Is the slumping economy making you wonder just how comfortably you can afford the burgeoning cost of putting a child through college? Or how cushy you can live 10 years from now when you're ready for carefree days on a golf course in a warmer, drier climate? Meanwhile, as you mull and cringe over the thought of mixing with the commoners at the Toyota dealership when the lease on your Lexus is up, people much like you continue to shop for bona fide luxury cars.
Do they have more money, more debt or less ambitious 10-year plans? Well, we'll leave you to find that answer at the next dinner party. What we do know is sales of entry-luxury cars that is, cars in the $30,000-to-$45,000 range have remained healthy over the last two years, regardless of the grim faces, statistics and poll results on cable news networks. Since we conducted our last entry-level luxury sedan comparison test in early 2001, even more choices have appeared in this price range: do you want a traditional luxury nameplate, a luxurious reskinning of an old favorite or a deluxe version of an already well-to-do family car? Most automakers have at least one of the above.
In order to accommodate the larger, more diverse field of contestants this year, not to mention the varying priorities of buyers, we divided the entry-luxuries into two brackets. If you consider driving a hobby as much as a necessity, and therefore want plenty of sport with your luxury, then you should sidestep over to our Entry-Level Sport Sedan Comparison (which includes an Acura TL Type-S, Audi A4, BMW 330i, Cadillac CTS and Infiniti G35). If, however, driving is just something you have to do and your objective is merely to be as coddled and confident as possible while doing it all the while putting on a good show for your clients and your relatives you're in the right place.
The cars in this group include obvious choices like the Lexus ES 300, which was completely redesigned for 2002, and the Infiniti I35, which benefited from several mechanical upgrades (not the least of which is the bigger 3.5-liter V6) these are, of course, deluxe versions of the Camry and Maxima. And we invited the Saab 9-5, a fringe luxury player under pressure from its parent company (General Motors) to swing toward the mainstream (to that end, it too received a number of 2002 upgrades). Also on our list was the Chrysler 300M, an upscale American-style performance sedan (which is to say softer than the German competition) whose sales have fallen off over the last two years; a quick spin in 2002's Special version convinced us that it was worth another look here. Finally, we decided to take up the case of the Volkswagen Passat W8. Before now, the Passat seemed like a really nice family car, but with "W8" appended to its name, eight cylinders working under the hood and a $38,000 price tag, we could hardly leave the now top-shelf sedan out of this test.
So what did we omit? Certainly you'll notice that the Volvo S60, Mercedes-Benz C320 and Lincoln LS are missing none of them won the last comparison test and none of them received major changes for the 2002 model year. We had intended to put a Jaguar X-Type in this comparison (in either the "Luxury" or the "Sport" bracket depending on its equipment), but Jaguar couldn't supply one.
We put our final group of five through the usual comparison test rigors over the course of a week urban commutes, highway driving, back-road adventures and instrumented testing. This time, the focus wasn't on all-out performance (though a little extra passing power didn't hurt) but on ride quality and agile handling in routine maneuvers. Editors also examined each sedan inside and out and rated the ability of each to provide a palatable environment for the typical luxury buyer and her passengers. We were looking not only for upscale features, but also for high-quality materials, easy-to-use controls and spacious, comfortable seating with adequate storage for personal effects and beverages.
When we totaled up the scores in each category price, performance, feature content, our editors' subjective 23-point evaluations and personal and recommended picks the results were unusually close. We had a two-way tie for second place, and just over three points separated these cars from the winner. While this outcome precludes us from making a feel-good announcement like, "This is the absolute best entry-level luxury sedan," we can say that any one of these three would likely prove satisfying for your next (or your first) entry-luxury car.
Fifth Place - 2002 Saab 9-5 Arc
Like other Saabs that have preceded it, the 9-5 Arc elicited an unusually wide range of reactions from the Edmunds.com staff. Several editors found its light-pressure turbo V6 listless at low rpm and its suspension soggy around corners but jarring over bumps. Others liked the engine's smooth operation, the comfortable ride afforded by the suspension and the overall stable handling within the Arc's modest performance thresholds. Such divergent sentiments resulted in mediocre scores on editors' 23-point evaluations. And when the 9-5's high price and editors' general unwillingness to recommend the car to the average buyer, or put one in their own garages, were taken into account, the Saab found itself 15.5 points behind the leader and in last place. It's not so much the 9-5 Arc is an undesirable car; it's just that the Volkswagen, Infiniti, Lexus and, for some, even the Chrysler, would be more satisfying to own.
The Arc is positioned as the luxury-oriented car in the 9-5 lineup (as opposed to the value-packed base Linear or the Aero, which offers both sport and luxury). Note that the Arc and the flagship Aero are the same price, though an automatic transmission is a $1,200 option on the latter. In keeping with its price tag, the Arc comes with a more generous allotment of wood cabin trim than the Linear; heated and cooled front seats; and all of the Aero's upscale features a heated rear bench, memory for the mirrors, a superb nine-speaker Harman Kardon sound systemand stability control along with a 200-horsepower 3.0-liter turbocharged V6 with a five-speed automatic (in lieu of the Aero's more intense 250-hp turbo four and manual gearbox). Predictably, the Arc retains more relaxed chassis settings, as well as a mild-mannered set of 215/55R16 Michelin Energy tires.
As we pulled away from stoplights in our Arc test vehicle, power built at a leisurely pace (in spite of the transmission's short 4.68 first-gear ratio), and the V6 didn't give drivers much to work with until 2,500 rpm when its torque output crested at 229 pound-feet (lasting until 4,000 rpm). While a couple editors were content with the power available for everyday travel, others deemed the 3,580-pound 9-5 Arc slow for this group, noting that unless the driver is disciplined with throttle inputs, the V6 will rarely be in the juicy part of its power band. During instrumented testing where we had ample license to rev the engine good and hard, the Arc managed a surprisingly quick 7.4-second 0-to-60-mph run.
The five-speed automatic includes normal, sport and winter modes; when left in the normal mode, the transmission left us waiting for downshifts, though switching to sport mode shortened its response times enough to please most editors. Fuel economy is rated at 18 mpg city and 26 highway, and during a demanding week of testing, the 9-5 still managed 22 mpg.
The Arc gets the same four-wheel antilock, fully ventilated disc brakes (assisted by Electronic Brakeforce Distribution) that come with the 9-5 Aero model. However, we weren't able to duplicate the 117-foot 60-to-0-mph stopping distance we achieved with an Aero sedan; the Arc (carrying 100 extra pounds) needed 124 feet average for this group. Some editors noted that the brake pedal was a bit soft and vague in feel, and one driver encountered minor fade on an exceptionally steep downhill grade.
As we motored along smooth city streets and highways, the 9-5 proved itself capable of providing the comfortable ride that entry-luxury buyers seek. Yet when the tires encountered rough or broken pavement, the ride became unexpectedly harsh, as the fully independent front strut/rear multilink suspension was unable to filter out these imperfections. We found it odd that a car with such a softly tuned suspension would behave this way by comparison, the plush-riding ES 300 absorbed nearly every ripple in its path.
The 9-5 Arc is not a car that will encourage you to take the two-lane highways instead of the interstate. Although its handling characteristics are predictable once you get to know them, it can be tricky to get the Saab's floppy body to settle down even when taking corners at only a moderate clip. And despite the engine's smallish output (for this group, anyway), liberal doses of throttle did result in torque steer; the 9-5 was the only front-drive car with this problem. Otherwise, most editors found the weighting of the steering comfortable (it's on the light side), but several wrote that it didn't convey enough road information to the driver. A small 35.4-foot turning radius makes the 9-5 easy to deal with in parking lots. You'll note the Saab is the only car besides the Passat W8 that comes standard with stability control; we didn't find the ESP system overly intrusive and it will come in handy on snowy days.
Inside the cabin, editors generally gave the front seats high scores, as they provide ample support for long drives in the distinguished tradition of Swedish cars. And everyone liked that the seats could be heated or cooled to suit their tastes and that the steering wheel included telescoping adjustment (though it offers less range than the Passat's). We had a few minor complaints: one taller editor found the bottom cushion a bit too short; another driver reported that the seatbelt cut across her neck (the belts aren't manually height-adjustable, though according to our contacts at Saab, the angled B-pillar openings are supposed to allow the belts to assume the right position automatically something to check out during your test drive); and several editors wrote that the center armrest should adjust for height (in addition to sliding fore-aft). Visibility from the cockpit was rated highest of the group though the 9-5's C-pillars are a bit wide and its rear deck a bit high, folding rear headrests and a convex section (to compensate for the blind spot) on the passenger-side mirror make up for these issues. Double-blade sun visors were a nice bonus.
