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Sedans

Sedan buying guide

Last updated: February 2014

Getting started

The classic sedan body style covers a broad range of cars with varying levels of comfort, fuel economy, overall quality, performance, and reliability. Because of the diversity of size and price, the traditional four-door, five-passenger sedan remains among the broadest car categories, but the growth of SUVs as all-purpose family transport has eroded sedans' long-held marketplace dominance. Common midsized sedans are priced from about $22,000 to $32,000 have the potential to offer a good balance of cost, function, and safety, addressing the needs of many drivers. Often called family sedans, midsized models such as the Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, and Toyota Camry are among the biggest sellers, and they all excel at the segment's virtues.

Key things to consider

With about 100 foreign and domestic sedans of all sizes to choose from, it can be hard to winnow the choices. Key considerations include size, price, fuel economy, comfort, performance, safety, and reliability. Those factors are often related. For example, smaller cars with small-displacement engines tend to get better fuel economy and have better handling than midsized, six-cylinder alternatives. But some of the latest models, such as the four-cylinder verions of the Honda Accord and Nissan Altima show that you can get superior fuel economy in a decent-sized, good-performing car.

Determining the sedan type that you need will help narrow the field. Each type (Small, Family, Upscale, and Luxury) has a spectrum of models to choose from, so this is a useful step toward creating your shopping list.

What you'll spend

Sedan prices vary widely, from about $15,000 for basic transportation to $100,000 or more for a big luxury cruiser. Among tested cars we recommend, $18,000 is about the least expensive when factoring in popular equipment and recommended safety gear, but there are plenty of fine midsized cars priced under $25,000.

Types

Small sedans


The small sedan category is home to basic economy cars and compact premium cars. Typical characteristics include good fuel economy, elevated levels of noise in many cases, and limited space for passengers, especially in the rear and for cargo. Many small sedans come in hatchback versions, with two or four doors. Though technically not sedans, hatchbacks can add considerable utility to these models without costing much more or sacrificing gas mileage. The engines are nearly always four-cylinders, typically with 1.4- to 2.0-liter displacement. High-performance and special fuel-economy models may be turbocharged. Prices normally range from $15,000 to $20,000, and fuel economy averages from the mid-20s mpg to low-30s overall for traditional gasoline-powered cars.

Family sedans


This broad category includes midsized cars with space for five passengers. Engines usually have four or six cylinders. These cars tend to have more passenger and cargo space than smaller cars, more power, a more comfortable ride, and less noise. Plus, they usually provide better crash protection than small cars, aided by additional structure, safety features, and overall vehicle weight. Typical prices are $20,000 to $35,000. Fuel economy for conventional models ranges from about 18 to 32 mpg overall. Hybrids and diesels can reach 33 to 44 mpg overall.

(Learn how well child safety seats fit in family sedans.)

Large sedans


For long trips or when transporting several adults, a large sedan's extra luggage capacity, composed ride and powerful engines can make a big difference. Today's large sedans usually seat five, not six, with front bucket seats and a rear bench. They trade off some maneuverability and usually fuel economy for comfort and roominess. Power typically comes from a V6; larger V8s are optional in some models. Horsepower currently ranges from about 180 to 370 in this class. Prices range from the high $20s to the high $30s. Typical fuel economy ranges from about 18 to 26 mpg overall in our tests.

Upscale sedans


Richly appointed cars ranging in size from modest to large that are priced at the high end of their size categories are considered upscale. Their better-than-average materials, rich assortment of power accessories and features, and typically elegant (or at least showy) appointments set them apart from less expensive models. But their smaller size, less plush ride, and often noisier cabins mean these œaspirational" models don't qualify as true luxury cars in our book. This class splits into mainly two groups: sporty (i.e., BMW 3 Series and Infiniti Q50) and bargain luxury car, often derived from a more mainstream model from the automaker (i.e., Acura ILX and Lexus ES). Typical prices range from the low $30s to the mid $40s. Upscale sedans typically require premium fuel.

Luxury sedans


Most true luxury sedans are midsized to large cars designed to offer the very best in premium appointments, features, and powertrains. The category consists mostly of two sub-classes: midsized and fullsized. The midsized contenders, such as Audi A6, Infiniti Q70, and Mercedes-Benz E-Class, are generally priced from the low $40s to about $60,000 and come with a choice of a V6 or a V8. Almost all offer AWD as an option. Full-sized luxury models are what we think of as quintessential premium cars, including Audi A8, BMW 7 Series, Jaguar XJ, Lexus LS, and Mercedes-Benz S-Class. They usually have rear-wheel drive, and most offer all-wheel drive as an option. Base engines are V8s, with V10s, V12s, or even hybrid models available in some models. Fuel economy tends to be a lower priority than pampering, as these large, heavy cars emphasize hedonistic travel pleasures and effortless acceleration over frugality. Figure on averaging 18 to 24 mpg overall, usually on premium fuel. Hybrid and diesel models do better, ranging up to 36 mpg overall.

