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Wednesday
Jul132011

Blending Drivability and Efficiency: Part 1

I enjoy cars that press me into the seatback when I press the accelerator. But I also have such a passion for practicality and efficiency that most of my cars have been station wagons or hatchbacks. And, with the exception of my first car—a supercharged 1941 Graham Hollywood that could blow off Oldsmobile Rocket 88s at the Pomona drag strip—I have never owned a car that delivered fewer than 20 miles from a gallon of gas. Even my ’92 Twin Turbo Nissan 300ZX, with 300 horsepower, could do it. So could my two most recent cars, an Audi A3, with its eager 2.0-liter turbo and marvelous dual shaft transmission, and a twin-turbo BMW 335i Convertible with the entertaining folding metal roof. Some, like my 1951 Renault 4CV did a lot better.

I’ve also owned all three Prii (Toyota's official term for more than one Prius, pronounced pre-eye): 2001, 2004, and 2010 (actually, my wife, a Prius enthusiast of the first order, has claimed each as her own). They have been the fuel economy champs in our garage, of course. The classic 2004 model with a shape that lent it record-breaking aerodynamic efficiency (with a CD of just 0.26) was the most innovative and the most beautiful (yes, beautiful). The 2010 model does even better (with a CD of 0.25) and is the most mechanically and ergonomically refined Prius.

But Toyota never has seen fit to offer a truly nimble Prius on steroids—more like the hypothetical “Green Meanie” Prius I described in the February 2004 issue of Motor Trend.

Audi A5 CoupeWhen I recently found myself in the market for a new car I considered the gorgeous Audi A5 coupe as a worthy successor to my BMW. But I felt a need to satisfy my pragmatic spirit more fully by seeking something that delivered better than the 24 mpg overall I had been getting with the BMW. I was willing to accept less spirited acceleration. But I was not willing to sacrifice handling, which is far more important to me than acceleration for overall satisfaction and safety. Ideally, my new car would represent an ideal blend of attributes: it would be as enjoyable to drive as my BMW but as frugal as my wife’s Prius.

Audi A3VW Golf GTI (TDI design similar)Ford Focus HatchbackFond memories of my Audi A3 put the turbo-diesel-powered TDI version high on my list of prospects, as well as its less expensive cousin, the VW Golf TDI with the same engine and dual-clutch transmission. The new 2012 Ford Focus hatchback also went on the list in large part because I like its design so much. All three of these practical hatchbacks are fuel misers. The published 0-60 mph acceleration time of both the Audi and VW is 8.9 seconds; the Focus does it in a comparable 8.7 seconds. The Focus has an EPA estimate city/highway average of 31 mpg. The A3 and Golf TDIs were a bit better with an average of 34 mpg—which was offset by the cost of diesel fuel, which sells for more than premium gas. I enjoyed driving all three and would have gladly owned any of them. 

Lexus CT 200hBut I delayed my decision until I had a chance to see and drive another sporty hatchback, the newest, smallest, and least expensive Lexus, the CT 200h, which introduces the second-generation hybrid technology from Lexus. It is essentially a more vigorous, luxurious and as you might expect, more expensive Prius. Stay tuned.

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