The Saab's rear seat accommodations couldn't match the full-size 300M's for sheer size, but when we stuffed three average-size adults into the backseat of each entry-luxury sedan, the center passenger reported he was most comfortable in the 9-5 despite the lack of a center head restraint due to the seatback's superior contouring (even with the imposition of a fold-down center armrest, mind you). Going by the numbers, the Saab provided the most head-, shoulder- and legroom of the four midsize cars; in practice, most of us were content back here, though some found toe room tight and the seatback rake a bit too reclined. Also, the front seatbacks loom rather high, which can lend a mildly claustrophobic feel. However, the heated rear bench (the only one in the group) is definitely a plus.
Side airbags designed to protect the heads and torsos of front occupants are standard, but head curtain airbags (for the benefit of rear passengers) are not available. Like many other luxury cars, the 9-5 has not been crash-tested by the NHTSA, but it earned a "good" rating, as well as "best pick" status, in the Insurance Institute's (IIHS) 40-mph offset crash test. Also notable are the 9-5's active head restraints (for front occupants), which help prevent neck injury in the event of a rear-end crash (the I35 was the only other contestant to offer these).
To create a luxury-oriented cabin, Saab's designers applied what's supposed to pass for burled walnut to the company's familiar airplane cockpit-style dash and center stack design. Some drivers liked the kitsch, but most thought it detracted from a luxurious cabin ambiance "more industrial than luxury-themed," said one editor. Additionally, the design isn't terribly user-friendly there's no nighttime illumination for either the steering wheel controls or the fuel- and trunk-door release levers, and the analog gauges had a "busy" look to some drivers especially the speedometer, which had its digits squished together for speeds above 90 mph.
Editors disagreed on the origin of the wood trim several were convinced that it was faux (akin to the paneling people put in their basements) and thus inexcusable in a $40,000 car, but others pronounced it genuine and expressed fondness for its unusual color. We'll leave you to reach your own conclusions. The rest of the interior materials are a mixed lot: you get some soft-touch material on the dash and door panels, as well as a nice headliner, but you still have to put up with cheap plastic on the console and B-pillars, rubbery door handles and vinyl sun visors. Some editors liked the leather upholstery, but others would have preferred suppler hides. Build quality wasn't as exacting as some of the others: though construction seemed mostly solid on the inside, we noted flash lines on plastics and a few slightly loose trim pieces. And on the exterior, it was obvious Saab still isn't holding itself to the tight panel gap tolerances embraced by Infiniti, Lexus and VW.
In spite of Saab's reliance on buttons rather than dials and knobs, we found the stereo head unit and climate controls relatively easy to navigate. The climate controls were mounted too low in the dash, but we appreciated the fact that the system was dual-zone (the only one besides the Lexus) and included a separate "off" button. The rest of the controls were somewhat disappointing the window buttons were console-mounted with one-touch down only for the front windows; the sunroof didn't offer auto-close and the control stalks felt flimsy. Daytime running headlights are standard.
Storage space could be a problem for 9-5 owners the air-conditioned glovebox should be useful for picnics, but with a small center console container and door bins, it's often hard to find a place for the everyday stuff. The cupholder situation is unusual as well in front, one deploys from a narrow slit in the center stack (possibly a convenient location but precariously close to the stereo) and another resides in the console box (the lid has to be open to use it). In the backseat, a two-holder rack pops out of the fold-down armrest. Luggage space, on the other hand, will never be a problem. Besides offering the biggest-capacity trunk (15.9 cubic feet), except for the 300M, the 9-5 is the only sedan in the group with both a 60/40-split rear seat and a separate ski pass-through. The trunk opening is wide with a low lift-over height; external strut hinges prevent your groceries from getting crushed and a cargo net keeps them from spilling. The only complaint editors had in this area was that the trunk lid was hard to close with the interior grab handle.
The 9-5 Arc certainly offers buyers some interesting features, as well as very comfortable seats and a large trunk. And while Saabs haven't been known for their reliability in years past, the 9-5 has been above average in that regard over the last two years, according to Consumer Reports. But at this price, we feel that buyers are also entitled to a more powerful engine, more refined handling characteristics and a more luxurious cabin with more conveniences. Try at least one of the others in this group before settling on the Saab.
Road Test Editor John DiPietro:
Saabs have always been different and the 9-5 is no exception. In place of a normally aspirated V6, the Arc has a turbocharged V6. Though some may sneer at its output of "only" 200 horsepower (this is a turbo V6, right?) the reality is I never found it lacking. With the automatic tranny in Sport mode, the Saab's throttle response absolutely shames the Lexus. The 9-5 also has superior seats. But although these qualities endeared the 9-5 to me, I realize that Saab's got a tough sell going against the more refined Lexus (and considerably more powerful Infiniti). And there is the matter of price; at $40,000, the 9-5 costs considerably more than everything else save the Passat W8.
Road Test Editor Liz Kim says:
The Saab 9-5 reminds me of Icelandic singer Bjork. Kind of intriguing, very quirky, but her esoteric charms wear thin when there's no real substance to back up the weirdness. What irked me were the uneven powertrain (forget about doing an uphill run without the Sport mode of the transmission firmly engaged), the heavy boot lid and the tiresome placement of the controls. While it has some features that other cars don't, such as ventilated seats for the front and heated seats for the rear, its overall (expensive) package of a harsh, noisy ride and not-quite-baked ergonomic features make it land at the bottom of my list.
Senior Road Test Editor Brent Romans says:
Saab made a large number of updates to the 2002 9-5. After spending a week with the car during this comparison test, I think the company would be wise to just start over fresh. In just about every category including price, performance and features the 9-5 lagged behind the other cars in this test. I suppose the car's quirks do add some personality. But if I were to buy a car of this type, I certainly wouldn't consider a map light styled like a jetliner air nozzle as a key feature. Considering the car's MSRP, I see no reason to buy the 9-5 over any of the other cars in this test. However, early indicators are that the new-for-2003 Saab 9-3 is a major step forward. It is that car I pin Saab's future success on. If you dearly want a Saab, wait for that car.
Stereo Evaluation - 2002 Saab 9-5 Arc
Ranking in Test: First
System Score: 9.0
Components: This fine Harman Kardon system came as a surprise to us. Ensconced in the 2002 Saab 9-5 is one of the better sound systems we've heard in this segment.
It begins with a rather user-friendly head unit that offers both a single-play CD and cassette. The controls are widely spaced, with a round, ridged knob for volume and a rocker button for seek/scan. Pop-out dials for bass-treble and balance-fade come as useful implements, as do the steering wheel controls that operate volume and seek-scan. Also, the dashboard is angled toward the driver, giving an excellent cockpit feel, and the radio, which is held in a triple-DIN opening, occupies the exact middle of the center stack, just where you want it.
This system is chock-full of speakers. A pair of 6-by-9s resides on the rear deck, a pair of 6.5-inch drivers is located in the rear doors and another pair of 6.5-inch drivers sits in the forward doors. As if that weren't enough, the top of the dashboard hosts a pair of upward-firing midtweets in the corners and an additional midtweet in the center of the dash.
Performance: Well, how does it sound? Pretty darn good. This is a very European-sounding system, meaning the emphasis here is on precision and a linear frequency response. Europe has long been known as producing some of the flattest and most accurate loudspeakers in the world. This Harman Kardon system reflects that heritage, with a design that does its best to duplicate the signal path without coloration. We think it comes off pretty good. We found the highs lush and warm, midfrequencies intricate and detailed and lower frequencies tight and accurate. Additionally, this system has excellent gain limiting, meaning when you turn it up loud you don't get blasted by any unwelcome distortion. All in all, this system sounds as good as any we've heard in this segment.
Best Feature: Sonic accuracy.
Worst Feature: No CD changer, and no option to add one.
Conclusion: Some people might quibble with our findings here. A linear frequency response is not for everyone. Specifically, some listeners may find that this system makes pop and rock sound a little flat. This is because most car audio systems artificially trump up the top and bottom ends, and our ears have become accustomed to that. Still, we felt this system deserved the highest score in the test. We subtracted some points for the lack of a CD changer (Saab dealerships can install an old-fashioned, trunk-mounted six-disc unit), but that was about the only thing we could find wrong with this system. Scott Memmer
Fourth Place - 2002 Chrysler 300M Special
The Chrysler wasn't a particularly good fit for this group. Certainly, the 300M Special incorporates luxury-type content that is merely optional on the regular 300M, but ultimately, the main draws for us were its 18-inch Michelin Pilots, authoritative brakes, performance-tuned suspension and quicker steering ratio. In fact, this full-size sedan probably might have held its own in the entry-level sport sedan comparison test, which included athletic compacts like the 330i and G35. Evaluated strictly as a luxury vehicle, though, it came up short in key features, luxury ambiance and materials quality to the point that some readers will likely prefer the Saab. Yet the 300M finished 4.7 points ahead of the 9-5. Its low "as tested" price certainly helped, and its amazing handling made it a favorite on test loops and yielded solid numbers at the track.
