We realize that not everyone can afford to spend $30,000 or more for a sport sedan. Yet we also know that just because somebody can't (or doesn't want to) spend big bucks on a car doesn't mean that they don't enjoy driving as much as someone who can (or will).
Joy from driving is typically engendered by a vehicle that possesses quick acceleration, surefooted handling, a solid and linear feel to the steering and brakes, and a general feeling of unity between car and driver. Oh, and a killer sound system helps. Four-door sedans with these desirable traits are called sport sedans and are usually out of reach for the average Joe. Fortunately for Joe, there is a market segment that we call econosports, affordable but sprightly compact sedans.
One of the first econosports was the BMW 2002, produced from 1968 through 1976. This BMW didn't cost that much (under $3,000 when introduced), and it wasn't exactly luxurious. But it was a blast to drive, a quick and agile little box of a car that could accommodate four adults and their luggage comfortably.
Today, the selection of cars that embody this philosophy of grin-inducing performance, affordability, practicality and manageable size is all over the map, with competition bearing American, German and Asian nameplates. Limiting ourselves to cars with base prices less than $20,000, we gathered what we felt are the best representatives of the current econosport sedan class for a full-blown Edmunds.com comparison shootout: Dodge Neon R/T, Mazda Protegé MP3, Mitsubishi Lancer O-Z Rally, Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V, Subaru Impreza 2.5 RS and Volkswagen Jetta GLS 1.8T. It should be noted that the Protegé MP3 was a 2001 model that didn't continue for 2002, but we felt it should be included because it was introduced late in the 2001 model year and will have a turbocharged successor for 2003.
We lived with these cars for two weeks, driving them on loops that offered a mix of freeway, twisty two-lane and city driving, and completed a comprehensive evaluation form for each one. We also went the extra mile and took the cars to the Streets of Willow racetrack (located just north of Los Angeles), so that we could safely explore their limits on this tightly twisting road race-style track.
So if the reality of stiff mortgage (or rent) payments, various debts and the downslide of your mutual funds got you bummed out, and you're thinking that your finances dictate driving something as exciting as a moped with four wheels, read on and rejoice.
Sixth Place - 2002 Dodge Neon R/T
Barely beating out the Mitsu for the honor (?!) of last place, the Dodge Neon R/T could be summed up in one word: crude. Nearly every moving part of this car lacks polish, from the buzzy engine to the unrefined feel of the gear shifter.
One of the requirements of an econosport is style; the target demographic (young driving enthusiasts) demand eye-catching looks from their rides. Certainly, the Neon R/T has the visual pizzazz to set it apart from the rental-fleet Neon, sporting snazzy 16-inch alloys, rocker panel extensions, a rear spoiler and dual chrome exhaust outlets (don't get too excited it's not a real dual exhaust system). Though most of us didn't mind the R/T's look from the front and sides, we couldn't take to the "strange butt-in-the-air stance" (as one editor put it) when viewed from astern. One staffer, apparently taken with the whimsical nose of the Neon, felt it had a "bug-like cuteness."
A curious mix of luxury and cheapness characterize the cabin. On one hand is the gathered leather on the seats, a padded center console armrest up front and chrome door release levers, all lending an upscale look and feel. But on the other are manual controls for the rear windows (even though the fronts are powered) and a cheesy plastic trim plate that surrounds the center stack. And then there is that quirky, upside-down steering wheel and a nearly hidden "in-dash" CD changer. If you can't find the changer, look down under the center stack. A few features did manage to win favor with our critical staff, however, such as the hefty leather gearshift knob and a compass/outside temperature display conveniently located beneath the rearview mirror.
A rough-and-tumble 2.0-liter inline four makes 150 horsepower, and though it turned in respectable times at the test track (0-to-60 in 8.5 seconds and the quarter-mile in 16.6 ticks), it didn't feel particularly energetic. Drive the R/T hard and you'll feel like you're really thrashing it as a buzzy commotion is heard through the firewall. The Neon's generous amount of noise, vibration and harshness has been a constant complaint of ours ever since this car debuted in 1995. And although it has been improved since then, even the Mitsubishi shames it in this area.
One of the potential joys of driving cars in this class is working a manual gearbox. But the Neon falls short here; in contrast to the shifter's meaty grip is its fragile and notchy action that gives the impression that aggressive changes will result in broken linkage. Even the gas pedal drew barbs for its stiff feel that made it tricky to modulate when one first drove the Dodge.
Running laps at the racetrack, we discovered that the Neon could get around the tight circuit in a hurry. At 1:26.55, it was right there with the Impreza (1:26.45) and Protegé (1:26.15). The suspension has the requisite upgrades, such as front and rear stabilizer bars and firmer shocks and springs to keep body wallow to a minimum when pushing through serpentine sections of pavement. Although the car stays planted when zipping through the curves, the driver will find his butt sliding around on the flat seat cushion, which one editor likened to "sitting on an ottoman."
One area where the Neon ruled was braking, where its ABS-aided four-wheel discs brought the car down from 60 mph in an impressively short 121 feet. Although braking numbers don't elicit the ooohhs and ahhhs that blistering acceleration stats do, consider that very few cars we've tested have topped that performance. For comparison, consider that a world-class supercar we drove recently, the Porsche 911 Turbo, beat the R/T's braking distance by just 4 feet! Apart from the ABS being noisy when called into action during panic-stop simulations, the binders were praised for solid pedal feel and a resistance to fade when put to the test at Willow Springs Raceway Park.
But away from the track and out in the real world, the R/T felt leaden and somewhat disconnected due to its droning engine, imprecise gearshift and numb steering. Plenty of wind and road noise invade the cabin, and added to the engine noise, they will have you testing the power of the stereo. Combine this cacophony with marginal front seat comfort and long trips in the Neon can get tiresome. Backseat occupants, however, will enjoy plenty of room and a well-contoured seat.
Although the Neon was recently redesigned (as a 2000 model), it still has a long way to go to catch up to the class leaders. Hope is on the horizon, as 2003 will bring the SRT-4, which was shown at the 2002 Greater Los Angeles Auto Show. This seriously high-performance Neon will be packing a turbocharged 2.4-liter DOHC four-cylinder mill cranking out 205 horsepower and 220 pound-feet of torque. Performance should be staggering, as Dodge's estimates put the 0-to-60-mph sprint at 5.9 seconds and top speed at close to 150 mph. And improvements to the seats and interior trim are also reported for this car.
But that's next year. Right now, the Neon just doesn't have the goods to challenge the top guns.
Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says:
It's kind of hard to make a street machine out of a car that most people describe as "cute." The big rear wing and larger tires help a little bit, but style is certainly not one of this car's strong points. I could forgive the dull looks if there were some degree of muscle under the hood, but with only 150 horsepower, the Neon doesn't pack much of a punch. Couple that with a vague shifter and lifeless steering, and you can begin to see why this car doesn't measure up very well against its peers.
Surprisingly enough, the Neon was thoroughly entertaining at the track. The well-tuned suspension was predictable and stable at the limit, and the powerful brakes hauled the car down quickly for tight corners. A little more juice from the engine and this Neon would be a legitimate track star.
Of course, then there's the interior. With its cheap plastic dash pieces and roll-down rear windows, the Neon R/T is hardly the lap of luxury. The CD changer is buried so far under the dash, I didn't even know it was there, and the seats are so devoid of bolstering that you spend half the time just trying to keep yourself from falling out of the seat.
Despite its recent redesign, the Neon failed to deliver an experience on par with its more modern competitors. Of course, that all changes next year with the SRT-4, so don't completely count the Neon out of this hot new category.
Senior Road Test Editor Brent Romans says:
When I see a previous-generation Neon R/T on the road, a smile often appears on my face. That was a cool car. The current R/T is not cool. It's not even "Well, I guess it's OK if you want an American-made car." For me, it was the bottom feeder of the test. Very little about this car is pleasant. The exhaust note could just as well be from a Chrysler LeBaron, and the engine is rough-sounding. The interior design is bland and the materials used are weak. (What's with the silly plastic bezel that surrounds the center stack? Yuck.) The leather driver seat is slippery and lacks sufficient side bolstering for spirited driving. The shifter feels like it's going to snap off. From the outside, the Neon has this strange, butt-in-the-air stance. And the price holy rip-off, Batman! Dodge has said it's bringing out a turbocharged Neon called the SRT-4. Maybe that will be better. But I'm not holding my breath.
