2002-2003 Entry-Level Luxury Sport Sedans Comparison Test

  • Full Review
  • Pricing & Specs
  • Road Tests (1)
  • Comparison (1)
  • Long-Term

2003 Cadillac CTS Sedan

(3.2L V6 5-speed Manual)

  • Comparison Test
  • Top 10 Features
  • Editors' Evaluations
  • Consumer Commentary
  • Final Rankings and Scoring Explanation

Remember the movie Scent of a Woman, starring Al Pacino and Chris O'Donnell? There's a scene where Pacino's character, a blind military veteran named Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade, manages to procure a Ferrari Mondial Cabriolet for a test drive with his caretaker, O'Donnell's Charlie Simms, acting as his eyes. After they both jump into the cockpit, Slade tries to allay Charlie's fears about riding shotgun with a fired-up blind man at the controls by stating, "You never forget the feel of a Ferrari." And indeed, Slade does a generally fine job of piloting the prancing horse, running the gearshifter through its metal gates as he bombs down several backstreets with Charlie telling him when to slow down, turn and stop.

In a way, that's how a good sport sedan should be, familiar and communicative to the driver.

It seems like just last year we held a similar comparison test. Oh, wait a minute, it was just last year. Our 2001 Entry-Level Luxury Sport Sedan Test had nine cars and the Acura TL Type-S barely edged out the class favorite, the BMW 330i, for the win. But since then, four new players have jumped into the game: Audi's redesigned 2002 A4, Cadillac's 2003 CTS, Infiniti's 2003 G35 and Jaguar's 2002 X-Type, though the last car was not available at the time of this test. As is customary when we conduct a comparison test, we have the winner of the last comparo defend its title by going up against the newest rivals, which can either be a new model or a redesigned existing model.

As BMW addressed our major gripes with the 2001 car — namely a skimpy-for-the-price-tag standard features list and over-assisted steering — we invited it back for another chance. And the new kids? Audi's A4 has grown up a little, looking more like its big brother, the A6, than its entry-level car. Cadillac's CTS sports daring sheet metal and improved dynamics over its Catera precursor. And Infiniti's G35 is taking a serious stab at the 3 Series, what with a rear-drive chassis propelled by a potent V6.

This year, we decided to have two comparison tests to separate the luxury sedans from the luxury sport sedans. With this test being for the latter, we kept our emphasis on the driving enjoyment part of the equation, rather than weighing driving dynamics and luxury equally, as in the past.

Far from being just a "drive 'em and cast your votes" process, our comparison test protocol involves performance testing at the track, driving the vehicles back to back on identical road loops and subjecting them to the less glamorous duties of running errands and rush-hour commuting. Afterwards, we calculate all manner of scores, dealing with everything from performance to rear seat comfort. And once the numbers are crunched, we celebrate by fighting over the merits of each car at a pizza and beer celebration. Relax, we're kidding about the last part…it's actually burgers and beer.

Fifth Place - 2003 Cadillac CTS

In our last test of luxury sport sedans, the 2001 Cadillac Catera finished eighth out of nine cars. Though the German Opel-derived Caddy possessed commendable handling, its mediocre acceleration and braking performances effectively torpedoed it, relegating it to a back-of-the-pack finish. For 2003, Cadillac replaced the Catera (there was no 2002 model) with the CTS. Now fitted with a manual gearbox and boasting a suspension that was developed on Germany's Nurburgring racetrack (the same venue used by Porsche), Cadillac hopes its new entry-level sport sedan will attract buyers who would otherwise never consider a vehicle wearing the wreath and crest.

Eschewing the generic styling theme of the Catera, the CTS employs the creased avant-garde design of Cadillac's concept cars. We're not big fans of it, as we find the light clusters and the surface contours of the hood and deck lid especially awkward. It tends to grow on you though, as more than one editor made that comment. We do give Cadillac credit for being daring and not playing it safe by going with a more tepid shape.

The angular school of design was employed for the cabin as well, seen mostly in the door panels and the steering wheel. The center stack is angled toward the driver, a nice touch, but its bulbous form clashes with the rest of the dash. Interior materials, although not exactly cheap, paled in comparison to those of the A4 and 330i. On the bright side, most of the controls (including those on the steering wheel) are large and intuitive. The stereo display featured call-outs for each preset, a good idea although the station numbers are on the small side.

Seating comfort wasn't a strong point, as the front buckets placed last in that category. A few drivers felt they lacked sufficient lumbar support, and although one of our larger testers (more than 6 feet and 220 pounds) liked the big chairs, they were judged too wide by most of our staff and unable to properly hold one in place during cornering maneuvers. The back seat fared better, but even though the CTS had the most space back there (its 37 inches of legroom beats the Audi by three inches) it wasn't as comfortable as the TL and G35, which both had superior contouring and support.

With 20 more horsepower, a manual transmission and 300 less pounds to lug around than the Catera it replaces, the CTS promised better performance. We're happy to report that it did just fine at the track, running to 60 mph in 6.9 seconds and dispatching the quarter-mile in 15.3 ticks, good enough to beat the Audi and the Acura. Like the A4 (rated at an identical 220 hp), the CTS is a little soft off the line but pulls nicely once the tach needle sees 4,000 rpm. We were pleased with the Caddy's gearshifter, as it has a lever that boasts a solid, precise action, though it can be a bit notchy at times. A short stroke clutch with a smooth and linear take-up made moving out and changing gears a breeze. The brakes also did the car proud, stopping the CTS from 60 mph in just over 118 feet, again putting the Caddy midpack. But as we've said before, oftentimes numbers don't tell the whole story, and so it is with the CTS' brakes. Though powerful, they lost points for a nonlinear action that made them feel grabby until you got used to them.

Putting that time in at the Nurburgring paid off, as the CTS was generally enjoyable to pilot when the road turned curvy. Body roll was minimal and the car felt stable when pressed. In fact, for a relatively big car (compared to the A4 and 330i), its composure through the twisties was impressive. However, ride quality seemed to suffer more when subjected to pockmarked pavement, and the stability control system (which can't be turned off) tended to cut in when it wasn't yet needed, leaving you down on power when exiting a corner. Good as it is, the CTS just didn't have the optimum combination of handling and ride the leaders exhibited.

Competition in this arena is stiff; a car can't be pretty good in most areas and only fair in others and expect to do well. The top finishers in this comparison were strong in all significant areas. With next year slated to bring a more potent V6, a redesigned interior and a smoking V8 model to the CTS, it could be a major player in this league, but for now it must ride the pine while the big boys take the field.

SECOND OPINIONS:

Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says:
I really wanted this car to succeed. Sure it handles well, but the sheer size of the car keeps it from ever feeling nimble. The steering is still a little vague, and the stability control system intrusive, but there's still plenty of fun to be had. If there's any one area that really holds this car back it would have to be the interior. It's not terrible, but it's not great either. The design isn't anything to write home about and the materials could use some help as well. Why Cadillac missed the mark so badly on this one is beyond me, but until it makes some major improvements in this area, the CTS will be forever resting at the back of the pack.

Road Test Editor Liz Kim says:
In a class full of "desirable" cars that seem to have decreased in purely aesthetic appeal rather than increase, it is at least refreshing to see a car that starts out kind of ugly in the hopes that it'll grow on you. And the CTS did, sort of the way Steven Tyler of Aerosmith grows on you while he wails into the mike. Cadillac deserves kudos for creating something so monumentally different. In terms of the driving experience, it feels heavy — with steering that requires some muscle — and its size makes it lack the nimbleness of any of its other competitors. Still, you're able to drive it fast down a curvy canyon road with a semblance of spirit should you decide that flogging was required, thanks to its wide tires and capable suspension. However its subpar build quality and interior materials left me cold and seeking more capable sedans. I don't think it was Cadillac's intent to be the Charlie Brown of the automotive world, but once again it's had the ball snatched out from under it.

Senior Road Test Editor Brent Romans says:
Pity the Cadillac CTS. Like an unfortunate soul who steps off a curb and gets whacked by a city bus, the Caddy sauntered into a comparison test it had no hope of winning. Look what it went up against: two German powerhouses — one completely redesigned (the A4) and the other considered the best in class (the 3 Series) — and two octane-sniffing Japanese sedans with fire-sale price tags. That's it. If it had competed in our 2001 Entry Level Luxury Sport Sedan Test, the CTS would have at least had the Mazda Millenia, Lincoln LS and Infiniti I35 to kick around. A midpack finish would have been within reach. Not so with this test. It doesn't seem quite right to pat the CTS on the back and say, "Too bad, kid. Better luck next time." I like the car. I've even warmed up to the exterior styling. But until something changes, the CTS comes up short.

