Mitsubishi Eclipse Review

2008 Mitsubishi Eclipse GS Hatchback

For more than a decade and a half, the Mitsubishi Eclipse has been one of America's more popular sport coupes. Its success can be attributed to several factors that have remained constant throughout its run, including sleek styling, powerful engines, a decent amount of comfort, and affordability.

Interestingly, these traits also describe the traditional domestic rear-drive sport coupe, and some have described the Mitsubishi Eclipse as the Japanese version of a pony car. They point out that the Eclipse has typically not been as nimble as other imported coupes, and has instead been best at straight-line performance. The Eclipse has also always been designed solely for the U.S. market and is a rarity in other parts of the world.

The original Eclipse was the result of a joint venture in the mid-'80s between Mitsubishi and Chrysler, known as Diamond Star Motors (DSM). For model-year 1990 at a plant in central Illinois, the partners started production of what was known as the Diamond Star triplets: similar versions of the same Mitsubishi-engineered car, including the Eclipse, the Eagle Talon and the Plymouth Laser. The DSM partnership no longer exists as it once did, and only the Eclipse remains in production.

In total, there have been four generations of the Eclipse. Measured in terms of all-around performance and design, the latest one can be considered the best yet. But earlier Eclipses, assuming they have been cared for properly, could become an affordable and enjoyable purchase for the budding sport coupe enthusiast.

The latest Mitsubishi Eclipse has been available since the 2006 model year. It has a hatchback body style and can seat up to four people. Mitsubishi builds it on the same platform used for its Galant sedan and Endeavor SUV. There are two trim levels: GS and GT. The Eclipse GS is reasonably well equipped and comes with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine good for 162 horsepower. The main draw of the Eclipse GT is its 263-hp, 3.8-liter V6.

Both versions are front-wheel drive. The GS can be equipped with either a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic transmission with a sequential-shift Sportronic mode. The GT comes with a six-speed manual, with a five-speed Sportronic automatic optional. Popular options include a sunroof and a powerful Rockford Fosgate audio system.

In reviews, the Mitsubishi Eclipse has earned favorable commentary for its powerful V6 engine, comfortable front seating and stylish interior. Noted downsides include a hefty curb weight that dulls handling, sluggish acceleration on four-cylinder models and a large turning radius.

Most consumers shopping for a used Eclipse will encounter the third-generation model, which was sold from 2000-'05. Like the current model, it has a hatchback body style, front-wheel drive and four-cylinder or V6 power. It's smaller than the current model, however, and less refined. The RS and GS trims of this generation were powered by a 2.4-liter four-cylinder good for 154 hp. The GT had a 205-hp 3.0-liter V6. All could be had with either a five-speed manual transmission or four-speed automatic.

Although this Eclipse was fairly popular with consumers, it attracted little critical acclaim. In tests, editors noted that the Eclipse was not as sporting as previous versions and had a low-quality interior. Nor did the car change much during its run, though in 2003 Mitsubishi added a GTS trim that had a slightly more powerful V6 (210 hp) and more standard equipment.

When new, the first- and second-generation Eclipses were considered some of the best affordable sport coupes available. The original debuted in 1990. This Eclipse was also a hatchback, and these early models can be identified by their pop-up style of headlights. There were four different trim levels, each offering its own mix of powertrains. The top-of-the line model was the Eclipse GSX, which boasted a 195-hp turbocharged four-cylinder engine and all-wheel drive. In 1992, minor updates were made, including the addition of fixed headlights.

Compared to the foreshortened, almost stubby first Mitsubishi Eclipse, the second version (1995-'99) seemed long, sleek and gorgeous. It was a bit bigger than the earlier car and in many ways very similar mechanically. Normally aspirated or turbocharged engines were again offered, as was front-wheel or all-wheel drive.

With any of these early models, poor resale values have sunk purchase prices to very attractive levels. But reliability has never been a strong point for the Eclipse, and finding a well-maintained one (especially a turbocharged model) will be key for the smart shopper.

Mercedes-Benz SLK-Class Review

2008 Mercedes-Benz SLK-Class SLK280 Convertible

Introduced nearly a decade ago as an answer to its European rivals in the luxury small roadster segment, the Mercedes-Benz SLK-Class was the first vehicle to truly popularize the use of a power-retractable convertible top made out of steel panels rather than the more traditional fabric soft top.

Though more complex and bulky, a convertible hardtop design, with its coupelike profile and superior wind and weather protection, does provide significant advantages in the top-up position. Offering more security, as well as a quieter cabin than its competitors' soft tops, the SLK could convert from a closed coupe to an open convertible without leaving the driver seat.

Though suffering from uninspiring handling and questionable sporting credentials for hard-core driving enthusiasts, the original SLK230 and SLK320 were popular with consumers. Improvements over the years kept the first generation competitive, but after seven years on the market the Mercedes-Benz SLK-Class was ready for a redesign.

With a dramatic design inspired by Mercedes' Formula 1 racecars, the second-generation SLK is even more fetching than the original. It's also slightly larger and more powerful than its predecessor, yet still possesses the upscale roadster character that made it so likable over the years. Even better than the added space is the car's redesigned dashboard with its cleaner layout and higher-quality interior materials.

Though most SLK models are inexpensive by Mercedes standards, some potential buyers might flinch at the vehicle's above-average price — and others might prefer the sharper handling dynamics of its German rivals. But for a convertible that sacrifices little in performance and excels at luxury and prestige, we think a new or used Mercedes-Benz SLK is a very good choice.

Current Mercedes-Benz SLK-Class

The current-generation Mercedes-Benz SLK-Class luxury roadster has been available since the 2005 model year. It's a proper sporting roadster thanks to its stiff body structure, rear-wheel drive and available sport-tuned suspension and strong brakes. For power, Mercedes offers a choice of two V6s as well as a muscular V8 from AMG, Mercedes' in-house performance tuner.

The SLK280 features a 3.0-liter V6 that produces 228 horsepower while the SLK350's 3.5-liter V6 produces 268 hp. Either engine can be matched with a six-speed manual or a seven-speed automatic transmission. The Mercedes SLK55 AMG is the performance model. It comes with a 355-hp 5.4-liter V8 engine stuffed under its hood. A seven-speed automatic is the only transmission offered.

When retracted, the hardtop takes up space in the trunk, but there's still 6.5 cubic feet left for luggage. Inside, the cabin is attractive with soft-touch materials for most surfaces. Soft and supportive seats remain comfortable even after several hours of driving. Keep the windows up while the top is down and there's minimal wind buffeting.

If that's not enough, consider the optional Airscarf system that channels warm air to your neck and shoulders via dedicated registers in the headrests. It actually works quite well; and when combined with traditional seat heaters, the Mercedes-Benz SLK becomes one of the most useful all-weather convertibles on the market.

While the old SLK was more of a boulevard cruiser than a canyon carver, the new SLK delivers solid all-around performance in acceleration, braking and handling. Obviously, the AMG model offers the most performance of the group, and indeed it posts impressive numbers. Even the 280 and 350 models are fun to drive. The SLK's slightly less communicative steering and slower handling responses only become apparent when comparing them directly against this segment's more deliberate sports cars.

Past Mercedes-Benz SLK-Class models

The original Mercedes-Benz SLK debuted for the 1998 model year. Introduced as an answer to the BMW Z3 and Porsche Boxster in the premium small roadster segment, the SLK's most unique feature was its retractable hardtop roof, which offered more security as well as a quieter ride than its ragtop-roofed competitors. With the touch of a button, one could convert the SLK from a closed coupe to a cool convertible in less than 30 seconds without leaving the driver seat.

Initially, the SLK was available only with one drivetrain, a supercharged 2.3-liter inline-4 sending its 185 hp through a five-speed automatic transmission. But the SLK230's lack of a manual gearbox, along with its anemic exhaust note, made for little excitement among serious driving enthusiasts.

The SLK's second year brought a manual tranny as standard, moving the automatic to the options list. Ever conscious of its buyers' fashion leanings, Mercedes introduced Designo editions in 2000 that featured special colors (such as Copper and Electric Green) along with unique interior trim.

Those who liked the Mercedes-Benz SLK but wanted a more refined power plant had their wish granted for 2001, when the SLK320 bowed complete with a 215-horse 3.2-liter V6. Other good news that year included the replacement of the five-speed manual with a six-cog unit and more power for the 230's force-fed four, with output now rated at 192 ponies.

Perhaps in an effort to quash the SLK's reputation as a "boutique" roadster, Mercedes brought out the muscle-bound, AMG-tuned SLK32 for 2002. The SLK32 AMG brought 349 hp to the party by way of a supercharged 3.2-liter V6. Along with the power infusion, handsome double-spoke 17-inch wheels with performance tires were fitted, along with a massaged suspension, full ground effects and a discreet rear spoiler.

