OK, class, who can tell me where "We're going to the mattresses" was uttered? For the culturally bereft, it's from the original (and still the best) Godfather, a phrase used to describe an all-out war between the five crime families in order to gain control of the boroughs. Clemenza explains to a then-naive Michael Corleone that a large-scale battle occurs every 10 years or so. "Helps get rid of bad blood," he says.
Well, it's only been two years since our last entry-level luxury sedan test, but since then, the market has burgeoned with new and freshened products, and young whippersnappers are chomping at the bit to catch up to, and perhaps surpass, the Don Corleone of the class and winner of the last test, the BMW 3 Series.
It looked like a turf war was beginning to brew, so we gathered nine of the baddest sedans from most of the luxury automakers. Our criteria were that they must have at least 200 horsepower, have aspirations in both sporting and luxury aspects and either be new to the field or significantly revised since our last test.
As such, we have our defending champion, the BMW 3 Series, going up against the 2002 Acura TL massaged with the Type-S treatment, the Infiniti I30t, the Mazda Millenia S (which has never competed in one of our comparison tests before) and the all-new Mercedes C320 and Volvo S60. We also invited two American luxury models to play, the Cadillac Catera Sport and Lincoln's LS V8, since they, too, would like a piece of the sport sedan pie. And, of course, we acquired the all-new Lexus IS 300, which Lexus boasts as offering better handling than the 3 Series in various advertisements. An obvious omission is the Audi A4, but since the 2002 model will be completely redesigned, we decided to wait.
Our editors were drooling at the prospect of conducting this test. We consider entry-level luxury sport sedans to represent the best of both worlds: Their costs are not so prohibitive that you take inquiries as to "How much for your little girl" seriously in order to afford one; our test cars ranged from $33,000 to $41,000. More importantly, not only do they satisfy our bodily desires, they also feed the soul though the best of driving dynamics. As such, our test cars, except for the Mercedes C-Class, were the sport version or were equipped with the sport package, but to temper things out, all had automatic transmissions.
We based our evaluations on both their ability to coddle the driver and passengers as well as their sporting capabilities. We subjected each of them to a 70-mile driving loop through the winding roads and hills of Ventura County, Calif., instrumented performance testing, and a meticulous 20-point evaluation process. Seeing as how they're sedans, they're meant to carry passengers in the back; as such, we not only evaluated rear seat comfort, but judged how well baby seats fit into the car. And just in case you want to join in the action, we've also got video coverage of the brawl.
Let the bloodletting commence!
Ninth Place - 2001 Mazda Millenia S
Some of you may be wondering why the Mazda Millenia S was even in this test. It doesn't originate from a luxury marque, nor does it make claims to sportiness.
Actually, the Millenia was designed as the entrant for Mazda's foray into the luxury car market. Under the auspices of Amati, which was supposed to be to Mazda what Lexus is to Toyota and Acura is to Honda, Mazda had hopes of latching onto the meteoric rise of the Japanese premium car. That plan folded, but Mazda offered up the Millenia as its flagship sedan to the public under the prosaic Mazda nameplate. Since 1995, the underpinnings of the Millenia have not undergone a significant revision; structurally, the car was updated for 2001.
The Millenia's horsepower rating fits into the parameters of our test. The V6 engine displaces a mere 2.3 liters, but delivers 210 ponies at 5,300 rpm and 210 foot-pounds of torque at 3,500 rpm. This is due to the advanced supercharged Miller-cycle engine, which utilizes a Lysholm compressor and delayed intake-valve timing to rush more fuel and air into the combustion chamber for increased power. Mazda says the engine's small size promotes fuel efficiency, but our car logged the worst fuel economy at 16 mpg.
Acceleration wasn't great, either. The Millenia lumbered along, providing 0-to-60-mph acceleration runs in 9.1 seconds. We had previously clocked another Millenia S at 8.2 seconds, and inquired of our road test coordinator as to the disparity. He replied that many factors affect performance testing and surmised that the supercharged engine was likely affected by weather conditions; the previous run was done on a chilly winter day of 49 degrees, whereas the runs for the comparison test were done on a day with temperatures in the mid to upper 70s. This is one of the shortcomings of a turbocharged or supercharged engine; optimum performance is dependant on cool temperatures.
The front wheels receive power through a four-speed automatic transmission, which is without an automanual feature. It would have been a nice feature to have, as the engine lacks power in the lower rev ranges. The transmission is also occasionally indecisive for second-to-third-gear upshifts and downshifts, mulling over which one to choose. Pressing the "Hold" button allows the tranny to drop out of overdrive, and once we got the revs in the mid-range, the supercharger seemed the most effective, but the engine's horsepower peak at 5,300 rpm and its rev limiter at 6,000 rpm leaves a rather narrow range in which to enjoy much of a sense of propulsion.
For 2001, Mazda reinforced the sidesills of the Millenia, resulting in a 35 percent increase in torsional rigidity over the erstwhile version. While it does feel much improved and handles lateral movement and body roll surprisingly well, its fore and aft movement was excessive, exhibiting float over dips, suspension hop over undulating pavement and crashing over bumps. Steering received mixed reviews, with no one feeling strongly one way or the other about its feel or responsiveness.
The car exhibited more noise than others in the category, with our editors commenting about the loud engine, wind noise from the A-pillar, a low-frequency suspension thrum and a constant buzz emitting from the floorboard. Tire rumble was also disproportionately loud over most surfaces, but the Dunlop P215/50R17 SP Sport 5000 rubber covering the 17-inch wheels was outstanding in both handling and grip.
The brakes were confidence-inspiring, with discs at every corner and standard ABS. The S version gets EBD (Electronic Brake force Distribution), which senses passenger load to appropriately dole out the correct amount of stopping power. Our test car achieved the second shortest stopping distance of the test, requiring only 123 feet for the 60-to-0-mph deceleration run. As mentioned before, however, braking was accompanied by an excessive amount of dive; the car also squatted upon acceleration.
The Millenia S was the cheapest car in the test but not by much. Ringing in at $33,360, it bested the next least-expensive car by only $350. That kind of cash lands it as a contender in the entry-level luxury realm. For the money, the Millenia does provide a decent array of standard equipment, with fairly supple interior leather, steering wheel-mounted stereo controls, an auto-tilt steering wheel for facilitated ingress/egress, comfortable power seats and a sunroof. But it lacks the upper-crust content of a luxury sedan; it didn't have 8 of the 10 features that we consider important in a car of this class, even as an option.
It did have an in-dash CD changer, a $500 option, and heated seats, which were included in the Four-Seasons package. We all appreciated the simple operation of the secondary controls, from the tuning knob of the stereo to the simple-to-use climate controls, although the temperature display location at the top of the dash required the eyes to look away from the road for longer than necessary. The buttons themselves exhibited a nice, solid quality heft. Aside from slight variations in gap panels, such as a poorly affixed passenger airbag cover and a front grille that was somewhat off-center, the Millenia was tightly constructed, with typical Japanese quality all around.
Trunk space proved to be shallow but spacious with 13 cubic feet of volume, a flat floor and a ski pass-through. Gooseneck hinges betray its dated platform, as does the lack of a shoulder belt for the rear center passengers, the only one in the test. Rear seat accommodations elicited little complaint from our tall editors, who had 34.1 inches of legroom, but they felt claustrophobic because of the overly thick C-pillars. The handle of a reverse-facing baby seat fits very tightly, so you'll need to make sure that the leveling is in the correct position, but there's not much lateral movement once the seat is properly secured.
Don't take the car's ninth-place finish to mean that it's a bad car. In fact, we were pleasantly surprised by its ability to handle itself. But Mazda will pull the plug on this aging platform in a year or two and will instead opt to make the upcoming RX-8 its flagship model. This means that there are lots of opportunities to get rebates and incentives that lower the price. It also means that the resale value won't be as high; on the other hand, you can probably pick up a used version for a song.
But against its given competitors, right here, right now, it trailed heavily in both the luxury and performance aspects.
It's not personal, Sonny. It's strictly business.
Senior Road Test Editor Neil Dunlop says:
Although the Mazda Millenia S makes a good effort, it does not compete well with the other entries in the entry-level luxury sedan market because it's inconsistent. Its supercharged engine is a nice touch with lots of boost high in the powerband, but it's bereft of low-end torque. The powertrain is also marred by the transmission, which is reluctant and clunky during routine driving and under duress not too sporting at all.
The Millenia was surprisingly competent on twisty roads, despite its rather numb and light steering feel while driving in the city. Likewise, the suspension seemed more at home while the car was being tossed around than when it was ferrying passengers to the movies. At sedate speeds, it felt light and floaty, but got more taut as speed and corners grew more severe. Combined with the supercharger's high-speed sweet zone, the Millenia provides decent fun when pushed.
The serene and sedate cabin is made with high-quality materials and looks like near luxury, but execution is a little off. The steering wheel blocks the climate controls, and the gearshift is in the way of the audio system, which is set too low on the center stack. And I think the secondary switchgear is small, imprecise and chintzy.
The Millenia seems well put together, but Mazda took no chances in its design or engineering. Perhaps the automaker's lack of a luxury marque, like Toyota's Lexus, Honda's Acura or Nissan's Infiniti, makes the company think it can't compete by name alone (Who thinks Mazda when they think luxury sedan?). But with a little more daring, the Millenia could steal a lot of sales from the other Japanese luxury brands and maybe even the Europeans, too.
Senior Editor Brent Romans says:
Does Mazda sell any Millenias? I know it's been around for more than five years now, but I can't remember the last time I saw one on the road. They might as well be the ghosts of the near-luxury sedan market, passing through our lives without our ever knowing. Look at the manufacturers represented in this test. Every one of them has at least a smidge of premium brand image except Mazda. While I'm not one to base my purchasing decisions heavily on the perceived image of a car, I know people who do. That's a major problem for Mazda.
The other is that its car is simply dull. Yes, it has decent power, decent handling and a decent interior. And if somebody gave one to me, I probably wouldn't go as far as making it a Seinfield "re-gift." But when you're spending more than $30,000, don't you deserve something a little better than just "decent"?
If you really want one, wait a couple of years. The Millenia has a poor resale value, and you'll be able to pick one up at a Kmart "blue light special" price.
Editor-in-Chief Christian Wardlaw says:
Surprise, surprise, the seven-year old Mazda Millenia didn't prove to be the clear-cut underdog we all surmised it to be. Still, it is obvious that the time has come for a complete redesign of this slick-looking flagship.
Starting with the drivetrain, it's Mazda tradition to employ some wonky kind of powerplant in its image cars. Millenia S gets a supercharged Miller cycle engine. While techy types love this kind of thing, general consumers interested in luxury cars don't care what's under the hood, as long as it's smooth and powerful. The 2.3-liter blown six under the Millenia's hood is neither. The transmission, which is hesitant to downshift between 20 and 40 mph, doesn't help, and the hotter the day, the more sluggish the Millenia feels around town.
Aside from this error in judgment, Mazda has created a decent performer, with strong brakes and a suspension that virtually eliminates body roll in corners. On downhill runs, the Mazda shines. Sadly, on the straight and narrow, Mazda's attempt to give the Millenia a smooth yet controlled ride reminds me more of a Buick than a BMW.
Inside, comfort is average front and rear. Wind and road noise are minor irritants, but our test car exhibited lots of rattles and squeaks. The driver seat also wiggled on its moorings. At least interior materials are of top quality, and the Millenia, notably devoid of luxury-car goodies, is quite simple to understand and operate.
The way I see it, the Millenia had three problems: First, it's an old car that fails to offer today's luxury buyers enough doo-dads to keep them happy. Second, the engine has got to go. Give us a larger displacement, naturally aspirated V6 or the rotary from the upcoming RX-8. Match this to a decent transmission that knows how to downshift. Finally, it's a Mazda. Luxury car buyers buy luxury cars, in part, for the image associated with the brand. Mazda isn't a premium brand.
No matter, this car's days are numbered. Once the RX-8 debuts, along with the larger and more powerful 2003 626 sedan, the Millenia will have no place in Mazda's zoom-zoom lineup.
But it will make one hell of used car bargain a couple of years from now.
Stereo Evaluation - 2001 Mazda Millenia S
Ranking in stereo test: Sixth
System Score: 6.5
Components: This Bose system consists of some surprisingly large speakers crammed into small spaces. For instance, there's a pair of 6-by-9-inch speakers normally reserved for back decks and other areas where you have more room squeezed into the front doors. These are mated to a pair of dome tweeters tucked inside the side mirrors. The rear deck houses a second pair of 6-by-9s, as well as an 8-inch Bose subwoofer in the center of the deck.
Electronically, the system gets into trouble. For starters, the radio is just plain ugly. The faux chrome trim around the head unit dials and controls isn't working for me or for anyone else, I suspect. It looks like a rocket ship control panel from a 1950s science fiction movie. To make matters worse, the head unit is positioned far too low in the dash. With the car in drive, the operator has to reach down and over the gearshift knob to get to the head unit, a very awkward and clumsy procedure. Also, the preset buttons are small and crowded together, making for some dicey dancing on the buttons. This is a shame, since the radio does have some usable features, such as large, round knobs for both volume and tuning, and an oversized display. An in-dash six-disc CD changer redeems this situation somewhat.
