Sedans Under $15,000
Let’s be honest. GM has not been known for making great subcompacts, but the Chevrolet Sonicchanges all that. This fairly new subcompact is refined, economical and even fun to drive. There are two engines to choose from, a 1.8-liter four and a turbocharged 1.4-liter four. Both make 138 horsepower, but the turbo has more torque. And yet the spirited turbo is also the more fuel-efficient of the two, earning EPA estimates of 29 city and 40 highway mpg. Either way, you get crisp handling, an agreeable ride and an attractive cabin with simple controls and comfortable seats.
The Ford Fiesta has been one of the first cars to prove that small and affordable needn’t equate to boring and bare-bones. A peppy, refined 1.6-liter engine sips gas to the tune of 28 city and 37 highway mpg with a manual transmission, and very close to that with the available automated manual, which uses automated clutch technology that optimizes both performance and fuel efficiency with conventional automatic shifting. A well-trimmed, comfortable cabin offers a number of available high-end features such as keyless ignition/entry, heated leather seats and Ford’s Sync system, which allows voice control of your cell phone and iPod.
Looking like a scaled-down Sonata, the Hyundai Accent has a lot more going for it than crisp, sporty styling. With 138 hp on tap, there’s respectable performance, too, along with high fuel economy estimates of 30 city and 40 highway mpg whether you go with the manual transmission or opt for the automatic. In keeping with Hyundai’s value proposition, the Accent comes well equipped, even in base form boasting such niceties as a trip computer, satellite radio and iPod integration. The Accent also represents the new Hyundai, meaning solid fit and finish comes standard as well.
Sedans Under $18,000
The Mazda 3 is a staff favorite and for good reason. Fun to drive with its communicative steering and athletic chassis, the 3 also manages to provide excellent fuel economy (up to 28 city and 40 highway mpg) along with snappy performance. These two traits are usually mutually exclusive, but 3s equipped with the Skyactiv powertrain manage to achieve them without tricks like adaptive grille shutters or automatic transmission programming that shifts the car into top gear at the earliest opportunity. Furthermore, the 3 offers some high-end features, such as a blind-spot warning system and adaptive bi-xenon headlights, not typically seen in this segment.
Like some of its peers, the Hyundai Elantra is a compact that offers a surprising amount of passenger and cargo space. As such, it is ideal for those who want ample seating for adults but for whom today’s larger “midsize” cars are more than they need. The Elantra boasts a 148-hp engine with a meager fuel appetite (up to 29 city and 40 highway mpg) and a chassis that, although not as sporty as the segment’s jocks, offers an agreeable ride/handling balance. A well-built interior with comfortable seating and plenty of standard features, along with a large trunk, round out its appeal.
The Ford Focus is a rare breed, a car that’s so good that you could forget how little you paid for it. Much of its appeal lies in its European-style design and chassis tuning. Here you’ll find entertaining driving dynamics along with a firm but controlled ride. The 2.0-liter four pumps out 160 hp and provides swift acceleration, yet choose the SFE trim and you’ll also get fuel mileage estimates matching the other segment’s sippers with 28 city and 40 highway mpg. Sweetening the deal is the Focus’ interior with its high-quality materials and available high-tech features that even include an automated parallel parking system.
Sedans Under $25,000
If Aston Martin made an affordable midsize sedan, we imagine it would look a lot like the Ford Fusion. But there’s a lot more to the Fusion than handsome styling. There’s also an impressive new powertrain lineup that includes 1.6- and 2.0-liter turbocharged fours. The 2.0 seems to best hit the performance/economy sweet spot, sprinting to 60 mph in under 7 seconds while earning fuel mileage estimates of 22 city and 33 highway mpg. Within the right-sized Fusion you’ll find high-quality materials, a roomy rear seat and available cutting-edge high-tech features such as adaptive cruise control, automated parking assist and blind-spot detection.
