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Best Summer Rides

Summer means fun, right? Sure, spring has its moments, and fall can be lovely too. Driving in the winter is often full of challenges, but it does have its satisfactions as well. But when it comes right down to choosing the best season of the year for driving, it just has to be summer. The roads are clear, the weather is warm and the sun feels good on your shoulders. You can’t help but want to drop the top, hit the accelerator and go. Here are our picks for the best summer rides of 2011 that’ll have you savoring the heat in style.

No. 5: Ford Mustang GT Convertible
If you’d like to leave the city and your cares behind, the Mustang GT convertible is your ticket to ride. First, you will find yourself ensconced in the classic pony car shape. The better news: That shape encloses a drivetrain and suspension that offer significant doses of pure handling and exhilarating acceleration. The 5.0-liter V-8 delivers 412 horsepower, and the six-speed manual transmission keeps you engaged in the game.

No. 4: Fiat 500 Convertible
OK, we admit its 101 horsepower pales in comparison with that of the other vehicles on this list. But a driver does not live by horsepower alone. The all-new Fiat 500 convertible is an engaging vehicle from any angle. It puts a new spin on the classic Fiat 500 styling, features an inventive interior and top arrangement, and is guaranteed to win you some attention, whether you’re speeding around or standing still.

No. 3: Chevrolet Camaro SS Convertible
If you were going to design a car strictly to drive on summer nights in any American suburb or small town, it would be just like the Chevy Camaro SS. The car looks great, drives great and even sounds great. It offers 426 horsepower (yes, 426!), and that power is accompanied by the most sophisticated suspension ever seen in a pony car.

No. 2: BMW 335i Convertible
A convertible with a hard top: That is one of the 335i’s calling cards, but it is perhaps the least important aspect of the car. What’s more important is the fact that the 335i convertible is a true BMW 3 Series, which means it is one of the best-balanced, most rewarding cars on the planet. It not only offers 300 horsepower, but also features a torque curve as flat as the Kansas plains, which means it is easy to drive fast. Add Euro sophistication, and you have a ride that’s truly worthy of you.

No. 1: Chevrolet Corvette Grand Sport Convertible
Just you, your chosen companion and 430 horsepower -- what’s not to like? Though the Corvette’s shape is familiar, it still commands attention, and there is something deliciously selfish about keeping all that power just for the two of you. The Corvette isn’t merely for profiling, though. As a performance car, the Grand Sport has the goods to out-accelerate and out-handle all but a tiny handful of vehicles, none of which can be purchased for anywhere near its $60,000 sticker price.

Photo: © GM Corp.

BMW 1 Series M Coupe: Furiously Fast

If you test vehicles for a living, you will eventually come to the conclusion that cars that are good on the street are not so good on the racetrack. Racecars are one-dimensional vehicles designed for going fast in controlled conditions. Street cars, on the other hand, have to perform a much wider variety of tasks. So we have to admit, we were a bit curious -- if not skeptical -- about what the all-new, limited-production BMW 1 Series M Coupe would feel like on the track. What we found is that the M Coupe can more than meet the rigors of a very challenging course. Yet, like Superman when dressed as Clark Kent, it is perfectly at home in more mundane settings, like commuting to work or picking a child up from school. In other words, it is one of those rare passenger cars that is in its element on the track, but also utterly practical for day-to-day use. It’s an amazing feat accomplished by judicious acquisitions from the BMW parts bin and a serious influx of engineering dollars.

If you follow performance cars, you know that BMW has been building highly tuned M versions of many of its models for decades. These cars raise the already high level of handling, acceleration and braking from those of the marque’s standard passenger cars, which carry the bold slogan “The Ultimate Driving Machine.” Plus, when putting the 1 Series M Coupe together, BMW engineers borrowed liberally from the same bag of tricks they used to make the M3 -- one of the most respected sports coupes in the world. So M’s are, put simply, the “Ultimate Ultimate Driving Machines.”