In its current form front-wheel drive, exclusively V6 power the 300M is a transitional car for DaimlerChrysler. The next version (anticipated for 2004), to be called the 300N, will assert itself as a full-blown American performance sedan with rear-drive and a version of the new 5.7-liter Hemi V8 (well, that and some driveline components from the Mercedes-Benz E-Class). Our 300M Special test car was already more abrasive than any of the other cars in this group the Special has a snarling exhaust note that pleased most editors but might sound unrefined to buyers who have just come from a Lexus or Infiniti dealership.
The actual power delivery of its SOHC 3.5-liter V6 wasn't as fearsome as either the I35's revered DOHC V6 or the Passat's W8. Certainly, the Chrysler's engine specs were impressive 255 horsepower at 6,500 rpm and 258 pound-feet of torque at 3,900 rpm but editors thought it could use more low-end thrust. Once spooled up, the V6 offers a wide power band that makes passing maneuvers easy, and on the whole, this engine has ample power for just about any situation it just doesn't go about its business very quietly. During instrumented testing, our test vehicle made it to 60 mph in 7.8 seconds slower than every competitor except the ES 300 (we timed an earlier 300M Special at 7.6). Curb weight was certainly in play here, as the I35 weighed about 300 pounds less than the full-size 300M, though notably, the 9-5 Arc was only 70 pounds lighter.
The four-speed automatic transmission (with Autostick automanual capability) drew mixed reviews. When left in "D," it was often slow to come up with downshifts, and overall shift quality wasn't especially crisp. However, several drivers noted with pleasure that putting the transmission in Autostick mode resulted in exceptionally firm shifts, contributing to the 300M's fun-to-drive nature. Fuel economy is rated at 18 city and 26 highway with this powertrain; we averaged 18 mpg over a week of hard driving.
If you're shopping for an entry-luxury sedan because you want a smooth, quiet ride, the 300M isn't for you. With firm damping all around for its fully independent strut suspension and 245/45ZR18 Pilots at each corner, the 300M has a controlled yet taut ride and tire rumble makes the cabin noisy on the highway. Of course the very attributes that make the 300M less compliant than its peers also make it a rewarding companion for any driver who turns onto a winding two-lane highway the Chrysler was the only full-size car in this group, but it exhibited the least body roll and the most grip when pushed around curves, and maintained the highest speed through the 600-foot slalom (63.6 mph). Stability control is not available for the 300M; standard traction control prevents the front wheels from spinning excessively on slippery surfaces.
Editors agreed that the steering provided sufficient accuracy and heft for confident, even enthusiastic, cornering though several wrote that it didn't transmit enough road information to the driver. And some buyers may find this setup a bit heavy for parking lot maneuvers.
Braking has proven to be a particular strength of the 300M Special, which wears a conventional set of four-wheel antilock discs. It managed a 118-foot stopping distance from 60 mph. Not only was this impressive for a 3,600-pound vehicle, but it was also the shortest braking distance of any of the sedans in this test (the ES 300 was second at 123 feet). For the most part, we found the brake pedal progressive and reassuring in operation; a couple of drivers did observe minor fade on steep downhill grades.
Plant yourself in the cockpit, and it's obvious that the 300M can accommodate drivers of all sizes, especially larger drivers. The front seats are wide, liberally cushioned and surprisingly well-contoured (given their place in the American genre of seat design) everyone was comfortable in them. One annoyance was the manual lumbar adjustment on the driver seat; the small lever was both difficult to find and, once apprehended, incapable of rendering any compromise between zero lumbar and supersize lumbar. In addition, the headrests don't articulate while this might be acceptable in a car like the 9-5, which still has dynamic head restraints, it's less so in the 300M. Finally, despite the provision of power seat height adjustment, some drivers still didn't feel that they were sitting up high enough. This, along with the 300M's high rear decklid and wide C-pillars, resulted in low scores for visibility on editors' 23-point evaluations. Somewhat offsetting these issues were a full set of auto-dimming mirrors and sun visor extenders. Getting in and out wasn't a problem since, as in the I35, the driver seat automatically moves aft when the engine is shut off.
As the 300M was the only full-size car in the test, it had the biggest backseat. Three editors had plenty of room to spread out. However, unless you have a regular rotation of passengers over six feet in height, the 300M's rear quarters won't necessarily be the most comfortable. While the seat bottom is soft and forgiving, editors found the seatback too hard. The center passenger was actually least content in the 300M, as the imposition of the fold-down center armrest makes the seatback even firmer in this position and an oddly notched seat bottom seriously reduces thigh support (also note that there's no center headrest). Beyond that, the rear seat's overall lack of firm support suggests it might get uncomfortable on long trips. And in spite of the plentiful legroom, toe room for outboard passengers is limited by low-mounted metal bars under the front seats. Getting in and out was a bit difficult, as the low-mounted bench and narrow door openings required a calculated launch.
Side airbags for front occupants are optional on the 300M, and our test car had them; head curtain airbags (for front and rear passengers) are not available. In NHTSA crash tests, the 300M earned three out of five stars for the driver in the frontal impact test (with a high likelihood of thigh injury), four stars for the passenger and four stars in both side-impact categories. The IIHS gave 2001-2002 300Ms an "acceptable" rating in offset testing (1999-2000 models fared poorly in this test due to late airbag deployment).
The 300M Special didn't feel especially luxurious inside largely due to the preponderance of cheap plastics, Chrysler's continued reliance on the corporate parts bin for all interior controls and our dark blue test car's dark monotone interior treatment but most editors conceded that it was at least a simple, clean design. The white-face analog gauges and clock are probably the best part of this package, and everyone liked the elegant serif font, turquoise backlighting and chrome rings. We did find the requisite soft-touch material on the dash and door panels, but several editors felt the leather upholstery and carbon-fiber trim (in lieu of the standard 300M's faux wood) were low in quality. And there were obvious production shortcuts like exposed screws (particularly loathsome on the tweeters) and a glovebox door that flopped open haphazardly.
The automatic climate control system isn't dual-zone, but drivers liked its large rotary fan speed dial and dedicated "off" button. However, some of us found the separate push-buttons for the vent functions a bit confusing. The Special has a 360-watt Infinity sound system but still has the same old corporate head unit and four- rather than six-disc in-dash changer, though we were fond of the satellite controls for volume, seek and mode cleverly mounted on the back of the steering wheel. Check out our stereo evaluation for more details.
The secondary controls varied in their ease of use: The 300M offered the fewest automatic functions for the windows only the driver window was auto-down while offering a remarkably useful overhead trip computer that measures tire pressure and allows you to set your own locking preferences. The cruise buttons are mounted on the steering wheel but aren't illuminated at night, while the headlights are controlled by a dash-mounted dial and include an automatic setting.
Most editors found storage space in the cabin adequate. Neither the door bins nor the center console container are especially large (nor are they lined), but the latter offers a second power point and CD slots within. The glovebox (also unlined) was average in size for this group; rear storage is limited to map pockets and small door slots. In this group, the full-size 300M offered the largest trunk capacity at 16.8 cubic feet, though the opening permitted by its external strut hinges was a bit small compared with the others and even with all this space, engineers couldn't fit in a full-size spare tire. Also, there's no interior grab handle to avert the annoyance of touching a grimy trunk lid. A 60/40-split folding rear seat is standard.
Our test vehicle had much the same build quality issues as the earlier 300M Special we tested various interior rattles, a slightly loose center console, front doors that rubbed against the firewall pads whenever they were opened or closed and misaligned exterior body panels. That said, overall reliability for 2000 and 2001 300Ms has been above average, according to Consumer Reports.
Compared with the ES 300, I35 and Passat W8, the 300M Special seemed too rough around the edges for an entry-level luxury sedan. While its roomy interior and surprising performance thresholds could justify a test drive for some, it's not a car that we would recommend to most buyers shopping in this segment.
Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
If size matters, this is your ride. Get your mind out of the gutter; I'm talking about a very spacious cabin here. There's not a bad seat in the house in the 300M; I thought they were all plush yet supportive. Although I prefer the looks of the 300M's triplet relatives Chrysler's Concorde and Dodge's Intrepid I had no complaint about the 300M Special's moves. In fact, I was blown away by how well this big car hustled, so buttoned down and responsive that it felt like a car two-thirds its size. But with the emphasis on luxury rather than sporting ability in this test, the big bruiser loses points for its generous amount of road noise (transmitted by those meaty, sticky tires) and somewhat bland interior scheme. If you're tempted by the style and performance of the 300M Special but prefer a smoother and quieter ride along with a wood-accented interior, I suggest the standard 300M.
Road Test Editor Liz Kim says:
The Chrysler 300M belonged more in the luxury sport sedan class; with an intoxicating bellow and a more-than-capable suspension tuning, this large vehicle was more enjoyable to drive through tight canyon turns than most. However, we are discussing a luxury category, and it's there the 300M falls short. With cheap plastic bits on the dash, pillar and around the shifter, and stiff leather littering the cabin, this doesn't come close to offering what the imports provide. The Chrysler stickers for less than what our other "as tested" vehicles did, and viewed by itself it makes a compelling choice for those who love American-made products and lots of space, but when you climb in and out of one car after another, you really feel its shortcomings. Factor in the sport-oriented suspension that some could construe as too harsh to be luxurious and you've got a vehicle to be ambivalent about.
