From the March 2004 issue of Car and Driver.
Anyone looking at the Ferrari Enzo or Porsche Carrera GT might be forgiven for wondering just where you’d exploit that kind of performance, assuming you actually had the half-million or so bucks to spare. After all, most roads are congested and the cops are dying to make your acquaintance.
Here’s a good alternative. Buy a four-door sports sedan with a stick shift for about 35 large, and keep the roughly half-million in change for tires. We find these cars huge fun when nobody’s looking, plus the upscale four-door styling provides enough camouflage to convince your peers that you drive as modestly as they do.
Seriously, anyone who buys a $30,000-plus sedan armed with a manual transmission these days must have sporting intentions. You surely wouldn’t do it if you were planning to commute to work in urban traffic every day. Commuters generally forgo manuals, since most of the cars in this class can be had with slick automatics or CVTs, sometimes for very little, if any, additional cost.
Any number of automakers can put together a credible sports sedan, but how many can bridge the gap between all-out dynamic capability and everyday civility? For that answer we had to stage yet another rigorous comparison test.
And yes, we keep coming back to this category time and again, but this time there are new entries from Acura and Saab. And this time we were scrupulous about holding the price close to a 35-grand nucleus. No more huge spread between rival cars, we resolved. Not surprisingly, many of the makes that have appeared in earlier comparos popped up, including the perennial winner, BMW.
Keeping to the price guidelines meant fielding a 325i BMW instead of one of the more powerful models, which in turn gave its competitors a sporting chance. Of these, the new Acura TL seemed a likely nemesis. Sporting a sharp new shape with generous interior dimensions, the TL is motivated by a 270-hp VTEC V-6 hooked to a six-speed manual with a limited-slip differential. Acura has played this game before and had no intention, this time, of bringing a knife to a gunfight. On paper, the TL is a sure-fire killer. We wondered how it would fare against the established order of previous winners, such as BMW’s 3-series and Audi’s A4 3.0 Quattro.
Having competed gamely in past comparisons of this type with aging machinery, Saab finally has new product in the form of the 9-3 Arc. With a 210-hp turbocharged four and a six-speed manual, the 9-3 Arc was priced and equipped just about right for this little seven-car soirée.
Infiniti’s G35 recently tried its luck in a similar test (“Waiting for a Bimmer Beater,” October 2002) and placed fourth of six cars. But that was an automatic-transmission model, which lacked the sport-tuned springs and shocks of this G35 with a six-speed manual. Including leather upholstery, a 200-watt Bose stereo, and the group’s second-strongest engine—at 260 horsepower—the Infiniti offers an impressive list of attractions for just over $36,000.
Like the Infiniti, Jaguar’s X-type appeared in a previous comparo (“36 on the Floor,” February 2002), where it finished in fifth place among six entries. At the time, the car was priced higher, putting it in the company of bigger guns such as BMW’s 330i and the Cadillac CTS. Since then, Jaguar has slashed the X-type 3.0’s base price to $33,995. Equipped as it was for this test, the price increased to $36,495—the second-highest sticker in the bunch but still within our price parameters. Would the lower price, we wondered, improve its chances?
Financially fairest of the group was Lexus’s IS300. With a base price of $29,980 ($31,944 as tested), it was the bargain of the pack but appeared to have the necessary qualifications. A melodious inline six-cylinder hooked to a five-speed manual was exactly what we were looking for.
Six hundred miles and an awful lot of shifting later, we turned in our ballots. We think you’ll be as surprised as we were.
Seventh Place: Jaguar X-type 3.0
As a rebodied, retuned Ford Mondeo (nee discontinued Contour), the X-type actually makes quite a good Jaguar. But it lacks just enough power, refinement, and driver-interface quality to net a lower score than its competitors.
Without a horde of segment rivals snapping at its heels, and driven the way a sensible owner would drive, the X-type feels competent enough. The ride is smooth and the 3.0-liter V-6, despite facing east-west rather than the north-south of true Jag orientation, provides convincing acceleration and passing power. The engine has too much of a gobbling roar (overlaid with a sometimes penetrating whine) to be really representative of the Jaguar pedigree, but it gets the job done. Unfortunately, the refinement is also hurt by tire clomp over bad pavement and by shrill wind noise from the mirrors.
Highs: Attractive Styling, convincing interior, safe handling, all-wheel-drive traction.
Lows: Smallish cabin, inert controls, leisurely responses.