Features


Below we highlight important features for you to consider when purchasing a sedan.

Engines and fuel economy

Four-cylinder engines are generally more fuel efficient than V6s, and some of the latest four-cylinder sedans balance fuel efficiency and power quite well. But the number of cylinders doesn't always equate to horsepower or fuel economy. In fact, some V6s are thriftier than some Fours. Many modern engines have adopted direct-injection technology and turbocharging to maintain power while saving fuel. If you're budget-conscious, avoid cars that require premium fuel.

Manual transmissions can also aid fuel efficiency, although improving automatic transmission technology has made them more efficient than manuals in some models. Modern automatics which these days are usually six-speed, with some having up to eight or nine forward gears, can help fuel economy by letting a car cruise at lower revs while also contributing to performance. Continuously variable transmissions (CVTs) also aim to save fuel. CVTs are standard on many small cars and an increasing number of mid-sized sedans.

Gasoline/electric hybrid technology can save significant amounts of fuel, although their higher initial cost might take many years to recoup, depending on driving style, terrain, miles driven, and fuel prices. Today's diesel models also offer significant fuel economy benefits, though there is a significant price premium for the powertrain and diesel fuel usually costs more than gasoline these days. Technologies such as cylinder deactivation, where half the cylinders shut off when they're not needed, can squeeze out slightly better mileage in highway driving. Regardless of technology, sedans are judged where the rubber hits the road. That's where our testing of more than 50 performance, livability, and fuel economy factors can help. (Check our fuel-economy Ratings.)

Drive wheels

The vast majority of sedans today use front-wheel drive. The space efficiency from a front-drive design allows a car to have a smaller engine compartment and a flatter floor, leaving more room inside for passengers and cargo. It's also effective at getting going in slippery conditions because there's more weight on the front wheels for extra traction. Rear-wheel drive is traditionally used on high-performance and luxury sedans for its handling benefits. The number of models available with all-wheel drive is increasing, providing improved foul-weather traction and extreme, track-ready grip on enthusiast-targeted models. Our tests have shown that an all-wheel-drive car with all-season tires has better traction than a front- or rear-drive car with winter tires. But AWD does little or nothing to aid stopping or cornering, it adds cost and weight, and in most cases it imposes a small fuel-economy penalty.

Towing

Most sedans aren't designed for towing, especially heavy trailers. Those that have a tow rating are usually limited to about 1,000 pounds. A few larger sedans can tow more than 3,000 pounds. Tow packages are typically available as a factory option or as aftermarket add-ons.

Access

When comparing sedans, try entering and exiting from all four doors. A well-designed sedan should provide wide doors and enough headroom so that front and rear passengers can enter and exit easily without bumping their heads and sit in the rear without brushing the ceiling. Some sedans are styled with low, sloping rear rooflines that concede practical considerations for appearance. Such coupe-like designs can degrade rear-seat accessibility, headroom, and the driver's view aft.

Cargo

If you ever expect to carry long or bulky cargo, look for a fold-down rear seat with a tall, wide opening to the trunk behind. Even a small pass-through port can be handy for long, slender items such as skis.

Safety features

Sedans, especially midsized and larger ones, have among the lowest death and injury rates on the road. They provide a good balance of maneuverability, protective structure, and available safety equipment. Not all models afford the same protection, so it's important to check the safety ratings. Consumer Reports'safety Ratings include assessments of crash-avoidance capabilities and crash-test results, based on tests performed by the federal government and insurance industry. Further, our road tests detail issues regarding child-seat installation and the adequacy of front and rear head restraints.

All new sedans have standard frontal and side-curtain air bags, lap-and-shoulder belts in all outboard seating positions, and child-seat top-tether and lower LATCH attachments in the rear seats. Electronic stability control (ESC) is also standard. It's a computer-controlled feature that automatically and selectively applies brakes to pull a car out of a sideways slide. It's worth seeking out ESC if you're shopping for a used car. Another common feature, traction control, can help you to get going on a slippery road but doesn't aid in a sideways skid. (Learn more about car safety.)