During the first SLK's run, we commented favorably about its distinctive retractable hardtop, its quiet composure on freeway drives and the impressive performance from the AMG variant. Noted downsides at the time included a lack of steering feel and the big blind spots with the top up.

Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder Review

2008 Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder GT Convertible Shown

The Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder is a convertible version of the Eclipse coupe. In most regards, the Spyder provides a similar driving and ownership experience to the coupe, which means sleek styling, four-passenger seating, powerful engines and a reasonable amount of comfort.

In the affordable convertible segment, Mitsubishi has taken a balanced approach with the Spyder. With nimble and sporty two-seat roadsters on one end of the spectrum and four-seat family sedan-based convertibles on the other, the Eclipse sits comfortably in the middle. For most of its run, the Spyder's closest competitors have been convertible pony cars such as the Ford Mustang.

The Spyder has been available for all Eclipse generations except the first and has occasionally blipped out of existence as new generations of the Eclipse have debuted. Whether new or used, the Spyder should satisfy a shopper desiring a sporty two-door that provides plenty of wind-in-the-hair fun.

The latest Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder is a new arrival for 2007. Like the coupe, it's built on the same platform used for Mitsubishi's Galant sedan and Endeavor SUV. There are two trim levels: GS and GT. The Eclipse Spyder GS is reasonably well equipped and comes with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine good for 162 horsepower. The main draw of the Eclipse Spyder GT is its 260-hp, 3.8-liter V6. Both models have a power-operated convertible soft top.

The GS can be equipped with either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission with a sequential-shift Sportronic mode. The GT comes with a six-speed manual, with a five-speed Sportronic automatic optional. All Eclipse Spyders are front-wheel drive.

In past reviews, the Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder has earned favorable commentary for its powerful V6 engine, comfortable front seating and well-suited nature for top-down cruising. Noted downsides include a hefty curb weight that dulls handling, sluggish acceleration on four-cylinder models, poor top-up outward visibility and a large turning radius.

There are two previous versions of the Eclipse Spyder. A Spyder was available for 2001-'05 model years of the third-generation Eclipse. Like the current model, it had underpinnings similar to the concurrent Galant and a power-operated top. This Eclipse is somewhat smaller than the current model, however, and less refined.

This generation's Spyder GS was powered by a 2.4-liter four-cylinder good for 147 hp. The GT had a 200-hp 3.0-liter V6. Both could be had with either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. Though this Eclipse was fairly popular with consumers, it attracted little critical acclaim. In tests, editors found that the car was not particularly fun to drive and had a noticeably low-quality interior.

The original Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder was available from 1996-'99 and corresponded to the second-generation coupe. The GS model had a 141-hp four-cylinder engine, and the turbocharged GS-T was capable of 205 hp. A five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic were offered. The Spyder's top was a particularly nice one, with excellent insulation, one-touch power operation and a heated glass rear window. Rearward vision was compromised severely when the top was up, but the rear seat was retained and the car's structural integrity was impressive.

Chevrolet Impala Review

2008 Chevrolet Impala LT Sedan Shown

When Chevrolet sent the first Impala off the assembly line in 1958, it was meant to be "a prestige car within the reach of the average American citizen." It would seem that the company was successful; nearly 50 years on, the Chevrolet Impala has gone on to become one of America's most well-known nameplates.

Throughout the '60s, the Chevy Impala dominated the sales charts, culminating in 1965 when more than 1 million were sold. Though the popularity of smaller, midsize muscle cars slowly ate away at sales of the Impala, it continued to sell in big numbers, registering as the best-selling car in America in 1973.

The Impala nameplate languished in the early '80s, eventually getting dropped in 1986 in favor of the Caprice designation. To the delight of enthusiasts, however, a Caprice-based Impala SS briefly returned in the mid-1990s with a Corvette-derived V8 and a monochromatic color scheme that made the car a bad-to-the-bone, rear-wheel-drive family sport sedan.

Since the new millennium, the modern Impala has served as Chevrolet's main full-size sedan, capable of transporting up to six people. With front-wheel drive and V6 power on most trim levels, the current Impala isn't exactly a tribute to the past, but it does continue the tradition of large, affordable Chevrolet family sedans.

The move to smaller, more efficient engines gives buyers enough power when they need it while still providing respectable mileage -- never one of the Impala's strong points in the past. And for buyers who truly desire a V8, the latest Impala SS does indeed have one under its hood.

The latest Chevrolet Impala has been available since the 2006 model year. It's a bit bigger than the typical family sedan, and with a front bench seat can accommodate six passengers in a pinch. There are four available trim levels: entry-level LS, mid-grade LT, premium LTZ and performance-oriented SS. Improvements on this model compared to the previous-generation Impala include new engines, more composed handling, a higher-quality interior and updated styling.

The standard engine is a 3.5-liter V6 that produces 211 horsepower. Available on the LT and standard on the LTZ is a 3.9-liter V6 with 240 hp. The Chevy Impala SS has a 5.3-liter V8 making an impressive 303 hp. All Impala models employ a four-speed automatic transmission that sends the power through the front wheels.

Shoppers looking for a used Chevrolet Impala will most likely encounter the previous-generation model, which was offered from 2000-'05 with minimal changes. Its basic dimensions are very similar to those of the current model, but it lacks that model's significant updates. For this generation, there were two main trim levels -- base and LS. In 2004, Chevy added the SS trim.

Base-model Impalas were powered by a 3.4-liter V6 engine that produced 180 hp. Stepping up to LS trim got you a 200-hp, 3.8-liter V6. The SS had a supercharged version of the 3.8-liter V6 making 240 hp. Though popular in terms of sales, this Impala did not fare well in reviews conducted by editors. Noted downsides included bland interior and exterior design, vague steering and a soggy suspension on base and LS models.

Previous to this, there was a short-lived Chevy Impala SS. Offered from 1994-'96, it was based on the rear-drive Caprice. The SS featured a 260-hp, 5.7-liter V8 derived from the Corvette, large 17-inch wheels and tires, a sport tuned suspension, a monochromatic exterior (black only in its first year) and many hardware upgrades normally fitted to law enforcement vehicles. Today, the '90s Impala SS's have taken on a "collectible" quality.

There are also plenty of Impalas left from earlier decades. Those early Impalas were often America's most popular car, and they still hold significance today. They are prime candidates for restoring, traditional hot-rodding or modern customizing, the latter typically involving powerful audio/video systems, massive wheels and/or hydraulic suspensions.

Honda S2000 Review

The Honda S2000 is a two-seat roadster that features a high-performance, high-winding inline four-cylinder engine along with a superbly balanced chassis. Introduced for the 2000 model year, the S2000 was the first sports car to roll out of a Honda factory since the tiny S500, S600 and S800 roadsters of the 1960s.

2008 Honda S2000 Convertible

With minimalist cockpit comforts and a racetrack-ready suspension, the Honda S2000 is a pure sports car. More powerful than the less expensive Miata yet not as pricey or luxurious as a Z4 or SLK, the S2000 occupies a niche within a niche. Quick and communicative steering, an ideal 49/51 weight distribution and an engine that loves to rev coupled with a slick six-speed gearbox promise a lot of fun for the serious driving enthusiast.

There is only one version of the Honda S2000 roadster. Notable hardware includes a feisty inline four with an 8,200-rpm redline coupled to a short-throw six-speed manual gearbox. Without resorting to forced induction (turbo- or supercharging), this jewel of an engine utilizes Honda's variable valve timing and lift system (VTEC) to squeeze 237 horsepower out of just 2.2 liters. No automatic transmission is available.

Standard features include a power-operated top with a glass rear window (with defroster), lightweight 17-inch wheels, leather seats, keyless entry, air conditioning, an eight-speaker CD audio system, stability control and HID headlights. A lightweight (44 pounds) aluminum hardtop is optional. As expected, the S2000 retains strong Honda attributes such as sound ergonomics and comfortable, supportive seats with enough adjustment to make short and tall pilots alike a good fit.

As with prior S2000s, the current version speaks loudly to the enthusiast. With its finely balanced chassis, quick and communicative steering, eager-to-spin engine and flickable shifter, the S2000 makes short work of twisty roads as it slices through and then slingshots out of the corners.

Debuting in 2000, the Honda S2000 started life with a 2.0-liter inline four that redlined at 9,000 rpm. With 240 horsepower, it put out more horsepower per liter than any other naturally aspirated engine on the planet. Although it provided a thrilling ride when driven aggressively, our editors did find some faults. Among the more notable ones were a lack of low-end torque that made the S2000 a bit flat-footed around town, a sometimes persnickety shifter, a weak audio system and a plastic rear window.

