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2008 Automobile Magazine All-Stars

jetsetter

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All-Star: 2008 BMW 3-series
Here we go again. The BMW 3-series is getting another award, garnering still more praise, waltzing across the stage one more time. Are you tired of it already? We know how you feel. Believe it - no one here likes seeing the same winners over and over. So we didn't set out hoping to give the 3-series another All-Star award (its thirteenth!). But then we got in the car and started driving. And, just like always, it was good, very good. The hills, crests, dips, curves, lumps, and bumps of our rural route through southeast Ohio create an environment that would bring most cars to their knees, but the 3-series just reveled in it. After each leg of our daylong drive, another driver would get out and deliver some variation of the same verdict: This one's on my list. Again.

Despite BMW's recent missteps (iDrive, active steering, misshapen styling), the company still does chassis tuning like no other carmaker. That's particularly true of the 3-series, which is incredibly smooth and fluid. It's a car that instantly makes any mope who slides behind its wheel a better driver.

This year, we had a 335i on hand, with the turbocharged version of BMW's awesome straight six. Two turbos bump the power output up to a hale and hearty 300 hp - a figure that provides nearly M-car thrust without exhibiting the Dean-Martin-on-a-bender drinking habit that afflicts so many performance cars. The 335i achieves an EPA-estimated 26 mpg on the highway (its nonturbocharged sibling manages an even more abstemious 28 mpg). Better still, BMW offers 3-series sweetness in four different flavors - coupe, sedan, wagon, and hardtop convertible - the better to ensure its ubiquity.

You may be sick of reading it. We may be sick of writing it. But there's no denying it: the BMW 3-series is an All-Star. Again.

All-Star: 2008 Chevrolet Corvette
It's called the law of diminishing returns: the idea that, after you pass a certain threshold, your investment no longer corresponds to your reward. It also applies to sports cars. There's a kink in the price/performance graph where you begin spending a lot more money for not much more performance. There's an easily definable point after which come diminishing returns, and that point is the Chevy Corvette.

Certainly, there are faster new cars than the Corvette. But all of them, without exception, cost a lot more money. The base Corvette handily outguns the Porsche 911; the Z06 can hang with the Ferrari F430s of the world. And for 2008, the Corvette got a comprehensive overhaul, with up to 436 hp available from the 6.2-liter LS3 V-8. The revised car does the 0-to-60-mph sprint in 4.3 seconds - with an automatic transmission.

At this point, Chevy could probably say, "Here's a car that goes 190 miles per hour and costs forty-six grand. You don't like the steering? Bite me." Instead, it rolled out a car that does 190 mph while also addressing the subjective aspects of the driving experience. The steering got a new machining process for its internal components, in the name of improved feel. The shifter was revised, in search of more direct throws. The interior, long a Corvette weak point, got a new option that can be best surmised as "cover everything in leather." The 2008 Corvette is like a prodigal athlete who's not content to merely destroy the competition - now he wants to do it with style.

When you think about it, elite performance cars tend to remain essentially unchanged throughout their lives, maybe because they're already as high-strung as their manufacturers can make them without starting over from scratch. A BMW M-car, for instance, gets only minor changes over the course of its life. But Chevy tore down the Vette and found meaningful improvements halfway through the C6 production run, when it could've easily said, "You know what? We'll fix that stuff in the C7."

It's not like there's a car waiting in the wings to usurp the Corvette's title of Supreme Sports Car Bang for the Buck, but Chevy acts as if there is. And that's why the Corvette is, once again, an unequivocal All-Star.

All-Star: 2008 Chevrolet Malibu
"This is the best Chevrolet family sedan I've ever driven." No, that's not from a Chevy TV ad; it was uttered spontaneously by one of our drivers after a twenty-mile thrash on challenging roads. Enough of us agree with that assessment to put the good-looking new sedan on the All-Star list with cars costing several times more. The Malibu might not be quite as good as Bob Lutz claimed after the car's Detroit show introduction, but it's not far off. Smooth, quiet, very well-finished, and more than able to keep up with more powerful cars, it represents a true sea change in what GM is offering the public.

