Bud Light is a means to an end. You don't drink watered-down, fizzed-up yellow beer for the taste. You drink it to get drunk. If you're cheap, if you're playing beer pong, or if you've planned far enough in advance to know that you'll be vomiting before the night is over, that's when you drink Bud Light.
We demand more from our beer, too. Not the Automobile Magazine staff we, but the America we. There haven't been this many breweries operating in the United States since the late 1800s, and while overall beer sales were down in 2010, craft-beer sales climbed eleven percent. This is how we weave a tour of great breweries into a search for great small cars. You shouldn't drive crappy cars, and you shouldn't drink crappy beer. Michigan, with the fifth-largest brewing industry in the country, obliges. Our resident beer expert and senior web editor, Phil Floraday, theorizes that craft brewing thrives in regions with certain geographic characteristics -- something about four seasons and access to water. We'd add that a blue-collar mind-set and a seriously unstable job market probably helps, too.
The Cruze's chassis is respectable without being commendable. It rides better than it handles, with a decent amount of roll in hard turns. The hyperquick steering is extremely sharp and responsive, but a large part of its enthusiasm is accomplished by practically eliminating all dampening character from the electric assist. Side effect: an artificial feel that undermines the inherent goodness in the hardware. Had the engineers tuned to feel rather than calculable metrics, the Chevy's steering could have been exceptional.
The Corolla's rigid body and stout suspension have aged quite well. Over rough roads, its composure is a reminder of what made this car so great three, five, and eight years ago. The ride is no longer a standout, but it is entirely acceptable. The steering is lifeless and the handling fairly flaccid. The interior, while it looks like an eight-year-old design, at least looks like an eight-year-old Toyota design. That is to say, the ergonomics are foolproof. If you fear that grandma will veer off the road trying to turn up the volume on the radio -- a very reasonable fear with modern infotainment designs -- buy her a Corolla and put a flowery needlepoint pillow on top of the intolerably hard center armrest.
Honda's ninth-generation Civic is the newest arrival, and yet you'd hardly know that from looking at it. Both inside and out, it retains the signature cues from the previous car, with its single-arc profile and two-tier dashboard. There are few changes to report under the hood, either, as the 1.8-liter four-cylinder and a five-speed automatic carry over. The Civic's engine is only marginally more refined than the Corolla's, but the extra gear makes for a significant advantage. There's better acceleration at any speed, although the most noticeable improvement comes in passing maneuvers between 50 and 70 mph, when the Toyota needs second but the Civic can muster just as much confidence and make a smoother downshift with third gear.
An out-of-the-way neighborhood in Grand Rapids isn't the most natural place for a brewery, but Jason Spaulding couldn't resist the opportunity to take over a former funeral home. With a vaulted ceiling, exposed beams, and stained-glass windows, the old chapel becomes a monastery in the Belgian and French inspiration of his Brewery Vivant. The taproom has been open for less than a year, but a loud dinner crowd fills the place on a Thursday night, with the twenty-foot-long community tables forcing strangers to sit inches apart. Down the hall, the first cans of Triomphe, a Belgian IPA, are being filled and sealed, making Brewery Vivant one of the first small breweries in Michigan to can beer, an idea that's quickly gaining traction in the craft-brewing industry. Spaulding's vision is all about sustainability -- environmentally, socially, and financially. He intends to increase production to 5000 barrels a year and then hold the line.
Staying small has worked well for Mazda, the rare automaker unwilling to trade its brand integrity for sales. Its best-selling car, the 3, has thrice been an Automobile Magazine All-Star for its excellent chassis and engaging driving feel that still accommodates the basic needs of the mainstream buyer. Equipped with the optional 2.5-liter four-cylinder, as our car was, the Mazda 3 is for fun seekers rather than fuel misers. It's the most powerful car in this group with 167 hp and 168 lb-ft of torque, but it returns just
22 mpg in the city and 29 mpg on the highway. The sedan's standard 2.0-liter is good for 24/33 mpg with the automatic at the expense of 19 hp, and a new engine for the 2012 model will deliver 40 mpg on the highway. While not the smoothest-running four-cylinder, the 2.5-liter's plentiful torque makes it a punchy car in city traffic and a delight in the twisties. The five-speed automatic can be abrupt with downshifts, especially at low speeds, but the transmission is always responsive to right-pedal inputs and reliably chooses the right gear.