Honda gradually made upgrades to the S2000. For 2002 the company amped up the radio, added a glass rear window with a defogger and even smoothed out the short-throw shifter. Some styling changes took place as well, with chrome rings added to the taillights, a new shift knob and a few pieces of well-placed silver trim in the cockpit. The lightweight aluminum hardtop became optional, a blessing (albeit a pricey one at $3,000) for those who live in areas where inclement weather is a part of life.

The year 2004 saw improvements that made the Honda S2000 more of a viable choice as a daily driver. A slight increase in engine displacement (from 2.0 to 2.2 liters) provided more power at lower rpm. Peak torque went up to 161 pound-feet (up from 153) and that peak occurred at a friendlier 6,500 rpm instead of 7,500 rpm. The redline dropped to a still heady 8,200 rpm. Combined with shorter gearing in the six-speed's lower four gears, this all translated into an S2000 that had more snap at lower engine speeds for dealing with the daily slog to work and dicing through urban traffic. Larger tires (215/45R17s vs. 205/55R16s up front and 245/40R17s vs 225/50R16s out back) were fitted, as were minor suspension tweaks designed to make the ultrareactive S2000 more forgiving of less-than-expert drivers.

Hyundai Tiburon Review

2008 Hyundai Tiburon SE Hatchback Shown

When it was introduced to the North American market in 1997, the Hyundai Tiburon signified Hyundai's first commitment to providing more than just value-oriented but bland economy cars. This coupe-styled, 2-door hatchback, though not as refined or as performance-oriented as some of its competitors, was surprisingly affordable and showed that Hyundai was serious about redefining its image. Since then, the Tiburon (the name means "shark" in Spanish) has improved in both looks and performance, and the current model represents the vehicle's second generation. Though the Tiburon has still not broken into the upper echelon of performance hatchbacks and coupes, its affordable price could make it a decent choice for both new and used vehicle shoppers.

The second generation, front-wheel-drive Hyundai Tiburon debuted for the 2003 model year. It's available in one body style, a two-door hatchback. The base GS trim is powered by a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine -- making 138-horsepower and 136 pound-feet of torque -- and comes standard with a five-speed manual transmission. A 4-speed automatic is optional.

A better choice would be the Tiburon GT, which comes with a standard 172-hp 2.7-liter V6 engine and several performance features, such as a tuned suspension with firmer spring rates and larger 17-inch alloy wheels. Other amenities include automatic climate control, cruise control, a trip computer and a dramatic rear spoiler. A GT Limited trim level adds leather seats, a sunroof and a 440-watt Infinity audio system.

More performance-minded buyers should look at the Tiburon SE, which pairs the V6 engine with a 6-speed manual gearbox. Unique exterior additions, such as red front brake calipers, foglamps and a high-mounted rear spoiler, give the SE a sportier appearance. And it comes loaded on the inside, including leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, a premium Kenwood CD/MP3 audio system, metallic interior trim, aluminum pedals and auxiliary gauges.

In road tests, our editors preferred the Hyundai Tiburon with the V6 engine, as it provides the 3,000-pound car with much-needed pulling power. The 5-speed manual transmission is user-friendly and the Tiburon GT handles well in demanding situations. The fun factor is high, though the tight suspension tilts ride comfort toward the harsh side.

Although the Tiburon GT doesn't lead its class in any category, some shoppers might be attracted to its distinctive styling and low price. Hyundai has made only minor changes to this model since its introduction, so those interested in a used model should feel free to focus on price and vehicle condition.

Over the past decade, the Hyundai Tiburon has come a long way. As a replacement for the previous Scoupe, the '97 launch model came in two trims: base and FX. The base trim was powered by a 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine developing 130 hp. The FX had a 140-hp 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine. Both came with a standard 5-speed manual transmission or an optional 4-speed automatic.

For Hyundai's first attempt at sexy, the Tiburon was a respectable effort. Hyundai equipped it with a number of standard features, especially inside the cabin. The FX got leather seats and cruise control. But it hardly performed like a sports coupe. In road tests, our editors complained of too much understeer. The loud exhaust on the FX made it seem like it was faster than it actually was. For 1998, all Hyundai Tiburons got the stronger engine.

Hyundai dropped the FX for 2000 and made 15-inch alloy wheels and power windows, mirrors and locks standard items on the base trim. The most significant change that year was the redesigned body. The front end featured 4 projector-beam headlights. The front fenders, rear end and taillights were also modified. Mechanically, nothing had changed. This Tiburon carried into 2001 and was then discontinued. There was no 2002 model.

Infiniti G35 Review

2008 Infiniti G35 Sport Sedan Shown

These days, we've come to expect a lot from Infiniti. But in years past, the Japanese luxury brand actually struggled to find an audience. Only with the Infiniti G35 sport sedan did the company start to regain its footing after years in the red. At the time of its debut, the G35's refined styling and sporty performance made a loud statement. The G35 was as close to German engineering as any car on the market.

The Infiniti G35 is built on the same platform as the Nissan 350Z sports car and shares the same throaty V6. It distinguishes itself in the entry-level luxury segment with a roomy cabin, plenty of performance and a respectable price. For those reasons, the rear-wheel-drive G35 is one of our editors' top recommendations for a sport sedan or coupe that's rewarding to own and drive.

Current Infiniti G35

The Infiniti G35 is available as a two-door coupe or four-door sedan. The coupe comes in one trim level. The sedan is available in five: a base, Journey, x (AWD), Sport and Sport 6MT. The sedan was redesigned for 2007 and now represents the car's second generation. The current coupe is a continuation of the first generation, but will receive the same redesign as the sedan for the 2008 model year.

Both body styles are equipped with a 3.5-liter V6 engine. In the G35 sedan, the V6 makes 306 horsepower. The coupe equipped with the standard five-speed automatic transmission is rated for 275 hp. Equipped with the optional six-speed manual, the G35 coupe provides 293 hp. All sedan trims are equipped with a five-speed automatic, with the exception of the Sport 6MT, which comes with a six-speed manual.

Although Infiniti's entry-level luxury sedan comes in five trims, buyers needn't feel overwhelmed when trying to choose the right G35 for their needs. The Journey trim is a great starting point. For not much more money than the base model, the Infiniti G35 Journey comes with top-of-the-line features, including dual-zone climate control and a stereo with six-CD in-dash changer. The x, Sport and Sport 6MT trims simply add amenities on top of that. The x trim adds AWD and heated seats. The Sport trims, which are geared toward enthusiasts, come with performance features and frills, such as 18-inch wheels and tires, a viscous limited-slip differential, sport seats and aggressive tuning for the car's electronic stability system. A four-wheel active steer system is an option that's exclusive to the Sport trims.

Both coupe and sedan are endowed with plenty of interior space. The sedan is more or less the same size as the outgoing model. What has really improved is the interior design, both ergonomically and aesthetically. Everything is better put together, and materials are higher in quality. There's even real aluminum trim, or you can opt for Rosewood trim.

In road tests and reviews, our editors have found the Infiniti G35 to be a thrilling car to drive, with a direct connection between car and driver. The V6 engine feels and sounds exciting. Acceleration is brisk, and power comes on whenever you need it. Zero-to-60 times are under 6 seconds. The handling is crisp in both body styles. Some buyers may find the ride quality a bit stiff on the Sport trims, but the non-Sport G35s should be comfortable for a wide range of drivers.

Past Infiniti G35 Models

The original Infiniti G35 was a big hit when it debuted for the 2003 model year, and Infiniti has not tinkered much with the winning formula since then. Sold through 2006, the first-generation G35 sedan was initially available in a single trim level, and Infiniti expanded the line to include an AWD model a year later. The sedan and coupe shared the same 3.5-liter V6, but in the sedan, the engine made 260 hp -- 20 hp less than the coupe.

Used G35 buyers interested in maximum performance will want to focus on 2005 models or later. In '05, Infiniti bumped the power in the automatic transmission-equipped sedan to 280 hp. Coupes and sedans with the manual transmission were upgraded to 298 hp. That same year, Infiniti also updated the sport suspension package with bigger wheels and a limited-slip rear differential.

Infiniti M45 Review

2008 Infiniti M45 Sedan

Though high-end vehicles now come in more shapes and sizes than ever, the midsize luxury sedan segment remains the heart of the luxury automobile market. Nissan's luxury division, Infiniti, has been around since 1990, yet it had no real presence in this key segment until 2003, when it launched the V8-powered, rear-wheel-drive M45.

The first Infiniti M45 was little more than a Japanese-market Nissan sedan that was rebadged and slightly "Americanized" in order to give Nissan dealers something with which to compete against the high-profile German nameplates that dominate this class. But although it offered a credible amount of luxury and performance, the original M45's relatively uninspired design and cramped interior kept it from registering anything more than a faint blip on luxury buyers' radar screens.

