help. But going for the V6 restores some balance...the Q7 is much more responsive and more fun to drive.

Of course, in the Q7, settling for the six isn't really settling. It puts out 280 horsepower and the 6-speed automatic transmission with Tiptronic and Dynamic Shift Program does a great job of getting the most out of it all. And gas mileage is better, too, with the EPA estimating 14 city and 20 highway miles per gallon.

The base price of $48,300 for the Q7 3.6 Premium includes 18-inch alloy wheels, automatic dual-zone climate control, an 11-speaker audio system, a third row of seats and a whole lot more. Our tester had the S-Line Sport Package (the cosmetic goodies from Audi's hot S models), which added 21-inch wheels, a three-spoke steering wheel, and some trim upgrades for $3,750. It also had the Technology Package (including Voice Control and DVD Navigation) and the Convenience Package (Xenon Plus headlights, and an upgrade to Bose audio)...all of which pushed the bottom line by nearly 10 grand...to $58,225.

That's a lot of money, but the usual Audi attributes make a strong argument...and the V6's combination of better balance and better mileage would be the way we'd go if it was our money.


Audi TT Roadster Review


What was once a study in half-circles is now a lithe, svelte machine that oozes grace well beyond its small size.

The redesign of the Audi TT makes the coupe look better, too...but the true impact is on the roadster. Put the top down on one of these and just see if the restaurant valet can bring himself to do anything other than leave it up front where it looks so good.

There's a lot in the way of performance to recommend the TT roadster, too. No, it's not a fire-breathing monster, but 200 horsepower in a fairly light body mated to a six-speed automatic is way more than adequate...and returns better than average economy. The EPA says the TT roadster will get 22 miles per gallon in the city, 29 on the highway.

And it's a fine piece as it comes stock...automatic air conditioning, a 9-speaker, 140 watt audio system with CD player, cruise control, and a bunch more standard for $36,800.

Where it can get tricky is the option list. Our tester came with an additional $9,500 worth of leather, audio upgrades, a power folding top, navigation and more ($450 for Bluetooth phone preparation?)...tab that up with the $775 destination charge and the bottom line ended up at $47,075. Ouch.

Exercise some restraint, though, and the TT roadster makes a very good case for itself as a reasonably-priced sports car that looks great, gets good gas mileage and has more performance capability than you'll probably ever need.

Pontiac G8 Review

My driver's ed car in high school was a big Pontiac sedan...a 1972 Catalina...with a 455-cubic inch V8 engine. Just perfect for three not-yet-licensed 15 and a half year olds and a teacher with what may have been narcolepsy. Mr. Walkup's snore (usually about 20 minutes into the 90-minute class) was the signal to my best friend and myself (the third student was an exceptionally timid girl) to bury our right feet to the floorboards on the wide-open stretches of U.S. 395 between Bishop and Mammoth Lakes, California.

That was probably the last big Pontiac you could do that in and have any fun. Emissions regulations, insurance surcharges and the Arab oil embargo of 1973 all conspired to end the horsepower party soon afterward. Later attempts to recapture a performance image usually involved red cockpit lighting and ill-advised amounts of plastic body cladding, but, as so many have pointed out over the years...there's no substitute for cubic inches.

Well, even Pontiac doesn't measure 'em in cubic inches anymore, but the 6-liter V8 (roughly 366 CID) under the hood of the Pontiac G8 will do just fine. It's 361 horsepower in a car that manages to keep its curb weight just five pounds shy of two tons. Plant your right foot in the G8 and it moves right now...with a solidity, assurance and handling capabilities GM couldn't have imagined in '72.

And while the Driver's Ed Car of Doom would have looked right at home in Grandma's driveway (white, with a blue vinyl interior), the G8 announces its high-performance intentions the second you see it. It's a taut, muscular look that some writers have compared favorably with BMW.

Like the not-quite-there GTO of a couple of years back, this Pontiac is actually an Australian Holden rebadged for U.S. consumption. The good news in that deal is that Australians never gave up building hot sedans, and that the G8 interior is way different from...and way better than...anything else GM sells stateside.

The really good news is price...the G8 GT starts at $29,995 and our tester, loaded with a premium package that includes leather, power and heated seats, topped out at $31,395...a bargain bottom line. It's ironic that the re-birth of the big American performance sedan comes from Australia, but after a 35-year drought, we're not asking questions. Go drive one.

Volkswagen Passat Station Wagon Review

Forget who killed the electric car. Who killed the American station wagon (my vote is the movie National Lampoon's Vacation and its four-wheeled co-star, an early-80s Ford Country Squire that looked like the J.C. Whitney Parts warehouse exploded around it)?

