It's not the most interesting body style on the market, but when looking at the sheer number of models, along with total market share, nothing can touch the four-door sedan. Here's a breakdown of the primary sedan categories:
Despite the low price point, you can pick from several worthy forms of transportation for under $15,000. One of the strongest values has to be Honda's entertaining and highly versatile Fit. It's on the pricey side (for this category) but worth it if you need fun and functionality in one five-door package. The Hyundai Elantra sedan, while not as entertaining to drive as the Fit, offers a compelling combination of space, power, comfort and value. The Kia Rio is yet another worthy player, with an interior design and quality that belies its economy price tag, along with solid ride and handling traits.
The Nissan Versa provides surprising cabin space for this price category, though it can be a bit dull to drive. Scion's all-new xD promises Toyota quality, but cramped interior space and a low-tech, four-speed automatic make it tough to recommend. Chevrolet offers both the subcompact Aveo and the compact Cobalt in this segment, but interior quality and drivetrain refinement aren't up to class standards, even at this price point. Suzuki's Forenza and Reno, along with Toyota's Yaris, also offer adequate Point-A-to-B transportation, but little more.
If your budget has you shopping in the $15,000-to-$20,000 range, there are several models worth considering. The ubiquitous Honda Civic remains a top choice in everything from fuel-efficiency to driving dynamics to resale value. Priced slightly lower than a comparable Civic, the Mazda Mazda3 offers even more fun than the Civic in terms of sporty handling and fling-able dynamics. Exterior and interior design cues imbue the Mazda3 with a bit more attitude as well, but refinement and interior quality are just a shade off the high standards set by the Civic. Ultimately, you can't go wrong with either model.
An all-new, much-improved 2008 Mitsubishi Lancer catapults this nameplate from "also-ran" to "contender" status. Also all-new for 2008 is Scion's boxy xB. Larger and more powerful than the previous version, the new xB continues Scion's tradition of providing extensive personalization options and Toyota quality. Saturn has entered this segment with yet another all-new offering, the Astra five-door hatchback. Based off the European Opel of the same name, the Astra's confident handling and clean styling make it a viable choice. Also worth a look is the Suzuki SX4, complete with standard all-wheel drive and a powerful 2.3-liter engine.
Ford's Focus is updated for 2008 in terms of styling and suspension tuning, and it features the all-new Sync technology from Microsoft, but its basic platform dates back to 2000. Kia's two entries in this market, the smaller Spectra and larger Optima, both offer competitive pricing and strong warranty coverage. The Spectra's crash test scores are unimpressive, but the Optima's interior space and driving dynamics merit consideration. Toyota's Corolla continues to offer solid reliability, bland driving dynamics and a high MSRP when equipped with even basic features (a redesign is coming for 2009 so you may want to hold out for that car). Nissan's Sentra isn't much better than the Corolla in terms of handling dynamics, but its roomy cabin is worth noting for economy sedan buyers needing maximum interior space.
Two models have made up the core of the family sedan market for the past two decades, and they continue to be the benchmark by which all others are measured. The Honda Accord and Toyota Camry remain unavoidable considerations in this segment -- and that's a good thing. Both cars offer exceptional ride quality, refined drivetrains, comfortable cabins and long-term reliability. They differ primarily in the more subtle areas of handling dynamics, interior noise levels and feature content. Essentially, the Honda is the sportier model (despite its larger size for 2008) that makes family toting a joy versus a chore. The Camry strikes back with a serene, Lexus-like cabin that remains whisper-quiet at highway speeds and unruffled by even the most pockmarked of roadways. The Camry also offers a hybrid drivetrain.
Another top seller is the Nissan Altima. Everything from exterior design to driving dynamics is cranked up a notch in the Altima in a (largely successful) effort to make a "cool" family sedan. Nissan has even created a hybrid version for "green" shoppers, though it's only available in California emission states. A similar "cool" philosophy is seen in the sleek styling of the Mazda Mazda6. The Mazda6's smaller size and dynamic personality make it a joy on twisty roads, but interior space (particularly in the backseat) is limited. Ford's stylish Fusion (and its corporate twin, the Mercury Milan) uses the same platform as the Mazda6 but gives up a bit of the Mazda's driving enjoyment for a bump in size (and rear-seat space).
