Most manufacturers today, both domestic and foreign, produce at least one vehicle that appeals to the masses and sells better than a corn dog on a stick at a county fair. These vehicles, sharing characteristics like a reasonable price, four doors and ample power, are often referred to as "bread-n-butter" cars and usually fall into the category of family sedans.
While bread-n-butter vehicles can represent a great value to the customer, they are also known as the biggest moneymakers for the manufacturer that builds them. Because so many Americans buy these sedans, carmakers are able to use the profits from these middle-of-the-road vehicles to build more unique, limited-production cars, like the Plymouth Prowler. In the past, bread-n-butter sedans have had a reputation for being boring and basic, but that has changed. Competition has gotten tough, and most of these top-selling cars have received stylish sheetmetal, powerful engines and performance enhancements--all while keeping the price affordable.
We decided to compare a handful of these family sedans against each other to see what makes and models would come out on top. Because the choices in this category are so numerous, we narrowed down our list to include only recently designed cars that have four doors, a V6 engine, an automatic transmission, and a base price of less than $20,000. Participants included the Buick Century Custom, Chevy Malibu LS, Hyundai Sonata GLS, Mitsubishi Galant ES and Pontiac Grand Am GT. We also wanted to compare a Mazda 626 LX and Oldsmobile Alero GL with their peers, but the folks at Mazda didn't return our calls and Oldsmobile was unable to supply an Alero that fell within our test parameters.
With our five shiny family sedans ready to roll, we spent four days in Los Angeles, Ventura, Camarillo and Pismo Beach, Calif., evaluating the vehicles in city traffic, on the highway, down two-lane canyon roads and at a track. We recruited both men and women from California and Colorado, some who have children and some who have dogs, ranging in height from 5 feet 2 inches to 6-feet tall, some who evaluate cars for a living and one who doesn't, to pilot the cars during the week.
Each vehicle was rated in four areas that included: a) performance numbers produced at the test track, b) a 30-point evaluation of the cars from top to bottom, c) an "off-the-cuff" personal-preference rating and recommendation rating, and d) a value equation based on the "as tested" sticker price.
Interestingly, this comparison test may have been one of our closest yet. As expected, different cars excelled in different areas, but when all the points were tallied, opinions expressed and evaluations examined, we were able to identify a true winner among winners.
Fifth Place - 1999 Buick Century
Once upon a time, Buick cars were considered luxurious, high-end automobiles with equipment to match. That's why we were shocked to find that the materials inside our Buick Century Custom felt cheaper than those found in both the Chevy and Pontiac we'd acquired for the comparison test. Drivers found the inside of the Century boring, noting that the idiot lights are mounted where gauges should be, the center dash area looks and feels like rickety plastic, and the power window and door-lock buttons feel cheap and chunky. We were also disappointed to discover that the plastic covering the armrests was cut sloppily, body panels were mismatched, and the driver's door was completely out of alignment, requiring a strong tug to yank it open.
Other complaints surfaced about the dated seat fabric, a lack of rear cupholders, and CD player controls that were too small and difficult to decipher. We also expected more standard equipment from the marque. One driver declared that the Century didn't come with enough options to say "Buick." It didn't offer a sunroof, steering wheel cruise-control buttons, or fold-down rear seats.
Driving along the twisty two-lane segment of our test loop emphasized the car's performance flaws. Though the suspension was extremely soft, we found it more wallowy than we would have liked, bottoming out too easily on rough roads. The power-assisted steering offered virtually no feedback to the driver, the car could not take hard corners well at all, and the 205/70R-15 tires squealed in 30 mph turns, providing no confidence in their ability to grip the pavement.
Braking was also intermittently problematic, with one driver calling it "spongy" and noting that it pulled to the right in a panic stop. However, at the track it showed well with a 60-to-zero braking distance of 136 feet, beating both the Malibu and the Sonata.
