When Henry Ford introduced the Model T to the buying public in 1909, the car created a sensation. As the first affordable family sedan (priced at $260 in 1925) the average person could afford (and repair with basic hand tools), the Model T changed the world and brought America to the open road.
Now in the 21st century, the average family sedan hovers in the $25,000 range (over 87 times the cost of a Model T) and requires a computer to repair whatever is malfunctioning in the engine bay. Nonetheless, the 4-door family sedan has come a long way, and we've assembled the latest and greatest North America has to offer: the Chevrolet Impala, Dodge Intrepid, Ford Taurus, Honda Accord, Mitsubishi Galant, Nissan Maxima, Oldsmobile Intrigue, Saturn LS and the Volkswagen Passat.
Why these nine? Because since our last family sedan shootout in 1998, they've all been freshly updated with either new powertrains, additional features and, in some cases, major makeovers (with the exception of the relatively unchanged Honda Accord). You'll recognize two vehicles from our previous test - our former winner, the Honda Accord, is back to defend its title and the second-place Oldsmobile Intrigue was invited again due to it's new 3.5-liter DOHC V6 and stability control system. So why leave out other contenders like the Toyota Camry? For one, it was a part of our 1998 test (the Toyota placed a respectable third) and two, there have been no major changes since then.
Our test team spent a total of 10 days with these vehicles, crawling in, under and all around to evaluate the real-world livability of these family sedans. We took them out to the test track for performance evaluations, flogging them to see which would perform the best under strenuous conditions. Then we performed the most dreaded test of all: cramming five editors and a trunk load of gear into each vehicle, then running through a test loop that included smooth highways, pot hole-riddled streets and parking lot speed bumps. We made these sacrifices with the desire to empower our readers with knowledge of the good, the bad and the ugly of each vehicle.
So without further ado, here are the winners, losers, the up-and-comers and falls from grace.
Ninth Place - 2000 Chevrolet Impala
Twenty years ago, the Impala was one of the best-selling nameplates in the United States, bar none. And while the Impalas of yesteryear were mega-ton behemoths on the highways, today's version is merely a shadow of its former self. Our 2000 model, an LS edition, consistently ranked in the bottom third of our evaluations and left many of our editors wondering what went wrong with the successful nameplate that has been absent from the Chevrolet lineup since 1996.
Background and Our Test Vehicle
When Ed Cole (then chief engineer for Chevrolet) sent the first Impala off the assembly line in 1958, Chevrolet's latest creation was dubbed "a prestige car within the reach of the average American citizen." As an uplevel trim package on full-size coupes and wagons, the Impala quickly won loyalty and favoritism as one of America's most loved full-sized cars. In 1961, the Impala received the coveted Super Sport (SS) option and the legendary 409 engine the stuff songs are written about.
In the 1970s, the Impala took on a whole new image with a 223-inch length and an overall package that helped it to outsell every other car in the country. But with the OPEC crisis in the late '70s, and the resulting high gas prices in the '80s, the Impala became a shorter, taller and narrower fuel sipper until 1986, when it was dropped from the Chevrolet line up.
To the delight of enthusiasts, a Caprice-based Impala SS returned in 1994 with a Corvette-derived LT-1 V8 and a monochromatic color scheme that made the car a bad-to-the-bone, rear-wheel-drive family sport sedan. Today, the '90s Impala SS's have taken on a "collectable" quality, sought out for their compliant ride, tire-smoking power and aggressive good looks.
Our new 2000 test vehicle was a far cry from the original Cole dreamed up 42 years ago, or even the sorely missed '94-'96 version. Gone is the traditional rear wheel drive and throaty V8, replaced by a 3.8-liter V6 and front-drive componentry. As for looks, well, most of our editors wouldn't be caught dead with a new Impala in their driveway. Our consensus: Chevrolet should have kept with the former Impala SS program. But in typical GM fashion, once a vehicle is perfected, the platform sees an untimely death. Thus, we get this warmed-over Lumina.
Ugly. That was the term most often used to describe the 2000 Impala. The new "squashed greenhouse" look isn't befitting of the Impala lineage, which imparts a breadbox appearance. According to Chevrolet Chief Exterior Designer, John Cafaro, "The Impala nameplate has so much positive equity behind it that we wanted to build on its foundation. We knew that to bring back the Impala name, it had to have the right look, the right stance and the right performance."
Obviously, someone didn't get the memo.
The front of the Impala features a low and wide fascia, which looks more like a frowning Sumo wrestler than an aggressive stance. The Impala still shares bulging bodylines with its predecessor, but includes a high decklid that gives more of a dramatic wedge shape than the rounded "sleeper" look Impala enthusiasts are used to. Looking at the Impala from the rear, you'd think the design team had penned the hideous tail lamps right after a bad acid trip, bringing a new meaning to the term ugly. In the fit and finish department, the Impala came in dead last, with editors noting extensive paint orange peel, misfitting panels and trunk gaps that were off 1/8-inch from one side to the other.
Interior Features, Controls, Materials and Design
Ergonomically, the Impala is pleasing to drive with a good driving position, but fails miserably in the aesthetics department with mismatched material colors, gaping air vents and exposed screw heads.
Driver and passenger receive Lay-Z-Boy-like recliners up front, which seriously lack lumbar and lateral support. All drivers' controls are decently placed and within an arm's reach. We really disliked the placement of the fog lamp switch, which is buried behind the steering wheel.
Climate controls are intuitive and easy to use, with dual-slider temperature controls, decent-sized rotary knobs for fan speed and vent direction. Oversized buttons make the selection of fresh/recirculated air, AC and rear defrost are a piece of cake. We were disappointed with the decision of Chevrolet's engineers to continue with the all-in-one turn signal/wiper/washer/cruise control stalk, which will probably begin to lose some functionality (we've seen a few of these units become sloppy and eventually lose electrical terminal contact from continual use) after two years of operation. Two large cup holders are located in the center console.
Back seat occupants receive a comfortable bench with decent seating for two, but three can be quite cramped. Head- and legroom is nonexistent, which left us wondering, "Is this really supposed to be a full-sized car?" Pull down the rear armrest and voila! Two cup holders are available to hold large cups of soda.
Interior materials lack quality textures and instead sport rubbery vinyls; glossy plastics and a leftover-parts-bin feel that best resembles Playskool parts. Perhaps it's time Chevrolet took lessons from Ford's Visteon group on how interiors are done.
The Impala LS comes with a host of cool features, including anti-lock brakes, traction control, dual front and driver-side air bags, child seat anchors, dual heated outside mirrors and a tire-inflation monitor as standard equipment.
Engine and Transmission
Of all the vehicles in this test, the stalwart 3800 V6 was the only pushrod engine in the group and one of the punchiest. The powertrain pulls strongly and smartly with excellent low-end grunt enough to propel the Impala from a dead stop to 60 mph in a decent 8.2 seconds. Backed by an electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission, the Impala exhibited crisp, precise shifting with no hesitation when downshifting. Upshifts were nearly imperceptible under normal driving conditions. Nail the throttle and the transmission responds smartly through the gears.
Suspension, Ride and Handling
The Impalas of the '60s were known for their "jet smooth" ride and the 2000 Impala continues with the tradition of large-car heft and loose-wandering feel. If you miss the big-boat feel of a 1972 Thunderbird or Caprice, the new Impala was designed just for you. On the highway, the Impala soaks up nearly every rut and bump in the road, making long trips comfortable, but teeters off the edge of compliance with vague steering (our tester had over one inch of play in the steering rack) and an obviously soft spring and shock combination that left us remembering the days our parents drove pillow barges.
While the four-wheel, MacPherson strut suspension shines on the highway, canyon driving brings out the handling weakness of the Impala. "Wallowy," "tons of body roll" and "weak" were the comments most often used to describe the Impala's handling characteristics. With the new Impala having 25mm additional suspension travel over the Buick La Sabre (which shares the same-platform) and our LS tester featuring the upgraded touring package suspension, we would have expected it to handle better than the stripped Ford Taurus. Unfortunately, that wasn' the case as the Impala came in dead last in our handling exercises.
Chevrolet had a great thing going with the Impala SS in the mid 1990s. It was a large family sedan that would comfortably haul five large adults with tire-smoking performance and a sport suspension that could take on anything a sports coupe could ... and outrun it. At its $25,415 price point, the Impala is still cheaper than the Maxima, Intrepid, Intrigue and Passat we tested, but there's over $3,500 difference between our Impala and the less expensive Taurus in this test. While Chevrolet touts the 2000 Impala's heritage, this latest generation is such a long throw away from Ed Cole's original vision, perhaps Chevrolet should have held off, waiting for a vehicle worthy of the Impala nameplate.
I want to like this car. I really do, but it won't let me. Styling? Ugly. Performance? Mediocre. Interior design and quality? Poor. I almost wish Chevrolet hadn't called this car the Impala, because it's a disrespect to all of the cool Impalas before it. Brent Romans.
The Impala appears at first glance to be a decent value as the mid-priced car in this test. But spend some time driving it, and slowly the realization dawns that several of the cars in this test are cheaper, more attractive, just as commodious and more enjoyable to drive. Christian Wardlaw
Stereo Evaluation - 2000 Chevrolet Impala
Ranking in Class: Seventh.
