Luxury Coupe Comparison Test

Luxury Coupe Comparison Test

  • Full Review
  • Pricing & Specs
  • Road Tests
  • Comparison (2)
  • Long-Term

2001 BMW 3 Series Coupe

(3.0L 6-cyl. 5-speed Manual)

  • Comparison Test
  • Editors' Picks
  • Conclusion
  • Top 5 Features
  • Scoring Explanation
  • Final Rankings

Luxury coupes could be considered the snobs of the automotive world. Grocery capacity? Who cares? Kid friendliness? Doesn't matter. Sure, they have backseats, but their cramped accommodations are all the more reason to make it a twosome. Driving one says that you're kidless and rich, or you finally managed to get the kids you do have out of the house and into minivans of their own, leaving all those tuition checks and allowance payoffs to yourself.

So for those who need not consider anybody but themselves, and maybe a significant other, in the car buying equation, we present our look at the latest in luxury two-doors. The lineup includes the usual German suspects, an upstart Japanese contender and a quirky Swede thrown in for good measure.

A few minor last-minute glitches left us with a more diverse, and sparse, selection of participants. First, we had intended to include a second Swede, the Saab 9-3 Viggen, but when we called to confirm our weeklong loan they had somehow forgotten about it. We promptly forgot that we wanted one in the test and that was that.

Second, the obvious choice from Mercedes in this test would have been the CLK 320 with its roughly $40K price tag and V6 engine. Unfortunately, Mercedes had none of these lesser versions of the CLK available so we were forced to make do with the more powerful, and much more expensive, V8-powered CLK 430. Poor us.

So if you couldn't care less how many kids you can haul to soccer practice, or four doors just seems like more utility than you'll ever need, read on and discover the joys of driving cars that cater to just one thing — you.

First Place - 2001 BMW 330Ci

So what is it about BMWs that always leaves us drooling all over our notebooks? Does that silly little badge on the hood blind us to their faults, or is there really something to these Bavarian beauties that earns them their near universal praise?

In the introduction, we made it clear that judging the merits of these cars involves more than just comparing their track times and feature lists, although the BMW stacks up favorably in both. The winner of this test would be the car that not only looked good on paper, but the car that elicits such a response from its drivers that even a trip to the grocery store is an anticipated event.

The 330Ci Coupe is that car.

Its almost 20-point margin of victory just about says it all. In the personal picks category, the one that asks which car would we buy given the choice of any of the four, the BMW won hands down. Then consider this: There's a completely subjective category of our evaluation listed as "fun to drive." No reasoning necessary. Just a seat-of-the-pants observation that asks, "Does this car make you feel good when you're driving it?"

The BMW? Perfect "10s" across the board.

What does it take to earn scores like that?

Start with a 3.0-liter six-cylinder engine that's so smooth and quiet you begin to wonder if it's even attached to the car. With 225 horsepower and 214 ft-lbs. of torque, it ranked dead last in the numbers game, yet it still managed to give the muscle-bound Mercedes a run for its money at the track. It emits the pleasing sound of German precision without being overly boisterous. Load it up with four passengers, and the engine still pulls quickly to redline with little apparent effort.

The heavenly powerplant was mated to an equally blissful five-speed manual gearbox. Every gear is easy to find, and every engagement positive and smooth. If the driveline has a fault, it's surely the limp clutch. You wonder if Toyota gave them a deal on some Solara units the way this thing engages with a whimper.

Like the Mercedes, the BMW's suspension thinks mountains first, mall second. All coupes come standard with a stiffer sport setup, our test car benefiting from the addition of the optional double-spoke sport wheels and 225/45R17 performance tires. The chassis is so perfectly balanced that even a miscalculated stab of the brake or turn of the wheel at the wrong time won't make the car uncontrollable. Of course, should you manage to surpass the car's awesome capabilities, the standard Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) will be on hand to nudge you ever so gently back into the realm of safety.

When it came to brakes, no other car in the test could match the BMW in terms of pedal feel and fade-free performance. They may not have turned in the shortest distances at the track, but out on the road their progressive action and powerful feel give you the confidence to enter a corner just a little bit faster than you would in the Mercedes.

Steering is another area where the BMW reigned supreme. Although this feature is frequently rattled in the press for its new softer and gentler weighting, once we got used to the new level of power assist, feel was perfection as usual. Sure, if you get out of last year's model and dive right into a 2001 you might be disappointed, but any amount of haranguing aimed at the new steering box is tantamount to senseless nitpicking by jaded journalists.

Even if you're not the type that seeks out the long way from point A to point B, the BMW still provides a serene driving experience that can be appreciated as much on Wilshire Boulevard as it is on your favorite back road hideout. The same suspension that provides unfailing grip through the turns manages to remain compliant and livable on imperfect city streets. If cruising comfort is your top priority, ditch the sport wheels and tires or even go for the more softly sprung sedan instead; you'll never miss the extra handling ability.

In typical German fashion, the BMW's interior reeks of high-tech design, with aluminum inserts and beautifully blended colors highlighting the already handsome interior. If you have seen one BMW interior, you can safely say that you've seen them all. Fortunately, their commonality results from BMW's confidence that their overall design is the most aesthetic and functional use of the space available. We agree, sort of.

There's no doubt that BMW's gauge cluster is the best in the business. It hasn't changed in 20 years and no one is complaining. Big speedo, big tach, fuel, temperature -- what more do you need? Sure the temperature gauge could use numbers and an oil pressure gauge might help too, but with all those computers under the hood keeping watch, who needs details?

The tilt/telescoping steering wheel is another beautifully designed piece that feels great in your hands and provides satellite controls for both the cruise control system and the radio. Figuring out the multitude of buttons takes some time, but once you master their functions, you'll wonder how you ever got along without them.

