The new BMW 135i is quick, well-balanced, and a lot of fun to drive, according to Consumer Reports. COURTESY PHOTO
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The BMW 135i achieved an “excellent” overall score and outpaced all its competitors to become Consumer Reports’ top-rated sporty car.

The 135i drew praise for its splendid handling, a punchy engine delivering a 0-to-60-mph acceleration time of 5.2 seconds, and its overall fun-to-drive quality.

Other highly rated cars in CR’s test group of eight sports and sporty cars were the Subaru Impreza WRX STi, Volkswagen R32 and Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, in that ranking order. All three of those vehicles achieved overall scores that were also in the “excellent” range, but lower than the 135i. The four top-rated vehicles ranged in price from $33,630 for the R32 to $38,078 for the “Evo.”

The test group also included four other cars, which are priced about $10,000 less and delivered impressive performance for the price. They included the Subaru Impreza WRX, Chevrolet Cobalt SS, Nissan Sentra SE-R and Dodge Caliber SRT4. Prices for those models ranged from $23,310 for the SE-R to $25,169 for the WRX.

The Volvo C30 hatchback is less sporty than the other eight models tested but is stylish and capable. It earned a “very good” overall score.

The only vehicles CR recommends from this group are the Subaru Impreza WRX and the more aggressive WRX STi, based on previous Subaru models’ reliability. The other tested vehicles are still too new for CR to have reliability data on them.

CR’S FINDINGS

* The new BMW 135i is quick, well-balanced, and a lot of fun to drive. The engine is smooth and powerful and returns relatively good fuel economy. Steering and brakes are excellent, and the cabin is well-finished and quiet, with comfortable front seats.

* Redesigned for 2008, the Subaru Impreza WRX STi delivers impressive acceleration, braking and handling. Still, the STi doesn’t live up to the standards set by the previous-generation car. It isn’t as exciting to drive, the steering isn’t as sharp, and the shifter and clutch require lots of effort to use.

* The limited-production Volkswagen R32 is a more powerful, luxurious and pricier all-wheel-drive version of VW’s impressive GTI. It provides superior handling balance, accelerates briskly, sounds muscular, and brakes well.

* The Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, or Evo, is an uncompromising high-performance sports car. With quick acceleration and impressive handling, it is a lot of fun in the right conditions. But its frenetic highway behavior, stiff ride, raucous cabin, Spartan interior and confining seats mean that this car is not for the average driver.

* The Subaru Impreza WRX is roomier, quieter, and more comfortable and refined than its predecessor. But it’s lost some sportiness that made the original so much fun to drive. It still remains a practical, affordable sedan that’s quick and fairly agile.

* Swapping out a supercharger for a turbocharger and implementing other tweaks make the revised 2008 Chevrolet Cobalt SS a better car and a more credible sports coupe.

* Years ago, the Sentra SE-R was a fun-to-drive little pocket rocket, but no more. CR tested the sportiest, most powerful current version, called the Spec V. Yet when it comes to sporty driving, it’s unimpressive.

* An attempt to make the mediocre Dodge Caliber into a sports car, the SRT4 succeeds only in creating a faster version of a car that was crude to begin with. The SRT4 is relatively quick, and the engine sounds good, but it fails to deliver where it matters most: the fun-to-drive factor.

Visit the Consumer Reports Web site at www.consumerreports.org.