System Score: 3.5
Components. System consists of 6x9 full-range drivers in the back deck, mounted transversely. There is also a small power amplifier mounted on the rear deck. No speakers in the rear doors. Front doors have full-range, six-inch drivers with no tweeters. Electronics include an AM/FM radio with a six-disc CD changer.
Performance. Not a very impressive system. I would have preferred that they gave us a single-play CD player in exchange for some tweeters in the doors or in the dash. As is, the system isn't very exciting. Confusing controls on the radio, poor ergonomics, and lousy sound. And crummy FM reception too. Oh well, at least it matches the car.
Conclusion. One of our least favorite stereos to go with one of our least favorite cars.
Eighth Place - 2000 Oldsmobile Intrigue
Let us begin by saying that this is not your father's Oldsmobile. Fact of the matter is, this Olds doesn't resemble older models of the marque thanks to a distinct European exterior design. Under the skin, however, it's all Olds, exhibiting a punchy powertrain, comfy interior, wallowy suspension and questionable build quality.
Even though our tester finished in eighth place, that doesn't mean the Intrigue is a bad car. Considering what Olds has historically brought to the buying public (the Ninety-Eight, Eighty-Eight and Cutlass Ciera come to mind), this latest Oldsmobile is a breath of fresh air, leading us to believe there is still life in the GM division after all.
Background and Our Test Vehicle
The Intrigue was the toddler of our test fleet, being introduced in 1998 with its gunsights squarely fixed on the Accord and Maxima. The Intrigue has been a godsend to Oldsmobile, helping to redefine the brand's identity, which had become cloudy in the late '80s and early '90s.
Unlike its competition, our tester was fitted with the optional Precision Control System Oldsmobile's fancy terminology for stability control which worked wonders during a deluge from a thunderstorm. If the PCS system senses the vehicle beginning to skid or slide, the system will temporarily apply braking power to the wheel that is opposite the vehicle's yaw direction, nudging it back in the direction the driver intends to travel.
At its as-tested MSRP of $26,765, the Olds was beat out only by the Passat GLX for most-expensive honors and, given its price point, lack of features and shoddy workmanship, we can't believe how Oldsmobile thinks it can command such a high sticker for the Intrigue. So how does it stack up to the rest in the class? Honestly, it doesn't.
European in nature, the Intrigue is as far from traditional Olds styling as you can get.
Out front, the Olds isn't intriguing, with an Aurora-inspired front fascia that looks more like a design afterthought, leaving little character, and an unfinished look. From the profile, you'd think the Intrigue was a Ford Contour rip-off with the arched roofline, sweeping C-pillar and lateral accent lines.
Fit and finish is not one of the Intrigue's strong points. While checking panel gaps, we were stunned to find that not a single panel matched another (the hood and trunk were off by at least one-eighth of an inch, leaving us to wonder if this was a hand-built car).
Interior Features, Controls, Materials and Designs
Our concerns about the car's build quality were reinforced by the interior, where we found rubber door seals that were separating, speaker grilles that were falling off and tweeter surrounds that felt as though they were tacked on with hot glue.
Other than these issues, the Intrigue's interior is light, airy and luxurious-looking, with supple leather and creative use of two-tone colorations that matched well from panel to panel. The soft-touch dash brought a bit of class, but we were left wondering why many of the plastic trim pieces looked like they had been rushed from the injection mold to the assembly line without detail finishing.
The driver and passenger will find dual bucket seats with great lumbar support, but they lack thigh and lateral support. For the long stints on the highway, the chairs perform admirably, providing you're under six feet in height. Taller drivers will be wishing for additional seat travel.
Controls are well-marked and easy to reach, but exhibit a cheap feel when manipulated, similar to what Chevrolet utilized in the 1980s. The dual-zone climate control is a joke, with the passenger only receiving a limited range of five to seven degrees temperature adjustment from the driver's initial setting. We also question why Oldsmobile elected to place the on/off switch for the cruise control on the dash like the imports (which is a criticism of imports in general), instead of on the wheel where the rest of the cruise control buttons are located.
In back, rear occupants will be begging to be extracted after 10 miles. The couch is overtly hard with too much rearward rake. Compounding discomfort is a severe lack of leg- and foot room, which makes the back seat suitable only for individuals with short legs. Dual cup holders and air vents help make the experience bearable.
Engine and Transmission
In typical GM style, the powerplant is one of the standout aspects of the Intrigue. The new 3.5-liter twin-cam V6 that replaces the venerable pushrod 3800 makes the Intrigue a joy to drive. With 215 horsepower, the Olds responds instantly to throttle input, creating a wide torque band that almost never seems to end. Engine vibration is minimal at idle and at highway speeds.
Jab at the throttle and the Intrigue springs to life, waiting for the new-for-2000 electronically controlled four-speed automatic transaxle to catch up. Once downshifting is complete, upshifts are clean and precise, changing gears right at redline. On hills, we'd recommend Intrigue owners manually downshift into a lower gear, rather than allow the tranny time to think, contemplate, then reflect on whether or not to select third or second gear. The resulting hesitation left our editors no choice but to vote the Intrigue's tranny to a last place finish.
Suspension, Ride and Handling
The Intrigue sunk to the bottom in the handling department, again taking last place in our evaluations. Wallowing, softness and lots of body roll were observed by all of our editors. While the suspension is decent on the open highway, hit an overpass expansion joint and the Intrigue takes a couple of undulation cycles to settle down. Might we suggest additional shock rebound valving?
If it were not for the optional stability control, some editors would think twice about taking this vehicle on super-twisty mountain roads. Lots of body roll was present even during long sweeping corners, and you can feel the stability control kick in when cornering hard, which helped keep the Olds out of the guardrails.
Editors fell into a love/hate relationship with the standard Magnasteer speed-sensitive steering system. In the parking lot, we had no problem maneuvering the Intrigue with our pinky finger, but on the highway, the steering became dreadfully heavy at times. We were also surprised during cornering exercises that the system would increase or decrease sensitivity while accelerating through a corner an unnerving feeling to say the least.
For the family looking to hit the highways, or those living where inclement weather makes traveling an adventure, the Intrigue is a decent car and will get you through the muck with little hassle. But once the kids hit the six-foot-tall-zone, you'll be looking for a vehicle with a larger back seat. And while Oldsmobile has made great strides within the past five years, the Intrigue still has to play catch up with Ford, Honda, and a number of others especially in terms of performance handling.
Yep, this isn't your father's Oldsmobile, but at $26,765, we'd expect a whole lot more in the suspension, interior space and fit-and-finish departments. And while the Intrigue finished second in our '98 test, its only upgrades have been in powertrain, stability control and a minor face lift. On the other side of the coin, with the exception of the Accord, the competition in this round-up has all been significantly redesigned and/or re-engineered in the last two years, leaving the Olds to play catch up.
The Intrigue is not a bad car: indeed, to me it's far more satisfying than either the Impala or Saturn to drive. The Intrigue's primary problem is build quality. This cabin is embarrassingly assembled, and I don't even work for Oldsmobile. Pieces inside creak and groan, exhibit poor alignment, can be popped off with a single hand and display an unacceptable amount of casting "flash." The exterior is better executed, but far from tops in class. Christian Wardlaw.
Oldsmobile has co-branded the Intrigue with the TV show, "The X-Files." Well, after driving the Intrigue, I think Mulder and Scully need to search for the missing brains of the Intrigue's engineers. The suspension is horrible and the Intrigue has as much personality as a bowl of peas. Am I Intrigued? Sure I want to know who would buy this car. Brent Romans.
Stereo Evaluation - 2000 Oldsmobile Intrigue
Ranking in Class: Eighth.
System Score: 3.0
Components. The system includes 6x9 full-range speakers on the back deck, plus five-inch, full-range drivers in the front doors rolled off to some cheesy tweeters up above. There are no speakers in the rear doors. Electronics include an in-dash AM/FM CD player.
Performance. As the score would indicate, not a very impressive system. The tweeters in the front doors are horribly overbright, producing a sensation not unlike ice-picks in the ears. Even when turned down with the inadequate tone controls, they still stab at the lobes. The radio has five presets instead of the usual six, and the SEEK and TUNE buttons are confusing (one is digital and up and down, the other circular and manual -- what were they thinking?). The buttons are too small and the ergonomics suck.
Conclusion. Use a DiscMan instead.
Seventh Place - 2000 Saturn LS2
We had driven Saturn's L-Series before, so we figured we knew the LS2 even before we got behind the wheel. Well, yes and no. Our sedan tester excelled in areas where the other L-Series failed, and vice-versa. We also found that body color can have a dramatic effect on how the interior looks. The Medium tan dash and seats looked great on the Medium Gold wagon we drove earlier this year, but our Blackberry tester made the interior color look more like strained yams than a pleasing beige color.
The LS2 was the second least expensive car of the group, even though it was loaded with every available option, which left our editors thinking, "How'd they do that?" The answer was painfully obvious. Build quality from the Jurassic period, inconsistent interior materials and wavy plastic bodywork. Yet, the Saturn garnered a seventh place finish through outstanding powertrain performance, a low price point and good cargo-holding capability.
Background and OurTest Vehicle
The L-Series is the newborn of our test group. New from the ground up for 2000, this line-expanding entry for Saturn shares the design and philosophical heritage of its predecessors, yet paves a new road for the GM subsidiary.