Stereo Evaluation - 2003 Cadillac CTS

Ranking in Test: Fifth

System Score: 6.0

Components: Is it ugly or not? We're not sure. But it sure is different.

The center stack of Cadillac's new CTS looks like something out of The Jetsons, all angles and plastic fantastic. We're guessing consumers will either love or hate the look, with little in between. Ensconced in the center stack is a Bose stereo, a healthy-sounding system with a very different look. The controls present a wide topography to the user, with a large gap separating the round knobs for volume and tuning. Sitting between those knobs you'll find a funky orange LCD display, a cassette player and six-disc in-dash CD changer, "personalization" buttons which allow the user to customize the system to his or her own settings and an array of knobs and rocker-panels to do just that. To call this system "distinctive" may be stretching it a bit, but it sure is unusual.

Speakers include an 8-inch Bose subwoofer on the back deck, 6.5-inch full-range drivers in the rear doors, another pair of 6.5-inch drivers in the front doors rolled off to perform in the midbass range and a pair of one-inch dome tweeters in the A-pillars.

Performance: As weird as it looks, it sounds pretty good. This is a system for someone who really likes to thump the bass. We found bass response tight and wide, with great attack on kick drum and snare. Mids showed good detail, too, although the high frequencies struck us as unnaturally hot and bright. Horns, likewise, sounded grainy and hollow, female vocals blaring and raspy. The bottom line: This is a great system for someone who likes peg the bass and crank it up all the way. For those with more refined tastes, they'll find more enjoyment in some of the other systems in this test.

Best Feature: Great bass response.

Worst Feature: Strange design; unrefined sound.

Conclusion: If you're into rock, pop or hip-hop, you'll love this system. If your tastes run to softer sounds, this system will probably annoy the heck out of you. Either way you look at it, it sure is different. — Scott Memmer

Fourth Place - 2003 Infiniti G35

When Infiniti trained its sights on the 3 Series, it felt that nothing less than a dedicated sport sedan would do. A more firmly sprung, front-drive I35 wouldn't cut it, hence the new rear-drive G35. A few years ago, Lexus launched a similar attack on the 3 with its IS 300 sedan, another fine handling rear driver.

Look at the G35 and you'd never know that it's more aerodynamic than most sports cars. Sure it looks relatively sleek for a sedan, but its low 0.27 coefficient of drag (Cd) along with zero degrees of front lift make it among the slipperiest things on four wheels. As if that's not enough, an optional aerodynamic package lowers that Cd further to 0.26 and adds the benefit of zero degrees of rear lift. What this means in the real world is that, at higher speeds, the car is more stable and quiet. And yet this is accomplished in stealth fashion — no big front air dam or giant wings. That's because like certain other car companies, such as Lexus and Ferrari, Infiniti paid a lot of attention to the underside of the car, smoothing it out so that turbulence and lift are minimized or eliminated entirely.

Although its wheelbase, at 112.2 inches, was the second longest in the group, the Infiniti was one of the lightest cars in the test, only a scant 84 pounds more than the considerably smaller 330i. And let's be fair, that's not even apples to apples; had that BMW been an automatic, like the G35, it would've weighed four pounds more.

Inevitably, whenever one of our drivers jumped into the G35 for their turn behind the wheel, he'd grope for the power seat controls and come up empty-handed. Then he'd notice that the buttons are right on the seat, near the right-side bolster. If you've got big hands, you'll appreciate this as you won't have to squeeze your left mitt between the door and seat to make the adjustments. Another logical interior feature is the way the instrument binnacle moves with the steering wheel when the wheel is tilted up and down. However, the steering wheel doesn't telescope.

A waterfall-style center stack adds to the clean, high-tech look of the cabin, and we liked the large and well-spaced secondary controls on the steering wheel. But not everyone cared for the climate control's display. Located in a seemingly logical spot up high on the dash, the readout is too far away from the controls themselves, requiring one to look from one to the other when making adjustments.

Placing third in front-seat comfort, the pilot and copilot chairs were generally deemed comfy and supportive, though one driver wished for a greater range of lumbar adjustment. A well-contoured seat along with gobs of room for feet, shoulders and heads made the G35's rear quarters second only to the TL for top rear-seat comfort honors.

Characterized by a strong pull right off the bat that continues to the tach's redline, the G35's powerful yet polished V6 earned kudos all around. In terms of outright performance, only one car beat the G at the track, the 330i. But remember that the BMW had the advantage of a manual transmission. An automatic 330i we tested previously had identical 0-60 mph and quarter-mile times (6.7 and 15.1 seconds, respectively) as this G35, so yes, the Infiniti can hustle with the best of 'em.

Much like the Acura, the G35's automanual gearbox did fine on its own, providing crisp, alert shifts, but when worked by hand, the shifts didn't occur as quickly as the lever was flicked. When it came time to haul it down, we discovered a touchy brake pedal that took some getting used to. A stopping distance of 129 feet was so-so in this group, although in a previous test, the G35 produced an astounding 111-foot effort. Though in practice the brakes felt strong and didn't fade when put to task in the canyons.

Most comments pertaining to the G35's suspension were complimentary: "Flat and precise in the corners," wrote one driver, while another stated, "Rough pavement doesn't upset the chassis." The G's stability control system, dubbed VDC (Vehicle Dynamic Control) goes about its business in a unobtrusive fashion. Shut off the system, however, and the rear end can get loose when pressing hard. With nearly a 50/50 front-to-rear weight balance the G35 possesses a quick response. Though the steering feel is lighter than we expected, the precise action was appreciated by our team of enthusiasts. Still, something was missing, that indefinable soul of a righteous sport sedan that makes the car feel like an extension of your body. Even though our car was equipped with the Sport-Tuned Suspension Package, bumps were absorbed without any trace of harshness transmitted to our backsides.

Less than two points prevented the G from making a three-way tie for second place, so it almost doesn't seem fair to say it came in fourth. Like the Acura, you get a lot for your money with the G35, along with fine build quality and Infiniti's reputation for quality product and great service. If a bargain sport sedan purchase is your goal, this new Infiniti certainly has the goods to mandate its place on your "to drive" list.

SECOND OPINIONS:

Road Test Editor Neil Dunlop says:
What is all the fuss about? The Infiniti G35 has been a media darling, receiving accolades and finishing ahead of perennial leaders such as the BMW 3 Series and Audi A4 in comparisons at other auto mags. I think it's unwarranted. Sure it's got a lot going for it: unique exterior styling, especially the radical front end; a creamy 260-horsepower V6; a seamlessly shifting automatic transmission; and more grip than peanut butter on the roof of my dog's mouth. Also, it was the least expensive vehicle in our test, with a sticker $7,090 less than the BMW 330i. But, there's something missing. Let's call it harmony. I never felt at one with this car. At low speeds the steering is overboosted and at high speeds it feels a little numb. As a result, I never truly became part of the driving experience. And, while it boasts the highest horsepower in our test (shared with the Acura), it wasn't apparent. The breakaway speed I expected was missing, making me feel like I had missed a "full power" button or accidentally tripped a "reduce power" switch. Though the seats are comfortable, the modern sculpted interior fails to connect, leaving me feeling out of place in the cockpit. That's why this car, despite its attributes, finishes out of the top three for me.

Road Test Editor Liz Kim says:
The G35 is an earnest effort by Infiniti to get serious in the realm, and it almost succeeds. But like its Japanese competitors, the Lexus IS 300 and the Acura TL Type-S, while it's almost there, it is still a vehicle full of compromises. The cabin is much larger than that of the BMW, but its materials don't quite match up. Its engine is more powerful, but the rest of the drivetrain could use some more hours on the drawing board; its too-light steering and tail-happy chassis stifle the enjoyment on the road. It has some luxurious features, but many of them are optional. It's got a competitive price, but not enough of a price difference to negate all the "buts" that litter my opinion. The Infiniti is a compelling choice, just not the best one out there.