Despite our grievances, the Buick possessed some redeeming qualities that showed up over the course of the week. The seats were extremely soft and comfortable, wind noise was less intrusive than in any other vehicle, and visibility was excellent due to large side mirrors and small pillars. Additionally, the trunk was cavernous and the Century was the only vehicle in the test with a strut-supported hood that stayed open without a support pole. We were delighted with the six-passenger seating available in the Buick and found the interior spacious. Our 6-foot editor was gleeful that when the driver's seat was moved all the way back, his feet couldn't reach the pedals--a rare occurrence.
But where the Century showed its worth was on the highway portion of our test route. The 3100 SFI V6 engine that rested under the hood provided more than enough power for cruising on the interstate. Passing power was adequate and low-end torque was impressive, but the 3100 gets a little noisy after 5,000 rpms and is a bit sluggish when going uphill. The suspension soaks up road noise and bumps very well when the concrete is fairly smooth and the four-speed automatic transmission always finds the right gear with a good balance of positive, yet non-jarring upshifts.
Exterior styling of our Bordeaux Red Pearl Century was neither exciting nor offensive. One driver called it "stately and pleasing" while another said it was "well designed for its target audience." Still others pegged it as "practical" and "very conservative and tasteful."
This is a great family vehicle for people who like to take road trips. The interior is spacious, the ergonomics are good, and the highway ride is fantastic. But forget about canyon carving or trying to look sporty in Buick's Century Custom; it just won't work.
Though none of the test participants despised the car, there were enough things wrong to make it lose the pageant. We just expected more from Buick. Fortunately, next year's revised Century will offer more power, more value and a fresh appearance. New features will include 15 extra horsepower, 10 extra foot-pounds of torque, leather-trimmed seats, interior layout improvements, and exterior design enhancements. We can't wait for these necessary changes.
Fourth Place - 1999 Hyundai Sonata
Though it came in second to last, Hyundai's Sonata was the delightful surprise of this comparison test. Each time a new driver would take the wheel, the car's praises could be heard in chorus. Finishing only one-tenth of a point behind the Malibu, the South Korean representative gave the Chevy a run for its money.
What made the Hyundai so appealing? "I was happily surprised by its quality feel and design," reported technical editor Karl Brauer, summing up the collective opinion. The Sonata arrived in Napoli Blue, with only two options and the lowest price tag of the bunch. While some of us only tolerated the car's bubbly exterior, others loved it. From behind, the Sonata looked classy and expressive, but we deemed the front grille a bit funky-looking.
Inside, the styling was found to be favorable as well as functional. Drivers appreciated the monochromatic look, leather shift knob, perfectly designed instrument panel and center stack, soft cloth seats and headliner, well-laid out radio and HVAC controls, and nifty pen holder. Despite the driver's door molding popping out and minor misalignments, build quality of the Hyundai seemed to be one of the best in the group. The trunk was spacious with an extremely low lift-in height for ease of use and rear seats conveniently fold down in a 60/40 configuration to expand the cargo area.
The Sonata also came loaded with standard equipment, like 15-inch alloy wheels, power door and window locks, stereo with CD player, side airbags and variable intermittent windshield wipers. One driver thought the roofline cut into his forward visibility, and our largest editor had trouble fitting comfortably in the driver's seat. Despite the fact that the Sonata offers the most front legroom, our tallest editor felt there was not enough seat travel, hip room or arm support for someone his size.
Unfortunately, Hyundai lost points in the power and performance area of the test. Though almost every driver pegged the sedan as fun to drive, the torque produced by its 2.5-liter V6 engine couldn't compete with the other vehicles. Making 166 foot-pounds at 4,000 rpms, the Sonata had trouble climbing hills and getting up to speed quickly. Horsepower was adequate, however, and once the little car got going, it went. In addition to more torque, we would like to see less vibration and noise at high rpms, and smoother transmission shifts. The tranny downshifts responsively, but hunts considerably when you punch it to go uphill.
Though it came in second on the track in the cornering index, Hyundai's delegate lost in acceleration, braking and slalom speed. On the upside, real-world driving brought in positive responses from our staffers, who praised the car's cornering ability, communicative road feel through the steering wheel, and progressive brake feel--without ABS. We felt confident taking turns at high speeds, even though there was a slight lag in steering response. The Michelin P205/60R-15 MXV4 tires showed strongly, prompting one driver to say, "These are the best tires I've experienced on a Korean car."