Senior Editor Christian Wardlaw says:
Now that we all know about the imminent release of the 205-horsepower Neon SRT-4, it seems that my comments on the 2002 Neon R/T constitute a moot point. My notes say: "Dodge could take a lesson from any of these competitors," and the evidence points to a lesson learned.
That said, the existing R/T is a sorry excuse for an econosport. All it does it look and sound the part, with its lacy-spoke alloys, blatting exhaust note and hoop decklid spoiler.
Driving the Neon, especially if you've had the benefit of comparing all of these vehicles back-to-back the way we did for two weeks, reveals a generally unrefined vehicle suffering from heavy and numb steering with sloppy response, a mushy suspension exhibiting excessive body roll and a notchy shifter. The tires squeal loudly in turns, the engine groans under hard acceleration, and the interior looks and feels low-rent, with a steering wheel that appears to have been installed upside down.
Seat comfort is rather good, despite a lack of height adjustment, and the leather exudes quality at this price point. Plus, I think it's a good-looking car. But that summarizes the extent of my accolades for the Neon R/T.
An econosport is supposed to be fun to drive. I'd rather buy the Mitsubishi. That ain't saying much.
Stereo Evaluation - 2002 Dodge Neon R/T
Ranking in Stereo Test: Tied for third.
System Score: 6.0
Components: Similar to the Ford SVT Focus we put through its paces in the accompanying sport hatchback comparison test, the stereo in the Dodge Neon has remained virtually unchanged since we first road-tested it two years ago. Chrysler takes a different approach than many manufacturers, with mixed results. In this case, the Neon has exceptional amplification, good speakers and a poor head unit. This reminds us that it's difficult, if not impossible, to find an audio system in this segment that satisfies all one's needs. Something is always amiss. Still, this is an above-average system that will please many consumers.
The system begins with a pair of full-range 6-by-9-inch speakers on the rear deck. These are complemented in the front doors by a pair of 6.5-inch mid-bass drivers, which in turn are coupled to a pair of upward-firing tweeters built into the top of the dashboard. The tweeters work by bouncing sound off the windshield glass and reflecting it into the passenger compartment an original and creative design, especially for a car in the econobox segment. They sound good, too.
Electronics include an AM/FM/cassette head unit with standard Chrysler features. The heat unit is a mixed bag. While it offers the convenience and flexibility of a built-in three-band eq and solid ergonomics overall, it also employs Chrysler's clunky two-stage radio presetting procedure, which won't win awards any time soon for user-friendliness. To make matters worse, our Neon came equipped with a four-disc CD changer tucked below the dash in an impossible-to-reach location. This would appear to be a quick-fix solution to compete with the six-disc in-dash changers that are rapidly becoming the industry standard, particularly in Japanese vehicles. Access this device at your own peril while driving. Best to pull over curb-side and swap your discs, or have a friend in the passenger seat do the honors. Anyone at Chrysler ever hear of distracted driving?
Rounding out this system is very good-sounding power amplifier with excellent volume-limiting. Virtually no distortion at full gain, and next to the Mitsubishi Lancer the best of the six cars we tested.
Performance. The best part of this system is the power amp and the dash-mounted tweeters. Even at full gain, the amp exhibits no harshness or amplifier clipping. The upward-firing tweeters in the dash look odd at first (they're spaced at different distances from the windshield), but produce great results. The Chrysler engineers obviously knew what they were doing. The soundstage is very good a fine presentation for a relatively inexpensive car.
Best Feature: Dash-mounted tweets.
Worst Feature(s): Funky station presetting, poorly located CD changer.
Conclusion. This system represents a good value. If it weren't for the ergonomic hiccups, we would've ranked it higher. But since user-friendliness and design are part of the equation, we can't see giving it any higher than a 6. Scott Memmer
Fifth Place - 2002 Mitsubishi Lancer O-Z Rally
Remember a few Winter Olympics ago there was an English ski jumper nicknamed "Eddie the Eagle"? Eddie had the distinction of being in the Olympics even though he was not very skilled at his sport. England isn't exactly the ski jumping capital of the world, so even someone of Eddie's limited ability was able to make the team. Heck, with most of his countrymen more interested in rugby or soccer, he was probably the only bloke who tried out! In any event, he didn't fare too well at his event, but the Olympic fans liked him anyway.
The Lancer O-Z Rally is like Eddie in that it's not much of a jock, in spite of the way it looks with its screaming yellow paint, ground effects and big spoiler. Underneath the flash is a dead-stock Lancer. No engine mods, no tweaked suspension, nothing to separate this "sport" version from a Lancer ES except for the eye candy. And on that note, if you're going to name a car after the aftermarket wheels (O-Z) it's wearing, at least make them bigger than 15 inches.
Opinions were split over the exterior design of the Lancer, with one editor describing the look as "Classy [with a] Lexus-like grille and uncluttered profile," while his colleague stated flatly, "Terrible, looks ridiculous." Just proves that styling is always a subjective matter.
Similarly, the interior drew mixed comments, such as "spacious and clean, though not particularly sporty" and "the only special trim are the [O-Z] floormats." A set of white-faced gauges, metallic dash accents and leather-wrapping for the steering wheel and shifter are the few features that distinguish the otherwise generic cabin. A sweeping dash panel adds to the feeling of spaciousness, and this sensation proves true. Although the rear seat wasn't rated as the most comfortable by our staffers, there is plenty of legroom, which measures in at a class-leading 36.6 inches.
Compared to the other competitors, especially the 175-horsepower Nissan and 180-horse VW, the Mitsu's 120 horsepower from its 2.0-liter inline-four seems rather weak. Though it will rev smoothly to redline and delivers its power in an unflustered fashion, a 9.5-second 0-to-60 time isn't going to win over many enthusiasts. The 180-hp Jetta was more than 2 seconds faster.
Impressions of the Lancer's manual gearbox were lukewarm, with most reporting longish throws and a somewhat notchy feel. One editor, however, did prefer the Lancer's stick to the low-mounted unit in the Protegé. Gears are well-spaced; we noted that the engine was spinning only 2,900 rpm at 70 mph, contributing to a quiet ride when cruising on the freeway.
With drums in the back and no ABS on the Lancer, we didn't expect big things from the brakes, so when the car turned in an SUV-like 145-foot stopping distance from 60 mph, we weren't surprised. Strangely, ABS is optional only on the LS trim level, the luxury version of the Lancer (there is also the base, but well-equipped, ES model). We had asked Mitsubishi representatives about this at the Lancer press event and were told that ABS would "probably" be offered in the near future on the other trim levels as well.
OK, so it's not a thrill in a straight line. But sadly, neither is it in the twisties. With a suspension geared more toward a plush ride than sporty handling, the Lancer was the opposite of the Protegé in this respect. The soft suspension filtered out all but the harshest bumps, but felt floppy when we pushed the car in tight turns. In the slalom, the Lancer's 64.6-mph trip through the cones was respectable and actually put it ahead of the Jetta. But the Mitsu's large amount of body roll and squealing 195/60R15 Goodyears tended to squelch any efforts at spirited driving in the canyons. And under the pressure of the track, the front tires took a beating, scrubbing off the hard-earned speed.
In the final analysis, the Lancer O-Z is not a bad car. In fact, as a commuter vehicle it works well, with a roomy and quiet cabin that helps ease the stress of the daily grind. And those who want a Lancer with all-out performance can look forward to next year, when the 250-plus-horsepower all-wheel-drive Lancer Evolution VII debuts. That radical ride should do wonders for Mitsubishi's (and the Lancer's) image. But that's going to be a $30,000 car. Hey, Mitsubishi, how about giving us something between these two extremes? A Lancer with 160 or so ponies, a tightened-up chassis, some serious rubber and a pair of sport seats up front would work for us. Because as it stands, the car you're fielding in the econosport class is like Eddie the Eagle; it may be likeable, but it doesn't have a place in this competition.
Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says:
About the only thing sporty about the Lancer O-Z Rally is the name. Although packaged as an economy sport sedan, this Lancer offers little in the way of added performance compared to the standard Lancer four-door. The tires squeal in agony at the slightest provocation, and the anemic engine, while smooth in its delivery, barely musters enough juice to outrun your average minivan.
There's still some fun to be had in the corners, as the Lancer is predictable when pushed hard, but compared to the more capable competitors in this test, it's downright sloppy. Seat comfort is adequate, but considering how much it rolls over in the corners, they could have at least given you some decent side bolsters to lean on.
There's nothing particularly noteworthy about the interior either no fancy radio, no interesting trim, nothing. There are some nice gauges, and the build quality seemed solid, but these aren't the things that make a car fun. Unless you're on a serious budget and spending anything more than $17,000 is out of the question, I would steer clear of this makeup job.
Road Test Editor Liz Kim says:
"And the award for the biggest waste of a hyphen goes to...the O-Z Rally!" No, really, what is the point of this $1,500 trim level? Badging? Wheels? No modifications to the suspension or the weak engine? If you're that concerned with appearances, wouldn't you rather have an augmentation on some deficient part of your body? A sow wearing silk slippers is still a sow. With its 120-horse powerplant and easy-on-the-seat-of-yer-pants road demeanor, the Lancer hung out on the racetrack as easily as Calista Flockhart mingles with Eastern European Olympic swimmers. OK, so it has a surprising amount of get-up-and-go, and the drivetrain is easy to live with on a daily basis. But for this comparison test, it's just overpriced and outclassed by almost every car in this category.
Senior Road Test Editor Brent Romans says:
In an early Simpsons episode, Homer is kicked out of the Frying Dutchman seafood restaurant on "all-you-can-eat" night because, from the owner's point of view, he ate too much. Railing against such injustice, Lawyer Lionel Hutz helps Homer sue the restaurant by claiming that the restaurant's "all-you-can-eat" phrase is the most fraudulent case of deceptive advertising since the movie The Never Ending Story. This anecdote popped into my head after driving the O-Z Rally. This car has nothing to with rallying or racing, despite what its badges say. However, I don't hold the car responsible. Blame the Lancer's poor finish on Mitsubishi's marketing people who decided to label this as an econosport. I just hope for Mitsubishi's sake, a real econosport Lancer shows up before the arrival of the Evolution VII. Once the Evo is available, plenty of young enthusiasts are going to be in Mitsubishi dealerships. If they can't afford an Evo, they need a worthy alternative. Right now, the O-Z is not it.
Stereo Evaluation - 2002 Mitsubishi Lancer O-Z Rally
Ranking in Stereo Test: Fifth
System Score: 4.0
Components: The stereo in the 2002 Mitsubishi Lancer begins with a plain-looking black faceplate that is light on features and functions. It offers 12 FM/6 AM presets, a single-play CD but no cassette, and the necessary rudimentary controls, such as seek/scan and bass/treble. But actually, this head unit does get a few things right. For instance, most functions are widely spaced and, with the exception of the crowded preset buttons, the overall topography of the radio is user-friendly. It also presents two excellent controls for volume and radio tuning a pair of round, ridged and heavily detented knobs that communicate exceptionally well to the operator. One other thing we liked about the electronics in this stereo: It has the best volume limiting in the test. Even at full gain, this system produces virtually no audible distortion or amplifier clipping. The Rockford-Nissan folks should take a page out of this book.
Speakers are another matter, and account for at least some of the reason this car doesn't sound better. Speaker locations include a pair of 6.5-inch full-range drivers on the rear deck and a second pair of 6.5-inch full-rangers in the front doors. There are no separate tweeters or subwoofers in this system.
Performance: Considering how under-featured this system is, it really doesn't sound half bad. Although it doesn't compete with the best stereos in this test, it has respectable sound. For the average consumer, this may be all you need. We found fairly tight bass response, with decent attack on drums and percussion. Highs were more questionable, with a muted muddy sound through most of the upper frequency ranges. Again, not a great system, but it comes with the car and makes noise. Better than the Subaru, anyway.
Best Feature: Ergonomic head unit.
Worst Feature: No separate tweeters.
Conclusion: This is one of the cheaper cars in the test. If you're looking for an inexpensive commuter econobox, this one will send you down the road with decent tunes. Not great, but affordable.
Fourth Place - 2002 Subaru Impreza 2.5 RS
Nearly as closely associated with Vermont as maple syrup, Subaru has long been the car of choice for those who live in areas with harsh climates. Before the SUV craze, folks who faced driving in tough winters got where they needed to go in these quirky but durable little cars, thanks largely to their available all-wheel-drive (AWD) propulsion system. Subaru now markets this heritage by extolling the virtues of AWD, such as the ability to handle light off-road duty (such as getting an Aussie groom to his wedding) with their raised-suspension Outback and Forester models, as well as more control on pavement, be it wet or dry. In fact, every Subaru now sold in the U.S. has all-wheel drive, giving them a wheel up on the competition in our country's inclement locales.
Having been a force in World Rally Championship racing for the last five years or so, Subaru has allowed this success to trickle down to their production offerings. The Impreza WRX sedan and wagon offer incredible performance value, with a turbocharged, 227-horsepower engine allowing sub-six second blasts to 60 mph. But the WRX exceeded our $21,000 base price limit for this test, so we took the next best thing, the Impreza 2.5 RS essentially a less powerful version of the WRX.
Redesigned this year, the Impreza stays true to the Subaru school of design. Let's just say that it marches to the beat of a different drummer. Several design elements caught our eye, such as the sharp 16-inch alloys, rally-style front air dam and bulging fender flares. But others put us off, such as the bug-eye front lights and misshapen taillights. Like it or not, you won't mistake this car for anything but a Subaru.
In contrast to the extroverted exterior, the cabin is reserved. A metallic accent for the center stack dresses things up a bit as does leather-wrapping for not just the steering wheel and shifter but also the emergency brake handle, a nice touch. Large, white-on-black gauges and mostly simple controls make it easy to acclimate to the Impreza. The stereo was panned, however, for its tiny preset buttons and lack of a tuning "knob" which is easier to use than the rocker-switch design.
The Subie's seats were among the best in the test. The front buckets were praised for their combination of comfort and support aggressive side bolsters held us snugly in place when we were blitzing through the curves, and long rides made us appreciate the firm and ideal contouring. With one of the shortest wheelbases in the group, we thought the rear accommodations would be lacking, but such was not the case. Rear seating was judged as the best in class, with ideal shaping and support as well as the luxury of a fold-down center armrest. Although there is a pass-through to the trunk (through that center armrest), the rear seat itself does not fold down to optimize cargo carrying ability.
As the name implies, the 2.5 RS has Subaru's workhorse 2.5-liter boxer four that sees duty in the Legacy, Forester and Outback models as well. The engine's boxer nickname comes from the horizontally-opposed layout of the pistons, whose movement mimics a boxer's punch. Well...that's if said blow is straight out, as opposed to an uppercut. At 165 horsepower and 166 pound-feet of torque, output is respectable for this class, and a broad power spread means one needn't rev the beejeebers out of the engine to get some performance.
When subjected to the scrutiny of the stopwatch, the Impreza posted mid-pack acceleration numbers, with a 0-to-60 time of 8.2 seconds and a quarter mile run of 16.2 seconds. As we stirred the Subie's five-speed gearbox, we concluded that most of the cars here could take a lesson from Honda when it comes to how a shifter should feel. The Impreza is no exception as a notchy feel characterized the RS' stick, though the action itself was fairly precise.
With a stopping distance of 125 feet from 60 mph, the Impreza's braking performance was something a BMW would be proud of. But although the stoppers had impressive power, several editors commented that the brake's action could be more linear, as the pedal seemed too soft at initial application.