Senior Road Test Editor Brent Romans says:
The G35 reminds me of the Lexus IS 300. Both are relatively new designs. Both are from car companies that didn't exist 15 years ago. Both were obviously benchmarked against the BMW 3 Series. And, most importantly, both fall short of their intended target. The G35 isn't far off the mark, however. In terms of power and features, the Infiniti matches or betters every car in this test. Its price, too, is very competitive. I like the interior and the way it's designed, especially the pop-up navigation screen (though our car didn't have that option). But the interior materials aren't nearly as magnificent as the German cars, and the driving experience isn't as involving. Yet, in the big picture, these are relatively minor issues. If you're shopping in this segment and don't have the budget to drop $40,000, the G35 is probably your best choice.

Stereo Evaluation - 2003 Infiniti G35

Ranking in Test: Tied for second.

System Score: 7.0

Components: It still makes us scratch our heads a little that Nissan vehicles almost always have better stereos than their higher-priced Infiniti cousins. Why is this? The newly redesigned 2002 Altima, for instance, has a Bose system that'll loosen your fillings — and yet, it costs thousands less than any vehicle in the Infiniti line. Lexus and Acura both seem to have gotten a handle on the stereo thing, but Infiniti has lagged behind.

This may have begun to change. With the introduction of the Infiniti G35, Nissan's higher-priced cousin is showing some flair. Our test vehicle, which came with the $900 Bose step-up system, received high marks for sound quality and overall performance. While the system is far from perfect, it heralds a long-awaited day for Infiniti fans. Finally, a stereo in an Infiniti vehicle that sounds almost as good as a Nissan vehicle. What took you so long?

Speaker locations in this Bose setup include a pair of 6.5-inch full-range drivers in the rear doors, plus a second pair of 6.5-inch drivers — these rolled off to operate as midbass speakers — in the forward doors. A couple of tweeters are tucked just to the rear of the A-pillars in their own enclosures.

Electronics are a little more problematic. Although the Infiniti G35 has some of the best steering wheel controls we've seen, including seek-scan, volume, mode and power on-off, we quickly realized why this was so: it has one of the least user-friendly radios we've come across in quite a while. Not only are the controls clunky and cumbersome (the volume knob is a funky circular rocker panel that won't be on anyone's list of Ergonomics of the Year Award; so is the radio tuning dial), even worse, the head unit is located at the very bottom of the center stack. Our evaluation notes put it this way: "Radio is too low. When in Park or Reverse, the faceplate is obstructed; even in Drive it is still partially blocked." This is a shame because the radio offers all the essentials and then some, such as 18 presets, RDS, cassette and an in-dash six-disc CD changer.

Performance: Now for the good news. In spite of the funky electronics, this is one very good-sounding system. Lows are solid and punchy, mids present exceptional detail and depth and highs are smooth, with just a hint of brassiness at higher gain settings. Instrumentation really sings on this setup: acoustic strings and horns have a definite presence, and percussion is nimble and punchy. The 8-inch Bose sub in back delivers exceptional bass while at the same time not being overpowering. Overall, this system exemplifies superb acoustics, with a real-lifelike listenability.

Best Feature: Superb sound quality.

Worst Feature: Funky head unit placed too low in dash.

Conclusion: Maybe times have changed over at Infiniti. This is the first system we've seen from the company that would seem to indicate it plans to enter the fray and compete straight up with Lexus and Acura in the sound system arena. Even though we took heavy points off for the radio, the sound itself was right up there. — Scott Memmer

Second Place (tie) - 2002 Audi A4 3.0 quattro

In spite of not having "knock your socks off" performance stats, the A4 managed to place high in this comparison test due to its general competence. Heck, it placed last in the performance testing, yet it finished with a second-place tie. Have we lost our minds? No, read on and hopefully you'll have a better understanding of how even a bunch of gearheads like us can see beyond a stopwatch.

With this year's redesign, Audi super-sized the A4. Okay, maybe it's not exactly a Big Mac, but the car is slightly bigger than last year's model, with increases of 2.3 inches in overall length and 1.3 inches in wheelbase. With the large greenhouse and bobbed rear end, the A4 now resembles Audi's midsize A6. Although one editor preferred the previous version ("it flows better and is better proportioned"), most staffers liked the A4's new sheet metal.

Gorgeous interiors have been an Audi hallmark for quite a long time now, and the newest A4 maintains Audi's enviable reputation in this area. The combination of generous fillets of real wood, top-notch materials and beautiful fit and finish delighted three of our five senses. "Were it not for the smaller dimensions, I'd be convinced that this is the cabin of Audi's flagship, the A8," exclaimed one editor. Many upscale luxury features, such as dual-zone climate control, six-disc in-dash CD changer, four-way power lumbar adjustment and one-touch up-down windows all around are standard. Even some of the options seem like they belong in a more expensive class; our transplanted Bostonian editor thought the optional heated seats were trumps because even the rear seat had the bun warmers.

Despite the increase in wheelbase this year, accommodations in back are still relatively tight. Although there are three headrests and seatbelts back there, the seat is obviously contoured for two passengers. Like the BMW, the Audi is considerably smaller than the TL, G35 and CTS, all of which have wheelbases measuring anywhere from nearly four inches to nine inches longer than the German cars, which translates into more space for those riding in back.

Being the heaviest car in the group (at 3,627 pounds) and having one of the least powerful engines (at 220 horsepower, tied with the Caddy for last) put the A4 at a disadvantage during performance testing. Look at the hard numbers and you'll see the A4 got spanked by the top gun 330i, with the rest of the field falling in between the two German marque's times. We couldn't thumb our noses at the Audi's 7.4-second mph and 15.8-second quarter-mile acceleration times, as they're respectable. But driven back to back against the faster cars, such as the BMW or G35, we could feel the difference at low speeds, such as when driving in town. Wind it up, however, and the V6 hits its stride, furnishing a healthy midrange pull that makes it plenty energetic for passing or running through curvy roads.

We had mixed feelings about the six-speed tranny; Audi gearshifts typically have a precise yet somewhat rubbery action, and the A4's stick felt familiar, if not a little slicker through the gates than we expected. And though the clutch action was linear, one editor felt the pedal travel was a bit excessive.

Talking about braking performance isn't as exciting as discussing ripping acceleration, but there's no denying the importance of a solid set of binders. The A4 nearly matched the 330i's strong braking feat, posting a sub-118-foot effort, just one foot longer than the Bimmer's best. An easily modulated pedal and resistance to fade when driven hard also helped to land the stoppers in second place in this category.

We don't know how they do it, but for some reason German suspension engineers seem to be able to strike a near-perfect balance between a compliant ride and stuck-to-the-road handling. Aided by the transparent quattro all-wheel-drive system, the A4 encouraged smooth and rapid progress through the most challenging sections of our driving loop. Though not quite as razor sharp as the 330i, the A4 still possessed a composed attitude while making time in the canyons. A major asset is the A4's steering, as it's blessed with ideal weighting and a level of communication second only to the BMW. Put to the test at the slalom, the Audi burned all but the Bimmer, averaging 63.4 mph through the cones, just 0.2 mph slower than the 330i.

With its inviting cabin, solid build quality, fine handling dynamics and upscale features, the A4 is a well-rounded car that would be welcome in any of our garages.

SECOND OPINIONS:

Road Test Editor Neil Dunlop says:
The A4's sculpted exterior is beautiful and the interior displays typical Audi quality. Of all the cars in the test, I felt most secure and serene in the pleasant and efficient cabin. Everything is solid yet tactile, efficient yet warm and the top-quality materials are precisely machined and fitted. The 3.0-liter V6 is adequately powerful with good acceleration throughout the band, but it lacks torque. And it's brought down further by the six-speed manual transmission, which requires too much stirring for peak performance. Also the center armrest interferes with shifting, which makes the armrest unusable. Too bad, because that's where Audi moved the cupholders from the previous model — the only glitch in an otherwise class-leading interior. The firm chassis provides a wonderfully solid feel, but the suspension isn't as tight as I would like. This results in a great highway ride, but in a spongy feel in the curves. The steering is nicely weighted and provides a good feel for the road. The Audi is the only car in the comparison with all-wheel drive, which for some drivers may be a compelling reason to choose it over the other cars in the test. That feature, along with its excellent interior, highway comfort and high-quality feel put it second only to the BMW for me.

