Chevrolet Corvette 427 convertible
For the last year of C6 production, which also happens to coincide with the Corvette's sixtieth anniversary, Chevrolet is offering the Z06's 505-hp, 7.0-liter LS7 V-8 in a convertible. The engine is 427.5 cubic inches -- close enough, Chevy thinks, to revive one of the most famous designations from the Stingray era: 427 convertible. And, since no Corvette anniversary is complete without a garish appearance package, our test car wears stripes that even make it onto the convertible top, complemented by dark blue seats and baby-blue interior accents. Thankfully, you can get your 427 convertible without any of it.
We forget all about the stripes -- and the flimsy seats and dated controls -- as soon as we floor the 427 on a highway entrance ramp and experience the amazing sensation of a big pushrod V-8 roaring toward 7000 rpm. Although it has yielded king-of-the-hill status to the ZR1's supercharged LS9, the normally aspirated LS7 is still, in our minds, the best Corvette engine. Make that one of the best engines, period. And now there's no annoying roof between your ears and the vicious crackle that comes through the bimodal exhaust when you push the beefy six-speed manual through the gears (no automatic transmission will be offered).
The convertible's magnetorheological dampers are tuned more for grand touring than for track work, so it rides well over awful asphalt patchwork that would jostle a Z06. Yet it also stays flat through S-curves, and its staggered Michelin tires break traction only when we apply generous amounts of throttle coming out of turns. The 427 retains the Z06's dry-sump oil pump, which is a boon if your idea of grand touring involves high-g cornering.
One element of the Z06 that definitely would not work on a convertible is its aluminum frame, which simply wouldn't be stiff enough without a roof. The car does get lots of its big brother's carbon-fiber bits -- the floor panels, fenders, and the hood are all made of the stuff -- resulting in a respectable 3355-pound curb weight.
On sale Now
Engine 7.0L V-8, 505 hp, 470 lb-ft
Marketing magic A magnificent engine and multihued stripes tempt the collector crowd.
The Impala has been nipped and tucked as often as Joan Rivers but is, at last, truly new. The design reprises some similar Chevrolet themes, including a Camaro-esque front fascia and a dual-cove interior. Materials in the cabin, not surprisingly, have improved dramatically. Even more important, the old car’s W-body bones, which date back to the late 1980s, finally go off to that great junkyard in the sky (or is it in Flint?) in favor of a stretched version of GM’s Epsilon platform. It will share two four-cylinder engines with the Malibu—a 2.5-liter and a 2.4-liter hybrid. The top offering will be a 3.6-liter V-6 with 303 hp. For now, all Impalas are front-wheel drive. We might have expected a more powerful all-wheel-drive variant to battle the Ford Taurus SHO, but it seems the upcoming rear-wheel-drive Chevrolet SS sedan will shoulder performance duties.
On sale Early 2013
Price $27,000–$32,000 (est.)
Engines 2.5L I-4, 195 hp, 187 lb-ft; 2.0L I-4/electric hybrid, 182 hp, 172 lb-ft; 3.6L V-6, 303 hp, 264 lb-ft
Boomer appeal Retro touches with modern competence, like the Camaro (but not RWD).
The new Malibu has already been on sale for about six months in mild-hybrid form. This summer, Chevrolet introduces its bread-and-butter four-cylinder model. The engine in question is an all-new, direct-injected 2.5-liter that will also see duty in the Cadillac ATS. That extra grunt, along with the weight savings of not lugging around a lithium-ion battery pack, is instantly apparent getting up to highway speeds. Steering and handling are even better than on the already well-sorted Eco model, thanks to larger, eighteen-inch wheels and stickier tires (the base model wears sixteens). A 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder, also shared with the ATS, completes the lineup this fall. No V-6 is planned.
On sale Now
Price $22,500-$29,000 (est.)
Engines 2.5L I-4, 197 hp, 191 lb-ft; 2.4L I-4/electric hybrid, 182 hp, 172 lb-ft; 2.0L turbo I-4, 259 hp, 260 lb-ft
Brings to battle A solid chassis and a well-appointed interior.
Chevrolet Sonic RS
Chevrolet, which hasn't offered a sport compact since the Cobalt SS and the HHR SS, is dipping its toe back in the water with a handling and appearance package for the turbocharged, hatchback version of the Sonic. The Sonic RS rides 0.4 inch lower than the regular car and features firmer dampers. Rear disc brakes replace drums for better feel and appearance. You'll also be able to tell the RS by its slightly more aggressive front fascia, its unique seventeen-inch wheels, and its polished exhaust tip.