In mid-2005, the current Infiniti M45 was introduced to wide critical acclaim. With substantially more space, a tremendous amount of technology and comfort features, and a bold, imposing exterior design, today's M45 is a high-tech powerhouse with plenty to offer midsize luxury car shoppers. Its performance capabilities have been raised significantly due to things like available four-wheel steering, a precisely tuned suspension and strong brakes. All told, the current M45 is a swift, stylish, superbly executed luxury sedan that should be considered with the top players in the segment.

Today's Infiniti M45 luxury sedan debuted as a 2006 model and comes in two trim levels: M45 and M45 Sport. Both are motivated by a powerful, 4.5-liter V8 that sends up to 325 horsepower and 336 pound-feet of torque to the rear wheels. The M45's five-speed automatic transmission has manual shift control and a sporty rev-matching feature that imparts a particularly lively feel to downshifts. Infiniti also offers a 275-hp, V6-powered version of the sedan called the M35. All M45 models are rear-wheel drive only. (The M35 is available with rear- or all-wheel drive.)

Base M45 models are geared more for luxury than sport and offer a long list of standard amenities, including climate-controlled seats, adaptive xenon headlights and tasteful wood and metal trim, among other things. The M45 Sport swaps the wood for aluminum trim, but otherwise is identical inside to the standard M45. Mechanical enhancements on the M45 Sport that raise its performance potential include 19-inch wheels and tires, firmer suspension tuning and active rear-wheel steering.

Options for the M45 line are consistent with its high-tech image, including adaptive cruise control; a lane-departure warning system; a Bose surround-sound DVD audio system with front-seat, shoulder-level surround speakers; heated and reclining rear seats; and a navigation system with voice-activated destination entry.

In road test reviews, editors have praised the Infiniti M45 for its explosive power and sharp handling and its bounty of luxury features. Criticisms of the M45 include overly intrusive road noise and complicated center-stack controls that are hard to master.

The original Infiniti M45 debuted in 2003 and was basically a Japanese-market Nissan Cedric luxury sedan brought over to fill the gap between Infiniti's near-luxury G35 and the larger, technology-laden Q45. Engineered for the narrow streets of Japan, the M45's cabin proved too narrow to hold corn-fed Americans comfortably, and the backseat was scant on legroom for a car of this size. Even worse, the M's exterior design was bland to a fault.

However, it was fast. The original M45 was available only with a 340-hp V8 and rear-wheel drive. Unlike today's model, there were no separate standard and Sport versions from which to choose, and the only suspension offered was on the sporty side. Combined with big, 18-inch wheels and performance tires, the M45 delivered respectable handling. Equally important, the original M45 was equipped with nearly the same number of safety features as today's model.

Competitively priced even when new and available with most of the luxury features found on the larger Q45, first-generation M45s generally represent strong used-car values in terms of feature content and performance. For shoppers who like the car's combination of stealth speed and luxury, and don't need a lot in the way of interior room, the first-generation Infiniti M45 could be a good match.

Jaguar XJ-Series Review

2008 Jaguar XJ-Series XJ8 Sedan Shown

The British have a penchant for revering (and some say clinging to) things past -- old buildings and dentistry from the 16th century, warm beer, 50-year-old double-decker Routemasters, the royal family and the Jaguar XJ. Introduced in 1968, the XJ's basic styling has strayed very little through three generations and several midlife redesigns. About the wildest thing to happen was the addition of square headlamps in 1990 -- and they were generally met with a smattering of jeers and "cor blimeys!"

The Jaguar XJ has never really been considered the cutting edge of full-size luxury sedans, but it has continuously been a niche model for those who consider luxury to be the quintessentially British look of abundant leather and veneered wood. Brushed aluminium, iDrive-like technologies and Japanese precision just won't cut it. Although features like digital gauges and navigation systems have been added over the years, the basic look has remained, even if it has occasionally clashed with such newfangled technology.

With the exception of its vintage duds, the present Jag XJ is a thoroughly modern luxury sedan. A lightweight aluminum frame, powerful V8 engines, active damping suspension, adaptive cruise control and high-tech features like navigation and Bluetooth keep this flagship sedan in step with competitors from Germany and Japan. Yet Jaguar's insistence on maintaining "timeless" styling has backfired, leading to disappointing sales at a time when it can ill afford any false starts (or whatever English rugby analogy would apply).

Current Jaguar XJ

Today's third-generation XJ was introduced for the 2004 model year, featuring an all-new aluminum chassis that is significantly stiffer and lighter than the previous steel structure. This added stiffness translates into better body control and more precise road feel, while the reduced heft makes for a quicker, more nimble-feeling car. The base engine is a naturally aspirated 4.2-liter V8 making 300 horsepower, while the XJR and Super V8 get a supercharged version of the same engine that churns out 400 hp. The only transmission offered is a six-speed automatic attached to Jaguar's classic and controversial J-gate shifter.

The Jaguar XJ is offered in two wheelbases and five trim levels. The XJ8 and supercharged XJR are short-wheelbase models, while the XJ8 L, Vanden Plas and supercharged Super V8 have long wheelbases. XJ8 and XJ8 L come with a respectable amount of equipment for a luxury sedan, while the Vanden Plas adds more luxurious trappings. The XJR is equipped for enhanced performance. The Super V8 is essentially a Vanden Plas with much of the XJR performance equipment, plus a few extra high-end features. Much of what is standard on the Vanden Plas and Super V8 is optional on the base XJ8 models.

The interior, much like the rest of the car, is a peculiar mix of current technology and heritage design. Burl walnut wood trim, chrome and supple leather are liberally strewn about, providing a coddling environment that would make the Fifth Duke of Wellington feel at home. Yet in reviews, we found this classic British style comes at the expense of ergonomics and general usability. Controls and switchgear are laid out illogically and set low in the dashboard, while their craftsmanship is not up to par. Whether considered "charming" or just "irritating," it would be nice if the XJ's cabin joined the 21st century.

Our road tests have shown the Jaguar XJ8 to deliver an isolated ride that filters out even the most punishing roads with little intrusion into the cabin. The soft suspension, though, tends to mask the car's stiffer body structure and good steering. On the other hand, the XJR (and to a lesser extent, the Super V8) makes the most of its advanced aluminum chassis. Its quicker steering, more aggressively tuned air suspension and 400-hp supercharged V8 prove that Jaguar can produce a luxury sedan that pleases enthusiasts and luxury-minded buyers alike.

Changes to this generation have been minimal. The long-wheelbase Vanden Plas and Super V8 didn't debut until 2005, while 2006 saw modest horsepower increases and the addition of technology like satellite radio and Bluetooth. A limited-edition Super V8 Portfolio model that added even more luxurious interior trappings was available that year. For 2008, the XJ was mildly restyled, adopting XK-style front fender vents and a more aggressive front fascia.

Past Jaguar XJ models

The first Jaguar XJ debuted in 1968 and lasted through 1987, while the second generation was on the prowl from 1987 (yes, both generations were offered that year) to 2003. The second generation started out with round headlights, but for 1990 adopted ungainly rectangular units that were met with disdain by Jaguar enthusiasts. On the whole, this era of the XJ (which ran to '94) was seen as one of the darkest, as it was plagued with various problems, many of which were electrical in nature.

For 1995's midcycle makeover, the round headlights returned, along with a sleeker, lower grille. The interior was also significantly revised to bring it into the 1990s, with improved materials and more up-to-date electronics. The traditional look remained, however, with radio and HVAC controls contained in a pod under a large swath of wood.

There were a number of different engines offered during the second generation's lifespan. The square-headlamp version came with a choice of either an inline-6 (3.6 liters and later 4.0) or a 6.0-liter V12. These models were referred to as the XJ6 and XJ12, respectively. The engines carried through the 1995 overhaul, with a supercharged, 310-hp version of the six-cylinder engine first appearing in the new XJR in 1995. The V12-powered XJ12 was dropped in 1997.

In 1998, Jaguar replaced the inline-6 engines with all-new V8s. A 4.0-liter V8 (290 hp) was found in the XJ8 (the "8" in the name signifying V8 power), while a supercharged version (370 hp) powered the XJR. A few years into this generation, the supercharged V8 became available in other XJs as well, namely the Vanden Plas Supercharged and Super V8 models.

Performance of the 1995-2003 XJs ranged from swift for the six-cylinder cars to thrilling for the supercharged V8 versions. Our road test of a 2000 Vanden Plas had that long-wheelbase luxury sedan sprinting to 60 mph in just 5.5 seconds. Ride and handling are composed but (except on the XJR) biased toward plush comfort, as one might expect of a vehicle whose cabin resembles an Edwardian parlor.