Road Test Editor Liz Kim says:
You would be hard pressed to find as luxurious a cabin as that of the Audi A4. From its expensive-feeling plastics and the real wood trim to the little details like red illumination that shines on your hand as you reach for controls and the illuminated footwells for the rear passengers, you're only left wondering where the steering wheel mounted controls are. Everything else is all built right in. The exterior styling has really grown on me, exuding more of a premium feel than the sharp pertness of the previous A4. Ultimately, though, it has yet to catch up to the BMW in terms of driving pleasure. While it retains its traditional German character, it's just a bit heavy, a bit underpowered, a bit wallowy and a bit numb. Either of the two Japanese sedans makes a fine competitor to the A4; it's just that the 330i wins over all of them.

Senior Road Test Editor Brent Romans says:
I scored the A4 highly in the 23-point evaluation portion of this test. I think that, for most people, the A4 will serve quite nicely as a small luxury sedan. But after driving the car and examining what it offers, I was left with a sense of disappointment. I think the feeling came about because the previous-generation A4 was such a quantum leap forward. Out of nowhere, Audi put forth this energetic, well-crafted and advanced sedan that finally banished the company's darker years. The new car doesn't do that. I'm not fond of the styling; I think the previous car looked better. The handling is nice but it's certainly not as good as the 330i's. Acceleration and horsepower are only average. This car's strengths — profound interior design, quality materials and a solid build quality — are great but don't do much for driving enjoyment, a key characteristic of a sport sedan. Of the cars in this test, I'd buy the Acura, BMW and Infiniti before the A4.

Stereo Evaluation - 2002 Audi A4 3.0 quattro

Ranking in Test: Tied for second.

System Score: 7.0

Components: The audio systems in Audi and Volkswagen vehicles have been some of our favorites in the last few years. They always seem to sound good, and are generally appointed with solid ergonomics. The two companies take a somewhat different approach to speaker placement than the rest of the industry. Instead of loading the back deck with hefty 6-by-9s or a second set of conical speakers, the Audi-VW folks opt for speakers in all four doors. This may seem odd to American consumers, who generally ascribe to the bigger-is-better philosophy; but if you stop to think about it, it makes a lot of sense. After all, home loudspeakers come in their own enclosures, and sound better because of it. A sealed or semisealed enclosure produces a partial vacuum, which in turn creates "speaker damping" — a design technology which improves communication between the amplifier and the speaker, in the process reducing the excursion or "throw" of the speaker cone. Not only does this improve sound, but it also increases the power-handling capabilities of the speaker. That, in short, is why Audi and VW audio systems sound so good.

The Bose setup in the Audi A4 begins with a nicely appointed head unit boasting 18 AM/18 FM presets, a cassette deck and a built-in six-disc CD changer. Surprise-and-delight features include round, ridged, detented knobs for both volume and tuning, a "mid" tone control for increased sonic flexibility, a wide topography with plenty of space between most controls and very good radio positioning in the upper-center portion of the dash. It also has a cool-looking red display that matches the rest of the interior controls. On the downside, the preset buttons are kinda dinky, making them hard to use; and, more glaring in their absence, the system lacks steering wheel controls for the stereo — the only vehicle of the five in the test not to have them.

Speakerwise, the vehicle has the identical setup in all four doors: a 6.5-inch midbass driver coupled to a one-inch dome tweeter. These sound pretty good by themselves, but the Bose folks have gone one better by positioning an 8-inch subwoofer on the back deck. No, this doesn't shoot holes in our statements above. The subwoofer is specifically designed to work in a "free air" environment, with built-in suspension that controls the excursion of the cone (essentially working as the vacuum would work in a speaker enclosure) and improving power-handling and speaker-amp communication.

Performance: This is a pretty good sounding system, overall. The door speakers produce a punchy and tight midbass attack, complemented in the lower frequencies by the 8-inch Bose subwoofer in the rear. Highs are clear and unsullied for the most part, although we did detect an unnatural hotness in the upper register. We also found horns just slightly grainy in the reproduction of saxophone, and we took off some points for the soundstage, which we felt could have been improved by better positioning of the tweeters. Aside from this, mids exhibited excellent definition and detail, and the overall sound of the system is quite good.

Best Feature: Ergonomic head unit.

Worst Feature: No steering wheel controls.

Conclusion: We liked this system quite a bit. Nevertheless, we took off points for soundstage problems, as well as a lack of steering wheel controls. It seems to us that a car in this price range should offer at least the rudimentary volume up-down and seek-scan controls on the steering wheel. After all, these features are commonly found in cars costing thousands less than the A4, and we missed having them in this otherwise solid system. — Scott Memmer

Second Place (tie) - Acura 3.2 TL Type-S

Back again after its victory in a similar comparison test where it won by a hair (a half a point to be exact) over the 330i, the TL Type-S wasn't able to beat the BMW this time 'round. Why not? It's not that the TL has gotten worse. It's that the BMW got better. Essentially the three chief reasons that brought that 2001 330i down — the anesthetized steering, the brakes that didn't perform as they should have and several features (such as power seats and a CD player) that should've been standard on a car with a base price of over 34 large — have been resolved. Atoning for those sins was good enough to propel the BMW past the Acura this time around. But make no mistake; the Acura is still a great deal, packing a lot of features, quality and enjoyment into its relatively low price.

While some of us feel the TL's styling is on the bland side, a couple of editors liked the car's powerful, wedgelike profile and clean detailing. Only die-hard car buffs will be able to discern a Type-S from the standard TL; apart from the badge on the trunklid, the only giveaway is that the S wears 17-inch five-spoke alloys, versus the starfish-shape 16s on the base car.

Large, silver-face instruments greet the driver, and even with the nav system, the TL's cockpit manages to remain free of gimmickry. All the controls work with fluidity and are where you'd expect them, except for the sunroof and cruise control on-off switches, which are hidden from the driver's sightlines on the left side of the dash, and the mode settings for the climate control, which are integrated into the nav screen. In an attempt to give the cabin an upscale yet sporty ambiance, Acura trimmed the doors and console of the Type-S with fake wood that's "stained" in gray. The net effect is that it looks like a black and white photograph of fake wood, and it's not too exciting visually. Should you opt for the parchment leather interior instead of the charcoal hide of our tester, however, the faux wood will be a more appealing natural tone.

Our seasoned butts couldn't agree on the front seat comfort category. While we thought the buckets were comfortable for the most part, a few of us wished for more lateral support. Yet other drivers indicated the seats did a fine job of holding one fast while pressing on in the twisty stuff. Whereas our road test staff is comprised of virtually every body type, sometimes we're apt to get some differences of opinion in this area. One thing we all agreed on, however, was the rear seat's comfort level. A plump fold-down armrest along with ideal contouring and plenty of legroom (second only to the Infiniti) made this car our pick when we carpooled to grab lunch.

There was no dissension among the staff when we spoke of the Type-S' lovely 260-horse V6. Characterized by a fat power band and a refined delivery, the 3.2-liter mill seemed more potent than its performance stats indicated, not that there's anything wrong with a 7.0-second mph time or a 15.4-second quarter-mile effort. These are pretty quick times, yet the Acura placed fourth in both sprints. It just felt quicker, and in fact in last year's comparison test, it was, with its blistering 6.6-second effort beating everything else to 60 mph (even an automatic 330i) and tying that Bimmer for quarter-mile honors with a 15.1-second effort down the strip. We can't explain the difference, other than the cars were different and that, on any given day, weather, surface conditions and the test driver's execution can all differ slightly.

Although Acura doesn't yet offer a manual tranny in the TL, it may become available for '04, as it has fitted the CL Type-S coupe with the six-cog manual for '03, and the TL is essentially a four-door version of that platform. As with every other car in this test, save the Caddy, the Type-S' automatic features manual-shift capability, dubbed SportShift. Left alone, the five-speed automatic does a fine job of changing gears smoothly and stepping down promptly when a burst of power is desired. When we took matters into our own hands, we liked the forward-and-back orientation of the manual mode, but felt the tranny could have reacted quicker when shifted manually, a common complaint we have with automanuals.

Ideal pedal feel and linear action made the stoppers easy to acclimate to, but the stopping distance (from 60 mph) of 128.5 feet placed it at the back of the pack. In general, a stopping distance under 130 feet is good, but the A4 and 330i both put up sub-118-foot efforts — sports car territory.