If performance is low on your list of priorities but value is high, Hyundai's Sonata provides a level of quality that nearly equals the Accord and Camry at a lower price point (and with superior warranty coverage). Conversely, the smaller Volkswagen Rabbit five-door hatch and the Jetta sedan are pulled into this category by way of their elevated price tags, but both offer confident handling and high-quality interiors. That description works for Subaru's Impreza as well, though it's the inclusion of all-wheel drive versus premium interior materials that drives the Impreza's price up.
Recent family sedan entries from GM have shown promise as well, with the new-for-2007 Saturn Aura and the redesigned-for-2008 Chevrolet Malibu both riding on the same platform. Improvements to interior materials, ride quality, warranty coverage and overall execution have finally given Chevrolet and Saturn a fighting chance in this ultracompetitive market. Though we'd caution consumers to avoid the largely ineffective "hybrid" versions of these models -- you'll do better with the base four-cylinder models. If saving fuel is a primary concern, Toyota's Prius returns for 2008 with the best gas mileage in this category.
With a name change and an upgraded drivetrain for 2008, the Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable now possess the power to move their large frames (and roomy cabins) with ease. The similarly large Buick LaCrosse, Chevrolet Impala and Pontiac Grand Prix offer plenty of room for five adults, but like the Taurus and Sable, their drivetrain refinement, handling dynamics and design ultimately can't compete with this segment's leaders. The same can be said of the Chrysler Sebring, Dodge Avenger, Mitsubishi Galant and Pontiac G6, all of which offer lackluster interior quality along with mediocre refinement and performance.
Sedan shoppers looking to get a bit more out their four-door family transportation now have a host of attractive saloons to choose from. Two of our longstanding favorites are the Volkswagen Passat and Subaru Legacy. Both offer sure-footed handling and powerful drivetrains, though the Passat's interior is a bit more luxurious, while the Legacy's standard all-wheel drive should appeal to cold-weather commuters. A relative newcomer to this segment, the Hyundai Azera, provides a remarkable combination of space, luxury and value. The Azera's corporate cousin, the Kia Amanti, also provides high luxury at a low price, but the Kia's older platform and stodgy design keep it from feeling competitive.
If creative exterior styling, rear-wheel drive and an available V8 appeal to you, the Chrysler 300 (along with its Dodge Charger corporate twin) provides a more traditional approach to family transportation, albeit with all the modern touches expected in a 21st-century car. If you want the 300's expansive interior along with Japanese quality and refinement, consider the sporty-yet-roomy Nissan Maxima. Two more large sedans, the Buick Lucerne and Mercury Grand Marquis, also provide plenty of interior space but these models lack the sporty dynamics and overall refinement of their Chrysler, Dodge or Nissan competitors.
Not all sedans in this category are large. Acura's TSX is small but quite nimble for those looking to combine fun with luxury and value. Volvo's S40 is similarly small, but it offers a long list of both safety and technology features, along with all-wheel drive availability. Lincoln's MKZ also comes with optional all-wheel drive, but chintzy interior materials and a lack of stability control put it at a disadvantage in this category.
If you're of the mind that an entry-luxury sedan must be rear-wheel drive, then models like the Lexus ES 350, Saab 9-3 and Volvo S60 can't be considered true sport sedans. However, the Lexus ES 350 (despite sharing a platform with the Toyota Camry) has an exceptionally luxurious demeanor. So does its larger cousin, the Toyota Avalon. Both provide serene and palatial cabins at a moderate price.
The Saab and Volvo are neither sporty nor luxurious enough to justify serious consideration in this market, though they do offer an impressive array of safety technology and available all-wheel drive.
However, if your budget keeps you in this price range and you demand a high-performance experience, there is a sedan with an undeniably sporty pedigree -- Infiniti's G35. Its powerful V6 engine, mated to a stiff rear-wheel-drive chassis (all-wheel drive is available), gives the G35 the dynamic appeal of European sport sedans costing thousands more. The G can go toe to toe with the Europeans when it comes to luxury appointments as well.
