Crossovers, SUVs and minivans have all had their moments in the sun, but the traditional sedan continues to buck trends as America's vehicle of choice. Ranging from fuel-efficient subcompacts to opulent luxury barges, this category easily offers the widest spectrum of choice. This year's list is filled with many of the usual suspects, but there are a few notable newcomers as well as a few familiar names that have significantly stepped up their games for 2010. As you read, bear in mind our distinctive definition of sedan: "a car with a four-door body configuration and a conventional trunk or a sloping back with a hinged rear cargo hatch that opens upward."
If you want glitz and glamour, look elsewhere -- but if you want practicality, fuel-efficiency and value, the "under $15,000" bracket reigns supreme. The problem is that these sedans usually aren't very fun, which is why we're so enamored of the genuinely entertaining Honda Fit and Mazda 3. The Mazda 3 remains the best-handling economy car on the market despite its advancing age, and the Fit scoots around corners with unbridled enthusiasm. At the same time, both models are admirably versatile: the Mazda is available in sedan or hatchback form, while the liftback Honda squeezes an amazing 57 cubic feet of maximum cargo volume out of its diminutive dimensions. Want to stay away from the sporty end of the spectrum? Check out the softly sprung Hyundai Elantra, which out-Corollas the Corolla by offering superior styling and feature content for less coin.
Don't be fooled by the Honda Civic's spaceshiplike dashboard and daring exterior design; underneath, this is still the same Civic that so many Americans know and love. Fuel economy is impressive, performance is zesty (particularly if you ante up for the high-revving Si model) and any Civic has a confident feel on the road that's rare among compact sedans. Add in the Civic's enduring reputation for reliability, and you've got a frugal four-door that's downright desirable.
A couple of our favorite midsize sedans also start under $20 large, and their personalities could hardly be more different. The feature-laden Hyundai Sonata looks like a previous-generation Accord, rides like a Camry, and gives you so much for the money that it's an easy recommendation for families on a budget. The newly enlarged Mazda 6 fancies itself a sport sedan in family four-door clothing and delivers a formidable combination of capable handling, eye-catching style and ample dimensions. Your family's priorities will dictate which one is right for you, but you can't go wrong either way.
For a bit more money than the Sonata or 6, Honda will give you the keys to its venerable Accord, which wins its spot in this category by being pretty good at just about everything. It's at once roomy and reasonably fuel-efficient, and it has better steering feel than some cars costing twice as much. Accords with the optional V6 accelerate at a less frenetic rate than most competitors, but Honda's family sedan compensates with a planted feel on the highway and an upscale interior design.
Our other winner in this category, the Toyota Prius, is typically associated with superior fuel economy, but it's actually one of the most well-rounded vehicles on the road. Yes, it's the most fuel-efficient vehicle you can buy for the 2009 model year, but its convenient hatchback body style also enables owners to haul an impressive amount of cargo, and its midsize dimensions allow adults to ride comfortably in back. The only catch is driving dynamics -- from the driver seat, the Prius is possibly the least enjoyable car on the market other than the Smart Fortwo. But if "fun to drive" is low on your priority list, the Prius is a uniquely compelling package.
This year's winners in the under-$30K category took two very different paths to the top. The Pontiac G8 began life at GM's Australian subsidiary as the Holden Commodore, a large rear-wheel-drive sedan with unmistakable American attitude. The front-wheel-drive Volkswagen CC is a trimmed and tailored Passat family sedan with seating for four instead of five. The G8 offers the choice of a stout V6 or one of two brawny V8s, the most potent of which also sees duty in the Chevrolet Corvette. The CC comes with a turbocharged four or a refined narrow-angle V6 ("VR6" in Volkswagen's parlance). Nonetheless, this pair has plenty of common ground. They're strikingly styled, impressively swift and more fun on a back road than sedans of such ample proportions have any right to be. The G8 even boasts a limolike backseat, which should appeal to longer-legged families with a soft spot for speed.
First, the perennial favorite. BMW's 3 Series has been leaving automotive journalists speechless for some time now -- not because we don't have anything to say, but because we've simply run out of superlatives. Forgive us, then, if we sound like a broken record. The 3 Series offers a still-unmatched combination of superb handling and a supple ride, and its free-revving inline-6 engines are models of refinement. Various updates for 2009, including some much-needed cosmetic surgery on the formerly awkward taillights, keep the 3 competitive in the face of ever-escalating competition.
