B. Grant Whitmore, Contributor
Life is full of tough choices. It sometimes feels like we can't get through the day without making some important decision that will affect us for the rest of our lives. Would it make sense to move our 401(K) into an aggressive small cap investment and potentially lose our life savings, or should we leave it in a hum-drum money market account and watch all of our friends move into Gold Coast condos upon retirement while we are stuck kicking ourselves for not having had the gumption to lay it on the line while we were younger? Should we shuck the corporate job, buy a cabin in the woods, and write great poetry like Thoreau only to find that our neighbor is Ted Kaczynski, or should we stay in the rat race and climb up the corporate ladder like a spider monkey only to watch it all slip away because our doctor has forced us into early retirement due to a weakened body from too many years of no sleep, little exercise, and excessive stress? Would we like to see our golden years filled with the smiling faces of wonderful grandchildren, resigned to the fact that being grandparents means first being parents, which means that we'll probably have to drive a minivan, family sedan, or station wagon along the way, or do we forgo parenthood and enjoy the ride in that sexy little Miata or Z3, only to find ourselves insane from loneliness in the twilight of our lives? Yes, life is full of difficult decisions, and while Edmund's can't help you decide what to do with your 401(K) or career path, we can certainly recommend that you have kids, assuming that the only thing holding you back is a desire to keep driving to exciting places in an exciting car.
Four sporty family sedans were scrupulously evaluated before we came to the conclusion that family life and good times behind a steering wheel aren't mutually exclusive. Always careful to provide our loyal readers with a well-considered opinion, we had 10 drivers from various walks of life spend four grueling days driving our assembled fleet of sport sedans. What cars did we decide were worthy of our consideration? Merely some of the most interesting vehicles that Europe, Japan, and the United States have to offer. By the way, we tried to represent a large financial cross-section, so the prices of our cars run from less than $20,000 to nearly $30,000.
Representing Europe is the new-for-`98 Volkswagen Passat. The all-new Mazda 626 and the Nissan Maxima, an old favorite, are in Japan's corner. Weighing in for the United States is the freshened Ford Contour. With the exception of the Volkswagen Passat, which has a turbocharged inline four-cylinder engine, the vehicles in our comparison test all feature six cylinders arranged in a V-type configuration. All of the cars came to us with a 5-speed manual transmission. Power ratings vary from 150 ponies in our VW, all the way up to 190 ponies in the Nissan Maxima. Torque ratings likewise show great disparity, VW again resting at the bottom of the pile with 155 pound-feet of twist action, and Nissan rising to the top of the heap once more with 205 pound-feet of torque.
Differences in engine performance are just the first of the contrasts we found when evaluating these fine cars. Unique suspensions, tires, seats, steering gear, clutch plates, shift levers, and the myriad other components that allow drivers to distinguish one car from another were all weighed against each other in a difficult attempt to name one car the winner. While you may question some of our findings, rest assured that the rankings which follow were arrived at after countless hours of argument, blackmail, and threat of personal injury among our 10 cantankerous judges.
Fourth Place - Mazda 626 ES V6
We added the Mazda 626 to our comparison test because it is a roomy and sophisticated sedan that can be had with a V-6 engine and a manual transmission. The 626 was totally redesigned for 1998, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to determine how the new car shakes out against its competition. The 626 ES we were given by Mazda was an attractive if somewhat anonymous car. The Mazda's lack of distinguishing characteristics made it difficult to keep track of in traffic while we were heading down California's busy Highway 101, caravan-style.
What the 626 lacks in appearance it more than makes up for in standard equipment. With a base price of just over $23,600, the 626 ES comes standard with a 170-horsepower V-6 engine, four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, traction control, CD player, remote keyless entry, power windows, power locks, power moonroof, power leather seats, fog lights, air conditioning, and steering wheel mounted cruise control buttons.
Despite the value that this car seems to offer, it falls at the bottom of our list mainly because of some niggling build quality questions and the impression that the 626 may suffer from poor reliability in the not too distant future. The first thing we noticed was a tendency for the check engine light to flicker on and off sporadically. This happened several times to one of our drivers while he was helping map out our road course the day before our official test was to begin. He pulled to the side of the road, popped the hood, and found nothing amiss, though a large black gooey stain on the inside of the hood was cause for some alarm. After a fruitless search for leaky underhood components, we decided to drive the car a bit and see if the engine light would correct itself. It did, and the 626 joined us the next day rather than make a trip to the Mazda dealer in Santa Barbara. We also noticed that our 626 exhibited lousy build quality. The same driver who suffered through the false-alarm engine light suddenly whipped to the right shoulder of the Pacific Coast Highway on our first night with the car, flashers blinking in the deepening gloom. The center high-mounted stop lamp had loosened from its moorings, flipped itself round, and was bathing the 626's interior with blaring red light each time he stepped on the brake. Our test car also exhibited misaligned body panels and gave the general impression that each of its screws could have used an additional turn to the right. We noticed build quality glitches in a 1997 Mazda MX-6 test car (whose leaking A/C system drenched one driver's belongings as they sat in the passenger side footwell), which before its demise was produced at the same Flat Rock, Michigan plant as our 626. We should note that Mazda test cars we've driven that were made in Japan have been flawlessly assembled and have run like finely tuned Swiss watches.
Our 626 tester turned out to be a pretty decent highway driver though, with many of our judges commending the car's powerful engine and responsive steering. When the road turned twisty, however, our judges' opinions fell. The 626's rear suspension proved to be a bit squirrelly, giving drivers the impression that the Mazda was in danger of skidding off the pavement back ass-wards. Several of our drivers also complained about the car's brakes, which were thought to be too touchy. One of our testers compared the 626's brakes to a light switch, complaining that using them was an on or off proposition.