Saturn has positioned the L-Series as an upscale family vehicle with sporting potential, and they've succeeded in spades. The company has been able to produce a sedan that can haul the family around in relative comfort, with enough power to keep dear ol' Dad happy behind the wheel, yet pack enough features that Mom feels coddled. Oh, the as-tested and fully loaded $23,860 price tag didn't hurt it a bit, making the LS2 one of the value stories in the test.
The LS2 shares many of its styling cues with its sibling S-Series signature headlamps, tail lamps, dent-resistant body side panels and horizontal character lines while introducing new design elements vertical "C" pillar, body-colored "D" pillar and fat-lipped bumpers -- to create an identity all its own. The look is distinctive, but left our editors cold, as it garnered an eighth place finish in styling points.
Of all the cars we tested, the LS2 exhibited the worst fit and finish of the lot. Not a single panel was fit properly, with gaps ranging from 1/16-inch to 1/4-inch in width and nearly all panels exhibiting a great deal of waviness, as though they were pulled from the mold before they had thoroughly cooled. On the highway we experienced so much hood flutter that one editor actually pulled off the highway to be certain the hood was indeed latched.
Interior Features, Controls, Materials and Design
In the wagon and sedan we reviewed earlier this year, we actually liked the beige interior color and praised the ergonomic layout of the cabin -- with controls for lights/signals and wiper/washer within an easy finger's reach on their distinct stalks. The climate control's large dials for air temperature and airflow direction were also looked upon favorably, but we disliked Saturn's selection of a "spin-dial" fan speed selector switch and the placement of the window switches around the shift console.
Ditto for the sedan, except for some strange reason, the medium tan interior color on our Blackberry-colored test car took on a caramelized look orange even which made the harsh dash grain stand out like a sore thumb. More than once did we hear the term "elephant skin" used to describe the grain pattern on the dash and plastic interior trim.
Aside from the displeasing color, the Saturn's interior was packed with little creature comforts that made driving it a real pleasure: cushy, dual-heated bucket seats, cigarette lighter cubby in the center console, oversized map pockets and fake wood trim accents.
While the front seats were comfortable for long stints, the same cannot be said for the back, as legroom and foot room weren't impressive. Nevertheless, Saturn designed the rear of the LS2 with the family in mind, as back seaters receive two cup holders, tweeters in the doors, a 12-volt powerpoint and child safety seat anchors.
Engine and Transmission
The strong point of the Saturn is the powerplant, and strong it was, with the standard- issue 182-horsepower, 3.0-liter V6 garnering second place overall in the performance trials and a healthy first in zero to 60, quarter-mile speed and time. On our road test evaluations, the Saturn won equal praise for its great powerband, quiet running at highway speeds and the throaty snarl emitted from the tailpipe when the throttle was put to the floor.
While we wished a five-speed manual transmission were available, the standard electronically controlled four-speed automatic surprised us with sharp downshifts on command and smooth up shifts with no hesitation in either direction. On twisty roads, we almost thought the transmission was directly connected to our brain, smartly downshifting to the precise gear we wanted without a single balk. To say we were impressed would be a gross understatement.
Suspension, Ride andHandling
In the handling department, Saturn strove for a European feel, but in reality it's undersprung to the point where the suspension soaks up every ripple in the road while allowing for a lot of body roll in the twisties.
Out on the highway, the suspension did an admirable job of smoothing out little irregularities, but any harsh bumps were transmitted directly to the cabin, leaving occupants looking for a kidney belt. On an uneven stretch of pavement, we found the Saturn pitching from side-to-side, creating a resonance within the underpinnings that was only broken by changing into a smoother lane.
When pushed in the canyons, the Saturn rode on the bump stops in tight hairpins, almost refusing to transfer weight from one side to another until we were in the middle of an opposite turn. Backing off a bit brought the Euro-response back.
A lack of connectivity was also exhibited by the steering, where response was sluggish. Point the Saturn in the direction you want to go and the car responds a moment later. Very little road feel was present through the wheel, which further left us wondering what was happening underfoot. And while this trait is accepted and desired by a fair amount of drivers, we wish Saturn had built in a little more communication between the driver and the car.
The Saturn received less than average rankings in our road test evaluation, as well as in handling tests, posting a dismal eighth place in the slalom course. While Saturn has dialed the LS2 for highway driving, we'd like to see the spring rates increased for a little sportier feel and a reduction in the wallowyness of the suspension.
Saturn is on the right track for building the perfect family car. With a solid foundation a strong powerplant, plenty of features and a low price point the LS2 is ripe to take on Honda and Volkswagen head-to-head. Saturn packs a lot of bang for the buck into their vehicles, and with a no-dicker-sticker, would-be buyers only have to pick color and options and write the down payment check.
Unfortunately, the build quality issues cannot be ignored, and while some people will ignore the ill-fitting bodywork and accept the creaks and groans that emanate from throughout the cockpit, this is the 21st century. New vehicles shouldn't squeak like a hard wood floor in an old house.
It's no wonder that Saturn is cutting the production of these cars. With the way things are now, there's no way that it can compete with the Accord or Camry. Sure, it's fast and it rides pretty well, but the interior come on, does anyone think that beta-carotene overload orangey brown is a good idea? I don't. The exterior is poorly assembled as well. If Saturn even hopes to do better with the new marketing campaign, they need to screw in everything better. Liz Kim
The LS is obviously a rush job to appease dealers who waited too long for development dollars to build a larger, Saturn-only sedan, Sourcing it from Opel keeps it from sharing a domestic GM platform, but the end result is under-whelming in a highly-competitive marketplace. Saturn buyers aren't stupid. No wonder they had to cut production at the plant. Christian Wardlaw.
Stereo Evaluation - 2000 Saturn LS2
Ranking in Class: Fourth.
System Score: 6.0
Components. The system consists of a six-inch subwoofer mounted on the rear deck, five-inch full-range drivers and tweets in the front doors, and full- range, five-inch drivers in the rear doors with a "phantom" tweeter in the upper front portion of those doors. Electronics include an in-dash AM/FM CD player and amplification.
Performance. I still can't believe I'm rating a Saturn sound system this high in our test, but the engineers at this GM-owned affiliate did an admirable job in assembling a fine-sounding audio system with some unique features. For one: the rear-mounted, six-inch subwoofer. What a nice touch! This driver gives a full-rounded bottom end sound to the whole system. Coupled with the door-mounted drivers, the system delivers crisp and clear bass and sizzling highs (a little too sizzling for my tastes, but there you have it). The system is easy to use, logical, friendly, ergonomic, and well appointed. The amplifier, wherever it's hidden, is a beefy little sucker, putting out substantial bass signal to the drivers, even at maximum gain. Try as I might, I could barely get this amp to clip, even when pressed flat out. Overall sound is also aided by preset EQ curves built into the radio. I'm normally not a fan of such hokey add-ons, but this one includes a "Flat" setting which sounded pretty good, and a "Custom" setting for you to roll your own.
Conclusion. I subtracted points for the bogus tweeters in the rear doors. Come on, Saturn, this is an old snake-oil technique perpetrated on the unsuspecting. And don't tell us this is just a port to increase airflow and driver efficiency. If so, why did you use the identical grill cover as the tweets in the front doors? It's BS, and was not appreciated by this reviewer. Still and all, it's a pretty damn good sounding system, and a pleasant surprise in a Saturn.
Sixth Place - 2000 Mitsubishi Galant
Now in its fourth generation, the Mitsubishi Galant was the would-be darling of our test. Praising its stunning monochromatic good looks, authoritative stance and trick suspension, we all wished the Galant would have posted better than sixth in our tests.
But there was no way we could ignore the facts. The sub-par fit and finish of our tester, its spartan interior, tiny back seat and rough ride all worked against our sport model, the GTZ. Those who were lucky enough to have the chance to drive the Galant through a stretch of canyon roads soon fell in love with the progressive suspension and racecar-like steering. So why did the Galant GTZ finish in the lower half of our standings? Let's find out.
Background and Our Test Vehicle
Replacing the Tredia sedan in 1985, the Galant was Mitsubishi's answer to the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, but with a touch of European flair. With the introduction of the turbo'd, all-wheel drive VR4 in 1991, Mitsubishi had a screamer on its hands, garnering praise from the press and a following of enthusiast owners. An entire makeover ensued in 1994, relegating Galant to a bread-and-butter Altima beater, and the latest redesign came in 1999. For 2000, the Galant receives traction control, an increased final-drive ratio and a host of safety features.
Perhaps it was unfair to include the Galant in our tests, even though it is considered to be a mid-size 4-door sedan. But it really isn't, it's a hybrid of sorts -- more like an FIA GT touring car than a family sedan. The GTZ is the hot ticket in the Galant line, with a sport-tuned suspension, black-on-white instrumentation, a rear spoiler and lower-front air dam.
Our test vehicle came loaded for bear, primarily because that's the only way you can get a GTZfully equipped. Mitsubishi builds plenty into the Galant GTZ power moonroof, Infinity AM/FM/CD stereo, leather interior, dual power points, and the list goes on.
In the styling ranks, the Mitsu posted a decent fourth, mostly because of its overly aggressive styling probably a bit too much for the average family sedan. While the sports car purists in our group fell in love with the hard-edge design, Euro-flair and monochromatic color scheme, those on the other side of the tracks said that it was too overdone, a sports car and not a family car. Then again, doesn't the GTZ do both?