Whoever it was, it drove us into the arms of the minivan and the SUV. And now with the minivan considered as uncool as wagons ever were and gasoline credit card bills prompting re-evaluations of the wisdom of SUV ownership, a lot of smart drivers are saying "What we need is a....station wagon".

Fortunately, the Europeans (who also didn't abandon the utilitarian hatchback the way we did here in the States) never stopped making them...which means you get all the goodness of the basic station wagon concept...and about 25 years additional research and development in the Volkswagen Passat wagon.

Part with a sum this side of 30-thousand dollars and you get an efficient, well-built, refined vehicle just like the Passat sedan...but with room to carry stuff...lots of stuff...in the back. Better looking than a minivan, better handling too. And way better gas mileage than most SUVs, including crossovers.

Truth be told, a station wagon is a much better choice for a majority of minivan and SUV buyers...and the Passat is at or near the top of the class.

(test vehicle provided by Camelback Volkswagen)


Honda Accord Coupe Review

I've got a friend I've known for 21 years. We've always talked cars, as most guys do (especially, I guess, when one of the guys writes about them). He's owned classic Chevys from the 1940s, a couple of 70s and 80s Mazda RX-7s and most recently has been the owner (along with his wife) of his-n-hers Lexuses.

So imagine my surprise when he said "You know what I really want? The new Accord." I must've looked stunned, because he quickly added "The coupe. It's really hot-looking."

Now understand: I've been recommending Hondas in general and Accords in particular to friends for about 25 years now. It's my standard "you can't go wrong" recommendation. It's the car I recommended to my own mother. She took my advice and owned the same one for the final 17 years of her life. It's now in the posession of some of our dearest friends, whose teenage son and daughter are driving it. It shares the driveway with two Honda Odysseys, both the end result of conversations that began with "Mike, what kind of car should we buy?"

But this guy doesn't fit the profile at all. Or so I thought. Turns out he had seen the new Accord Coupe in person while I'd only seen photos. And the photos don't do it justice. This is way more than just a two-door version of the Accord sedan. It has a stunning visual presence...and the performance and features to back it up.

Performance first: A 3.5 liter SOHC 24-Valve VTEC V6 makes 268 horsepower. The EXL we tested comes with a 6-speed manual transmission standard, and Honda had the good sense not to check the automatic option box for this particular press fleet car. Honda has long made wonderful, precise stick shifts (some automakers' units still suffer in comparison to the four-speed in the '84 Civic that I put 144,000 miles on over 14 years before handing it off to the same friends who have Mom's old Accord). If anything, it's silkier than ever.

Features? Well, the EXL V6's $28,310 base price buys leather, a 270-watt AM/FM/mp3-capable 6-CD changer and a premium audio system with 7 speakers. Oh, yeah...XM Satellite Radio, too. Plus 18" alloy wheels, power everything and a moonroof. All standard. In fact, our tester had no options...add in $635 for destination and handling and the bottom line for this killer package was $28,945.

My friend was right. Line the new Accord Coupe up against anything else with this kind of performance and content, and the Accord looks better and better.

Range Rover Sport Review

Lusting after a Range Rover but can't quite swing the $80,000 (typically equipped) price tag?

How about a near look-alike that lets you keep $20,000 in the bank? The Range Rover Sport is actually based on the mid-size (for Land Rover, anyway) LR3, but re-bodied to look like the big Range Rover. Unless you're especially observant (a few inches missing from the overall length and a less-upright rear window are the biggest giveaways), you've probably looked at Sports and thought they were the flagship.

On the inside, Land Rover has created an ambiance that suggests you're not settling for less...and an extra $3,000 buys still more...the Luxury Interior Package with premium leather seats (heated front and rear), a heated front wind screen (the UK term for windshield), heated washer jets, adaptive front lamps, wood trim and a cooler box.

The "sport" part comes from the more compact dimensions and a 300 horsepower V8, with 315 pounds per foot of torque.

The base price of $58,225 (for a Range Rover Sport HSE) buys you a list of standard equipment that could cause a Blogspot server overload, so we'll just cut to the chase by saying that our tester had only two options...the Luxury Interior Package and Sirius Satellite Radio. Those, plus transportation, ran the bottom line to $62,400...again, about 20 large less than the large Range Rover.

Bottom line: Despite the savings, the Range Rover Sport isn't a cheap knockoff..it's simply a different approach to the real deal...and well worth your consideration.