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Best, well, hmm?: Not sure how to categorize Chevrolet's SSR retro convertible pickup. GM took a giant leap outside its safe little styling box. It looks cool, especially in glossy firecracker red, and packing a 5.3-liter V-8 with 300 horsepower, it'll rip away from a stoplight like, well, a Corvette. The brushed metal trim inside is perfect for this model and the hardtop retractable roof looks and works great.

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AUTO SHOW; Z O O M I E S; Fun, styling propel many vehicles to award- winning status
MARK SAVAGE

27 February 2005
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Copyright (c) 2005 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

Hold on to your hubcaps it's auto show season and time for our annual Zoomie Awards for some of the best rides around.
There were no really bad cars or trucks this year, just ones Zoomie wouldn't particularly want, or couldn't afford. This was a stellar year for automotive styling and fun stuff. So Zoomie had to really think hard as he roared through his selection criteria.

You may recall that Zoomie Awards go to the top cars and trucks test-driven in the year since the last awards were handed out.
While there are plenty of primo vehicles that we'd all love to drive, or own, Zoomie aims to give the top prize to a car or truck that most of us could afford.
The Zoomie always goes to a vehicle that personifies good styling, value and delivers a bit of joie de vivre to keep us all happily behind the wheel, even as we sit in a construction zone.

Being awards season, Zoomie also traditionally wraps up the previous automotive year by highlighting a few performances that closely resemble those in the cinematic world.

Hope you noticed these performances:

The Aviator: Lincoln's luxury sport-utility of the same name, like many others, is finding the high-flying sport SUV market beginning to level out. Could it be we're all ready to pilot something else, something that doesn't need a mid-air fuel hookup?
Million Dollar Baby: Porsche keeps updating its Boxster model, one that appeals to both sexes and delivers a hefty punch for well less than a million bucks. Unlike a boxer, this sleek beauty doesn't need to train, it was born with agility, finesse and power.
Sideways: The only whining you get in this picture is from the sport coupes' engines as Gen X and Gen Y motor heads put their cars through the corners sideways. The new sport is called "drifting," and youngsters of all ages in Japan and on the West Coast are going wild over sliding their Mitsubishi Eclipses, Ford Focuses and other racy small cars around a racecourse. Hang on!
The Incredibles: Cadillac, long settled into its role of staid, suburban, middle-of-the-road automaker, breaks loose to deliver a lineup of incredibly attractive, sporty, high-performance luxury cars, even a radical roadster.
Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events: One last time we'll mention the sad-looking Pontiac Aztek and Honda's square Element, a couple of truly unfortunate styling events.
Troy: Look out Japanese automakers, that Korean horse you just allowed inside the gates is full of strong-running Kia and Hyundai models that could overpower your hold on the entry-level import car market. The plot looks familiar, too. Start with well-made inexpensive models loaded with extras and then keep building bigger and better cars and trucks until you have a big share of each segment.
National Treasure: Chevy introduces a new Corvette, another monster performer with mega-horsepower, sultry looks and new non- rollaway headlights. The car still epitomizes America and the American dream.
On with the show
Now to the Zoomies!

Biggest surprise: I was sure there was no way that I was going to like the boxy Scion Xb. It has a 1.5-liter engine that only delivers 108 horsepower.
All I could think was that at least it's better looking than a Honda Element. But this one sideswiped my sensibilities. The Xb is a fun drive. In fact, it seemed peppy. It's lightweight, light handling and offers oodles of cargo space, plus funky floor lighting and other special indoor lighting effects. The price is modest, too, starting around $15,000.

Best affordable convertible: Chrysler's PT Cruiser GT Turbo is a delight at roughly $28,000. It's a unique looking convertible with a color-coordinated roll bar and power top that drops in less than 15 seconds. There's plenty of kick from that 2.4-liter four-cylinder turbo, too 220 horsepower and 245 foot-pounds of torque. Handling is light and lively. Inside it's only moderately breezy with the top down, in fact better than some luxury ragtops. Fun, functional and moderately priced.
Best sport-luxury sedan: I considered naming the deliciously styled, horsepower-happy Acura TL as car of the year. But at about $35,000 (with navigation system) this one is out of many people's reach. Still, if you're in the market, it delivers more horsepower and torque than the class-leading BMW 5 Series. Handling, ride and braking are excellent, as is the interior. Pay more if you need a certain logo on your car, but drive this one first.
Best-looking new car (affordable): This one's a no-brainer Chrysler's new 300. Older folks might see a bit of the Green Hornet's Black Beauty here. This is an elegant, all-American look that shouts class and refinement. No other automaker has had the guts to try something this bold since Ford came out with its first Taurus in the 1980s.

Best-looking car (less affordable): Chrysler's on a roll here. The Crossfire Limited Roadster is the drop-top version of its classically styled Crossfire, and it's flat out beautiful. The whole car seems perfectly sculpted and proportioned, but it'll cost you about $38,000. You feel you've seen something special, and not many cars make you feel like that these days.

Best-looking car (not affordable): Cadillac's new XLR, a convertible hardtop roadster, is stunning. The sharp, thin, elegant lines look speedy and aggressive. It's a Batmobile for the wealthy hipster.