The center stack correctly places the radio up high to allow for the constant attention it typically receives, and although we're not the biggest fans of the climate control system, we're slowly beginning to get the hang of BMW's vague controls. It's not really fully automatic, it doesn't have dual temperature zones, and an "off" button is conspicuously absent -- keep working on it boys, you'll get it right soon enough.

The seats were the best of the test, with their 10-way adjustment making a comfortable position easy to find. Stiff side bolstering kept us in place during spirited maneuvers, but we all yearned for a separate lumbar control. The biggest shortcoming when it came to the seats was the poor-quality leather that cost an extra $1,450 on the order sheet. Our recommendation? Save yourself the cash, because the standard leatherette upholstery is just as comfortable and equally as attractive.

Rear seat accommodations were noticeably cramped with knees touching seatbacks and toes regulated to the space under the seats. Its backrest angle was nicely raked, making the rear seat feel more spacious that it really was, but side bolstering was largely absent. The power rear window vents allowed for plenty of fresh air, but placing the switches for them up front subjects rear passengers to the whims of the driver.

Storage space was limited throughout, with no center console storage and small door compartments. With only 9.5 cubic feet of trunk space, you better pack light, but it was the only car to feature folding rear seats for access to the trunk rather than just a small pass-through hole.

So there you have it, a clear-cut winner. A car so strong that it left three very capable competitors wondering what hit them. If you're looking for a coupe that can deliver supreme performance, a beautifully crafted and designed interior, and a driving experience with few equals on the planet, look no further than BMW's 330Ci Coupe.

Second Opinions

Editor-in-Chief Chris Wardlaw says: No surprise, but this is the one I'd buy, equipped pretty much the way our test car was but without the ridiculously expensive leather ($1,450). We actually had to look at this car's spec sheet to see if it was the real stuff or the basic leatherette that comes standard. "Fluid" describes the BMW driving experience, with the exception of the recalcitrant clutch. Steering, brakes, suspension, gearbox, power delivery -- all fluid in the way they go about their business. The car becomes an extension of the driver as it zooms from apex to apex, and in town it performs competently as a comfortable cruiser, able to squirt through traffic and soak up most roadway irregularities while providing a silent, isolated cabin atmosphere. There's just one hitch. Comparably equipped the Bimmer runs about $10,000 more than the Acura. Hey, there's always the 325Ci to use as your foundation, a fine automobile in its own right.

Associate Editor Erin Mahoney says: I hate to be so predictable, but I just can't help but gush over this piece of machinery. Blame BMW for their damned consistency. The 330 was by far the most fun to drive, newly lightened steering notwithstanding. Unlike the Acura, the BMW feels compact and nimble, tight and solid without being heavy. Performance in the canyons was sublime, although the brakes began to squeal after awhile.

Associate Editor Liz Kim says: I hate to quote commercial jingles, but the ad folks really coined the perfect phrase -- it really is the ultimate driving machine. The combination of a chassis with near-perfect balance, hefty but precise controls, and utterly blissful engine, whose smooth power delivery invokes the effect of a bourbon ball ingested on a half-full stomach -- it goes down smooth but packs a heckuva wallop -- really makes this vehicle stand out over and above all others. The progenitor of the luxury sport coupe niche is still the reigning king.

Stereo Evaluation - 2001 BMW 330Ci

Ranking in test: Second

System Score: 7.0

Components. This stereo represents a marked improvement over BMW's previous audio efforts. Frankly, the German manufacturer has been lagging behind the competition when it comes to in-car entertainment. We're pleased to see them making progress.

The system in this car begins with a classy-looking faceplate that offers clean German lines and the essence of simplicity. Controls are widely spaced and accessible, with a welcome absence of clutter. The emphasis here is on function and not frills. The radio offers 12 FM and six AM presets, along with a single-play CD player and the usual tone controls, balance/fade and the like. The position of the radio in the dash is superb, giving the operator excellent access and control.

Speakers include a pair of 6-inch mid-bass drivers in the front doors coupled to some very nicely positioned tweeters in the upper door trim. A second set of tweeters grace the rear quarter panels in back. Lastly, a pair of 6-inch full range speakers occupy the rear deck.

Performance. This system is full of warmth, richness, and plays pretty damn loud too. Bass is thunderous and impressive, highs smooth and silky. Most instruments come through naturally. Drums have a good kick, sax is open and lifelike, acoustic strings are intricate and detailed. The entire frequency range is reproduced with accuracy and precision. Quite an improvement over the system in our long-term test car.

Best Feature: Bounteous power amp.

Worst Feature: Could use a CD changer.

Conclusion: For close to two years we've been driving a 1999 328i as part of our long-term test fleet. Most editors, it's fair to say, have been unimpressed with the sound system in that car. Well, this one will snap their heads around. A major improvement for BMW. Finally, consumers won't have to "settle" for a mediocre sound system when purchasing a BMW.

Scott Memmer

Second Place - 2001 Mercedes-Benz CLK430

Wondering how a coupe costing nearly $13,000 more than its nearest challenger didn't wipe the floor with its plebian competitors?

How a V8-powered monster with the vaunted three-pointed star on the hood didn't blind us with tradition and muscle its way to the top with sheer horsepower and heritage?

Well, we'll begin by saying that the CLK430 wasn't our first choice for the test. With its huge 4.3-liter V8, it's not a natural rival to the other five- and six-cylinder-powered coupes on the card. The CLK320 was the obvious first pick, with its 215-horsepower V6 and price tag right around $40K. Unfortunately, none of these more suitable models were available at the time of the test and the thought of leaving Mercedes out of a comparison with the word luxury in the title just didn't seem right.

So we were left with no other choice than to welcome the pricier V8 into the fray, knowing full well that our value category would shave the $52,260 coupe's final score down to size. Of course, it would make up for it in the performance department, right?

