The five cars on these pages are kindred spirits in overachievement. Although they may be humble in some respects, they all five turn, stop, and go – particularly, go – with the brio of competitors costing thousands or, in some cases, tens of thousands more. In honor of their heroic, giant-killing performance, we salute these scrappy street fighters that punch out mega performance for something less than mega dollars. We do it as the dark clouds of sharply higher gasoline costs gather over the land, casting into doubt the duration of this golden age of horsepower. These cars are helping to democratize performance, putting major muscle into the hands of the many. Grab yours now, before the days of attainable speed once again slip into our collective rearview mirror.
True confessions: I never met a Porsche I didn’t like. And, with personal experience stretching from the 1975 launch of the original 911 Turbo past the 2004 Carrera GT, my all-time personal fave, I’ve met more than my share of Stuttgart specials.
Marque passions aside, it’s clear to me that Nissan’s brand-new GT-R is quicker, faster, and a better value than Porsche’s iconic 911 Turbo.
While the stats back me up, this row goes beyond zero-to-ticket acceleration figures and which sports car does the better job hustling through corners. This is the title bout for the near-200-mph supercar crown. This is where Godzilla stomps in from the Orient to slap Porsche’s $127,060 prize fighter with its killer tail.
On paper, the protagonists seem so alike. Each has the identical number of horses, cylinders, turbos, gears, and driven wheels (four). Nissan’s GT-R project manager, Kazutoshi Mizuno, obviously scrutinized his enemy in intimate detail. What’s amazing is how much his team got wrong. In my book, the perfect sports car wouldn’t lounge on a 109.5-inch wheelbase, require six driveshafts, have its engine plopped atop its front axle, or crowd two tons at weigh-in. Give the GT-R points for succeeding in spite of itself.
So how can the GT-R thumb flame-snorting nostrils at my principles and be so entertaining to drive? It’s because Mizuno-san never had the slightest intention of creating the ideal sports car. The mission he accomplished was to nudge aside an elderly icon to clear a spot for the most exciting ride you can buy for less than $100,000.
Allow me to define exciting. It’s the sound of a feral V-6 rattling windows and rousing neighbors every time its chain is tugged. It’s a suspension that’s locked and ready to lap the Nordschleife when you are. It’s exterior design so intentionally at odds with classic beauty and refined taste that the GT-R’s wake is a continuous mess of dropped jaws, twisted necks, and pointing fingers. Where other cars have exhaust pipes, this one has five-inch howitzers.
Excitement is a video-game interior with enough switches and screens to reprogram the most devout e-hater into a Super Mario game boy. It’s a shopping cart overflowing with so much carbon fiber, forged aluminum, and NACA ducting that Mizuno-san deserves the SAE’s highest commendation.
The GT-R beats the 911 Turbo by skipping traditional virtues. The Nissan rump badge is negative cachet. Couth is not part of the package. The GT-R’s cockpit is an endless cavalcade of clanking gears, rattling shafts, whirring tires, and booming exhaust serenades. The “comfort” setting for the adjustable dampers and the 480-hp rating are two blatant lies.
I hate the piggish, tire-chunking understeer hiding at the GT-R’s cornering limit. Only the Japanese would engineer a four-wheel-drive car that spins its rear tires when you pull the launch trigger. I forgive these sins because the GT-R’s paddleshifted dual-clutch automatic is such a ready source of entertainment.
The other thing I love about the GT-R is the sharp stinger it pokes in Porsche’s eye. How long do you think Stuttgart will sit back and allow the GT-R to surpass the 911 Turbo at the Nürburgring? Answer: not long.
Volkswagen R32 vs. Mazdaspeed 3
By Jason Cammisa
What’s that, you say? You have a serious need for speed but a shortage of cash? The Mazdaspeed 3 will leave the Volkswagen R32 in the dust – and $10,540 for gas money in your pocket.
Looking for sports-car acceleration for economy-car bucks? Here’s a hot hatch that – literally – has “speed” for its middle name. The $23,090 Mazdaspeed 3 is a 263-hp, turbocharged and intercooled, direct-injected beast disguised as a handsome hatchback; a tire-shredding rocket that blasts its way to 60 mph in 5.9 seconds.