For the low price, high level of equipment and contemporary styling you get with this Hyundai, it's a wonder the Sonata didn't finish better in the test. With a little bit of torque and some seats that actually hold an average-sized American, Hyundai could be on the brink of a revolution.
Third Place - 1999 Chevy Malibu
Capturing third place in our bread-n-butter race was the car that people had the least to talk about. Chevy's Malibu LS was the predictable, practical, and prudent choice. The vehicle did well in every aspect, but didn't excel in any one area. None of us wanted to buy this car for ourselves, but everyone would recommend it to a friend.
The price was neither too high nor amazingly low. Standard equipment was right on par with the other cars in the segment. It looked kind of boring, but it was a solid car. With a nice blend of performance, content and value, we all agreed that Chevy's Malibu was the perfect car to recommend to the "buy-American" crowd.
Powered by GM's 155-horsepower, 3100 SFI V6 engine, the Malibu's performance was one of its greatest assets. We were impressed by the torque output which propelled us uphill at speeds the Hyundai could only have dreamed about, but we wished the car moved forward from a stop a little bit faster. As the vehicle climbs in the rev range, however, the engine gets noisier. The automatic transmission seemed to find the correct gears instinctively, except when standing on the go-pedal for passing power. At those times, the tranny jerked into gear rather harshly. Steering felt connected and linear, offering confidence around tight corners at high speeds. Finishing second in the slalom at 56.8 mph, Chevy's Malibu was tight on center, yet provided little feedback through the wheel.
On the expressway, we noticed that the Firestone Affinity 205/60R-15 tires produced quite a howl, though they gripped the pavement much better than the Buick's. The tires also tended to squeal a bit when pushed hard. Braking in the Malibu was sub-par, with a mushy brake pedal, slight vibration through the steering wheel, and a creaking noise when braking slowly on a hill.
Inside, the Malibu is an ergonomic paradise offering large radio and climate-control buttons complete with volume knobs and rotary dials. Operation of secondary controls is simple with big power-window switches, steering-wheel-mounted cruise control and clearly labeled stalks. The cassette player was separated from the radio by the climate-control panel, which seemed odd but was not particularly distracting. Front-seat occupants had access to two cupholders--one in the center console and one that pops out of the dash to the left of the steering wheel. We were delighted with this innovative placement of the driver's cupholder, which did not block any gauges or controls.
Seating inside our Dark Cherry Metallic test car was quite plush, since the Malibu was the only contestant outfitted with leather seats. Most editors found the seating position comfortable, with plenty of side bolstering, good armrest placement, and lots of legroom. However, one driver complained that, though the seat cushion was roomy, he didn't have enough support. Another said, "The seats felt a little too bench-like for my taste."
The Malibu is a fun-to-drive vehicle with a well-thought-out interior and an affordable price tag. With almost $1500 in options, our test car still came in at less than $21,000. It's spacious enough to cart the kids, the groceries and the luggage for any trip, with seating for five and a commodious trunk complete with cargo net. Rear seats easily pull down flat to expand cargo room and the trunk lift-over is low enough to make loading luggage a non-issue.
We really had to nit-pick to find something wrong with the Malibu. Managing editor Grant Whitmore stepped up to the plate, complaining that "too many of the interior materials felt a little too cheap: the leather felt like vinyl, and the faux wood dash was too obviously faux." But, the Malibu still holds its reputation as a great little sedan. Buyers get more than they expect--plenty of power and room for friends, relatives and the neighborhood dog. The sheetmetal feels tightly screwed together and styling is pleasant, if somewhat bland.
The car represents the epitome of the perfect American family sedan. It's got everything right: the right power, the right size, the right look, the right gas mileage...this is what American families should be buying instead of SUVs. If the Malibu had been a bit more expressive, it just might have won.