On the Streets of Willow racetrack, where a collection of tight turns and a lack of long straights reward cars with exceptional handling over those with bags of horsepower, the Imreza performed admirably. With its sport-tuned suspension, grippy low-profile tires and all-wheel drive, it was easy to push the RS hard. Evaluation sheets were filled with raves about the Impreza's handling, whether on the track or on our driving loop: "Awesome handling...very predictable." "Well planted, even in quick transitions..." Steering action was described as commendably direct and ideal in terms of weighting, and we also dug the chubby steering wheel rim, which lent a racy feel to the tiller.
Some may conclude that a harsh ride is the price to pay for this agility, but this is not the case with the Impreza. Dealing with freeway expansion joints and broken pavement didn't upset the chassis (or the car's passengers), as a supple ride took the edge off these would-be intruders.
Overall, the Impreza is a well-rounded and sporty sedan that we could easily live with, and it missed tying for third place by just a single point. But we were looking for something with a little more edge to its personality, something that would make us say "wow, what a car!" rather than "that's a nice enough car."
Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says:
Despite the fact that I've always liked the solid handing and stout power of the 2.5RS, I half expected to be let down after driving the beefed up, turbo-charged WRX version. But surprise, surprise, the 2.5RS is as fun as ever.
The super stiff chassis and well sorted suspension make this sedan a blast in the corners. Stay on the power and this car claws its way around hairpins like no other front driver could ever dream of. The engine's flat torque band makes it feel stronger than it really is, and don't forget, at 165 it still only down ten ponies on the much ballyhooed SE-R.
The interior may not be as slick as the Jetta's, but in terms of functionality, the Suburu is hard to beat. The sport seats are about as good as you're going to get in a sub-$20,000 car, with heavy bolstering and firm cushions. The gauges are nearly perfect, and there's few extra's cluttering up the dash. The RS may not have a booming sound system or terrific cupholders (both are very average), but if that's what you're concerned about, this isn't the car for you.
This car is for people looking for a no frills sports sedan that still makes taking the long way home a treat. It may not have the "tuned" look that so dominates this category, but when it comes to performance, this sedan is hard to beat. The combination of all wheel drive, a torquey four cylinder, a well-tuned suspension and no nonsense interior makes this the car that I would want in my garage.
Road Test Editor Liz Kim says:
Despite its homely appearance, the Impreza really did manage to impress. While I wouldn't choose it to occupy my garage for its lack of overall refinement in both engine noise and interior bits, its rambunctious engine and all-wheel drive abilities (which is not an option for any of the other cars) does possess charm enough to see its appeal. Sure, it's overshadowed by its flashier brother, the WRX, but the 2.5 RS more than holds its own. It must be its impressive 166 pound-feet of torque; the Impreza has plenty of oomph. On the track and on curvy roads, it manages its weight well, although there's a surprising amount of bounce for a such a nicely controlled car. If Subaru could just mop things up a bit, add a dash of refinement here and there, it would be have much more appeal than merely being sensible.
Senior Editor Brent Romans says:
If you do buy an Impreza 2.5RS, let me give you this piece of advice. You're going to regret it. The first time some dude in a WRX smacks you around, you're going to be irked that you didn't cough up the extra $4,000. What does that add to the monthly payments over a five-year loan? Nothing you can't afford. So, sell your dog, join the Marines, whatever. Get a WRX. It's worth it. And with that out of the way, I can now say that the 2.5RS is cool. I dig it. For this test, it ranked very highly on my list of cars that I would put in my garage. The 2.5RS is fun-to-drive, distinctive and rewarding. On the race track, the Subaru was very easy to drive driving for dummies, you could say. This is because of the AWD and precise steering. On regular roads, AWD isn't as useful unless it snows or rains a lot where you live. If this is the case, the Impreza 2.5RS will serve you well. But remember, you're going to get a WRX, right?
Stereo Evaluation - 2002 Subaru Impreza 2.5 RS
Ranking in Test: Last (sixth)
System Score: 3.0
Components: Subaru is one manufacturer that seems to not have totally caught on to the recent wave of stereo improvements that most Japanese automakers have embraced. The audio system in the Impreza 2.5 RS was clearly the worst in this test, the sort of underfeatured, stripped-down arrangement we're not used to seeing much of these days. While Subaru offers a step-up package as an option, the car we were given by the manufacturer had the (sub)standard system that comes stock in the vehicle.
The stock system comes with an underfed head unit that offers a single-play CD and no cassette. The head unit has few features, and those it does have are scrunched into an undersized faceplate with dinky buttons. Next to the aftermarket radio in the Mazda MP-3, this is the most challenging head unit in the test to operate. The buttons are bunched together with little space between them, making for some dicey decisions while driving.
Speakers consist of four 6.5-inch full range drivers, one in each door. There are no separate tweeters or subwoofers included in this system.
Performance: Considering how basic this system is, it doesn't sound too horrible. How's that for a back-hand compliment? But seriously, bass response is surprisingly taut, with good attack on kick drum and percussion; horns and string instruments sound okay too; and vocals, while muddy and diffuse, have sounded worse in other cars (though none in this test). All in all, this system is a step above what you'd find in an entry-level Kia but only a step above.
Best Feature: Decent bass response.
Worst Feature: Underfeatured head unit; poor ergonomics.
Conclusion: Subaru should consider addressing in-car entertainment if it hopes to compete in this crowded segment. Younger consumers, in particular, are looking at the whole package, not just the wheels. You might want to check out the step-up system. It's called the Premium Sound Package II (option code 15K) and has an MSRP of $425. The package includes better speakers, an amplified sub, and a tweeter kit. If you're interested in purchasing an Impreza 2.5 RS with better audio, you might see if you can find a dealer that has one to listen to before making your decision. This one needs a lot of help. Scott Memmer
Third Place - 2001 Mazda Protegé MP3
In 1988, Mazda had an econosport based on its 323 sedan (the Protegé's predecessor) called the 323 GT. With a turbocharged engine, a beefed-up suspension and bigger tires than the standard 323, this car went unappreciated by the buying public. Now Mazda once again offers a high-performance version of its small car.
Apart from its goofy name ("MP3" conjures up images of sitting in front of a computer ripping music files off the Internet, not a car with serious suspension mods and mondo 17-inch wheels), the Mazda Protegé MP3 is a pretty cool ride. Mazda's goal with this car was to offer the Generation X-ers, (or is it "Y" or "Z" now?) a reasonably priced car with all the tweaks these dudes would typically spend thousands of dollars on, such as high-performance suspension components, a free-flow exhaust (with a large-diameter tip), big wheels, meaty tires and a kickin' sound system.
Of course, the car has to look the part, and even a quick glance at the MP3 shows that mission accomplished. We like most of the visual tweaks, such as the aggressive nose (with its large fog lamps and mesh inserts) and the way the big alloy wheels fill out the wheelwells. Maybe it's a sign of our staff's increasing median age, but we could do without the oversize rear wing.
A handsome Nardi steering wheel and metallic trim on the dash, center stack and door panels give the cabin some pizzazz. The car's namesake is a Kenwood MP3-compatible stereo system. A dizzying array of small buttons and minute hieroglyphs, along with a display that washes out in sunlight make operating the tunage an exercise in frustration. Once you figure it out, you'll be rewarded with amazing sound that stays clean even when those juvenile urges make you crank it up.
Tying the Sentra's for first in front seat comfort, the MP3's front buckets offered excellent back and thigh support. Only more lateral support was suggested for the Mazda's front chairs. Backseat passengers will find plenty of headroom and legroom along with a well-contoured seatback good enough to place the MP3 second to the Subie in this category.
The stock Protegé is a good performer in terms of handling, and the MP3 takes this dynamic to a higher level. Mazda recruited Racing Beat, an aftermarket tuning company that has supplied RX-7 enthusiasts with hop-up parts for years, to beef up this platform. The Protegé was lowered and fitted with Tokico shocks, higher-rate (read: stiffer) springs, larger stabilizer bars and a front strut-tower brace. Topping (or should we say bottoming?) it off are a set of 17-inch Racing Hart alloy wheels wearing 205/45ZR17 Dunlop tires. A quicker steering ratio sharpens up the response even more.
