The parking lot at your local mall is probably packed with cars like the Toyota Corolla. That’s because Toyota, Nissan, and Honda have eclipsed other Asian automakers in the States for years. And while their sales dominance won’t change anytime soon, the long-standing quality gap is rapidly decreasing. Hyundai, once the butt of jokes and the cause of many calls for roadside assistance, saw its Genesis named North American Car of the Year last January—and its Korean half-sibling, Kia, has been hot on its heels. Meanwhile, Subaru continues to grow its ultra-devoted following with a relatively small but diverse lineup of cars. So as Detroit tightens its belt and begins to offer fewer options, don’t forget to consider versatile rides like these.
Kia Forte Koup – In case you’re puzzled by the name, yes, the marketing gurus at Kia deliberately misspelled coupe; and yes, that is, in fact, silly. But it’s the only thing about the cou—er, Koup that is. The two-door version of the well-received Forte is shorter and stouter but because it has the same 104.3-inch wheelbase, there’s still plenty of room for you and three friends, assuming they have healthy thyroids. Created at Kia’s design studio in southern California, the Koup’s styling doesn’t break new ground—it looks similar to the Honda Civic Coupe and Scion tC, which it’s primed to compete against—but its aggressive front end and lowered stance announce that affordable doesn’t mean boring. The EX version comes standard with a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine that gamely churns out 156 horsepower and 144 lb-ft of torque. That power plant actually feels more powerful on the road than it sounds on paper, but nevertheless, the SX is the way to go. Its specs (2.4-liter, 173 horsepower, 168 lb-ft), stiffer suspension, and 17-inch rims make for a good time tossing the Koup around corners.
Subaru Legacy 2.5GT Premium – The Japanese automaker Subaru is best known for, on one hand, its sensible, suburban-Oregon-friendly wagons, and on the other, its racer-boy-friendly WRX STI. And yet right in the middle sits the sometimes-overlooked Legacy, which combines both. Totally redesigned for 2010, the Legacy 2.5GT—less powerful and less expensive 2.5i and 3.6R models are also offered—boasts a 2.5-liter turbocharged boxer-4 that churns out 265 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. Aside from its boxy profile—a Subaru staple—the engine is all new, with the turbocharger located closer to exhaust ports to help reduce lag. The power is transferred to the road through 18-inch tires via another Subaru favorite, Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive, leading to a 0–60 mph time of slightly more than five seconds. The roomy interior and higher seats make for a more comfortable and “adult” ride that’ll impress both Grandma and your clients. Just try to resist the urge to drag the racer boys until you’re out of the company parking lot.