Emerging safety technologies

The latest automotive safety advances include telematics systems that alert emergency personnel if an air bag deploys, lane-departure warning systems that sound an alert if you change lanes without signaling, rearview cameras to prevent back-over accidents, and blind-spot warning systems that indicate vehicles driving in the blind spots to the side and rear of you. Automatic-braking systems are also spreading. These collision-avoidance systems apply the brakes if you're approaching the car ahead too quickly and ignore an audible warning that sounds to alert you to the situation. Another emerging technology is lane-keeping assist, which centers your car in the lane if you start to drift.

Entertainment and convenience

The latest mobile electronics enable cars to deliver the fidelity of home theater, along with cell-phone connectivity and navigation guidance. Factory-supplied systems usually offer voice-activated controls for audio, phone, and navigation with various levels of sophistication. You'll frequently find redundant audio controls on the steering wheel.

Audio system

The standard car-audio package is a stereo radio tuner and in-dash CD player with speakers left and right and fore and aft. An upgraded system typically has a more-powerful amplifier (so you can play music loud with minimum distortion),along with more and better-quality speakers to enhance clarity and sound separation. Top-level systems add digital sound fields, noise-canceling, surround sound, and DVD-Audio playback.

Cars at every price level have a jack for plugging in an MP3 device for playback through the car's audio system. Only stereos with a specific iPod connector or USB input, rather than a micro plug port, are able to control and recharge an iPod.

Satellite and HD radio

Subscription-only satellite radio (Sirius/XM) offers broad channel selection, catering to a variety of musical and information interests, much like cable TV. Most vehicles offer satellite radio readiness in some audio systems.

HD Radio allows conventional (or terrestrial) AM and FM stations to broadcast their content over digital signals with higher fidelity. It also allows stations to add more programming over several additional channels that can be broadcast alongside a station's main frequency. This function can be used for delivering traffic or weather information, or more diverse music content.

Navigation systems and connectivity

In-car navigation systems can be a valued featured if you often drive in unfamiliar territory. They typically retail for $750 to $1,500 when offered alone, but nav systems are often bundled with other features, such as a backup camera or a high-end audio system that can add another $1,000 or more. Built-in systems have large, clear screens that are in the center of the dashboard and have generally intuitive controls. They are integrated nicely into the car, and most systems use touch-screen displays that make it easy to enter destinations and scroll through menus.

Many can also respond to voice commands, giving you the added safety of keeping your eyes on the road and hands on the wheel. For a subscription fee, many systems can provide real-time traffic reports, which can alert you to congested traffic, accidents, or road construction. But small portable GPS units can offer most of the same capabilities for far less money. (See Ratings and learn more about portable GPS navigation systems.)

Bluetooth connectivity is becoming very widespread, enabling wireless devices such as a cell phone to wirelessly communicate with the car's audio system. This allows convenient, hands-free phone operation. Many new infotainment systems can interface with your smart phone using apps to stream music and other Internet-sourced data to the car.

Telematics systems, popularized by GM's OnStar, use a combination of cellular telephone and Global Positioning System (GPS) technology to connect drivers with a call center staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, at the touch of a button. For a monthly or annual fee, such concierge services can provide directions and other travel aids. They also have an SOS feature that automatically summons emergency aid following an air-bag deployment, using GPS technology to give first-responders your car's location.

Brands

BMW arrow  |  Chevrolet arrow  |  Ford arrow  |  Honda arrow  |  Infiniti arrow  |  Lexus arrow  |  Mercedes-Benz arrow  |  Nissan arrow  |  Toyota arrow  |  Volkswagen arrow  |  Audi arrow

Below we highlight the most popular and the most significant sedan brands, with a synopsis of traits common among their sedans.

BMW

BMW has long set the standard for European-style "driver's cars." We have long given BMW high marks for the cars' agility, handling finesse, sophisticated engineering, and impeccable fit and finish. We have criticized the lack of rear seat room in the smaller models and the over-complexity of some controls, and had persistent small gripes such as inadequate cup holders and mediocre radio reception. Reliability has not been BMW's long suit. Some models hold up well, some assuredly do not.

Chevrolet

Chevrolet is an iconic, all-American brand. Chevy offerings include every size and type, from the pokey Aveo sedan to the eye-candy Corvette and the giant Suburban SUV. After many years of making serviceable but mediocre cars and trucks, the brand now offers a few really competitive models such as the latest generation of the Malibu sedan and Silverado pickup.

Ford

The Ford logo, symbolized by a blue oval, appears on a full range of cars, trucks, and SUVs. In recent years, Ford has made good use of its global resources to create good-handling sedans such as the mid-sized Fusion and large Taurus, formerly called the Five Hundred. Ford has also turned a corner in reliability, compared with the rest of Detroit, with most Ford products, especially newer designs, scoring average or better on our reliability surveys.