Our quick spin around GM's ride-and-handling loop didn't divulge revelatory differences due to the RS package but did remind us how capable the Sonic subcompact is to begin with. Its 138-hp, 1.4-liter turbo engine, rather dull and muted in the larger Cruze, is rowdy and growly here. Numerically higher gearing for the six-speed manual transmission helps the RS overcome the turbo's low-rpm lag (a six-speed automatic is also available). The electric power steering is precise, and a decent amount of feedback comes through the RS's flat-bottomed wheel -- the same one used in the Camaro ZL1. There's still more body roll than we'd like, however. The interior, available only in black on the RS, has the same motorcycle-inspired gauges and tastefully grained plastics as the base car, and its deeply bolstered chairs trimmed in leather and suede hold you firmly in place.
On sale Late 2012
Engine 1.4-liter turbo I-4, 138 hp, 148 lb-ft
Because Chevy wants to show that the Sonic is fun, not just cheap.
The most novel thing about the Spark may be its lack of novelty. It's not rear-engined like a Smart ForTwo, doesn't have an asymmetrical interior like a Scion iQ, and isn't a fashion statement like the Fiat 500. No, the Spark is just a regular, cheap, (very) small car. The Spark was never going to match the iconic design of the 500, but at least it isn't boring. The four-door hatchback has the goofy proportions of a tween halfway through puberty, with a higher roof but a much shorter wheelbase than the pricier Sonic, and huge headlamps span the length of a stubby hood. The interior reprises the motorcycle-inspired gauge cluster from the Sonic. The downgraded materials suit the lower base price, but bright body-color trim -- the Spark comes in several eye-searing hues -- distracts a bit from the cheapness. Power windows, but not power door locks or mirrors, are standard. Upper trim levels include a seven-inch color touch screen and a USB port. The high roofline provides plenty of headroom even in the back. In other markets the Spark seats five, but for U.S. models, the rear center seat has been eliminated in acknowledgement of Americans' bulk.
Engineered and built in Korea, the Spark was modified for U.S. duty with stiffer front dampers, larger (fifteen-inch) wheels, and electric power steering. The tiny four-cylinder engine was enlarged to 1.2 liters. Its 83 hp moves the 2237-pound car with some gusto -- until you add a couple of passengers. The steering is quick and precise -- the way we wish the Fiat's felt -- without being twitchy. Early yet subtle stability control intervention keeps the car pointed in the right direction through midcorner bumps. The throws of the five-speed manual gearbox are smooth if a bit too light (there's also a four-speed automatic). Chevrolet promises that fuel economy will be "competitive" with the likes of the iQ and the 500, which is to say it'll be no better than in a subcompact car. The real story, then, will be the battery-electric version Chevy begins offering next year.
On sale Now
Engine 1.2L I-4, 83 hp, 83 lb-ft
Smaller than...A Sonic hatchback, by 14.3 inches in length and 5.4 inches in width, but it's 1.3 inches taller.
The Dodge Caliber was arguably the nadir of Chrysler's new-product development in the Daimler era, when cost-cutting was taken to new heights -- or depths. Perhaps no car better represents Chrysler's reversal than the Caliber's replacement, the new Dodge Dart. Built on an Alfa Romeo platform, the Dart delivers a smooth, well-controlled ride, one that's tomb-quiet compared with the Caliber. The coarse and noisy old 2.0-liter engine has been heavily revised for greater refinement and more output (160 hp). It's joined by two optional offerings: a 1.4-liter turbo from the Fiat 500 Abarth, which also has 160 hp but makes 36 lb-ft more torque (184 lb-ft). Still to come is the R/T model's 184-hp 2.4-liter. A six-speed manual steps in for the previous five-speed and is standard with all engines. The old CVT has also been scrapped, replaced by a six-speed automatic (with the 2.0- and 2.4-liter) and a six-speed dual-clutch automatic (for the 1.4). The Caliber's neo-crossover, hatchback body style has been abandoned; the Dart is a conventional sedan that has touches of the Charger at the front and rear. And finally, the Dart's cabin is a far more pleasant place to spend time, because its makers weren't trying so hard to save a dime.
On sale Now
Engines 2.0L I-4, 160 hp, 148 lb-ft; 1.4L turbo I-4, 160 hp, 184 lb-ft; 2.4L I-4, 184 hp, 171 lb-ft
U-Turn From cheap-and-nasty to cheap-and-cheerful.