Congrats, grad Featured

11:38am EDT February 23, 2005
With Spring heading quickly toward summer, graduation season will be fast upon us. For many a modern family that means four-wheeled gifts for the happy grad. Fortunately, there is a surprisingly large pool of cars that would make affordable – and fun – gifts for a deserving child.

Picking a favorite from this crowd was no easy task. But for some reason, we keep coming back to the Mini Cooper, brilliantly resurrected by BMW Group in March 2002.

It’s hard to look at a Mini and not smile. Sit behind the wheel and put it through its paces and that smile turns into a huge grin.

Skip the base model’s anemic 1.6-liter, four-cylinder engine and upgrade to the supercharged Cooper S (base MSRP: $19,500), which delivers 163 hp and 0 to 60 in under 7 seconds. That’s not all that impressive, but the Mini is not about speed; it’s about handling.

A “bulldog” build, multi-link rear suspension, rigid body and cornering brake control keep a tight grip on the road through the sharpest turns. And don’t let its size fool you. The Mini provides ample room for passengers and 5.8 cubic feet of trunk space (expandable to 21.4).

Ford Focus SVT | $18,500
Got a tree-hugger for a grad? The new 2.3-liter PZEV (Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle) engine reduces harmful exhaust gases – and improves performance, though it is available only in limited areas. Like other cars in this group, the Focus boasts quick response and agile handling. The SVT hatchback features sport-tuned suspensions and a 2.0-liter, 170-hp engine, delivering economy and performance fun in one package.

VW New Beetle Convertible | $20,900
The original retro car — reintroduced in 1998 — finally gets the convertible it’s been needing. Who didn’t have at least one friend with a drop-top bug? If your grad is looking for a ragtop that can stand up to long distances, this is the car. The top folds easily (in about 12 seconds), yet provides solid insulation from wind and road noise thanks to three-layer construction. And for the safety conscious, OnStar telematics are now optional on the New Beetle.

Mazda RX-8 | $25,180
Don’t let the stunning looks – especially the “suicide” doors — worry you. Junior won’t break too many speed laws, although the twin-rotor Wankel engine delivers a respectable 238 horsepower and 0 to 60 in 6 seconds. Like the Mini, this car was made for driving, not racing. Remarkably even weight distribution and a sport-tuned suspension insure crisp handling in turns, while the overall ride proves pleasant enough for daily use.