There's nothing clever about a sedan, yet it's the default choice of millions for good reason. It's a practical, people-pleasing design, a simple four-door passenger package that provides convenient access for all involved, a box for the propulsion unit in front and then another box for cargo in the back. At the moment, the list of best-selling cars reflects two different crosscurrents in modern design. First, there's the trend away from generic designs toward stylish cars packed with features more appropriate for more expensive segments. Ironically enough, the second trend is toward cheaper, de-contented boxes that attempt to offer extreme efficiency at a stripped-down price.
A new breed of small, cheap cars has appeared since the Honda Fit became such a sales sensation, making simplicity fashionable. For the second year, the Ford Fiesta sets the standard by which other cars in this segment are judged. The front-wheel-drive package is small on the outside yet space-efficient on the inside, while the 120-horsepower, 1.6-liter engine is alert as well as thrifty with fuel, delivering 28 city and 37 highway mpg with a manual transmission. Even better, the high-tech automated manual transmission brings nearly the same mpg. An equally high-tech options list includes an impressive range of electronic features, such as keyless ignition/entry and Ford's voice-command Sync system for MP3 players and cell phones.
The Chevrolet Sonic surprises all with its sudden appearance in the mix of cars in this segment. At first glance, the front-wheel-drive package seems like a pug-nose reprise of past efforts from GM's outpost in South Korea, but the new car expresses a far greater level of refinement. In short, it feels great to drive, more like something far higher on the automotive evolutionary scale. The car is available with two engines, and happily, the more powerful of the two — a turbocharged 1.4-liter inline-4 that generates 138 hp and 148 lb-ft of torque — is also the more fuel-efficient, good for 29 city/40 highway mpg with the manual transmission. It takes a lot of effort to make a good small car, and it seems as if Chevy has made the effort.
The Hyundai Accent applies the familiar strengths from the newly fashionable Korean automaker — full-throttle styling and an effective combination of familiar bits and pieces. It's a sound combination that goes down the road much like a downsized version of the Hyundai Sonata, so when you're in commute mode this front-wheel-drive car is at its best, not the least because the 138-hp, 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine is capable of delivering 30 city/40 highway mpg when the manual transmission is at work. Just like the bigger Hyundai sedans, the Accent gives you a lot of car for not much money, and this is the sort of thing that always has had special appeal to American drivers.
When you define this sedan category with the $18,000 limit, things get serious. Not every carmaker can squeeze below this price barrier and still give you a car of consequence. The Ford Focus shows what's possible, delivering a car so good that you forget how little you paid for it. Much of the goodness lies in the European-style execution, a combination of arresting design, a space-efficient yet ergonomically sound cabin and driving dynamics that entertain as well as transport. But in the American style, the front-wheel-drive Focus also offers an impressive list of standard and optional features, especially some with a high-tech aura, notably the latest hands-free Sync connectivity (there's a big central control knob and a touchscreen). The 160-hp, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine gets you 26 city/36 highway mpg when the manual transmission is at work, and when you ask for the Focus SFE model, 40 mpg highway is promised.
Like the Focus, the Hyundai Elantra is a small car made more space-efficient in order to compete for those buyers caught at the bottom end of the market (for such cars as the larger Honda Accord and Toyota Camry) who want more content and refinement rather than just more interior space. Just as with every Hyundai sedan, the front-wheel-drive Elantra gets your attention because it balances all the customary sedan virtues, so this car has a sound 148-hp 1.8-liter engine, delivers 29 city/40 highway mpg when the manual transmission is specified, and has all the usual suspects in place on the list of comfort and convenience items.
The Mazda 3 has been renewed this year, and it still earns a place at the top of this list for the way it has established the template for the cars that have followed. For 2012, Mazda's new Skyactiv engine coaxes more fuel economy from this package, but it comes in a model priced just on the far side of $19,000. Fortunately the front-wheel-drive 2012 Mazda 3 sedan is still available in a less pricey model with a 148-hp 2.0-liter inline-4, which gives you 25 city/33 highway mpg. And, in the Mazda way, the revised Mazda 3 is still fun to drive, both responsive in the corners and newly poised on the highway. Most important, the Mazda 3 puts lots of comfort and convenience features on the table that other manufacturers had previously deleted because of cost considerations, a challenge that other cars in this class have met only recently.
