It seems like mere minutes since we were shocking and awing the 1578 residents of Bagdad, Arizona, with a similar assortment of giant-slaying subcompacts. However, since that test in May 2007 identifying the Mazdaspeed 3 GT as our favorite little hooligan, the auto industry has birthed a few more turbocharged street runts.

These new torpedoes break down into two gangs, we discovered. The Sharks take reasonable compromise and trample it under stiff suspensions and fat rubber, flaring with eyeball candy and simmering with just-try-it styling. The Jets just play it cool, boy, with less pushy graphics and a lighter, quieter step to their sprints. Like the brawling punks of Bernstein and Sondheim's 1957 West Side Story, each gang has endearing qualities as well as social diseases.

A cash payment of $22,995 snares the Dodge Caliber SRT4, a superpower-suffused version of Dodge's economy shoe box wielding 285 horsepower from a 2.4-liter turbo engine and grille-fed intercooler. This Shark, sunburnt in $150 optional Sunburst Orange, had a price further fluffed by a $915 stereo, $1075 navigation system, and the 19-inch aluminum wheel and tire pack, which runs $450. Okay by me from America!

There's also the totally, radically, belatedly redesigned Subaru Impreza WRX. The original civilian rally car returns larger, heavier, more mature, with a few traditional Rex cues -- 224-horse turbo flat-four engine and all-wheel drive -- and a few tradition breakers, including full-frame windows (finally!) and a deluxe interior. This WRX was earmarked to the gills with $4100 worth of satellite radio and navigation equipment, plus a $75 rubber cargo tray (worth every cent) and a $163 armrest extension. When you're a Jet, you're a Jet all the way.

Volvo -- of all the unlikely brands to be here! It joins the subcompact fracas with its '08 227-hp C30 T5 hatch. The C30's launch timing precluded us from comparing it with a VW GTI and Mini Cooper in Bagdad, perhaps the C30's more natural gang affiliates. And car availability meant the only example with a six-speed manual was this base Version 1.0 model, fitted with soft-running all-season tires and lacking the optional sport suspension. At least its $23,920 price sits at the bottom (a $475 metallic-blue paint job is the only option). Somewhere, there's a place for this Jet.

Finally, we invited the leader of the Sharks from our Bagdad comparo, the 263-hp Mazdaspeed 3. Stripped for fighting with zero options, it trades at $24,650, a gray 150-mph missile plunged into the heart of our price range. A car like that wants one thing only, and when it's done, it'll leave you lonely.

In the meantime, let's mambo!

Fourth Place: 2008 Dodge Caliber SRT4

Is this Dodge's new hot rod or just the box it came in? The high-seated, proto-SUV shape adopted for the regular-grade Caliber looks every bit the Shark behind the SRT4's goalie mask of air ducts, spoilers, and screens, yet it's still tall and trucklike and definitely doesn't feel so pretty. A tailgate wing and the blocky rear bumper only pump up the visual heft, and the 19-inch rims and 225/45 Goodyears look like Sasquatch soles, even in this company. The line forms here for those who like their dance partners big-boned and square-shouldered.

Inside, the forms are big, too, the towering dash and the slab-o'-granite steering-wheel boss unchanged from those of the base car. It doesn't say "speed" so much as "safe for kids." Acres of hard, high-sheen black plastic advertise the cost cutting.

The SRT mojo is applied tastefully with carbon-fiber-print upholstery for the wheel and shift boot; white-face gauges include a cleanly integrated boost meter. Lavishly bolstered buckets with SRT embroidery suck torsos in and keep them there, but eventual back fatigue turned the minutes to hours on long hauls.

Chrysler's Street and Racing Technology department is known for baking real meat in its burritos, and the SRT4 is no exception. The best power-to-weight ratio (11.1 pounds per horsepower) didn't produce the quickest drag times, but the SRT4's 14.4-second quarter-mile at 101 mph and gold-medal lane-change performance showed its strengths.