As we expected, the MP3 shone brightest on the race track and in the twisty sections of our driving loop. The car's handling is fantastic; cornering, even in tight switchbacks, is dead flat and the MP3 simply feels locked to the pavement. The Protegé's steering drew raves for its smooth and quick (yet not darty) action and highly communicative nature. Through our 600-foot slalom, the Mazda topped the others with a 67.4 mph effort, smoking all but the Sentra by some 3 mph a significant difference in that test.
But this is a no-compromise setup; the stiff suspension doesn't take kindly to bumps and ruts, sending nearly the full amplitude of the impact into the cabin. The massaged under-pinnings definitely put performance over ride comfort. This is not an issue if most of your driving is going to be on smooth roads, but unfortunately, those driving conditions are about as common as insightful lyrics in a Limp Bizkit song.
As thrilling as the handling of the MP3 is, an econosport needs some speed in addition to the moves. Even though it has 10 more horsepower (gained by the less restrictive exhaust) than the other Protegé models, the 140 horses of the MP3's 2.0-liter four just didn't feel any stronger. In a straight line, the MP3 got spanked by everything except the Lancer. The hard truth is...or rather, the numbers are as follows: 9.0 seconds for the 0-to-60 sprint and 17.0 seconds for the quarter-mile. On our driving loop, we had a long freeway section that tests a car's ability to hold its speed (65 mph) while running uphill, and the Mazda felt winded as it struggled to maintain that velocity in top gear.
Mazda's manual gearboxes are typically a breeze to use, with precise and fluid action of both gearshift and clutch. Indeed, the company's Miata has long been regarded as having one of the best manual trannys on the planet. But the Protegé didn't seem to benefit from its sports car brother all that much. Though we lauded the Protegé's stick for its smooth action, some of us were perplexed and irked by the shifter's too-low placement and reluctance to shift quickly.
In spite of the MP3's 132-foot braking distance from 60 mph, which placed it in the bottom half of the test, the feel and action of the stoppers (which didn't have the benefit of ABS) was excellent: "The brakes feel great, lots of power with good modulation," one editor wrote in his notes.
After the brake dust cleared, two factors contributed to the Mazda not finishing higher: not enough muscle (a major reason) and not enough ride comfort (a minor reason). It's recently been confirmed that Mazda will be bringing forth a more powerful Protegé econosport for 2003. But as we said for the Neon, all that matters for this test is the current state of affairs, so third place it is for the MP3.
Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says:
Although all the cars in this test are factory-tuned to one extent or the other, the MP3 is the one car that really feels like it. The ride is stiff and the bushings (on our test car, at least) squeak over bumps, but get it out on the track and this car will carve circles around just about anything anything with less than 140 horsepower that is. Not to beat a dead horse, but the MP3's lack of grunt is hard to overlook. Add a turbo to this sweet package and the MP3 would probably take top honors in the performance department.
The Mazda also sports one of the better-looking interiors of the group. Nothing fancy, just a nicely trimmed cockpit with easy-to-read gauges, a great steering wheel and simple controls. The shifter is a little low, and its engagement vague, but the ergonomics are otherwise solid. The much talked-about stereo system never failed to impress; although, getting it up and running was somewhat of a chore.
As much as I liked piloting the MP3 around the track, day-to-day driving would likely take its toll on my enthusiasm. The ride quality is just too unbalanced, and the engine too weak to keep me entertained. I'm not a big fan of the exterior styling either; although, the wheels are some of the nicest pieces I've seen in awhile.
To make the MP3 a winner in my book, it would need at least 40 more horsepower, a more livable ride and a diet that didn't include rear deck wings or side skirts. It could slot between the Protegé ES and MP3, and they could call it the Protegé SS. Now there's an economy sport sedan I could warm up to.
Road Test Editor Liz Kim says:
What was that old saying about how it's more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow? The Mazda definitely fits into the former category; with a well-sorted chassis that only gets upset by mid-turn bumps, communicative (if a bit light) steering, a swell tranny unit and great-feeling brakes and pedals, even for a non-ABS-equipped vehicle, the MP3 practically personifies the "zoom-zoom" philosophy. However, even though skateboards and go-karts may be fun, they're not that fast, comparatively speaking. Its biggest failure is its rather breathy engine; in order to truly be a contender in this category, Mazda needs to imbue more power into its excellent shells, something that they put into practice with the 2002 MPV. A cool-looking (but maybe not the most functional) stereo system does not a sports car make.
Senior Editor Christian Wardlaw Says:
If an award were given for "Most Fun at the Track," the Mazda would duke it out with the Ford Focus SVT (another car we tested that day) for top honors. My preference in this environment is the MP3, which exhibits top-notch steering, suspension and brakes while providing more roll control and a more comfortable, intuitive environment from which to pilot the package.
Where does the MP3 fail? Under the hood, where an engine painfully lacking in fun, rev-happy power resides. But this is easily overlooked on a tight racecourse or twisty two-lane road, where corner-carving is more important than acceleration or top speed. The only other weak spot associated with the Mazda lies in the abysmal ergonomics of the gimmicky but sweet-sounding audio system.
The shifter feels wonderful in hand, though the clutch pedal is a bit small underfoot. Ride compliance is better than the Sentra and stiffer than the Mitsu or VW. The MP3 has the most comfortable driver seat and provides generous rear leg- and footroom, but the rear cushion is a tad low. The trunk, despite the space taken up by the subwoofer, is surprisingly commodious.
Overall, the Mazda MP3 is a great car in need only of more power...and a spoiler-delete option.
Stereo Evaluation - 2001 Mazda Protegé MP3
Ranking in Stereo Test: Second
System Score: 8.0
Components: Going into this test, we knew that the stereo derby would most likely come down to a face-off between the Sentra and the MP3, and that's exactly what happened.
The MP3 setup in the 2001 Mazda vehicle of the same name was a system we'd looked forward to listening to for some time. Although the company manufactured only 1,500 of these cars in the 2001 model year and you'll be hard-pressed to find one on a lot by the time this story hits your pixels, we were interested to see what they'd done with the vehicle, since a hopped-up Protegé will return for the 2003 model year likely with many of the MP3's components.
This Kenwood-branded arrangement is, in effect, an aftermarket system glommed onto a production vehicle. As such, it offers all the promises and pitfalls of such a system. As far as we can tell, all the components are Kenwood aftermarket gear. This includes a 10-inch 100-watt subwoofer mounted in the trunk, a Kenwood Z-828 MP3-capable head unit in-dash (which also plays CDs), a pair of Kenwood KFC-X696 6-by-9s on the rear deck, a pair of 5-by-7 full-range co-ax drivers in the factory cutouts in the front doors and a 280-watt Kenwood aftermarket amplifier. The factory speaker cutouts in the rear doors are empty, one more indication that this is an "add-on" system.
We took an informal poll among the Edmunds.com editors, and to a person, we all agreed that the system sounds great, but the head unit leaves a lot to be desired. This is typical aftermarket stuff teeny-tiny buttons that are impossible to operate, scads of features you'll most likely never use and an undersized display that's hard to see. In fact, this radio goes one better by offering a free light show in-dash courtesy of the Pioneer-developed plasma display that is quickly becoming the rage in the aftermarket. All-in-all, this system (and vehicle) is precisely aimed at youth. So how does it sound?
Performance: Overall, the sound in this system ranks as the best in the test. So why didn't it finish first? There's actually a very good reason for this. The Kenwood/Mazda folks have set up this car so that the best sound comes from the rear. In particular, the absence of separate tweeters in the front of the vehicle compromises the integrity of the soundstage. With no tweeters to disseminate sound throughout the front of the vehicle, the designers have left it up to the hefty, rear-mounted 6-by-9's and sub to carry the brunt of the load. As a result, the best listening position in this car would be in the middle of the rear seat, facing backwards.