Performance: Similar to the Infiniti I30t's in this test, this Mazda system should sound better than it does. In fact, both systems were designed by Bose, both have an apparently identical 8-inch sub along the back deck, and yet both sound mediocre. To be fair, though, these are two of the cheaper cars in the test, so perhaps we can excuse Bose for the budget limitations that might have been placed upon them in designing the two systems.
But back to performance. Something is slightly out of whack in this system, as though all the parts don't quite mesh together. You'd think, with the amount of speakers here, you'd at least get fair bass performance but you'd be wrong. The lower frequencies, while very tight in their attack, are not particularly deep; it's kind of a mid-bass sound. This is remedied a little by a very respectable mid-range and a nice brassy tweeter arrangement. Also, vocals are just slightly constrained and boxy, while percussion is, well, percussive. So, overall, not horrible. But the medioicre sound, combined with some of the design slips, gives this system a lower score.
Best Feature: Lots of speakers.
Worst Feature: Head unit poorly positioned and lacks user-friendliness.
Conclusion: This one won't win any prizes, but perhaps we can excuse Bose and Mazda this time around. After all, this is the second cheapest car in this test. And yet the Acura TL also one of the cheapest cars in the test has a very nice audio system.
Eighth Place - 2001 Cadillac Catera Sport
The Cadillac went into this contest with somewhat of a disadvantage no one thought that it would even place. However, this worked out in its favor, for we ended up with more positive impressions of the Catera than before.
Ultimately, though, the sedan couldn't quite match up to its competitors in either the luxury or sporting aspects and placed penultimately. Debuting in 1997 to media criticism and numerous production glitches, Cadillac's re-badged Opel built at the Adam Opel assembly plant in Russelsheim, Germany, had all the makings of a proper sport sedan, with a rear-wheel-drive configuration and a then-powerful V6, but the midsize sedan languished in sales and continues to do so. We think we know why.
One aspect that influenced its eighth-place finish is its engine; providing only 200 horsepower, it was the weakest in the test, but, to its credit, it didn't feel like the weakest. In fact, throttle tip-in is quite strong, but it quickly loses wind. Charged with lugging around the heaviest car in the test, the V6 felt sluggish compared to the other fleet conveyances with which it competed. It was good for a 0-to-60-mph acceleration run of 8.3 seconds, the second slowest of the test, and completed the quarter-mile in 16.3 seconds at a languid 83.3 mph; that was the worst of the test.
The Catera's four-speed transmission is miserly with power distribution, exhibiting reluctance while downshifting, requiring you to mash the throttle to pass a vehicle at highway speeds. Set to its Sport mode, the tranny holds revs longer, but that doesn't increase the engine's potential. It also provides you with a Winter mode for second-gear starts, which reduces the chance of wheelspin on slippery surfaces.
As the heaviest car in the test by a wide margin, weighing in at 3,815 pounds, 122 pounds heavier than the next most cumbrous car, the Lincoln LS V8, one might think the Catera to be a drag to drive on twisty roads. One would be pleasantly proven wrong, however, as it exhibits a taut, controlled ride on the highway as well as canyon roads. "Very Germanic," stated more than a few of our drivers, saying that they definitely felt the sport tuning. The Catera also rode well with extra passengers aboard.
However, all drivers agreed that the installment of Cadillac's StabiliTrak stability control system would be most helpful, as the rear end tended to get light and twitchy when the car was handling at its limits, despite the well-balanced chassis and 53.2/46.8 front/rear weight distribution. Don't blame the tires, either; the chubby Goodyear Eagle GS-A 235/45R17s provided maximum grip with minimal noise and tire flex.
Brake feel and performance received a bashing. The pedal suffered excessive travel and lacked feel and progressiveness. Catera also scored the worst 60-to-0-mph stopping distance of 130 feet. Didn't stop soon enough and rear-ended somebody? Help is on the way via your friendly OnStar advisor, a standard accoutrement for every Cadillac.
Steering was laudable on the highway. With a stiff, heavy feel that was the hallmark of steering racks of German cars of yore, it transmitted a goodly amount of road feel, with minimal correction needed during high-speed stints. However, it required too much effort around town and in parking lots, although a tight turning circle of 33.5 feet helped matters some. While driving spiritedly on curvy roads, we also found that the car was slow to respond to steering inputs. Most of our drivers preferred the hefty steering to an overboosted one, however, and gave it a good score overall.
Inside, Germanic styling cues greeted the drivers. A nice matte finish complemented all of the dash materials, although there wasn't uniformity to the tactile feel of some of the switchgear; some were rubbery, others were plasticky. The action of the controls themselves was similar to other GM models we've sampled, with clickity-clack noises and engagements that lack the fluidity of the Japanese models. The rearview mirror on our test car was affixed flimsily, and the steering wheel tilted but didn't telescope. There was no center console to speak of, and the key required jiggling to remove from the ignition.
We did like the Audi-esque sunroof dial, though, and all the windows were one-touch up and down. Other touches thoughtfully reminded us that we were, indeed, in a luxury vehicle. Xenon headlamps, which came with the Sport package, brightened dark roads. A single CD player comprised the expensive Bose stereo system, but at least it was easy to use. Nice-feeling pleated gray leather covered the seats; although odd, it was different from the usual ruched cowhide, and most drivers found a high level of comfort. The seat heaters had five different settings, just in case the dual-zone climate control doesn't suit your needs.
Being one of the bigger cars in the test, the Catera offers considerable passenger room. It provided a class-leading 37.4 inches of legroom in the rear seat, on par with full-size luxury sedans. There was plenty of headroom and shoulder space, but foot room was lacking. A baby seat fit fine, although lateral movement was somewhat excessive. Overall, our editors were happy campers in the spacious vehicle and particularly praised its lumbar support. The trunk is on the shallow side, but has tie-down hooks, a cargo net and some small covered bins. It's a huge opening, although the spare intrudes on cargo space.
Cadillac almost got its Germanic entrant into this fiercely contested marketplace right, but with such excellent competition, almost doesn't cut it. In 2003, the Catera will be replaced by the CTS, a car we're eagerly awaiting. Until then, keep on reading.
Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
Here is a car that surprised nearly all of us, who were expecting the Catera to be about as much fun as cold oatmeal. The feel through the wheel was excellent, and how the BMW's should've been. Ain't that a switch; a BMW whose steering felt like an old Cadillac's and a Caddy whose steering felt like an older BMW's!
And it wasn't just the precise and well-weighted steering that impressed me. The balanced Catera was competent through the curves and delivered a compliant ride. With the least powerful engine propelling the pudgy Catera, I expected the car to be a slug compared to the others. Instead, although it wouldn't challenge the quicker cars in the test, I was duly impressed by the engine's verve.
Cadillac has improved the Catera (by way of the superb Sport package) enough to make it one of the more entertaining rides in this class, but its competitors' fresher designs and more powerful engines hurt it in my standings.
Senior Road Test Editor Neil Dunlop says:
What a surprise. In a sea of mediocre and just plain awful GM products, the Catera is a good example of progressive thinking and precise execution. Would it be ungenerous to GM to point out that the Catera is really a rebadged sedan from its European subsidiary Opel?
GM is replacing this car in the next model year with a completely redesigned model that one company official told me would be "quite a surprise." Hmmm. If the new CTS can improve on the current one, it will be quite a good car, because this one ain't bad.
The 200-horsepower V6 totally satisfied my power fetish, and I was thrilled with the steering and suspension, which not only delivered a solid feel for the road beneath, but also responded with a nimbleness characteristic of much lighter cars. There's no dead spot in the steering, and it's boosted just enough so that turning is easy, but you still feel connected to the car when you toss it around. And the Catera doesn't mind being tossed around. With so much connection to the car and the road, I was able to canyon-carve with supreme confidence that I knew where the Catera's limits lay.
On top of all that, the Catera still coddles like a Cadillac when it's cruising on the highway. The seats are broad and well-bolstered and the cabin whisper quiet. The interior is strikingly modern and European in its stark functionality and understated design (this must be Opel's influence as none of the switchgear is recognizable from other GM products). All controls are well-marked and simple to use. The Catera also has a fun cupholder, as much as a cupholder can be fun. When a button is depressed, a single cupholder slides out from the center armrest. When it's pressed again, it extends to reveal another cup slot.
In terms of design, the Catera's clean lines from fore to aft suggest continuity, and its slabbish sides give it solidity. However, its alloy wheels, which are flat and lay flush with the tires, seem stolen from a Hot Wheels car.
Senior Editor Brent Romans says:
Before we started this test, a significant number of people on our editorial staff guessed that the Cadillac Catera would finish last. Boy, were they wrong. It finished second to last. OK, so this car isn't horrible. But it was certainly my least favorite in the group and the one I'd least likely consider for a purchase.
When I first saw our white test vehicle, I thought it looked pretty attractive. But the more time I spent with the car, the more I thought it just looked (and drove) like a hyped-up Chevy Malibu. And even though this car is built in Europe, it somehow managed to seem like it was built in Detroit. When I would close the doors, they twanged instead of thunked. The window switch design made it very hard to discern between normal and auto-down operation, a problem I've encountered with other GM vehicles. The leather seating surfaces could have been mistaken for vinyl. Exterior trim pieces were misaligned. The V6 engine offered nothing for aural enjoyment. And contrary to most of my co-workers, I found the steering to be too heavy and slow.
Are these minor issues? Sure. But the Lincoln LS is actually built in the U.S., and I feel it's a vastly superior car. For GM's sake, I hope the all-new CTS coming out soon is better than the 2001 model we had in our test.
Stereo Evaluation - 2001 Cadillac Catera
Ranking in stereo test: Fourth
System Score: 7.0
Components: This Bose system has a ton of speakers in it. The rear deck houses dual 6-inch subwoofers along with a sizable amplifier. The rear doors contain a pair of 6-inch full-range drivers, which are nicely hidden behind an acoustically transparent panel. The front doors boast a pair of 6-inch mid-bass speakers (hidden behind the same acoustically transparent panel), which are coupled to tweeters in the upper doors. The tweeters are flat against the door panel, not angled at all toward the passengers.
Electronically, the system includes steering wheel controls offering volume up/down, mode (AM, FM, cassette or CD) and seek/scan. The system contains a single-play CD player and a cassette deck, along with 12 FM and six AM presets, all of which are integrated into an extremely user-friendly faceplate. A large, circular volume knob is complemented by sizable buttons and knobs throughout. There is a great deal of space between the controls, allowing for trouble-free operation. One complaint: The radio is positioned a little low in the dash, causing the operator to reach uncomfortably. Other than that, it's great.
Performance: Bass response is deep, but not particularly accurate. As my notes say: "A little flabby and loose." Highs are clear and distinguished, although I found them overly bright and just a little too aggressive. As a result, higher frequencies, such as female vocals or brass instruments, tend to "spit" a little. Mids, on the other hand, are open and accurate, producing a lush soundstage. The amplifier works well, getting just slightly grainy at full gain.
Best Feature: Ergonomic faceplate, plays loud.
Worst Feature: No CD changer.
Conclusion: This system is a real thumper. Bass and mids are pretty good, while the higher frequencies suffer. Great controls, but not a real balanced system soundwise. I gave it high marks for its user-friendliness, but marked off for sound quality.
Seventh Place - 2001 Infiniti I30t
The Infiniti posed a bit of a conundrum for us. Yes, it is undoubtedly luxurious. And yes, it certainly belongs in this test, as the Touring model is touted as the "sporty" version. Yet, when it came to taking the car for the evening, there was more eye-rolling and loud sighing than a back seat full of teenagers on a road trip with Jimmy Buffet-loving parents.
Even as it placed mid-pack in our Recommended Picks column, it located itself in the dead last position in the Personal Picks category, where our editors rank the cars in the order in which they would buy them. The problem was that the car simply lacked personality. It had no pizzazz. While most of the ingredients existed in order to make a fine luxury sport sedan, it failed to meld into anything more piquant than the Gringo special at Applebee's.
One of the major aspects in which it failed to sidle up to our affection is the existence of its doppelganger, the Nissan Maxima. We couldn't forget the fact that it is a perfectly good car for thousands less, and that the luxury on the I30 seems tacked-on. You can dress up Pamela Anderson in Armani, but she'll never be a society matron.
Not that it's a bad package. The 227-horsepower 3.0-liter V6 engine provides smooth, linear power delivery throughout the rev band; once it spools up, it gives quite a growl, and our editors were split as to whether it was satisfying or annoying. The four-speed tranny saps some of the engine's potential with slow shifts, and some criticized the lack of an automanual mode, but under most driving conditions, it is perfectly acceptable. Our test car went from 0 to 60 in 8.0 seconds, one of the slower times of the group.
The I30t was the only car in the test with a beam rear axle; the rest had independent rear suspensions. It may be a very sophisticated beam rear axle, but it is still at an inherent disadvantage in that the I30t can't absorb mid-corner bumps as well as the other cars. Our test car was equipped with the Touring package, which included a viscous limited-slip front differential and sport-tuned suspension, yet it often floated and wafted on the undulating pavement. We wondered how much softer the Luxury version would be. It is a stout system, however, and refused to get weighed down; the suspension didn't bottom out with four adults on board. Around town, the car gave a serene ride, provided that the roads were smoothly paved and you didn't take corners with much enthusiasm.