Lamborghini Murcielago Review

Massively powerful, definitively flamboyant and as eyeball-grabbing as an A-list Hollywood celebrity, the Lamborghini Murcielago firmly embodies the spirit and meaning of the word "supercar." Big and brashly styled, it has an undeniable street presence that few other cars can match.
Lamborghini Murcielago

2008 Lamborghini Murcielago Convertible Shown

As Lamborghini's top sports car, the Murcielago carries on the tradition laid down by its V12-powered predecessors, including the Miura, Countach and Diablo. It's not a particularly easy car to drive or, given its approximate $300,000 price, an easy car to obtain. Then again, that's all part of the appeal.

Current Lamborghini Murcielago

In Spanish, Murcielago means "bat," though Lamborghini says the name actually refers to a 19th-century Spanish bull that earned fame through its courageous nature in a bullfight. The supercar comes in two body styles -- coupe or convertible -- and both are powered by the same 6.2-liter V12 engine. Positioned amidships, it's capable of 580 horsepower and 478 pound-feet of torque. The Murcielago LP640, promised for 2007, has even more power. Its 6.5-liter V12 delivers 640 hp and 487 lb-ft of torque.

Feeding and cooling this powerful engine are a variety of scoops and ducts, including two electronically controlled air scoops that automatically raise from the car's rear haunches when needed. Power is sent through an all-wheel-drive system. A six-speed manual transmission is standard, and e-gear -- a paddle-shifted automated-clutch manual gearbox -- is available as an option.

The Lamborghini Murcielago's top speed is in excess of 200 mph. All body panels except the roof and doors are constructed of ultra-lightweight carbon fiber. The suspension features electronic adjustable damping, which can raise the car's front suspension 45 mm to avoid scraping the Murcielago's (normally) low-slung chin on driveways and inclines.

In contrast to the wildly styled exterior, which includes the trademark Lamborghini scissor doors, the Murcielago's interior is an exercise in simplicity. The seats are supportive and comfortable, though difficult to get into. Standard equipment includes air-conditioning, a tilt and telescoping steering wheel, power windows and locks, and an audio system with CD player. Options include a navigation system and a variety of custom accents for the interior, including carbon fiber.

In road tests and reviews, we found the Lamborghini Murcielago drives every bit like the supercar that it is. Its trucklike amble at low revs gives little clue as to the apocalyptic power delivery that awaits. At full throttle, there's a quick surge at 3,000 rpm, which gets more urgent at 4,500 as the exhaust clears its throat. This thrust is followed by the all-wheel-drive system shuttling torque to the rear and the most magnificent feral yowl up to redline. You can feel the accelerative Gs weighting your very fingertips, the scenery exploding through the wide-screen windshield. Handling, though never known as a Murcielago strength due to the car's size and weight, is still quite impressive.

Past Lamborghini Murcielago models

Through its general design and overall purpose, Lamborghini's flagship carries on the tradition set by its predecessors, the Diablo and the Countach. Introduced in 2002, the Murcielago has not undergone many major changes, though there have been a few spin-off models. In 2005, Lamborghini released the Murcielago convertible, which came with a removable hardtop.

Lexus IS 250 Review

If you're shopping for an entry-level luxury sedan with a sporty disposition, you'll undoubtedly come across the compact Lexus IS 250. It's the less expensive companion to the pricier but more powerful IS 350 and it's the most affordable way into the Lexus lineup. Although modestly powered for a premium-brand sport sedan, the IS 250 offers all the other virtues of the current IS series, including precise handling, a top-quality interior and an extensive array of high-tech features.

2008 Lexus IS 250 4dr Sedan

In addition, the Lexus IS 250 actually offers a wider variety of drivetrain configurations than the more potent IS 350. On the standard rear-wheel-drive sedan, the company gives you a choice of a six-speed manual or a six-speed automatic transmission. If you've settled on the automatic, you have the option to order your IS 250 with all-wheel drive.

Choices are many in the highly competitive entry-luxury sedan market, yet the IS 250 is certainly one you should consider. That said, its lack of serious speed will deter hard-core enthusiasts, as will its muted steering feedback. For the general premium car shopper, though, the Lexus IS 250 represents a solid buy, as it offers high levels of luxury and refinement while staying within comfortable range of the $30,000 mark.

Current Lexus IS 250

Lexus sells the IS 250 in a single trim level, with either rear-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. The power source is a 2.5-liter V6 rated for 204 horsepower and 185 pound-feet of torque. The standard equipment list is respectable for this type of car. Naturally, all the requisite safety features are on board, including front-seat side airbags, full-length head curtain airbags and stability control. Major options include adaptive bi-xenon HID headlights, heated/ventilated front seats, a surround-sound Mark Levinson audio system with a CD/DVD changer, a navigation system with a rearview camera, adaptive cruise control and Bluetooth. There's also an X package, which is essentially a sport package that provides bigger wheels, high-performance tires, firmer suspension calibrations, aluminum pedals and a front lip spoiler. Note that you can only get this package on rear-drive IS 250s.

On the move, the Lexus IS 250 is smooth-riding and quiet but a bit light on emotion. Handling is secure and precise, particularly with the X package fitted, but the IS never communicates with its driver the way a BMW 3 Series sedan does. Otherwise, the IS 250's dynamics are certainly on par with the other leading entry-luxury sedans, including the Audi A4 and Infiniti G35.

Acceleration is adequate for a car in this price range, but with 0-60-mph estimates falling around the 8-second mark, we'd hardly call it pulse-quickening. Still, buyers will be impressed by the V6's creamy power delivery and the automatic transmission's quick responses in sport mode. The manual gearbox is a reasonable choice for enthusiast drivers, but it's not as tidy through the gears as top competitors'.

Inside, the leather-lined Lexus IS 250 feels luxurious even in standard spec -- something that can't be said of many entry-level luxury sedans in this price range. Still, consumers wanting that quintessential Lexus experience will need to check off bird's-eye maple trim on the options list. Seat comfort and passenger room are excellent up front, but the backseat offers considerably less legroom than the quarters in the 3 Series and G35. Trunk space is average at 13 cubic feet.

Past Lexus IS 250 Models

Introduced for the 2006 model year, the IS 250 represents the second generation of the Lexus IS series. The first generation, known as the IS 300, was sold from 2001-'05. This car was quicker and more involving to drive than today's IS 250, but it wasn't as roomy, refined or luxurious.

Buyers who put any priority on handling would be wise to zero in on 2007 and later models with the optional X package. Also note that the standard stability and traction control system (known as Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management, or VDIM) was undefeatable on '06 models.

Lexus IS 350 Review

Most entry-level luxury sedans are a compromise between luxury comforts and performance attributes. The horsepower might be there, but the handling might be on the softer side to accommodate as many different tastes as possible. Lexus, however, provides a clever alternative to this compromise -- the company offers two entry-level sedan models, with the IS line specialized for performance.

2008 Lexus IS 350 4dr Sedan

The Lexus IS 350 (and its lesser-powered sibling, the IS 250) considerably improves on the first-generation IS sport sedan in terms of style and performance. With its potent V6 engine, sharp reflexes, aggressive exterior styling and the latest techno-gadgets, this sedan has no major weaknesses. It's one of our top choices for a luxury sport sedan, though test drives of the most popular vehicles in this segment are wise, as each model provides varying degrees of driver interaction. You'll want to find the one that suits you best.

Current Lexus IS 350

The rear-wheel-drive Lexus IS 350 is available in one body style, a four-door sedan, and with only one engine, a robust 3.5-liter V6 that pumps out 306 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque. It pushes the car from zero to 60 in 5.6 seconds, which, by the way, is firmly in sports car territory. The IS 350 comes standard with a six-speed automatic transmission. There is no manual option.

Picking out an IS 350 is pretty simple; there's only one trim level. It's very well equipped and includes 17-inch wheels, leather seats, power front seats, automatic dual-zone climate control, a moonroof and an impressive audio system with a six-CD changer. There's an auxiliary jack for MP3 players, and a Mark Levinson 14-speaker 300-watt 7.1 surround-sound audio system is available individually or as part of an option package that also includes a voice-activated navigation system.

Two other option packages worth considering are the Luxury package, which adds heated seats and HID headlights, and the Sport package, which comes with 18-inch wheels, a sport-tuned suspension and sporty interior details, such as aluminum pedals.

Even without options, the Lexus IS 350 comes with a well-crafted interior. It is attractive and features high-quality materials. The front and rear seats are built more for comfort than support, which sheds some light on the difference between the IS 350 and its more performance-centric German counterparts. Like most small luxury sedans, rear seating isn't very spacious, and the Lexus has less rear legroom than many of its competitors.

In reviews and road tests, our editors found the Lexus IS 350 to be a dynamic sport sedan. As impressive as its quickness is the engine's broad and eager power spread. Handling is sharp, but it's still a Lexus, so the drive is perhaps not quite as thrilling as one might get from a BMW or Infiniti. A precise but numb steering rack and a muted exhaust note further this impression. Still, this attribute could be good news for buyers looking for a sport-oriented luxury sedan that's perfectly suitable for daily commutes.