One item we would like Mitsubishi to change would be the rear deck spoiler. A lower profile version would look much better than the obligatory wing that is currently tacked on. Build quality is another area where the GTZ falls short. Our tester had mismatched hood and trunk gaps, and the nose had more ripples and dimples than an old Titleist golf ball. Granted, the Galant has not been known for outstanding fit and finish, but based on what we've seen from the latest Eclipse offering, we know Mitsubishi is capable of much better.
Interior Features, Controls, Materials and Design
Simple, functional and understated. That's the Galant GTZ's cockpit. The interior is designed with the driver in mind, but lacks must-have amenities such as decent-sized cup holders, useful armrests and passenger grab handles. The lack of the latter left us to wonder if Mitsubishi was looking to sell this vehicle to families, or to sports car buyers who are in need of four doors?
Deep front buckets offer excellent lower lumbar support, but lateral support is lacking, given the car's sporting nature. Like with the exterior, the sports car fans liked the hard seats and the others vexed them with a passion.
All agreed that the back seat was suitable only for kids. Trying to put two adults in back would be ludicrous due to the lack of head-, leg- and foot room. The back seat was so tight that one shorts-clad editor suffered skin burn from the hard, pebbled seatbacks that grinded against his exposed knees while testing ingress/egress. The couch does have decent seat rake, but there is no armrest, or any amenities whatsoever. But then again, it's a sports car with four doors, right?
Engine and Transmission
With the performance-oriented looks, ground-hugging suspension and sport seats, you would think Mitsubishi would turn up the heat in the engine compartment. Boy, would you be wrong. In fact, the GTZ shares its SOHC 24-valve, 3.0-liter powertrain with the other Galant V6 models, giving us the same 190 ponies to play with.
While we would have loved to test the Galant GTZ with a five-speed manual gearbox, row-'em-yourself gears aren't available with the V6. Nonetheless, the four-speed automatic was more than up to task, inspiring one of our editors to write, "Best tranny yet. Even more responsive then the Taurus'."
On the track, the GTZ turned out to be the dog of our performance evaluations, posting dead last in zero-to-60 and in quarter-mile speed and time, a disappointment to say the least. If we had our druthers, we'd like to see Mitsubishi boost the Galant's output by 10 (which would bring the horsepower rating to 200), widen the engine's torque band, add a manual transmission and make the GTZ a real family-sized, four-door screamer.
Suspension, Ride and Handling
The GTZ's suspension is where the car really shines ... that is if your name is Speed Racer. For the family looking for a coddling suspension for long cruises down the highway, this is not the car for you. On the other side of the coin, those who are willing to give up a smooth ride on the highway for a more sporty feel, communicative steering system and a kick-in-the-pants driving experience, this may be the vehicle for you.
The GTZ takes fun to a whole new level when driving canyon roads. Point the steering wheel in the direction you want to go and the GTZ responds instantly and perfectly, every time. Push the car hard and it begs to be driven harder, leaving an incessant grin on the driver's face.
Push too hard and the Galant pushes back ... or rather forward, with a fair amount of understeer and bottoming out. Load the GTZ up with a full five passengers and you'll be guaranteed to ride the whole distance on the rear bump stops.
While the Galant GTZ didn't do as well in our tests as we had hoped, it is the natural choice for those who are turning in their leased Eclipses and are in need of four doors. Sporty and fun, the GTZ is more sports car then family car, and with Mitsubishi's tag line of "Wake Up and Drive," our performance-oriented editors would have no problem doing just that with the GTZ any day of the week.
The Galant would be my top pick if it weren't for the fact that it can't be had with a manual transmission. And no car with a "sit and git" mentality is going to suit me. The suspension here is awesome, and for a guy that values handling above all else, this would have to be my pick. I like the styling on the outside, but the back seat is way too small and the rest of the interior could utilize more quality materials. Dan Gardner
Sure, the styling is a blatant BMW rip-off, but who cares? The Galant was the best-looking car in our test. What puts me off is the cabin. This same interior might have gotten a passing grade five years ago, but now it's dated and cheap. Add in the small back seat and the lackluster engine performance, and the Galant suddenly becomes a mid-pack player to me Brent Romans
Stereo Evaluation - 2000 Mitsubishi Galant
Ranking in Class: First.
System Score: 8.0
Components. The system consists of two 6x9 full-range speakers mounted lengthwise in the rear deck, coupled with tweets and mid-bass in the front doors. There are no speakers in the rear doors. There is also an Infinity tweeter/upper mid-range combination driver located in the center top of the dashboard. Electronics include a single-play in-dash CD player and an extra power amplifier hidden somewhere within the system.
Performance. This was the best system in the test. Smooth, balanced sound with many different types of music. The amplifier was clear and unsullied, and clipped just slightly at maximum output, blasting Annie Lennox at full gain. My notes from the test say, "Surprising amount of power and 'oompf.' Really sounds solid." What made this system stand out from all the others was the Infinity driver located in the top-center of the dashboard. This blew away the competition. I was unable to get a close look at the driver to determine whether it was a straight tweet or a mid-tweet combo (my guess is the latter), but it produced a wonderful sound stage image in the front seat. Pretty amazing for an OEM system. Mitsubishi did it right too, covering the driver with acoustically-transparent cloth versus the usual perfed plastic. (The covering probably won't age well, but what the hey.) I took some points off for the absence of speakers in the rear doors (this is, after all, a family sedan).
Conclusion. A system that was better than it needed to be. Really a fine stereo. If only Mits had surrounded it with a car of equal quality.
Fifth Place - 2000 Dodge Intrepid ES
You can't deny it, the Intrepid is a big car. It looks big, it seats five in relative comfort, yet surprisingly, it doesn't drive like a large car. Dodge has packed a host of standard features into the Intrepid, which adds to the value of the vehicle, but also to the $26,480 sticker. So how did this big boy do against the rest of the family-sedan clan?
Background and Our Test Vehicle
When Lee Iacocca introduced the LH series (the Dodge Intrepid, Eagle Vision and Chrysler Concorde) just before his retirement in 1992, the replacement for the aging K-Car platform boasted a revolutionary concept that would soon take America by storm cab-forward design.
With its expansive interior, appreciable cargo-carrying capacity and cutting-edge styling, the LH-series soon brought about the second rebirth of Chrysler Corporation. Unfortunately, the cars were plagued by poor quality control and reliability problems, which resulted in a rash of lemon-lawsuits and lousy resale values.
Eight years and one major makeover later, the Intrepid still evokes a love/hate relationship. Seven of our nine editors loved the shape of the Intrepid, the other two wouldn't be caught driving it around town. Nearly all said they enjoyed the low rpm torque from the powertrain, and build issues have been solved (our long-term Intrepid has one of the thinnest service files we've ever seen), so the Intrepid ranked right in the middle of the pack.
Our ES test vehicle came loaded to the gills with automatic temperature control, HomeLink transmitter, nine-speaker Infinity sound system with in-dash CD changer, leather-trimmed upholstery, traction control and a full-sized spare tire. And while the ES will take a sizeable chunk out of your back pocket, our fifth-place finisher delivers a lot of bang for the buck.
To say that the Intrepid is unique would be a gross understatement. With its cab-forward design and gracefully sweeping lines, the Intrepid is a combination of boldness and sexy good looks, an appearance which is emphasized by the large greenhouse and expansive windows. On the downside are the oversized B- and C-pillars, which cut into the rearward view, although the back window is huge compared to that of the Taurus or Intrigue.
The Intrepid continues with the previous model's theme of gently rounded bodylines, sloping front and high tail, and it is freshened with standard 16-inch wheels and five new colors for 2000.
Interior Features, Controls, Materials and Design
The sporty theme of the Intrepid's exterior is carried through to its interior with a clean cockpit-style layout and sweeping dash. Driver and passenger seats feature deep buckets with adjustable lumbar support and eight power adjustments, which makes finding a comfortable driving or riding position a breeze.
The seating surfaces were more like vinyl than leather, and we were disappointed to see that Chrysler still hasn't addressed the mismatched grain pattern on its plastic parts an item on which our stripped Taurus earned high scores.
Controls fall within fingertip reach, with good soft-touch switchgear and decent labeling, although the cruise controls on the steering wheel weren't illuminated at night, making setting the cruise a difficult chore. We were disappointed with the small size of the stereo buttons and the climate controls, which forced us to take our eyes from the road to change radio stations or adjust HVAC venting.
Dual pop-out cup holders are housed in the shift console, which when extended, interfere with the operation of the AutoStick transmission and fully cover the traction control switch, making activation/deactivation impossible.
The cheapness flows into the back seat, with exposed headliner glue by the rear window and fixed rather than adjustable air vents in the rear console. The back seat gives good thigh support and leg- and foot room is abundant. Of the nine cars we tested, the Intrepid was the most comfortable for three adults, but we still wouldn't recommend putting that many fishing buddies back there for an extended period of time.
Two large cup holders are housed in the center pull-down armrest, and parents will appreciate the child safety seat anchor points.
Engine and Transmission
With the standard 3.2-liter, 24-valve V6 putting out 202 horsepower, but lugging 3489 pounds, the Intrepid was eighth fastest from zero to 60 at a still respectable 8.4 seconds.