Steering feel elicited "neither here nor there" comments from our editors; it's certainly not one of the better systems of the group, with little road feel and a slightly lethargic turn-in. Its huge turning circle of 40 feet, the largest of the cars tested, turned a three-point turn on a narrow street into a five-point turn. We wondered why the turning circle of the Touring model is 5 more feet than the Luxury model's; we surmised that the wider tires and their encroachment into the wheelwells was the culprit. The Bridgestone Potenza P225/50R17 tires mounted on handsome 17-inch wheels howled excessively when pushed and emitted lots of road rumble on the highway, but gripped fairly well with progressive scrub.
Stopping the Infiniti were four-wheel disc brakes, modulated by a pedal with great feel and weight. Actual braking distances weren't as good, as it took 130 feet to stop this car from 60 to 0 mph, a figure equal to the Cadillac Catera. Our test model lacked the active safety wizardry found in other vehicles; a traction control system is a part of a $720 package, and there is no stability control system available.
The Infiniti offers plenty of kit to remind you that, yes, indeedy, this is a luxury car. It has a classy analogue clock gracing the dash, a power rear sunshade, xenon headlamps and, most impressively, a navigation system that pops out of the top of the dash to make you feel like you're in a James Bond flick. Infiniti nav systems have what they call a Birdview perspective, which gives a realistic simulation of looking at the landscape from a height. Although the joystick used to control the map isn't the most precise or easy to use, most drivers got the hang of it quickly. Plus, joy of joys, the climate controls and audio controls aren't bundled in with the screen and are supremely easy to use.
Things that this Maxima...er, I30 lack are dual climate control and an in-dash six-disc CD changer. Dash materials could be improved; the glossy hard plastic of the center console and dash, as well for the door panels, subtracted from a luxury feel. Other Infiniti products have better looking faux wood, and some of the switchgear is too familiar from the prosaic Maxima. A little more than kin, and less than kind...
Thanks to the trunk's large opening and flat load floor, you'll find it easy to load your luggage. You'll need to maneuver around the floor-mounted CD changer, however, and be careful to avoid damaging the flimsy lining of the trunk. Also, make sure to move your things away from the trunklid's gooseneck hinges. The rear seats are split 60/40 for greater storage configuration.
The big advantage of the I30 is its generous dimensions. It had one of the roomiest back seats of the test. Two of our 6-feet-tall editors proclaimed it the best in class, with headroom and leg space posing no problem. In the baby seat test, the automatic locking retractor seatbelts made for easy installation, with lots of room for perfect positioning.
You might be wondering how it is possible that we loved the Nissan Maxima and its driving dynamics in our family sedan comparison test, while we're downgrading its twin, the Infiniti. It's all relative, and the context of the car often becomes the story. The Maxima provides sportier handling when compared against plebian family sedans like the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. Put it up against some of the more sophisticated cars in the world, as is appropriate given the price point of the I30, and it loses its luster.
The Infiniti is a good car, and most undemanding consumers who need spacious rear seat accommodations will love it. However, we found that it lacked character; aside from its shiny chrome wheels and toothy grille that reminded us of Bowser's (of Sha-Na-Na renown) mug it lacked visual appeal, and its ride kept nagging us that we paid thousands more than if we had just bought a Maxima. Of course, in 2002, the new I35 will come out, with its 260-horsepower engine. Yep, that's just around the time when the 240-horsepower Nissan Altima will be introduced. Hmm...
Technical Editor Miles Cook says:
I know the Infiniti I30 is a fine car with plenty of luxury features, a solid drivetrain and a reasonable price tag. But none of these seemingly positive traits were able to prevent me from strongly disliking this car.
During one of our test loops, another editor and I were separate from the other cars. I was driving this barge-like Nissan (oops, I mean Infiniti), and he was in the svelte and swift IS 300. Try as I did, I got left in the dust at every sweeper or tight hairpin that we negotiated. It's hard for me to explain, but this car simply does nothing to excite my soul, nothing to cause me to say, "I wanna drive that car." I'm thoroughly bored by it. It's strange, because I've always liked the Nissan Maxima.
Call me biased toward sporting cars, but I just can't help it. This was the only car of the nine that bored me while I was driving it. I'd much rather have the Lexus IS, the BMW 330 or the Acura TL Type-S. I'd even choose the Millenia or Catera over this machine. I'll simply pass.
Associate Editor Erin Mahoney says:
This may have been the blandest vehicle of the test. I can't think of a single area in which the I30 excelled. First, power delivery didn't come close to matching the ugly, belabored groan of the 3.0-liter V6. Second, the ride was much too floaty for this to be deemed a sport-tuned sedan, and the ride over rough road jostled occupants too much to classify it as a proficient luxury sedan. The I30 just felt like it was out of its league.
That said, the I30 provided a good enough time on smooth roads and sweeping curves, with a responsive steering rack, an intelligent transmission and confident brakes. The cabin was attractive enough, as well, with a nice finished look to all of the materials, even the hard plastic. However, a whistling from the right rear window and a squeaky front passenger window attested to the fact that our Infiniti suffered from some build-quality issues.
To compete effectively in this class, the I30 just needs to improve a little bit not a whole lot in almost every area. Perhaps the I35 will be improvement enough.
Editor-in-Chief Christian Wardlaw says:
Dichotomous describes my opinion of the Infiniti I30. Undistinguished, unremarkable and utterly unmemorable, the Infiniti is still high on my list of recommended vehicles for an entry-level luxury sedan buyer. How can that be?
Well, a roomy and comfortable interior, an impressive load of standard equipment and low price tag, combined with decent performance and a good reliability record, prompt me to point consumers in the direction of their nearest Infiniti dealership.
But if you're looking for something dynamic, shop elsewhere. Thanks to generic Japanese styling and obvious cost-cutting, the Infiniti fails to please the discerning consumer, or this automotive journalist.
Based on Nissan's competent Maxima sedan, the I30t's humble lineage is quite evident inside, outside and underneath the car. Look! There's the Maxima's "multilink" beam rear axle. Sure, it's probably the most sophisticated beam axle ever devised, but when the I30's left rear tire hits a bump mid-corner, the right tire feels the effect, and the whole rear end gets unsettled. Outside, the most compelling visual cue is the I30's massive five-spoke brushed aluminum wheels. What's that say about the styling? Occupants of the Infiniti are treated to an onslaught of road and wind noise, and our test car had an awful window or door seal leak at the right rear.
Otherwise, build quality was impressive, and the I30t had the best navigation system of the group. Not only is it a stand-alone unit that operates independently of the stereo and climate controls, but it also offers plenty of useful and interesting features. Plus, the passenger compartment is huge. The rear seat, especially with a shorter person driving or riding shotgun, provides limo-like amounts of legroom.
In the final analysis, is the I30 a bad car? Not at all. It's just forgettable.
Stereo Evaluation - 2001 Infiniti I30
Ranking in stereo test: Seventh
System Score: 6.0
Components: This Bose system includes some impressive touches. For starters, a very elegantly positioned pair of tweeters graces the A-pillars. These are complemented by a pair of 6.5-inch mid-bass drivers in the front doors, plus a pair of 6.5-inch full-range drivers in the rear doors. The system also boasts an 8-inch subwoofer along the back deck.
Electronically, this system offers steering wheel controls that include volume up/down, seek/scan, and mode switching. Unfortunately, the layout of the head unit (which resembles an off-the-shelf Nissan radio) lacks a positive ergonomic feel; in fact, the entire center stack is a cluttered jumble of features and controls that leave the user confused.
For instance, the car has a built-in nav system with a pop-up display on top of the dash. Below, beckoning at the top of the center stack, is a single CD player. When you put your CD in, you discover that this is the CD-ROM drive for the nav system. (Which is a clue in itself that Infiniti is behind the times; most nav systems in this class are DVD-based, with no access required: The entire country fits on one DVD disc. In this set-up, you have nine separate discs for different regions of the country.) The real CD player, a six-disc changer, is located in the trunk, another disadvantage, since most cars in this test have them in-dash. Needless to say, we were not impressed with the audio design in this vehicle.
Performance: Somehow, this system should sound better than it does. It just doesn't have the get-up-and-go you'd expect from a system with this many components in it. It is loud, but what it makes up in volume it lacks in other areas. For example, in spite of their apparently excellent position, the tweeters don't sound very good. They get strident and screechy at higher volume levels, and they lack a wide dispersion pattern. Other areas vocals, strings, horns sound just average, and such things as percussion and keyboards have an artificial quality about them.
Best Feature: 8-inch subwoofer along the rear deck.
Worst Feature: Crowded, confusing head unit and dash.
Conclusion: The poor sound quality, combined with some questionable design cues, give this system a low score. Considering the competition in this segment, Nissan would be wise to go back to the drawing board on the nav and audio system.
Sixth Place - 2001 Lincoln LS
When Lincoln debuted the LS in 1999 as a 2000 model, patriotic pride trickled into the hardened hearts of our editors, who had been burned time and time again by the inferior build quality and sub-par driving experience of American cars. "This is the BMW fighter! This is the car that'll show 'em that we can still build the best cars in the world!"
Well, boys, let's limit the insidious reach of American imperialism to pop culture; after all, the ancient tribesmen of Sub-Saharan Africa are already inconsolable that Felicity chopped off all her hair. They don't need to be addicted to the exhilarating driving dynamics of American sedans, too.
We needn't worry. While the LS is a compelling entry into this marketplace chock-full of some of the best-engineered cars in the world, it won't be domineering the globe any time soon.
At first, we thought that the LS had an inherent advantage with its V8, the only eight-cylinder in the test. Turns out that our concerns were for naught.
Lincoln's 3.9-liter V8 is good for 252 horsepower and 267 foot-pounds of torque, the most torque in the test. Power delivery off the line was immediate and plenty, and stayed consistently plucky through the mid-range. Get it near redline, however, and the engine note becomes more of a shrill nag than a pleasing roar. Despite its extra cylinders, the LS wasn't the fastest car in the test; its 7.2-second 0-to-60-mph acceleration time falls midpack, as does its quarter-mile acceleration of 15.7 seconds at 90.9 mph. Perhaps this American V8 needs to eat a few more bowls of Wheaties. Or go on a diet.
Part of the blame can be placed on the car's heft and its five-speed transmission; our long-term 2000 LS had to have its tranny replaced because of shifting problems. This one was better, but still not quite right. When left in drive mode, it's fine around town, but our drivers were able to fool it; one editor mentioned that "I caught it flat-footed when I wanted a downshift or kept it revved in a lower gear when an upshift was required." In manual mode, it was quick to upshift, but took longer to downshift. We do appreciate Lincoln's offering a manual transmission with the V6 version and would be overjoyed if the company had one for the V8. Keep trying, Lincoln.
It was the suspension setup that kept the LS in our editors' good graces. Our test car was equipped with the Sport package, a $1,990 bundle that includes 17-inch wheels, sport-tuned suspension, a premium audio system and the SelectShift automanual transmission. Even in this portly car at 3,692 pounds it was the second heaviest in the test it managed to control body roll, with virtually no dive or squat. Some complained of harshness over broken pavement, jostling the occupants of the car. Handling was complemented by a well-weighted, responsive steering rack, with quick turn-in and a fair amount of road feel.
Braking from 60 to 0 mph required 127 feet, and most drivers were unimpressed by pedal feel, commenting that it lacked progressiveness and that the brakes faded and lost authority after repeated use. Bigger discs would be appreciated, as well as quicker engagement. The optional AdvanceTrac stability control system restrains wheelspin at each corner, and veers you back on your intended path whenever the front wheels' steering angle and the car's direction of travel don't agree.
Lincoln allowed for little slack in the purse strings when it came to decorating the interior. The plasticky wood trim didn't even try to look real, the digital displays are about as up-to-date as Laura Brannigan, and the vinyl seatbacks, hard plastics and too many tiny-marked buttons had us seeking the coddling sanctuary of the higher-ranking cars. The leather upholstery is supple and soft, though, and the seats are quite comfortable.
This car has the longest wheelbase at 114.5 inches, and the most passenger volume overall at 100.7 cubic feet. Accordingly, passenger room is copious, providing rear-seaters with 37.4 inches of leg space. Some of our taller editors complained that the their shins made contact with the hard front seatback, however, and amenities were sparse. The baby seat exhibited lots of lateral slide on the plateau between the deeply dished outboard seating positions. But there's plenty of room for carry-handle clearance, and the belt is auto-locking.
The trunk is really shallow, but has a huge opening. The load floor, however, is very bumpy and T-shaped, so fitting in your Coach bags will require some mental dexterity. It has a 60/40 split rear seat to accommodate longer items.
Drivers were irked by numerous creaks and groans when the weight transferred from one side of the structure to the other, crooked chrome door trim that at one point popped off, a center console not properly bolted on, and uneven gap tolerances throughout the car. "Not bad...for an American car," stated a snarky driver backhandedly. Against its precision-welded competitors, however, the miscues seemed more egregious than usual.
No car is perfect right out of the box, but this American car should quit playing catch up and strive for status as the leader of the pack. C'mon, Lincoln, we know you can do it.