For the most part, yes. Finishing within a few ticks of the BMW in the acceleration categories (6.1 seconds to 60, 14.6 in the quarter-mile) and coming in a close second to the Volvo in the braking department (113 ft.), the CLK was the decathlete of the test, performing well enough in all categories to edge out its quicker German rival for the all-around top spot in the performance category.

That's not really a surprise considering the thunderous V8 under the hood. With 275 horsepower and 295 ft-lbs. of torque on tap, the CLK430 leaps to its feet with the slightest nudge of the gas pedal, emitting such smooth, intoxicating power that it came within a single point of scoring perfect "10s" all around.

The lack of a manual shifter might seem like a serious drawback when it involves a serious performance machine, but the CLK's automanual five-speed was well up to the task. Although it featured touch shift control that allowed for manual operation, we found that its other high-tech feature, adaptive shift logic, was equally as helpful at maintaining the correct gear when the road turned curvy. Blasting our way through an endless set of switchbacks, the intricately programmed transmission mysteriously sensed the need for just the right gear and held it until we either laid off or asked for more. Its level of sophistication left one editor remarking that he never even missed the absent manual gearbox.

Keeping all this high-strung machinery stuck to the ground was no small task, but with huge 17-inch wheels and tires, the CLK surprised more than one editor with its remarkable agility. Steering that felt abnormally heavy around town suddenly felt perfectly weighted during aggressive maneuvers, and the ESP (Electronic Stability Program) system rarely reined in the fun at an inappropriate time, allowing you to push the car with confidence.

To no one's surprise the brakes worked flawlessly, registering not only a remarkably short stopping distance from 60 mph, but also the ability to repeat the task over and over again within a foot of the original distance -- amazing. Pedal feel was said to be a little numb at times, but no one ever questioned the brakes' ability to haul the speedy coupe down to a stop at a moment's notice.

There's no doubt that the CLK is a finely tuned piece of machinery that makes any trip off the beaten path a rewarding experience, but there are chinks in this knight's armor. For one, the same suspension that provides such phenomenal grip in the canyons will make you miserable on the way home from work with a throbbing headache. It's not exactly racecar stiff, but compared to the Volvo, it rides likes a dump truck. Of course, much of this has to do with the 430's sport-tuned suspension that is meant to reward those who anted up for the big V8 with a chassis of equal ability. The lesser-engined CLK320 makes do with a much more forgiving setup that more closely matches the kind of driving that its owners are more likely to encounter on a day-to-day basis.

Another more minor drawback was the CLK's heavy recirculating-ball steering. Although great raging through canyons, spinning the wheel around town was a real workout. Freeway cruising calls for very little steering input due to the heavy dead-on-center weighting, but any deviation from that required a little too much effort for our tastes.

In typical German style, the CLK's interior is somewhat stark, but tastefully appointed. The quality of the materials is exceptional and the seats were deemed first-rate despite their lack of adjustable lumbar support. Gauges were clear with few markings and idiot lights to clutter things up. We're still disappointed with the complexity of the climate control system that fails to provide any measure of intuitive operation. Yes, there are beautifully illustrated manuals in the glove box that outline the system's less-than-calculus-like operation, but should we really have to take the time?

Other shortcomings in the interior included the lack of a tilt-steering wheel, although one editor said he really didn't find one necessary to find a good seating position, and the somewhat plastic feel of the dashboard switchgear and door-mounted window switches. Then there was the issue of the lack of a CD player that practically had some of us giving away the keys for the weekend. We'll admit that the engine was music to our ears, but get a hold of yourself Mercedes -- there are $15,000 Daewoos that come with CD changers in the trunk, this shouldn't be an option on a $50K+ luxury coupe.

Like the Volvo, the CLK's rear quarters made no concessions to actually attempting to carry a fifth passenger. The deeply contoured seats were reasonably comfortable although the lack of rear vent windows only contributes to the claustrophobic effect. Entry was facilitated by a trick electric seat entry system that automatically tilts and slides the front buckets forward when the release lever is raised. Editors who braved the backseats for a short trip lauded the Mercedes for its easy entry and exit and noticeably smoother ride for rear passengers than the BMW.

Trunk space was more than adequate with a low liftover and wide opening making loading fairly easy. The trunk hinge design showed some forethought by incorporating molded covers that swallowed the swinging arms to prevent anything from being placed in their way and getting unceremoniously crushed when the lid was closed.

So how did the Mercedes, with all that tradition and horsepower, barely beat out the upstart Volvo? For one, the Mercedes obviously lost a lot of points due to its inflated price point. Throw in a standard CLK320 and you would likely see a similar finish, but for different reasons. Our CLK test car excelled because of its never-ending power, taut suspension (remember we love that around here) and understated, but tough-looking exterior style we thought was befitting of its high-dollar luxury coupe status. A V6-equipped CLK would retain the big points for style and panache, but suffer when it came to the fun factor. It most likely would have had more options and a more compliant around town ride as well, adding points where the 430 lost them.

We can only say that our Black Opal (that's navy blue to us common folk) test car definitely endeared itself to our typically jaded staff despite its unusual shortcomings. The car we had was sort of a V8 stripper in our minds, giving us the power and wicked handling of the 430 upgrade sans all the bells and whistles that might detract from full enjoyment of the spectacular V8 under the hood.

For those who seek performance at all costs, the CLK430 is a coupe that delivers on all counts. If you can afford the entry fee, and don't mind paying a little extra for the name alone, the CLK430 would rarely fail to impress-on the road or at the valet. What's your prerogative?