The steering is a better match with the marque’s reputation, providing clear and accurate path control. Only thing is, it’s really too light to provide unambiguous feedback when the driver is pushing hard through the hills. Fast cornering soon brings to light the Jag’s determined and constant understeer, alleviated somewhat by a stability-control system that allows the driver to come off the throttle in bends while the device applies various brakes and measures to keep the car on its intended arc.
Undulating and twisty road sections highlight the X-type’s fairly soft springing, making it bob and weave. Some drivers found the gearing inappropriate for tight, fast work, with a brake pedal that would go soggy underfoot and fail to provide a reassuring sense of reserve braking power.
Despite the Jag’s compact dimensions, there is adequate space for tall drivers and the seat is decently supportive. Shorter drivers found that the aggressive seatback bolstering fit them well; taller pilots felt as if they were leaning on an inflatable ring. Most agreed that the wood and leather interior was entirely appropriate to the Jag’s British traditions but found the rear seat wanting for space if not for comfort. The Jag’s designers included numerous stash spaces for odds and ends, which help offset the somewhat limited passenger space.
The Verdict: An affordable Jag for wannabes.
This test was all about manual transmissions, and the X-type’s five-speed is acceptable in operation but has a rubbery feel. Overall, this is the kind of car that gives its best when driven in the sweet spot for which it was so clearly tuned. And that is the brisk but not berserk pace of a grand tourer, where transitions are gradual and deliberate, and no savage demands are made. Don’t get us wrong, the Jag will tolerate being driven like a bank robber’s getaway steed—and make good speed in the process. It just doesn’t like it.
2004 Jaguar X-type 3.0
227-hp V-6, 5-speed manual, 3560 lb
Base/as-tested price: $33,995/$36,495
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 7.1 sec
100 mph: 20.0 sec
1/4 mile: 15.7 @ 90 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 175 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.86 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 15 mpg
Sixth Place: Saab 9-3 Arc
Saab has great hopes for its new 9-3, and judging from the company’s improved financial fortunes in the United States market, we expect the model to sell well. Most of us like the car’s appearance and find the level of structural rigidity reassuring. In many ways, the new Epsilon-platform 9-3 has addressed the issues that plagued the previous car, bringing it much more in line with contemporary automotive values.
Gone are the shivery structure and the rattle-prone hatchback. Gone, too, is the severe torque steer that afflicted the venerable small Saab. Still, much of the character of this quirky Swedish brand is still here. The “seven-shaped” dash-and-console treatment is familiar and easy to use, if not as rich in texture and appearance as it might be in this company.
Highs: Solid structure, spacious interior, turbo power.
Lows: Slippery seats, imprecise on-the-limit handling.
A turbocharged General Motors Ecotec engine lives underhood, and its 210 horsepower scoots the 9-3 to 60 mph in 7.2 seconds, about midpack in this group. The relatively flat torque curve provides a broad operating range and makes the car feel flexible in normal use. Without the directional flakiness of the previous model, the Saab’s roadgoing demeanor is generally composed and stable.
Of all the cars here, the Saab was one of only two (the other being the BMW) that could be shifted absolutely as fast as the tester’s arms and legs could move during quarter-mile tests. Yet the mechanism was often accused of possessing a vague and rubbery action on our various drive loops.
The driver’s seat, described in the logbook at the outset of our test as good, came in for a serious drubbing when the route went from straight stretches to coiled switchbacks. The cushion has almost no lateral support, and the smooth leather encouraged our jeans to ski off in search of other resting places in tight turns. The car’s handling—composed and restful on the highway—became hard to coordinate in the mountains.
The front tires are doing too much of the work, and the business of trading braking grip for turning or power while trying to keep the other cars in sight became quite taxing. The process led to a rather ragged driving style. And that’s odd, given the previous 9-3’s tendency to improve, relatively, when the going got twisty. We were bothered by the stability system, too, which would start insinuating itself even on a trailing throttle into bends. To shut the stability control off, the car needs to be traveling below 35 mph, virtually calling off the chase.
The Verdict: Watch out for that GM DNA.
Although the Saab was unlikely to do anything untoward while being pushed, the steering felt overly light, and the brake pedal was a touch too squashy underfoot. Like the X-type Jag’s, the Saab’s repertoire is biased toward the luxury end of the dynamic spectrum. Bottom line? Rethink the choice of an automatic gearbox.