Impressive as that seems, the little MS3 is even faster than that number implies. Because the Mazda routes all that power (and a half-shaft-tweaking 280 lb-ft of torque) through the front wheels only, its off-the-line acceleration times are limited by tire traction, not engine muscle. In fact, in an attempt to safeguard its driveline and curb wheel spin, the engine-management computer reduces the turbo four’s power output in first, second, and third gears. If this little puppy could put all its power down, it would likely scoot to 60 mph a half-second quicker. Few cars can keep up.
Most of the Mazdaspeed 3’s cabin comes from the more pedestrian Mazda 3, but a few changes distinguish the Speed. The front passengers are treated to comfortable, aggressively bolstered seats, and the driver grips a sporty, three-spoke leather steering wheel. Drilled aluminum pedals reinforce the message that this isn’t a regular econohatch. Fire up the engine, and the deep exhaust note will remind everyone that this is no ordinary hatchback.
At Sally Safedriver speeds, the hottest 3 drives very much like a regular 3, albeit with slightly stiffer suspension calibration. The ride is never punishing, and even though the six-speed manual transmission’s shifter is a little vague, the clutch takeup is positive and deliberate, making smooth driving a pleasure.
The Mazda’s closest competitor – in terms of performance – comes from Germany, costs ten grand more, and follows a slightly different theme. The Volkswagen R32 is also a hatchback, but it sends the 250 hp from its normally aspirated, narrow-angle six-cylinder engine to all four wheels through a dual-clutch, six-speed automatic transmission. The R32 has no traction problems and yet still loses the sprint to 60 mph by 0.3 second. But it’s at higher speeds, where traction is no longer the Mazda’s Achilles’ heel, that the turbocharged MS3 shows the Volks-wagen who’s boss, beating the R32 to 120 mph by almost six seconds. The VW stops the fun at a speed-limited 130 mph, but the Mazda’s limiter isn’t tripped until 155 mph.
The Mazda’s huge straight-line speed doesn’t come without some notable drawbacks. Its turbo four-cylinder, despite using thoroughly modern technology like direct injection, is a throwback to old-school turbocharged engines, meaning that it has lots of lag and a narrow operating range. Boost doesn’t come on strongly until 3000 rpm, and the game is all over at 5500 rpm (despite a 6800-rpm redline). In its sweet spot, the Mazda is seriously quick, but outside of that range, it’s frustratingly not.
And despite the torque-managed lower gears, the Speed 3 also suffers from some of the worst torque steer of any car on the road today. Most modern Mazdas offer brilliant steering feel, but not this little monster. That pretty steering wheel will try to rip itself out of your hands even at interstate velocities.
It may have a distinct lack of finesse compared with the Volkswagen, but if it’s straight-line speed that floats your boat, there’s no cheaper way of getting your toes wet than by climbing into a Mazdaspeed 3.
The Chevrolet Corvette Z06 is pure America: powerful, rough around the edges, and blatantly extroverted. The exotic Ferrari F430 carries a $120K premium. Is the Italian that much better?
You want numbers? We’ll give you the numbers. The Ferrari F430 uses a 483-hp, 4.3-liter V-8 and tips the scales at 3350 pounds. The Chevrolet Corvette Z06 employs a much larger, 7.0-liter V-8 with 505 hp.
Surprisingly, this pushrod powerplant needs to move only 3150 pounds. It’s not so surprising that the well-endowed all-American squashes the Maranello-built thoroughbred by 127 lb-ft in the torque department. Acceleration? Just take a glance at the data panel – America wins this round.
If you pick winners based solely on performance, without regard to price, the Z06 clearly gets the gold star. And if price is your primary consideration, the Z06 comes out on top again: the Corvette costs only $72,125. By comparison, the starting point for the F430 is $191,775 – and that’s if you can find a dealership willing and able to sell you one. The Z06, in other words, is an almost unbelievable 62 percent less expensive than the Ferrari.That’s akin to finding out that an automaker sells a hatchback that outperforms a Mazdaspeed 3 for $8684. We could only wish.
Open the driver’s door of this Corvette, of course, and you’ll see where some of that money is saved. Second-rate plastics, flimsy switchgear, and unsupportive seats compromise an otherwise decent cockpit. The soft-leather steering wheel and the Recaro bucket seats in the less-than-half-as-expensive Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution are of higher quality than comparable items in the Corvette. It’s true that you can now spend an extra $6545 to dress up the Corvette’s interior with the likes of a stitched leather dash, but even then the cabin doesn’t befit the Z06’s sticker price.