Senior Road Test Editor Brent Romans says:
The 2002 World Cup was happening while we were conducting this comparison test. It was easy to note similarities, as we had cars representing Japan, America and Europe. Also, I don't think many people on our staff expected the American team the Chrysler 300M to do very well. Unlike many a European-branded car, this isn't a sedan that sparkles, gemlike, in a driveway. When seen on the road, I half expect the driver to be some sort of middle manager who picked the car purely on what was available from the motor pool. Something to aspire to? Hardly. Yet, the Chrysler is appealing when you're behind the wheel. The Special version adds to the car's already impressive handling characteristics. This was certainly the best-handling car of the test, especially when compared to the feckless ES 300. I liked driving it. But as a luxury car, the 300M Special doesn't make it past the second round.
Stereo Evaluation - 2002 Chrysler 300M Special
Ranking in Test: Fifth
System Score: 6.0
Components: While some of our editors have been impressed with the performance capabilities of the 300M as a driving machine, the stereo system leaves much to be desired. Composed of rudimentary components and the same tired, old head unit Chrysler has been using for years, it's due for a redesign.
The system begins, as mentioned above, with Chrysler's standard head unit. Although this radio has some features to recommend it, such as a logical topography and a built-in three-band equalizer, it is also marred by a cumbersome, two-stage presetting procedure and other design miscues. In particular, the use of a clunky-funky four-disc CD changer (the industry standard is six-disc) mark this stereo as being behind the times. To make matters worse, its designers have positioned the controls too low in the dash, making it inconvenient to use. A set of satellite controls discreetly mounted on the back of the steering wheel spokes with seek, volume and mode adjustment somewhat atones for this.
Speakers include a pair of 6-by-9 full-range drivers on the rear deck, plus a pair of 6.5-inch midbass drivers in the front doors. One welcome feature in this system is the presence of not one but two pairs of one-inch dome tweeters situated throughout the cabin, one pair in the rear doors and a second pair ensconced in their own enclosures above the front doors. Sorry to say, those enclosures, composed of cheesy plastic, look like something out of low-budget sci-fi flick (one where the set designer ran out of cash). Suffice it to say, they do little to spruce up the cabin.
Performance: The 300M's system sounds okay, but not stunning. Compared to most of the other vehicles in this test, it's not in the same league. Highs sound artificial and hollow, lows adequate but not impressive and mids fairly intricate but lacking in real distinction. To make matters worse, the car's front doors rattle noticeably at higher volume levels, detracting from enjoyment of the system.
Best Feature: Two pairs of separate tweeters.
Worst Features: Outdated head unit; rattling door panels.
Conclusion: The competition at this level is pretty fierce. Chrysler should take a look around at what other automakers are doing in the stereo area and get with the times. Scott Memmer
Second Place (tie) - 2002 Lexus ES 300
Before we plugged all of the numbers collected during this comparison into a calculator, various editors had predicted that the Lexus would be the winner of this test. And why not? It seemed the quintessential entry-level luxury sedan, with its posh cabin and quiet ride. On the basis of most scoring categories, things looked good for the ES 300: it was by far the sedan editors would most recommend to the average buyer with a score of 96 percent; it earned the highest cumulative score on editors' 23-point evaluations (by a narrow margin over the Passat W8); and it had the best coverage on our list of Top 10 Features for entry-luxury sedans eight of the 10 were either standard or optional. Ultimately, though, the ES could not overcome the performance advantage of the Passat, or the stronger engine and lower price of the I35, and had to settle for a tie with the latter (the Infiniti had an advantage of 0.3 percent, but we consider any margin less than 0.5 a draw). So by our measurements, the Lexus isn't quite well-rounded enough to dominate the entry-level luxury sedan segment, but that doesn't mean you won't like it.
The ES 300 was completely redesigned for 2002 (concurrent with its Camry relative's reworking) among the most noticeable changes are the new exterior sheet metal and a larger, even more sumptuous interior, that as we previously suggested, can be made into an affordable, scaled-down version of the LS 430 super luxury sedan. One thing Lexus didn't change was the 3.0-liter V6 engine, which still offers just 210 horsepower and 220 pound-feet of torque. But what a smooth, silent and refined outlay of power it is despite the engine's weaker performance, editors still tended to give it above-average scores, and indeed it was adequate to the task of normal driving. During instrumented testing, the ES 300 lagged behind all the others; its 8.3-second 0-60 time was half a second slower than the next slowest 300M's.
The standard five-speed automatic shifts smoothly, doing its best not to disturb the driver. Editors noted that downshifts came a bit slowly when attempting passing maneuvers, and like the rest of the car, the transmission isn't suited for aggressive driving on two-lanes or anywhere else that quick shifts would be desired. Lexus makes no pretensions in this regard, as automanual functionality isn't available.
Ride quality is almost perfect for an entry-level luxury sedan, and most buyers will love it. The ES 300's fully independent strut suspension absorbs all but the harshest road conditions, making the car a good choice for commuters who need a break from the rigors of the workday. When we hustled the Lexus around tight turns, it wasn't too happy about it, but like a good employee or friend who smiles through her discomfort, the ES managed to buck up and handle predictably within reasonable limits. Of course, there was still too much body roll and too little interaction with the driver to make it fun, but this isn't a car that an impassioned driver would buy.
As expected of a car with these aspirations, the steering is light and accurate, and a tidy turning radius (36.1 feet) makes the Lexus easy to park. At higher speeds, the steering wheel retains a light feel best suited for relaxed driving and, as one editor noted, it can get a bit shaky when cornering on bumpy pavement this behavior wasn't present in the other cars. The standard 215/60VR16 Toyo Proxes tires offered only modest amounts of grip when pushed, though we did appreciate their muted noise levels on the highway. You can improve the ES 300's handling package somewhat by adding a couple of reasonably priced options that our test car didn't have Adaptive Variable Suspension, which automatically adjusts the damping for each strut, enhancing road feel and turn-in response, and the VSC stability control system (brake assist and Electronic Brakeforce Distribution are included).
Braking is provided by a four-wheel antilock disc setup and, like most products of Toyota origin, the ES 300 stopped confidently in everyday driving and exhibited progressive pedal feel. A few drivers observed that the pedal was a little soft, and some thought they detected slight pulsation possibly indicating warped rotors on our test vehicle. Nevertheless, our best 60-0 braking distance of 123 feet was consistent with that of an earlier ES 300 we tested.
Inside the cabin, the Lexus came close to earning all perfect-10s for its overall design and the quality of its furnishings. Really, this was an ideal embodiment of the palatable luxury environment we sought supple leather upholstery, rich wood trim, electroluminescent gauges that give the wood a soft glow at night, expansive soft-touch surfaces, sleek plastics and straightforward controls that are substantial in feel and have all the automation most drivers would ever require, including dual-zone automatic climate control, one-touch open and close windows on all doors and a one-touch open and close sunroof. A DVD-based navigation system is optional.
Our complaints about this ensemble were minor we would have liked a bit more variation in the shape and size of the climate control buttons (though a helpful "dual" button simplifies your adjustments when a single cabin temperature is desired), and it would have been nice if a few stereo controls were mounted on the steering wheel (you'll want to check out our review of the optional Mark Levinson sound system, by the way). Also, some of the buttons and switchgear obviously originated from the Toyota parts bin, but this holds true throughout the Lexus lineup, and since the controls are high in quality to begin with, it's not a problem to find them in the second-most affordable model.
The seats reflect the personality of the car, and accordingly, most editors wrote that the front chairs were indeed very softly cushioned but weren't especially supportive; side bolstering is nonexistent, so quick maneuvers caused drivers to slide around in the seat. Generous padding on the center armrest and door panels provides a nice respite for elbows. A full set of power adjustments, including power lumbar, comes standard in the ES, but unlike every other car in this group, you have to pay extra for leather upholstery (not that we can't see the advantage of velour in some climates). And the optional heated seats are only available if you get the leather. The ES doesn't offer a telescoping steering wheel; adjustable pedals, a worthy substitute for this feature, will be available for 2003 models. The headrests are soft, but they don't articulate or provide dynamic whiplash protection. Editors gave the Lexus solid marks for visibility, though a couple thought that the bulging hood, high rear deck and three rear headrests might cause problems for some drivers. Like the 300M, the ES gives you a full set of auto-dimming mirrors. In lower light conditions, the driver has her choice of DRL, automatic or full-power settings for the headlights.
In the backseat, we found the ES 300 to be as spacious as the I35, and editors preferred its seatback rake and softer cushioning to the Infiniti's (though the fold-down center armrest felt hard against the center passenger's back). The seat bottom was bit a low and short, however, which compromised thigh support. Legroom was judged adequate, but toe room was limited. Drivers of average height were content with the available headroom, but our tallest editor reported it was a bit tight. All three headrests are adjustable, but the center restraint sticks out a bit, pushing the center occupant's head forward. Getting in and out was slightly difficult, as the rear door openings are narrow toward the bottom.
