Second Place: 2008 Subaru WRX

It was swimming with the Sharks only last year, but the WRX emerges from its complete makeover as a confirmed Jet. The lines of the mini-wagon are more taut (if not excessively handsome). The roof looks lower, the rear-end rake is steeper, and the flaring hood scoop is now tamped down into a narrow cheese shaver. There's no body-color stitching on the upholstery, no epileptic boost meters, no race-boy adverts embroidered on the seats. The black and titanium trim is so understated -- red-numbered gauges notwithstanding -- that the car should really be called the Impreza LX.

Disappointment? It can't be measured in milligrams. This '08 WRX is so capable and willing, such a leap in livability and refinement over its predecessor, that the words "budget BMW" actually crossed our lips without causing gags.

Unfortunately, some of the old WRX remains for nostalgic types. The Evinrude-esque putter of the 224-horse, 2.5-liter flat-four is just as lame, although more damped in the quieter cockpit. The engine's four-armed intake tract has been changed from aluminum to plebeian black plastic. It might be lighter and cheaper, but it won't encourage WRX lovers to crack their hoods at the hamburger stand.

Five-on-the-floor seems about as outdated as three-on-the-tree in a world full of six-speeds. The ratio spacing is almost identical to the Caliber's but without the second overdrive. No surprise that the Rex's recorded 20-mpg average is at the bottom. The turbocharged boxer spreads its torque thickly around 3000 rpm, so the extra gear was only missed on the interstate. Little joy was derived from shifting, anyway, the stick's floppy connection to the transmission seemingly done with bungee cords.

So much for the bad. Our back-road bash brought out the WRX's manifest improvements, including a new solidity in the ride, competence to the brakes, and fluidity in the suspension and steering. Arcs are traced cleanly with well-greased and reactive steering, the suspension restraining roll and pitch but letting the body down over dips and bumps as gently as a ballerina in slippers. Or a BMW on Michelins, we thought. As in a Bimmer, Subaru's new chassis filters out everything you don't need to know to go quick with confidence.

And quick it is, the WRX's all-wheel drive supplying much appreciated rear-drive throttle response in this group. Injudicious right feet easily overwhelm the front tires of the other cars, especially the hyper-boosted Mazda. But the WRX responds to mid-turn gassing by tucking in the front end and tightening the line. From this, great drives are made.

A snore to look at, the WRX keeps its assets hidden from view. Subaru surely is saving all the red-hot visuals for the forthcoming and pricier STI. Could it be? Yes, it could. Something's coming, something good.

First Place: 2007 Mazdaspeed 3

A Shark draws the final blood by bringing a gun to a knife fight. Where have we seen that ending before? Always fast, often loud, and occasionally unpredictable, this 263-hp gangbanger rivets your attention and wins our devotion. It's a poster-boy Shark, and it's also a Jet at its most relaxed moments.

The Mazdaspeed 3 shows its chops at the track with the quickest 0-to-60 and quarter-mile times, shortest braking distance, and highest skidpad number. Power, grip, brakes, agility -- it's all there in quantities so prodigious as to encourage pure evil in the hearts of men. On a busy two-lane the Mazdaspeed 3 flies past a line of semis so effortlessly as to convince you of your immunity to traffic. It attacks turns with a viscous bite and sticks to pavement with Fixodent-quality adhesion. Throttle-response delay can be counted in thunderclaps. Concentrate, because it also steers itself under full throttle, the front tires having radar for the divots and camber pitches that heighten the innate torque steer.

It booms, it whooshes, it wails. It demands that your best sweaty-palmed driving skills be applied to the light steering and alloy pedals, and it rewards, delivering a type of demonic, antisocial fun in the same vein as burning ants with a magnifying glass.

Drop it into sixth with the ropy, imprecise shifter, and the 3 untenses. Road impacts are damped by a suspension exhibiting ample wheel travel. The five-door body supplies respectable rear-seat legroom augmented by a comfortable seatback angle, and there's decent baggage area (although it's slightly smaller than the Dodge's and Subaru's). Mazda offers a clever fold-away navigation screen for those who want it.

Details set the Mazdaspeed 3's cockpit apart. Fancy fabric lines the doors, and painted trim rings circle the vents and speaker grilles. Perfectly spaced red-stitched chevrons march up the inside of the steering wheel. The stereo's red LEDs flash left or right depending on which way you're seeking radio stations. Back-seat riders get a fold-away center armrest.

The list goes on: The brake pedal's rubber grip dots are configured to encourage proper heel-and-toeing. Two brightness controls for the backlit gauges -- one for daytime with headlights off, one for night, headlights on -- mean you don't have to fuss with the meter every time the sun sets. The headlight dip angle is even adjustable.

Based on a low-priced car, the Mazda­speed 3 never feels cheap. Nor is it uncomfortable. The front buckets' bolsters are plump and hold fast -- there's even a crotch blister for holding, uh, whatever.

Lumbar is adjustable, as is the wheel telescope, ensuring orthopedic satisfaction on long hikes. Indeed, the Mazda's worst offense is its ability to generate repeated court summonses.

Gee, Officer Krupke, what are we to do?

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