Last Updated May 7, 2010 10:24 AM EDT
With the summer driving season approaching, CBS MoneyWatch decided to hit the open road. We ran a fleet of foreign and domestic autos through their paces to find five fun cars that will cost you less than $35,000. (Plus the Ferrari California, which costs, well, a bit more — but we just couldn't leave it out.) The other — John Cooper Works Edition Mini convertible, Chevrolet Camaro SS, Ford Mustang GT, Volkswagen GTI, and Hyundai Genesis Coupe — are convertibles, sports cars, and retro models evoking bestselling 1960s classics.
All these cars are nominally four-seaters, but most are severely cramped for rear-seat passengers. Only the Volkswagen GTI offers comfortable accommodations for the kids.
John Cooper Works Edition Mini Convertible
- Price: $34,000; the coupe (sans convertible) is $28,800.
- Why it’s fun: With its retro good looks and go-anywhere handling, the Mini has been all about putting a big grin on your face. The new John Cooper Works Edition high-performance Mini convertible (named for the auto racing legend and developer of the Mini Cooper) offers faster acceleration and better handling for more fun in the sun.
- Under the hood: The Works Edition adds turbocharging, a six-speed manual transmission (there’s no automatic option), and stop-on-a-dime brakes. Its 16-valve four-cylinder engine squeezes out 208 horsepower, going from zero to 60 mph in 6.2 seconds.
- MPG: The Mini’s virtuous fuel economy remains intact: 26 mpg city/34 highway.
- Driving it: The British like their exhaust pipes to make beautiful music; the Works Edition Mini produces a rich symphony to accompany even the lowliest supermarket run. The original Mini was famous for its occasionally entertaining (and sometimes scary) loss of traction, but new stability controls plus a firm suspension keep this edition firmly rooted to the ground. Quirky controls and instrumentation — dominated by a mammoth speedometer — make the front seats a fun place to be. But the convertible top compromises Mini’s already stingy back-seat legroom. Think of this one as a two-seater with a rear parcel shelf.
- The critics say: “Introduced a couple months after the new Cooper Convertible, the JCW is the fastest factory Mini ragtop ever made.” — Left Lane News
Chevrolet Camaro SS
- Price: $30,745 for the base SS (for Super Sport); $8,000 more than the base standard Camaro.
- Why it’s fun: If Chevy is the Heartbeat of America, lately it’s needed a pacemaker. But the Camaro has helped make the brand fun again. It’s big, powerful, and designed to evoke Chevy’s colorful past. The SS’s packages add retro styling to evoke the classic ’69 model and upgrade the V-6 LS to a big V-8, which may make you nostalgic for 1960s muscle cars. Fortunately, unlike those Golden Age models, the new Camaro sports traction control and reassuring brakes. The SS handles well for its size and offers a lot of car for the money.
- Under the hood: Opt for the six-speed manual for fasten-your-seatbelts 426 horsepower — putting the Camaro SS nearly in Ferrari territory. The six-speed automatic, which can also be driven manually, comes with a 400-horsepower version that saves fuel by using just four cylinders under light loads.
- MPG: The Camaro boasts 25 mpg for highway driving, but its 16 mpg in the city is none too impressive, so you may want to get the automatic with cylinder management.
- Driving it: Perhaps because my black-striped test car looked like “Bumblebee” from Transformers, the SS drew plenty of attention as I zipped around. Gawkers pointed, heads swiveled, and drivers pulled out their cell phones to snap pictures. For open-road driving in sport-shifting mode, this Camaro is hard to beat. (And it makes all the right growly noises.) The SS rides roughshod over the Mustang GT for sheer horsepower, but its extra-wide stance makes it a bit harder to maneuver in tight situations. Disappointingly, the Camaro’s interior has too much hard plastic and fit and finish could be better — watch out for the sharp edges on the chrome interior door handles. The back seat was nearly useless, which is true of most Camaros.
- The critics say: “After years of anticipation, Chevrolet’s new Camaro not only lives up to the hype but redefines what a muscle car can be.” — Edmunds.com
Ford Mustang GT
- Price: $28,845 (base); $31,845 (GT Premium model tested).
- Why it’s fun: This GT fastback may remind you of the 1968 model Steve McQueen bulleted through San Francisco in Bullitt. Today’s Mustang GT is a dream car you’ll love while peeling past the Dairy Queen. It’s slightly less extroverted than the brash Camaro SS, but aimed at the same youth market plus older nostalgia buffs. Still, the sober, well-appointed interior (including the USB-enabled Sync sound system) is nicely grown up. Though the GT’s suspension is somewhat cruder than Camaro’s, the car is smaller and more maneuverable. For summer fun, there’s a convertible GT, too.
- Under the hood: The 4.6-liter V-8 boasts a chest-beating 315 horsepower and five-second zero-to-60 times. Given those numbers, go for the V-8 and also consider TrackPack, an options package that improves the already decent handling.
- MPG: 19 city/29 highway for the base Mustang V-6; 17 city/26 highway for the V-8 in the GT. The V-6’s fuel economy is not as great as you might expect.
- Driving it: When I took the V-8 Mustang into Manhattan, it was surprisingly effective as we skirted around cabs and delivery trucks. Its firm ride was pleasant enough, even bumping along the city’s potholed streets.