With the Acura being the only front-driver in this test, we expected the handling to fall a little short of the others when we put it to the test in the serpentine portion of our test loop. But our evaluation sheets mostly favored the TL in this respect, with one editor noting that "the suspension is taut and controlled yet provides a supple ride," and another stating, "considering its front-drive layout, it's pretty darn competent and very easy to drive fast." Well-weighted and precise steering contributed to the car's likable dynamics. Still, when compared to the two Germans, something was missing — feedback. One editor summed it up quickly: "Yes, the wheel has a pleasant firmness but there's not that high level of communication you get with the A4 and 330i."

If the TL Type-S were an Olympian, it would be a decathlete — very good at every event but not necessarily the strongest in any single competition. Coincidentally, the car it tied with, the Audi A4, is similar in this respect. But what really marks the Acura is its sheer value; combine high feature content and quality with a solid chassis, good performance, a strong reliability record and a relatively low price and you have a car that earns our approval. In fact, if we had gotten a TL Type-S without the nav system (like the rest of the cars in the test), it would've had the lowest price in the test, further validating our position that it's a screaming deal.

SECOND OPINIONS:

Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says:
When this car won our last sport sedan comparison test, I couldn't help but cringe a little bit. After all, with its automatic tranny and only mediocre level of canyon-carving ability, it wasn't exactly sporty. The problem is the car does everything else so well that it's hard to call it a loser. After all, most drivers rarely push their cars hard anyway, so that extra level of capability rarely comes into play. The Acura then leaves you with a fully equipped sedan that cruises nicely on the highway, has plenty of power to spare for passing and merging and will likely last for years without major repairs. If that's enough to suit your needs in a sport sedan, then by all means, buy a TL and forget all the fuss about BMWs.

Road Test Editor Liz Kim says:
The Acura was the winner of our last ELLSS comparison test; it wasn't because it was the best in the category, but because it was the most sensible in terms of price and feature content. In a test that leans more toward the sporty aspect, though, it gets slightly left behind; the 3.2 TL Type-S not only is big, it feels big, which is not a positive aspect when you're talking about performance vehicles. While its numbers in terms of horsepower and acceleration times will find no detractors, its execution leans more toward the average family sedan than a world-class sport sedan. It houses plenty of comfort features and amenities, but it's covered in rather average-grade materials. It ties the Infiniti in the horsepower battle but it's simply not a car that urges you to drive that long, twisty way home, as a proper sport sedan should. Yes, it's a very, very good car; but it's just not a sport sedan.

Senior Road Test Editor Brent Romans says:
What a difference a year makes. Last year, the TL Type-S won me over with its combination of luxury features, composed handling, strong engine and affordable price. In this test, the car seemed surprisingly ordinary. What, did BMW sneak some Kryptonite into the Acura's underwear or something? The TL is still a fine sedan, but this test really highlighted its deficiencies. The interior, for one, is just too ordinary. If you sit in the Audi A4 or BMW 330i, you'll be impressed with the quality of the materials and the solid construction. In comparison, the TL's interior seems like a warmed over Accord cabin. Which, in a way, it is. I still highly recommend the TL. Quite effectively, it does the major things that luxury sport sedans under $40,000 are supposed to do. Its price is also alluring. But given a choice of the cars in this test, I'd have to go with the 330i or the G35 before choosing the Acura.

Stereo Evaluation - Acura 3.2 TL Type-S

Ranking in test: Tied for second.

System Score: 7.0

Components. This Bose system is somewhat different from the system we listened to a year or so ago in the 2001 version of this same vehicle. The main difference is the speakers. In the older car, Acura had generously included separate tweeters in the front doors, which went a long way toward giving that car its great sound. In the car we evaluated for this test, the separate tweets have disappeared, apparently eaten by the large speaker grille in the center of each front door. This is something we commonly find in Ford and Lincoln vehicles, but it's the first time we've encountered it in an Acura product. As a result, soundstage and dispersion suffer, and the best sound in the vehicle seems to be aimed at the occupants' knees. Other speaker locations include a pair of 6.5-inch full-range drivers in the rear doors, as well as an 8-inch subwoofer on the back deck.

Electronically, the system has a classy head unit that's the essence of simplicity and function (second only to the BMW 330i radio in this test). In addition to offering 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 yet, primary functions (such as tuning and volume control) offer larger knobs for ease of use.

There's only one thing wrong with this head unit: its position. Because of the in-dash navigation screen, the head unit is situated low in the dash, causing the user to take his or her eyes off the roadway momentarily when adjusting functions. Then again, with the magical feel of this radio, many of those operations can probably be accomplished by feel.

Performance. Similar to the Audi A4 in this test, we found the high frequencies just a little too bright and brassy for our tastes. Also, we detected a hollowness in the midrange that came through in particularly intricate passages. These two oversights were forgivable and even understandable, but the absence of separate tweeters, particularly when the previous incarnation of this vehicle had them, indicates cost-cutting measures that don't bode well for the consumer. Simply put, this stereo doesn't sound as good as the previous one. While the rear-mounted subwoofer delivers pleasing bass response, and the overall sonic balance of the system is good, the missing tweets collapse the soundstage and leave the listener wanting more.

Best Feature: A wonder in ergonomics.

Worst Feature: No separate tweeters.

Conclusion. While we applaud the wonderful ergonomics of this system, the sound leaves something to be desired. Perhaps Acura should offer a step-up system for those consumers who want just a little bit more. — Scott Memmer

First Place - BMW 330i

Go, turn, stop. Sounds simple, right? But of the five cars in this test, not one beat the BMW in any of these key performance areas. Let's jump right into the heart of the matter. We don't know how BMW does it, but the 330i gets more out of its 225 horses than it has a right to, running a quick 6.3-second sprint to 60 mph and burning through the quarter-mile in 14.9 seconds. Far from being a one-trick pony, the Bimmer also zigzagged through the slalom faster than the rest, just nipping its German compatriot, the A4. And when it came time to test the binders, once again the 330i outperformed the A4 by a hair.

Hard numbers are all well and good, but they don't convey the feel through the wheel, or the way the engine and transmission perform their duties. BMW once again has a lock on that perfect communication between the car and driver. The company did fall from grace briefly, however, in 2001 when it dialed in more power assist for the 3 Series steering, responding to some consumer complaints that the tiller required too much effort to spin. This struck enthusiasts as BMW fixing something that wasn't broke. Some of our drivers walked around in a daze for weeks, uttering unintelligible words like Michael Stipe of REM in his early days as we bemoaned the loss of one of that car's most endearing traits — its great steering feel. But now we are happy to report that BMW quickly saw the error of its ways and put things right by returning some heft back into the steering.

Without a stout chassis, fine steering feel wouldn't count much. A solid structure and optimum suspension calibrations endow the 330i with athletic moves. Even when being flung down twisty roads that would have lesser cars tripping over their radials, the 330i danced around the curves without breaking a sweat. Lest you think this adroit handling comes with a ride akin to that of Fred Flintstone's car, rest assured that BMW still realizes that a smooth ride is important. Even though our 330i test car was equipped with the Sport Package, it still delivered a compliant ride, prompting one editor to exclaim on his evaluation form: "[The BMW offers] stunning handling without any apparent expense to ride comfort."

Another ace in the BMW's hand is its superb 3.0-liter inline six engine. Sonnets have been written about this sweetheart of an engine that continues to wow us with its potent, silken power delivery and great sound. Our test car's five-speed manual gearbox that sent thrust to the rear wheels is worked with a gearshift that has a light yet precise feel. Completing the symbiosis between man and machine are the powerful brakes that are controlled by a pedal that's reassuringly firm yet easy to modulate. Most of our drivers had the same sentiment — that the 330i is one of those rare cars that instantly feels comfortable; all the major controls fall readily to hand (and foot) and have just the right amount of resistance and travel when you use them.

OK, so the 330i is a ball to drive, but how does it stack up in other areas? Though we acknowledge that looks are a subjective thing, there's no denying that the 330i is a handsome car, even though it's been wearing the same clothes since 1999. Taut, muscular and elegant all at once, the junior BMW still catches our collective eye, even here in Los Angeles, the unofficial BMW capital of the world. Some of us, however, didn't care for the 3 Series' updated headlight design, preferring the neatly scalloped versions of last year to the droopy underline of this year's beams.

Though the cabin didn't wow us like the fancier Audi's, it still scored second due to its functional layout and use of high-grade materials. A tasteful metallic accent strip adorns the dash and door panels, adding just enough pizzazz to keep the 3's interior from appearing too somber. With the sport package comes, yep, sport seats, meaning there is more aggressive side bolstering, as well as an adjustable thigh cushion. Our motley crew of drivers found it was possible to obtain near-perfect support and comfort from those seats. We say near-perfect because there is no adjustment for lumbar support, though in fairness the chairs weren't lacking in that area. In the rear quarters, two medium-size adults should be fairly comfortable, but those broader of beam and longer of inseam might find it tight back there.