Too bad, because the sonic quality itself is very impressive. Highs are smooth and transparent, mids are detailed and intricate, and the bass well, the bass is phenomenal. Kick-drum has real snap and verve, bass guitar is punchy and resilient, and the whole lower range stomps righteously. Except for the soundstage and unfortunately, this is a major consideration this is a great system.
Oh, and one other thing. The gain limiting in the Mazda MP3 is far superior to the Nissan SE-R. This system didn't distort much when we turned it up, continuing to offer clean, clear power, and that is a definite plus.
Best Feature: Killer bass.
Worst Feature: Funky Kenwood head unit with dinky buttons.
Conclusion: We enjoyed this system very much. In particular, the crisp and punchy attack on bass was most welcome. We knocked off points for the poor soundstage and the difficult-to-use Kenwood head unit. To our way of thinking, you want a radio you can use while driving without risking life and limb. In this, the Rockford-Sentra system has it hands down over the Kenwood-Mazda. Scott Memmer
Second Place - 2002 Volkswagen Jetta GLS 1.8T
Of all the cars in this test, the Jetta was the most "grown up." A clean, classy body style devoid of spoilers, side skirts and gaping air intakes gives the VW an upscale look that seems almost out of place among its flashy foes. Parked alongside the others, the Jetta almost seemed embarrassed to be surrounded by such a rowdy bunch.
Inside the Jetta, this theme is continued. Impeccable fit and finish characterize the cabin, with top-grade materials along with upscale features such as heated seats, one-touch up and down front windows and both side and side-curtain airbags. Even the trunk reeks of class, with a fully lined interior with a chrome rub strip at the threshold. Instruments are clear and most controls are intuitive. And on that note, we're happy to report that VW has finally improved the stereo design; it now has the on/off function combined with the volume knob and a knob (that replaces the annoying rocker switch) for tuning. Sometimes the old ideas are better.
Although our Jetta was equipped with a Sport Luxury package, the seat design was the essentially the same as a standard Jetta GLS', meaning there were no aggressive side bolsters that a sport seat would have. There were, however, a number of adjustments for the driver seat, including height and lumbar support, and the seats were comfortable. But lateral support was lacking: On spirited canyon romps, we found ourselves sliding around on the leather. Not a good thing when you're trying to concentrate on your line through a set of curves.
With the shortest wheelbase of the group (at only 98.9 inches), the Jetta's rear seat space isn't abundant. At 33.5 inches, legroom was about equal to the Sentra's, but a short seat cushion doesn't offer the thigh support of the Impreza's rear bench. Also, the sloping roofline of the Jetta gave rear passengers a more hemmed-in feeling than the rest. The VW did trounce the others when it came to cabin silence, as wind and road noise were both hushed.
This year, VW tweaked the turbocharged 1.8-liter inline four that was already one of our favorite engines. Output has jumped from 150 horsepower and 155 pound-feet of torque to 180 ponies and 174 lb-ft. With peak torque coming on at just 1,950 rpm, this dynamo feels more like a healthy six than a small-displacement force-fed four. The power starts down low and really starts to pull when the tach needle swings past 2,500 rpm. It was easy to pick gears with the Jetta's five-speed manual gearbox. The shifter had a typical VW feel to it, light yet somewhat rubbery, as did the clutch with its long but progressive travel. When put to the test, the Jetta scampered to 60 mph in 7.2 seconds and stayed strong through the quarter-mile (15.6 seconds), making it the quickest car in both categories.
With a stopping distance from 60 mph of just 122 feet, the Jetta was right there with the Neon (121 feet) for deceleration honors. Solid, fade-free power and a progressive pedal were the system's most endearing qualities, prompting one editor to note, "Stout action with intuitive pedal feel" and another to simply state, "Fab lots of power." See, we appreciate more than just sizzling acceleration.
Even though the Jetta had the optional Sport Luxury package (which includes a sport suspension, power sunroof and 17-inch alloy wheels wearing P225/45HR17 all season tires) the VeeDub seemed tuned more for ride than handling. This is not to say it handled poorly; the steering was light but still offered good road feel and quick response. And thanks to the car's horsepower advantage, it lapped the track just 0.2 seconds behind the razor-sharp MP3. But the body rolled more than expected when the Jetta was being hustled through the canyons or at the track. And although the Jetta's tires were the chunkiest in the test, they didn't have as much ultimate grip as the all-out performance rubber on cars like the MP3; drivers noted that the Jetta slid easier when pushed hard on the track. On the up side, the Michelins were quiet on the freeway and stuck well enough on the driving loop. In a sense, the Jetta was the opposite of the Protegé in that the VW had a lot of power and a soft, ride-oriented suspension, whereas the Mazda lacked power and had stiff, performance-biased calibrations for its underpinnings.
We were thoroughly impressed by the Jetta's numerous attributes classy styling, a high degree of refinement, a powerful engine and a nice balance of ride and handling. Of course, this begs the question; why didn't it win this comparison test? In spite of how much we liked the Jetta, it wasn't strong enough in the root words of its market segment's namesake, econosport. Though its base price is $20,100, we had to have the aforementioned Sport Luxury Package ($2,025) in an attempt to put the Jetta on a level playing field against cars like the Protegé MP3 and Sentra SE-R Spec V. Add in the $325 Monsoon sound system and this puts the VW's price at around $22,500, quite a jump over the comparably equipped Nissan's $18,915 price tag. So much for econo. And as far as the sport component, the Jetta felt more like an entry-level luxury sedan (not necessarily a bad thing, depending on the potential buyer) than a four-door pocket rocket. Had this been an "econoluxury sedan" test, the Jetta would have easily scored the victory.
Road Test Editor Liz Kim says:
The Jetta is the car I'd purchase for my own conveyance for its ultra-buttery drivetrain and its slick accoutrements. From the lovely fit of its materials to its slick 1.8 turbo engine, with plenty of kit to keep you entertained as well as safety systems to give you peace of mind, the Jetta is justified in winning the hearts and minds of compact car buyers everywhere.
Not all is good in Happyland, however. If you're looking for pure visceral driving thrills, you may be better off with another vehicle in this comparison. Even with the sport-tuned suspension, there's way too much body roll to call the Jetta sporty. The steering is well-weighted and direct, but the front plows a bit in turns, and the non-aggressive tires tend to slide around a bit. The whole package reminds me of the tag line for N'Ice throat lozenges: "It's slick. It's slippery. It's slickery." Great when the car is used for daily commutes, not such an attribute when you're tearing around a corner at the fastest speed possible.
Senior Editor Brent Romans says:
Volkswagen really knows how to put together sweet rides. The Jetta has never been a huge favorite of mine I've always thought the higher price tag wasn't worth it but I can respect people who buy one. The best parts about this car are the engine and interior. This turbocharged 180-hp four doesn't make the most inspiring or invigorating sounds, but it's got enough juice to dust off all the other cars in this test. The interior, too, is superior in finish and material quality. Suspension? Well, that could still use some more work. Of the cars in the test, though, the Jetta best delivers a sense of being a premium car. This is important when you're plunking down your own hard-earned cash and plan to keep a car for a number of years. I'd put a Sentra SE-R or Impreza in my garage before the Jetta, but if you want some luxury and prestige to go along with your sport, by all means, snag a Jetta.
Senior Editor Christian Wardlaw says:
Basically, the Jetta is a budget luxury sport sedan. It's trimmed like a luxury car, its materials are the quality of a luxury car, its body is solid like a luxury car, its Monsoon sound system rocks like a luxury car. Is it worth $23,000? Sure, especially when you consider that an Audi A4 starts three grand north of that price point without many of the niceties that this VW includes for less.
I found the Jetta less than comfortable, though, because I require more seat track travel than it offers to make room for my 33-inch inseams. I wouldn't want to drive this car all day, nor would I wish to ride in the back for too long, because space in the rear quarters is quite tight. People wanting more room are advised to select a Passat.
The turbocharged four-cylinder engine feels extremely strong; this year's power boost is more obvious in the Jetta than the Passat. Torque steer is a definite problem now, though, because under full boost, the wheel tries to twist out of your hands. Launching the car isn't a treat, either, thanks to the long-travel clutch and turbo lag if you hook the front wheels up without sufficient revs. On a positive note, the sport suspension, complete with 17-inch wheels and tires, does a great job of improving the Jetta's handling without obvious adverse effects on ride quality.