Second Place - 1999 Pontiac Grand Am
Nabbing the silver medal in our Southern California-based family-sedan shootout, Pontiac's Grand Am won not only our points, but also our humble admiration. No longer wondering why it's the marque's best-selling vehicle, the Grand Am GT is the essence of the old adage: don't judge a book by its cover.
We surely won't again. When we first took stock of the Topaz Gold Metallic vehicle in our midst, insults were bandied about regarding the car's looks, with each of us trying to outdo one another. "Ugly as sin," declared one editor. "This car didn't fall out of the ugly tree; it ran into it," snickered another. "Looks like Pontiac is single-handedly keeping the body-cladding industry alive," noted one staffer. Someone else chimed in, "Its hood has more creases than a bulldog." And then this suggestion, "If the Grand Am was a person, it'd be the punk football player with gold chains hanging out in the parking lot at a high school prom!" We all broke into laughter.
A few days later, our jokes had subsided and our smiles were replaced by a humble reverence for the vehicle that had wowed us with its inspiring performance over the course of the week. It's no wonder that the Grand Am is Pontiac's volume leader, selling 350,000 units per year. It probably would have led our comparison test, too, if we could have gotten over its garish styling. Performance-wise, the Grand Am spent four days systematically blowing away every other vehicle that tried to keep up with it. On the twisty, most fun stretch of our test loop, the driver of the Pontiac was several minutes ahead of the other three vehicles, while the Buick brought up the rear. It doesn't have the most horsepower and it ties the Mitsubishi for torque output, but the Grand Am is really fun to drive.
With Pontiac's 3400 V6 engine pumping out 175 horsepower and 205 foot-pounds of torque, the Grand Am felt the sportiest of them all. Time and again, we peeled out, hit the corners hard and let it go. Tech editor Karl Brauer could not get the back end to come out, try as he might. The rear just wiggles a bit and stays right where it should. Though the Grand Am rolled in turns, its suspension is still confident at the limit, though a little rough on uneven roads. A four-speed automatic transmission with enhanced traction system catches every downshift and never has to hunt to find the appropriate gear. The fat steering wheel didn't provide much feedback, but steering control was precise at high speeds. The brake pedal feels a little stiff when pushed hard, but there is a progressive feel to it and good modulation overall. And, the Goodyear Eagle RS-A 225/50R-16 tires attached to the Pontiac provided good grip on all road surfaces.
At the track, our golden nugget blasted from zero to 60 in 7.8 seconds and stopped quickly during the braking tests, in just 122 feet. The Grand Am also took first honors in the skidpad test, but it lost to Mitsubishi in the slalom.
It also lost to Mitsubishi in the design department. Our drivers found the Grand Am's heavy, caked-on body cladding and creased sheetmetal visually offensive. The car's overdone interior was also deemed too swoopy, with tennis ball-shaped air vents, binocular-shaped instrument gauges and what seemed to us like 20-year-old styling elements. Now before you flood our offices with a ton of email, we recognize that there are people who like Pontiac's aggressive styling, and if you are one of them, please go buy this car instead of ranting to us.
There were gripes that existed outside of the car's styling, however, that kept the Pontiac one step behind the Mitsubishi. The high deck, rear spoiler and thick C-pillars hindered right-hand visibility and rear visibility. This situation was augmented by the too-low driver's seat cushion, which was difficult to position. Front seats felt a bit narrow and needed more side bolstering, rear seats made us feel like we were sitting low due to the high beltline, and wind noise was enough to quell conversation. Build quality was sub-par, with panel gap inconsistencies and rough sheetmetal on the trunk lid that looked like it had never been sanded.
The Grand Am 's price may be another potential drawback. The second priciest car in our test, the vehicle supplied to us cost $21,615--loaded with equipment, including a six-way power driver's seat, power glass sunroof and stereo with CD player.
Despite these drawbacks and with such great performance results, it is interesting that the Pontiac didn't take the gold overall. But Mitsubishi's Galant beat out the Grand Am by less than one point. And here's why...