Lest we receive letters accusing us of being on the Bavarian bankroll, we do have some other gripes as well. The exterior door handles struck a few editors as awkward; they look as if you pull them straight out when in fact they flip up, though this isn't a big deal once you've gotten used to them. And, if you need a handy place for your garage door control, cell phone or whatnot, you'll be bumming at the Bimmer's lack of center console bins. Lastly, we know that the best don't come cheap, but the 330i stickered for nearly $8,000 above a comparable Acura 3.2 TL Type-S (one without the nav system).

Though we pull for the underdog(s) as much as anybody, we're certainly not disappointed that the 330i captured the title of best entry-level luxury sport sedan; it is a well-deserved honor. If you're someone who truly loves to drive, we're sure you'll agree.

SECOND OPINIONS:

Road Test Editor Neil Dunlop says:
The 330i has it all: the powerful inline six is the creamiest concoction this side of Ben & Jerry's; the steering provides the perfect balance of feel, resistance and responsiveness; the suspension absorbs bumps and uneven surfaces, providing an excellent highway ride and then keeps it level and balanced when the curves come hot and heavy; it's beautiful to look at; and the cabin, though a bit austere, is expertly conceived and executed. Taken together, it is a harmonious whole and the only car in the comparison that makes you feel like you are one with machine and the road. Unlike the other cars in this test, there is nothing to interfere with its designation as the penultimate entry-level luxury sport sedan. Naysayers point to the price (it was the most expensive by more than a grand), but if you've got $35,000-plus to spend on a sedan, I say spring for the BMW — you'll never regret it.

Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says:
I wish I could say that there was something I really disliked about the BMW, but another test drive only reaffirmed my previous observations. It's perfectly comfortable around town, with a suspension that's not overly stiff and an engine that's rarely intrusive. Yet somehow when you throw it hard into a curve, it doesn't just roll over and play dead like so many other comfortable cruisers. Instead, it comes alive in your hands, always in control and tempting you to do more. Why and how this trait is unique to BMW is beyond me, but it's undoubtedly the one reason why every other sedan in the test seems so second rate in comparison. Sure, the other four have their specialties, but when it comes to doing it all, the 3 Series still reigns supreme.

Road Test Editor Liz Kim says:
Putting the BMW 3 Series in this comparison test is like comparing James Bonds through the ages. Sure you have your handsome Pierce Brosnans, your suave Roger Moores and even your doofy Timothy Daltons, but the archetypal 007 will always be Sean Connery. Likewise, there may be imitators and contenders to the throne, but as of yet no one has ever supplanted the 330i in the luxury sport sedan category. From its velvety power delivery, its incomparable suspension to its luxurious features, this is one of the most desirable vehicles available, despite the less-than-compelling facelift for 2002. There's a reason why other car companies set the BMW as a benchmark for sport sedanship; it's simply the best one out there. Nobody does it better, it makes me feel sad for the rest.

Stereo Evaluation - BMW 330i

Ranking in test: First.

System Score: 8.0

Components. The Harman-Kardon stereo in the 2003 BMW 330i represents a marked improvement over BMW's previous efforts in this area — specifically, over the stereo in this car's progenitor, the 328i. That system — which we at Edmunds.com had our fill of since the 328i occupied a prized position in our long-term road test fleet for a full two years — generated complaints from almost everyone on staff. How, our staffers asked, could such a great car have such a mediocre stereo? Was anyone at BMW paying attention?

Stars be praised, the company is now paying attention. The Harmon-Kardon setup in the 330i represents a quantum leap over BMW's previous efforts in this segment, and comes as a welcome relief to our weary ears. This is a fine-sounding stereo.

The system begins with a classy looking faceplate that offers clean German lines and the essence of simplicity. Prefer spartan? Like your coffee black? You'll love the head unit in the new 330i. Eschewing clutter and emphasizing functionality, this no-frills radio boasts 12 FM and six AM presets, a single-play CD player and the usual controls, such as bass-treble and balance-fade. We do have several quibbles with the head unit, however. For one, it employs rocker switches instead of dials for many of the controls, including seek/scan and station fine-tuning. Two, the 330i comes with only a single-play CD player making it and the CTS the only cars without a standard six-disc, in-dash changer. And three, while it does offer steering wheel controls (the Audi A4 offers none), they're less flexible and varied than the Cadillac, Acura and Infiniti. Then again, with the angled cockpit and excellent radio position (best in the test), perhaps much of this can be forgiven.

Speakers in this system are bountiful and generous, and no doubt account for its great sound. Beginning in the back, the rear deck boasts a pair of 6.5-inch midbass drivers and dual 6-by-9-inch subwoofers. Moving forward, the rear doors present a pair of 2.5-inch midrange drivers, for midfrequency fill. The front doors offer a true three-way design, composed of a pair each of one-inch dome tweeters, 2.5-inch midranges and 6.5-inch midbass drivers. This is certainly a generous speaker array in a car in this price range.

Performance. This system is full of warmth, richness and plays pretty darn loud, too. Bass is thunderous and 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. Quite an improvement over the system in the 328i.

Best Feature: A true three-way speaker design.

Worst Feature: No standard CD changer.

Conclusion. For two years we drove a 1999 BMW 328i as part of our long-term test fleet. Most editors, it's fair to say, were unimpressed with the sound system in that car. Well, this one will snap their heads around. Combined with our recent road test of the flagship 745i and the impressive Harman Kardon sound system in that vehicle, it's clear that BMW is now serious about sound. Finally, consumers won't have to "settle" for a mediocre sound system when purchasing a BMW. — Scott Memmer

Conclusion

It's a good time to be a driving enthusiast. Never has there been a richer field of enjoyable, reasonably priced sport sedans. Power, handling, comfort; any of these five cars will provide these desired traits in varying amounts. If a lot of standard features along with a roomy cabin and commendable performance are musts, then either of the bargain-priced Japanese cars should suit your needs. The Caddy's sense of style and stretched-out spaciousness will draw its share of fans, but its lack of polish puts it behind the rest here. We've already rambled on enough about the Audi's great interior; if you want the trimmings of an ultraluxury car in a smaller, more agile and affordable package, the A4's got your name on it.

Try as they might, however, none of these worthwhile efforts can match the 330i in all-around performance and livability. Not only did the BMW sweep all the instrumented performance tests, it garnered perfect 10s from all five editors for engine, brakes and suspension. Steering and transmission scores were very high as well. Yet all this capability doesn't mean the 330i is high-strung, fidgety and stiff-riding. Quite the contrary, the 330i is as adept at providing comfortable, low-stress transportation as it is at providing unparalleled thrills on your favorite winding road.

In order to separate the truly functional features from the gimmicks, we asked our editors to pick 10 essential features that every luxury sport sedan should have. We compiled a list of every possible feature from each car and then eliminated those that came standard on all five. Each car received points based on whether each feature was standard or optional, and whether our particular test vehicle was equipped with that feature.

Top 10 Features

Features
  Acura 3.2 TL Type-S Audi A4 3.0 BMW 330i
Heated Seats S O O
Leather Seating S O O
In-dash CD Changer S S O
Navigation System S O O
One-touch down windows - All N/A S S
Side Curtain Airbags N/A S S
Stability Control S S S
Steering wheel-mounted Audio Controls S N/A S
Tilt/Telescoping Steering Wheel N/A S S
Xenon Headlamps S O O
 
  Cadillac CTS Infiniti G35
Heated Seats O O
Leather Seating S S
In-dash CD Changer O S
Navigation System O O
One-touch down windows - All N/A N/A
Side Curtain Airbags S S
Stability Control O S
Steering wheel-mounted Audio Controls S S
Tilt/Telescoping Steering Wheel N/A N/A
Xenon Headlamps O O

Key:
S: Standard
O: Optional
N/A: Not Available

Heated seats: These may seem frivolous, until you've felt the joy of a warm backside on a chilly morning.

In-dash CD changer: Part of the joy of a fine car is a fine stereo; being able to easily load up to six hours worth of your favorite music into the CD deck makes it all the better.