Volkswagen continues to refine and update the Jetta's interior, this year adding a new stereo system design that includes large buttons and easier access to the controls. Additionally, our car was equipped with a classy chrome protection strip at the lip of the trunk and a one-touch sunroof dial lifted directly from the Audi parts bin.
The Jetta could easily win an econosport sedan test, despite its relatively high price tag. This car has style, poise, refinement, class, power, quality, comfort and handling (on the road...at the limit on the track our Jetta felt as planted to the pavement as Shedd's Spread in a hot skillet) in spades. Plus, it records damn near 30 mpg on the highway at 80 mph. Additional benefits? The cleanly designed Jetta suffers no boy-racer add-ons or styling "enhancements."
Stereo Evaluation - 2002 Volkswagen Jetta GLS 1.8T
Ranking in Stereo Test: Tied for third.
System Score: 6.0
Components: In the time we've been doing stereo evaluations, we've given VW sound systems some rave reviews. We've appreciated their unconventional approach and innovative designs. VW is one of the few manufacturers that doesn't mount speakers on the rear deck. At first glance, you would think this is a miscalculation, since mounting larger speakers on the rear deck (6-by-9s in back versus, say, 6.5 inchers in the doors) would give you more sound, right? Well, yes and no. Think back to your college days and that first pair of mondo home speakers you bought and lugged up to your dorm room. The speaker boxes created an enclosure, a sealed environment in which the speakers could operate. In this same manner, the door cabinets in your car become speaker enclosures. Mounting a speaker in a semi-sealed car door creates something called "speaking damping" a shock absorber-like effect that limits the "throw," or excursion of the speaker cone, and improves the relationship between your amplifier and the speaker. And smaller speakers also produce tighter bass (less mass equals quicker response). This, in a nutshell, is why VW systems sound so good.
The system in the 2002 Jetta consists of eight speakers. All four doors sport a pair of 6.5-inch drivers mid-bass drivers plus a pair of 1-inch dome tweeters. On the electronics side of the equation, this vehicle offers a few features that set it apart from the rest of the cars in this test. For one, it is the only vehicle in the test with steering wheel controls for the stereo (volume up/down, seek/scan), something we normally don't find in this segment. It also boasts excellent ergonomics, with a large LCD display, round knobs for both volume and tuning, detented knobs for tone and balance/fade, and good spacing between most functions. Unfortunately, this vehicle has one additional feature that is particularly unwelcome: a large cupholder that, when engaged, descends to cover the entire upper portion of the radio, including volume, tuning and the LCD display itself. Yikes! No wonder the Jetta has steering wheel controls! Even so, it's a poorly designed arrangement. Why not put the cupholders lower in the dash, above the climate controls, which most Americans probably fiddle with a lot less than their stereo. A mystery to us, but there you have it, and we marked off heavily for it.
Performance: A fine-sounding system, and yet not as fine as several others in this test. VW is faced with the prospect that all automakers face sooner or later: what was top-of-the-line just two years ago is now behind the times. To wit: In stereos, the industry has started to pass them by. Although we appreciated the tight attack on bass and excellent highs, plus the smoothness and accuracy of this system (acoustic strings sound wooden and warm, horns blare without blazing, percussion is tight and precise), it just can't compete with the Nissan SE-R or Mazda Protegé MP-3.
Best Feature: Good tonal balance. Worst Feature: Cupholder descends to block faceplate.
Conclusion: As we mentioned above, we've enjoyed VW sound systems through the years. We still like this one. But other automakers have upped the ante. That, combined with the cupholder miscue, caused us to mark this one down heavily. You'll still enjoy it, but it's not in the same league as the Nissan or Mazda. Scott Memmer
First Place - 2002 Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V
Back in 1991, Nissan introduced the first Sentra SE-R. Staying true to the basic tenets of sporting automobiles, the SE-R was light, handled well and was relatively fast. Based at that time on the two-door Sentra (whose three-box shape was identical to the four-door's) the SE-R had an eager 140-horsepower 2.0-liter DOHC inline four, revised suspension, four-wheel disc brakes and 14-inch alloy wheels wearing 185/60R14 tires. This may not sound like much now, but back in 1991, it was impressive hardware for a car like the Sentra, allowing it to sprint from 0 to 60 mph in about 8 seconds and give some sports cars a run for their money on a winding road. Much to the chagrin of budget-minded enthusiasts, production of this little sleeper ended in 1994, though after the Sentra's 1995 redesign, one could get the 200SX, (essentially a stylish coupe version of the Sentra) in SE-R form.
Almost a decade later, the Sentra SE-R is back in a big way, as two SE-Rs are now available: hot (SE-R) and extra spicy (SE-R Spec V and that's a letter V, not a Roman numeral 5). The SE-R comes with plenty of goodies: a 2.5-liter 165-horsepower (175 pound-feet of torque) DOHC inline four (that is shared with the Altima), four-wheel disc brakes, sport suspension, 16-inch alloys with 195/55R16 tires and even a front strut tower brace (to reduce chassis flex). Of course, there is the gingerbread trim: an aggressive front fascia with mesh inserts and foglights, a rear spoiler and a chrome exhaust tip.
Pony up for the Spec V and you'll get more of the stuff that makes enthusiasts giddy with delight: a six-speed manual gearbox (as opposed to a five-speed unit), limited-slip front differential (to optimize acceleration and handling performance), even firmer suspension tuning, an improved exhaust system (that increases power to 175 ponies and 180 lb-ft of twist), bigger wheels and tires (17s shod with chunky 215/45R17 rubber) and sport seats tailored in a two-tone black and red mesh cloth.
Staying true to the original Sentra SE-R, the newest version has a plain body style that didn't leave anyone on staff stunned by its lines. Mostly inoffensive, it had a few design quirks, such as a character line (on the sides) that looks as if someone erased it where it approaches the front and rear of the car, and a rather dowdy rear end.
And if you do go full-bore and pick the Spec V over the standard SE-R, we hope you like red and orange. In addition to the retina-searing red seat trim, there are also orange gauge markings and red stitching on the steering wheel. Strangely, all SE-Rs come with this interior scheme, even though exterior color choices include blue. Furthermore, the orange-colored gauges have a titanium-colored facing that doesn't provide the contrast and readability of black and white instruments. Control layouts are nothing out of the ordinary for Japanese cars of the last two decades, employing the familiar stalk-mounted knobs for lights and wipers, and simple rotary climate controls. The optional Rockford-Fosgate sound system was at once the same and the opposite of the Kenwood system in the Mazda alike in that it produced amazing sound and very different in that there was a minimum of confusing controls, making it a lot easier to use.
Getting a comfortable seating position behind the wheel is easy thanks to multiple adjustments, including a bottom cushion tilt. While all agreed that the front seats were done right, we couldn't say the same for the rear bench. A lack of thigh and lower back contouring earned it middling scores on our eval sheets.
But it's not the looks or interior scheme that count as much as the driving dynamics with this car. The SE-R's big four was always on its toes, ready to charge out of a corner in the canyons or pull top gear effortlessly up a long, grinding uphill stretch on the freeway. Throttle response is crisp from idle to redline, with strong power that starts down low and continues through the mid-range. A few editors griped about the redline being set at a relatively low 6,250 rpm. But this is actually a non-issue with this engine; it doesn't need stratospheric revving to perform brilliantly. On the dragstrip, the Sentra scurried to 60 mph in just 7.5 seconds and dispatched the quarter-mile in 15.7 seconds, making it one of two cars in the test that could run the quarter in under 16 seconds. The Jetta was the other, at 15.6 ticks.
The shifter didn't quite get the kudos that the engine did, as it has a somewhat clunky feel to it. And there needs to be more resistance laterally on the fourth- to fifth-gear change, as it was too easy to push the stick past the fifth gear gate. A smooth short-stroke clutch made starts and gearshifts smooth and stress-free.