Senior Road Test Editor Neil Dunlop says:
As you might expect from a U.S.-made V8, the engine pushing the Lincoln LS is loud, robust and unrefined. It has a gravel-like feel that is likely due to its lack of refinement. The Japanese and Europeans seem to know how to get a lot of horsepower from smaller engines. The LS is the Lincoln for the driver who doesn't want the typical Lincoln size, but likes what the grille says about them when they pull into the parking lot.
The Lincoln LS is a pretty good looking car, if your tastes lean toward North American design. Most of its visual power lays in its low profile and wide, muscular stance. This gives it a raw, substantial look. However, if you don't subscribe to a bigger-is-better philosophy where cars are concerned, there are sleeker, better built and sportier entry-level luxury sedans out there for about the same money.
Senior Editor Brent Romans says:
Don't let the sixth place finish throw you off. For certain buyers, the Lincoln LS could make an excellent choice. First off, it's the only true American vehicle in the test (the Cadillac Catera is built by Opel in Europe). Second, it's the only vehicle in the test with a V8. That V8, along with the big cabin and roomy back seat, allow this car to be a very good touring sedan. It can effortlessly eat miles of interstate and dance gracefully on the occasional twisty canyon road. For the way that I suspect most people use an entry-level luxury sport sedan, the Lincoln is just as good as any other car in the test.
From a personal standpoint, however, I think a mid-pack finish is about right. I was surprised by our test car's as-tested price; it should have been lower considering what the car offers. The LS also should have been faster given that it had the largest engine in the test. Other minor quibbles I have include mediocre interior materials and banal styling.
But overall, I think Lincoln's first attempt at taking on established heavyweights like the 3 Series and C-Class is a good one. If you like to wave the American flag, by all means, take a look at the LS.
Editor-in-Chief Christian Wardlaw says:
Growing up in Detroit, I can't help but have a patriotic streak when it comes to cars. And I have one when it comes to this Lincoln. It's big, brash and bold, with amazing steering and suspension calibrations, superb long-distance comfort and a nice, quiet cabin.
But, as with many cars designed and manufactured in the United States, the Lincoln falls short when stacked up against the best cars in the class. Our Lincoln suffered from an indecisive automatic transmission, poor brake pedal feel and modulation, substandard assembly quality, lousy cabin materials and a generally dissatisfying interior design.
A car this big should offer class-leading occupant and cargo space. In practice, the Lincoln does not. It also fails to provide adequate storage space inside. Interior materials leave much to be desired, especially the blatantly fake paneling that looks like it was sourced from a circa mid-1970s tract home basement. The turn signal stalk felt like it might break off in my hand, the headlight switch clicked and clacked as it turned, and the vinyl covering of the seatbacks exhibited excessive sheen in sunlight.
Creaks and groans from various and flimsy interior fittings was almost constant. At one point, the climate system uttered a flatulent noise that had my passenger rolling down the window, thinking I was at fault. Both sides of the car are dressed in chrome at the beltline, and it wavers as it stretches from pillar to post. The strip on the front passenger door actually popped out of place at one point. The hood was grossly misaligned, and our test car had poor door fit compared to other vehicles on the test.
Beyond this, the only memorable part of the mechanical package was the steering and suspension, which work in concert to make the LS truly a hoot to run hard through canyons. For a car of such heft and girth, the LS is light on its feet, with plenty of warning as limits are approached. The transmission, a source of ills since the LS was introduced last year, still doesn't know what gear it should be in at any given time, and the brakes on our test car offered the driver little in the way of feel or progressivity.
There's nothing here that some attention to detail can't fix, and quick response to criticism of the 2000 LS has resulted in tangible improvement. Let's hope designers and engineers continue to fine-tune future iterations of this "American Luxury" sedan.
Stereo Evaluation - 2001 Lincoln LS
Ranking in test: Eighth
System Score: 5.5
Components: This Lincoln system is pretty bare-bones. It begins with a pair of 5-by-7-inch full-range drivers in the rear doors. These are joined by an identical pair of speakers in the front doors. That's it for speakers, folks. Things get a little better on the electronics side of the aisle. The head unit boasts a built-in six-disc CD changer, plus a number of user-friendly features such as widely spaced buttons, a round volume knob, a bright LED display and decent elevation in the dash. Presetting radio stations is a snap. The steering wheel also comes appointed with volume up/down and muting. On the downside, the head unit utilizes a cumbersome rocker panel for radio fine-tuning, bass/treble and balance/fade not a real Phi Beta Kappa design.
Performance: This is one of the worst-sounding systems in the test, mainly because it's severely lacking in bass. With only two pairs of speakers in the doors, there just isn't enough speaker mass to move air, and air movement equals sound. Although highs and mids perform decently, there is a severe drop-off in the bass area. As a result, the whole system sounds anemic. Bass/percussion are weak and flimsy, female vocals sound reedy and thin, horns lack complexity, and stringed instruments have no real depth. To make matters worse, the amp is lame, too, meaning the speakers, even if they were decent (and they're not) would gasp for usable power. All and all, a mediocre effort from Lincoln.
Best Feature: Six-disc in-dash CD changer.
Worst Feature: Poor sound quality.
Conclusion: For those of you considering buying this car but who also prize good entertainment value, we recommend getting the Lincoln Premium package (though you can't order it if the car has the Sport package). The upgraded system in the Premium package offers 12 speakers and a much stronger amplifier. The extra speakers solve the bass problem, and the overall sound of the system is dramatically improved. We've listened to both systems, and the step-up system is a vast improvement over the one reviewed here. Check it out.
Fifth Place - 2001 Mercedes-Benz C320
Let's get one thing clear. For sheer impress-the-neighbors fun, this is the car to get. "Ooh, what a pretty car," they'll gush. Take it to the wedding of that friend you never particularly liked but were always jealous of. You'll get attention. They'll think you're successful and wealthy.
And you better be. The base price of the redesigned baby Benz tops the fully-loaded price of some of the others in the test. And if you're yearning for a properly equipped luxury car, prepare to take out a second mortgage.
It's not that you're getting ripped off. In fact, the C320 is a fine automobile; we'd be proud to own one. Let's start with the engine. Mercedes has always excelled in providing a pin-you-to-the-seat sense of thrust, and the 3.2-liter V6 is no exception. While the 215 ponies aren't terribly energetic, low-end torque is plentiful; its 0-to-60-mph acceleration time of 7 seconds is bested only by the BMW and Acura.
Left to its own devices, Mercedes' five-speed transmission mostly works as it should, with quick, decisive upshifts and slightly lethargic downshifts. When you try to select gears on your own (no mean task given the side-to-side movement of the transmission shifter when placed in TouchShift mode, which is less intuitive than up and down motion; this also facilitates an inadvertent slip into neutral, as was stated by one of our drivers), upshifts are delayed and there's no rev limiter monitoring downshifts; one driver complained that he was able to lock the rear wheels at one point. Furthermore, the manual-mode gear indicator on the dash is far away from the tachometer and small; shift points are more readily determined by engine noise. Not that that's a bad thing, given its pleasing roar. It's just better to let the tranny do the thinking for you.
Unfortunately, our model wasn't equipped with the sport package. We had previously tested one so equipped and were pleasantly surprised by its athletic capability. While our test car behaved itself well under most driving circumstances, when performance was demanded, it only halfheartedly delivered. The front end bobbed excessively over undulations on the freeway and wallowed after bumps and holes, unduly upsetting the chassis. Otherwise, the Benz possessed that Mercedes feeling of heft and composedness in the twisties that doesn't necessarily translate into sportiness, and provided a solid, quiet, serene ride overall. Most drivers whose commutes don't include flying down the side of a mountain will find little to nitpick.
Our editors lauded the four-wheel disc brakes, which stopped the car with authority and exhibited no fade even after intense use. The rack-and-pinion steering is a vast improvement over the previous C-Class' recirculating ball configuration. While it lacks the pure road feel of the Lexus or BMW, it's nicely weighted and linear, and its small turning circle of 35.3 feet allows for graceful three-point turns on narrow roads.
While there were neither rattles nor squeaks from anywhere in the car, our eagle-eyed editors picked out several build-quality flaws. One of the vents' on/off switches was falling into the dash, the airbag cover was misaligned, as were the boot lid and hood. A B-pillar trim piece was loose, and the gaps between the dash and the doors were different for the driver and passenger sides. But mostly, we were peeved at the lack of a CD player in this $40,000-plus car and wondered at the audacity of the Germans, who could get away with such an omission. "This is a Mercedes?" wondered some of our evaluators, which bespeaks the high standards that Mercedes has established. This particular car disappointed us, but we're hoping that it was an anomaly, rather than a harbinger of DaimlerChrysler cost-cutting.
You wouldn't think so by most of the interior materials, with lovely real wood trim, soft leather, expensive-feeling felt for the headliner and a minimum of hard plastics. Some of the switchgear didn't live up to expectations, namely the headlight switch, overhead lights and vent and window controls that don't move with as much fluidity as one might hope in the most expensive car of the test. Otherwise, the climate controls and stereo buttons are easy to use, if a bit daunting initially.
For a car with petite exterior dimensions, it has quite a large trunk, but the opening is rather small. It had the advantage of being the only trunk that pops up once the latch is released, so that if your hands are full of grocery bags you don't have to bother to put them down to access the trunk. Although the bootlid is supported by hinges, they disappear into their own niches, so there's no chance of crushing your things. Plus, there are sizeable bins to store smaller items you don't want rolling around the trunk. Our test car had both a 60/40 split seat, as well as a ski pass-through.
The rear seat has an automatic locking seatbelt for easy installation of the baby seat. While the handle fit is a bit tight, there is little side-to-side movement. MB also has a special child-seat sensing system for the front passenger side that keeps the airbag from deploying when used with a BabySmart child seat available from the dealer, but unless you absolutely must put your child in that seat, we recommend that you keep them in the rear. You'll be sure to hear grousing from adult rear seat occupants; only the Lexus has less legroom than the Mercedes' 33 inches.
As stated before, the Mercedes was the most expensive car in the test, and it didn't even have a CD player or the Sport package. What it offers is the cachet of driving a Benz. It's a solid, well-crafted (for the most part) car, and those hankering for a car with a three-pointed star on the hood won't be dissatisfied. However, it is simply not the best car in its class.
Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
There's something about German cars that imparts a sense of solidity and confidence when driven hard, and the C320 is no exception. The Benz's V6 comes close to matching the Bimmer's sweet inline six in terms of refinement and provides a satisfying lunge forward when the throttle is stabbed. Pedal feel for the powerful brakes was a bit lacking, but once acclimated to was not a problem.
The steering feel, which is usually not as good as BMW's, was better than the 330i's. The C320's tiller had the heft and feedback that were absent in the BMW's overboosted unit. And I had to wonder if the optional and near $3,000 Sport package is worth considering our car didn't have it, and the handling was excellent. The Benz dispatched the technical portion (read very twisty) of our test loop without breaking (or causing me to break) a sweat.
Driving the C320 down on my recommended list were various gripes, such as the cheap feel of some switchgear (for example, the exterior light knob) that had a brittle action when handled, the annoying method of shutting down the climate system (required repeatedly pressing the fan speed button), only one cupholder for the front occupants and the lack of a CD player. Looking at the big picture, these petty grievances don't exactly ruin one's enjoyment of the C320; in fact, I still picked it as my third personal choice. But for over $41,000, they're inexcusable lapses from a company known for engineering excellence.
Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says:
I considered this car one of the few true sport sedans in the test. With only 215 horsepower, it wasn't exactly a neck-snapper, but together with its taut, predictable suspension and sharp steering, the C320 was capable of pushing the limits without feeling like it was always getting ahead of itself.
After I got past the rather unremarkable looks and eye-opening sticker price, I realized that the Mercedes turned in a solid performance that almost makes me think it's worth it. The suspension was unflappable in tight turns, able to be pushed hard and only gently gave in when its limits were reached. It wasn't anywhere near the IS 300 in terms of overall grip or feel, but its rear-wheel drive provided infinitely better feel than the large crop of front drivers on the test.
The engine jumped to life quickly, delivering more push than I expected from such an unremarkable horsepower rating. The automatic transmission was a sorely evident weak spot, delivering clunky shifts on occasion.
The interior certainly doesn't overwhelm you with style or luxury. The gauges are noticeably bland and many of the dashboard switches exhibit a hollow, plastic feel. The radio and climate control systems continue to puzzle me with their arcane methods of operation. The seats were comfortable for both cruising and high-speed high jinks and the rest of the interior materials were first rate, but for its price, I was expecting a little more.
For all the hoopla surrounding its introduction, the new C isn't that much better than its predecessor. The new styling is noticeably more modern, but in terms of driving dynamics and interior quality, not much progress was made. That being said, the C320 is still a fine car that can appease those looking for both a sport sedan and a luxury car all in one. It doesn't deliver the best example of either, but it's a nice compromise between the two if you can afford it.
Associate Editor Erin Mahoney says:
There's something about the Mercedes that is distinctly different from the other vehicles in this test; I attribute it to the vehicle's sophisticated reputation. The automaker's dignified persona lends significance to the vehicle itself, but the Benz wasn't without its flaws.
