2008 Audi TT 2.0T
23 mpg city/31 mpg highway
The lithely penned Audi TT is a slinky sports coupe that beat out the none-too-shabby Nissan 350Z and Ford Shelby GT in a recent comparison test. Both of those cars harvest horsepower from displacement (the Shelby's engine is more than two-and-a-half times larger than the TT's), whereas the Audi gets it from as much turbocharged boost as the laws of thermodynamics will allow from its 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine.
Two hundred horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque, yours at just 1800 rpm, are pressed into service by the excellent dual-clutch automated manual Direct Shift Gearbox. The same competitors trounced in that comparison test get socked again by the TT's 31 mpg highway rating; the 350Z and the Shelby GT get just 24 and 23 mpg, respectively.
Despite sharing a basic design with the Volkswagen Rabbit, the TT is some 200 pounds lighter, thanks to an aluminum, rather than steel, structure. Weight-saving measures and a quick-shifting transmission collaborate to produce a respectable 6.0-second 0-to-60 time, despite a modest power level.
Beyond dynamic talent, the TT offers what most others without four interlocking rings in the grille can't: an excellent interior and tactile experience that feel designed by those fluent in the finer things, adroitly translated into a vehicle priced on a par with cars whose interiors are more on the Lego end of the plastics experience.
2008 Porsche Cayman
20 mpg city/29 mpg highway
The first winding road experienced at the controls of the Porsche Cayman is like the first block walked in a bespoke pair of shoes. "Ah," you sigh, "that's what it's supposed to feel like." Other than the Cayman's price, which starts steep and gets foolish, there is not a damn thing that doesn't make us covet this dynamic superstar.
The 245-hp Porsche even gets respectable fuel mileage -- as much as 20 mpg city and 29 highway when equipped with a five-speed manual. That's better than some economy cars get, such as the Suzuki Reno. The Cayman S, bulked out with more displacement and another 50 horsepower, rockets to 60 in 4.8 seconds but gives up 2 mpg in the city and 3 mpg on the highway.
Porsche keeps a horsepower cap on the Cayman S, so the relevancy of the thirstier and more expensive 911 is less readily in question, but in making a car this good, it's apparent anyway. With trunks front and rear, the mid-engine Cayman is even practical, and an entirely reasonable option as a daily driver for the childless sort who can afford bespoke shoes.
2008 Dodge Sprinter CRD
25 mpg combined (est)
You've probably had a Dodge Sprinter -- known to the rest of the world as the Mercedes Sprinter -- waiting in your driveway while someone delivers flowers, insists your wireless router is causing the connectivity issue, or aims that blasted satellite dish. This Euro-special is a remarkably different approach to small commercial vehicles from what had previously been available here.
Until the introduction of the Sprinter, the delivery-and-service trade was limited to the standard 'Merican van as popularized by plumbers, child molesters, and soccer teams: ladder frame, truck powertrain, and a V-8, be it gas or diesel. The Sprinter, however, employs a 3.0-liter Mercedes diesel V-6 making just 154 horsepower but a respectable 280 pound-feet of torque. Because its gross vehicle weight is above the 8500-pound federal commercial-vehicle threshold, Dodge doesn't have to release fuel-economy figures for the Sprinter, so it doesn't. But according to people who use them to earn a living, low-to-mid-20s, fully loaded, can be seen regularly. The last time we tested a Sprinter -- it comfortably seated 10 -- it was fitted with a less powerful but more miserly 2.7-liter diesel inline-five, and we got 30 mpg combined.
The Sprinter uses a bespoke chassis with a low floor height to maximize interior volume, and it's available in two wheelbases, three vehicle lengths, and three roof heights. We are particular to the "mega-roof" option with its seven-foot ceiling, offering heretofore unavailable entertainment possibilities on long road trips -- touch football, for one.
Dodge has a real-world, customer-driven test fleet of plug-in, diesel-electric hybrid Sprinters. Some delivery routes in metro areas such as New York City are able to run almost completely on battery power. For those who stumble daily through soot-choked cities, that's practically as exciting a future as rent control.
2008 Chevrolet Corvette
16 mpg city/26 mpg highway
Zip it. Before you get your hemp panties in a cinch, reread the title of this article. The Corvette's 26 mpg highway rating is better than that of the Highlander hybrid. This from a car with a 6.2-liter, high-test-swillin', 436-hp V-8 that runs to 60 in four seconds flat, twice as fast as most cars on this list.
And then there's the Z06, America's David to so many hoity-toity Goliaths. Its quiver stocked with pushrods, the Z06 slays the Ferrari F430 and Lamborghini Gallardo and, at 24 mpg on the highway, does 7 mpg better than either, with a 7.0-liter engine.
The Corvette accomplishes the unlikely by combining enough torque to wrench the Eiffel Tower into a Twizzler with a 0.57:1 sixth gear and 3.42:1 final-drive ratio so that, at 70 mph, the V-8 is turning just 1750 rpm, within a throttle blip of idle. Cruise at 100 mph, and it will yawn along at 2550 rpm.
The Corvette is a sports car that people can, and regularly do, drive daily. A concerned enthusiast with a Toyota Prius for commuting and a Mazda Miata weekend car, simply by owning two new metal and plastic cars, has arguably scraped a greater serving of Mother Nature's bounty onto his self-satisfied plate.
2008 Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid
21 mpg city/22 mpg highway
GM performed a minor miracle in producing a full-size, gasoline-imbibing V-8 SUV that gets better city fuel economy than a Ford Fusion or Honda Accord V-6 and matches that of the four-cylinder Camry. The Tahoe hybrid is GM's first full-hybrid product, and it offers significant gains over the standard Tahoe, whose fuel economy approximates that of a 1950s bread truck. Most notable on the Tahoe is the patented two-mode hybrid transmission that is -- dare we say? -- a significant improvement in both efficiency and performance over the CVT used in cars such as the Prius. It can function as a CVT or a four-speed automatic, taking advantage of the best attributes of each.
A standard hybrid arrangement consisting of a 300-volt battery pack and twin electric motors assists a retuned version of GM's 6.0-liter V-8 that, on the two-wheel-drive model, will return 21 mpg in the city and 22 on the highway, not at all heinous considering the nearly 6000-pound curb weight. While this is all well and good, our Dave VanderWerp makes the point that fuel economy and performance could be improved and much cost and complexity avoided by installing a modern diesel. Heck, how about a diesel hybrid to really boost GM's CAFE? Perhaps management still shudders at the memory of the mechanical train wreck that was its last attempt at a passenger-vehicle diesel. We certainly do.
More important to many Tahoe buyers than fuel economy, however, is the 6000-pound towing capacity, which gives the fraction of large SUV owners who can justify ownership by the occasional need to tow something heavy, such as a party barge with twin kegerators, a green option. And if they park their Tahoe hybrid in San Francisco, that prominent hybrid labeling might prevent it from getting keyed, yet the V-8 burble maintains spiritual ties to manly American stuff such as NASCAR and shaving with a Bowie knife.