This is not a sedan of extremes. It's not the quickest Chevy sedan ever - that would be a 1960s big-block bruiser. But no big V-8 Chevrolet ever provided a ride as supple and well-controlled as this, nor did any of them answer to the helm with the alacrity and accuracy that the Malibu offers. The Malibu isn't as flashy as some past Chevrolets, but buyers will decide whether that's important. We like the understated exterior but would welcome a bit more style in the cabin. That everything fits well is far more important than the fact that it's a touch plain. Even the supportive seats are excellent.

Substance, not appearance, is what makes the Malibu an All-Star. Its six-speed automatic is worlds away from the two-speed Powerglides of yore, and it contributes to the relaxed feel of the car. The Malibu's V-6 gives away sixteen horses to the Honda Accord yet kept up with it effortlessly. This is the kind of car Americans have wanted from Detroit for years. Now it's here, an Automobile Magazine All-Star.

All-Star: 2008 Infiniti G35/G37
The Infiniti G is yin to the BMW 3-series' yang, and picking a winner between them - which is to say, choosing the best sport coupe/sedan in the world - is less about what the cars can do than it is about what their drivers want. For those partial to instant gratification, the Infiniti reigns supreme. The steering is sharper, the shift throws shorter, the suspension tauter, the engine peakier. The BMW is slightly more capable at the limit, but the G37 coupe and the G35 sedan feel a lot sportier getting there. Oh, and Teutonic cachet aside, these Japanese delicacies are the best bargains this side of all-you-can-eat sushi at Nobu.

The interior of the Infiniti is a pleasure dome featuring stylish aluminum trim, violet mood lighting, and French-stitched leather seats. But the car's willingness to get with the program is obvious the instant you punch the push-button starter and hear the feral growl pulsing out the bad-boy tailpipes. Nissan's VQ V-6 engine makes an impressive 306 hp in 3.5-liter sedan form and 330 ponies when stroked to 3.7 liters in the coupe.

Both cars ride on a new, stiffer version of the FM platform that underpinned the original G35 five years ago. Toss in the Sport package, with bolder wheels and tires, brawnier brakes, and an eager six-speed manual transmission, and you get a sexy beast that slices apexes like a sashimi knife and powers out of them like a typhoon.

Although the G37 is more powerful than the G35, it's heavier, too, so the difference in performance is negligible. Also, the revised sheetmetal has rejuvenated the once-dowdy sedan, which is now nearly as shapely as the coupe. So the toughest choice may no longer be between the Infiniti and the BMW. It's between the G37 and the G35.

All-Star: 2008 Lotus Elise
In almost sixty years in business, Lotus Cars has never sold more than a few thousand units in a year, even its best ones. Sales booms, if you could call them that, have typically been followed by busts. The carmaker ramps up to build some exciting new confection, and then the market is quickly saturated, as everyone who felt they'd been born to own the new Lotus and would die if they didn't, had now bought one.

This historic pattern is relevant because it makes the continuing sales success of the Elise (now in its fourth year in America) certain proof of Lotus's changed and extraordinary nature, as well as offering ringing confirmation of the Elise's repeat All-Star stature. This car remains for the committed, but seeing as Lotus is poised to have its best American sales year ever, it seems there's a growing pool of those ready to commit.

And so it should be. The mid-engine sportster is a bravura engineering performance that reprises the truest Lotus virtues, namely light weight (1984 pounds) and fealty to handling excellence. These endearing traits profit from the car's technically elegant bonded-aluminum chassis. Add reliability, courtesy of a Toyota/Yamaha engine good for 190 rev-happy horsepower, and you have a for-real, serious machine. (A new supercharged Elise is scheduled for 2008, too.)

At $46,270, the Elise might seem expensive for a fiberglass car that has two seats and a tiny trunk. But for the best-handling sports car we know, an audacious-looking thing that goes from 0 to 60 mph in less than five seconds, we think it's not, really. The Lotus Elise is a commitment worth committing to.

All-Star: 2008 Mazda CX-9
Trucks seldom earn a berth on our All-Stars list, because most of them are preoccupied with the banal side of motoring: toting cargo, towing boats, transporting brood to tap lessons and soccer practice. But every now and then, there's a deviant, an outlier that ventures beyond the obligatory nine-to-five routine to play party animal in the off-hours.

