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Personal Picks: Compact Sports Sedans

Consumer Reports News: June 04, 2009 07:08 AM

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We used the word “fun” several times in our recent comparison test of sports sedans. The test group included the Acura TSX; Audi A4 2.0T; Infiniti G37 Journey; and Volkswagen CC. And while few of the available models are actually dull, most tested models fulfill the goal of scoring decently in the fun factor. But they’re not cheap – ranging from around $32,000-$40,000.

If you’re looking for basic, four-door transportation, you can save a lot of money forgoing these sports sedans – and you’ll note that several of us lean toward this. But if fun is on your radar screen (and you’d like a dash of luxury thrown in), look no further than the current offerings of sports sedans.

Which ones piqued our fancy? Here are our Picks from this highly-touted (but expensive) category:

Tom Mutchler: "You know how I always say I’d buy a (Infiniti) G if I needed a car? Let’s face it – I’d never spend that much money on a new car.” Those words from my colleague Jake, spoken during one of our morning coffee sessions, ring true to me this month, especially as the economy tends to waver.

This is a fine group of cars. There are quibbles with each, but not a loser in the bunch. Like Jake, I would definitely gravitate toward the G37 if I were buying a new luxury sports sedan. But as I wrote before in a BMW 135i logbook blog, my arms are short and my pockets deep. Put simply, there are a lot of things I could do with $38K.

So my sports sedan aspirations may be less ambitious, but they’re still very pleasing to me. I’d buy a nice used, first-generation Acura TSX. I’ve been kidded on our forums about how often I advocate this car, but I think it’s an overlooked gem. Super-nimble handling (better than the new TSX), compact dimensions yet roomy enough, a well finished interior, one of the best manual transmission linkages out there, and an engine that loves to rev. All this for easily under $20K.

Gabe Shenhar: Out of this whole category, there’s no question that I’m going with the BMW 3 Series. It’s such a terrific driver’s car that’s thoroughly enjoyable, yet totally livable. In terms of what makes a sports sedan a sports sedan, in my opinion, no manufacturer has yet surpassed the 3, even though several competitors come close, including the Infiniti G37 and new Audi A4.

What makes the 3 Series special? It’s that wonderful steering feedback and response, tied-down ride control, and good compliance that speak to driving connoisseurs and puts a smile on my face.

Unfortunately, BMW chose to equip the non-sports package cars with underachieving Bridgestone Turanza run-flat tires, which cost the car points in our testing in terms of empirical stopping distance and avoidance maneuver speed. To make this car really spectacular, I’d buy the optional sports package, bringing sharper steering response and more grip, yet with a negligible loss of ride comfort. I realize I’d have to switch to winter tires, as the performance tires are not all-season, but I do that anyway.

What I also love about this car is the pull and tractability of the straight six-cylinder engine, which sings a perfect soundtrack -- be it the 230 hp in the 328i or the 300 hp in the 335i. Thankfully, our 328i also delivered decent fuel economy, to alleviate the guilt of how many times I put my foot into it. That awesome powertrain (even with the automatic) and sporty handling, augmented by supportive seats and the innate quality of the interior can really start my day on a good note. Yes, one can nit pick about some unnecessarily complicated controls and a cramped rear seat. But ultimately, when it comes to sports sedans, what matters is which car elicits the biggest grin. And, for me, my smile is never broader than when I’m driving a 3 Series.

Rick Small: In this group, I prefer the G37. It has loads of power, delivers decent economy and is very sporty and is competitively priced. Downside? The G is just a little tight for my 6’3” frame. Considering these tough economic times, I would buy a Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, or Ford Fusion. All are roomier, have good performance and economy are reliable and much cheaper to own. They offer four-cylinder or V6 engines, and the Fusion Hybrid delivers good performance and excellent fuel economy.

Mike Quincy: Do you ever find yourself rooting for the underdog? You vote for candidates that don’t win, root for movies to get nominated for Academy Awards that don’t have a chance, or you’re a Cubs fan... I think I do this with cars. For some strange reason, I have a soft spot in my heart for beleaguered Saabs. For me, the cars’ many flaws are somehow overcome by their charm and personality. But no more. I’m turning the page and moving on. The company is on the ropes and I’m jumping ship. Instead, I’m getting behind the Lexus IS 350. It’s not as sporty as the edgier G37 or 3 Series, and the IS’s interior is snug. But I love its combination of comfort, reliability and relatively decent cost of ownership. I’d also consider the cheaper IS 250 with a manual transmission (good luck finding one, though). Is the IS still somewhat of a dark horse in this sports sedan derby? Sure, but you never know when an underdog might surprise you. I still like Saabs, but I don’t think enough people share my affection to keep the flame burning bright.

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