Past Lexus IS 350 models

The Lexus IS 350, which debuted for the 2006 model year, is still in its first generation. Previously, Lexus offered the IS 300. Available as a four-door sedan or wagon, the IS 300 was known for its outstanding driving dynamics but rather drab cabin. It also wasn't as luxurious, roomy or powerful as the current IS 350, but as an affordable used luxury sport sedan, it's worth a look. It was sold from 2001-'05.

Lotus Elise Review

While two-seat sports cars have become more comfortable, more reliable and safer in recent decades, they have also become rather portly. If you wanted both performance and light weight in one machine, you had to give up that new-car smell and start shopping the classifieds. But all that ended with the introduction of the Lotus Elise roadster to the U.S. market in 2005. It's actually been on sale overseas since '96, but European demand for the vehicle along with stringent U.S. crash standards kept it from crossing the pond until more recently.

2008 Lotus Elise Convertible

Meeting U.S. crash standards required the addition of airbags and other safety features that add weight. But Lotus knew that even sports car fans in this country would have trouble giving up comfort for the sake of extreme performance, so the U.S. Lotus Elise comes standard with air-conditioning, antilock brakes and a CD audio system. But don't look for stability control or power steering on this sports car. Lotus was willing to bend, but not break its "simplificate, then add lightness" rule for American tastes by keeping the U.S. Elise's curb weight under 2,000 pounds. That made it easily the lightest performance car sold in this country.

With so little weight to push around, power requirements are minimal. The Lotus Elise features a Toyota-sourced (and Yamaha-built) 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine. It's the same high-revving mill that's been used in Toyotas such as the Celica GT-S and Corolla XRS, but in this case it's been tuned by Lotus to broaden the power band and bump horsepower to 190. That's more than enough power to slingshot the Elise to 60 mph in under 5 seconds flat.

There's no doubt the Lotus Elise is a special car -- for the money, you simply won't find a more thrilling driving experience. Just be aware that it's also a no-frills, race-oriented machine. Those desiring an exciting roadster that can provide more day-to-day functionality will want to order the Elise's optional Touring Package or check out other more comfortable-riding European and Japanese rivals. If you want even more excitement, consider the Sport Package option.

Current Lotus Elise

The Lotus Elise is a two-seat midengine roadster available in one trim level. The interior is understandably spartan, and the standard air-conditioning can be deleted to save even more weight. Several options packages, such as the Touring Package and Sport Package, offer a bit of customization. To maximize protection, a hardtop roof is available as a stand-alone option.

Power for the Lotus Elise comes from a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine mated to a six-speed manual transmission. The Toyota-sourced engine benefits from Lotus-designed intake and exhaust components and a tweaked engine controller. The result is a broader power band and an increase in output to 190 hp at 7,800 rpm and 138 pound-feet of torque at 6,800 rpm.

As far as safety equipment, don't expect much more than federally mandated items -- antilock brakes are included and traction control is optional, but neither stability control nor side airbags are offered.

Interior accommodations are pure sports car: Lightly padded composite sport seats provide plenty of support and controls are simple enough to keep your attention on the road. The wide door sills and low steering wheel require some fancy body motions and footwork when entering or exiting the vehicle, however. Naturally, the Elise's cockpit emphasizes driving above all else and there are minimal comfort and storage features for longer road trips.

The non-power steering feels as natural as anything we've ever driven and the 1.8-liter engine is indeed tuned to be very responsive, with plenty of torque. Braking is handled by AP Racing and Brembo calipers with 11.5-inch rotors all around. It all adds up to a car that feels as race-oriented, unfiltered and capable as an Italian exotic, at roughly 1/4th the cost.

Past Lotus Elise models

Lotus introduced the Americanized "111R" version of the Elise in 2005, enabled by a three-year NHTSA exemption as the car had failed to meet U.S. bumper regulations. Changes for 2006 included the option of traction control and a limited-slip differential, lightweight forged alloy wheels and a matte black appearance package. Daytime running lights were made standard, along with LED taillights with integrated reflectors. Inside, the seat padding was upgraded for increased comfort and a new, lighter pedal set was installed to save a few more precious pounds.

Lotus Exige Review

Minimalism is the operative word behind the Lotus Exige, a dedicated sports car that will appeal to extreme enthusiasts (and probably few others). The edgy Exige is compact and built purely for ultra-high-performance driving.

2007 Lotus Exige S Coupe

Unlike other supercars, the Lotus Exige isn't powered by a massive fire-breathing V8, V10 or V12. A high-revving four-cylinder engine is all that's needed to provide extraordinary performance. This is because of the vehicle's lightweight construction. There are few amenities and little sound dampening. Weight-adding safety features are kept to the absolute minimum. As a result, the Exige makes little sense as a daily driver. But as a performance car where Lotus' mantra of "simplificate, then add lightness" is in full effect, the Exige is simply one of the quickest, most dynamic and exciting cars on the road.

Current Lotus Exige

The Lotus Exige and supercharged Exige S are hardtop coupe versions of the company's Elise roadster. When the Exige first arrived in America, it was a pleasant surprise. Britain has a long history of building small, lightweight enthusiast sports cars, but for the last quarter-century very few of them had crossed the Atlantic. The Exige, like many of those Brit performance cars, is uncompromising to such a degree that it doesn't feel legal, even by exotic car standards.

Underneath the dramatic body shell is a car built for no other purpose than to be driven hard and fast. The rear-wheel-drive sports coupe is lightweight and loud. It seats only two. Even the standard air-conditioning system can be deleted to reduce weight.

In fact with the Lotus Exige, it's all about minimizing weight. The body structure is made of aluminum. The trunk is small and there's not much additional storage space. Standard features don't include power controls. And safety features are limited to the absolute minimum, so there are no side airbags or stability control and traction control is optional. Power steering? Forget about it.

Only by purchasing the Touring Pack can you get power windows, full carpeting, sound-deadening material and a decent stereo. For the more hardcore, there is the Sport Pack, which is equipped with Eibach coaxial coil springs, Bilstein monotube dampers, forged aluminum wheels and sticky Yokohama Advan tires.

But the Sport Pack still isn't even the most extreme option. Hardcore weekend racers will definitely want to look at the Exige Track Pack, which includes a fully adjustable suspension system (for those who are mechanically inclined), a limited-slip differential and 16-inch wheels and tires up front.

The Exige is equipped with a Toyota-built, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine. Placed behind the driver for optimum weight distribution (and maximum cabin volume), the engine puts out 190 horsepower and 138 pound-feet of torque. The Exige S adds a Roots-type supercharger supplying 7.25 psi of boost, which results in ratings of 220 hp and 165 lb-ft of torque. Both models have a close-ratio six-speed manual transmission. Zero-to-60 mph acceleration for both cars happens in fewer than 5 seconds.

In our reviews, we found the Lotus Exige to be the most precise-handling car on the market. It's like a hummingbird on four wheels. It's more of a quick car than a crazy fast car. Since it was designed with the road course in mind, stopping and steering are just as important as acceleration. And while it was built to do everything well, it wasn't built for everyone in mind. The ride is harsh, getting in and out is difficult and outward visibility is extremely poor. But for die-hard enthusiasts, there might not be a more satisfying drive.

Past Lotus Exige models

The Exige arrived in the North American market for 2006. In that first year, only the regular model was available -- the Exige S debuted a year later. An earlier Exige (based on the first-generation Elise) was also built but it was never officially imported.

MINI Cooper Clubman Review

Maxing the Mini: More room, more doors, still cuddly

Little distinguishes the new longer, roomier MINI Clubman's driving experience from that of the standard Mini. Which is great news: None of the coupe's quick reflexes, playful nature, or overall Mini-ness is diminished. The differences are all about space: 3.2 inches more wheelbase (which yields an equal bump in rear legroom), 9.6 inches of increased overall length, and a cargo hold that grows from 24.0 to 32.6 cubic feet with the rear seats folded. Plus a few more doors. From the driver's seat, you'll hardly know there's more Mini behind you. But your rear-seat passengers, pets, surfboards, golf clubs, shopping bags, swap-meet treasures, and mall haul will really appreciate the extra room.

The Clubman notion isn't a new idea, but it remains a good one. It's the third body style in the reborn MINI lineup, alongside the second-generation coupe, which came to market early this year, and the convertible, still on the carryover gen-one platform for another year or so.

Mini's design job is clever. The longer roof appears flat at first glance, yet there's a gentle curve to it. Like Clubmans of old, access to the cargo bay is via two hinged "barn doors." Besides the squarer look, the exhaust pipes are no longer centered in the rear valance, instead splitting to the sides in a more conventional, dual-exhaust fashion. A spoiler at the top of the rear deck integrates the center high-mounted stoplight. In keeping with the Mini's USP of allowing the owner a wide variety of color combinations, there are many different ways to spec out the body, bumper, roof, and window-surround finishes.