Chief designer Hideki Suzuki made this full-figured family hauler appear almost svelte, with a sleek windshield, a sinuous waistline, and buff haunches. The interior provides a wealth of split-folding seats and storage spots, lifting the mood with plush leather, slack-free controls, and cool blue lighting.

When Mazda says that there's the soul of a sports car built into the CX-9, what they mean is that the driver isn't demoted to a chauffeur. The development team taught the CX-9 proper road etiquette. Adhesives were used to maximize the unibody's structural stiffness. Stout antiroll bars and dampers keep body motion in check. Rubber-isolated crossmembers support both ends so that ride and handling can peacefully coexist.

The effort invested in the CX-9's driving dynamics paid off. Hard-to-please Automobile Magazine critics have been moved to paroxysms of joy when discussing the CX-9. One called the V-6 engine charming, the six-speed manu-matic transmission silky. Another praised the way the powertrain hustles the 4620-pound curb weight. But the ultimate kudos came from the editor who rated the steering feedback and feel superior to that of BMW's new M3. After a bouquet like that, it's amazing that the CX-9's tires still maintain touch with the pavement.

All-Star: 2008 Mercedes-Benz S-class
Like goldilocks, we know when something is just right. We complain when a car is too big or too small, too hard or too soft, and we don't hide our displeasure. But when a car is right, we're moved to celebrate it. And so today, we celebrate the Mercedes-Benz S-class.

Two iterations ago, we lamented that the S-class had become too heavy, too complex, and too expensive. Mercedes answered those complaints with the next-generation car by scaling down the size and scaling back the price. So what did we do? We judged the car guilty of moving too far downmarket; it showed obvious signs of cost-cutting and had lost some of its Germanic solidity. So Mercedes went back to the drawing board and in 2006 introduced the current-generation luxury sedan. And this time, they got it just right.

Today's S-class is dripping with luxury accoutrements and high-tech accessories, from a full-leather interior to a hands-free communication system to a fourteen-speaker stereo. It has power everything, radar-guided cruise control, adaptive damping, and more comfort and convenience features than the presidential suite at the Waldorf.

But the S-class is more than just the sum of its equipment list. The S-class rides and handles in a way that belies its size, with taut steering, perfect driver feedback, and an athletic demeanor when the going gets curvy. Available with a quartet of engines that range in ability from supremely competent to mind-blowing, the S-class is the world's most versatile luxury car. In a segment with no shortage of excellent competitors, from the Lexus LS460 to the BMW 7-series, the Mercedes-Benz S-class stands out, because pretty much everything about it is just right.

All-Star: 2008 Porsche Boxster/Cayman
We've combined the Boxster and the Cayman into one All-Star this year because, frankly, we couldn't decide between the two. Whether you prefer your sports car in convertible (Boxster) or hardtop (Cayman) flavor, no one will question your judgment if you arrive at their front door in either mid-engine Porsche.

What's that, you say? You're afraid people will think your Boxster isn't a real Porsche? Worried they'll think you bought a Cayman because you can't afford a 911? The staff of Automobile Magazine hereby informs you that those people are fools, and their opinions don't count.

The Boxster and the Cayman received more votes than any other car on this list, and it's no wonder: every time one arrives at our editorial office, we fight like adolescent siblings for the privilege of driving it home. The reason for that is simple: they are exquisite to drive. Their steering is so communicative, you'll feel more of the road's surface only if you crawl along it on your hands and knees. Brake feel is the stuff legends are made of, and the mechanical symphony created by the six horizontally opposed cylinders is more addictive than a reality TV show.

Neither the base 245-hp 2.7-liter nor the S-models' 295-hp 3.4-liter engine produces sufficient grunt for a sub-five-second 0-to-60-mph time, but straight-line acceleration is rarely a Porsche's primary goal. The fact is, when the road goes squiggly, there are few cars on this planet that can keep up.

At the same time, few cars are as entertaining to drive at school-zone speeds. And with two trunks and rich interior appointments, the Boxster and the Cayman make terrific daily drivers.

The whole point of owning a sports car is to put a smile on your face. And few can do that every day as well as these sultry twins from Stuttgart.