Prod the starter button and listen to that angry V-8, though, and you suddenly forget about the Z06’s lackluster interior. We’re suckers for the sounds emitted from the tailpipes of exotic Italian cars, but we suspect that even the most ardent car enthusiast in Europe would ignore the high-rev scream of a Ferrari for a rousing ride in this tantalizing Detroit steed. There’s no convoluted, Tiptronic/DSG/F1/SMG-style transmission here, just an old-school manual gearbox with a chunky linkage that always reminds you that there’s a lot of power going to the rear wheels. Mash the throttle and dump the clutch, and you can lay smoky burnouts for blocks at a time. On the track, the Z06 happily runs all day while posting very impressive lap times. Despite all this performance, you can cruise down the highway in relative comfort while easily seeing well over 20 mpg thanks to the extralong sixth gear, which keeps the V-8 burbling just above idle. At 24 mpg, the Z06’s EPA highway rating betters the F430’s by 8 mpg.
Sure, if we had the luxury of disregarding prices, we’d choose the gas-guzzling, mid-engine Ferrari over the Corvette. After all, the Chevy weighs less than the F430, but it doesn’t feel lighter from behind the wheel. The Corvette lacks the delicate, fine-tuned nature that sets apart the Ferrari from lesser sports cars. Chevy continues to tweak the Z06, though, which is now entering its fourth model year. The rear dampers were softened in mid-2007 to help on-limit handling, an improved transmission came along for ’08, and the steering system is being retuned (for the second time) for ’09 – but the Z06 is still a raw, relatively unrefined car. Many Corvette owners wouldn’t want it any other way. Regardless, the Z06’s performance numbers best the F430’s, and those bragging rights are priceless.
If you’re assembling a list of bargain performance cars, the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution is an instant no-brainer. Almost 300 hp? A price that starts at less than thirty-five grand? An electronically shepherded all-wheel-drive system, rally breeding, and a big, honkin’ turbocharger? What’s not to love? You guessed it: not much.
As much as the latest iteration of Mitsubishi’s hero car appears to have grown up – and grown up it has, with a newly livable interior, a shrunken rear wing, and much-reduced NVH – it’s still one of the rawest, most capable, and most thrilling new-car bargains on the market. The Evolution’s obvious bogey is anything with a turbo, a too-large sticker price, and four driven wheels, and there are a lot of cars like that to choose from. But the true glory is that on real roads, with mere mortals behind the wheel, the mighty Mitsu will out-fun (and usually outrun) almost anything on four wheels.
Audi’s $49,085 S4 is the most direct parallel. Like the Mitsubishi, the S4 is an all-wheel-drive, four-door sedan from a company known for its rally success, but the similarities end there. The V-8-powered S4’s hefty curb weight, cushy suspension, nose-heavy disposition, and numb steering handicap it so much that the darty, apex-hungry Evolution simply seems to have come from another world.
The Evo’s alienlike wizardry lies in the hardware – and also in the software that controls it. An electronically managed rear differential, a feature found on previous Evos but not offered in the United States until now, lives under the Mitsubishi’s trunk. Its twin computer-controlled clutches, one per wheel, open or close on cue to help the car pivot. In conjunction with steering-angle sensors, yaw sensors, an active center differential, and a host of electronic brainpower, that diff makes magic happen. Power is shuttled between the rear wheels with wicked aplomb. Controllable, big-yaw drifts and – get this – donuts are actually possible on dry pavement. Razor’s-edge suspension tuning and a blindingly quick steering ratio back it all up. Egos are inflated, heroism is inspired, and every bumpy, lumpy back road becomes your oyster.
Like the other cars on our list of Giant Killers, the Evolution holds up on the test track. The Mitsubishi sprints to 60 mph quicker than its chief rival, the Subaru Impreza WRX STI (5.1 seconds versus 5.4 seconds), and it generates an eyeball-squishing 1.03 g of lateral grip on the skid pad. Predictably, such wicked performance at such a low price brings along a few trade-offs. The Evo’s budget roots show through in its harsh, plasticky interior; its horrendous fuel economy; and a pair of brilliant-if-they-fit-you, horrible-if-they-don’t front seats. Unless you opt for the dual-clutch, six-speed gearbox, you have to suffer the buzzy, boomy highway ride delivered by the five-speed manual and its absurdly short fifth gear. (80 mph in fifth equals roughly 4000 rpm, and a manual six-speed isn’t available.) And as long as we’re picking nits, we’d be remiss if we didn’t point out that the last-generation Lancer Evo feels both more raw and more unhinged than the current one.