In case of an accident, the Lexus is duly equipped to protect you and your occupants; as in the Passat W8, side airbags for front occupants and head curtain airbags for front and rear occupants are standard. The ES 300 fared well in NHTSA crash tests, earning five stars in every category, except side-impact rear, for which it earned four. And it merited a "good" overall rating in IIHS offset crash testing and "best pick" status.
Most drivers considered storage a strong point for the Lexus the list of facilities includes a large lined two-tier center console with a power point inside; a large, lined glovebox; average-size front door bins; a felt-lined change holder; classy hard-back map pockets with elastic "hinges"; juice box-ready door pockets in the rear and a lined overhead sunglasses holder. One driver noted he would have appreciated a shallow storage cubby of some kind near the bottom of the center stack. There are two cupholders each in the front- and backseat; the ones in front deploy from the center console and are average in size with spring-mounted anchors (most found them acceptable but one editor reported that every beverage she tried fell out while the vehicle was in motion). The rear holders are housed in the center armrest and even have a soft-touch lid.
The ES 300 can handle routine hauling assignments; its trunk is merely average in capacity for this group (14.5 cubic feet), but a large opening and nonintrusive hinges make it easy to load luggage. Cargo tie-downs and a ski pass-through are included, though as in the Passat W8, the rear seats do not fold.
Build quality was generally high about on par with the Passat's in the eyes of most editors. The only problems we found were a misaligned glovebox door, a trim piece on the driver door that was coming unglued and a possible botched door seal. On the outside, the body panel gaps were tight and precise. The ES 300 is the oldest nameplate in this group (dating back to the 1992 model year), and Consumer Reports has consistently rated it well above average for reliability.
Why buy an ES 300 over a loaded Camry XLE V6 that costs several thousand dollars less and can be equipped with many of the same features? Because you seek the former's higher level of luxury inside the cabin; the greater powertrain and chassis refinement, which yields a silent cabin and a plusher ride; more distinctive exterior styling and a sufficient level of luxury to see you through encounters with important clients and judgmental relatives. Why buy an ES 300 over any other car in this group? Because you wish to bask in luxury for a price that's closer to $35,000 than $40,000 and couldn't care less about taking the back roads to San Francisco you've got a frequent flyer card after all.
Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
Lexus won't have any trouble selling these. Those who lust after Lexus' flagship, the LS 430, but can't afford the big cake (a price tag that can quickly approach $65,000) required to park it in their driveway will want to look at the ES 300. With a beautifully finished cabin evocative of the 430, along with the option of the incredible Mark Levinson audio system, this car defines "lap of luxury" better than any other in this test. Everything is polished (dynamically and aesthetically) to the nth degree. But all is not Rosewood with the ES 300, as I found the performance lacking compared to the rest of the cars. I'm sure anyone who just goes straight into their neighborhood Lexus dealer and checks out an ES 300 will probably be wowed by its charms and won't regret it if they buy the car. Unless, of course, they drive an I35 soon afterward.
Road Test Editor Liz Kim says:
So what do you want in a luxury sedan? A quiet, comfortable ride? Power everything? A smooth, fluid driving experience? Opulent materials? The Lexus ES 300 has it all in spades, and more. One of the cheaper cars in the test (as equipped, it falls midpack, but you can get it for less) turned out to be the very definition of what an entry-level luxury sedan should be. To me, what defines an indulgent ride is one that makes you feel like your money has been well spent. From the driver seat, you can feel quality exude from the beautiful wood, leather and controls. No, it's not a very exciting car, but you'll feel like you're riding on a cushion of aerated WD-40 as you zoom along the highway on the way to your next board meeting.
Senior Road Test Editor Brent Romans says:
Pros: Authoritative brakes, flawless build quality, stellar tires, sublime interior materials. Cons: Uninspired styling, numb steering, no fold-down rear seat, generally boring. Sound right? Sure. But I'm not discussing the 2002 version. In fact, these are the exact pros and cons listed for a 1999 Lexus ES 300 that participated in our 1999 entry-level luxury car comparison test. It belly-flopped into seventh place out of eight. It's quite amazing how the 1999 and 2002 cars' pros and cons can be so similar, though their final rankings are so different. A major reason is competition in our 1999 and 2001 entry-level luxury comparison tests, we included every car possible. This year, we broke out the cars into two groups, sport and luxury. Now, like asking Cliff Claven trivia questions about the United States Postal Service, the ES 300 is being tested about what it knows best. Not surprisingly, it's a ruler of the roost.
Stereo Evaluation - 2002 Lexus ES 300
Ranking in Test: Tied for second.
System Score: 8.0
Components: This is a very good Mark Levinson system that was just edged out by the Harman Kardon system in the Saab 9-5. Interestingly enough, both systems were designed and manufactured by Harman International, so the company was essentially competing against itself.
The system in the Lexus ES 300 begins with an excellent head unit that sports an ergonomically pleasing man-machine interface. Highlights include a wide topography and oversize buttons, which make this one a snap to use. Our only complaint was a volume knob that had a sticky feel to it, which we felt didn't communicate as well with the user as it might. The designers should take a page out of their own book the radio tuning knob is a detented affair that has it all over the volume control.
The speaker array begins with an 8-inch subwoofer along the rear deck. This is complemented by a pair of 6.5-inch full-range drivers in the rear doors, plus a pair of 6.5-inch midbass drivers in the forward doors. The front doors also contain a pair of one-inch dome tweeters near the top of door panel.
Performance: While we enjoyed listening to this system quite a bit, we didn't feel it sounded quite as good as the Harman Kardon system in the Saab 9-5. The main difference between the two setups is the front speaker array, which in the Saab includes an additional centerfill speaker in the middle of the dash. This does much to add to the spaciousness and lively soundstage of the Saab.
But this system is no slouch. We found bass response to be smooth, accurate and not overly aggressive, while mids were just slightly muted in detail and depth. We found the voicing on the highs to be excellent, although some passages sounded just a little overly bright to our ears. Acoustic strings, horns and female vocals all came through superbly. One other point of interest: This system seemed to play less loudly than others in the test, and we also noted an unwelcome graininess and distortion at higher volume levels.
Best Feature: Ergonomic head unit.
Worst Feature: Some sonic impurities.
Conclusion: Again, this is a very good system that most consumers will absolutely love. Nevertheless, we didn't think it sounded as good as the Mark Levinson systems we've listened to in other Lexus vehicles. This is understandable, though, since those vehicles cost much more money. If it weren't for the HK setup in the Saab 9-5, this system would have finished first. Scott Memmer
Second Place (tie) - 2002 Infiniti I35
Only the Infiniti had the distinction of having taken part in our last entry-level luxury sedan test. At that time, it was called the I30, and alongside cars like the Acura TL Type-S, BMW 330i, Volvo S60 T5, Lexus IS 300, Mercedes-Benz C320 and Lincoln LS V8, editors were unmoved by its nonsporting handling characteristics, underwhelming drivetrain and Maxima-grade cabin trimmings it finished seventh of nine.
But this year we were more concerned with the Infiniti's ability to play the part of a luxury sedan, and potential competitors like the Volvo, Mercedes and Lincoln were out of the picture (not having received significant changes since our last test). Also of aid were the very upgrades that justified the repeat invitation the more potent 3.5-liter V6 that made it the I35, an upgraded braking system, larger front and rear stabilizer bars for the suspension and available stability control. (Smaller changes like the addition of an in-dash CD changer to the standard features list, and subtle styling and materials revisions inside and out, might seem insignificant on their own but they can make a difference in our comparisons.) And with the arrival of the athletic rear-drive G35, the front-drive I35 has been relieved of the burden of covering every sort of buyer shopping in the $30,000 price range. Now it can be what it is: a peer of the Lexus ES 300.
Rather fittingly, these two deadlocked in this test 76.4 overall for the I35 and 76.1 for the ES 300 (remember that we consider any margin less than 0.5 a tie). Both, in their own way, are solid cars. Whereas the Lexus is all about luxury, the Infiniti is about compromise a relatively fast and competent, if not wholly luxurious, package that's priced to move. Most of us still aren't ready to concede affection for the I35, but we do think it could be a good buy.
Is the I35 more of a Maxima than the ES 300 is a Camry? Yes. Nearly everything's the same right down to the sheet metal and nonindependent rear suspension. For buyers, the value may lie in the subtleties the front and rear fascias employ a more conservative aesthetic, and inside, you'll find faux wood inserts that do a decent impression of the real bird's eye maple in the Q45, higher-quality leather and Infiniti's signature analog clock. Or if not there, then in the prestige of owning and driving a premium-branded vehicle you'll communicate the requisite level of efficacy to potential clients and you won't have to wait in line behind ratty Sentras and Quests during service visits.