All-Star: 2008 Volkswagen GTI
Go ahead, laugh. Laugh at the little German car that wears its heart on its sleeve. Laugh at its plaid-covered seats, laugh at its abundance of cheekiness, laugh at its utter lack of displacement. Tell us how your supercharged nine-liter Vettebirdamino will eat it alive, all while you suck down a milk shake and make out with your girlfriend and read War and Peace with one eye shut. We will listen. We will nod politely. And then we will find some winding, twisty road, and we will blow your doors off.

Volkswagen's GTI is magic. What else do you call a diminutive hatchback that can shame supercars? The latest version of VW's iconic hot bunny may offer only 200 horses under the hood, but a fantastically usable, abusable, and forgiving chassis makes the best of each and every one of them. Steering feel, long a GTI hallmark, is remarkably direct and unfettered. The turbo four that drives the front wheels does its job with minimal lag and a cheery brup! out the tailpipe. The whole package turns every off-camber, back-road yump session into a flat-footed exercise in giggles. Porsches, BMWs, and the like struggle to keep up.

The icing on the cake, though, is the sticker price. (Less than twenty-three grand.) Or maybe it's the practicality. (Four adult-sized seats hold - get this - four adults. In comfort.) Or maybe it's the fuel economy. (Nearly 30 mpg on the highway.) Wait. No. Scratch that. Everything is icing. The GTI eclipses even the class-clown Mini Cooper for sheer spark and verve, it makes sense for real people who actually have to lead real lives, and it does it all without breaking the bank. If that doesn't make for All-Star status, we don't know what does.

All-Star: 2008 Volvo C30
The C30 had us from the first view of its cute little 1800ES-esque butt at the 2006 Detroit show, where it launched as the C30 Design Concept. Since then, we've been waiting patiently for the hipster Volvo four-seat hatchback to wind its way through the long productionization process, to introduce itself to everyone in Europe (where it was greeted with much fanfare, as in 32,000 sales as of November 2007), to roll onto a transatlantic steamer, and to finally make its way into our eager hands.

Such is the impact of striking design. You see it, you just want it. Never mind that the C30 has the underpinnings, the 227-hp turbocharged five-cylinder engine, and virtually the entire interior of the S40. We like the S40, too. But this is just the cutest thing, with its nipped-in rear cabin and frameless pane of hatch glass. Sweet.

Never mind that it's only a couple hundred pounds lighter than the base S40 (despite being 8.8 inches shorter) and therefore a bit pokier than we expected. And the Volvo doesn't feel as sporting as the Volkswagen GTI, although (according to Volvo and VW) the C30 is both faster and quicker. The Volvo is whisper-quiet, perfectly composed, and has a six-speed manual that you could teach your grandma to row flawlessly in fifteen minutes. You can add a little flip of roof spoiler and larger tailpipes; lower it; go with stiffer springs, dampers, and antiroll bars; jack it onto eighteen-inch rims; rock out the 650-watt, ten-speaker Dynaudio system; add a cool two-tone option dialed up from a palette of seventeen different exterior colors; and still party on out the door for less than $30,000.

It is madly, Scandinavianly mod inside to go with its fresh exterior. And any one of us would have it - the one perfect criterion for All-Stardom.

2008 Automobile All-Star Runners Up
(Info at links)

2008 Aston Martin V8 Vantage
2008 Audi A5/S5
2008 Cadillac CTS
2008 Ferrari F430
2008 Ford Taurus X
http://www.automobilemag.com/features/awards/0711_2008_automobile_all_star_runners_up/index.html

2008 Buick Enclave/GMC Acadia/Saturn Outlook
2008 Honda Accord
2008 Jaguar XK/XKR
2008 Jeep Wrangler
http://www.automobilemag.com/features/awards/0711_2008_automobile_all_star_runners_up/index1.html

2008 Maserati Quattroporte
2008 Mazda 3
2008 Nissan Versa
2008 Toyota Tundra
http://www.automobilemag.com/features/awards/0711_2008_automobile_all_star_runners_up/index2.html



I don't agree with all of the selections (Tundra, C30) but it is an interesting list nonetheless.
 
hmm, thats sad, i usually rather like Automobile
 
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