Nevertheless, if any of this keeps you from loving the Evo, then you are officially a fool. The Mitsubishi might not be perfect, but as celebrity makeup artist Kevyn Aucoin once said, perfection is boring. Fittingly, when you’re behind the wheel of an Evo, so is everything else.
The Pontiac G8 GT is the modern reincarnation of the rear-wheel-drive performance sedans that Pontiac used to build. With it, GM is gunning for the gold standard, the BMW 5-series.
For those old enough to remember the General Motors that frolicked merrily in the field of rear-wheel-drive performance, and for those who needed to learn, the new Pontiac G8 GT was seriously overdue. This modern, rear-wheel-drive performance sedan with a honking V-8 and a six-speed automatic hits the spot, especially with its $29,995 sticker price. It is cold beer on a hot July afternoon in New Jersey.
We’ve been here before. Pontiac first publicly pegged its sights on European competitors with the 1973 Grand Am sedan. Those were happier times for GM, market-share-wise. Good thing, too, since Pontiac’s interpretation of Europe’s better sedans was a gussied-up Le Mans whose highlights included a poorly located solid rear axle and considerably more flab than its Euro counterparts.
By the early 1980s, rather than sharpening the knife and engineering its way out of obsolescence, GM and the rest of America’s Big Three chose to cap a glorious six-decade run of rear-wheel drive by pulling a Hollywood-style handbrake turn. In a reaction to America’s first fuel crisis and subsequent CAFE standards, the Big Three embraced front-wheel-drive cars in a big way. Sure, we got the Lincoln LS in 2000 and the Cadillac CTS in 2003, followed by the Mercedes-Benz-enabled Chrysler 300 and Dodge Magnum (which debuted in 2004 as 2005 models), but affordable, rear-wheel-drive performance sedans remained woefully sparse in Detroit’s cupboards.
Until now. The G8 GT has – wait for this – a European focus, according to GM, the estimable (and twice as expensive) BMW 5-series acting as a benchmark. That’s a bit of a stretch where refinement is concerned, but the GT has an appeal all its own, based on big power, a respectably taut chassis with superior body control, and all the traction control, stability control, and limited-slip-diff stuff that 361 hp and 385 lb-ft of rear-wheel-spinning torque might demand. (The standard G8 gets a 3.6-liter V-6 with 256 hp and 248 lb-ft of torque teamed with a five-speed automatic, but it doesn’t improve significantly on the V-8’s mileage, at 17 mpg city/25 mpg highway, versus the GT’s 15 [ouch]/24 mpg.)
What makes the G8 modern? All the air bags, emissions controls, and electronics, of course, but the real news is the independent rear suspension. Coupled with rear-wheel drive, IRS remains a surprisingly big deal for U.S. carmakers – so big, that GM had to source the G8 from Australia, because the company doesn’t make anything like it here for the mass market. In fact, the G8 is a restyled Holden Commodore, a product of GM’s Australian division that’s a leading center of the General’s current rear-wheel-drive acuity. In an earlier coupe iteration, Holden’s Monaro served as the basis of the now-deceased GTO, a credible effort that was supposed to bring the faithful back to Pontiac, but didn’t.
The G8 GT looks better than the Aussie Goat, although it’s even heftier at 4120 pounds. Genuinely fast, it peels off 5.8-second runs to 60 mph, but aggressive throttle tip-in makes it feel even quicker. Only problem is, with gasoline speeding toward $5 a gallon, we worry time may overtake the G8 before it gets to prove itself. For one reason or another, this has been the sad fate of most GM captive imports.
Clearly, the next step is to lose some weight and for GM to create lighter, equally exciting rear-wheel-drive cars. The Europeans need to do the same. But for now, the G8 GT is a return to happier times, when high-powered, rear-wheel-drive American sedans were cheap and plentiful.