During cold starts, we were a little concerned by the loud valve-knocking and excessive vibration, but after a few minutes the engine smoothed out. At freeway speeds, the engine was as slick as fine Persian silk. Nail the throttle and the electronically controlled four-speed transmission kicks down effortlessly, accompanied with an intrusive roar of engine noise.
Dodge includes the AutoStick transaxle on the ES, which we found to be a neat gimmick, but wholly lacking the true responsiveness of a manual transmission. In AutoStick mode, shifts were weak and subdued, with a significant amount of time between driver input and transmission reaction. During downshifts, the tranny had a tendency to "lurch" into gear, which threw occupants forward like rag dolls.
Suspension, Ride and Handling
We were pleasantly surprised by the Intrepid's four-wheel, independent suspension package, which hunkered down in the twisties without breaking a sweat, and cruised on the highway like an old Chrysler 300, floating over every bump in the road. Even in wet weather, the Intrepid was very confidence-inspiring to drive, moving one editor to say, "The Intrepid's suspension is firmer and more responsive to road conditions than I would have expected for such a large car."
Caught on a tight canyon road during a deluge of rain, the Intrepid remained a steady player on the slick pavement, transmitting the proper amount of road feel through the wheel and keeping the driver apprised of what was happening underfoot.
On the test track, the Intrepid's size came into play during slalom testing as our road test editor noted "The Intrepid feels big, but it doesn't throw its weight around like the Impala. As you progress down the course, the car becomes loose, but it remains very predictable."
The Intrepid is a full-size vehicle with a full-size interior and plenty of room to stretch out on a long trip. And while Dodge has addressed a plethora of quality control concerns over the years, overall execution still leaves something to be desired. If space is your primary concern, the Intrepid is the right car. If quality of workmanship is a priority, you would behoove yourself to look farther up the chain to the Passat or Accord.
The Intrepid is like L.A. Laker Shaquille O'Neal: A big body that can move just as fast as everybody else. The Taurus and Intrepid are similar in size, but the Intrepid felt much smaller when driving it. Visibility is poor, but I admire the way Dodge balanced ride quality and handling ability. Nice back seat too. Some people complained about the dark colored interior, but I feel it actually adds to the car's personality. Brent Romans
Never would I have thought that a car with the body of a squished whale could be fun to drive. And the Intrepid really is. You'll easily and smoothly keep up with the Passats and Maximas. But the Intrepid does not offer a bit of the refinement of the Passat. Its engine is noisy, and its brakes work extremely well, but they'll never let you know about it. Although the Intrepid handles well and has relatively tight steering, I felt more confident driving any of the smaller, seemingly more maneuverable cars in the group. Erin Riches
Stereo Evaluation - 2000 Dodge Intrepid ES
Ranking in Class: Fifth.
System Score: 5.5
Components. The Intrepid system consists of two 6x9 full-range drivers on the back deck, no speakers in the rear doors, and an impressive looking combo of six-inch mid-bass in the front doors coupled with a monstrous Infinity tweeter/upper mid driver in each front corner. The system also includes a fat-city amplifier producing mondo bass signal to the drivers, and an AM/FM radio with a very cool in-dash four-CD changer accessible to the driver.
Performance. A couple of problems, though. First off, the wonderful Infinity drivers are AIMED WRONG. Honest to God, I tested them with several different kinds of music. The "sweet spot" is approximately six inches in front of the center air vents. Sounds pretty good there, but your nose'll get awful cold in summer with the A/C on. Why Chrysler would go to so much trouble and expense to source Infinity drivers and then have them aimed in the wrong direction is a mystery to me. They definitely aren't right. Also, the radio is a little funky, to wit: dinky buttons that are hard to see and use; five presets instead of the standard six; tone controls with limited range, and a general lack of ergonomics (as opposed to, say, the Honda, which is a wonder of simplicity and function).
Conclusion. Aside from all this, the main problem is the sound. My notes from the test say, "Bass is muddy, 'wide,' sloppy, indistinct -- not tight at all," "Good, kicking bass, but sloppy," "Very bottom-heavy system." Translation: it'll sound great on AC/DC, but not so good with Streisand. This proved to be the case. When I put in my reference Jennifer Warnes CD, her voice sounded "nasally" and "restricted." I also wrote, "The system sounds hollow in the middle -- why?" I marked the system off for sound quality, finding it more one-dimensional and therefore less accessible to the average consumer. Also, no speakers in the rear doors (remember, this is a family sedan). Actually, it's a pretty good system overall, but I couldn't quite bring myself to forgive Chrysler for blowing it with the Infinity tweeters. In keeping with the "theme" of the Intrepid, it's a lot of system -- and car -- for the money. Another example of Chrysler missing the mark on this one: the radio has excellent FM reception, but the presets require two separate buttons to set rather than the standard hold-it-down-till-it-sets, which is more or less an industry standard.
In closing: This system was designed for the Head-Bangers Ball and not a Night at the Opera.
Fourth Place - 2000 Nissan Maxima
Styling, performance and handling. Three tenets Nissan has held true for the Maxima for nearly 20 years. The Maxima went under the plastic surgeon's knife again for 2000, with a revised body style and a boost in performance. Placing fourth overall, the Maxima SE we tested grabbed the attention of our driving-enthusiast editors, while our family-minded brethren saw it as an overdone grocery-getter.
In nearly all of our tests, the Maxima fared well, never dropping below sixth place (for exterior design) in any category. The Maxima was also one vehicle for which we had trouble prying the keys out of our editors' hands.
Background and Our Test Vehicle
When Nissan introduced the Maxima in 1981, the car was an instant hit with striking good looks, sports-car-like performance and fantastic handling to boot. Over the years, the design was massaged to increase interior room and drivability, but somewhere in the mix, Nissan lost sight of the original vision, creating a truly ugly Maxima in '95. When we see one of those third generation vehicles today, we still aren't sure if they are coming or going down the highway.
For 2000, the stylists at Nissan have returned to their roots, bringing forth a Maxima that not only performs like a sports car in the power and handling departments, but also looks distinctly unlike anything else on the road today.
Available in three trim levels (base GXE, the comfort minded GLE and performance oriented SE), our SE test vehicle came complete with a one-touch open and close sunroof, 17-inch alloy wheels, an eight-way power driver's seat, intermittent wipers and a cargo net to keep the groceries in place.
To say the Maxima is unique-looking would be a brash understatement. Sporty, sleek and edgy. That's the new Maxima. With its Ford Focus-like wheel well arches and flowing lines, the Maxima is the most forward-thinking model ever released from Nissan's La Jolla design studios. Too bad the gaping front oval grille detracts from the silky lines. With its gray undertones, we'd rather see the grille body-colored to help with the blending process.
Out back, the Maxima's new dual cat-eye tail lamps add to the distinctive tone, but look more like an afterthought and break up the smooth lines. Our editors didn't agree with Nissan's decisions, placing the Maxima in sixth place in the styling category, leaving one editor to comment that he was waiting to see if George Jetson might emerge from the driver's seat.
Interior Features,Controls, Materials and Design
If there's one aspect of the new Nissan Maxima that did do well, it's the interior. With a classic waterfall dash design, the Maxima's interior not only looks clean and slightly futuristic, but it's user friendly as well.
Standard cloth buckets hold driver and passenger in place, but exhibit too much mid-back support and not enough lower lumbar support to be of real comfort on long drives. Driver's controls are well laid out, with the exception of the remote mirror controls, which forced us to lean forward out of our driving position to manipulate the directional paddles. People with long fingernails will appreciate the new climate and stereo controls, which feature large buttons and rotary dials, making for easy selections.
Rear occupants will find all the head- and legroom they need, and the bench has a remarkable amount of lumbar support. While the back seat is comfortable for two adults, three will find the quarters a bit cramped. A 12-volt power point, dual cup holders and air vents complete the package.
Engine and Transmission
For 2000, the Maxima SE's 3.0-liter SOHC V6 gets a boost in horsepower to 222 ... yet it didn't feel as fast, compared to last year's model. Nonetheless, in our performance testing, the new Maxima made a second-place finish in overall performance and handling trials. Zero to 60 came in a very respectable 7.8 seconds (1.2-seconds slower than the '99 model), hammering the quarter mile in 15.9 seconds at 89 mph (.4 seconds and a whole mile-per-hour slower).
In typical Nissan fashion, the Maxima's engine is buttery-smooth at idle and pulls hard throughout the rpm band. The extra power comes from new intake and exhaust manifolds, Nissan's Variable Induction System and a new muffler that incorporates a valve that opens at 2,000 rpm to reduce exhaust back pressure.
Our tester-equipped, electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission left us longing for the standard five-speed manual variant. The auto tranny was slow to shift and indecisive at times, often kicking down from fourth to third, then snapping our necks as it jumped into second for a rod-bending flash to redline. Perhaps a little more calibration between the throttle position sensor and transmission is in order.
Suspension, Ride and Handling
When it comes to blending all aspects of driving into one suspension system, Nissan does it right. While the average Joe will think the suspension is a little on the harsh side, we loved it. The SE transmits just enough road feel into the cabin to accurately communicate what is happening underfoot, yet filters out the harshness that would make long trips unbearable. As one of our editors remarked, 'The Maxima was designed to handle first, coddle second.'