For instance, the front seats, while easy to adjust to a comfortable driving position, felt a little too hard. And the backseats were very cramped, with virtually no under-seat foot room. Also, the climate controls were set too low in the center stack, and the stereo buttons were all bunched together in a confusing manner.
The 3.2-liter V6 offered copious, breath-catching power delivery, with consistent pull throughout the rev band. While the kick-in-the-seat-of-your-pants factor was exciting, I longed for a more progressive gas pedal; apply just a little pressure, and the vehicle jumps forward startlingly.
I appreciated the C320's heavily weighted steering, but would've liked more road feel through the rack. Nevertheless, the combination of heavy steering and a powerful engine lent a distinct pleasure to driving the Mercedes. While it didn't feel nearly as sprightly as the IS 300 or 330i, the C320 held an appeal all its own.
Stereo Evaluation - 2001 Mercedes-Benz C320
Ranking in stereo test: Ninth (last)
System Score: 4.75
Components: If you're considering buying this vehicle, we strongly recommend that you purchase an upgraded audio package with it. The car we tested came with a cassette player only, no CD. This makes for some pretty lackluster sound, since you're limited to radio (AM/FM or Weather Band whoopee!) or good ol' cassette. Of course, you can sing to yourself if you want, which in some cases may sound better than this system as configured, but that option's probably not very high on your list.
Too bad, because this Bose setup offers a full array of goodies that includes according to Mercedes' press materials 10 different speakers in six different locations. We can't quite figure out how Mercedes arrives at the "10" number. We requested and received a schematic of the system from the factory and count only eight speaker locations in the car. However, the schematic lists the front door speakers as a "speaker group," so these most likely include a two-way design behind the grille, which would then give us the number 10.
Speaker locations include a pair of 6.5-inch full-range drivers in the front doors (these are likely the two-way speakers just alluded to), a similar 6.5-inch full-range pair in the rear doors and some fine tweeters tucked between the side mirrors and the A-pillar. Special speaker additions consist of a Bose 8-inch sub along the back deck and a very fine centerfill speaker positioned in the center of the dashboard. (Centerfill speakers normally produce highs and mids and are used to improve dispersion and soundstage qualities within the vehicle. This one fires upward into the windshield and reflects outward into the cabin.)
Electronically, the system boasts Mercedes' standard-issue head unit, which is not such a bad thing. The faceplate includes a rubberized volume knob with a great tactile feel, a bright LCD display and a user-friendly rocker arrangement (which we normally don't like, but this one is exceedingly well done) on the left side of the radio. The one design flaw on this head unit remains the radio presets, located on the right side of the faceplate, away from the driver, that even a lowland gorilla would need to stretch to reach. Luckily, the steering wheel has a full array of controls, including radio seek/scan, cassette operation, volume up and down and (if you had one) CD changer track and seek.
On this last topic, we called Mercedes to find out what it would cost to add a six-disc CD changer to this system. We were a little confused (and you might be also) by the official option codes listed by the manufacturer. According to the C320 brochure, there are only two ways to add a changer, both ridiculously expensive and each one including the addition of a cellular phone. With cell phones basically free out there, and with CD changers a dime a dozen, Mercedes seems awfully expensive even by Mercedes standards for this particular factory add-on. Option K2 comes with a hands-free phone plus a six-disc CD changer in the glovebox, with an MSRP of $1,795. Option K2a adds voice recognition for $2,190 MSRP. Upon digging a little deeper, Mercedes confirmed that a third "unofficial" option existed. A dealer-installed CD changer (no official option code) can be added for $590 MSRP. If interested, talk to your dealer.
The C320, as tested, costs almost two grand more than its nearest competitor in this comparison test. Which might explain why Mercedes delivered a C320 to us sans the CD changer. Still, we think you'd be foolish to buy this car without a CD player. The speakers and amp are just too wonderful to waste.
Performance: As tested, this car just doesn't sound very good. Without a CD source, it's difficult to tell how well the speakers and amp might perform. However, even on FM radio, the system gives evidence of exceptional performance. We've listened to similar Mercedes systems with a CD player included that performed quite well. Unfortunately, we have to evaluate the car before us. Not to sound redundant, but don't buy this car without a CD player.
Best Feature: Ten great speakers from Bose.
Worst Feature: No CD
Conclusion: Properly appointed, we suspect this car sounds great. As is, it's mediocre.
Third Place (Tie) - 2001 Volvo S60 T5
Some of life's most complex decisions: Evolution or creation? Mary Ann or Ginger? Tastes great or less filling?
It's purely a matter of taste. And so it came to be that the Volvo S60 tied with the Lexus IS 300 for third place; both were formidable contenders but for very different reasons. Whereas the Lexus provided driving thrills to match Europe's best offerings, it was low on luxury content. The Volvo, on the other hand, provides you with plenty of toys and a lux feel, but no one will be taking the long, circuitous route home just to fool around with it a bit longer.
Of course, Volvos aren't particularly known for their racy appeal. Previous Swedish cars had about as much charisma as the bobbed-hair mom from ALF. Volvo claims that it's in the midst of a "ReVolvolution," starting with injecting sinuous curves into dowdy sheet metal. To help along the transformation, the S60, which shares the P2 platform with the S80 and V70, was engineered from the ground up to attract younger buyers, the not-necessarily-sensible crowd who want their transports to be sporty and fun, as well as possessing the reputation for safety for which Volvo is known.
Certainly, they have succeeded in crafting a striking exterior. Short front and rear overhangs connote athleticism. It has the most distinctive design cues, from the sloping roofline to the broad shoulders on the side of the car.
Inside, front seat comfort received the highest accolades, with a perfect amount of cushioning and a myriad of controls that allowed our variously sized bodies to fit comfortably. Volvo has the driver seat down to a science. There were two settings for heated seats: regular and extra crispy. The only complaint arose from a short-legged driver who claimed that the front seat cushion was too long, annoyingly grazing the back of her knee.
Rear seat accommodations could be improved, however; with only 33.3 inches of legroom, your passengers will be squirming. At least they have rear climate controls to while away the time, and the seats themselves were mighty comfy. There's tight clearance for the handle of a baby seat but there's minimal side-to-side lateral movement, on par with the Millenia.
Yes, the S60 veered toward luxury, and plenty of it; there was a pen holder on the dashboard, for heaven's sake! Although some editors thought the dash material and the A-pillar cover sounded hollow and cheap when thunked, we all concurred that the car was assembled with the utmost of care. The S60 even had the requisite spritz of eau de cowhide from the fragrance fairy, and its scent lingered on our clothes long after we left the Volvo. Some complained about the pachyderm-hide-like leather, others liked it fine. The controls were nicely weighted, and although the pictograms depicting the function of the buttons could be difficult to understand, once we figured it out we found them rather charming.
The trunk has a small opening, but is buoyed by convenient grocery bag hooks, strut type hinges, a ski pass-through and 60/40-split rear seats. Liftover is on the tall side, so make sure you get Sven to load your luggage for you.
Powering our Volvo was the T5 engine, a 2.3-liter turbocharged inline five that makes 247 horsepower and 243 foot-pounds of torque. Its horsepower peak hits at 5,200 rpm, and all drivers commented on the initial turbo lag, evidenced by the undistinguished 7.2-second 0-to-60-mph acceleration time. It almost makes up for it in the quarter-mile, however, completing the run in 15.5 seconds at 92.4 mph, the second best in the test. It's not butter-smooth at idle, with an audible and palpable churn. Its passing power is plentiful once you get the revs spooled up.
The T5 with the manual transmission is known for its spaceball shifter, a lovely exercise in design. Our test vehicle was equipped with a five-speed automanual, which often plods along in both automatic and manual modes. Our drivers noted over-revving at full throttle between the second and third upshifts, although in most other instances the shifts were crisp. Automanual shifting is correctly on the driver side, but shifts took too long to engage in our opinion. Most drivers preferred to leave it in auto mode.
Like other cars whose power is delivered to the front wheels, this one is marred by the strong presence of torque steer. The steering offers little road feel, the rack is a bit loose and has about an inch of play off-center. It was also overboosted beyond our taste. Brake feel was hailed, with linear pedal activation and confidence-inspiring gripping action. Its halting distance of 124 feet was the third shortest, with good straight-line stability.
The S60's MacPherson strut front and multilink rear suspension setup with stabilizer bars and anti-dive geometry handled most of our street driving well, although anything more than a small bump transmitted suspension noise and harshness into the cabin. On twisties, drivers felt uneasy about the abundant body roll, saying that it was definitely tuned more for luxury than sport. Hustling this car down a mountainside lacked the go-kart thrills of some of its competitors and didn't contribute to a sense of confidence to push the car to its limits. Its slalom speed of 60 mph one of the slowest attests to this.
Shod with Pirelli P235/45R17 tires, the S60 provided a soft ride around town and progressively scrubbed off speed in turns by pushing over onto the sidewalls. They were the only tires in the test whose treads and sidewalls were somewhat worn by the end of the flog.
Of course, it wouldn't be a Volvo without a veritable legion of active and passive safety features. Helping you to avoid collisions are Electronic Brake Distribution (EBD) and a Stability Traction Control system to maintain control of the car. Should an impact be unavoidable, the whiplash-reducing front seating and seat-mounted side airbags and inflatable curtains for front and rear occupants should hopefully keep you in one piece.
While the Volvo provides some thrills, it's certainly not amongst the jocks of the group. It veers toward a wafty, comfortable ride, more suited for cruisin' than bruisin'. Plus, at $39,175, it's among the priciest of the test, and treads in the same waters as BMW. An esteemed colleague said of the C70 coupe that "it's the car you'd want your mom to drive." We'll bet she'd like the S60, too.
Senior Road Test Editor Neil Dunlop says:
The S60 is an impressive debut into the entry-level luxury sedan market. Fed up with people calling its cars boxy and boring, the S60 and its big brother, the S80, marks a drastic departure for the Swedish automaker it is easily the most distinctive-looking entry-level luxury sedan on the road. Unlike a lot of the vanilla sedans in the market, there's nothing subtle about the S60's muscular shoulders, short rear deck and beefy wheels and tires. The whole package is finished with an ice-sculpture roundness and solidity that is striking and commanding.
Inside, there's also an organic shaped-by-nature feeling, as if all the high-grade materials, top-notch switchgear and thick, sumptuous leather were polished by a retreating glacier. Strangely, the flat, sterile utilitarian center stack is incongruent with the rest of the beautiful, curvaceous interior. It's the only design element that Volvo got wrong.
The 247-horsepower five-cylinder inline turbocharged engine is a honey of a powerplant, delivering ample power in a self-assured manner. It's not flashy power with rip-roaring starts (characteristic of most turbos), but it's assured and strong. In auto mode, the transmission shifts a little slowly, but the manual mode makes the engine sing.
While cruising in a straight line, the S60 provides a lot of road feedback, but it becomes much less communicative in the twists and corners. In fact, it's downright mushy when cornering, demanding constant correction from the wheel. If Volvo wants the S60 to compete with marques like BMW, it'd better fix this problem fast.
And the $39,175 sticker of our test vehicle indicates that Volvo has indeed set its sights on the top entry-level luxury brands. It can compete, but it's got to fix that suspension.
Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says:
With the car's stylish new shape and tastefully appointed interior, it was hard not to take a good look at the S60. Although not as athletic as the Germans, the Volvo's lean toward luxury put it near the top when it came down to picking favorites overall.
The Volvo exhibited predictable handling in the corners, but its softly tuned suspension needed a good set before it decided to dig in. Turbo lag at low speeds kept it from posting truly impressive numbers, and torque steer under hard acceleration required constant attention to the wheel. The transmission was solid, generating crisp shifts at all times, but like most cars so equipped in the test, its manual shift mode was worthless.
The S60's interior was easily one of the best in the test. The plush leather seats envelop you in comfort, although they lack enough support for adequate hold in tight corners. The gauges were delightfully simple, and the climate and radio controls were intuitive enough despite their unusual methods of operation. Quality of materials was also noticeably above average, although the dark colors throughout created a somewhat gloomy look. Rear seat room was only average, but again, the seats were tremendously comfortable.
The S60 scored high in my book mostly because it provided a luxurious ride with a little bit of style thrown in to boot. There's certainly enough power under the hood for passing and merging, but hardcore enthusiasts will be slightly disappointed with its lack of abrupt delivery. The suspension filters out most of what you don't want, but you give up the direct road feel of the real sport sedans in this test. Want a stylish cruiser that won't be mistaken for just another prettied up family sedan? The S60 would be a good start.
Editor-in-Chief Christian Wardlaw says:
After blasting around a racetrack in an S60 T5 with the spaceball shifter for a media event, I thought Volvo was finally onto something. That quick spin left a very positive impression on me. After driving the T5 hundreds of miles, this one equipped with an automanual, I was less enamored of the car.
Right off the bat, let me say that I hate having the thick smell of Volvo leather clinging to my clothes and hair. They really need to do something about that. At least the seats are comfortable, a Volvo hallmark. They are soft, yet supportive. Broad, yet able to hold you in for spirited driving. Outstanding. But the rear seat of this new car is awfully small and uncomfortable, which makes me wonder the point of the S40.