At the $25,000 price point, you once could get fairly large, fairly well-equipped sedans, but time and trouble have gradually reduced expectations until we ordinarily expect no more than spare practicality in this class, a spacious cabin sadly trimmed in plastic. The Kia Optima is a welcome exception, as this front-wheel-drive sedan gives you all the extras that you once thought impossible. We're not exactly talking a bushel basket of electronic options at this price, but the exterior style is the most modern in its class and the cabin is nice without excuses, featuring the little things that make daily driving enjoyable. There's no reason to think a four-cylinder engine gives you second-class status either, since this 200-hp 2.4-liter example brings you 24 city and 34 highway mpg with its automatic transmission.
The Ford Fusion occasionally reminds us that it has been on the scene for a good long time, yet we never really tire of this front-wheel-drive car's balance of restrained good looks, maneuverable size or usable connectivity electronics. This stretched version of Ford's international-size sedan gives you enough interior space even as it makes your footprint in traffic small enough to squeeze through the tight spots. And its 175-hp 2.4-liter engine spins smoothly and gives you 23 city/33 highway mpg. This is a right-size car at the right price, the kind of sedan that prioritizes the way real people really drive.
The redesigned Volkswagen Passat is cutting against the trend in sedan design, going bigger instead of smaller and emphasizing more space rather than more features. These are traditional American preferences, so perhaps it's no surprise that this car is meant only for America and VW has erected a new factory in Tennessee to build it. For all this, the Passat still goes down the road like a German car, and we like the resilient suspension and effortless cruising capability. You have several powertrain options here, but we prefer the 170-hp 2.5-liter five-cylinder, and it brings you 21 city/32 highway mpg when the automatic transmission is at work.
The $30,000 barrier gives you a little room to breathe when it comes to choosing a sedan, and you can aspire to more style, more performance, more electronic features and even more exclusivity. At this price, you can drive a sedan that makes you feel special. The Chrysler 300 has always been about style, and it has successfully captured a quintessentially American look even as its rivals failed conspicuously in similar attempts. The redesigned 300 still has plenty of exterior style, yet now the outside is matched by a cabin that shows evidence of better materials and more careful detailing. This car still goes down the road with the instincts preserved from the rear-wheel-drive Mercedes-Benz platform on which it is built, and now a redesigned V6 engine is up to the task as well, delivering 292 hp from the 3.6-liter V6 and giving you 18 city/27 highway mpg with its eight-speed automatic transmission in place.
Buick is back, and it's showing everyone why it once was the favorite brand of designer Harley Earl, the man who invented GM design. Plenty of style with a certain amount of extravagance is the play here, a kind of confidence that cuts a public profile without shouting. More important, the Buick LaCrosse backs up the message with a sound platform originally derived from a front-wheel-drive German-engineered architecture that has been carefully refined for quiet, composed highway manners in the American idiom. There's a 182-hp 2.4-liter four-cylinder to take you places and it gets 25 city and 36 highway mpg, but the optional 303-hp 3.6-liter V6 might still be within your budget.
The Dodge Charger gets things done without pretense, and we like that. Its redesigned exterior seems to suit almost everyone, while more people than ever enjoy the tight feel of this chassis, originally engineered by Mercedes. The transformation into a top pick in this segment comes from Dodge's ability to get the details right, especially within the cabin, where better fit and finish really improves the way you feel about this car. You also feel better about the rear-wheel-drive Charger when you specify the redesigned V6, because this 292-hp 3.6-liter engine with its eight-speed transmission performs like something special, including fuel economy of 18 city/27 highway mpg.
This price segment is populated almost exclusively by entry-level luxury sedans. The perennial favorite, the BMW 3 Series, is completely new for 2012 and it remains an outstanding example of the way practical considerations of comfort and fuel-efficiency can be combined with expressive styling and engaging driving performance. Of course, this doesn't mean the other cars we've selected as outstanding choices are leftovers — far from it.
The Volvo S60 was completely redesigned last year, adopting curvaceous styling, a higher-quality cabin and dramatically improved driving dynamics. While it's not exactly a sport sedan, the S60 strikes a balance between a comfortable ride and responsive handling that will satisfy a wide array of driving tastes. The new-for-2012 turbocharged five-cylinder engine is also good enough to make the more powerful turbo-6 a rather unnecessary expense.
The Mercedes-Benz C-Class bolsters itself for 2012 with a pair of new engines. The turbocharged four-cylinder found in the new C250 base model achieves strong fuel economy for the class, while the C350's new V6 achieves the now-obligatory 300-hp plateau of its rivals. Most importantly, the traditional C-Class characteristics endure: over-engineered construction, a luxurious interior and refined driving manners.