Right Brain Brewery lacks signage and a distinct entrance, but it nonetheless has drawn a full house for Tuesday's superhero trivia night. At the end of the bar, owner Russell Springsteen, mellow and relaxed, talks with anxious ambition about his plans to get Right Brain onto more taps in northern Michigan. It's not easy; to get a new beer on tap means another brew has to be kicked out. But Right Brain's reputation and reach are spreading. "I have a very slow, methodical plan that's happening very fast," he says of the brewery's rapid growth since he sold his hair salon and opened Right Brain four years ago.
For the massive improvements in the Elantra, we're impressed to find that it remains a value buy as well. At $22,830, it is cheaper than the Cruze and the Civic and is equipped with options that were absent from or unavailable on the competition, such as a backup camera, heated rear seats, and navigation.
Excellent powertrain flexibility means that the 160-hp 2.0-liter remains responsive throughout the rev range. Or you can pin it to 5000 rpm and it will happily churn out power while you wend through corners and curves on the back roads. The shifts are slow, and Ford could learn a lot from studying Volkswagen's excellent DSG transmission. Still, the Focus's six-speed dual-clutch automatic is the best transmission here for its irreproachable shifts both up and down. And at 27/37 mpg, this capable performer is a practical commuter, too.
400 W. Front St.,
Traverse City, MI 231.941.7325
1. 2012 Ford Focus SE
As tested $20,380
Engine 16-valve DOHC I-4
Displacement 2.0 liters (122 cu in)
Horsepower 160 hp @ 6500 rpm
Torque 146 lb-ft @ 4450 rpm
Transmission 6-speed dual-clutch automatic
L x W x H 178.5 x 71.8 x 57.7 in
Wheelbase 104.3 in
Track F/R 61.2/60.4 in
Weight 2935 lb
Headroom F/R 38.3/38.0 in
Legroom F/R 41.9/33.2 in
Passenger volume 90.7 cu ft
Luggage capacity 13.2 cu ft
Fuel capacity 12.4 gal
EPA mileage (city/hwy/combined) 27/37/31 mpg
3. 2012 Honda Civic EX-L with Navi
Engine 16-valve SOHC I-4
Displacement 1.8 liters (110 cu in)
Horsepower 140 hp @ 6500 rpm
Torque 128 lb-ft @ 4300 rpm
Transmission 5-speed automatic
L x W x H 177.3 x 69.0 x 56.5 in
Wheelbase 105.1 in
Track F/R 59.0/59.9 in
Weight 2795 lb
Headroom F/R 37.9/36.2 in
Legroom F/R 42.0/36.2 in
Passenger volume 92.1 cu ft
Luggage capacity 12.1 cu ft
Fuel capacity 13.2 gal
EPA mileage (city/hwy/combined) 28/39/32 mpg
5. 2011 Chevy Cruze 2LT
As tested $23,185
Engine 16-valve DOHC turbo I-4
Displacement 1.4 liters (83 cu in)
Horsepower 138 hp @ 4900 rpm
Torque 148 lb-ft @ 1850 rpm
Transmission 6-speed automatic
L x W x H 181.0 x 70.7 x 58.1 in
Wheelbase 105.7 in
Track F/R 60.7/61.3 in
Weight 3102 lb
Headroom F/R 39.3/37.9 in
Legroom F/R 42.3/35.4 in
Passenger volume 95.0 cu ft
Luggage capacity 15.4 cu ft
Fuel capacity 15.6 gal
EPA mileage (city/hwy/combined) 24/36/28 mpg