Oh right, price. Our test car was almost $40,000, and that didn't include the slick pop-up navigation system. But what is here is generally of high quality. The Volvo imparts a feeling of rock-solid engineering without the sense of heft which saddles most cars that feel this stout.
The turbo engine suffers from a moment of lag off the line, then quickly spools up and tries to twist the steering wheel out of your hands. Power delivery is not particularly refined, the motor transmitting a whining groan to the cabin. Our car's brakes felt a bit grabby, too, but the pedal operated in a pleasing, progressive manner. Too much suspension noise and vibration is allowed to disturb occupants, and our car exhibited a slight vibration that felt like an out-of-balance wheel or bent rim. Also odd was looseness in the steering column that could be felt when launching the car from a standstill, and on one occasion, the transmission disengaged and "freewheeled" when running hot through the curves. These things are surprising given the fact that, otherwise, the Volvo is screwed together tightly.
At first glance, the Volvo's controls seem impossible to understand, but it doesn't take long to acclimate to them. I find the station-preset function quite useful. Not only does it store 20 stations, but it's also simple to use once you learn how. I thought the door panel armrest was too short with the seat moved back to a comfortable position for me, my elbow and forearm didn't quite fit right.
Stylistically, I think the Volvo is dramatic, distinctive and sporty. You know right away it's a Volvo, yet you're surprised that something so rakish could be made by the venerable Swedish automaker. Inside, the cabin is rather dull, with black and gray serving as the primary decor.
Overall, I didn't like the Volvo as much as I thought I would, but I can see that it is a dramatic improvement over the old S70, except in terms of passenger space. Plus, it's probably quite a safe car. But there are other safe, solid, stylish, sporty and fun-to-drive cars in the segment that don't make you stink of dyed leather after you're done driving them. Or that cost 40 large.
Stereo Evaluation - 2001 Volvo S60
Ranking in stereo test: First
System Score: 8.5
Components: This system is such a clear winner in this comparison test, it almost isn't fair. No other manufacturers comes close.
The system consists of seven loudspeakers, a 400-watt power amplifier, a single-play in-dash CD player, and the world's first car-mounted Dolby Pro Logic decoder. In fact, according to our contact at Volvo, Dolby Labs sent a special crew to consult and certify this arrangement. To our knowledge, it's still the only OEM car system that offers Dolby Pro Logic, a circuitry normally reserved for home theater setups.
The speakers were designed by Dynaudio, a Danish company with a high-end aftermarket reputation. In the front, speakers include: two 6.5-inch mid-woofers in the doors, along with a pair of 1-inch tweeters. The dashboard houses a center-fill speaker in the middle of the dash. The rear deck holds two 6.5-inch full-range drivers.
The head unit is nicely executed, with wide, well-spaced buttons and a single-play CD player. However, it's slightly marred by a funky presetting arrangement. Rather than the standard push-buttons you find on most American sedans, this one has a dial for presets. Also, the steering wheel controls include only volume and seek/scan.
Performance: Wow. Very impressive. When engaged, the Dolby Pro Logic lends an air of spaciousness and depth rarely found in a factory system. As if that weren't enough, the Dynaudio speakers produce an accurate and lifelike quality that threatens to bring tears to the eyes. For instance, string bass and cello sound so alive you can actually hear the "wood" coming through the speakers. Also, female vocals sound just right on this system, full of warmth and realism. Highs and lows are damn good, and the center fill speaker does a nice job of adding intricacy and detail in the midrange. Overall sound quality is superb.
Best Feature: Dolby Pro Logic circuitry (the industry's first).
Worst Feature: No CD changer; rotary dial for radio presets.
Conclusion: Well, what more do you want? To get much better than this, you'd have to go to the aftermarket and have someone design a custom system for you. Only one beef: The radio presetting feature is lame, and I marked off for it. If you're really into good sound and don't mind the minor inconvenience of some of the antiquated design cues, this is the system for you.
Third Place (Tie) - 2001 Lexus IS 300
Even though it sports a Lexus badge, this is no luxury car. From the gimmicky chronograph-style gauges to the nice-looking but cheap-feeling dash materials, the interior is like the work of a talented but poor starving artist who scrounges for materials in the junkyard to express himself.
The dash is wholly composed of hard, hollow-sounding plastic, and there's no option for even a sliver of wood. A slapfight ensued as to whether or not the costly ecsaine is real suede or a reasonable facsimile; we contacted Lexus public relations to settle the deal. Turns out that it's a synthetic material. The fake stuff. For $1,705. The costly package comes bundled up with power driver and passenger seats and Homelink, which is little more than a glorified garage door opener.
Yet, somehow, the IS 300 landed smack dab in second place on our editors' lists of Personal Picks, the car we'd choose for ourselves if given the resources. And here it is, tying for third place overall with the venerable Volvo. How did it place so high?
It moves, baby. Whether it's chomping up the tarmac during performance testing or arcing around mountain curves, it struts and shakes its stuff and is graceful doing it. It's as tossable as a kooshball and literally begs for more, which accounts for its first place finish in the slalom run at 64.3 mph. It actually scored higher than the BMW (by two percentage points) for the ineffable "Fun to Drive" category. Editor-in-Chief Christian Wardlaw practically had a conniption when faced with the prospect of losing his turn at driving it, so desirous was he of this talented vehicle. Light, agile and nimble, one editor commented that it reminded her of a feral tomcat.
Some of the spice of the secret recipe lies in a perfectly balanced chassis that seemingly pivots at the midpoint. You'd expect a harsh ride, given its prowess on curvy roads, and yes, it transmits more harshness than would be desired in a luxury sedan, but the sophisticated double wishbone front and rear suspension also gives you an amazing amount of communication from the road, and the ride around town ain't too shabby, either. And oh, the joys of steering turn-in is razor sharp, and we felt as if we were wielding a surgeon's scalpel as we ripped down the side of a hill.
The Lexus is powered by a 3.0-liter 215-horsepower inline six engine with 218 foot-pounds of grunt. Although its 0-to-60-mph time of 7.5 is unspectacular, power is abundantly available from any point on the rev band, and its delivery is as smooth as Johnny Walker Red straight up, with an exhaust note worthy of a Verdi aria.
The satiny power is meted by the excellent five-speed transmission; and we had fun just caressing the chromed gear knob. The Formula One-inspired, steering wheel-mounted E-shift took a bit of time to get used to; it takes concentration to find the buttons when you're in mid turn and seeking an upshift. We acclimated to it, however, and we started to appreciate that our right hands remained on the steering wheel instead of having to come off to use the transmission shifter. Shift action was crisp and precise; this is how an automanual is supposed to work, with positive, immediate engagement.
Lexus has the gold standard in terms of brakes. In almost every comparison test we have performed that has included a Lexus, or cars from parent company Toyota, they've generated the best braking numbers, and the IS 300 is no exception it stopped in an ultra-short 117 feet. The four-disc brakes were perfectly modulated, with phenomenal pedal feel that bestowed utter confidence.
Truly, the drivetrain gives the BMW a run for its money; in terms of pure driving dynamics, the BMW shouldn't rely solely on past laurels of being the Ultimate Driving Machine. However, living up to the Lexus badge, and its sedan status, requires more than thrills. This is where the IS stumbles.
The driver may forgive the garish, cheap materials that comprise her environment, but her passengers will be shouting their disapproval. Its 30.2 inches of rear legroom would discomfort Emmanuel Lewis, and our two broadest-shouldered lads were whining to be let out. It was also the most incommodious for the baby seat, with barely enough room to clear the handle and lots of side-to-side slop. Plus, the seat belt kept bunching up, impeding perfect installation.
Make sure you get all your valuables away from the gooseneck hinges not that much can fit in the trunk, anyway. At 10.1 cubic feet, it has the smallest trunk space of any car in the test. The obtrusive wheelwells and bumpy load floor further cut into space, but at least a ski pass-through comes standard. Other storage cubbies around the cabin are laughable in their puniness, except for a nicely sized glove box.
The in-dash six-disc changer is a convenient feature, as are the xenon headlamps. Climate controls and stereo buttons are all but ninny-proof. We're still not sure why the IS 300 wasn't released as a performance-oriented Toyota, which we're certain would be met with less scrutiny. As a less-expensive Toyota, we could overlook the non-telescoping steering wheel, inexpensive cabin trimmings and the conspicuous lack of a center console and center armrest.
Eh, well, we didn't mind too much. Everything was screwed in, glued on and bolted down with typical Lexus precision, and we couldn't find anything to fault, as we had expected. Of course, the majority of us are single, with only ourselves (and possibly our significant other) to worry about. If that's the case for you, the IS 300 is a rip-roarin', tire-burnin' good time.
Associate Editor Erin Mahoney says:
If the Volvo was the most serene car of this test, the IS was by far the most fun. I drove the Lexus immediately following the Millenia and the LS, and the difference in handling through the switchbacks was like night and day. This pup felt perfectly nimble and taut through canyons and sweeping curves, but lost some of its appeal over rough roads, where damping and sound-deadening wasn't quite up to snuff for an entry-luxury sedan.
All of the hard plastic gracing the IS 300's interior likewise didn't scream "luxury," but the "sport" aspect of this sedan is well communicated with suede inserts, faux-drilled aluminum pedals and a grippy steering wheel.
While pure, brute power from the inline six wasn't overwhelming, it was more than sufficient. Mashing the gas pedal on the highway resulted in a progressive and rapid pull up toward license-endangering speeds, even if the tranny hesitated just slightly before downshifting.
Senior Editor Brent Romans says:
Lexus is left in the uncomfortable position of being too good. Most manufacturers are lucky to have one product that competes in the near luxury sedan market. Lexus has two the ES 300 and the IS 300 and that's certainly a big reason for its third-place finish in this test.
When we last conducted a near-luxury sedan test in 1998, we felt the ES 300 was too soft and too similar to the Camry. This time, we snagged the harder-edged IS. Sure enough, the IS was a stellar performer, and it would be very high on my list of cars that I would personally buy (especially when the manual transmission becomes available). But most consumers in this segment want luxury. There's not much of that in this car. There's not much "near luxury," come to think about it.
If you prefer a sporty sedan and don't care much about feature content, this is your car, especially since it's relatively easy on the wallet. But our comparison test was designed to seek out the cars that could manage both sport and luxury. Where's Goldilocks' "just right" bowl of porridge when you need it?
Editor-in-Chief Christian Wardlaw says:
Don't buy this car if you want something luxurious. The Lexus IS 300 coddles like Joseph Jackson or Kit Culkin. This is a serious driving machine, decked out in Corolla-grade cabin materials and looking like a slammed Accord. It's a kid's car at an adult's price point.
Still a kid at heart? The IS 300 will happily satisfy your need for speed, as easily, and in the case of the astounding steering, more competently than even the vaunted BMW 3 Series. A 3.0-liter straight six matches the BMW in terms of refinement and power delivery, and they've decoded the Germans' formula for providing an absorbent ride with outstanding handling. Otherwise, Lexus has improved upon the Bavarians' recipe for fun, spicing it up with razor-sharp steering, astounding brakes, and a lightning-quick transmission equally happy loafing around town or blasting along a two-lane road.
My single gripe with the hardware package is that the automanual transmission's "E-Shift" buttons are located on the steering wheel spokes, making it hard to upshift when powering out of a turn if you shuffle steer the way I do. But, once you learn the car's powerband, it's relatively easy to acclimate to the system.
If only the IS 300's interior could match the 3 Series in terms of comfort and quality, and the exterior styling managed the same sense of balance and grace, I'd say the folks at BMW had trouble on their hands. As it stands, the Lexus IS 300 is little more than a hot-rodded Toyota with a luxury badge on the grille.
If the first number on the tag of your Levis is higher than 36, the Lexus' thickly bolstered front seats won't be kind. The rear seats are the smallest in this group of cars and aren't easy to clamber into and out of. Wind and road noise are excessive and constant, and the entire dashboard is constructed of hard plastic. If the Celica GT-S were available as a sedan, the IS 300 is likely the form it would take.
So then, Lexus is heavy on the performance and light on the luxury, landing the IS 300 mid-pack, in my opinion, in the race for best entry-level luxury sport sedan.
Stereo Evaluation - 2001 Lexus IS 300
Ranking in stereo test: Fifth
System Score: 6.75
Components: The system consists of a pair of ample 6-by-9 speakers on the back deck. These are complemented by a pair of 6-inch mid-bass drivers in the front doors, which in turn are coupled to a wonderfully positioned pair of dome tweeters up above. These tweeters are ensconced in their own housing a black plastic enclosure situated between the side mirrors and the dashboard. The tweeters work well and are aimed just right. There are no speakers in the rear doors.
Electronically, the system offers a user-friendly faceplate with wide topography and a lot of great features. For one, the in-dash six-disc CD changer is a handy little item to have, making for easy loading and retrieval of CDs. (It's a little slow, but a lot faster than having to run to the trunk to swap CD magazines.) The FM presets offer a total of 18, six more than the usual radio. There is also a "traffic" button to check traffic reports (which you won't need, since you'll be "flying" in this car), and an abundance of other features, such as soft-touch preset buttons, a large seek/scan toggle switch and an oversized LCD display. As if that weren't enough, the radio includes a "mid" tone control, for added flexibility in contouring the sound to your particular tastes.
