Cool Street Cars

Of the street cars widely available in the U.S. my top pick is the Toyota MR2 Spyder. With light weight, rear drive mid-engine, and a nicely tuned suspension, it's one of the best drivers in America. Light weight is one of the most desirable features in a sporty car since a lighter car uses less energy to turn, brake and accelerate than a heavier one. At about 2200 lbs, or 100 less than the current Miata (Mazda MX-5), the Toyota MR2 Spyder is one of the lightest in America. The suspension tuning feels soft, but it is entirely appropriate to the light car, keeping the chassis responses delicate and tires in supple contact with the ground. The Spyder's styling has now become familiar as sort of a smaller, friendlier Boxster. Practicality is the MR2 Spyder's only major flaw since it has near zero storage space, but as a fun car it's great. The other flaw is that it uses a strut suspension instead of double A-arms, but then so do many sporty cars and well regarded sedans by Honda, BMW, etc. (The mid-engined Lotus Elise actually has more storage than the MR2 Spyder, and is very significantly lighter, but it is not imported yet.)

It's worth mentioning that mid-engine cars drive and feel quite different from front-wheel-drive or front engine rear drive. A mid-engined enters and exits turns more easily, quickly, and gracefully than other configurations. The reason for this is that the mass of the engine is nearer the car's center of mass, so it has less distance to travel when changing directions. It simply has less work to do in a turn. Turning can sometimes feel slow or reluctant compared to front engine, but this is because it happens gracefully, with less obvious force. A front or rear engined car hurls the large weight of the engine into a turn like an Olympic hammer thrower. Tossing this big mass around a long lever arm gives a stronger, more obvious sensation of turning. In contrast, the more tightly coupled mid-engine allows these cars to change directions in a more subtle, solid, and coordinated way, like an ice skater with arms brought in for a tight spin. Because you are closer to the center of all the action, the feeling is more of "being at one with the car" than being a mere passenger. Think of the skater at the center of the turn. The slight rear weight bias of a mid-engined car also enhances both acceleration and braking. Under acceleration, the bias applies more load to the rear driven wheels, making them stick better. Braking force is also more evenly balanced, with less extreme concentration at the front. (Braking transfers load to the front. Front-wheel drive cars in particular overload the front tires under braking; they also undesirably unload the fronts under acceleration.) The fact that virtually nearly all modern race cars are mid-engined proves the superiority of this configuration. As with rear engine cars, remember to keep your foot steadily on the throttle in turns. If you lift abruptly you'll usually get oversteer, and the back end can come around. Likewise for abrupt brake application in a turn.

Subaru is finally bringing the awesome WRX to the U.S. Full rally versions of this turbo AWD car have been kicking ass in the rest of the world for years and the homologation street car it's based on has a rabid following reflected in aftermarket parts, fan web pages, etc. The current chassis is stiffer and cleaner than the old version. Power boosts beyond 300 HP are somewhat practical. The rumor mill has BMW M3 owners trading in their cars for WRXes. Mitsubishi has taken note of WRX waiting lists at Subaru dealers and is bringing in their more recent, and better looking, World Championship winning Lancer Evo VII. For all wheel drive cars, I can't think of better choices than these homologated versions of World Rally Cars. Note that both Lancer and Imprezza models these cars are based on are pretty low-end economy sedans, so the interiors aren't super fancy. But these cars will outdrive most on the road, especially due to their exotic, effective, and highly-developed, rally-honed all-wheel-drive.

Update: Mitsubishi is now bringing Evo to the U.S. Every review I've read indicates that the Evo is superior to the WRX, even the 300 hp STi version of the WRX which surpasses the stock Evo's power by about 10%. (Note that simple modifications, such as those from Vishu Tuning, can bring the Evo to above 300 hp.) While the STi is faster in a straight line, mostly due to the larger U.S. 2.5-liter flat four's torque, the Evo beats the STi on the street and track due to more predictable handling. For any place with turns, the Evo is better. Evo driving feel is also said to be much better. I would get the Evo.

One of the best front-wheel-drive cars coming to America is the New Mini Cooper. BMW builds Mini in England, giving it excellent suspension design and tuning and full electronic traction and stability controls. The New Mini combines BMW quality with great styling and compact size in a very practical small car. In terms of headroom, Mini can hold four sub 6 footers, but the same four may lack legroom. The interior is made more spacious by deliberately placing surfaces and controls far from the seats. Update: Honda has decided to bring in the Civic Si, which like Mini is also built in England. Unlike the rest of Honda's current U.S. lineup, the Civic Si is a hatchback so we're finally seeing the return of lighter, simpler Hondas again. Civic Si has a 1.8 liter version of their latest torquier i-VTEC engines. Another Honda with the new generation i-VTEC is the upcoming Acura RSX Type S. The RSX Type S is significantly faster on a racetrack than the Integra GS-R it replaces, but is also more refined and comfortable. Like the Civic it's based on, the RSX loses the double wishbone front suspension, reverting to struts, but fortunately it has not gained much weight over the Integra. If you like front drive cars, these are good ones. The Ford Focus ZX3 is reportedly a great feeling entry-level front-driver.

The most impressive economy car is the Honda Insight. This gasoline/electric hybrid gets a real world 50 to 60 mpg and is one of the sportier Hondas, with a 1900 lb weight due to an aluminum chassis. At $19k Honda is surely losing money on each one sold, given the amount of innovative technology that's gone into it. The only thing unpleasing about it is the buzzy 3 cylinder engine. The battery pack is under 1 kWH so the 10 kW traction motor, which is also a starter and generator, can deplete it in a few minutes. Long hill climbs can end up going very slowly once that happens and the 1.0 liter 67 hp gasoline engine is left to propel it alone. Still, this is a very impressive car.

The Toyota Prius hybrid has been getting a lot of attention lately, mainly due to its hybrid status. Perhaps overlooked in all the attention is that the newer Honda Civic Hybrid is a better engineered hybrid. Honda improved the Insight controller and integrated it seamlessly along with battery pack and electric motor into a Civic that sells for a $2K premium over a regular Civic. The car externally looks like a Civic, but gains hybrid advantages of greater gas mileage, better range, lower emissions and regenerative braking. Like the rest of the hybrid package, the jewel-like hybrid instrumentation displays are beautifully integrated. If I needed a 4 seat hybrid, the Civic Hybrid would be my first choice, otherwise I would get the lighter, more-exotic, 2-seat Insight.

At my brother's urging I drove a 1998 BMW 323i down to the 2001 Monterey weekend. After putting a few hundred mostly highway miles on it, I can say this is a very nice modern sedan -- probably the best I've driven. All the responses are nearly perfect: braking rates and feel, chassis balance, throttle response, automatic transmission upshift and downshift timing. Steering is a little slow but good for highway cruising. The car willingly, easily, and nearly transparently does what's asked of it. I consider this competence. I cannot say the same about many other sedans. No, it's not the ultimate driving machine, that is probably a Lotus 23 or Lotus Elise (or other light mid-engine cars **), but it is a good, competent rear wheel drive sedan. With a manual transmission and the later or earlier or later heavier weighted steering, highly recommended. (** Formula One and Indy cars are also light and mid-engined, with similar weight to the Lotuses, but vastly more power....)

Here are some impressions of the 2005 Mustang GT and 2003 Mazda RX-8.