Leather seating: The look and feel of soft leather seating adds richness to the cabin — a must for a luxury sedan.

Navigation system: With one of these electronic road atlases on board, asking for directions at gas stations and arguments with your significant other can be avoided.

One-touch up-down windows (All): Wanting this feature may seem like the height of laziness. Okay, maybe it is, but it also helps to keep the driver's attention focused on driving.

Side curtain airbags: Not to be confused with side-impact bags, which help protect the torso, the curtain variety is designed to protect the precious noggins of the vehicle's occupants. Also, they often extend to the rear seats.

Stability control: This amazing technology can help prevent bad things from happening (such as going off the road) by automatically and selectively applying the brakes to whichever wheel(s) necessary to correct over- and understeer and keep the car on the intended course. It can't, however, repeal the laws of physics.

Steering wheel-mounted audio controls: These handy buttons allow drivers to adjust various stereo functions without ever having to take their hands off the wheel. Perfect for channel surfers.

Tilt/telescoping steering wheel: This basic feature allows drivers of all sizes to find a more comfortable relationship between their body and the steering wheel.

Xenon headlamps: These afford better illumination than standard headlamps by providing a whiter and more powerful throw of light.

Evaluation - Drive
Evaluation - Ride
Evaluation - Design
Evaluation - Cargo/Passenger Space

Evaluation - Drive

Engine Performance
Vehicle Score Rank
BMW 330i
10.0 1
Infiniti G35
8.8 2
Acura 3.2 TL Type-S 8.6 3
Cadillac CTS
6.8 4
Audi A4 3.0 6.6 5
Transmission
Vehicle Score Rank
BMW 330i
9.0 1
Cadillac CTS
8.6 2(t)
Infiniti G35 8.6 2(t)
Acura 3.2 TL Type-S
7.6 4(t)
Audi A4 3.0 7.6 4(t)
Braking
Vehicle Score Rank
BMW 330i
10.0 1
Audi A4 3.0
8.6 2
Infiniti G35 7.8 3
Cadillac CTS
7.4 4
Acura 3.2 TL Type-S 7.2 5
Suspension
Vehicle Score Rank
BMW 330i
10.0 1
Audi A4 3.0
8.0 2
Infiniti G35 7.6 3
Acura 3.2 TL Type-S
7.4 4
Cadillac CTS 7.2 5
Tires
Vehicle Score Rank
BMW 330i
10.0 1
Cadillac CTS
9.2 2
Audi A4 3.0 8.4 3
Infiniti G35Cadillac CTS
7.8 4
Acura 3.2 TL Type-S 7.4 5
Steering
Vehicle Score Rank
BMW 330i
9.8 1
Audi A4 3.0
8.6 2
Acura 3.2 TL Type-S 7.6 3(t)
Infiniti G35
7.6 3(t)
Cadillac CTS 7.4 5
Visibility
Vehicle Score Rank
Acura 3.2 TL Type-S
9.4 1
Infiniti G35
9.0 2
BMW 330i 7.8 3
Cadillac CTS
6.4 4
Audi A4 3.0 6.2 5
Fun to Drive
Vehicle Score Rank
BMW 330i
10.0 1
Infiniti G35
7.6 2
Audi A4 3.0 7.2 3
Acura 3.2 TL Type-S
6.8 4
Cadillac CTS 6.4 5

Evaluation - Ride

Seat Comfort Front
Vehicle Score Rank
BMW 330i
9.2 1
Audi A4 3.0
8.6 2
Infiniti G35 7.8 3
Acura 3.2 TL Type-S
7.6 4
Cadillac CTS 7.4 5
Seat Comfort Rear
Vehicle Score Rank
Acura 3.2 TL Type-S
9.2 1
Infiniti G35
8.0 2
Cadillac CTS 7.8 3
Audi A4 3.0
6.6 4
BMW 330i 5.8 5
Wind & Road Noise
Vehicle Score Rank
BMW 330i
8.2 1(t)
Infiniti G35
8.2 1(t)
Audi A4 3.0 8.0 3
Cadillac CTS
7.6 4
Acura 3.2 TL Type-S 7.2 5
Rattles & Squeaks
Vehicle Score Rank
Audi A4 3.0
9.8 1
BMW 330i
9.6 2
Infiniti G35 7.6 3
Acura 3.2 TL Type-S
7.0 4(t)
Cadillac CTS 7.0 4(t)

Evaluation - Design

Interior Design
Vehicle Score Rank
Audi A4 3.0
9.6 1
BMW 330i
8.8 2
Infiniti G35 7.8 3
Acura 3.2 TL Type-S
6.2 4
Cadillac CTS 5.8 5
Interior Materials
Vehicle Score Rank
Audi A4 3.0
10.0 1
BMW 330i
9.4 2
Infiniti G35 7.0 3
Cadillac CTS
6.0 4
Acura 3.2 TL Type-S 5.4 5
Climate Control Design/Operation
Vehicle Score Rank
Cadillac CTS
9.4 1
Acura 3.2 TL Type-S
7.6 2(t)
BMW 330i 7.6 2(t)
Audi A4 3.0
7.2 4(t)
Infiniti G35 7.2 4(t)
Audio System Design/Operation
Vehicle Score Rank
BMW 330i
8.0 1
Acura 3.2 TL Type-S
7.0 2(t)
Audi A4 3.0 7.0 2(t)
Infiniti G35
7.0 2(t)
Cadillac CTS 6.0 5
Secondary Control Design/Operation
Vehicle Score Rank
Infiniti G35
8.4 1
Audi A4 3.0
8.2 2
BMW 330i 8.0 3
Cadillac CTS
7.8 4
Acura 3.2 TL Type-S 6.6 5
Exterior Design
Vehicle Score Rank
BMW 330i
8.8 1
Audi A4 3.0
8.0 2
Infiniti G35 7.2 3
Acura 3.2 TL Type-S
6.8 4
Cadillac CTS 5.6 5
Overall Build Quality
Vehicle Score Rank
Audi A4 3.0
10.0 1(t)
BMW 330i
10.0 1(t)
Acura 3.2 TL Type-S 9.0 3
Infiniti G35
7.2 4
Cadillac CTS 6.6 5

Evaluation - Cargo/Passenger Space

Entry/Exit
Vehicle Score Rank
Acura 3.2 TL Type-S
9.4 1
Cadillac CTS
9.0 2
Infiniti G35 8.8 3
Audi A4 3.0
8.0 4
BMW 330i 7.6 5
Expanding/Loading Cargo
Vehicle Score Rank
Audi A4 3.0
9.0 1
Cadillac CTS
7.6 2
Infiniti G35 7.4 3
Acura 3.2 TL Type-S
7.2 4
BMW 330i 5.6 5
Storage Space
Vehicle Score Rank
Acura 3.2 TL Type-S
8.4 1
Infiniti G35
8.0 2
Cadillac CTS 7.4 3
Audi A4 3.0
6.6 4
BMW 330i 5.6 5
Cupholders
Vehicle Score Rank
Cadillac CTS
7.8 1
Infiniti G35
7.6 2
Acura 3.2 TL Type-S 7.4 3
Audi A4 3.0
6.4 4
BMW 330i 5.0 5

2003 Cadillac CTS

I love my CTS. Great handling, but it could use more power. The manual five-speed is great, definitely not my grandpop's Caddy. My only regret is that I spent $32,000 on the car and next year it is going to have a restyled interior, bigger V6 and an optional V8. Kinda kills the resale value of mine. I only wish GM could have sorted some of these things out for the first model year. I'd like to see a bigger glovebox, oil pressure and water temp gauges instead of idiot lights and a GM performance parts catalog filled with CTS goodies to make my car fly.— jeffE, July 16, 2002

We have had our new CTS for two weeks. This CTS has the lux/sport package with sunroof, auto, heated seats (won't use this much in the "Big Easy"), HID and White Diamond paint. It really sticks to the road and is a hoot to drive, but the enthusiasts will want another 50 hp. The standard audio system is fine. Rear seat passengers have more legroom than you think, but headroom is slightly cramped for a six-footer. The dealership was very price-conscious and sold us the car for $300 over invoice, which we found on the Edmunds site. On top of this, I was able to get another $1,000 off using my GM card earnings. Sweet. OnStar is neat, but we'll have to see how much we use it. I can see where the one time you really need it, it may be worth it. They should replace the clock with a temperature gauge and put the clock in the center dash display. — Dewsweeper, July 13, 2002