2004 Saab 9-3 Arc
210-hp inline-4, 6-speed manual, 3320 lb
Base/as-tested price: $30,860/$34,560
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 7.2 sec
100 mph: 18.2 sec
1/4 mile: 15.4 @ 94 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 185 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.85 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 18 mpg
Fifth Place: Audi A4 3.0 Quattro
Audi’s A4 range offers a fantastic mix of engine and drivetrain combinations, all packaged in handsomely designed sedan and wagon models. It’s clear, though, that by the time you get to the V-6-powered all-wheel-drive A4 3.0 Quattro, you’re getting deep into the plush side of the model’s emotional range.
As one of the logbook entries put it: “The A4 is like a one-time star athlete who’s now on the edge of middle age: A little too soft, and he’s lost some of his foot speed.”
That’s not to say the Audi is a clumsy, fat parody of a sports sedan. Far from it. The A4 conducts itself with considerable poise, feeling predictable and planted in fast bends, with no handling vices to speak of. It’s just a bit heavy (at 3700 pounds, the heaviest in this group) and needs all its 220 horsepower to help propel that mass out of tight corners.
Highs: Good looks, stable handling, smooth ride.
Lows: Needs more power, a touch more involvement.
The car’s steering was uniformly praised for smoothness and accuracy, and almost as often criticized for being overly light and somewhat incommunicative about the tires’ contact patches. A few laps scratching around the tortuous Streets of Willow test track in the California high desert made it clear that although this is no track toy it is undoubtedly safe and predictable.
On the road, the Audi caters to creature comforts over sensory communication. The suspension, the brakes, and the shifter filter nasty vibes and violence out of the bit stream, leaving you with visual and audible confirmation of what you’re doing, but not much more than that. Considering that our test car wore a Sport package ($750) that increases spring stiffness by 30 percent, all of this is quite remarkable.
Although the Audi recorded about the slowest track acceleration numbers, the car feels just fine as a long-haul tourer, endowed with enough power for authoritative passing and making pedigreed six-cylinder engine noises in the process. Nobody complained about the seats, despite a fairly unyielding quality to them, which means they must be good, and only one driver perceived the new interior design as being “cheaper” than that of the previous-generation A4. The rest of us felt suitably coddled.
The Verdict: Leaning toward luxury.
Were it not for a poor center-rear-seat position and somewhat limited rear shoulder space, the A4 would have scored highly for general passenger space and comfort. As it is, four people can travel in this stylish Audi with little cause for complaint. A manual shifter may not quite imbue this car with an overtly sporting persona, but it’s nonetheless a damn fine car.
2004 Audi A4 3.0 Quattro
220-hp V-6, 6-speed manual, 3700 lb
Base/as-tested price: $33,630/$38,130
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 7.5 sec
100 mph: 20.2 sec
1/4 mile: 15.8 @ 89 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 183 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.83 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 16 mpg
Fourth Place: Lexus IS300
When Lexus brought in a five-speed shifter for the IS300, there was general approval from those of us who thought the car would make a fine sports sedan with the right transmission. Now we’re thinking it just needs more power.
Not that the straight-six in the IS isn’t a great engine—it is—but more would be better. As it is, the Lexus runs the second-slowest zero-to-60-mph sprint in this group (at 7.3 seconds) and the third-slowest quarter-mile time. At least it doesn’t feel weighed down by too much luxury equipment, scaling in at a reasonable 3380 pounds and steering adroitly.
Highs: Sweet engine, easy handling, impeccable assembly.
Lows: Soft suspension, modest engine power.
If anything, the Lexus feels small—particularly to six-foot-something drivers, who find the cockpit almost like a seven-eighths-scale model, mainly due to a smallish seat and a non-telescoping steering wheel. But editors of average height considered the seating position entirely satisfactory and scorned that assertion.
Lexus’s choice of interior décor is highly original. Eschewing clichéd sport trappings such as dual gauges and leather-wrapped gearshift knobs, Lexus chose the curious chronograph-inspired instrumentation and chrome-gearshift-ball approach.
It works well on this bijou sports sedan, falling in line with the car’s particular priorities. Which are, if we’re not mistaken, to blend Lexus’s incomparable levels of isolation with a sporty sense of involvement. Yeah, that’s almost a contradiction in terms, but the result is quite good. The IS is quiet, almost too quiet. We’d like to hear that sweet inline-six sing a little louder, please. And its controls are light and slick, but not to the point of complete detachment.
Gear selections are clearly felt, and the steering is crisp, but the fly-by-wire throttle is as slow and distant as a ship’s telegraph. It improves when on the move, but revving up for a drag-strip launch feels weird and artificial.