Second Opinions

Editor-in-Chief Chris Wardlaw says: Though interior materials are rich and impart quality, though the sleek design exudes traditional Mercedes-Benz character, though there's a three-pointed star hood ornament serving as constant reminder to the driver that he does, indeed, have the means to own the best, the CLK430 is more of an upscale hot rod than a luxury coupe. Our Benz rode stiffly, provided occupants seating seemingly filled with concrete, contained clickety-clack controls, and, with its thumping V8 and phat AMG alloy wheels, generally behaved like a caged tiger around town. Performance coupe? Yep. Luxury coupe? Um, well, only because it has that fancy hood ornament.

Associate Editor Erin Mahoney says: Allow me to begin by saying that the fact that this exorbitantly priced vehicle came without a CD player is reprehensible. Furthermore, I noticed more interior creaking and wind noise than I deemed acceptable. That said, this was a pretty impressive car, by far the most luxurious and sophisticated of the gaggle. Overall, I was less impressed with the CLK than I expected to be. First of all, it's just a little too mature for my tastes and second, it costs too much -- I felt like such a sucker, driving around in a $52K car without a CD player.

Associate Editor Liz Kim says: Yeah, yeah, so this car costs nearly twice that of the cheapest vehicle in the test. You still can't deny the pleasure of motivating the CLK430. From the guttural growl emitted from deep within its intake manifolds, to the vast repository of power from the eight cylinders, this car stands apart from the whippersnappers. As well it should; its specs are different than the other vehicles in the test. And while the interior feature content is disappointing, to say the least, a buyer seeking the prestige and cachet of the three-pointed star won't be disappointed by this vehicle.

Stereo Evaluation - 2001 Mercedes-Benz CLK430 Coupe

Ranking in test: Fourth

System Score: 4.0

Components. Well, there's not much to this one. Do yourself a favor, ladies and gentlemen: If you buy this car, make sure you get it with a CD player. The press car we got for this comparison test lacked one, and it was really tedious (and not very much fun) trying to analyze the stereo. The truth is, without a digital music source it's almost impossible to compare one system with another.

Too bad, because this system has some nice attributes. It features Mercedes' standard faceplate, with 10 AM and 10 FM presets, as well as a nicely appointed rubber volume knob. Speakerwise, the system boasts a three-way setup, with 6-inch woofers in the lower-front portion of the doors, a pair of 4-inch midranges in the lower-rear portion of the door, and a pair of tweeters tucked in by the side mirrors.

Performance. Again, without a CD it makes it very difficult to evaluate it. Decent bass response and OK highs, but nothing to write home about. To repeat: if you buy this car, make sure you get a CD player.

Best Feature: Ergonomic faceplate.

Worst Feature: Where's the CD?

Conclusion. A nicely appointed system that needs a CD player to complete it.

Scott Memmer

Third Place - 2001 Volvo C70

Hate to say it Volvo, but the C70 is the luxury coupe we would tell our mothers to buy.

Somewhat scathing words for a car meant to wipe away some of Volvo's stodgy reputation as a builder of safety-first family cars, but our conclusion rests on more than just a reputation.

After all, it's not that the C70 looks like your mother's luxury coupe. Quite the contrary, it scored a close second to the BMW and Mercedes (a tie) in the exterior design category of our evaluations. It also joined the BMW as one of the two coupes in the test with a manual transmission, and its turbo powerplant certainly doesn't scream grocery getter.

Our recommendation stems from the fact that while the C70 can be pushed to admirable levels of performance, its real calling is less enthusiastic cruising where its soft and supple suspension and wispy inline engine glide you along with few interruptions from any less-than-perfect pavement below. The capability is there, but you're not reminded of it every time you traverse a pothole or bounce over a speed bump -- a trait dear ol' mum is more likely to appreciate than a sub-15-second quarter-mile time.

With 236 horsepower on hand courtesy of the turbocharged, 2.3-liter five-cylinder under the hood, the C70 moves with surprising gusto. The power delivery is buttery smooth, but the turbo engine definitely likes to be kept spinning to make full power. Driven side by side with the torque-rich powerplants in the other three cars, the Volvo was noticeably lacking in low-end punch. Track testing confirmed our seat-of-the-pants observation as the Volvo finished last in the acceleration department, posting times of 6.8 and 15.1 seconds in the zero-to-60 and quarter-mile tests respectively.

Keeping the feisty five-cylinder in its powerband was facilitated by the standard five-speed manual transmission (an automatic is available for an extra $1,000), but the shifter itself didn't display the positive action we grew to love in the BMW. Various editors complained about the rubbery feel and imprecise shift gates, although it did garner a few compliments for its well-shaped leather-covered knob.

After enjoying the comforts of the Volvo's forgiving suspension around town, we were prepared for an unexceptional performance on winding back roads. To our surprise, the C70 was found to exhibit a remarkably tossable feel despite its hefty weight and front-wheel-drive configuration. Yes, there was noticeably pronounced body roll and the lack of torque required constant attention to the gearbox, but keep the revs up high and the steering inputs smooth and the C70 delivers its fair share of toothy grins.

Staying true to Volvo's safety-conscious heritage, the C70 was equipped with vise-like brakes that hauled it down from 60 mph in an incredible 111 feet. To put that into perspective, the best stopping car we've ever tested, the limited-edition Z06 Corvette, turned in a 109-ft. distance in the same test. Too bad the Volvo's clamps couldn't manage to maintain their grip over the long haul. After flogging the C70 down a twisty mountain road, those same brakes began to fade ever so slightly, a condition that the BMW and Mercedes coupes never suffered.

Back in its element of crowded boulevards and bumper-to-bumper freeways, the C70 scored big points for its comfortable and stylish interior. The softly padded leather seats manage to provide plenty of support despite their couch-like feel. Spirited driving leaves you wishing for more side bolstering, but again, the C70 excels at coddling rather than cornering. Rear quarters are above average, scoring about even with the BMW for comfort and available room. Twin buckets and two shoulder belts indicate that this area is for two extras only -- we agree.

