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Tuner cars satisfy the need for speed

November 05, 2004|by MALCOLM GUNN/Wheelbase Communications

Satisfying a need for speed is a major preoccupation among the young and the young-at-heart.

In response, many manufacturers have developed specific weaponry in hopes of scratching performance-oriented buyers right where they itch.

The advantages of letting the factory do all the tweaking are fairly obvious. Buying a completed car from a dealer not only ensures a well thought out package approach, but also allows you to finance all the modifications you would otherwise have to come out of pocket for. And if anything goes wrong, you're protected by a factory warranty. Bolting on your own performance pieces usually voids any and all coverage, leaving you on the hook for some potentially expensive repairs should an aftermarket turbocharger fry your engine . . . or worse. A factory-engineered package means you can leave your worries at home and just get in and drive.

There are numerous offerings out there with more coming down the pipeline, but most strive to achieve the same goal: go fast, handle well and sound and look good on a budget. It's sounds simple, but the exact ingredients are sometimes difficult to pin down.

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High horsepower levels from just four cylinders requires a little imagination and a lot of boost, chiefly in the form of a supercharger or turbocharger.

DaimlerChrysler's Dodge Neon-based SRT-4 makes the most of turbocharging to churn out 230 horsepower from just 2.4 liters of displacement. It turns an economical sedan into a flat-out screamer. Designed in 2003 by the company's Performance Vehicle Operations group, the SRT-4 offers a nearly 100-horsepower gain over a stock Neon's 2.0-liter engine. Big brakes and big wheels and tires help put the extra power to good use. Standard-for-'04 traction control has managed to greatly reduce torque steer as well as reduce front tire wear. This car is fun, fun, fun, from the moment you drop the clutch on the five-speed manual transmission. The SRT-4 isn't for the faint of heart, but it will provide plenty of driving satisfaction as you dust off machinery costing twice as much as its $21,000 price tag.

Also making good use of turbocharging is Subaru, which takes a slightly different approach to the factory-tuner craze. The company trades on its rally heritage with its WRX and WRX STi models. These all-wheel-drivers are based on the Impreza sedan, a normally mild-mannered compact with a 165-horsepower 2.5-liter engine. In WRX guise, a fully functioning hood scoop sends ambient air to a 2.0-liter horizontally-opposed four-cylinder that cranks out a stout 227 horsepower. A WRX is priced at around $25,000, but for about $6,500 more you can select the STi (for Subaru Technica international) option that delivers a whopping 300 horsepower from its 2.4-liter powerplant. It's not inexpensive, but smashing the five second barrier travelling from zero to 60 m.p.h. is tough to do for any less money.

By contrast, Chevrolet is new to the whole tuner thing and dives in this fall with the SS Supercharged version its all-new Cobalt compact. Available in coupe form only (the SRT-4 and WRX are more practical sedan-based machines), the SS is fitted with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder that includes an Eaton supercharger to make 205 horsepower. Chevrolet adds unique front and rear fascia (including deck-lid spoiler), custom rocker moldings, close-ratio five-speed manual transmission, 18-inch alloy wheels and a performance-oriented suspension that was honed to a fine edge at Germany's challenging 13-mile Nrburgring race course. Obviously, the tuner craze is not just about the looks.

Another relative newcomer takes an already hot-handling package and makes it even better. Mazda's Mazdaspeed push began in 2003 with a limited run of tricked-out Proteg sedans with added power, better handling, fancier interiors and hard-blasting sound systems. This time around, the two-passenger '04 Miata roadster gets the full Mazdaspeed treatment, including a turbocharger that takes the 1.8-liter DOHC four-cylinder engine to 178 horsepower from its stock 142-horse rating.

Other drivetrain mods include a special short-throw shifter for the standard six-speed manual transmission, a limited-slip differential, and a freer-flowing exhaust system. To sharpen the ride and handling, gas-filled Bilstein shocks are added along with thicker anti-sway bars, 17-inch wheels and a front suspension brace between the shock towers.

Of course, that's hardly the end of it. Hard-core speed enthusiasts will use these cars as a basis to extract even more performance. Dig a little deeper and you'll find similarly themed models from Volkswagen, Toyota, Saturn, Kia, Acura (and other makers) that are already in production or in the works.

In that respect, the factory tuner wars are just revving up.

© 2004, Wheelbase Communications

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