Sedan Buying Guide

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 the sedan’s long-held marketplace dominance. Common midsized sedans are priced from about $23,000 to $35,000 and 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, Subaru Legacy, 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 difficult 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 with increased emphasis on efficiency, the latest midsized sedans are offering both space and efficiency, as exemplified by the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry

Determining the sedan type that you need will help narrow the field. Each type (subcompact, compact, midsized, large, 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 $14,000 for basic transportation to $100,000 or more for a top-shelf luxury cruiser. Among tested cars we recommend, $19,000 is about the least expensive when factoring in popular equipment and recommended safety gear, but there are plenty of fine midsized cars priced at less than $27,000. 


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, although real-world fuel economy can vary based on driving conditions and style. Some of these turbocharged cars and many upscale sedans require premium fuel.

Manual transmissions are a rare find in the sedan field; fortunately, improving transmission technology has made many automatic models more efficient than manual models. Modern automatics now range from six to nine forward gears. Additional gears aid 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 midsized sedans.

Gasoline/electric hybrid technology can save significant amounts of fuel, although their higher initial cost might take years to recoup, depending on driving style, terrain, miles driven, and fuel prices. Today’s diesel models also offer fuel-economy benefits, though there is a significant price premium for the powertrain, and diesel fuel costs more than gasoline in most areas.

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 the 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.

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.

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 coupelike designs can degrade rear-seat accessibility, headroom, and the driver’s aftward view.

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 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.)

Advanced Safety Technologies
Forward-collision warning and automatic emergency braking are two valued systems that are fast becoming standard equipment on many new vehicles. Forward-collision warning (FCW) technology provides a visual, audible, and/or tactile alert to warn the driver of an impending collision with a car or object directly in its path. If a car equipped with automatic emergency braking (AEB) senses a potential collision and you don’t react in time, it starts braking for you. IIHS data show rear-end collisions are cut by 50 percent on vehicles with AEB and FCW.

Other modern safety advances include telematics systems that alert emergency personnel if an airbag deploys; lane-departure warning systems that sound an alert if you change lanes without signaling; lane-keeping assist to center vehicle in the lane if you start to drift; and blind-spot warning systems that indicate vehicles driving in the blind spots to the side and rear of you.

Entertainment and Convenience
The latest mobile electronics enable cars to deliver the fidelity of home theater, along with Bluetooth smartphone connectivity, Android Auto/Apple CarPlay compatibility, 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 audio package is a stereo radio tuner with speakers left and right and fore and aft, with satellite radio and various inputs for external devices. CD players are becoming rare. 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, and surround sound.

Cars at every price level have a USB port for connecting a smartphone or an iPod and for charging mobile devices, though some high-end European models have proprietary adapters that require a dealer-supplied plug to connect your device.

Satellite and HD Radio
Subscription-based satellite radio (SiriusXM) offers a broad selection of channels with catering to a variety of musical and information interests, with uninterrupted service from coast to coast. Subscription packages range from $11 to $20 per month, and you can add service for your smartphone, computer, and home satellite radio for an additional fee.

HD Radio allows conventional (aka 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 sub-channels that can be broadcast alongside a station’s main frequency. This function can be used for delivering traffic updates, weather information, or more diverse music content.

Navigation Systems and Connectivity
In-car navigation systems are a great feature 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 an additional $1,000 or more. Built-in systems have large, clear screens mounted in the center of the dashboard and generally have 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.

Most 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 portable GPS units can offer most of the same capabilities for far less money. And, of course, smartphones can provide great navigation guidance. (See Ratings and learn more about portable GPS navigation systems.)

Bluetooth connectivity is now ubiquitous, enabling devices such as smartphones to wirelessly communicate with the car’s audio system. This allows convenient hands-free phone operation, as well as playback of music stored on the phone. Many infotainment systems can stream Internet-sourced audio to the car using apps, such as Pandora and Aha.

Telematics systems, popularized by GM’s OnStar, use a combination of cellular telephone and GPS technology to connect drivers with a call center staffed 24 hours a day, seven 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 calls to check on the car after an accident. If need be, these systems can summon emergency services, using the built-in GPS receiver to give first responders the car’s location.

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. New cars have the very latest safety gear and engineering improvements, plus a bumper-to-bumper factory warranty. With a new car, you know what you’re getting; 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 option level. And financing rates are typically lower than for a used vehicle.

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 “upside 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 are plenty of cars from which to choose. One of the best strategies is to find a car you like that’s only two to three years old. Such a car has already taken its biggest depreciation hit and should have the majority of its useful life ahead of it. Modern cars, if soundly maintained, can stay on the road for 200,000 miles or longer. Rust isn’t nearly as big a problem as it was years ago, and solid-state electronics have eliminated the need for frequent tune-ups.

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.

Consumer Reports’ 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 New & Used Car Buying Guide.

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