- The critics say: “Based on past experience with Mustangs, we did not have high expectations for a smooth and quiet ride, but the 2010 Mustang benefits from new chassis bracing and a recalibrated suspension that yields a more refined ride and gives it more stick in corners.” — The Car Connection
- Price: $23,230 (two door); $23,830 (four door)
- Why It’s Fun: The GTI is one of the original “pocket rockets” — compact hatchbacks that usually have turbocharged four-cylinder engines. This version, based on the Golf, keeps the formula intact. And the roomy back seat makes the GTI the only one in our bunch that will let families of five share in the fun.
- Under the hood: The 2.0 liter, four-cylinder engine produces 210 horsepower, half the Ferrari and Camaro, but enough to go from zero to 60 in 6.9 seconds. Our test car had the optional six-speed gearbox, making it an automatic with paddle shifters for manual shifting. The automatic also has an “S” slot for sporty driving.
- MPG: An impressive 24 mpg city/32 highway, helped by direct fuel injection.
- Driving it: In “drive” mode, the GTI is fine for commuting, but switch to “sport” and you’re ready for stoplight derbies. Like all GTIs, this one corners on rails, though you pay for it with an ultra-stiff ride. Kudos for the fold-down and split rear seats, which mean the GTI can (and did) transport a 7.5-foot Christmas tree with the hatch closed. The only letdown: slow-reacting brakes.
- The critics say: “The DSG 6-speed twin-clutch transmission responds instantaneously to commands for up- or downshifts and even does a fine job mimicking my shifting style in automatic mode.” — Road & Track
Hyundai Genesis Grand Touring Coupe
- Price: $22,750 (turbo four-cylinder Premium); $25,750 (3.8-liter V-6 Grand Touring); $30,625 (V-6 Track)
- Why it’s fun: In the past few years, Korea’s Hyundai was all about affordability, improved quality and reliability — heart-racing performance, not so much. That’s why the rear-drive Genesis Coupe is such a surprise, acquitting itself well as a worthy choice for young, excitement-loving buyers considering the Camaro and Mustang. The price-competitive Genesis Coupe features not only a bold, quirky style (with irregularly-curved side panels and a big upswept “smile” on the nose), it backs up design with strong performance.
- Under the hood: You can choose between a 210-horsepower, two-liter turbocharged four-cylinder and a pricier 3.8-liter V-6 with 306 horsepower. A five-speed manual transmission is standard, but with the V-6 you get an upgraded automatic. If you’re into driving to the limit, investigate the Track model, which adds such performance enhancements as stiffened suspension, race-bred Brembo brakes, and a limited-slip differential to halt wheel spin. This Hyundai is another case of three’s a crowd, though: Nearly five inches shorter than the Genesis sedan, the coupe sacrifices rear head- and legroom.
- MPG: With 21 mpg city/30 highway for most models, it compares well to the GTI.
- Driving it: This Grand Touring coupe is the fastest Hyundai I’ve ever driven. All right, it’s the only fast Hyundai I’ve ever driven. This car emerged from the Hyundai Design Center in California where chief designer Joel Piaskowski said his mission was “to create a pure performance car with a design that would capture the imagination of hardcore automotive enthusiasts.” Properly equipped, the Genesis Coupe can do zero to 60 in under six seconds. So while it doesn’t feel fast, you’ll need to keep an eye out for speed traps. The Genesis only failed me when my 13-year-old daughter came along; though only 5’2”, she wasn’t happy with the chintzy rear-seat head clearance.
- The critics say: “The Genesis Coupe is a revelation, no pun intended. It’s a genuine yardage gain for the yin-yang team, and a serious kink in the law dictating that rear-drive hoots must cost big bucks.” — Car and Driver
- Price: $197,350
- Why it’s fun: Do you really have to ask? The California is meant to evoke the memory of 1957’s classic 250 California. And its six-figure price means buyers will join a very exclusive club; Only about 900 Californias have been delivered in the U.S. since the car showed up last June. Although this is Ferrari’s first retractable hardtop, you needn’t worry about it being more boulevard cruiser than race-tested thoroughbred. The California has multiple personalities, perfectly content as a fun-in-the-sun roadster and equally adept rocketing past 190 mph.
- Under the hood: The California hosts Ferrari’s first front-mounted V-8.Since Ferraris are all about weight distribution, to prevent this new arrangement from becoming unbalanced, the engine has been moved back and the transmission is behind the rear axle. Purists may prefer the Ferrari V-12, but this 4.3-liter power plant offers everything the cognoscenti could possibly want: 454 horsepower and zero to 60 in four seconds. The car is essentially a two-seater, and luggage space is further compromised by the retractable aluminum hardtop, which takes up a third of the trunk space when down. To compensate, Ferrari lets you fold down the rear seat to create a pass-through for golf clubs and other bulky items.
- MPG: a puny 13 mpg city; 19 mpg highway.
- Driving it: The California, which makes blood-curdling noises, is fun even at 20 mph. This makes it a great improvement over eye-candy cars that don’t come alive unless they’re zooming at autobahn speeds. The double-clutch, semi-automatic transmission is pure joy, shifted manually with paddles or left to its own devices. A “launch” button can be employed for insane acceleration, but this involves turning off the traction control — akin to pulling the pin on a grenade. Word to the wise: Watch your speed. During my test drive, I kept looking at the big central tachometer and didn’t notice the 90 mph on the tiny speedometer. And prepare to be noticed. When I pulled into a rest stop, a woman parked in a Porsche Cabriolet said, “Beautiful Ferrari! It must have been designed by a female.” Alas, no.
- The critics say: “We expected the worst; instead we experienced one of the best Ferraris of all.” — Motor Trend
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