As we learned, the I35 is rather digestible for its price class, but several editors couldn't shake the feeling that a Maxima GLE would provide equal gratification for less money. From a financial standpoint, this is true: you could option a GLE up to the equipment level of a base I35 (minus floor mats, side airbags and traction control) and still come up with an MSRP of about $1,000 less. Want the sport suspension and lower-profile 17-inch tires? Simply option up an SE, and you'll save over $1,500. In either case, the only features you'll miss out on are optional stability control and a power rear sunshade. But enough already we obviously found something to like about this product of Nissan/Infiniti cost-cutting.
Everyone had kind things to say about the car's 24-valve, DOHC 3.5-liter V6 you'll recognize this as another version of the company's prized VQ-engine series, and in the I35, it makes 255 horsepower at 5,800 rpm and 246 pound-feet of torque at 4,400 rpm. This V6 pulled hard through the rpm range and was both smooth and quiet. It should be a good match for agitated commuters, as it allows the I35 to catch every opening in traffic. At the track, the I35 turned in the fastest times 6.9 seconds 0-60 mph and 15.2 seconds for the quarter-mile. "This V6 is rivaled only by the W8 for power and refinement," one editor wrote in his evaluation.
The Infiniti's automatic is rather basic by today's entry-luxury standards it's only a four-speed and lacks automanual functionality. Downshifts are delivered in a quick, crisp manner but, as a couple of drivers noted, the transmission lacks shift control logic to keep it from hunting unnecessarily on steep up- and downhill grades when left in "D." This problem was solved by selecting the gears manually, though some editors felt the staggered shift gate was tricky to negotiate at first. Fuel economy with this powertrain is rated at 20 mpg city/26 mpg highway; we averaged 20 mpg.
Braking is provided by four-wheel antilock discs supplemented by Electronic Brakeforce Distribution and BrakeAssist. During our test loops, editors found them sufficiently powerful in all situations with no evidence of fade even on steep, winding descents. Opinions on pedal feel were mixed; some were happy with the level of progression, while others found it a bit mushy. During instrumented testing, performance was unexceptional, as the I35, the lightest car in the group (3,342 pounds), stopped in 125 feet from 60 mph only one foot better than the heaviest, the Passat W8 (3,907 pounds).
The I35 retains the Maxima's less costly suspension design an independent MacPherson strut setup in front and a multilink beam axle in the rear. Although the Infiniti is the only luxury-type car on the market without a fully independent suspension, we didn't find this to be a problem in normal driving. Buyers who plan to use the I35 for commutes and weekend errands probably won't notice the difference. However, driving over a bump or broken pavement with any measure of gusto does upset the chassis making an otherwise comfortable ride seem momentarily harsh.
Several editors, who weren't enamored with the 2001 I30t that participated in the last entry-luxury comparison, found the I35 surprisingly adept when pushed on two-lane highways. As both cars had a sport suspension and the same 225/50VR17 Bridgestone Potenzas, we attribute the change in sentiment to the different context (this being the luxury bracket, we didn't expect the cars to handle like sport sedans) and the larger-diameter stabilizer bars the I35 received for '02 (which likely reduced body roll around turns). Not everyone agreed, though, as a couple of drivers felt the Infiniti lacked poise when pushed hard even alongside a cruiser like the Lexus. Our test car had Infiniti's VDC stability control system, which most drivers found helpful rather than intrusive.
We were generally satisfied with the steering, which serves the I35's mission with progressive weighting and predictable responses to driver input. However, most found it deficient in road feel, and a 40-foot turning radius made the I35 feel cumbersome in parking lots.
Inside, the ergonomically sound cabin seems pleasant enough on its own, or a little basic when you consider the Maxima offers a nearly identical environment. All of the center stack controls, including the single-zone automatic climate control system, and switchgear are the same which means the controls are large and easy-to-use (we particularly liked the rotary temperature dial and the satellite audio controls on the steering wheel) but not much to look at, compared with the ES 300's lovely ensemble. A 200-watt Bose sound system, also from the Maxima, is standard read our stereo evaluation and a DVD-based nav system is optional.
The overall quality of interior materials ranked midpack we felt they were better than the 300M's or the 9-5's, but not as high in quality as the ES 300's or the Passat's. We found the leather upholstery acceptable and noted the requisite soft-touch surfaces on the dash, console and door panels, but no one was wild about the sparkly taupe plastic surrounding the center stack controls.
The Infiniti offers the highest average of front-seat head-, hip- and legroom in this group, and accordingly, drivers found the cockpit spacious. The driver seat is soft but not especially supportive it will do for long commutes but not for aggressive driving on back roads and our tallest driver reported that the cushions were a little short. Infiniti skimped on power controls: while the driver seat offers eight-way power adjustment (along with manual lumbar only the Lexus had a power control for this) and retracts to allow for graceful exits, the front-passenger seat offers just four-way power adjustment; all of the other cars offer eight-way. Further, the steering wheel offers only tilt adjustment. More positively, the headrests, while of the nonarticulating variety, are dynamic head restraints that will protect against whiplash if your I35 is rear-ended. And the handsomely stitched center console armrest adjusts for height. Although the I35 provides a good view out the front from the driver seat, some editors gave the Infiniti lower scores for visibility, citing a rather small rear window blocked by the three rear headrests. The rearview mirror is auto-dimming, and the heavy-duty sun visors have extenders.
When we climbed into the backseat, we judged it to be about as roomy as the ES 300's and the 9-5's, but with better thigh support than the Lexus and more toe room than both. Headroom was a bit tight, though. In addition, occupants were partial to the seatback rake and softer cushioning in the ES 300. An angled seat bottom, low door sills and grab handles on the front seatbacks make it easy to get in and out, though the shape of the seat bottom cuts down on thigh support when three adult-size passengers are aboard.
Side airbags for front occupants are standard in the I35, but head curtain airbags for front and rear occupants are not available. Crash test scores aren't quite as good as those of the ES 300, Passat or 9-5, as the I35 earned four stars in each of NHTSA's frontal- and side-impact categories and an "acceptable" rating from the IIHS for the 40-mph offset crash test (a higher-than-normal likelihood of lower leg injury precluded a "good" rating).
Storage in the cabin consists of a spacious dual-tier center console container, average-size front door bins and glovebox, seatback map pockets and an overhead sunglasses holder. (In most cases, these spaces are not lined as they are in the Lexus and Passat.) Cupholders were rated the highest of the group: the two in the front are nicely sized and can double as storage space, and the two in the rear are housed in a pull-out drawer on the back of the center console, allowing you to use them even with three rear-seat occupants.
Trunk volume (14.9 cubic feet) is slightly more than the ES 300's but a full cubic foot less than the 9-5's; also keep in mind that the "gooseneck" hinges will limit your loading options. On the plus side, the trunk lid pops up several inches when you hit the button on the keyless remote, and a grocery net is included. The rear seats offer 60/40-split folding capability. A full-size spare tire is a $180 option.
We did note a handful of build quality issues in our I35 test car, including a few misaligned interior panels (as well as a few that flexed) and rough edges on some plastics. On the outside, one editor noted a slight misaligned rear passenger door that caused a wind leak, and another reported that the trunk fit was slightly off. We also noted several minor interior rattles during our test loops, and our stereo expert uncovered a rattling subwoofer grille during his evaluation. Reliability has always been a strong point for the Infiniti, however, and Consumer Reports has rated it well above average since the I30's introduction in 1996.
Overall, we were left with the feeling that the I35 would be a satisfying car, if not for ourselves, then for a less demanding friend or relative. Though not as luxurious as the Lexus or Passat, the Infiniti offers an outstanding V6 engine, a comfortable highway ride, competent handling and no serious faults for a lower price than either competitor.
Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
Here's the one I'd buy. Some of my cohorts don't care for the I35's style, saying it's just a dressed-up Maxima, which it essentially is. But the same could be said of the Lexus ES 300 and its Camry cousin. It's no wonder the I35's powerful and refined V6 is used in so many Nissan/Infiniti applications it's hard to fault. There's power everywhere and the tranny does such a good job of swapping gears that you won't miss a manual shift mode. No, the cabin isn't quite as upscale as that of the Lexus, using fake (but convincing) wood trim where the ES uses real timber, but there's still a feeling of quality to the I35's soft-touch materials, and nice details, such as stitched door armrests, abound.
Exceptional performance, good looks, a comfortable cabin, a lot of standard luxury features (such as xenon headlights), top-shelf build quality and a relatively low price (it's only about $1,000 more than a comparable Maxima GLE) make this choice a no-brainer for me.
Road Test Editor Liz Kim says:
The I35 is a good, solid vehicle. It handles well, has plenty of thrust and luxurious features. However, so does the Nissan Maxima. Therein lies the main problem of the Infiniti not its live beam rear axle, nor in its too-sedate styling, but that there's simply too little of a difference between this and its stablemate. Add in the switchgear that's used in the Altima and you're left wondering exactly why you need the luxury nameplate. Is it for the engine? Couldn't be. Is it for the interior materials? They're nice, and the fake wood is convincing, but they're not spectacular. Yes, the Lexus ES 300 is based on a Toyota Camry, but there's enough of a luxo-feel to the Lexus to warrant its price premium. You don't get that with the Infiniti. The Maxima is a swell car on its own get that and save the few extra grand.