Basically, the 626 is a decent car that lacks the performance leanings that we had hoped for when we placed it in this very tough comparison test. The reliability questions it raised during our time with it didn't help its case either. As such, it's no wonder that it landed squarely in last place.
Third Place - Ford Contour SE V6
The Ford Contour has been one of our favorite cars since its introduction in 1995. A bland exterior is the perfect disguise for the free-revving 170-horsepower engine lurking beneath the hood. Changes to the 1998 model include new styling at the front and rear of the car, which is supposed to give the Contour a more distinctive appearance. We're not certain that Ford has succeeded in this regard, since the Contour was often confused with the similarly-colored Mazda 626 when viewed from a distance.
The Ford lacks some of the refinement that the other cars in this comparo exhibited. A chintzy stereo, goofy looking cloth upholstery, a lack of power doodads, and relative simplicity turned off some of our drivers. One of our more sophisticated testers couldn't get over the car's rental fleet image, while another complained that its lack of amenities reminded her of a dorm room. Other gripes about the Contour stemmed from the car's sub-par build quality. Panel gaps reminiscent of the Grand Canyon marred the car's flanks, and the rubber gaskets around the taillight assembly poked out obnoxiously.
Most of these complaints were forgotten, however, once our testers found themselves behind the wheel. The Contour, quite simply, is the closest thing that buyers on a budget can get to a BMW. The aforementioned engine is just one part of an equation that makes this car such an excellent purchase for the shallow-pocketed enthusiast. The real excitement of the Contour's driving experience is the result of the car's excellent chassis, suspension, and steering. Toss the Contour into a corner, and it's as easy to catch as a softball thrown by a preschooler. Even the most timid of our test drivers found themselves racing down challenging two-lane roads in the Contour faster than they did in any other car.
If the Contour had been loaded up with a leather interior, CD player, and sunroof, it probably would have placed higher in the comparison. Some of our judges, however, couldn't recognize the value of a race- ready sedan that comes reasonably equipped for just over $18,000. These are probably the same people that don't think Good Will Hunting should win the Oscar for Best Picture since it cost so little to make. Well, it can be our little secret: the Contour is the definite bang-for-the-buck winner in this test.
Second Place - Volkswagen Passat GLS
The Volkswagen Passat's second place finish was a surprise for nearly every one involved in the evaluation of these cars. It seemed that when we came together for dinner each night, the Passat was the car that we wanted to talk about. "How can a car with a measly 150-horsepower engine be so damn fast?" some of us pondered. "How can a $23,000 car feel so luxurious?" wondered others. If Volkswagen Chairman Ferdinand Piech had been a fly on the wall at our nightly repast, he would have undoubtedly been laughing into his sleeve. And telling us to order Beck's instead of Fat Tire.
The secret to the Passat is really not much of a secret. Those paying attention to Volkswagen know that the company has been on quite a roll these past few years. The current generation Golf and Jetta have been darlings of the automotive press, and the new models rolling out of Volkswagen's factories promise more of the same well into the next century. The Passat itself, a new model this year, is based on the fantastic Audi A4, which has single-handedly lifted Audi out of market obscurity and has placed the company on the same lofty perch as BMW and Mercedes-Benz.
Like the A4, the Passat offers a great deal of value when stacked up against its peers. The car's refined front suspension virtually eliminates torque steer, even under hard acceleration. The linear steering allows drivers to track confidently through high speed turns, and the excellent suspension soaks up road irregularities better than a midsize family sedan has a right to.
Complaints about the Passat concerned the car's light clutch pedal and dorky wheel covers. A short gripe list for a car that came to us out of the box with virtually no options. With an even more powerful engine, the Passat would have placed at the top of our list.
First Place - Nissan Maxima SE
Despite strong showings by its competitors, there was no denying the Nissan Maxima's superiority at the end of the day. A beautifully appointed interior, fantastic stereo, and comfortable seats were the perfect place from which to take command of this car's 190 eager ponies.
The motor in the Maxima was probably the most popular component of the entire car. The utter smoothness of the power delivery is a marvel that most mechanical engineers probably only dream of. The result is a confidence that there is little else on the road that will thwart a driver intent on passing or merging. Sharp steering, a precise manual transmission, and progressive brakes nicely complement the motor. Unfortunately, the suspension was a bit disappointing; no worse than the other cars in the comparo, but definitely the least polished element in this high gloss package.
The Nissan's driving experience is what sets this car apart from its competition. Like a Mazda Miata, the Maxima feels like an extension of the driver, not just a tool to get from Point A to Point B in a hurry. Want to make a sharp right turn? It's almost as if the car knows before you do. Need to downshift for a quick pass on a two-lane road? The Maxima's gearshift falls to hand like a fly ball into Lenny Dykstra's glove. Yup, this car so impressed our assembled group that our evaluation sheets were filled with comments like this: "Of all the cars I've driven today, this is the one I would buy." "I've read about this car for years, and it's actually as good as everyone says." "It handles like a dream, a perfect 10." Pretty high praise for a car that was riding on the oldest platform in our assembled group.
The few complaints we had about the Maxima are related to its styling. Some of us still aren't thrilled by the car's derriere, thinking that it looks too blunt. Others griped about the car's lack of a split folding rear seat (a ski pass-through is available, however). All in all, though, nobody wanted to spend too much time griping about the Maxima; this was the definite winner.
Yes indeed, sedans can be fun. As we were wrapping up this evaluation, one of our staff members was wondering out loud if he would a take serious financial hit if he traded his Miata in on a Maxima. This from a guy who waited years to get a Miata, only to find that it doesn't exactly blend with his status as a new father. If that isn't a testament to the sport sedan segment, and the Nissan Maxima in particular, I don't know what is. So, go ahead, have those kids. There's plenty of fun to be had in Sedanland.