Should you be searching for the sportiest of these entry-level luxury sedans, the Infiniti G sedan continues to make a compelling case for itself. It's also a pretty good value proposition as well. The king of value in this class, however, is the Hyundai Genesis. Folks looking for a comfortable, spacious car that can be packed to the gills with the latest convenience, luxury and high-tech equipment for a very reasonable price will be hard-pressed to find a better bargain than the Genesis.
For the most part, this price category consists of midsize luxury sedans. After years of rising prices and diminishing quality, the current (and cheaper) Mercedes-Benz E-Class is a home run in terms of size, safety, driving manners, equipment and overall refinement. The E's restrained design inside and out is classic Mercedes, while its many high-tech features embrace the here-and-now (without making less tech-savvy drivers go cross-eyed). Not too sporty and not too isolating, the E-Class also strikes a driving balance that should satisfy many different drivers.
The Audi A6 has been completely redesigned for 2012. Though the styling hardly breaks new ground for Audi, it's handsome and restrained. Inside the A6 cabin, Audi continues to show its leadership in terms of design and craftsmanship. Of particular note are the new car's sharp driving dynamics, which make this Audi sedan more rewarding around corners than the new BMW 5 Series. Unlike past sporty Audis, though, the new A6 doesn't suffer from a harsh ride.
Finally, the Jaguar XF represents the handsome man of the group. Though not without its flaws (electrical gremlins are known to creep up), the XF stands out thanks to unique styling and an interior filled with classy materials and interesting design flourishes that perpetually make you feel as if you're driving something special. This one is for those who think with their hearts rather than their heads.
This is an odd group to be sure, consisting of ultra-performance versions of entry-level luxury sedans, bargain-priced large luxury sedans and the Audi A7. We'll get to the others shortly, but the A7 is essentially an Audi A6 with a long, slanted roof line that culminates in a hatchback trunk. It's an odd duck to be sure, but it takes the already attractive attributes of the new A6 and adds more practicality and a distinct visual character. In a way, this one is for those who think with both their hearts and heads.
If you're more of a "head" sort of thinker, then the Hyundai Equus will definitely be for you in this price range. Hyundai is obviously not a name that resonates with "luxury," but when you take a peek at this large sedan's features list, you'll see that the Equus at least plays the part well. For less than $70,000, you can get the sort of luxury and convenience goodies found in other high-end luxury cars for about $100,000. Is an Equus anywhere near as nice as a Mercedes-Benz S-Class? No, but there's something to be said for having all the toys for not all the cost.
Finally there's the Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG. This high-octane C-Class is now one of the last AMG models to have the naturally aspirated 6.2-liter V8 that is without question one of the coolest-sounding engines on the planet. It packs quite a punch, too. And though the C63 doesn't possess the sort of corner-taking abilities of the dearly departed BMW M3 sedan, it's certainly no slouch. Much of the same could be said of the Cadillac CTS-V , which certainly deserves an honorable mention.
This would be the rarefied air of sedans, both in terms of price and all those countless attributes that make a great car great. Nowhere is this better exemplified than the Mercedes-Benz S-Class. For decades, the Mercedes flagship has been at the forefront of automotive innovation and the benchmark against which others are compared. Even in the twilight years of the current-generation car, the S-Class remains a leader in terms of technology, safety, space, comfort and (without a doubt) luxury. For 2012, the big Mercedes even comes in a new diesel-powered model that achieves best-in-class fuel economy and range.
Nipping on the heels of the S-Class, though, is the new Audi A8 , which could've earned our recommendation based on the appearance of its interior alone. Photos and words really can't do it justice; you'd have to step up to a Bentley Mulsanne to find a more meticulously crafted cabin. Besides the interior, the A8 provides a more involved driving experience than the S-Class, with a bit more road feel coming through the wheel and the seat of your pants. If there's one particular point of lament, it would be the rather anonymous styling.
The Porsche Panamera might be lucky to be described as anonymous, since few kind words have been said of its sheet metal. However, that just makes its other achievements that much more impressive. Its engines range in power from "robust" to "thermonuclear." Its handling truly lives up to the Porsche name. Its cabin is far bigger than you'd expect, and beautifully constructed. In total, the Panamera manages to achieve the exact midway point between a sports car and a practical luxury sedan.