Stereo Evaluation - 2002 Infiniti I35
Ranking in Test: Fourth
System Score: 7.0
Components: This system, manufactured by Bose, has its good points. On the plus side, it offers both cassette and a six-disc in-dash CD changer, plus excellent steering wheel controls that cover volume, mode and seek-scan, and a large head unit in a double-DIN opening. The head unit also boasts a large, round, detented volume knob; RDS; and overall good button spacing. On the downside, the topography is kind of strange. The radio is set in a curving dash, so that the right side of the head unit slopes away from the driver. This could have been solved by designing the dashboard in a cockpit style, a la the Saab 9-5, but since this has not been done, the ergonomics are less than perfect.
This system has a good speaker array. It begins with a 6.5-inch Bose subwoofer on the back deck. Other speaker locations include a pair of 6.5-inch full-range drivers in the rear doors, and a pair of 6.5-inch midbass drivers in the front doors. A pair of one-inch dome tweeters adorns the A-pillars.
Performance: It sounds OK, but not great. The rear-mounted subwoofer delivers bass that is punchy and tight, although it lacks deep bass response. Mids sound reedy and thin, particularly on strings and female vocals. Likewise, we found highs raspy and biting, not as smooth or warm as in other cars in this test. The worst part of this system revealed itself when we turned it up: We found a rattling speaker grille covering the subwoofer in back. This was very annoying, and had us wondering what other build quality issues this vehicle might contain.
Best Feature: A generous speaker array.
Worst Feature: Rattling subwoofer grille on rear deck.
Conclusion: If you're looking for the best stereo in this comparison test, keep looking. Although this one had its good points, it was marred by so-so ergonomics, a buzzing subwoofer speaker grille and mediocre sound quality. The bar has been raised pretty high in this segment, and the Infiniti I35 just doesn't measure up. Scott Memmer
First Place - 2002 Volkswagen Passat W8
Whether we like it or not, our admiration for Volkswagen's midsize sedan has apparently reached the level of James Lipton, the obsequious host of Bravo's Inside the Actors Studio. Stuff eight cylinders under the hood, switch out the halogens for xenons, throw a little extra chrome in the cabin, jack up the price past 38 grand we'll buy it. In spite of realizations that a car like the Lexus could provide even more luxurious accommodations for less money or that all our favorite features are available on lower-level Passat models, we couldn't stop liking the well-appointed W8 and its fast engine. And so with a little help from us on our personal recommendations and 23-point evaluations, not to mention a strong showing in the Top 10 Features and performance categories, the VW eked out a win over the Infiniti by 3.2 points.
Introduced halfway through the 2002 model year, the Passat W8 passes on the usual trim level nomenclature and pulls its identity from the engine bay, where a pair of four-valve-per-cylinder VR4 engines ("VR" denoting a staggered V design) shares a crankshaft and forms a W configuration that's more compact than the usual V8 arrangement. The W8 displaces 4.0 liters and is rated at 270 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 273 pound-feet of torque at 2,750 rpm; power is routed through all four wheels via VW's 4Motion all-wheel-drive system. Ordinarily, the system splits engine power 50/50 between the front and rear axles; when slippage occurs, the mechanical center differential redistributes it up to a ratio of 67/33 in either direction.
Obviously, no other contestant offered this much power, but with the weight of its larger engine and AWD system, the Passat W8 weighed in at 3,907 pounds almost 600 more than the I35. During instrumented testing, the Passat ran a 7.2-second 0-60 and a 15.5 quarter-mile slightly disappointing for any enthusiast who took note of Volkswagen's claim of 6.5 seconds for 0-60 mph. Elsewhere, the W8 was impressive, with deep reserves throughout its long power band. "Gobs of power everywhere and a lovely note when the whip is cracked," one editor wrote in his notes. Still, a couple of editors felt the W8 lacked the immediate off-the-line thrust expected of an eight-cylinder engine, and a third found the throttle a bit touchy when pulling away from stoplights.
We expect most consumers will love this engine power delivery is quite smooth, and passing maneuvers are accomplished with blissful ease, even on steep grades. The only issue that might cause concern is fuel economy. With the standard five-speed automatic (a six-speed manual will be available for 2003), mileage is rated at a respectable 18 mpg city/25 mpg highway. However, after putting over 600 miles (a decent portion of which were highway miles) on a test vehicle that was well past the break-in period, we couldn't do better than 15 mpg. We can only hope our test car wasn't representative of all W8s in this regard.
Drivers disagreed slightly about the capability of the transmission. All wrote that it consistently delivered smooth shifts, even under full throttle, and held gears longer when appropriate. However, several felt it was slow to come up with downshifts when driven aggressively and resorted to using the Tiptronic automanual mode to speed things up. But Tiptronic didn't offer the same positive shift feel as the 300M's Autostick. All told, though, the general consumer should be quite satisfied with the transmission's performance, even if he just leaves it in "D."
The W8 was the only car in the group wearing a full set of vented disc brakes (supplemented by ABS and BrakeAssist), yet its braking performance was a contentious issue among editors. Several editors were satisfied with the pedal's progressive feel and the car's acceptable stopping distances, but others were annoyed by a certain touchiness in the pedal's initial travel and obvious nose dive under harder braking. We also noted plenty of squealing as the brakes got hot during our test loops. The Passat's best 60-0 braking distance was 126 feet, which certainly isn't horrible for a vehicle of its weight, but one might hope for a more exceptional number from a car that costs $38,000.
Like other Passats, the W8 strikes a balance between ride quality and competent, even entertaining, handling one we think most entry-level luxury buyers will appreciate. When driven sedately, the Passat was more comfortable than any other car in the group, except perhaps the Lexus. Endowed with considerably more power than the V6-equipped 4Motion Passats, this one was better equipped to storm out of turns on two-lane roads, and the extra weight up front was for the most part noticeable only during downhill cornering. Yet in spite of the sedan's fairly balanced, responsive feel when pushed hard, most editors felt this most expensive of Passats should have been fitted with a firmer version of the standard front multilink/rear double-wishbone suspension to better control body movement around turns. A sport package replete with firmer suspension tuning and 17-inch wheels and tires (replacing the 215/55HR16 ContiTouring Contacts that our test vehicle wore) is in the works for the '03 model year, but it's going to cost extra.
Most of us did like the steering, which proved to be a progressively weighted, communicative setup with quick responses to driver input. One editor disagreed with this assessment, though, writing in his notes that the weighting seemed to be off, giving the wheel an overly heavy feel at low speeds. We'd say a test drive is in order for potential buyers.
Stability control (or ESP in VW terminology) is standard on all W8s (it will be optional for all other Passats starting in 2003). The system seemed less intrusive than the I35's VDC, giving the driver ample leeway to enjoy himself.
Inside, the W8 looks mostly like any other Passat, which tended to work in its favor in our evaluations, as Volkswagen makes the most upscale family sedan on the market. Still, it felt a tad less luxurious than the Lexus with its comparatively austere German design (accentuated by our test car's gray-and-black color scheme and VW's more sparing use of real wood accents) and fewer conveniences it didn't have a full set of one-touch up-down windows, an in-dash CD changer, dual-zone climate control or power lumbar (nor is there a navigation system on the options list, in the U.S.). Quirkily, like the Saab, it did have an air-conditioned glovebox. Also notable was the full nighttime illumination for all steering wheel buttons and the rain-sensing wipers.
Material quality was high (as it is in other Passats), with an ample supply of soft-touch surfaces, relatively supple leather, matte-finish plastics and solid switchgear to make you feel like you've purchased a bona fide luxury car. Most editors rated the ensemble slightly below that of the Lexus, citing wood trim that wasn't as lovely or as generously applied, and leather that wasn't quite as soft.
Interior controls were a mixed lot. VW continues to use its Climatronic automatic climate control system, which forces drivers to negotiate a set of small, flat, identically sized and shaped buttons while looking at a display mounted low in the dash. Compared with the other offerings, this system could definitely stand improvement. However, we did enjoy using Volkswagen's new double-DIN stereo head unit, which offers larger buttons and knobs and much better spacing between them (read our stereo review for the full story on this Monsoon system). We also liked the redundant audio display in the instrument cluster and the controls on the steering wheel.
Overall, the Passat came away with the highest ratings for front seat comfort, surpassing even the 9-5 (though various editors did prefer the Saab's seats to the VW's). The seats were firmer and more supportive than those of the ES 300 or I35, though a couple of editors had trouble finding a comfortable position. A wide range of tilt and telescoping adjustment for the steering wheel ensures that just about everyone can find a passable driving position. Other features include articulating headrests; a center armrest that can be adjusted for height and fore-aft position; and seat heaters with five settings. Visibility is limited somewhat by the presence of three rear headrests and rather small side mirrors. Only the interior mirror is auto-dimming.