Honda

For years, Honda made a name for itself, and a good one, selling just two vehicles in the U.S., the Civic and Accord. While it now competes in other markets as well, the Civic and Accord remain vastly popular cars for the right reasons: They are high quality, reasonably priced, and have excellent reliability.

Infiniti

Infiniti is Nissan's upscale brand. It long struggled in the shadow of Lexus, which was the class act among the Japanese luxury marques. Lately, though, we have been impressed with the driving qualities, powertrains, and interior design of such cars as the Infiniti G and Infiniti M sedans.

Lexus

Lexus, a Toyota division, arrived in 1988 as the first of a wave of Japanese luxury cars. The flagship LS sedan was our top-Rated car or top-Rated luxury car for many years, known for its tomb-like quiet, supple suspension and Swiss-watch reliability. Most Lexus sedans follow that formula: comfort, quietness, high-end materials, and unobtrusive grace. They are also known for overly light steering feel and sound but not sporty handling.

Mercedes-Benz

With a Mercedes-Benz model, you can expect an excellent powertrain at every level, crisp handling, and a composed and comfortable ride. Mercedes' seats tend to be very firm but comfortable and supportive on long trips. Some controls can be needlessly complicated, and the cruise-control lever is notorious for its awkward placement next to the turn-signal lever. Reliability has been spotty in recent years, with the C- and E-class popping on and off our Recommended lists as a result.

Nissan

Nissan has long been famed for its excellent engines, especially its V6s. In recent years, Nissan has made marked improvements in interior quality and packaging, and the latest Altima is a true standout in the competitive family sedan segment. Reliability for Nissan sedans has usually been very good.

Toyota

Toyota is by far the world's richest and by some measures largest automobile manufacturer. It also has a reputation for quality, reliability, and innovation and seems better positioned than any other carmaker for long-term success. A full-range manufacturer, Toyota has produced very few duds across its broad product line. In most years of late, the Toyota Camry has been the best selling sedan in the U.S. despite often-voiced criticisms about light steering and bland styling.

Volkswagen

A specialist in small and midsized cars, Volkswagen can be counted on for excellent fit and finish, crisp handling, and good ride composure. Reliability has been spotty—good one year, poor the next. That's a shame because otherwise, the cars are so good and fun to drive.

Audi

Audi is Volkswagen's premium-car marque, distinguished by top-drawer fit and finish and the wide availability of its all-wheel-drive system, called Quattro. The lineup includes the upscale compact A4, the mid-sized luxury A6 and large ultra-luxury A8.

New vs. Used

When in the market for your next car, your first consideration is often whether to buy new or used. Buying a brand-new sedan certainly has its benefits. Most notably, new cars can have the very latest safety gear and engineering improvements. And with a new car, you know what you're getting, and it is backed by a comprehensive factory warranty. You don't have to worry about potential service problems or concealed collision damage. Further, you can have your choice of color, trim line, and options. Financing rates are also typically lower than those on used vehicles.

The key drawback with buying a new car is rapid depreciation. A new car can shed half of its value in its first three years on the road. If you have financed the new car with a low down payment, you can easily find yourself œupside down" on the loan, owing more than the car is worth.

Used cars can be a welcome alternative. The used-car market is about three times the size of the new-car market, so there's certainly plenty of choice out there. One of the best strategies is to find a car you like that's only a few years old. Such a car has already taken its biggest depreciation hit, which works to your advantage, but it should still have most of its useful life ahead of it. Modern cars, if soundly maintained, can stay on the road for 200,000 miles or longer. Rust, for example, isn't nearly the problem it was years ago. Solid-state electronics have eliminated the need for a lot of regular servicing that was necessary in the past.

The key to selecting a good used sedan is to focus on reliability, even when a prospective automobile is still covered by its original factory warranty. Look for a car that has done well in our reliability judgments. For many years the reliability stars in our records have mostly been Japanese-nameplate models, especially those from Honda, Subaru, and Toyota. But a handful of domestic models have been standouts, too.

CR's reliability scores are no guarantee, of course, but they do carry the weight of probability. If you shop for sedans with top-notch reliability scores, the odds are on your side. At the same time, every used car is unique. A careful prepurchase inspection remains a vital part of the process. If you do your homework and take care in the car selection, a used sedan can save you significant money in the long run.

Whether buying new or used, it is important to do research so you can choose a good model, and follow that up with effective negotiation.

Learn more in our guides to buying a new or used car.

   

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