This market segment likely wouldn't exist without the BMW 3 Series, and the rear-drive Bavarian wonder continues to define the category with its combination of thrilling dynamics, sublime styling and rich interior treatments. The Audi A4 nearly matches the 3 in terms of dynamic enjoyment while eclipsing the BMW in the areas of interior design and material quality. Both the 3 Series and the A4 are available with all-wheel drive.
Conversely, Lexus takes a different approach by providing more refinement and less driving thrill with its IS line, though a cramped rear seat hinders this model's desirability.
Another entry-luxury mainstay, the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, gets a full redesign for 2008. Long known for its bank-vaultlike structure and security, the new C-Class offers a more involving driving experience alongside advanced safety and luxury features.
Also redesigned for 2008 is Cadillac's CTS. The previous car's chassis had potential, but that CTS's interior design and overall build quality kept it off our preferred list. The new model is vastly better inside and out, and while larger (and heavier) than many competitors in this segment it now has the dynamic wherewithal to fulfill its original mission: Be a legitimate American alternative to European sport sedans.
Yet, not every four-door in this category follows BMW's recipe. The midsize Acura TL, for instance, rides on a front-wheel-drive chassis but maintains a sporty demeanor. The Volvo S80 comes in either front- or all-wheel drive and includes the latest in safety technology. The aging Saab 9-5 comes as front-wheel drive only, and although it has some interesting details, it can't match TL's handling, the S80's premium appointments or the overall refinement of either one.
And speaking of aging, the now ancient Lincoln Town Car trundles on (but not really forward) for 2008.
The longstanding player in this category is BMW's 5 Series, and despite some controversial evolutions in exterior styling and cabin controls, the 5 Series remains a top candidate. The Mercedes-Benz E-Class, another stalwart of the segment, is a worthy alternative that doesn't offer the BMW's driving excitement (except perhaps in high-dollar AMG form) but excels in the areas of premium luxury features and cutting-edge technology (such as night vision). Audi's A6 also doesn't quite match the 5 Series dynamically or the E-Class on luxury content, but many feel it offers an excellent balance of both while eclipsing the BMW and Mercedes in terms of design.
Undercutting the Germans on price, but challenging them in performance, quality and value, are the Infiniti M35/M45 and Lexus GS 350/GS 430. The Infiniti is a worthy 5 Series rival, offering nimble handling and powerful engines (particularly in the V8-equipped M45). The Lexus twins aren't quite as nimble, but their strong engines, high-tech features and unmatched refinement make them desirable targets for the luxury-minded buyer.
Two Cadillacs compete in this segment as well, with the sporty STS targeting European rivals and the larger, front-drive DTS chasing after luxury shoppers looking for something more traditional and American. Acura's RL, with an advanced all-wheel-drive system designed for sporty handling, also chases the nimble sedans from Europe. But lacking a V8 engine option, the RL feels a touch outclassed in this market. Finally, there's Jaguar's aging S-Type, which is similarly outgunned by newer competitors, despite its rear-drive layout and optional V8.
Luxury buyers with plenty of money to spend on a top-line luxury sedan can pick from an assortment of high-class rides.
With a clean exterior shape, agile handling and a (relatively) low price, the A8 is an undeniable winner in the high-end luxury category. Not as sprightly, but arguably even more attractive is the Mercedes-Benz CLS-Class. Dubbed a "four-door coupe" the CLS retains all of M-B's trademark luxury and safety features but wraps them in a sleek body (just watch your head when getting in or out of the rear seat). Jaguar's XJ-Series of sedans relies heavily on style as well, though many feel the current, taller rendition has lost some of the classic Jaguar proportions.
The BMW 7 Series and Mercedes-Benz S-Class reside even higher up the price scale. And although both models are undeniably proficient at coddling passengers in opulent surroundings you can't purchase either for less than $75,000. The comparable Lexus LS 460 undercuts that starting price by over $10,000, and even the extended wheelbase version starts under $75K.
If you want some exotic flair with your luxury sedan, and money isn't a concern, the Maserati Quattroporte combines Italian style and performance with premium interior materials and a powerful V8 engine.