The dash design and climate control cluster were models of simplicity that mustered few complaints. The analog gauges are neatly arranged and sport a high-quality matte gray finish that makes them legible in all levels of light. A comprehensive trip computer is nestled neatly below, providing plenty of information like miles-to-empty and overall mileage with the flick of a switch. The climate control system uses large, easily manipulated dials that require no more than a glance to comprehend and adjust.

Fit-and-finish was solid throughout, with a loose seat track cover the only sign that all was not perfect. At speed, the Volvo rarely made a discouraging sound, earning it an almost perfect score in the squeaks and rattles department. The overall quality of the interior materials was excellent, with three out of four editors agreeing that the Volvo's cabin was every bit as luxurious and expensive looking as the Mercedes' and BMW's.

Our C70 test car was equipped with the optional premium sound system that literally blew us away. The bulging speaker in the center of the dash was a little odd, but once we heard the power of this optional system we were hooked. The awkward in-dash three-disc changer was complicated compared to the Acura's no-brainer six-disc system, but audiophiles shouldn't let this minor shortcoming keep them from ordering up this truly remarkable system.

Speaking of ordering, for those who think that the C70 might be your ticket, be prepared to pay for it. Our well-optioned test car priced out at $39,525, almost a grand more than the BMW, making it the second priciest of the group. Part of the blame goes to the aforementioned sound system that adds $1,200 to the $34,500 base price, while the other major addition came in the form of the grand touring package that bumps the bottom line a healthy $2,200. For that you get a sunroof, leather seats, trip computer, auto-dimming rearview mirror and the wood accents on the dashboard.

All these luxury options made the Volvo one of the most lavishly appointed cars in the test, so why the third-place finish?

For one, consider that the Mercedes barely edged out the Volvo for second place, less than one percentage point to be exact. With that close a finish, it could practically be considered a toss-up between the two.

Second, with its softly tuned suspension and subdued sheetmetal, the Volvo exhibits a subtler demeanor than the Mercedes and BMW coupes it finished behind, a demeanor that appeals to a different audience than our largely Gen X editorial staff, which almost always prefers stiff and sporty over soft and forgiving. Add to that generally well-maintained Southern California roads that don't exact a huge penalty for stiffly sprung cars with low-profile tires and you can begin to see how the Volvo got left behind when the final scores were added up.

Its third-place finish notwithstanding, the C70 is still a coupe worth considering. If jaunts down twisty mountain roads are largely an accidental occurrence, then the Volvo will suit you just fine. Its blend of smooth, seamless power, isolating suspension, and quiet, comfortable cabin make it a perfect companion for those looking for a sleek coupe that won't have 16 year olds lining up to race you at red lights. Throw in an impeccable safety record and rock-solid build quality and there's no doubt that the C70 is a coupe any mother could love.

Second Opinions

Editor-in-Chief Chris Wardlaw says: Buyers looking for a stylish coupe with a nice ride and comfy seats will like the Volvo C70. It was the most softly tuned vehicle in our test, with the plushest, and most pungent, leather upholstery. As a bonus, I felt it also contained the highest quality materials inside. Bought as a performance coupe, you might face some disappointment in direct comparison to the 330Ci and CLK430, but head-to-head against the Acura the C70 shows well. Yeah, turbo lag is evident, as well as torque steer, and the manual shifter on our test car was less precise in terms of feel than you might like, but spool up that smooth inline five and the C70 rockets forward. Despite competency as a luxury coupe and attractive styling, the C70 still equates to vanilla. People don't notice this car. But then, you, as I do, might like things that way.

Associate Editor Erin Mahoney says: The turbocharged five-cylinder engine is a silent beast; before you know it, you're cruising along at 80 mph. And the shifter, while it doesn't initially feel precise, finds gears easily and accurately. My problem with dubbing the C70 a performance car developed in the canyons. Cabin isolation, which is such an asset around town, became a liability in the twisties. I had no feel for the road, and therefore drove more conservatively than I could have. Aside from its numb demeanor in the canyons, the Volvo was thoroughly enjoyable to drive -- it certainly delivered on its claim to luxury.

Associate Editor Liz Kim says: The Volvo provides the unique sensation of pretending that you're on the puck of an air hockey table. It's smooth and compliant, but disconnected. Some may find it luxurious -- I find it disconcerting, yet not wholly displeasing. I think that if the majority of your driving situates you on rough roads and/or in traffic, this will make a fine, isolating vehicle within which you can while away your hours. I can't say that I'd recommend this car to driving enthusiasts. While it eschews the lumbering boat-like ride of yore, and gives more than competent performance in the canyons, its forte is on surface streets where its torque steer and body roll aren't readily apparent. Most of the interior materials were superior to the other vehicles in the test, but while the wood was handsome, copious and richly hued, I wasn't crazy about the texture of the plastics on the dash.

Stereo Evaluation - 2001 Volvo C70 Coupe

Ranking in test: First

System Score: 9.0

Components. This system is such a clear winner in this comparison test, it almost isn't fair. With the possible exception of the BMW 330Ci, no other manufacturers even came close.

The system consists of 11 loudspeakers, a 400-watt power amplifier, an in-dash three-CD changer, and the world's first car-mounted Dolby Pro Logic decoder. In fact, according to our contact at Volvo, Dolby Labs sent a special crew to consult and certify this arrangement. To our knowledge, it's still the only OEM car system that offers Dolby Pro Logic, a circuitry normally reserved for home theater setups.