We couldn't agree more.
Normally, such a firm suspension would make mountain driving a chore. Not so with the Nissan. Throw the SE into a decreasing-radius turn and the suspension holds, gracefully accepting throttle without the slightest notion of stepping out. For the performance-minded individual who wants to take the family around in style, yet have fun when the opportunity presents itself (without jolting passengers to death), the Nissan is the logical choice.
Remember when you used to tie a string between two soup cans to communicate with your buddy two feet away? That same close communication is exactly how the Maxima's steering interacts with the driver. If you cannot feel exactly what is happening underfoot of the Maxima, you need to have your circulation checked. No matter what driving surfaces we traversed, we knew exactly what the car was doing. While this isn't a bad thing, many drivers like the numb feeling most American cars have dialed into their steering response. The Maxima, in our opinion, is the most communicative, without being harsh on the driver.
Our only complaint: The standard issue 225/50VR17 tires are great in dry conditions, but when the weather turns from bad to worse, the Bridgestones become unstable, like an elephant walking over a floor of marbles.
At our as-tested price of $26,468, the Maxima is priced in the middle of the family sedan pack, but delivers a lot more than the price reflects. Packed full of features (like a one-touch up and down driver's window, one-touch open and close sunroof, HomeLink transmitter and auto on/off headlamps), the Maxima SE is a great family car and a sports car wrapped into one package. If Nissan could smooth the rough edges from the styling, there's no telling how many units they could sell.
I'm in love with this homely Maxima. This car spoke to me like no other I've driven in this test, and communicates on a level only matched thus far by the Passat. A true driver's car, the Maxima tore down the mountainside, never even thinking about relinquishing its grip on the road. Amazing performances were turned in by steering, engine and brakes. Whoo-hoo! Whatta ride! Christian Wardlaw.
Aighh! I'm turning into my parents! My mom bought an '87 new, and then pawned it off to my dad so she could buy a white '95 Maxima. They still own both. And here I am saying that my favorite car of the test was the Maxima. I'm even getting used to the new styling. Before I know it, I'll be living in white-bread suburbia and putting two kids through college. Brent Romans
Stereo Evaluation - 2000 Nissan Maxima
Ranking in Class: Sixth.
System Score: 5.0
Components. The Maxima system includes six-inch, full-range speakers in the rear doors. The same drivers appear in the front doors, rolled off to accommodate a tweeter in the A pillar. The in-dash AM/FM includes a single-play CD player.
Performance. I found the sound stage on this system passable but poor. The tweeters don't disperse nearly as well as, say, the Passat or the Accord. And although this system sounds as good as several which I ranked above it, I marked it off heavily for ergonomics. Nissan really missed the boat on this one, especially since this is one of the most expensive cars in this test --actually more an entry-level luxury sedan than a family sedan -- and should've scored very high in this area, but didn't. Frankly, the ergonomics suck. The radio is placed too high in the dash so that, unlike most other systems, which allow you to rest your arm on the gearshift knob while you change stations, you have to "float" your arm in no man's land until your arm grows tired and drops. Also, an even bigger design error: The station presets are positioned to the side of the radio and not below, making it very confusing to operate. I drove this car for a long weekend and still couldn't get used to it.
Conclusion. Although this is a decent sounding system, we expect something more from a car in this price range. It should be easier to use than the competition, not harder. Nissan needs to go back to their ergonomics drawing board if they expect to draw consumers to their upscale sedans.
Third Place - 2000 Ford Taurus
Ford's bestseller of the 1980s makes a comeback bid, ranking third in our comparison -- an admiral position considering that this Taurus is not an all-new car. After losing grace to Japan's finest, Ford has brought the heavily revised 2000 Taurus to market with a vengeance fresh and attractive styling, a simple, yet refined interior, a great suspension package and a powertrain that begs to be driven all at an as-tested $21,710. Impressed? So were we. Read on.
Background and OurTest Vehicle
Ford broke the plain-Jane, cookie-cutter mold of family sedans when it introduced the Taurus in 1986. With a sculpted body and Euro-style aerodynamics, the Taurus was a bestseller in its class the first year out, riding the wave as the number-one automobile for a whopping five straight years (1992-1996).
It didn't take much effort for Honda and Toyota to knock Ford off its pedestal when the redesigned Taurus was unveiled in 1996. Ford's engineers dug deep into the corporate bubble bag, taking nearly every straight line and turning it into an arc or oval. The result was a large mouth bass on wheels that sank to the bottom of the family sedan pond.
Thankfully, the 2000 Taurus takes on a whole new look and a new direction as well. Body lines are back and the ovals have been subdued to the point that the Taurus looks like a real car again. But more importantly, Ford has made vast improvements to the safety aspects of the Taurus, adding side airbags and adjustable pedals, among other items, to the features list.
Ford breathes fresh air into the Taurus this year with a spanking new design that brings back the flair of the first-generation Taurus, yet shows forward thinking and planning. Gone is the rear oval-esque greenhouse design, replaced by large panes of rear rectangular rear glass and a definite Euro feel. One look and you know this is the larger sibling to the European Ford Mondeo (or Contour, as we know it here in the states).
The new shell isn't a revelation, just a vast improvement over its predecessor, inspiring one editor to comment, "Finally, a Taurus that looks like a Taurus." The 2000 Taurus is the design Ford should have introduced in 1996.
Interior Features, Controls, Materials and Design
Ford's designers didn't rest after penning the new exterior. The interior received a complete revamping as well. Gone is the oval HVAC/stereo pod (which looked like the buttons were placed during a drunken game of darts), replaced with a neat, stacked rhomboid arrangement that allows for easy manipulation of the HVAC and stereo controls, which are simple enough for a three-year-old to use. While the design reflects a clean sheet of paper, there's nothing special about the layout -- it's straightforward and understated, with the only edgy styling coming from the thick-grip, Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired steering wheel.
Our tester came with the standard upgraded cloth interior, which offered decent lumbar support in the mid-back area, but left our lower backs aching for additional assistance. Through canyon driving, we praised the lateral and thigh support of the front seats, as well as the grippy cloth material that covered them.
A first for a family sedan, our Taurus was equipped with adjustable pedals, which made it easy to find that perfect driving position. We humbly suggest that you do not try to adjust the pedals while driving, and we're surprised Ford allows them to be moved when the car is in motion.
The rear seat is supportive, but is raked too far forward to be of real comfort on long trips. The rear seat also lacked an armrest, but dual cup holders were housed in a flimsy pull-down lid in the center console. Child safety tethers are standard as well as three-point seat belts for all rear passengers
Engine and Transmission
With the optional 24-valve Duratec V6 putting out 200 horsepower and 200 foot-pounds of torque, the Taurus is one snarling puppy on the road. The engine features a wide power band with tons of low-end torque. Reaching the upper end of the tachometer, the engine emits a nasty growl and a decent amount of torque steer during upshifts.
Backed by a well-calibrated, four-speed overdrive transmission, the Taurus downshifted smartly when the pedal was put to the floorboard and upshifted at the precise time to keep the powertrain in its sweet spot.
In typical Ford tradition, the transmission does not have a separate "2" and "1" gear, only a "Low," which shoves the tranny from second gear to first when speeds drop below 30 mph. The resulting neck-snapping "whomp" as the tranny downshifts is unacceptable.
Suspension, Ride and Handling
The real surprise was the Taurus' revised ride and handling. On the open road, the Taurus transmits just the right amount of feedback to the wheel to let the driver know what is happening with the tires, yet broadcasts nary a whimper to the seats or occupants.
Ford has finally found a compliant suspension for the Taurus with excellent rebound shock valving for spirited canyon driving, yet without the harshness that saps a cross-country drive. Throw the Taurus into a turn, jab the throttle and the car responds in a predictable manner, almost taunting you to drive it harder. Yet on the highway, passenger's are treated to a comfortably smooth ride.
We were pleasantly surprised with the revised steering feel, thanks in part to new power-steering pump valving and a pulse suppressor. The result is more precise response and a better on-center road feel.
Ford's ugly duckling turns out to be a prince after all. With our tester's $21,710 price point, the Taurus is a screaming deal. Load it up with all the extras (leather, Mach-460 sound system, power moonroof and a rear spoiler) and the total cost is a mere $24,345. Best of all, if you want to go for an extended test drive, you only have to visit your local Hertz rent-a-car location.
OK. To me the Taurus is the most boring. It's as sedan-like as they come, and that's why I could NEVER buy one. Funny thing is, because of the tremendous value and because I think it's just what a sedan buyer needs, it falls really high on my recommendation list. The interior is laid out cleanly and logically. The shape is pretty decent, and Ford should have brought this one to fruition instead of the abhorrent design that was forced on consumers in '96. Unfortunately for me, a car with rear drums just has to go. It's the only one that had significant fade set in during braking tests. In the wet this car was hydroplaning far more than any of the others. Furthermore, you could really feel the water kick through the floorboard by your left foot. This Taurus is just not me, but it may really suit a ton of other people, and I can acknowledge that. Dan Gardner
A smooth DOHC V6 emits a guttural growl that immediately takes you aback because this is, after all, a Taurus -- America's favorite rental car. That growl is quite performance-oriented in sound, and the engine provides entertaining response at all speeds. Creates an excellent first impression in the closet enthusiast, and lends to an innocuous car plenty of gutsy character. Christian Wardlaw
Stereo Evaluation - 2000 Ford Taurus
Ranking in Class: Ninth
System Score: 2.5
Components. 6x9 full-range drivers in the rear deck and six-inch full range in the front doors. There are no speakers in the rear doors. There is also no CD player, just an AM/FM cassette.