Now for the upstart. Hyundai made skeptics of us all when it promised a full-size, rear-wheel-drive luxury sedan that would cost as much as a 3 Series yet compete with the best from Germany and Japan. Now that the Genesis has arrived, color us believers. OK, so the Genesis isn't quite a Mercedes-Benz S-Class or Lexus LS. What it is, though, is a thoroughly competent luxury sedan that bundles refined V6 or V8 power, pleasing interior materials and a wide array of high-end accoutrements into an absurdly affordable package.
Finally, we have to give some love to the Infiniti G37. We've always admired this rear-drive sport sedan's sharp handling and generally rambunctious nature, but it struck us as a bit too uncivilized. For 2009, we've gotten over ourselves, thanks in no small part to the extra kick from the G's newly upsized 3.7-liter V6. The G37 is closer in size to BMW's 5 Series than it is to the 3 Series, but it competes on price with the 328i, which trails the G by almost 100 horsepower and requires an extra second to sprint from zero to 60 mph. We love the 3 Series' polished character, but the G offers an awful lot of bang for the buck.
We weren't sold on Cadillac's edgy new design language when the first-generation CTS debuted in 2003, but the second-generation model has erased our doubts. This is a genuinely good-looking car, in an unmistakably Cadillac sort of way. Happily, it also performs well, with a European-flavored ride/handling balance, nicely weighted steering and muscular acceleration from the uplevel direct-injected 3.6-liter V6. The CTS is a car Americans should be proud of: a no-excuses luxury sedan that can go toe-to-toe with the world's best.
Our other pick in this category is the often-overlooked Audi A6. With a choice of three smooth and powerful engines -- a naturally aspirated 3.1-liter V6, a new supercharged 3.0-liter V6 and a sweet-sounding 4.2-liter V8 -- the A6 accelerates with expected Germanic authority, and it offers the available security of Quattro all-wheel drive. Handling isn't quite up to BMW standards, but the A6 makes a case for itself with top-notch interior materials and design. We also like that the A6 can be had in wagon form, albeit only with the supercharged V6.
The A6 earned our support in the previous category, but if its Bavarian rival, the BMW 5 Series, were priced $501 cheaper, the Bimmer would have won in a landslide. No matter, though -- the 5 Series still stands out in this rarefied segment. Starting at $45,500 (about $1,500 more than an entry-level A6), the 5 Series is quite simply one of the finest sedans on the market, even in its sixth year of production. The base 528i may seem a touch underpowered, as its turbine-smooth engine is shared with the compact 328i. Step up to the 535i, however, and you'll be rewarded with world-class acceleration from BMW's acclaimed twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-6. The 535i is so good, in fact, that the V8-powered 550i seems like overkill. In any guise, the 5 Series offers a sublime combination of performance, comfort, technology and quality construction.
Joining the veteran 5 Series in the winner's circle is the new Jaguar XF, whose sleek shape represents a bold new direction for the traditionally staid British manufacturer. Some might also call its styling derivative, particularly if a Lexus GS is in close proximity, but we're not complaining -- the XF is one sharply styled sedan. Powered by Jaguar's familiar 4.2-liter V8 in either naturally aspirated or supercharged form, the XF builds speed like a fine motorcar should, and its opulent interior features one of the coolest shift knobs in autodom (the dial-shaped shifter rises up out of the center console when you start the car). If this is a representative glimpse of life after Ford, then we're bullish on Jaguar's future.
The standard-bearer among top-shelf luxury sedans has historically worn a three-pointed star on its hood, and the current Mercedes-Benz S-Class carries on this grand tradition. With an engine lineup consisting of two broad-shouldered V8 engines and one absurdly powerful twin-turbocharged V12, the S-Class moves out with an authority befitting its presumably influential owners. Its interior is predictably loaded with the latest in whiz-bang features, and its unruffled composure over virtually any surface makes it feel rather like a personal high-speed train. The only real knock against the S-Class is its discordant exterior styling, especially those cartoonishly prominent wheel arches. But once you're behind the wheel (or in the backseat, for that matter), the big Benz distinguishes itself as the baddest luxury liner on the block.
However, some fat cats prefer to prowl in a less predictable fashion. For them, there's the Audi A8. A creamy-smooth V8 is standard, while a quirky but effective W12 is optional. It may lack the cachet of the Benz, but the A8 feels like more of a sporting machine when the going gets twisty, and its standard all-wheel drive will warm the hearts of, say, oil executives in Moscow. We also prefer the Audi's styling to the Benz's -- and hey, how many people outside of the taxicab business can say that their car played a starring role in a DeNiro flick?