Joining this club is all about space and access to it, so besides the split rear-cargo doors, there's a rear-hinged, half-door-size access panel on the passenger side that makes back-seat entry and egress a much easier proposition than in the coupe-all the better by which to enjoy the much-needed increased legroom. A squeege over three inches more room may not sound like much, but it's a world of difference in a car this compact. Full-size adults now sit comfortably in back, with plenty of head and knee room for six-footers.

This access door is well integrated into the exterior styling, with the door handle mounted inside so as not to spoil the smooth two-door look. In the name of safety, it can be opened only when the front passenger door is open. The split rear seats fold to create a commodious space for stuff-interesting in that packaging efficiency was one of the aspects that set the original Mini apart from other compact city cars of the 1960s. The centers of the two cargo area doors come together to form a pillar that bisects the driver's view out the rearview mirror, not so different from what the driver of a 1963 "Split Window" Corvette experiences. But the blockage isn't wide enough to hinder rearward vision, and it's something you quickly get used to.

No special structural reinforcement was required to accommodate the increased number of doors and hatches. Overall weight grows by about 175 pounds. Engine, transmission, and equipment levels are otherwise a direct carryover. We spent all our drive time aboard a turbocharged, 172-horsepower Cooper S version and could detect no meaningful decrease in acceleration. The extra ounces will, however, take a bit of sparkle off the naturally aspirated, 118-horsepower base model's straight-line punch. We'll verify this with instrumented testing as soon as we have the opportunity.

Same goes for handling. Overall, the Clubman S feels no different through a smorgasbord of cornering situations from the new Cooper S we just added to our long-term test fleet. One major difference in the Clubman's driving persona is ride comfort. Those three-plus inches of additional wheelbase really smooth out the standard Mini's tendency to hop on bad pavement, over railroad crossings, and the like. It's a dramatic improvement, and one that, combined with all the extra room, makes the Clubman a much happier long-distance car than the short-wheelbase model.

One bane that hasn't been exorcized, at least in the S, is torque steer. Power out of a corner, and the wheel wiggles in your hand. When the turbo boost kicks in, it wiggles worse. Perhaps Mini could have dialed out some of the effect, but steering feel would have diminished because of it. While this problem doesn't kill the Mini's fun factor, it knocks it back a notch or two. There'll never be a rear-drive Mini, but an AWD version might be fun, no?

The car's only other maddening trait, also shared with non-Clubmans, is the HVAC system's too small, too slippery, and just poorly designed fan and heat/cool controls. The tiny, click up-and-down fan switch is slick plastic and practically requires long fingernails to operate. Wearing gloves? Forget it. Why not some large, knurled knobs? And much of the center-stack lettering is too small. These are two instances where function followed form, and Mini ought to get to fixing them. Now.

MINI hasn't yet released the Clubman's pricing structure, but indicates it'll fall midway between the current coupe and convertible models. That translates to about $20,750 for a base Clubman and around $24,000 for a Clubman S, reasonable enough if you fancy the new model's design and extra space.

Besides being a blast to drive, reasonably economical, and a cheeky fashion statement, the Clubman's most significant accomplishment is that its increased passenger comfort and extra cargo room make the Mini a real car for more people. For many buyers, this functionality will more than offset the few extra dollars and the few extra pounds the Clubman packs over the standard models. Mini USA estimates that 15 percent of the cars it sells will be Clubmans. We say it had better be prepared to build more than that.

Maserati Coupe Review

2006 Maserati Coupe Cambiocorsa 2dr Coupe

Practical Exotic Car

The most affordable Maserati has a tight but useable backseat and trunk to complement sexy styling and exhilarating performance.

by Jim Gorzelany and Matthew de Paula

It may not have an imaginative name, but Maserati's Coupé remains an alluring two-door with scintillating performance to match its sensual styling by noted design firm Italdesign-Giugiaro.
2005 Maserati Coup?

As with most exotic cars produced in small numbers, the Coupé hardly changes year to year. For 2006, it gets a larger grille and two-tone interior color schemes. A new limited-edition Vintage package ($4,320) features details meant to evoke classic Maseratis, including light-blue instrument dials in the style of the company's '50s race cars, 19-inch polished wheels, silver brake calipers, aluminum brake and accelerator pedals, chrome mesh front and rear air intakes, chrome exterior door handles and chrome side air outlets.

The four-seat Coupé is Maserati's base model but is anything but basic. Its 4.2-liter V8 uses variable valve timing and electronic drive-by-wire throttle control to generate an impressive 390 hp and 333 pound-feet of torque. It launches the car from zero to 62 mph in 4.9 seconds and on to a staggering top speed of 177 mph.

Estimated fuel economy of 12 to 13 mpg city/18 to 19 mpg highway draws a $3,000 gas-guzzler tax.

There are two trim levels that differ only in their transmissions: the Coupé GT comes with a manual six-speed and the Coupé Cambiocorsa, which adds $4,244 to the car's price, comes with an electronically controlled sequential-manual six-speed that is operated by paddles behind the steering wheel and has a fully automatic mode.

The six-speed manual is the transmission of choice for purists. While the sequential-manual Cambiocorsa gearbox does offer a measure of novelty and flexibility, the automatic mode isn't particularly smooth in operation. This transmission does, however, include a "hill holder" function that automatically engages the brakes for a few seconds on an incline as the driver moves his or her foot from the brake to the gas pedal. Because complex transmissions like Maserati's Cambiocorsa are relatively new in production vehicles (as opposed to race cars, where they've been used for some time), their resilience and reliability remain to be seen.

While even the most aggressive drivers won't be disappointed with the Coupé's firm suspension that enables razor-sharp handling, an optional continuously variable Skyhook suspension ($2,500) improves ride quality and comfort. It has two driver-selectable modes: Sport and Comfort. Eighteen-inch wheels are standard; 19-inch wheels are optional and pricey at $2,480 to $3,775 a set.

Those looking for the ultimate in sporty handling can upgrade to the Maserati GranSport, which is a tweaked version of the Coupé with a lowered suspension, aerodynamic improvements and other minor differences. A convertible version, the GranSport Spyder, is available for sunseekers and sacrifices the Coupé's rear seats for its folding fabric top.

A richly appointed and well-crafted leather interior coddles occupants with supportive power-adjustable sport seats. It blends classic and modern styling beautifully. The driver faces traditional analog gauges, while at the center of the dashboard is a 5.8-inch color video monitor that controls the audio, ventilation and other systems. It can also be used to operate the optional GPS satellite-navigation system ($2,030), hands-free telephone module and CD changer ($725).

The interior is spacious for an exotic sports car. Getting into the backseat can be challenging, but two small to medium-size adults can comfortably fit in the rear for short- trips. The trunk will swallow two golf bags or a custom, five-piece fitted luggage set ($2,500).

Maserati sells only about 2,000 cars annually. For those who feel the Coupé isn’t glamorous or exclusive enough, the company’s Officine Alfieri Maserati program offers limitless customization of interior materials and colors, exterior paint and various other custom-made accessories, such as the fitted luggage.

BMW Z4 Review

The BMW Z4 is one of the more intriguing sports cars currently available. It's known for its engaging handling and steering, thrilling inline six-cylinder engine and distinctive styling. Although its stated horsepower ratings are equaled or surpassed by those of some less expensive machinery, the Z4 counters with a lighter curb weight and, in most cases, a more rewarding driving experience. Recent improvements have made the latest Z4 the best yet, and older models are still a very viable choice for a used sports car.

The BMW Z4 is built at the company's Spartanburg, South Carolina, facility, and has been in production since the 2003 model year. It's a successor to the original Z3 and is the company's only two-seat sports car. It features traditional characteristics such as a front-engine/rear-drive layout, a hunkered-down stance, a long hood and rearward positioning of driver and passenger. Another notable element is the car's chiseled exterior design, which BMW says is used to add tension to the car's shape.

The BMW Z4 is available as a roadster with a convertible top or a fixed-roof coupe. For the roadster, there are two trim levels: 3.0i and 3.0si. The Z4 3.0i comes with features such as 17-inch wheels, stability control, antilock brakes, power mirrors and windows, manually operated seats and vinyl upholstery. A 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder engine rated at 215 horsepower is standard, as is a six-speed manual transmission. A six-speed automatic is optional.

The Z4 3.0si features 18-inch wheels, a few upgraded interior features and a 255-hp 3.0-liter inline six. A few options are also available for both trim levels, including a Premium package with a power-operated top and a Sport package designed to improve the vehicle's handling capabilities. The Z4 Coupe is offered in the 3.0si trim only.