Performance. Ford can be forgiven for this stereo. The car itself is such an incredible value -- certainly the "value leader" in this test, and by a wide margin -- that our friends from Dearborn will get a "bye" in this competition. The stereo is one of the few things in this car that seems an afterthought.
Conclusion. Scott, I would suggest mentioning in your review that the Taurus tested out thousands of dollars less than every other car in the comparo, and further, that a consumer can use the savings to either buy an aftermarket stereo or step up to an options package that would at least include a CD. I just feel the car is incredible value, and don't want to whack Ford for the weak stereo system. They're obviously trying to hit a price point, and I think the car performs admirably for the price. They've done a lot of things right. That's my take, anyway.
Second Place - 2000 Honda Accord
Throughout our evaluations, our test team continually remarked on the quality of workmanship found within this sixth-generation Accord. All exterior panel gaps were uniform, the interior pieces were precision fit and nary a squeak or rattle could be heard. But what we did find and what has been common throughout the Accord's existence is that the Accord doesn't have a real "smoking gun," meaning that there's not a single aspect of the vehicle that stands out as fabulous. The interior: great, but not perfect. Powertrain: great, but not perfect. Execution: great, but not perfect ... and the list goes on and on.
Despite this, the Accord's strength is it's consistent greatness, losing to the Passat by mere tenths of a point. But while the Accord has spent its fair share of time at the top of the family sedan mountain, it has some serious competition again in 2000 from Ford and Nissan. But enough about those other vehicles, let's talk about the Honda.
Background and Our Test Vehicle
When Honda introduced the Accord in 1976 (selling a mere 18,643 units), little did they realize that in a mere 14 years they would have a bestseller on their hands, with over 417,000 Accords leaving dealer lots. The Accord has come a long way since then, vastly improved in comfort, safety, design and ride quality. But one aspect has remained paramount throughout the Accord's life: quality.
That essence of quality was reflected in our editors' opinions as the Accord ranked first in build quality during evaluations of our 2000 tester. For 2000, the Accord raises the safety bar with the EX's new standard advanced side-airbag system, which is capable of deactivating the passenger's side airbag if sensors determine that the passenger is too small or out of position.
In our 1998 test, the LX version of the Accord came out on top. For 2000, we invited Honda back, this time with a well-equipped, top-of-the-line EX model.
Vanilla. That's about the best way to sum up the styling of the 2000 Accord. The Accord is one of the cleanest designs on the road today, but there's nothing really special about it. Last redesigned in 1998, the 2000 model is left unchanged. But, like the timeless design of the Porsche 356 Speedster and DeTomaso Pantera, give the Accord five years to age and it'll look as fresh as it does today.
So why did the Accord rank first in exterior design? Because it is a dull and boring motif that is also as beautiful and as refined as the rest of the vehicle. As far as we're concerned, a family sedan shouldn't be designed on the cutting edge, as it will see a lifespan far greater that the average sports or performance car. Ten years later, the Accord will have weathered the winds of change something we could never bring ourselves to say about the Impala.
Interior Features, Controls, Materials and Design
Like the five generations before it, the interior of the 2000 Accord is a mix of straightforward styling and excellent functionality. Ergonomically, the Accord falls just shy of perfection with the lack of a telescoping steering wheel. Aside from that very minor gripe, the Accord is a vehicle we would have no qualms about jumping into for a cross-country trip. Although it was barely beaten out by the Passat for interior execution, it was still praised as an excellent package.
Up front, dual leather-lined buckets provide adequate lumbar, lateral and thigh support, but most of us were disappointed with the driver's eight-way power seat with adjustable lumbar the positioning of the lumbar pad was fit to the mid-back area instead of closer to the bottom of the spine where it's really needed.
In typical Honda fashion, controls are slick black plastic with a positive feel and located within easy reach of the driver, with the exception of the fan speed knob for the climate control you literally have to stretch across the dash to reach it. We also would like Honda to rethink the design for switching the airflow, which is accomplished by repeatedly depressing a single button. We found ourselves taking our eyes off the road to look at the LCD display to be sure we had activated the defroster and not the floor vents.
Rear passengers will find one of the most comfortable couches in the industry, which has just the right amount of rake, lumbar and thigh support. We wouldn't hesitate to get in the back seat for 200-plus miles, so long as there were only two passengers. Add a third and quarters become uncomfortable.
Materials are first rate and, unlike in the Impala, the leather looks and feels like real animal hide. Try as we might, we couldn't find a seam out of place, an exposed screw head or a rough edge on any plastic trim.
Engine and Transmission
The Accord EX V6 doesn't fall into the vanilla category with regard to the vehicle's powertrain. Motivated by a 200-horsepower, 3.0-liter VTEC V6, the Accord idles smooth as silk, yet provides seamless power delivery throughout the rpm band. Though not as torquey as the Passat or the Saturn, it does pull hard, posting a zero to 60 time of 7.9 seconds third best in our tests.
Transferring the power to the drive wheels is an electronically controlled, four-speed automatic transmission that seemed to be indecisive at times. Jab the throttle at 45 mph and the tranny hesitates as it shifts to third, then to second and then slams back into third.
Alas, we've found one item that Honda could still refine.
Suspension, Ride and Handling
"Taut," "nimble" and "flaccid" were the most-often heard comments when our editors referred to the handling characteristics of the Accord. With its double wishbone/multilink suspension, the Accord was quite nimble in parking lots and around town. On the highway, the EX's harsh shock valving made the Accord a little too taut for our liking especially on long drives.
Push the Accord in the twisties and the soft springs become apparent with flaccid body lean and a skitterish rear end so much so that the Accord finished dead last in the slalom portion of our performance evaluations. We were again reminded that this is Honda's family car, meant to take you from point A to point B in comfort, not to use on the racetrack on the weekends.
While the Accord isn't the spiciest vehicle in our test, it is the most "user friendly." Combine Honda's excellent reputation for reliability and resale value, and it's no wonder the Accord has been a bestseller. Our editors were just as impressed. In fact, the Accord lost to the Passat by just four-tenths of a point that's how close the competition was. But while Germany's finest may have nudged the Accord from our number-one spot, the Accord outsells the Passat by a factor of nearly 17 to one.
Here's the thing about the Accord. The styling will age well. People who buy them do so because they want them they aren't settling for something else. As such, the cars tend to be better maintained by more conscientious owners. Thus, these well-engineered Accords last a long time. They have great resale value. Accord is a known entity. It's a comfort zone. You're not gonna talk an Accord owner into an Impala on the next time out, and the less time GM spends on refining their vehicles, the more Accord owners there will be. Christian Wardlaw.
If you can call your significant other the Accord of boyfriends, you'd be pretty well off. This car does everything well. No, it doesn't give you any thrills in terms of driving experience, but neither will it give you a shock with any unpredictability. No, the design isn't avant garde, or anything you might deem gorgeous, but it won't look too dated 12 years from now when you've got 200,000 miles on it and it's still running strong. Liz Kim
Stereo Evaluation - 2000 Honda Accord
Ranking in Class: Third
System Score: 6.5
Components. The Honda system consists of 6x9 full-range speakers mounted transversely in the rear deck. The front doors have full-range, six-inch drivers in the lower front portion of each door. These are beautifully coupled with two upward-firing, dash-mounted tweeters. The tweeters are positioned in the far corners of the dash -- an odd placement at first, it seems, until you realize how effectively they reflect off the glass of the windshield, producing a glorious sound stage. This is enhanced by the acoustically-transparent grill cloth (very similar to the Mits). Electronics include a rather plain-looking in-dash CD/radio and a power amplifier.
Performance. As with everything Honda, this system is the ultimate in consumer friendliness. This is the simplest and, by far, the easiest system in the class to use. As with the Passat, I found the system perfectly suited to the personality of the car. Highs are clear and unsullied, bass tight and for the most part accurate. The system produces a better-than-average sound stage, thanks to the well-thought-out tweeter placement. The system rocks with the right source material. It also has the best FM reception in the test.
Conclusion. A few minor things caused me to take points off this system. For one, this is a very "dowdy" looking radio. Easy to use, yes, but perhaps Honda needs to upgrade the cosmetics a little. Not exactly ugly, but plain. Also, in an effort to be all things to all people, Honda has limited the flexibility of the system. For instance, tone controls have less-than-adequate range. Also, when using the balance and fade controls, there is no readout telling you where you're at or how far you've gone. All in all, though, an excellent sound system. Honda just needs to tweak some of the features.
First Place - 2000 Volkswagen Passat
To say that the Volkswagen Passat impressed us would be a gross understatement. In nearly every category, the Passat finished in the win, place or show position.
Yeah, we were suckers for the crisp-edged styling, communicative handling and incredible fit and finish. In our performance trials, the Passat never fell below third in any category. Adding to our enthusiasm was the fact that the Passat comes with a standard five-speed manual transmission, which would have cut $1,075 from the price tag of our automatic-equipped test car.