Although the brakes felt strong and were easily modulated, they turned in a rather long stopping distance of 140 feet. Our car didn't have the benefit of ABS (it's optional), which would have shortened this distance, as all three cars that turned in sub-130-feet performances benefited from that technology.
High marks all 'round were given to the Sentra for its dynamite handling. A few comments bubbled over with enthusiasm for the Spec V's prowess in the corners: "Very flat and composed," noted one driver. "Right there with the Mazda, taut and controlled but with a much more forgiving ride," said another. And apart from torque steer (exacerbated by the Spec V's limited-slip front differential) that made itself known when powering aggressively out of a turn, the steering was lauded for its quick, precise action and excellent feedback.
Aside from all the cold analyzing and number crunching, there was something else that indicated to us who our winner would probably be. During a comparison test, the cars are rotated nightly through the editorial staff, except for the weekend, where a driver has the same car from Friday night through Monday morning. More than a few of us tried to wrangle the SE-R for that coveted time slot, so enamored with the junior sport sedan were we. With a list price of just under $19,000 including a sunroof and an amazing sound system, the thoroughly enjoyable Sentra SE-R Spec V best defines the econosport sedan category.
Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says:
I've liked the current-generation Sentra since its debut just a few years ago. It's a nice clean design inside and out, with sharp handling and solid power from under the hood. The SE-R version basically improves on all that, with a few minor glitches along the way.
The exterior styling is still understated, but the awesome 17-inch wheels on the Spec V give it a much more powerful-looking stance. Unfortunately, the interior isn't so subtle, as Nissan's sad attempt at a custom-looking interior makes an otherwise neat cabin looks positively ridiculous.
The engine is one serious mill, but unlike SE-Rs of the past, it makes its power early and cuts out just above 6 grand. This makes for great fun on the streets, but a few too many shifts on the track. This wouldn't be such a bad thing if it weren't for the awful six-speed tranny. The Green Machine I had when I was eight had better shifter feel than this hollow unit, and the gear spacing could use some improvement, as well. Handling is excellent, with plenty of road feel, but torque steer forces you to wrestle it around corners more so than some of the other cars.
All in all, the Sentra was one of my favorite cars in the test. The gutsy engine makes it playful in just about any situation, while the suspension is firm but livable on the streets. Without the joker interior and paper mache shifter, I would have considered the SE-R the pick of the litter, but as it is, I'd rather have the Subie instead.
Road Test Editor Liz Kim says:
The Sentra moves like a feral cat trapped in an unfamiliar house, ripping around corners. It boasts gobs of power and torque throughout its rev band, and its stiff yet capable suspension ensured a stable, reassuring ride on freeways, twisty mountain roads and the racetrack. Its clunky, balky shifter casts a pall on the rosy glow you get after driving the Sentra; it seems like it would be easy enough to fix, yet Nissan has yet to do so (we complained endlessly about it in our evaluation of an SE model two years ago). Otherwise, its steering gives plenty of feedback, the tires are well-suited for the type of aggressive driving that SE-R consumers are likely to engage in, and in terms of pure driving dynamics, it's the clear winner for me. Plus, it's got cool interior trim pieces. OK, some of my cohorts think that they're tacky, but what's the point of special trim if it's not gonna get noticed?
Senior Editor Brent Romans says:
School is now in session. Dodge and Mitsubishi, please take notes. See this SE-R? This is what your cars should be like. Some Nissan enthusiasts I've talked to aren't impressed by the new SE-R. They point out that it's heavier and slower than the previous version of the early '90s. That may be true, but the old Sentra didn't have the new car's improved safety, larger interior, lower emissions and additional features. Point is, for new econosports that you can buy in 2002, the Sentra is the best of the lot. The 2.5-liter engine is strong, the handling is sharp and its price is affordable. And thanks to the body add-ons and special interior trim, you, as well as your friends, will know that this car is different. I'd actually recommend the basic SE-R over the Spec V. The limited-slip differential is unnoticeable during normal driving, and you're never going to miss the extra 5 hp and six-speed transmission. But whatever you decide on, the Sentra will please.
Stereo Evaluation - Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V
Ranking in Stereo Test: First
System Score: 9.0
Components: When we first saw the list of cars for this comparison test, we were pretty certain the stereo face-off would come down to the Nissan Sentra SE-R versus the Mazda Protegé MP3. Both automakers had been trumpeting their stereo systems in the press, and early word was that both systems rocked. So we looked forward to putting them head unit-to-head unit and seeing what was what. And, in fact, they were clearly the two best systems in the test. What was more intriguing to us, however, were the differences between the two systems and how they stacked up against one another.
The Rockford-Fosgate arrangement in the 2002 Sentra SE-R rivals and even surpasses the MP3's Kenwood in many respects. True, it's not MP3-compatible, nor is its bass response quite as impressive; still, when all is said and done, we believe it represents the better value of the two.
The Sentra's system, with 300 watts of total system power, begins with a trunk-mounted Rockford-Fosgate subwoofer box, containing an 8-inch Rockford sub. The sub box in the SE-R takes up less room than the one in the Protegé MP3; however, they both leave ample trunk room. Other speaker placements include a pair of 6.5-inch full-range Rockford drivers on the rear deck and an additional pair of similarly sized components (rolled off to function in the mid-bass range) in the front doors. The coup-de-grace is a pair of A-pillar-mounted tweeters. The aiming of the SE-R's tweeters is downright bizarre: They point directly at one another, at a 90-degree angle to the passengers. You'd think that this sort of arrangement would sound horrible, and so did we, but we were wrong: They sound wonderful. In fact, they're the best part of the system.
Electronics include a nicely appointed factory radio with a single-play CD player, 12 FM/6 AM presets, and a logical user-friendly topography. Ergonomically, the Sentra SE-R has it all over the Protegé MP3, which utilizes a Kenwood aftermarket head unit that has the tiniest buttons we've ever seen in a production vehicle. Really almost dangerous to use and certainly not in the same league with the Nissan's functionality.
Performance: Sonically, this system has only one flaw, but it's a major one: volume limiting is virtually non-existent, so when you turn it up, you get almost pure distortion (in contrast, the MP3 has excellent gain limiting). Why a company with the reputation of Rockford-Fosgate would choose to put its name on a system that sounds this bad when pushed to its limits is beyond us. Fortunately, backing off the volume knob redeems the system somewhat, and it becomes quite listenable. But there is no question in our minds that Nissan will face a boatload of warranty claims with this setup. We listened to it "flat," meaning we did not accentuate the bass with the tone controls, and still, it distorted noticeably. However, most young people we know and this system is aimed squarely at the under-30 crowd will turn the bass all the way up and then crank the system, just the sort of scenario for blown voice coils and melted tweeters.
Aside from our negative comments above, this is still one sweet-sounding system. In particular, the A-pillar-mounted tweeters produce a superb soundstage, creating a stereo image second to none in this test. Vocals are warm and melodious, and all instruments come through in intricate detail. This is a very good system.
Best Feature: A-pillar-mounted tweeters.
Worst Feature: Excessive distortion above half-gain.
Conclusion: Aside from the inferior volume limiting in this system, this is a well-executed setup, and we highly recommend it. It's reasonably priced, too, with an MSRP of only $549; there is also an option to add a six-disc in-dash changer. Scott Memmer
After running the tires off these cars, we were left with some concrete impressions: The Sentra is simply a blast; the car never failed to elicit foolish grins from its driver, whether it was just a quick spin to get lunch or after a 50-mile test loop was completed. The Jetta didn't have quite as sporty a personality as the Sentra, but impressed us with its upscale character. Mazda's Protegé MP3 has an excellent chassis that deserves another 40 horsepower. The Impreza, with its all-wheel-drive traction, would be our choice if driving in slippery conditions were a consideration. And the last two entrants really weren't on our radar; the Lancer was totally lacking in the "sport" department, and the Neon was neither much fun nor comfortable.
There you have it. No need to wait for that big promotion or new job after getting your advanced degree to buy a sport sedan. And like at Baskin-Robbins, there's a flavor here for everyone.