So why isn’t the M Coupe called the BMW M1? Well, the 1 Series M Coupe is to the 1 Series what the M3 is to the 3 Series, so it might logically be called the M1. However, that would be flying in the face of history. Back in the late 1970s, BMW introduced a sports GT called the M1, which became an instant legend. Like a Teutonic Ferrari, the M1 was all low, swoopy and super-exotic -- all things that the 1 Series M Coupe is not. What they share is an innate ability to go fast, but the last thing the BMW executives wanted to do with the 1 Series M Coupe was prompt comparisons to the M1. Thus, the new car is tagged with an unwieldy name.

Frankly, that’s the only thing about it that is unwieldy. With 335 horsepower and 332 pound-feet of torque available from its twin-turbo, all-aluminum, in-line six-cylinder engine, the M Coupe is a rocket sled. It will sprint from 0 to 60 miles per hour in just 4.7 seconds, and its top speed is electronically limited to 155 miles per hour. Offered only with a six-speed manual transmission, the car has EPA fuel economy ratings of 19 miles per gallon in the city and 25 on the highway -- a performance car with a conscience.

It’s also equipped with computerized electronic driver aids that allow you to push its limits, yet help prevent you from tumbling over the other side. For example, its standard Dynamic Stability Control keeps a sharp eye on overaggressive maneuvers that could dent its handsome sheet metal … or worse. But the DSC also has an intermediate M Dynamic Mode that M Brand Manager Matt Russell refers to as a “track training mode.” It allows yaw and wheel-spin, but if the electronics intrude upon your driving style in this mode while you are on the track, you are probably doing something wrong. Like a stern but loving kindergarten teacher, the DSC quickly nudges you back in line.

While we can’t say we were in love with our kindergarten teacher, we love the 1 Series M Coupe a lot. Our only regret is that so few will come to the United States, something on the order of 1,000 cars. Now that might be the extent of the market for a $50,000 car of modest dimensions equipped with a manual transmission, but we have to admit we are thinking very seriously of putting down a deposit and getting on the waiting list. The 1 Series M Coupe may have a clumsy name, but it is anything but clumsy.

The SUV Evolves in Illogical Direction

The sport-utility vehicle -- the vilified, popular, demonized, versatile SUV -- was the hottest vehicle of an entire generation. Taking outdoorsy imagery and mixing it with warm-as-apple-pie family situations made the SUV the family vehicle of choice in the ’90s. The family station wagon and boring minivan were replaced by a big, truck-like vehicle that spoke of off-road adventure in exotic latitudes. So what if the majority of them were used -- and still are used -- to shuttle kids to school and to drive to family-vacation destinations that are no more exotic than Disneyland?

Instead of going the way of the brontosaurus, as some had predicted, the SUV adapted and evolved. This decade has changed everything we know about the SUV and its close cousin, the crossover. While in their heyday, SUVs were all about outdoor adventure. But the newest, hottest SUVs largely eschew any hint of outdoor exploration and instead adopt a high-performance, high-luxury philosophy. The leader of this vanguard is the just-introduced Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG. If you want to know what the coolest soccer moms on the planet will be driving next spring, just take a look at this baby. To the new-generation M-Class line that Mercedes-Benz launched earlier this year comes the addition of a hyper-powerful twin-turbo V-8 engine and the all-wheel-drive traction of the renowned 4MATIC system. This is no rock-crawler; it’s a pavement-burner.

For the sake of painting the picture, let’s say your daughter is late for the playoff game, and you’re a little tardy leaving the driveway because you were gathering some sushi, designer water and a Tommy Bahama folding chair. There’s no better way to make up that time than by jamming the accelerator of the 518 horsepower bi-turbo V-8. You will undoubtedly take your place in the upper reaches of the soccer field car park. In fact, there’s only one way you’ll be one-upped, and that’s if someone else arrives in an ML63 AMG equipped with the optional-at-serious-extra-cost AMG Performance Package, which offers an additional 32 horsepower and a 174-miles-per-hour top speed capability.