The W8 had the smallest backseat of the group, but in some ways it was the most comfortable due to its superior contouring; it's definitely suitable for those who will only put two passengers in back on a regular basis. Headroom and toe room were deemed sufficient by average-size adults, though the seat bottom is a bit short, which cuts down on thigh support.
All of the VW's storage areas are lined with rubber nubs or felt, but overall, they're not very large in size. The list includes a tiny center console compartment (in the armrest); fairly wide front door bins; the aforementioned glovebox, which is average in size; a small storage shelf on the far left side of the dash; and a small amount of storage in the fold-down rear armrest, which also houses two cupholders. Additionally, the console-mounted front cupholders can double as storage receptacles.
Although the Passat's trunk doesn't look small, the added bulk of the 4Motion mechanicals reduces its capacity to 10 cubic feet (front-drive Passats have 15 cubes), by far the smallest of the group, and allows only a temporary-size spare tire under the trunk floor. At least there are external strut hinges to maximize your loading options. As in the ES 300, the rear seats do not fold; there is a ski pass-through, though you have to dive into the trunk to release the latch for the trap door.
Build quality issues were minor in our W8 test car. Inside, editors noted a misaligned glovebox, a slightly skewed airbag cover, slightly loose A-pillar trim and some fraying where the C-pillars met the headliner. We also noted an annoying rattle from the driver's side of the dash. On the outside of the car, all of the panels fit just right with tight gap tolerances. Reliability has been about average since the current-generation Passat was introduced as a 1998 model, according to Consumer Reports.
Safety is a strong point for all Passats. Side airbags for front occupants and head curtain airbags for front and rear occupants are standard all the way down the line. In NHTSA crash tests, the Passat earned five stars in both frontal impact categories and four stars in each side-impact category. In the 40-mph offset crash test conducted by the IIHS, the Passat earned a "good" rating and "best pick" standing (the ES 300 and 9-5 were also awarded these accolades).
We won't kid you the Passat W8 is not the value leader of this group, especially when one considers that everything but its stellar powertrain could be had for $15,000 less. But if you're reading this test seriously, you know we're writing for the consumer who is comfortable spending between $30,000 and $40,000 on a car. And taken as a whole, the W8 has almost everything covered lots of power, a smooth ride, agile handling, an upscale cabin with high-quality materials, (mostly) user-friendly controls, comfortable seats and a pleasant dose of personality. And so once again, it's a Passat that gets our top recommendation.
Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
Does a Passat, good a car as it is, belong in the near-$40,000 game? That was the question that loomed largest for me in this comparo. Yeah, it's got a V
excuse me, W8 engine and the cabin is nearly as nice as an Audi's. But I couldn't help thinking a much less expensive Passat model, even a GLS 1.8T with leather and a moonroof, is nearly as good as this too-heavy W8 version. The engine's output of 270 horsepower is impressive, but it's got to lug around a car that weighs nearly as much as a Caddy Deville. Like most of the participants in this test, I think highly of the Passat W8, as it has luxury and refinement in spades. But when you can get 90 percent of this car's goodness at 70 percent of the price by going with that loaded GLS, it's evident that moving up to the top Passat is a lesson in diminishing returns.
Road Test Editor Liz Kim says:
The Volkswagen Passat W8 presents a bit of a conundrum. The Passat's one of our very favorite sedans, winning almost every comparison test it's competed in, winning our pick as the Editors' Most Wanted and generally being one of the most beloved members of our long-term fleet. However, when you put it up against the class with which it competes in W8 form, it loses its allure somewhat. Don't get me wrong, it's still a great vehicle, but most of the things that make it great are also available in a version that costs more than $10,000 less than the W8 does. The interior's peachy, the power is smooth and ready for action, and it's a pleasure to drive, it's just that you get the niggling feeling you could have paid less for the car. That negates the whole point of a luxury vehicle, doesn't it?
Senior Road Test Editor Brent Romans says:
I have to be honest. Before this test, I had taken the role of pundit and dispensed opinion to my car enthusiast friends that there was little reason to buy a Passat W8. Why would anyone want to spend $38,000 for a car when a nearly-as-good version of the same thing is available for $27,000? The Passat W8 was going to be a nose-heavy sled and not worth the money, I said. Of course, I hadn't driven the car or even sat in it (Ah, the joys of being a critic!). Now I've driven it. Hmm, what does crow taste like, Mr. Romans? All-around, I felt this was the best car in the test. Its interior while not really upgraded over the regular Passat's is still quite nice. The backseat is comfortable. It's fast. And, surprisingly, it isn't all that bad when cornering. Undistinguished styling is the only thing left for me to complain about. If you see this as an advantage, well, it would seem you've found the best car in this comparison test.
Stereo Evaluation - 2002 Volkswagen Passat W8
Ranking in Test: Tied for second.
System Score: 8.0
Components: This Monsoon system begins with a newly-styled head unit that impressed us with its ease of use and ergonomics. Having had a 1999 Passat in our long-term fleet for the last two years, we had become acquainted with and frustrated at the idiosyncrasies of that head unit. Funky, crowded controls had more than one editor complaining. So this new radio comes as a welcome relief. A row of handy-dandy pop-out dials at the bottom of the faceplate do much to aid in contouring the sound. Steering wheel controls for seek-scan and volume are also welcome. Our only grouse is the disappearance of the rubberized volume control that provided a wonderful tactile feel on the old head unit.
As is typical with VW systems, this one lacks a subwoofer on the rear deck. Instead, we get the identical speaker array in all four doors a 6.5-inch midbass driver with a one-inch dome tweeter above. Simple, but functional. And it sounds real good.
Performance: This system argues quite effectively that you don't need a subwoofer in your trunk to generate powerful bass. Using the doors as a speaker enclosure, the four 6.5-inch midbass drivers in this vehicle produce as good a bass response as any system in this test. In fact, some might argue the bass is at times overpowering, drowning out the other frequencies in the system. Our listening notes allude to this attribute, saying, "Bass is wide and a tad sloppy and at times too much." In addition to this, we found high frequencies slightly overcooked, particularly on horns and female vocals. On the other hand, we found the attack on percussion very impressive, with a great "snap" to the kick drum and snare. Gain limiting was also good in this system, with just a slight graininess at full gain.
Best Feature: Redesigned head unit.
Worst Feature: Overpowering bass.
Conclusion: We're never disappointed with the sound systems we find in VW vehicles. This one falls in the good-to-excellent range. We really appreciated the new head unit design, which we found to be a definite improvement over the previous generation. Although this system didn't sound as good as the first-place system in the Saab 9-5, most consumers would be ecstatic to have this setup to listen to on a daily basis. However, an in-dash CD changer would be a welcome addition to this system, instead of the single-play unit now in place. Scott Memmer
In this test, we put ourselves in the shoes of buyers shopping in the $30,000-to-$40,000 price range who seek above all a luxury experience buyers who seek a comfortable, well-appointed car to take the edge off weekday commutes, road trips and meetings with clients. Obviously, all-out performance isn't a necessity, but we expected each of the candidates to provide, at minimum, ample power and agility for stress-free maneuvers in everyday traffic. Given the rather lofty price tags of these sedans, however, a few extra convenience features or sporty handling on back roads certainly didn't hurt.
In this group, the Saab 9-5 Arc wasn't a favorite with most editors. After several hundred miles of driving, we felt it lacked the requisite power, road manners and authentic luxury feel inside the cabin to appeal to most buyers. We'd recommend it only to dedicated Saab fans (who would likely prefer the Aero model anyway) or those with bad backs who require orthopedically-correct seats.
The Chrysler 300M Special was the oddball of the group. With its sharp handling ability, it definitely appeals to buyers who like to drive. At the same time, its full-size body calls out to those who regularly carry adult-size backseat passengers. Yet we found it too rough around the edges low-grade interior materials, slipshod build quality and too few interior conveniences to appeal to the typical buyer. However, it was definitely the best handler in this group and might be worth a test drive if you find yourself walking the line between luxury and sport.
The Lexus ES 300 and Infiniti I35 tied for second place. The Lexus was the most luxurious car in this group it had the finest interior materials, numerous convenience features and a superb highway ride. Yet, its modest power and handling ability left some editors cold. If driving is merely a tiresome chore for you, though, and you want a vehicle that helps you escape from it, the ES 300 would be a great choice.
Although too similar to the Nissan Maxima due to corporate cost-cutting, the Infiniti I35 offers an attractive package to buyers who, for whatever reason, need to put a premium brand on their existence. It's equipped with an outstanding V6 engine, offers a pleasant enough balance between ride quality and handling, and its cabin, while not terribly upscale, is spacious and ergonomically sound. And the I35 starts under $30,000.
And for those who want it all heaping doses of luxury, comfort and performance we'll nudge you toward the Passat W8.