Price didn't seem to affect the Passat in our standings. As most expensive of the test at $29,295, our Passat GLX was last in terms of price point and value, but the VW proved that it was worth every penny ... and more.
Background and Our Test Vehicle
The Passat struggled after its introduction in early 1989, taking over the place in VW's lineup formerly held by the Quantum (previously the Dasher). But the struggle turned to success with the unveiling of the VR6 powered GLX model in 1994. The Passat easily handles a full load of cargo and occupants in coddling comfort, and unlike our other test cars, the Passat exuded pure luxury. Throughout our week with the car, the keys to the Passat were sought by all and became a precious commodity.
Our car came with the optional Tiptronic five-speed automatic transmission, which shifted as smooth as silk when in "D" and changed gears smartly when revved in Tiptronic manual mode. At night, our editors were treated to a way-cool purple/red instrument cluster, which minimized eye fatigue and looked great to boot.
Make no bones about it; the styling of the Passat is simple, stunning and very European. Many an editor stated that the uncluttered design was clean and attractive, proving that a vehicle doesn't need body cladding to look good.
From the subtle wheel well arches to the wrap-around body accents, the Passat has luxury written all over it. Coupled with a chiseled stance and angular lines, the Passat let's everyone know that this is not your average family sedan.
One of the first things we noticed was the nearly perfect fit and finish of the Passat's bodywork with excellent attention to detail, even in the paint finish, which looked as though it had been color-sanded and buffed to a maximum sheen something none of the other vehicles we tested exhibited.
Interior Features, Control, Materials and Design
Perfect fit and finish didn't end on the outside. It was carried in full to the Passat's interior with perfectly stitched leather and highly polished walnut accents. Try as we might, it was very difficult to find anything wrong with the Passat's cabin.
Driver ergonomics were on par with BMW and Mercedes-Benz, with a lot of thought given to placement of controls. Unfortunately, in typical German fashion, nearly every button was labeled with Euro-style hieroglyphics, making it difficult to determine what the control was for. We did like the typical authoritative Bosch "tick" when a switch was depressed. Our one major complaint was with the size of the Monsoon stereo controls, which were on the small side and hard to operate without taking your eyes off of the road.
Within the Passat, driver and passenger are treated to a pair of the best bucket seats in the industry. Fitted with adjustable lumbar support and heaters, we had little doubt that we'd feel refreshed after emerging from a cross-country drive. Add in the tilt/telescoping steering wheel, and there's no way anyone cannot find a perfect driving position.
Rear passengers will enjoy a couch that offers excellent lumbar support, a perfect rake angle and adjustable headrests for all three passengers. Need room? Not a problem. The rear of the Passat can easily swallow six-foot-plus gents with ease while still providing a ton of head-, leg- and foot room ... so long as it's only two. Third passengers in the rear will have to straddle the transmission tunnel and console that protrudes into the rear cabin's floor area.
The Passat's interior is richly appointed: it looks and feels more like a fine hotel than a family sedan. Leather is everywhere, as well as genuine wood trim and brushed aluminum accents. Amazingly, Volkswagen has been able to fully duplicate the grain of the leather seating surfaces into the soft-touch dash a feat we wish all manufacturers could master.
Engine and Transmission
Direct from the Autobahn, the Passat's 2.8-liter, 30-valve V6 is a smooth operator. The 190-horsepower powerplant has absolutely no qualms pulling from idle to redline with an eerily quiet, but never-ending twist to the front wheels.
The Passat placed second in zero-to-60 times with a 7.7-second run, and blasted the quarter mile in 16 seconds flat at 88.9 mph. Our team further praised the mid-rpm torque curve and seamless power delivery, but wished there was more low-end grunt to be had.
Backed by the optional electronically controlled, five-speed Tiptronic automatic, shifts were clean and crisp in "D," with only a light amount of noticeable hesitation when downshifting. Slip the shift lever to the Tiptronic mode and the world is your oyster, with the tranny shifting on command at the flick of a fingertip. The Tip's gear ratios are perfectly matched to suit the powerplant's torque band, shifting right at redline and bringing the engine back to the base of the torque band for another trip around the tach.
Dodge boys, check it out. This is how it's done.
As expected, the Passat's engine and transmission came out on top during our editor's road test evaluations, leaving us eager to enjoy another stint behind the wheel.
Suspension, Ride and Handling
Typical of German sedans, the Passat exhibits sublime road manners with just the right amount of compliance, while never jolting the cabin. But unlike BMW, the Passat's suspension is a bit more supple to handle the irregularities found in highway driving and it lacks the progressive spring rates that make driving a BMW so much fun.
On the open road, we felt as though we could drive forever, the Passat's suspension informing us of every ripple in the road. Not to the point that the ride was uncomfortable, but rather to keep us informed of what was happening under the Michelin tires. In the canyons, we were disappointed to find that the springs were not up to the task of properly transferring weight when needed, relying instead on shock rebound valving to do the work.
Steering response was excellent, communicating just enough road feel to indicate what was happening underfoot, without jolting the steering wheel when running over potholes. With just the right amount of steering "heft," the Passat is a true point-and-shoot car stiff enough to feel sporty, yet responsive enough to be fun -- though we wished the steering response was a little lighter and tossable like the Mitsubishi.
Ahhh... the Passat. This is the car that stole nearly every editor's heart, enough so that seven of nine editors listed the Passat as their number one personal pick.
Did the Passat have an advantage? Well, yes and no. It was clearly the most expensive of the cars we tested, which meant it failed miserably in the 20-percent of the final tally relating to as-tested value. But the Passat overcame in the performance, handling and creature comfort arenas. This is truly an outstanding vehicle.
No other car on this test came close to the driving experience I had while strapped into the Passat. Its engine had great power at all speeds, but especially during mid-range freeway cruising. The exterior speaks Volkswagen and nothing else, but since I've never gotten into one, I was pleasantly surprised with the interior ... and the seats are fantastically firm and adjustable. Get me a lease agreement! Erin Riches
I caught myself on more than one occasion calling the Passat a Jetta by mistake. But then I realized that my feelings about the Passat are very similar to those I have for the Jetta. Both cars have fabulous interiors for their class. Both cars have plenty of useful features and nice touches. Both cars have ... price tags that are thousands of dollars more than the competition. Oops! My advice is this: If your budget allows it, purchase a Passat you'll dig it. But if you can only afford an Accord or Taurus, then the Passat isn't worth the stretch. Brent Romans
Stereo Evaluation - 2000 Volkswagen Passat
Ranking in Class: Second.
System Score: 7.5
Components. The system consists of drivers in front and rear doors. There are no speakers in the back deck. The front door speakers include a six-inch woofer coupled with tweeters in the lower A pillar. The rear drivers appear identical, with a six-inch woofer in the lower-front portion of the door coupled with a tweeter in the upper front area. Electronics include a trunk-mounted six-disc CD changer (most likely either Alpine or Pioneer) and an in-dash cassette radio with nicely appointed features. The radio has a few unique touches, such as a rubberized volume knob that has a wonderful tactile feel, and separate AM/FM buttons for quicker station access.
Performance. This stereo performs admirably. The tweeters, which at first appear improperly aimed (they fire almost directly at one another), have a wonderfully wide dispersion pattern, producing an awesome sound stage image for the front occupants. This imaging was exceeded only by the Mitsubishi Galant, which has an Infinity mid-tweet strategically placed in the top-center of the dash. My early notes include this comment: "This system follows the European tradition and bloodline of the VW -- a functional and non-flashy system, light on bass, with linear frequency response and accurate reproduction. Not flashy, but pleasant." And these were my initial impressions. But upon further listening, I realized this system is capable of thunderous bass. Bob Marley and the Wailers really wail on this system. My later comments include such phrases as: "Wonderful bass!" "Great attack on bass," "Thunderous bass -- almost too much at times," and "Based upon design theory, this system should not sound as good as it does." I also repeat, "This is a very 'European' sound system -- understated, conservative, accurate, no-nonsense." Just goes to show that you don't need huge woofers to produce impressive low frequencies.
Conclusion. Along with the Honda Accord system, this stereo mirrors almost perfectly the personality of the car in which it resides. It's really a very impressive stereo. Because this is a family sedan, I like the speakers in the rear doors instead of the back deck -- this gives quality sound to every occupant in the vehicle. My notes include this comment: "One of the two systems -- the other was the Mitsubishi Galant -- that I could listen to all day long." I marked it down a little because, in listening to AM radio, the voices get lost. Our editor-in-chief said, "Who the hell listens to AM radio?!" Well, I do, for one, as well as millions of other Americans, and the VW fell off severely in this department. Also, it would be great if they could find a way to mount that six-disc changer in-dash (there's an empty space immediately below the radio), for easier access. All in all, though, a fabulous stereo in an awesome vehicle.
So, what's the bottom line? Volkswagen makes one heck of a car. Then again, so does Honda. The mere fact that Honda came in second by four-tenths of a point says a lot about the Accord - especially since it was put against one of the best machines to leave German soil. Nonetheless, the Passat was the vehicle our editors talked and fought over keys the most.
Is the Passat the right family car to buy? If you can afford it, by all means, yes. If the Passat is out of your budget, you won't be disappointed with the Honda or Taurus either.