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Nashville Scene Time Machines

Trio of subcompacts showcases affordable performance

By Marc K. Stengel

JULY 31, 2000:  No," I said, "you will not be getting a new car--any car, for that matter--with your driver's license next year." By now, my eldest daughter doesn't even bother to look crestfallen anymore. She just keeps asking me the same question. Over and over. I've got to be especially careful. Whatever I do will seal my fate--for better or worse--for the next half-dozen years. There are two younger sisters watching covetously from the sidelines.

And yet she knows she's got me thinking. The wheels are turning, so to speak. Just hypothetically, mind you, what if I had to help my teenagers find a new car that they might share? I'd want it to be safe. Of course. Affordable to buy, and economical to operate and insure too, since their meager incomes will certainly be part of the purchase equation. And I'd want it to be fun--for them, sure; but even more so for me. Because if there's a car around, there's no question I'll be driving the heck out of it when I get my chance.

2000 Subaru Impreza 2.5 RS

I might as well admit right off the bat that this Subaru replica racer, with its aggressive World Rally Car styling, is my absolute favorite of the three cars considered here. My favorite. It wouldn't be my girls', if only because it's far too expensive for them at its as-tested total of $20,214. But I include it just the same, because I think a Subaru Impreza ought to be high on the list of anyone shopping for a subcompact. And there is, after all, the 142-horsepower Impreza L version that starts at $16,390.

The 2.5 RS, however, is the kind of time machine I could feel young in again. There's 165 horsepower and 166 ft.-lbs. of torque and all-wheel-drive and a very low-center-of-gravity "boxer" motor. This unique combination results in marvelously snappy acceleration off the line and nimble, flat, fast cornering. The Impreza RS seems to beg for a good tossing about, and yet its all-time, all-wheel-drive powertrain feels inherently safe, perpetually self-confident.

It's got airbags, of course, and anti-lock brakes come standard on the RS (although they're unavailable even as an option on the L version). Crash ratings are generally "good," but fuel-economy is middling at 21 mpg/city, 28/hwy. The big news for 2000 is the appearance of a four-door sedan version of the RS (which I tested) to accompany the two-door coupe (which I much prefer). Surprisingly, both cost the same. Neither, alas, has much of a chance fitting into my daughters' and my joint pocketbook.

2000 Chevrolet Cavalier Z24

There was a time when Chevy's Cavalier would have dominated front-of-mind awareness for subcompact car shoppers. It's one of Chevy's leading sellers. But the company has regrettably delayed the car's "makeover" from this year to next, so that even in Z24 "performance" trim, the Cavalier feels and looks old-hat.

Certainly the price is competitive. Cavalier starts at $13,680, which buys Chevy's 115-horsepower base-model motor. My Z24 tester, on the other hand, delivered 150 horsepower and 155 ft.-lbs. from Chevy's notable 2.4-liter twin-cam. For its as-tested price of $16,875, the Z24 Cavalier came with a long list of standard equipment, including power windows and locks, fog lamps, CD player, ABS, and 16-inch aluminum wheels. In fact, the window sticker featured not one single option. The car really is a very good buy and features mileage of 23 mpg/city, 33/hwy., to boot.

But it's underwhelming to drive, even if it is reasonably perky. Suspension is soft--even with the Z24's "Level II Sport" tuning of shocks and springs. While the ride may be comfy, the car wallows through corners. Acceleration is decent, but not particularly brisk. Unlike in Subaru's racy-feeling Impreza RS, the Z24's manual five-speed shifter is pillowy and vague.

The car is still a bit out of the price range of a teens-and-parent consortium, as well. But the darker shadow by far is Cavalier's disappointing crash ratings. These range from merely "average" and "good" for driver and front passenger, respectively, to "poor" and even "very poor" in offset and side impacts. In a car category this competitive, you'd think GM wouldn't settle for these results quite so cavalierly.

2000 Ford Focus ZX3

It's probably an unfair contest to have this car in the mix. It costs just $12,520 for starters, and even with an intriguing promo package Ford has devised--the "Kona" kit, including matching mountain bike, roof rack, aluminum wheels, even washable removable seat covers--my as-tested sticker totaled only $15,765.

My girls and I are all crazy about this Focus hatchback's edgy, modern looks. The 130-horsepower Zetec motor is very spirited, "revvy," and efficient at 25 mpg/city, 33 hwy. The car corners like a banshee, with an ultra-quick steering feel that rewards sharp turn-ins while the power is full-on. My chief complaint is a very tall-feeling first gear that requires a lot of revs to get rolling. Lack of driver experience may initially result in stalls that are awkward at least, and potentially more serious. It's reassuring--but hardly compensating--to know that the ZX3's crash ratings are the best of this threesome: "very good" for both driver and front passenger. Front airbags are standard, of course; head and side bags are optional, as is ABS.

"No promises, you understand," is what I'm now thinking to myself when my eldest daughter asks yet again about life-after-driver's-license. She doesn't need to know, but let's just say I'm starting to focus a bit more on the future.

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