When cranking this little jewel through the wiggly sections of our test course, most drivers found the car willing, stable, mostly responsive, and without serious vices. Some considered it softly sprung and too prone to roll, but other than lifting off its wheels and showing us some space between inside tires and wheel arches during skidpad testing, these characteristics did little to hurt the car’s handling.
The Verdict: A good choice at the price.
With an optional Torsen limited-slip differential ($390) stopping inside wheelspin in turns, the Lexus circulated our test track without drama and aced our lane-change test. As one editor wrote: “The IS300 is a delightful welterweight in a middleweight shootout.” As such, fourth is a worthy result.
2004 Lexus IS300
215-hp inline-6, 5-speed manual, 3380 lb
Base/as-tested price: $29,980/$31,944
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 7.3 sec
100 mph: 19.3 sec
1/4 mile: 15.5 @ 90 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 167 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.88 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 16 mpg
Third Place: Acura TL
Acura was clearly planning to take no prisoners with the latest TL, and that was immediately apparent at the drag strip, where the TL ripped off a zero-to-60-mph mark of just 5.8 seconds—a half-second quicker than the potent Infiniti G35 could manage with its 3.5-liter V-6, and more than a second quicker than the best of the rest.
Equipped with Acura’s VTEC system, the TL’s broad torque spread was equally impressive. Along with the mega-motor came a slick-shifting six-speed transmission and purposeful—almost sinister-looking—exterior styling. Inside, we found a roomy cabin with high-grade materials and legible instrumentation. The message was clear: This car has the goods to kick ass in this category.
Highs: Awesome engine, roomy interior, great seats.
Lows: Fights back at the wheel, pogoing chassis at high speed.
But then we went marauding in the mountains north of Los Angeles and discovered some other TL traits. The combination of big power, front-wheel drive, and a limited-slip differential produces quite a bit of tugging at the steering wheel as the front wheels encounter varying surfaces. This is exacerbated by the TL’s peculiar suspension tuning. The car is simultaneously firm yet springy, and the front suspension felt as if it were topping out over certain road crests, whereupon it would produce a big weave as it touched back down.
We also experienced some twitchy head-tossing motions on bumpy surfaces from the TL’s spring and anti-roll-bar interactions. Acura engineers obviously sought a compromise between ride comfort and body-motion control, and the side effect is some spooky rough-road responses. But hit the smooth highway, and the picture changes. Here the TL is at home, the chassis feels well damped and controlled, and you can enjoy the precise, nicely weighted steering and excellent throttle response. Also, you might want to try the eight-speaker, DVD-compatible ELS audio system. It kicks.
Acura TLs equipped with the manual six-speed also get beautiful Brembo four-piston front-brake calipers, and these contributed to the shortest stopping distance of the pack—160 feet from 70 mph, with a firm pedal feel that garnered a second-highest rating on the chart. Still, one of the logbook entries accused the brakes of feeling weak during high-spirited driving. There’s just no satisfying some of our editors.
The Verdict: Should be a rear-drive car.
Here’s where that integration of comfort and dynamic ability counts. The TL boasts the largest, best-furnished interior, the strongest engine, one of the slickest shifters, exemplary build quality, and generally superior esthetics. A pity its front-drive layout falls short of perfection.
2004 Acura TL
270-hp V-6, 6-speed manual, 3480 lb
Base/as-tested price: $33,195/$33,395
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 5.8 sec
100 mph: 14.9 sec
1/4 mile: 14.5 @ 99 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 160 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.89 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 17 mpg
Second Place: BMW 325i
Our comments in the BMW logbook are perplexing. How could it have failed to win this contest? The usual suspects will allege that BMW’s check wasn’t the largest tendered, but we’ll ignore such churlish assertions. The log is loaded with glowing admiration for the car’s ride and handling compromise, quiet and communicative steering, smooth and willing engine, firm yet linear brake response, and fluid shift mechanism.
But hold on—someone here hates the climate controls! And several comments mention the relatively modest engine power. Well, 2.5 liters and 184 horsepower are what you get at this price point. And before you go looking, we know the base sticker for a 330i is $35,495. You most likely won’t ever find one at that price in a showroom.
Highs: Balance, poise, refinement, communication.
Lows: Modest engine power.
As is often the case, the smaller-engined, lower-ranked 325i is arguably sweeter in some respects than its stronger siblings. The BMW weighs in with the lowest avoirdupois in this group, and with the best fore-and-aft weight distribution. Despite the lowest engine-power rating here, the BMW ran third fastest from zero to 60 mph and tied for third fastest in the quarter-mile sprint.
