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Nashville Scene Rally... Oops!

Fans rally 'round new coupes from Chevy and Subaru

By Marc Stengel

NOVEMBER 22, 1999:  I am literally moon-eyed as I stare over my right shoulder at the first glimmering crescent of a new moon rising over California's Los Padres National Forest. It's going on Hour Eight of Chevrolet's Monte Carlo Rally for the new 2000-model Monte Carlo coupe, and I've been serving as clueless navigator for my teammate behind the wheel, a plucky and patient Peruvian by the name of Ernesto Lanata. My eyes are all but spent trying to untangle our route from a bird's nest of text directions, inscrutable charts, and GPS coordinates.

Together, we'd accepted Chevrolet's challenge to flog a brand-new Monte Carlo coupe for 10 continuous hours through the wine country and coastal mountain ranges surrounding Santa Barbara, Calif. We were competing in a special form of precision racing known as a Monte Carlo Rally, for which both early and late arrivals at nefariously hidden checkpoints earn penalties. Times are measured to the 100th of a second, so even the most seemingly insignificant driving gesture or directional misstep matters. Rank tyros both, Ernesto and I wanted to feel good about our arrival at the finish line just 9.04 seconds off the pace after some 300 miles of driving. That was only good enough for a 10th-place finish, however, in an event won by two auto-writer/rallyists posting a cumulative variance of just 0.16 of a second.

Chevrolet Monte Carlo

At first, it was not especially clear what kind of conclusions I was supposed to draw about a brand-new model of a car for which I had sole navigational responsibility--and much of that in the unremitting dark of night. Quite frankly, the idea of cupholders and a CD sound system with newfangled radio data service (RDS) capability never even entered my mind. And although nominally aware that our Monte Carlo was an LS version with a 180-horsepower 3.4-liter V6, while SS models loomed about us with their 200-horse 3.8-liter V6s, Ernesto and I cared little about how many ponies were underhood since reaching a checkpoint 1 second early was exactly 100 times worse than getting there 0.01 of a second late.

Ironically, it has taken the fullness of time for me to draw some conclusions about the new Monte Carlo on the one hand and the traditional spirit of American motoring on the other. In a big, wide-open land of broad emotions and unsubtle passions like America, a big, boisterously styled "luxury-performance coupe" like the Monte Carlo is an ideal fit. Based on Chevy's middle-class people mover, the Malibu sedan, and descended from the pointedly unenlightened Lumina sedans and coupes of the last decade or so, Monte Carlo expresses a jauntiness that is right at home in the land of Walt Disney and Uncle Sam. Styling is of the curlicue variety, with exaggerated fender lines and weirdly molded lenses for front and rear lights catching the eye most of all. Performance is respectable, particularly in the sense of not pushing the envelope of acceleration or handling beyond socially acceptable limits of common sense and good taste.

The Monte Carlo is a decent, comfortable, modestly attractive two-door family car that just happens to be named after one of the world's most famous racing venues (for both rallying and Formula One) at one of the world's most exotic watering holes for the rich and roué. More to the point, when one considers that genuine rally racing is an international sporting sensation on a par with World Cup soccer--and that both soccer and rallying are virtual nonentities among America's sporting masses--the pedigree of an American Monte Carlo coupe acquires the same degree of authenticity as a Cinderella castle at Disneyland. Being a rally fan (albeit a not very effective rallyist), I'd enjoy the new Monte Carlo coupe every bit as much and would certainly respect it substantially more if it bore some other Euro-sounding name--like, say, Des Moines.

Subaru Impreza 5 RS Coupe

I have two urgent bits of advice concerning the 2000 Subaru Impreza 2.5 RS Coupe: First, blue-hairs and churchgoers stay away! This is a purpose-built urban screamer whose only reason to exist is to lure kids and the young-at-heart into random acts of outrageous fun. And second, all ye who enter here: Get the videotape--any videotape--of genuine, eye-popping World Rally Car racing action where Subaru routinely dominates year after year. Watch the tape, dream the dream, then go drive the car with a newfound admiration for what performance motoring in a real-world setting is all about.

The 2.5 RS coupe is Subaru's rally-car look-alike whose bug-eye fog lamps, basket-handle rear spoiler, and assorted scoops, vents, and slits are guaranteed to separate the hipsters from the squares. Driving the car around town is like giving the finger to staid convention--and you don't even have to exceed the speed limit to do so. Subaru's trademark package of viscous-couple all-wheel-drive and 165 torquey horsepower from a low-center-of-gravity "boxer" motor guarantees incomparable handling and an instant-on feeling of acceleration at any speed. Although the exhaust note is slightly massaged into a distinctive trumpet sound, it's the driver's whoops and hollers of sheer glee that comprise this car's best optional sound system.

And what puts the sharpest point on the entire matter is the Subaru's price of $19,790 (base), which almost exactly coincides with the Chevy Monte Carlo LS at $19,850 (base). You can tell who your friends are (and how they drive) by the way they decide which one isn't enough car for the money.

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