Performance: OEM stereos tend to fall into two camps: systems that look great but don't sound that good, or setups that knock your socks off soundwise but lack for features. This stereo falls into the former camp. While it offers almost every feature under the sun, it doesn't quite get up and dance the way you'd hope. Still, there are a lot of things to admire here, such as the bass response (deep and rich) and the exceptional tweeter arrangement. Acoustic strings are accurate and lush, and overall the system has an impressive sound. However, there's a definite "hollowness" in the midrange, producing female vocals that are just slightly muted and subdued. Also, the tweeters get a little grainy at higher volume levels (this is actually the amp, but so be it). On the plus side, the amp plays flat out with not much clipping, and the bass response really comes through on bottom-heavy source material.
Best Feature: Dome tweeters in front doors.
Worst Feature: No speakers in the rear doors.
Conclusion: If you're comparing this car with similarly priced cars, you'll find this system very competitive.
Second Place - 2001 BMW 330i
Tom and Nicole broke up. Lionel Ritchie has a new album out titled Renaissance. And the BMW 330i didn't win our entry-level luxury sport sedan test, a segment that it created. Has the world gone mad?!
Many tears were shed by BMW loyalists, who, to this day, wander in a daze. Denial ain't just a river in Egypt, you know. How did this happen?
It's the money, baby. At $39,735, it's the second most expensive car in the test. And it still came equipped with manual seats. It lost a full 4 percentage points in this respect, and although it excelled in all other evaluation areas over the Acura, it could not overcome the price handicap. Ultimately, it lost to the Acura by a mere half a percentage point; had we not been retentive and rounded to the nearest ones rather than tenths, the Bimmer and Acura would be tied.
Other variable factors negatively affected the Bimmer's placement, which left us uttering "if only"s that would have prodded the BMW to the usual top spot:
If only...they didn't lighten the steering. Whereas before, this was Bimmer's strong suit, often garnering 10s across the board, only generous editors gave the 330i a 9. One even gave it a 6, saying that the overboosted steering was simply an atrocity. Well, not quite. While it still provided copious road feel and quick turn-in, all of our editors stated that it was simply too light, almost to the point of being darty on the highway. This point may have been further highlighted by the fact that in our rotations of driving the cars back to back the BMW followed the Cadillac Catera (with its heavy steering), warping our perceptions further. We all mourned the loss of the Bimmer's perfectly weighted steering, and when perfection is marred merely for the appeasement of the effete masses who pout that twirling their "Beamer" into a parking space hurts their po' wittle wrists, well, we get irked.
If only...the brakes weren't malfunctioning. Our model took 126 feet to arrest the car from 60 to 0. It's still a good number, but we're used to seeing 120 for a 3 Series. During one of our braking runs, the right-rear wheel actually locked up and a plume of smoke came from the tire, and during normal city driving, the brake pad squealed a-plenty. Unfortunate, we know, but we had to work with what we were given.
The brake pedal still exhibited excellent feel, though, and in all other instances, the four-disc setup stopped straight and true, with no fade even after a downhill twisty road. In conjunction with the brakes, the Dynamic Stability Control system corrects vehicle path miscalculations, and in case those don't work, the BMW provides a Head Protection System that protects the front passengers' noggins from impacting the side windows.
If only...it had the power seats instead of the leather package. In our estimation, the standard leather-like vinyl feels just as nice, if not nicer, than the rough, ridiculously pricey leather ($1,450) covering the seats. If it were up to us, we'd forgo the cowhide, spend $945 on power seats, and blow the remaining $500 on BMW logo-ed polo shirts. OK, not really. But we were utterly flabbergasted that both leather and power seats are optional items and felt foolish manually adjusting the seats on our $40,000 test car.
Inside, we found that all of its controls had perfect weighting and positive engagement. All the buttons are purposeful and functional, all windows and sunroof are one-touch open and close, but we took issue with the fact that the CD player is an option, and you can't pay to get an in-dash CD changer. The climate control isn't dual zone, and xenon headlamps are a $500 option that wasn't on our test car.
The BMW is meager in terms of passenger/cargo accommodations. It provides rear passengers 34.6 inches of legroom, putting it slightly above midpack, but editors claimed that the seats were very comfortable. The baby seat fit well, with little lateral movement and space enough for handle clearance. No cupholders here for back seat drivers, but the small ashtray could be used as storage space. The trunk is one of the smallest, with only 10.7 cubic feet of space, but the boot opens with gas-type struts to reveal a wide opening and a tool kit, storage bins and cargo hooks. Fold-down seats are an option, as is a ski pass-through. Neither was on our test car.
Yet despite all these faults, the 330i came this close to keeping its title. How do we love thee? Let us count the ways. The BMW isn't about flashy gadgetry; it's about what lies underneath the skin.
Since BMW redesigned its 3 Series for the 1999 model year, we've been struck by the thunderbolt, and we've been smitten ever since. This car inspires more effusiveness than any other. Many on our staff maintain that it's the best modern sport sedan ever created, with a perfectly balanced chassis and a suspension setup so flawlessly taut yet compliant that it is as if the boys from Bavaria commissioned David Blaine to design the front-strut/rear multilink setup.
We didn't so much drive as fly down the curvy road of our test loop; the car provided equal parts of daredevil confidence and sheer exhilaration. With the stiffened componentry of the sport suspension package, such as that on our test car, the Bimmer is as equally at home commuting back and forth as it is on the racetrack. Overengineered? Perhaps, but you never stop appreciating it.
And that incredible engine...the inline six makes the sweetest exhaust note this side of $50,000, a symphony of whirrs and growls that seductively implore you to push it harder. And power delivery of the 3.0-liter powerplant? The double-VANOS valve timing system ensures that the 225 ponies and 215 foot-pounds of thrust are delivered seamlessly; it's like cutting through the purest rendered goosefat. OK, this probably only appeals to foodies, but hopefully it connotes an image of creamy smoothness.
Even though it has less displacement and outlook than our victor, it still trailed the Acura by a mere 0.1 seconds in the 0-to-60-mph acceleration run and ran the quarter-mile at the same speed and time. It was outhandled in the slalom run by the wiry Lexus, running at 63.8 mph, but still posted an excellent number. And, doggone it, it's just a much more attractive car; its design earned perfect 10s across the board, save for one 9. Wrapped in festive Bright Red paint, it was truly the prom queen of this boutique crowd.
The five-speed automatic isn't a compromise, even for performance-lovers. It shifts exactly when the driver thinks it should without missing a beat. In manual mode, correctly placed on the driver side with an up-down engagement, it engages slightly slower than the E-Shift of the Lexus IS 300, but otherwise, this is pretty much a perfect example of how an automanual transmission should behave.
The BMW 3 Series achieved iconic status as the entry-level luxury sport sedan in the mid-80s, and since then, everyone else has been playing catch-up.. For that, the automotive world will be eternally beholden. In its base form, it's already chock-full of luxuriousness; however, getting it gussied up to match the superficial gee-whiz factor of some of the others in the test requires a pretty penny. If you have the means, the BMW offers a no-compromises package. Simply put, this is the best car in the class.
Technical Editor Miles Cook says:
What can possibly be stated about the current 3 Series BMW that hasn't already been said in terms of praise? You've heard it all before, and it nevertheless applies to our Bright Red tester.
All the superlatives still hold true. Flawless in-line six? Still there. Unflappable suspension and brakes? No problem. Upper-crust materials and build quality? Haven't gone anywhere. Beautiful shape and German-marque cachet? Nothing's changed here. Perfectly weighted steering? Yeah sure, umm, oh wait a second. Nothing stays perfect forever.
While the BMW 330i remains one of the finest driving cars in the world with its 225-horsepower engine (only 15 less than the previous generation M3), it has been knocked off its perch a little bit by the Acura TL, now an outstanding car in its own right. While the Bimmer's steering is a little less wonderful than it used to be, I'd still be mighty happy with this 3 and almost call the lighter steering a wash when you get those truly stunning 17-inch sport package wheels instead. Make mine a strippo in light blue, with a five-speed manual and the sport package, and I'd have nice day for the rest of my days.
Senior Editor Brent Romans says:
Wow. What a great car. As we were conducting this test, I realized that there were two groups of cars: There were the cars you had to drive because they were in the test, and there were the cars you wanted to drive. Of the latter group, the BMW stood above the rest, a Bright Red buoy in a sea of Light Parchment Golds and Millennium Silver Metallics.
The 330i accelerates hard, brakes hard and gleefully romps through corners. The steering, though not as good as the 2000 328i's, is still excellent. If you like to drive, get this car with the manual transmission and sport package. You won't regret your buying decision.
Now, having said that, let me temper my enthusiasm a little by bringing up the prickly issue of price. From a sporting standpoint, I think the IS 300 is a better deal. It provides an almost equal amount of driving pleasure as the 330i, and you can pick one up for just a tad over $30,000. The 330i is going to cost at least five grand more. And if you like to drive, enjoy a nicely appointed interior and want to stick to a low-cost budget, the Acura TL Type-S is superior to the BMW in my opinion.
My advice? If you don't mind spending the extra cash, go with the BMW.
Editor-in-Chief Christian Wardlaw says:
If Webster's defined the phrase "entry-level luxury sport sedan," a photo of the 2001 BMW 3 Series would certainly accompany the entry. Those crafty Bavarians have imbued the taut and muscular Three with all the necessary ingredients, and enough variation on the theme, to make any consumer shopping for this kind of car happy.
What attracts me to the Bimmer, aside from its incredible ability to connect the driver to the road, is its no-nonsense demeanor. Everything about the car is deliberate and purposeful. Nothing is done in excess. Restraint is key to class, and the BMW is the classiest car in this bunch.
It's also among the most fun to drive, though I'm saddened by the low-effort steering BMW installed to appease buyers more interested in parking at the mall than clipping apexes. On the highway, the Three is downright twitchy. In the twisties, the steering becomes more natural, but still can't match last year's perfect combination of heft, responsiveness and road feel. It's a shame that the creators of the "Ultimate Driving Machine" have apparently lost sight of the company's performance-oriented mission. What's next? The Ultimate Shopping Machine? Oh, wait. That's the contradictory X5.
Thankfully, the rest of the hardware package is nearly perfect. The inline six engine delivers plenty of power throughout the rev range, always smooth, always silky, and with an intoxicating high-rpm shriek that I can't get enough of. The automatic transmission is a joy, though its Sportshift manual mode isn't as responsive as what is found in the Lexus. Brakes are strong, and the sport-tuned suspension represents a decent compromise between ride quality and handling.
Manually adjustable seats on a car nearing $40,000 is ludicrous, but once I got them set properly, they were perfectly comfortable for all kinds of driving. I greatly appreciated the extending driver's bottom cushion and tilt feature, which, in combination with the tilt/telescoping steering wheel, made finding a proper driving position simple.
Despite my issue with the steering and some minor faults associated with cabin ergonomics (primarily steering wheel control markings and climate control operation), the BMW is my pick of this litter. The car exudes style, quality and capability. It's the best car to drive fast on a country road, the best car for a long-distance road trip and the best car in which to cruise Sunset Boulevard. The 330i can do it all.
And if you want it to do it all, but for less money, choose the 325i.
Stereo Evaluation - 2001 BMW 330i
Ranking in stereo test: Third
System Score: 7.25
Components: This stereo represents a marked improvement over BMW's previous efforts in this area. However, some people will quibble with this statement. They will say this system sounds "dull" or "flat" or "unexciting." While they might not be too far from wrong, let me qualify a few things here. There's more to music and to life than pizzazz and sizzle, crash and boom that is, bass and treble. As I view this system, it falls perfectly into the bloodlines of this fine Bavarian machine, which hails from a continent with a centuries-old tradition of classical music and opera. The European home loudspeaker manufacturers both on the continent and in Great Britain have been known for decades for designing some of the "flattest" speakers in the world. In this case, flatness isn't necessarily a bad thing, since we're referring to the linearity or accuracy of a loudspeaker and its ability to reproduce, without coloration, the signal it receives from the amplifier. Anyone who's driven a BMW down a winding mountain road can appreciate accuracy.
The system in this car begins with a classy-looking faceplate that offers clean German lines and the essence of simplicity. Controls are widely spaced and accessible, with a welcome absence of clutter. The emphasis here is on function and not frills. The radio offers 12 FM and six AM presets, along with a single-play CD player and the usual tone controls, balance/fade and the like. The positioning of the radio in the dash is superb, giving the operator excellent access and control. The steering wheel also has audio controls, including volume up/down and seek/scan.
Speakers include a pair of 6.5-inch mid-bass drivers in the front doors coupled to some very nicely positioned tweeters in the upper door trim. A second set of tweeters graces the rear quarter-panels in back. Lastly, a pair of 6.5-inch full-range speakers occupy the rear deck.
Performance: This system is full of warmth, richness and plays pretty loud, too. Bass is impressive; highs smooth and silky. Most instruments come through naturally. Drums have a good kick, sax is open and lifelike, acoustic strings are intricate and detailed. The entire frequency range is reproduced with accuracy and precision.