That’s balance for you, and the following logbook entries help illustrate that fact: “An easy car to drive fast; you pretty much know what it’s going to do.” “This 325i is really buttoned down in the twisties.” “The steering is beautifully direct and nicely weighted.” “Again, the BMW guys reveal their genius for tuning.” “Isolation is good, yet communication through the controls is clear and confidence inspiring.” “Ho-hum, the usual brilliant balance between ride and handling.”
Need we go on?
Of course, nothing’s perfect. One editor considered the shift mechanism not to be as snick-snick slick as some, and that it took a fairly high seating position to produce a proper control relationship. Another editor found a stretch of road on which the shocks felt underdamped.
At our test track, the BMW revealed a little understeer in some corners as well as a willingness to rotate when needed. Its mild suspension tuning produced some body roll, which Tony Swan suggested might lose valuable fractions of time each lap. Even so, the BMW represented the best compromise between control and creature comfort, somehow distilling the pleasurable sounds and sensations of enthusiastic driving while filtering out unwanted vibrations and noise.
The Verdict: More power would make this car the winner.
That’s a tough combination to top in this league, particularly when you look at the BMW’s base price of $28,495. Let’s just hope Chris Bangle’s design work on the next generation does not end our enduring admiration for this model.
2004 BMW 325i
184-hp inline-6, 5-speed manual, 3300 lb
Base/as-tested price: $28,495/$35,540
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 7.0 sec
100 mph: 19.4 sec
1/4 mile: 15.4 @ 91 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 172 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.89 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 19 mpg
First Place: Infiniti G35
To reach its $36,145 out-the-door price, our Infiniti G35 with leather and a six-speed manual included a Premium package ($3200) with a Bose stereo, reclining rear seatbacks, a power passenger’s seat, and a sunroof; an Aero package ($550) with diffusers and spoilers; and a nav system ($2000).
Do without those frills, and you could leave the showroom for just over 30 grand, excluding sales tax. For that you’d still get a fully equipped G35 with, among other things, a six-CD changer, leather, ABS, and xenon lights.
Oh, yes, you’d also get a 3.5-liter four-cam V-6 with 260 horsepower and a six-speed gearbox driving the rear wheels of a spacious and distinctively styled sports sedan. This car is a good deal. And not only is it festooned with the right specifications, but the dang thing also works properly.
Highs: A powerful and flexible engine, taut handling, great price.
Lows: Some ride jitters, a few cheap touches.
At the drag strip it ran a close second to the seriously quick Acura TL, in braking as well as in acceleration. At the skidpad, it clung more tenaciously than its rivals, recording 0.90 g despite wearing the most conservative tires. (Both the Infiniti and the Lexus have 215s, but the G35 has 55-series tires, and the Lexus wears 45s.)
That roadholding advantage could be felt on real-life surfaces, too, where the G35 communicates its grip in no uncertain terms to the driver’s hands and seat. Although the ride is on the sporty side—firm enough to jiggle on rippled surfaces that the BMW might smother completely—the Infiniti could hardly be described as stiff.
At the track the G35 demonstrated a willingness to rotate that was regarded as handy by some and a little disconcerting by others but was only evident with the dynamic-control system switched off. Regular owners would likely leave that on. Either way, the G35 comes together nicely on a challenging road, its controls providing linear and communicative responses.
Several logbook entries compared this composure with the BMW’s, some making the point that the G35’s extra power provided the car with a compelling advantage. There’s no denying that the lusty V-6 pulls willingly across a broad rev range and makes stirring noises all the while, but its gearshift lacks the light, fluid action of the BMW’s mechanism at high engine speeds. Spin the big V-6 hard, and the shifter becomes a little balky. The clutch responds to high rotational speeds, too, by uttering a growl through the pedal linkage into the cabin.
Considering its sporty demeanor, the G35 asks few sacrifices. The interior is spacious and comfortable, and we like the design, although some of the controls can be confusing. The tilting-disc radio-volume and temperature selectors, for example, are easily mixed up.
The Verdict: An unbeatable combination of performance, prestige, space, and value.
That’s nit-picking, of course. Overall, the Infiniti G35’s convincing advantages in space and power more than make up for its small flaws. It’s a worthy winner.
2004 Infiniti G35
260-hp V-6, 6-speed manual, 3500 lb
Base/as-tested price: $30,395/$36,145
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 6.3 sec
100 mph: 14.8 sec
1/4 mile: 14.6 @ 99 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 164 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.90 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 16 mpg
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