At street level, the Caliber chisels away doubts prompted by its styling. Lines through the corners were tight and bracingly fast and faithfully adhered to by the sticky tires. Mid-turn weaving was occasional on uneven surfaces, the consequence of the snorting 2.4-liter four's 265 pound-feet of torque pulling the steering around. Always threatening to tear the front rubber loose, the engine's rabid twist is tamed by subtle applications of the left or right front brake to shift torque away from the smoking tire. This virtual limited slip, superior to a real mechanical limited slip, claims Dodge, operates with a slight jerkiness that was offensive to some, unnoticed by others.

The body remains flat on its firm springs and anti-roll bars, but it also bucked more over bumps, having an altogether harder, harsher ride than the others. Sensations through the wheel, artificially light on center and artificially heavy off, are duller than in the Mazda or Subaru. However, the clipped, direct motions of the Dodge's six-speed lever were judged the most satisfying of all the shifters.

The old Neon-based SRT4 had a boomy track-rat crudeness that has been expunged from the quieter, slightly plusher, more thoroughly integrated Caliber SRT4. Yet a persistent tinny feel -- the hood prop falling off in our hands, the wads of foam insulation sliding around in inadequate glue, the various engine rattles on shutdown -- kept our hearts from fully defrosting for it.

Third Place: 2008 Volvo C30 T5

Thoroughly outgunned on this playground, the little glass-rumped cosmopolitan from the way, way north had us uttering the word "Volvo" as if for the first time. An enormously civilized and well-packaged bundle of Euro-chic efficiency, our base C30 was a delight betrayed only by its overly elastic suspension and drab interior hued in three shades of Scandinavian winter.

The lone car here lacking rear doors, this Jet sacrifices back-seat accessibility for its fascinating body shape. A low roof and a fast sloping hatch set in extra huggable hips garnered double takes for the C30 all up and down the high roads leading to our test venue in southeast Ohio. Those who don't spend a few moments absorbing the C30's mile-high taillights pouring like strawberry syrup down the corners and over the flanks need to get their curiosity in for a tuneup.

A C30 stands apart in this group for other reasons. Sporting a soft suspension and wearing all-season tires, it's no shocker that the C30 tanked in the braking, lane-change, and skidpad tests. This cabin offers only four seatbelts, the rear ones accessed by awkwardly climbing over and around the front ones. The turbo engine has an unnatural five holes, from which a stirring exhaust note was never expected and never delivered.

Some anomalous test numbers, however, tell the story of a slingshot punch from the five-cylinder engine.

Lightest at 3134 pounds, the C30 was the slowest from 0 to 60 mph at 6.3 seconds -- Houston, we have wheelspin! -- but the quickest from 5 to 60 at 6.5 seconds. The Volvo was also fleetest in the 30-to-50 top-gear slog. You say you want usable power more than big horsepower numbers? The C30 serves it up, no waiting. Lift your foot, and it also vanishes, no waiting. The engine shuts down abruptly when the fat boost blows off.

Tuned as an urban errand runner, the C30's Mazda 3 -- derived multilink legs sag under the g-forces of country-road cornering. The brake pedal also got long as a hard-driving day wore on. For better back-road acumen, go for the "Dynamic sport suspension," $575 by itself on the 1.0 (Volvo charges a one-time $300 fee with the first of any "custom build" options, including the suspension) and standard on the 2.0, which is also fitted with larger, 18-inch wheels and lower-profile tires. But be prepared to trade in the absorbent ride that makes freeway plods a relaxing, stress-free stroll in the base car.

The widest car at 70.2 inches proved roomy even for rear-seaters, who get ergonomically scalloped buckets and expansive windows to look through. The "flying buttress" -- er, "flying VCR remote" -- center console with its Sony-inspired knot of black buttons is a bit of hand-me-down Swedish whimsy from the S40/V50. The plain gauges, the rubbery shifter, and the listless gray plastic trim applied in vast unbroken sheets are hand-me-down items from all Volvos. None of which dissuaded anyone from declaring this happy hatchback an ideal daily driver.

C30! We just met a Volvo named C30, and suddenly that name will never be the same again.

Next Page: Subaru WRX and Mazdaspeed 3

Share This Photo X