Best Feature: Accuracy of sound quality.
Worst Feature: Absence of a CD changer.
Conclusion: This is a great system for someone who listens not only to pop and rock but also to classical, opera or jazz.
First Place - 2002 Acura TL Type-S
So here we have it, the victor of our nine-car comparison extravaganza. We were all taken aback by the Acura TL Type-S' high placement; we knew that it would do well, we just didn't know it would do so well. But when the bazillions of numbers were crunched, we had a winner, albeit by the wispiest sliver of a margin: half a percent.
Ultimately, it came down to the question of price. The TL, equipped with the only option available, the navigation system, was the second least expensive vehicle in the test, a mere $330 more than our last-place finisher, the Mazda Millenia S. In all other categories, the Acura trailed the BMW, but, ultimately, its price advantage created an insurmountable hurdle which nudged it over the obvious choice. It simply made us an offer we couldn't refuse.
But don't take this to mean that having the Acura as the winner is tantamount to putting Fredo in charge of the Corleone family. The TL is an excellent vehicle on its own, and very few drivers begrudged its victory. Introduced in 1996 as a replacement for the Vigor, it was, as it is now, based on Honda's global midsize platform, even with its 1998 redesign.
To quantify its Type-S performance badging, the intake and exhaust of the TL's 3.2-liter V6 was fiddled with to make 260 horsepower and 232 foot-pounds of torque, the most powerful of the class. Not only did it provide the quickest 0-to-60-mph time of 6.6 seconds, it also tied with the BMW for a quarter-mile time of 15.1 seconds at 93.6 mph. Its bellow accentuated the press of the throttle, and its off-the-line power was potent enough to chirp the tires every time, but power delivery wasn't as smooth as in the European cars.
Acura engineers also stiffened the front and rear springs and shocks and increased the stiffness of the rear antiroll bar. It wasn't enough to prevent after-dip bobbing on the freeway, but we certainly noted that body roll was lessened compared to the regular TL. Overall, we got a sense of a taut, controlled ride, exhibiting competence in all driving conditions except for the most rigorous ones. For a fairly heavy car of 3,553 pounds, the front and rear double wishbone suspension managed the weight exceedingly well. While the car wasn't as eminently tossable in corners as the Lexus or BMW, Senior Editor Brent Romans concluded that "For dual purpose usage, the TL Type-S is the best driver in the group."
The Type-S' steering was tightened, too, a good thing since one of our complaints about the regular TL is its overboosted rack. It still lacks the telepathic qualities of the 330 or the IS 300, and oftentimes torque steer, that hobgoblin of front-wheel-drive cars, invaded true point-and-shoot directness. Most of our drivers noted that turn-in isn't as quick as with some of the others in the test, requiring mid-turn steering corrections on switchbacks.
The package rides on 215/50 Michelin Pilot HX MXM4s mounted on 17-inch wheels, which howled excessively at low and moderate speeds. They provided plenty of grip, although one editor mentioned that 225s would be more fitting for a 260-horsepower car. Halting the car is a four-disc setup with ventilated rotors on the drive wheels.
Braking left itself open to criticism, with nearly all of our editors finding that it lacked pedal feel and felt weaker than need be. This is substantiated by performance track numbers of 129 feet needed to stop from 60 mph, one foot less than the worst performer. We've noticed lately that many Honda products in our comparison tests (save for the precocious S2000) have shown undistinguished performance in terms of brakes; they come in mid-pack or closer to last. Have we found Honda's Achilles' heel? However, we were mollified by the inclusion of Vehicle Stability Control (VSA) with the Type-S package.
What most editors consider to be a weakness is the Acura's exterior styling, earning average scores of 6s. It lacks the assertive, distinctive lines of some of the other beauties in the test, but overall, it's a clean, cohesive design. The twin tailpipes perk up the derriere, but most preferred the grouped twin exhaust outlet of the BMW.
Inside, standard perforated leather covers the seats, but we could see how Acura undercuts its competitors by the quality of the materials. Many found the profuse use of wood-patterned plastic aesthetically offensive, and the decal labels on some switches and glossy plastics used for the area surrounding the vents screamed "Honda Parts Bin!" The steering wheel tilts but doesn't telescope, and only the driver-side window is auto-down. For the other panes of side glass, as well as the sunroof, you'll just have to keep your finger on the switch instead of the steering wheel. No head protection system exists, even as an option, and you don't get a full-sized spare tire. Most of the switchgear was affixed with enough care and attention that we knew we were driving a Japanese car.
The only option that Acura offers is the DVD-based navigation system, which is easy to use, but lacks the gee-whiz factor of Infiniti's pop-up display system. Standard are seat heaters and heated mirrors, xenon headlamps, as well as the excellent and much-appreciated in-dash six-disc changer.
The Acura is one of the biggest cars in the test; at 192.5 inches, it's 16 inches longer than the BMW, the shortest. Accordingly, there's goodly enough room for passengers, although the Lincoln, Cadillac and Infiniti excelled in this regard. Rear-seat passengers found space to be average, with enough headroom and 35 inches of legroom tolerable enough for comfort, but missed having headrests.
It also provides the second deepest and largest trunk of the group with 14.3 cubic feet of cargo space, with the DVD navigation machine appropriately mounted at the top of the trunk. The TL comes with a ski pass-through, but its Honda lineage is apparent in the gooseneck hinges. A cargo net and storage bins organize your belongings, and a large opening facilitates loading and unloading of cargo.
The 2002 Acura TL Type-S is an all-around solid car, with no deficiencies anywhere, but elicits explanations of compromise in both directions. It's not the most luxurious vehicle, nor is it the sportiest. The BMW and Lexus provide greater visceral thrills, and the BMW, Mercedes and Volvo are more luxurious.
But dollar for dollar, it offers a terrific value, and unless you're a die-hard driving enthusiast or you hale from an old-world aristocratic clan with a penchant for opulence, we'd have no trouble recommending the Acura TL Type-S as the best entry-level luxury sport sedan.
Senior Road Test Editor Neil Dunlop says:
Many of my fellow editors raved about this car, but I couldn't see what all the fuss was about. Sure, the all-aluminum 3.2-liter 24-valve VTEC V6 produces a whopping 260 horsepower, but the ripping starts seemed to give way to lackadaisical power delivery as the engine moved through its powerband. And the five-speed automanual transmission was at times too eager to upshift and at other times seemed reluctant. The SportShift function allowed for greater control, but the TL's shiftgate is one of the most confusing layouts I've ever seen. Combined with the special red-lettered "Type-S" shift knob, the shiftgate may look cool, but it's way overdone.
The steering and suspension seemed light and not terribly communicative. However, what they lacked in road feel they more than made up for in decisiveness and handling. The 3.2 TL does not balk in the twists, but revels in hard driving. But how much of your driving is performed at this level?
The Acura's wedge-like body shape lends it an aggressive element, otherwise it's pretty pedestrian in its typical sedan-ness. Like if you asked a kid to draw a car, this is what they would come up with.
Inside, I still couldn't muster any enthusiasm for the TL. The seat bolsters provided good lateral support, but the chair back gave way when pushed upon hard. And, overall, the perforated leather seats are not shaped enough to qualify as sport seats. In addition, the rear seating is tight. Headroom is limited due to the body's wedge shape and the seatbacks don't fold down for long cargo.
Switchgear quality is sufficient. The climate controls are as simple as it gets, and the instrument cluster is attractively metal-faced. However, there's ugly black and gray wood trim all over the cabin that needs to go. Fake carbon-fiber patterned plastic would look much better and make more sense in this modern machine.
Senior Editor Brent Romans says:
As paid professionals, we editors at Edmunds.com always strive to be as objective as possible when it comes to reviewing cars. Comparison tests are perhaps the ultimate expression of that objectivity, as editors' personal biases are balanced out and statistical scoring (such as performance and price) plays a large role in determining the winner. Which makes me all the more happy to see the Acura TL Type-S end up on top.
Why? When I go home at night and take off my Edmunds thinking cap, I'm a fan of Honda. The company has a strong vision and an admirable desire to push technology to its limits. It is active in nearly all types of motorsport and builds products ranging from lawnmowers to sport bikes to world-class sports cars.
Speaking of which, the TL's output of 260 horsepower is only 10 less than what the early '90s Acura NSX produced. Combine that engine with a solid chassis, a high count of luxury features and a budget price, and you've got your winner.
Editor-in-Chief Christian Wardlaw says:
This is a car every buyer in this segment should at least drive before making a final purchase decision. Like other Honda products, it doesn't necessarily excel in any given category, but it scores high enough across the board to be quite appealing. At less than $34K fully-loaded (just $32K if you skip the navigation system), it cannot be beat when factoring in feature content and performance for the price.
The Type-S, despite its front-wheel-drive configuration, is genuinely fun to drive. It grips the road well in both the wet and the dry, and accelerates with verve. So much power is on tap that it's extremely easy to engage the traction control off the line. Acura's SportShift transmission works well enough, and the gate is on the driver side, within easy reach. But the main gate, which twists back and forth between gears, makes it hard to shift smoothly. As far as I can tell, the brakes on this car are superior to those on the CL Type-S we tested a few months ago, the steering light enough for the luxury portion of the equation and incorporating enough road feel to satisfy enthusiasts. Ride quality is quite good, too.
Inside, it's too easy to see the cost-cutting that keeps this Acura's price low, from the sticky labels for some switches to the sunroof that fails to open with a touch of the button to steering wheel controls that aren't lit at night to overhead grab handles that don't thwap back against the headliner when they are released. But all the luxury basics are in attendance, from seat heaters to Bose audio. The car is quite comfortable, easy to see out of and easy to drive.
Finally, this car takes too much heat for looking dull. I think this is one sharp-looking car, and not just because of its angular lines. From the sexy twin exhaust outlets to the bold five-spoke wheels to the newly aggressive front styling, the TL is cohesive and attractive. Inside, the TL exhibits more clutter than is usual for a Honda product, but the cockpit-style dash and three round gauge binnacles make sure you aren't going to mistake the TL for an Accord.
If the 3 Series didn't exist, this would be my favorite.
Stereo Evaluation - 2002 Acura TL Type-S
Ranking in stereo test: Second
System Score: 8.0
Components: This Bose system is another example of Honda's exemplary ergonomics. It's amazing how many different Honda and Acura products we see in the course of a year, and yet their cars almost always have this wonderful user-friendliness, an intuitive feel that sometimes makes us think that the designers can read our minds.
The system starts off with a classy head unit that's the essence of simplicity and function. In addition to offering both a cassette player and a built-in six-disc CD changer, it boasts an exceptionally logical topography that guides the user effortlessly from one control to the next. It's very artfully done. All controls are oversized, with ample spacing between; and better still, primary functions, such as tuning and volume control, offer even larger knobs for ease of location and use. This is, by far, the most well thought-out head unit in this test.
There's only one thing wrong with this head unit: its position. Because of the in-dash navigation screen, the head unit is very low in the dash, causing the user perhaps to take her eyes off the roadway momentarily when adjusting functions. But again, with the magical design of this radio, many of those functions can be accomplished by feel.
The speakers add further to the quality of this system. They include a pair of 1-inch dome tweeters in the front doors mated to a pair of 6.5-inch mid-bass drivers below. The rear doors offer a second pair of 6.5-inch speakers, this time configured for full-range sound. The piece de resistance is an 8-inch subwoofer centered along the rear deck.
Performance: Honda's done a couple of wise things here. For one, the amplifier incorporates volume limiting, meaning the system has a kind of electronic "governor" placed in the signal path. This means the user can crank the system full bore and still not create distortion that could potentially damage the speakers. Also, the sound quality is impressive. You would tend to think that the Bose setup in this Acura would sound about the same as the other Bose systems in this test, and yet it sounds much better. Don't know why. Whether this has to do with extra tuning the Honda and Bose engineers have done, or different interior materials, or unusual speaker placements, I can't say; but there's a definite difference.
Best Feature: A wonder in ergonomics; truly world-class.
Worst Feature: Tweeters positioned a little low in the doors.
Conclusion: Considering this vehicle, as tested, is the cheapest car in the test, the audio system if not the entire car is a real bargain. It represents a great value for the consumer.
Luxury sport sedans are the embodiment of most of our editors' automotive ideals. They have plenty of kit to keep us entertained, indulgent interiors to remind us (well, at least those who could afford these cars) that we're materialistically successful, capable driving dynamics to soothe our inner Speed Racer and functional rear seats to bring along friends and family for the ride.
After a grueling two-week test, we learned that the best luxury sedans combine all of the above elements into one desirable package. All of the cars had some combination of the above, but two stood out over the rest as the best, most complete amalgamation: the BMW 330i and the Acura TL Type-S.
And it's not just a cosa nostra. We're pleased to observe that this particular segment of the car market is growing, with more and more people discovering that driving thrills aren't limited to tiny sports cars, nor is luxury limited to lumbering palanquins.
We promise you this. Within the next year or so, the new Audi A4 will be available, and the eagerly awaited Jaguar X-Type will seek to make a dent in this class. The Infiniti will be revised, and Cadillac is introducing a replacement for the Catera. We'll have another fisticuffs to see which one is worth your hard-earned dollars.
Until then, buona notte.