The speakers were designed by Dynaudio, a Danish company with a high-end aftermarket reputation. In the front, speakers include: two 8-inch woofers in the doors, along with two 4-inch midranges. The dashboard houses two upward firing tweeters in the corners as well as a center-fill speaker in the middle of the dash. The rear deck holds two 6.5-inch woofer/midrange drivers along with two 1-inch tweeters.

The head unit is nicely executed, with wide, well-spaced buttons and a built-in three-CD changer.

Performance. Wow. Very impressive. When engaged, the Dolby Pro Logic lends an air of spaciousness and depth rarely found in a factory system. As if that weren't enough, the Dynaudio speakers produce an accurate and lifelike quality that threatens to bring tears to the eyes. For instance, string bass and cello sound so alive you can actually hear the "wood" coming through the speakers. Also, female vocals sound just right on this system, full of warmth and realism. Highs and lows are damn good, and the center fill speaker does a nice job of adding intricacy and detail in the midrange. Overall sound quality is superb.

Best Feature: Dolby Pro Logic circuitry (the industry's first).

Worst Feature: Funky in-dash three-CD changer.

Conclusion. Well, what more do you want? To get much better than this, you'd have to go to the aftermarket and have someone design a custom system for you. Only one beef: the in-dash changer is clunky and behind the times; Volvo officials acknowledge this and promise to get more up to date the next time around. Other than that, this is one to write home about.

Scott Memmer

Fourth Place - 2001 Acura CL Type S

Don't let the Acura's fourth-place ranking fool you. The new CL Type S is a supremely confident luxury coupe that provides an amazing amount of feature content while retaining a very reasonable price tag. Considering that it finished only three points behind the $50K+ Mercedes in its first year out, we would call the new Type S a very promising start.

With a price just barely cracking $32,000, the Acura easily takes low-buck honors in this test. Even with its bargain basement sticker, the CL Type S comes so well equipped that it offers only one optional feature — a DVD-based navigation system.

In the hardware department, the Type S packs a 260-horsepower VTEC V6 under the hood, making it one of the most powerful six-cylinder engines available anywhere (other than Acura's own NSX). The Type S would have easily taken the top spot in the horsepower category were it not for a scheduling snafu that lumped a hulking Mercedes V8 into the test.

Like the Mercedes, the Acura makes use of a five-speed SportShift automanual transmission that allows drivers to either drop it in "D" and let the car do the dirty work, or shift manually, should the mood strike them. The manual control is a nice gesture, but like so many other similar setups, it eventually leaves you aching for a clutch pedal and the surefire control of a standard gearbox. Braking hard into a tight turn, a tap of the shift lever in SportShift mode results in a lurching downshift that throws off any attempt at a smooth transition through the apex. Manual upshifts happen too slowly and without enough punch to make them any more usable than what the standard shift mode can muster.

In fact, the automatic is quite impressive when left to its own devices. Leave it in drive and the Acura's transmission allows the engine to scream right up to its redline where it makes strong, positive shifts. We marveled like kindergarteners every time the motherly coupe barked its tires shifting from first to second.

The Acura's tire-burning ability is testament to the power of its high-tech V6. It has a full 35-horsepower edge over the BMW's new 3.0-liter engine and even bests the Volvo's turbocharged unit by a healthy 24 ponies. There's plenty of torque on tap as well, with all 232 ft-lbs. of torque available by 3,500 rpm. Track testing bore this out, as the Acura placed high in nearly every category, posting a zero-to-60 mph time of 6.6 seconds and turning in a respectable sub-15-second quarter-mile time of 14.94 seconds.

In day-to-day driving, the 3.2-liter six is docile and quiet despite a low-restriction exhaust tuned for a fuller sound than standard CLs. Most editors found the engine surprisingly strong off the line, with a good solid pull to its 6,900-rpm limit. The very un-Acura-like roar of the engine was a little much for a few of our drivers, but they admitted to being a little more surprised than annoyed.

In addition to the class-leading engine, Type S CLs also get a sport-tuned suspension that employs stiffer springs, revalved shocks, and a thicker antiroll bar in the rear for better body control. Larger 17-inch wheels wearing 215/50R17 tires provide additional grip and a Vehicle Stability Assist system stands in as a backup should you get a little ahead of yourself. All CLs benefit from four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, while Type S models get additional help from a four-channel system that can sense high cornering forces and adjust pressure accordingly.

Unfortunately, our Acura test car didn't want to cooperate in the braking department. After every editor complained of excessive pulsing and shuddering under repeated heavy braking, we brought our tester to a local dealer for inspection. They checked the rotors and found nothing out of recommended specs, leading us to ponder whether or not we really had a one of a kind problem or the CL's brakes just weren't up to the task. Knowing Acura's reputation for high quality componentry, we leaned toward the former, but it still suffered when it came to evaluation points.

Aside from the less-than-confidence-inspiring brakes, the Acura proved to be a surprisingly capable partner on winding roads. Torque steer was rarely noticeable and despite its supple ride, the chassis displayed very little roll in tight corners. A few editors noticed that it felt bigger than it really was, possibly a consequence of its substantial weight (heaviest of the four).

Although our CL was blessed with a full array of luxury appointments, the interior of the Acura just doesn't stack up against the slick designs of the Europeans. With black leather seats, black wood trim, and black plastic dash panels, the Acura isn't the most uplifting place to spend an afternoon. Switchgear borrowed from less expensive Honda cousins didn't exactly help convey an upscale image, and more than one editor suggested that it was obvious where the cost cutting had taken place.

The overall design reflects typical Japanese style, with easy-to-read gauges and a relatively uncluttered center stack. The most common complaint centered upon the integration of the climate controls with the navigation screen. Although rather trick and fun to manipulate, using a dash button to adjust the temperature and a screen display to change the airflow settings isn't exactly what we would call intuitive.