My CTS is a joke. I expected much more from a Cadillac. The handling's fantastic, but three days after taking delivery the sunroof decided not to work. Then I found there was no power to the accessory plugs. Then a piece of body molding came loose. Then the dome light cover fell off every time I opened the roof at freeway speeds. Then the clock decided to lose time, the radio presets would change when they wanted, which isn't much fun at 70 mph. Now, every once in awhile the engine doesn't want to idle worth a damn when it's warming up. I really wish I'd have bought the Infiniti. General Motors really let the quality control slip on this one. — Kelsey, May 29, 2002

2003 Infiniti G35

The G35 has one super engine, it flies. Just drive it. The handling is better than 98 percent of the cars on the road but I still think the BMW 330i is better. And I love the looks (except the rear end), very fresh. The only real knock I had on this car was the interior. The G35's materials looked cheap, the layout was not luxurious. I didn't like the amber backlighting, and the power window control pod should be moved — it pressed against my knee. It's nice to have the instruments move with the wheel though. Price…sweet deal here; the 330i may be nicer but not $8,000 nicer.AVRed, July 31, 2002

This car is worth $45,000 if it is worth a dime. I cannot believe it is selling for $30,000. It is a monster on the road, yet the car's styling is such that you would never know what it is capable of. It is understated, yet crisp- and strong-looking. This is the most enjoyable car I have ever driven; the power is incredible (especially when in manual mode) and the handling superb. Buy this car now. — Vungee02, May 28, 2002

I own a Q45. My wife owns a '02 BMW 325 convertible. I test drove the G35. As far as the styling, the front looks great but the rear treatment suits the upcoming G35 coupe better. The inline-6 BMW engines are the smoothest, though the 3.5 comes close. But powerwise, the larger G35 engine gets the nod. The 3 Series is better than G35 in three areas: 1) steering feel (very tight and precise); 2) suspension (very firm and definitive); 3) seats (the G35's are ugly and unsupportive for a sports sedan).phal, July 31, 2002

2002 Audi A4 3.0 quattro

This car is better than the predecessor. My friend had the old A4; it was an awesome car to begin with. But now it's his turn to be jealous of mine. More power, classier and sportier interior — understated elegance all around. The last time a car felt this sturdy to the touch was way back with older Mercedes-Benz models. Although a little bit more zip would be nice like the all-famous (BMW) inline-6. But otherwise, this is really a perfect car for someone who doesn't want to splurge over $40,000 on a Mercedes C320 and still desires build quality that is on par if not better. — stylinstud, April 24, 2002

I looked at lots of makes before buying this car. This included the Infiniti I35 and the Volvo S60. I left early one Saturday morning with the intent to buy the Infiniti. But before I committed, I went to test drive that sporty A4 I had looked at a few weeks earlier. That evening I drove home an A4. One test drive and the marriage was consummated. I love this car and everything about it. Three months later and I'm still having fun driving it. I'll say it again. I love this car. But be forewarned, at 6 feet 2 inches tall there is not much legroom in the backseat when I'm driving. And the center console is a little intrusive for a long-legged driver. — Crusader, March 29, 2002

My wonderful Uncle has always told me to marry a woman who's well rounded. After close to one year of brain-numbing research for the most well-rounded car on the market, the A4 came up as the bearer of that title. From its sexy yet classy exterior lines to its elegant and ergonomic interior to its refined performance to its long list of standard/optional features to its industry leading safety to its value pricing, you can't go wrong when picking this car. — Diamonte, March 9, 2002

Acura 3.2 TL Type-S

This car has it all. Great styling, speed, comfort and handling. The handling is similar to a sports car; it hugs the curves with a total feeling of control. My only complaint is a vehicle of this class should be equipped with automatic door locks, the kind that lock when you place the vehicle in gear. — Lynne, July 27, 2002

The best choice by far for the enthusiast shopping in this price range. Excellent build quality and reliability. Loaded with features. Love the aggressive styling that's not a cop magnet! GREAT ENGINE!!! Tranny's OK. Love the xenon lights and stylish wheels, but it desperately needs bigger and more aggressive rubber, an optional six-speed manual, a one-touch sunroof with a button located where the driver can see it and a revised shifter gate, as it is extremely awkward. — mask0425, June 27, 2002

I've had the TL Type-S for about two months now. I only have two minor complaints so far. When using the sport shift, the shift from 1st to 2nd still occurs automatically. Also, there is a brief delay when you manually shift it; the transmission doesn't shift instantaneously like a true manual tranny. Is this normal for a sport shift I wonder? My second complaint is the exterior styling. The car certainly doesn't turn heads like my previous 3000GT VR4, but I got it anyway because I needed the best of both worlds (the family grew) — four doors and sportiness. The price was also a deciding factor. — bob12046, January 13, 2002

2002 BMW 330i

Absolute luxury when you are cruising the highways, a four-door sports car when you hit the windy mountain roads. The transmission is a work of art. The car has amazing composure; the communication between me, the car and the road was so in sync. I have been driving assorted Audis for the past 15 years. All I can say is I just didn't get it. The BMW is the ultimate driving machine. There isn't a better entry-level sport luxury car. Join me in the experience! — szbmw330i, July 28, 2002

This car has simply been the best car I've ever owned. In terms of performance, there is no sedan on the road that compares to this car. Being a motorcycle rider all my life, I enjoy a quick and responsive machine; opening it up on the road and hammering a few corners here and there is a joy in this car. Here's my advice: If you want luxury and don't want to miss having a sports car, this is the car for you. You will not be disappointed. — Road Racer, June 19, 2002

I bought the BMW 330i because of the rave reviews on Edmunds.com. It does handle quite well, is a lot of fun to drive and, let's face it, part of driving a BMW is pure showing off that you can afford one. I made the mistake of getting the automatic transmission, thinking the city's stop-and-go traffic would make it worth it, but it didn't. I've driven both the manual and automatic transmission versions, and the manual is better — much more fun. The automatic is very smooth, but the Steptronic shifting is a bit shaky — no substitute for the real manual. This car desperately needs more small-item storage space. Apart from the glovebox there is nowhere to store something as large as a CD and the cupholders are very inconveniently located right behind the shifter. — gregh, May 6, 2002

Final Rankings

Final Rankings
  Acura 3.2 TL Type-S Audi A4 3.0 quattro BMW 330i
Personal Rating (10% of score) 52.0 68.0 100.0
Recommended Rating (10% of score) 64.0 64.0 100.0
Evaluation Score (20% of score) 76.6 81.0 85.2
Feature Content (20% of score) 70.0 73.0 70.0
Performance Testing (20% of score) 80.5 77.9 100.0
Price (20% of score) 96.0 82.0 78.0
       
Total Score 76.2 76.0 86.6
Final Ranking 2 2 1
 
  Cadillac CTS Infiniti G35
Personal Rating (10% of score) 28.0 52.0
Recommended Rating (10% of score) 20.0 52.0
Evaluation Score (20% of score) 74.4 77.2
Feature Content (20% of score) 60.0 63.0
Performance Testing (20% of score) 80.1 80.3
Price (20% of score) 87.0 100.0
     
Total Score 65.1 74.5
Final Ranking 5 4

Scoring Explanation

Personal Rating: Purely subjective. After the test, each participating editor was asked to rank the vehicles in order of preference based on which he or she would buy if money were no object.

Recommended Rating: After the test, each participating editor was asked to rank the vehicles in order of preference based on which he or she thought would be best for the average consumer shopping in this segment.

20-Point Evaluation: Each participating editor ranked every vehicle based on a comprehensive 20-point evaluation. The evaluation covered everything from exterior design to cupholders. Scoring was calculated on a point system, and the scores listed are averages based on all test participants' evaluations.

Performance Testing: Each vehicle was put through our usual battery of performance tests. The top-performing car in each category was given a score of 100, while each subsequent finisher was given partial points depending on how close their results were to the top score.

Feature Content: For this category, the editors picked the top 10 features they thought would be most beneficial to the consumer shopping in this segment. For each vehicle, the score was based on the amount of actual features it had versus the total possible (10). Standard and optional equipment were taken into consideration.

Price: The numbers listed were the result of a simple percentage calculation based on the least expensive vehicle in the comparison test. Using the "as tested" prices of the actual evaluation vehicles, the least expensive vehicle received a score of 100, with the remaining vehicles receiving lesser scores based on how much each one costs.

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