First Place - 1999 Mitsubishi Galant
The fact that Mitsubishi's Galant beat out the Grand Am for No. 1 family sedan proves one thing: we do care how we look. Each driver in turn praised the Galant's Euro-flavored styling, both inside and out, and many likened it to a BMW, saying it "looks like a straight-edged 5 Series" and "you could pretend this was a BMW for awhile and get away with it." Despite these praises, one driver put a fresh spin on the topic, stating that though she likes the Galant's styling, she is always skeptical of a knock-off.
Still, every single participant ranked Mitsubishi's Galant first on his or her personal-preference list, and many of us would also recommend the Galant to a friend. This has as much to do with image as with performance, though both were impressive in the Mitsu. Styling is clean and simple--both inside and out--with appealing interior wood appointments, a thick, leather-wrapped steering wheel, functional interior controls, and cupholders that hold a variety of drinks, including an extremely fat water bottle. We praised the large climate and stereo controls, appreciated the spacious glove compartment, enjoyed the low trunk lift-in height, and discovered that the driver's seat height adjuster makes life easy.
Overall road feel in the Galant was smooth, well balanced and enjoyable. It didn't take too much effort to do anything in this car; every component seemed to come together like it was supposed to, and whether we were traversing the twisties, high-tailing it down the highway, or whipping through cones at the track, we were always having fun. Slalom scores, personal-preference points and the 30-point evaluations clinched the win for Mitsubishi-even though performance and handling points were a close call with the Grand Am. After all was said and done, however, the Mitsubishi earned the highest score of 8.1 on a 10-point scale and took its spot in the winner's circle.
Aiding it on its journey was the vehicle's 3.0-liter V6 engine, making the most horsepower out of all competitors--195 at 5,500 rpm. Tying with the Pontiac for highest torque output at 205 foot-pounds, the Galant exhibits a smooth powertrain with a Saab-like thrust of forward movement the second your foot hits the gas. Going fast is second nature to the Galant, and its powertrain easily deserves the honor of being named the best of the assembled group.
The transmission, though it easily held a gear for uphill acceleration, sometimes missed downshifts. Steering was dead-on accurate, but, like all the contestants, it could benefit from more direct feedback through the wheel. The Galant's suspension performed admirably, with a good blend of comfort and road feel. There was no excessive body roll and we never felt any harsh road irregularities.
The Mitsubishi's brakes performed in a solid, progressive and linear fashion, and we determined that hitting the brakes or lifting the throttle would not bring the back end around after the front end began to plow. Firestone Affinity 205/60R-15 tires were quiet around corners and at highway speeds, but did not give drivers much warning before hitting their breakaway limit.
Performance and luxuries aside, we did discover some drawbacks to the Galant. Inside, we wished for more rear legroom, better cupholder designs, and more storage cubbies. Too much road noise made its way into the cabin, there was a rattle coming from the sunroof, entering the backseat was difficult for larger individuals, the steering wheel offered no stereo or cruise controls, and there was just one small pass-through on the rear passenger seat for luggage expansion. We were also concerned about the stereo buttons, since one button is responsible for several controls, making things confusing. One editor worried about the Galant's reliability, due to problems like threadbare cloth seats, mismatched panel gaps and orange stickers on the door locks that were peeling off. As one child of the eighties put it: "I had better decals on my Rubik's Cube."
The one category in which the Galant lost points was the value equation. At $23,002, it had the highest "as tested" price of any vehicle in our test. Its base price (not including destination charge) fell just $10 under $20,000 to make it into the test, and the price difference certainly reflects the equipment that came on the vehicle. With only four options, the Galant ES comes with a host of safety features, comfort and convenience enhancements, and performance upgrades that make the car more appealing.
Overall, Mitsubishi's Galant ES proved to be the top choice of all the assembled vehicles due to its balance of styling, performance and standard content. If given the choice, the Galant is the car we would first elect to buy. Determining a winner was difficult this time around because each car excelled in its own particular way and we could, in good faith, recommend each car in the test to various consumers who place emphasis on different features. After all, in this popular class full of numerous vehicles, there truly is a car for everyone. We just happen to think that for most people, it's the Galant.