Front seat comfort was on par with the other competitors, even scoring a perfect 10 from one editor. Solid side bolsters and soft leather were most often cited for the seat's agreeable nature, but that same softness translates into an insecure feeling during athletic maneuvers. Rear seating was easily accessible with the standard power entry mechanism that automatically slides the front buckets forward upon entering — a nice touch. Like most of the other vehicles, legroom was limited, but the contoured seats provided adequate back and thigh support for those forced to endure any prolonged rear seat banishment.

We found the navigation system easy to use, with detailed maps and a brightly lit display that didn't require looking completely away from the road to see. Other highlights included the six-disc in-dash CD changer that made changing discs a breeze, and a handy 12-volt power outlet inside the center console, perfect for keeping a cell phone charged and still accessible.

There wasn't anything that we really disliked about the new CL. Its low finish was more a consequence of the fact that there wasn't anything that we truly loved about it either. The styling is handsome, but unassuming. The interior is functional and comfortable, but lacks the aura of upscale luxury. Driving one is always relaxing and reassuring, but never unexpectedly dynamic. If you're looking for a coupe for around 30K, you would be hard pressed to find anything better, but if you can afford a little more and you're looking for the most exhilarating driving experience possible, keep reading.

Second Opinions

Editor-in-Chief Chris Wardlaw says: With plenty of power, gobs of grip, a roomy and comfortable cabin, and a prodigious list of standard features, the Acura 3.2CL Type S makes a strong argument for saving several thousand dollars over the other entrants. Problem is, the cost cutting that allows the CL to meet its dramatically low price point is all too obvious inside the car and underneath the sheetmetal. The Acura's interior displays glossy plastics, obviously fake wood and poorly finished switchgear. Luxury coupe buyers be warned, the Type S rides, and, under duress, shifts, harshly. However, those looking for the ideal bang-for-the-buck compromise, in terms of both performance and features, should investigate this impressive Acura.

Associate Editor Erin Mahoney says: When pushed in the canyons, the CL quickly lost the appeal it had managed to maintain on the highway — formerly confident brakes overheated and shuddered, tires began to slide and squeal — the steering, however, was consistently well weighted and communicative. The CL is full of trade-offs. Its significant feature content and low price tag may be enough to woo some buyers, but for those who crave consistently excellent performance and impeccable build quality, it most definitely falls short of the pack.

Associate Editor Liz Kim says: The CL is by far and away the cheapest vehicle, yet provides the most feature content. For those who aren't willing to part with their hard-earned cash willingly, this makes a good compromise. However, let's pretend that all of these vehicles were priced equally across the board. How many people would choose the CL Type S over its European competitors? I'm willing to bet that very few would.

Stereo Evaluation - 2001 Acura CL Type S Coupe

Ranking in test: Third

System Score: 6.0

Components. This system starts with a pair of 6 by 9 speakers along the back deck. It also contains a pair of 6-inch mid-bass drivers in the front doors and a pair of tweeters above. Electronically, it boasts a six-disc in-dash CD changer and a cassette player. The head unit has a lot of nice ergonomic touches, such as widely spaced buttons, easy accessibility and large, round tuning and volume knobs. Unfortunately, because of the placement of a navigation screen in the upper portion of the dash, I found the positioning of the radio to be a little too low. Not only is this inconvenient, but it poses a potential safety hazard, as the operator must remove their eyes from the road for a fraction of a second longer than other systems. Admittedly this is not a major problem, but potential buyers might want to check it out and compare.

The system also offers some basic controls mounted on the steering wheel -- volume up and down and a seek/scan button for scrolling through radio stations. Pretty basic stuff, but a nice convenience.

Performance. This system clearly does not sound as good as either the BMW or the Volvo. Upper frequencies have a tendency to sound boxy and muted, while bass response lacks true depth. Female vocals sound constrained. Acoustic strings lack the liveliness of the Volvo system. In short, it's a nice-looking system that has great features but just doesn't sound very good.

Best Feature: In-dash six-disc CD changer.

Worst Feature: Low radio position.

Conclusion. A nicely appointed system that sounds good but not great.

Scott Memmer

After living with the cars for a full week and completing a full battery of test drives, each editor was asked to rank the cars in two categories 1) Which one would you buy if money were no object? 2) Which one of the four would you recommend to someone looking to buy a luxury coupe? Each car received 4 points for first, 3 for second, and so on.

When the totals were added up and the percentages calculated, the BMW was the clear winner in both categories. Basically, if you can afford this car, buy it.

The Volvo earned some recommendations for its more subdued demeanor that will appeal to those looking for luxury over performance, and the Acura nabbed a few votes for its overall value. Although we would love the Mercedes if money were no object, its lack of feature content for the price kept us from wholeheartedly endorsing it.

Editors' Picks<

Editors' Picks
Personal Pick Total Percentage
1. BMW 16 100
2. Mercedes 11 68.8
3. Volvo 9 56.3
4. Acura 4 25
Recommended Pick Total Percentage
1. BMW 15 93.8
2. Volvo 11 68.8
3. Acura 10 62.5
4. Mercedes 4 25

Unlike some of our larger comparison tests that might involve as many as eight to 10 vehicles, creating a larger disparity between the winner and last place, this test left us with the impression that driving any one of these cars on a full-time basis would be a pleasurable experience that's not likely to leave you eyeing the others with envy.

There's no doubt that the BMW ran away with first place. It's hard not to love a car that does so many things right on so many different levels. It's got the looks, the engine, the handling, the brakes, the interior — it's all there.

Looking further down the list, the other three cars were separated by only three measly points. Deciding between those three comes down to deciding what you really want in your luxury coupe.

If money is a factor, you can't go wrong with the Acura. For $32,000, the Type S is the best luxury coupe on the market hands down. It lacks some of the refinement of the Europeans, but you'll also be lacking those extra months of car payments, which should help ease the pain.