Best luxury sedan: I'm sure I wouldn't have taken a bet five years ago that not just one, but two, Cadillacs would make my best- of car list. The new STS is a sporty luxury sedan with good power in the base model, 260 horsepower from a V-6, and 320 horses from the more upscale version's V-8. But STS isn't just a story of power, it's of refined looks and feel, something more akin to a European make. Interior trim and fit and finish are good, too.
Best performing sport coupe (under $25,000): Wine gets better with age and so does Acura's RSX Type-S. Previous models were sharp performing and sharp looking. The newest model is a bullet on wheels, a smooth and slippery coupe that'll show you more fun than you'd expect at this price. It handles great, slips through a six- speed manual with ease, and its smooth-running 2.0-liter high- output Honda four-cylinder with intelligent valve timing cranks out a macho 210 horsepower, plus delivers superb gas mileage.

Best, well, hmm?: Not sure how to categorize Chevrolet's SSR retro convertible pickup. GM took a giant leap outside its safe little styling box. It looks cool, especially in glossy firecracker red, and packing a 5.3-liter V-8 with 300 horsepower, it'll rip away from a stoplight like, well, a Corvette. The brushed metal trim inside is perfect for this model and the hardtop retractable roof looks and works great. Best new pickup: Nissan did its homework and crafted a terrific full-size pickup, the Titan, in its first attempt. This is a real pickup big, strong and tough. This packs a 5.6-liter, 32-valve V-8 that delivers 300 horses and an impressive 379 foot-pounds of torque. It's a serious working pickup that'll pull 9,400 pounds and do it in style. Like the mammoth Dodge Ram, Titan sits high and looks monstrous.

Best new minivan: Most minivans are pretty nice, and I didn't get Honda's Odyssey in time for it to compete this year. That doesn't dull the luster for Mercury's new Monterey, the showy cousin to Ford's Freestar. This minivan is good looking, bordering on elegant. Everything works well from the strong 4.2-liter V-6 and fairly precise steering to its smooth ride. There's a sharp interior, and the third-row seat folds down into the floor as in other top-level minivans.
The envelope please
This is as close as I've ever come to a three-way tie for my Zoomie Car of the Year.
Second runner-up: Chevy's Malibu Maxx. Styling is what hurts this one. It's just too flat and squared-off looking. It sort of reminds me of some French cars, which is not good. The hatchback Maxx is one of the biggest family car values on the market today. For $22,000 to $26,000 you can get most anything you'd want on this car, including a DVD player for the rear seat, OnStar and satellite radio.

The LT version comes with leather seats, anti-lock brakes, traction control, fog lamps, rear skylight, side-curtain airbags, heated front seats, adjustable brake and accelerator pedals, remote start and a tilt-telescope steering wheel. This wagon-hatch mix has a quality overall feel that may surprise you. It drives well, with a 3.5-liter V-6 that runs smoothly and gives it good power. Ride is comfortable and handling is good, beating its own sibling, the Malibu sedan, on most of those scores. This may be the most underrated car on the market.
First runner-up: The Mazda3 sedan is a sassy sporty small car that looks like a hatchback, but has a trunk. It's what I'd expect from BMW, if they ever made a small affordable sedan. The car is well-balanced, with heavier steering and handles like a more expensive sport sedan. Its 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine cranks out a healthy 160 horses, and its five-speed manual is flawless. Add four-wheel disc brakes and you've got the Beemers beat. Mazda gives the car a sporty interior, too, with carbon fiber-look dash trim, glowing red trim on the dash controls and excellent seats.

The winner: By an eyelash, it's the Scion tC. Scion is Toyota's new lineup aimed at the younger crowd, Gen X, Gen Y and whoever else will go for it. Pricing is extremely attractive, and the racy tC sports coupe fits that bill nicely, starting at just $15,950, plus a $515 destination charge. The test coupe topped out at only $17,734 and included side-curtain airbags, carpeted floor and cargo mats, a 180-watt Pioneer stereo with six-disc CD changer and sporty pedals by OBX. On price alone, tC is a winner.

There's more: standard items that all upwardly mobile folks would want a panoramic (large) sunroof with a cover that snaps back in a hurry, four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock system, driver's knee airbag, six-spoke alloy wheels, power mirrors and windows, remote key fob, air conditioning, cruise control and tilt steering wheel.

It's a performer, too. The 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine adds variable valve timing to make it more efficient and give it 160 horses (same as the Mazda3) to make its front-drive wheels chirp. Fun to put the power to the pavement, with a slick five-speed manual transmission with short throws. The car's sport-tuned suspension makes it a fine handler. The ride is firm, but not uncomfortable. Braking is excellent.

Great gas mileage seals the deal. I got 27.3 mpg in this one.
Let's see: sporty coupe with great power, good handling, excellent features and interior amenities and a low price.

Sounds like a Zoomie Car of the Year to me!

Mark Savage's auto reviews appear on Saturday in the Journal Sentinel's Business section. Savage welcomes your new vehicle related questions and comments at [email protected]
 
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