Even without the Sport package, the Z4 rewards drivers with an engaging driving experience. In reviews of the BMW Z4, editors have praised the car's sharp reflexes and quick acceleration. The Coupe possesses a slight advantage in terms of handling due to its added body rigidity. For shoppers desiring even more performance, there's also an M-powered version of the Z4.

Because of a major update for 2006, Z4 models from this year and onwards are a better choice than earlier models, if price is no object. This update included the mid-year release of the coupe body style, the 215-hp and 255-hp engines, and the six-speed automatic. Other changes to the BMW sports car included a retuned standard suspension for better ride quality, a higher final-drive ratio for improved acceleration, new wheel designs, additional braking functionality for the stability control system, updated front and rear styling and minor interior trim updates.

From 2003-'05, BMW Z4 models were identified as either 2.5i or 3.0i. The 2.5i has a 2.5-liter, inline six-cylinder engine that makes 184 hp, while the 3.0i uses a 3.0-liter straight six that generates 225 hp. For transmissions, there is a five-speed manual (standard on the 2.5), a six-speed manual (standard on the 3.0), a five-speed automatic or, as on the M3, a six-speed Sequential Manual Gearbox (SMG). There were a few minor changes made during this period in terms of feature content, but none of them were significant enough to make one model year more desirable than another.

Chevrolet Monte Carlo Review

The Chevrolet Monte Carlo traces its roots back several decades to the height of the muscle car era, when Chevy sought to entice customers with a sporty, upscale rear-drive V8 coupe that provided a balance of performance and comfort in a stylish package. From those early years -- which included big-block SS (Super Sport) editions -- the Monte Carlo evolved toward a more luxury-oriented persona, saw significant downsizing (to optimize fuel efficiency) and soldiered on as a popular rear-drive sport coupe until 1988, when it was replaced by the Lumina coupe.

Following a lengthy hiatus, the Chevy Monte Carlo emerged once again in 1995. However, by then it had been softened and saddled with a carryover front-wheel-drive platform and V6 engines that barely hinted at the performance of years gone by. It was, in essence, a Lumina coupe.

The current-generation Chevrolet Monte Carlo coupe debuted in 2000 with more distinctive styling and updated underpinnings from the Impala sedan to better meet the needs of today's buyers. Significant changes in 2006 have helped the Monte Carlo come nearly full circle back to its original mission with sportier chassis tuning, improved driving dynamics and more power in SS models, while freshened interior and exterior styling offer a sculpted and pleasing contemporary appearance.

Although much improved in the past few years -- including a return to available V8 power in SS trim -- we feel that other performance sport coupe competitors like the Mustang offer a more satisfying choice as long as you don't mind giving up some interior room. In reviews, our editors say the Monte Carlo is primarily a comfortable cruiser that's more at home in the fast lane than on twisty mountain roads. If the latter is your preferred driving environment, you may want to consider other brighter, more focused alternatives.

The current-generation Chevrolet Monte Carlo, which received a major update for the 2006 model year, is a midsize two-door coupe that comes in three trim levels: the base but reasonably well-equipped LS, the more upscale LT and the performance-oriented SS. Under the hood of LS and LT models is a 3.5-liter V6 with 211 horsepower, while the SS boasts a responsive 5.3-liter V8 with 303 hp. Impressive numbers, yes. But we'd like them even better if they powered the rear wheels like Monte Carlos of years ago, especially in the case of the SS. A front-engine/rear-drive layout is typically preferable for optimum weight distribution and balanced handling, especially when that engine is a heavy V8.

Overall, this Chevy Monte Carlo is a spacious sport coupe that offers buyers a reasonably good comfort/performance trade-off for a relatively low sticker price. The V8-equipped Monte Carlo SS suffers from a nose-heavy feel, however. If quick reflexes are on your wish list instead and you don't mind tighter quarters, we suggest you consider one of its smaller but more nimble sport coupe competitors.

Used-car shoppers interested in a late-model Monte Carlo will likely encounter the previous-generation model, which was available from the 2000-'05 model years. Based on the then-new Impala platform and wearing distinctive, fresh sheet metal with heritage styling cues, the Chevrolet Monte Carlo was originally offered as an LS with a 3.4-liter V6 engine making 180 hp, or an SS with a 200-hp 3.8-liter V6. A driver-side airbag -- as well as traction control and OnStar on SS models -- was added as standard safety equipment in 2001, and all models received four-wheel disc brakes, traction control and remote keyless entry in 2003. In a bid to boost its performance image, Chevrolet added a 240-hp supercharged engine option for the SS in 2004.

Previous to this model, there was the Lumina-based Monte Carlo, which became available for the 1995 model year in LS or Z34 sport trim levels. Those wishing to hit the fast lane are advised to stick with the 210-hp 3.4-liter twincam V6 in the Z34. Detail improvements carried the Chevrolet Monte Carlo through the next several years, though only the most eagle-eyed used-car shoppers are likely to appreciate the differences.

Ford Focus Review

The Ford Focus has been Ford's entry-level car since the start of the new millennium. This front-wheel-drive model is far from luxurious but nonetheless displays a surprising amount of character from behind the wheel. Its affordable price, expressive styling and availability in multiple body styles have all contributed to making this one of Ford's most popular cars worldwide.

2008 Ford Focus SE Coupe Shown

Introduced for the 2000 model year, the Ford Focus was designed to be a "world car," meaning it has been sold around the world in the same basic form as the car sold in the United States. In order to appeal to European buyers, the Focus was tuned to provide responsive handling and communicative steering.

Since that time, Ford has gone on to introduce a second-generation Focus for European markets. America's Focus, however, has continued on without a full redesign. As such, it hasn't been a top-tier choice for an economy car in recent years. Ford did perform a significant refresh for the current 2008 model, however, and it's been effective enough to keep the Focus a still-viable choice for a new economy car, particularly for shoppers focused mainly on value. As a used vehicle, the Focus represents a solid pick, especially since its lower resale value compared to import-brand competitors typically translates to lower purchase prices.

Current Ford Focus

Compared to models sold for 2007 and earlier, the current Ford Focus is more up-to-date thanks to a significant refresh. Changes include revised interior and exterior styling, altered engine and body-style lineups and additional safety equipment.

The Focus is currently available as a coupe and as a sedan, and both body styles come in three trims: base S, midgrade SE and sporty SES. All Focus models are powered by a 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder that offers 140 horsepower. Cars sold in California-level emission states have a cleaner version of this engine that is PZEV-certified; it's good for 130 hp. A five-speed manual transmission is standard, with a four-speed automatic offered as an option.

Within its cabin, the Focus offers a reasonably attractive environment. Still, the Focus' interior doesn't measure up to the cabins offered by some of its competitors, both in terms of materials quality and design aesthetic. One unique feature sets the car apart: Ford's Sync system. Developed in conjunction with Microsoft, this system functions much like Bluetooth, but is simpler to operate.

Though its handling isn't as finely honed as that of the segment's performance leaders, theFord Focus offers a reasonably engaging driving experience; additionally, fuel economy is excellent. Factor in its amenable price, and it becomes clear that the current Focus has much to offer in the area of value, if not refinement.

Past Ford Focus Models

The Ford Focus is still in its first generation, but it's seen a few changes since it first appeared on showroom floors. Focus models sold from 2000-'03 were available as a two-door hatchback sedan or wagon, and came with either an anemic SOHC 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder engine rated for 110 horsepower or a preferable DOHC 2.0-liter engine called the Zetec that was good for 130 hp. In 2004, Ford added a 2.3-liter inline-4 to the lineup that offered 145 hp and cleaner emissions. The 2.3-liter was optional on all 2004 Focus models, except in California, New York, Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont, where it was standard across the line.

A 170-hp four-cylinder engine and a six-speed transmission were featured in the short-lived and rare Focus SVT hatchback. Coveted by young enthusiasts, the SVT Focus was offered as a two-door hatchback in 2002, and as a two-door and a four-door hatch in '03 and '04.

In 2005, the Focus got a modest refresh that provided cosmetic changes on the outside, a revised control layout inside and a new engine lineup: a 2.3-liter, four-cylinder engine that produced 151 hp, and a 136-hp, 2.0-liter four-cylinder. A five-speed manual transmission was standard across the line and a four-speed automatic was optional on most models. By this point, a five-door hatchback had been added to the body-style lineup; it was discontinued after 2007, as were the wagon and two-door hatch.

Our editors were quite fond of the Ford Focus in its earlier years, and the car earned Editors' Most Wanted Award designations from 2000-'03. Although we consider it a good buy on the used market, the car's reliability record hasn't been perfect, particularly the 2000 models, which were plagued by recalls. We'd advise a thorough mechanical inspection before you buy. Additionally, shoppers looking at the SVT Focus should pay special attention to the quantity and quality of any aftermarket modifications the previous owner may have made.

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