Like we said before, the Volvo is a car for those who like an occasional romp through the hills, but whose day-to-day driving leans toward more sedate maneuvers. The beautifully crafted interior is comfortable and functional, and the powerful engine is quiet and unobtrusive while delivering plenty of thrust for safe passing and merging.

If money is no object, there's certainly a case to be made for the Mercedes. It has the rock-solid feel and impeccable quality you would expect from a Benz in addition to a thundering V8 and athletic chassis. It's every bit as good looking as the BMW, and nearly as much fun, not to mention that added level of panache that goes along with arriving in a car with the three-pointed star on the hood.

Our list of possible candidates only included features not already standard on all four cars, so things like air conditioning and remote key fobs aren't represented. Each car was awarded points based on the availability of these features and whether or not they came standard, could be ordered as options or were completely unavailable.

Just to clarify, in the tilt/telescoping steering wheel category, the car needed to have both tilt and telescope adjustment to earn points. Regarding auto up and down windows, again, the car needed to have both auto up and down to score. Also, an on-board computer is more than just a trip odometer and a temperature gauge. They typically include features like miles to empty and instant mileage among other things.

Top 5 Features

Top 5 Features
  Acura CL Type S BMW 330Ci Mercedes Benz CLK 430 Volvo C70
In dash CD changer S N/A N/A O
Tilt/telescoping steering wheel N/A S N/A S
Satellite steering wheel controls S S S N/A
Auto up/down windows N/A S S N/A
On board computer N/A S S O

In-dash CD changer:
Seems like just yesterday that we were impressed by the inclusion of any type of CD changer in a vehicle. These days, annoying trips to the trunk have been eliminated with the advent of the in-dash changer that mysteriously swallows multiple discs into a single slot. The Acura's unit proved to be the easiest to use in addition to swallowing the most discs (six), while the Volvo's protruding three-disc magazine was deemed slow and almost unnecessary with its minimal capacity.

Tilt/Telescoping Steering Wheel:
You would think that cars of this stature would include these basic adjustments, but it was a split decision when it came to our four featured coupes. Bear in mind that the Acura's wheel tilted and the Mercedes' telescoped, but we don't give points for trying around here, so they lost out against the full-featured BMW and Volvo setups.

Satellite Steering Wheel Controls:
A luxury perk that has trickled down to the masses in everything from minivans to SUVs, satellite steering wheel controls allow drivers to manipulate frequently used stereo, climate and cruise control functions without taking their hands off the wheel. They take a little getting used to, but quickly become second nature. In this day and age of cell phones, palm pilots and TV-like navigation systems, we can't help but applaud features that keep drivers focused on the road.

Auto Up/Down Windows:
This is one of those features that leaves us scratching our heads. We don't claim to be engineers around here or anything, but we can't imagine that there's a real big difference in price or complexity between a window switch that provides auto up only and one that provides both auto up and down. Yet for some reason, only a handful of cars on the market, the BMW and Mercedes in this test included, provide this handy feature. Much like in-dash CD changers, we hope that this feature soon becomes as mainstream as the windows themselves.

On-Board Computer:
To some, this may fall into the gimmick category, but after logging hundreds of miles on these two-door cruisers, we found on-board computers to be a useful feature that we think every luxury coupe should have. Distance-to-empty is probably the most useable piece of information they provide, but multiple trip meters, average fuel economy and elapsed time readouts also proved worthwhile functions.

Personal Rating: Purely subjective. After the test, each editor is asked to rank the cars in order of preference based on which cars he or she would buy if money were no object. Scoring is calculated on a point system, and the scores listed are an accumulation of the entire editorial staff's opinion.

Recommended Rating: After the test, each editor is asked to rank the cars in order of preference based on which cars he or she thought would be best for the average consumer shopping in this segment. Scoring is calculated on a point system, and the scores listed are averages based on the entire editorial staff's opinion.

20-Point Evaluation: Each editor ranks every car based on a comprehensive 20-point evaluation. The evaluation covers everything from exterior design to cupholders. Scoring is calculated on a point system, and the scores listed are averages based on the entire editorial staff's evaluations.

Performance Testing: Each car is put through a battery of instrumented testing. For this test, we evaluated the vehicles via zero-to-60 mph acceleration, quarter-mile acceleration, 60-to-zero mph braking, and speed through a 600-foot slalom. We were not able to test maximum road-handling grip on a skidpad because it was not available at the time we tested the vehicles. For each test, the car that obtains the best result receives a maximum score. The remaining cars receive scores based on how closely their results matched the top car. The final number shown is an accumulation of results from each test.

Feature Content: For this category, the editors pick the top 5 features they think would be most significant to the consumer shopping in this segment. For each car, the score is based on the amount of actual features the car had versus the total possible (5). Standard and optional equipment are taken into consideration.

Price: The numbers listed are the result of a simple percentage calculation based on the least expensive car in the comparison test. Using the "as tested" prices of the actual evaluation vehicles, the least expensive car receives a score of 100, with the remaining cars receiving lesser scores based on how much each one costs.

Final Rankings

Final Rankings
  Acura CL Type S BMW 330Ci Mercedes Benz CLK 430 Volvo C70
Personal Rating (10% of score) 25.0% 100.0% 68.8% 56.3%
Recommended Rating (10% of score) 62.5% 93.6% 25.0% 68.6%
Evaluation Score (20% of score) 70.3% 84.9% 83.5% 79.0%
Performance Testing (20% of score) 80.6% 94.6% 96.3% 80.4%
Feature Content (20% of score) 40.0% 80.0% 60.0% 40.0%
Price (20% of score) 100.0% 84.5% 62.7% 82.9%
Total Score 66.9 88.2 69.9 69
Final Ranking 4 1 2 3
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