You’ll also appreciate the designo leather interior, the black headliner and the four-spoke AMG Performance steering wheel with perforated leather grips, aluminum shift paddles and a flat bottom. The dashboard, armrests and door trim are also finished in designo leather with double topstitching.

The “more is more” theme is all over the ML63’s exterior. The special AMG bodywork includes deeper under-bumper aprons at the front and rear, heavily sculpted rocker panels under the doors and quad exhaust pipes. The standard engine is a direct-injection, bi-turbo V-8 that produces not only 518 horsepower, but also 516 pound-feet of torque. The AMG Performance Package ups the ante to 550 horsepower and adds the niceties of a carbon-fiber engine cover and red brake calipers. For those who like to keep their vehicles on the pavement, the ML63 AMG has both the 4MATIC all-wheel-drive system and the newly developed Active Curve System, which supplies electronically enhanced roll stabilization.

The price for ML63 AMG has not yet been announced, but you can bet it will follow the trend in the ultra-luxury crossover class and be stratospheric. The model will be available at a Mercedes-Benz showroom near you in the first quarter of next year.

The Dangers of Running on Empty

Since, these days, gasoline costs as much as fine wine, many drivers are trying to stretch each tankful to the limit. But this tactic can have very negative consequences that extend beyond being stranded by the side of the road, which is negative enough. AAA, which rescues more out-of-gas motorists than anyone, cautions that allowing your car to run out of fuel could not only put you in a potentially dangerous situation, but also result in costly repair bills.

“We realize some motorists are trying to be resourceful and delay fuel expenditures by driving their car until the gas tank is nearly empty, but this can sometimes do more harm than good,” says John Nielsen, AAA national director of auto repair, buying services and consumer information.

A key problem of getting extremely low on fuel is the gunk at the very bottom of your fuel tank. The sediment in the nether regions of the tank can clog the fuel-pump pickup, the fuel filter or the fuel injectors. You might even hit the trifecta and foul all three. In addition, as strange as it may sound, gasoline is sometimes used as a coolant for the electric fuel pump, so when a minimum level of fuel is not maintained, it could cause the pump inside the tank to overheat. The cost to replace that one component alone can cost $500 or more in parts and labor.

Then there’s the value of your personal safety, which many gauge as being priceless. Running out of gas can put you and your passengers in a precarious position if your car or truck suddenly becomes immobilized on the roadway. Power steering and power brakes cease to function in their normal manner when the engine dies, so maneuvering an out-of-gas vehicle is cumbersome at best, dangerous at worst. You can end up stranded in the middle of a busy highway -- without the ability to move your vehicle -- and find yourself at the mercy of oncoming traffic. Fortunately, out-of-gas situations are completely avoidable just by keeping an eye on the fuel gauge, says Nielsen. When you’re running low, pull into a gas station, mobilize your charge card and put some gasoline into that tank. AAA recommends that drivers always maintain at least a quarter tank of fuel.

Rather than stretching your fuel supply beyond the prudent limit, you might want to make a few simple changes in your driving habits that can greatly improve fuel economy. For instance, instead of making quick starts and sudden stops, go easy on the gas and brake pedals. Smooth driving is more fuel-efficient, and it is more pleasant for your passengers. If there is a red light ahead, ease off the gas and coast up to it rather than waiting until the last second to brake. Once the light turns green, accelerate gently rather than making a drag-strip-style start. The U.S. Department of Energy reports that aggressive driving can reduce a car’s fuel economy up to 33 percent, so you have to wonder how important it is to beat that other car across the intersection.

When you’re underway, speed is also a key factor in fuel use. The fuel efficiency of most vehicles decreases rapidly at speeds above 60 mph. Every additional 5-mile-per-hour increment above 60 mph is like paying an additional 24 cents per gallon for gas, says Nielsen. So even in this era of through-the-roof gasoline prices, you can keep some gas in your tank, and that will continue to pay dividends.