March 15, 2012 at 9:46 pm EDT | by Joe Phillips
Sporty cars for any budget

It’s March Madness again, but this year the hoopla is about more than hoops—it’s also about autos. For the past few months, new vehicle sales have been on the rebound.

This is especially true of sporty cars, many of which are all-new or fully updated. Our Dream Team—the Final Four below—scored solid points for safety, reliability and slam-dunk styling.

Toyota Yaris SE
Mpg: 30 city/38 highway
0-to-60 mph: 9.3 seconds

Toyota Yaris

Despite the playful name and fuel-friendly cred, the Yaris was always a yawner. But not anymore. Toyota gave this redo a finer fit and finish, sleeker sheet metal and more storage space. There are three models, but the feisty SE is best—a four-door hatchback with tuner-like suspension, tight handling and a flip curl of a spoiler. Inside, the cabin has steering-wheel audio controls and faux metallic trim. Gone are the annoying center-mounted gauges, which are now set in front of the driver, as they should be. And the front seats are firmer (yet there is no lumbar support—a bummer). The engine remains the same, but the Yaris zips from 0-to-60 mph in less time than its competitors.

VW Jetta GLI  Autobahn
Mpg: 24 city/33 highway
0-to-60 mph: 6.5 seconds

VW Jetta GLI Autoban

There’s a reason VW calls this the AutoBahn edition. From the punchy 200-hp turbo to the grippy 18-inch wheels, this high-performance midsizer flies down the freeway. Even congested city driving is a breeze, as you jet past pokey drivers. There’s been a lot of talk about VW putting fewer features and less-refined materials in its vehicles—all to make these cars more affordable. But, luckily, that didn’t happen here. The quiet interior boasts bolstered sport seats (black with red stitching—a nice touch), automatic up/down windows and a thick, flat-bottom steering wheel just like the pros drive. While the iPod connector is inconveniently located in the glove box, the premium Fender sound system makes up for it. So does the growling exhaust rumble, which is as good as any Porsche or Ferrari.

Mercedes C250
Mpg: 21 city/31 highway
0-to-60 mph: 7.4 seconds

Drivers looking for a timeout from stiff BMW-like rides will find solace in the C-Class coupe. Along with a completely new four-cylinder turbo—powerful yet fuel-efficient—there’s a smooth seven-speed transmission. Steering, handling and braking are all precise. And, except for the cramped backseat, the upscale cabin feels like a spa treatment—both calming and invigorating at the same time. As with most Mercedes, this one is full of high-end options: nav system, voice controls, headlight washers, panoramic sunroof, power rear sunshade and a helpful parking-sensor system. Added bonus: a nifty safety system monitors the driver for signs of drowsiness or inattention to the road.

Jaguar XF Supercharged
Mpg: 15 city/21 highway
0 to 60 mph: 5.0 seconds

Proving that everything old is new again, Jaguar has reinvented itself once more. Initially a purely British marque, the company was sold first to Ford and then, in 2008, to Indian automaker Tata. But instead of diluting the brand, Jags now seem even more plush. There are better performers out there—the BMW M5 and Audi A7 spring to mind—but no automaker has been able to copy Jag’s iconic styling, especially on the exterior. Inside, there’s enough mystique—and a bit of whimsy—to excite any driver: the start button pulsates red, the air vents rotate when opening and the gear selector magically rises from the center console once the car is turned on.

1 Comment
  • If I had my choice, it would be the Jag. But who has $70k lying around… I guess I will have to stick with the Jetta, as it is in my budget. I wish you had a pic of the Mercedes, as it is one sexy ride.

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