This year a class favorite gets leaner and not meaner, more user-friendly and better for the environment. The redesigned Honda Accord looks and feels less bulky than its precursor, with cleaner lines and more responsive handling. The 2.4-liter four now has direct injection and teams with a smooth continuously variable transmission (CVT) to provide brisk performance and high fuel economy ratings of 27 city and 36 highway mpg. Also less cluttered is the roomy cabin, which has improved materials and cleaner control layouts. The Accord also boasts a relatively low beltline, slim roof pillars and a large glass area that all contribute to its good outward visibility.
The revamped Nissan Altima is a good example of improving something while not fixing things that aren’t broken. Inside and out, the new Altima has a more premium vibe. Indeed, one might mistake it for Nissan’s Maxima flagship sedan. Yet even the volume-selling S trim level has a welcoming, nicely trimmed cabin. The previous-generation Altima impressed with its responsive handling, composed ride and user-friendly electronic features, all of which carry over, enhanced even, into the new car. Like its similarly well-rounded peers, the Altima manages to provide solid performance with impressive fuel economy, which is as high as 27 city and 38 highway mpg.
Sedans Under $32,000
The big V8 American sedan is a classic archetype, and it lives on in the Chrysler 300. We don’t care that it’s built in Canada on a platform derived from a German sedan. The 300 offers rear- or all-wheel drive and delivers the power, performance and refinement that Americans want. It’s available with a V8, although we think the 292-hp V6 hits the sweet spot between quick acceleration and admirable fuel economy. An eight-speed automatic transmission helps the V6 also return 27 highway and 21 combined mpg. The cabin offers room to spread out and enjoy its comfortable seating, and an advanced navigation and entertainment system.
Not everyone wants a burly American sedan, and the Buick Lacrosse is the perfect choice for those seeking more subtlety. The Lacrosse offers a 303-hp V6 and all-wheel drive, while the base four-cylinder with a hybrid-like electric motor assist gets the front-wheel-drive Lacrosse an impressive 29 mpg combined. That’s less than you’d get in a dedicated hybrid like the pricier Lexus ES 300h, yet still impressive for a full-size sedan. More impressive are the serene cabin’s sweeping lines, LED lighting accents and rich surface textures. The Buick Lacrosse also offers useful features and luxuries like a rearview camera and dual-screen rear entertainment system.
Redesigned for 2013, the Ford Fusion Hybrid raises the bar for sophistication in a family sedan, let alone a hybrid. A bold grille and curvaceous sheet metal give the Fusion its sharpest look yet. Yet its sporty appearance belies its thriftiness. A 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and electric motor combine for 188 hp, and Ford claims the hybrid will return 47 city and 44 on the highway (the EPA hasn’t released its results yet). Meanwhile, the roomy cabin and its impressive materials and build quality closes the traditional gap between Ford and its upscale Lincoln counterpart. The MyFord Touch infotainment/navigation interface continues to improve, but still demands too much attention while driving. Fortunately the voice-activated Sync system can handle most tasks.
Sedans Under $40,000
A subtle redesign and new turbocharged engine keep the BMW 3 Series leading this group. Purists might scoff, but the BMW 328i’s 2.0-liter four-cylinder base engine makes 240 hp and returns 5 mpg more than the inline-6 engine that was its predecessor in the entry-level model. Meanwhile, a six-speed manual comes standard, showing that BMW still remembers its enthusiast base. The combination of the 2.0-liter and manual transmission also makes the 3 Series righteously quick, and it needs just 5.9 seconds to reach 60 mph. At the same time, it can return 22 city and 34 highway mpg. You can even get the 3 Series with all-wheel drive. This BMW still features one of the best interiors in the market segment, and even the base model comes with an impressive list of standard features.
For those whose tastes lean toward the lavish, the Hyundai Genesis is hard to beat. Few cars offer as many features and luxuries for the money. The expansive cabin offers deep front and rear legroom, generous leather upholstery and firm, comfortable executive seating. Controls for the navigation and entertainment interface fall easily to hand in the center console, and the audio system is one of the best around. With its V6 pushing up to 333 hp through an eight-speed automatic transmission, the Genesis reaches 60 mph in 6.4 seconds. The Genesis is an exceptional value for a rear-wheel-drive sedan, delivering full-size luxury for midsize money.
Cadillac has tried small luxury before, but with the Cadillac ATS , the iconic marque finally finds its chemistry in this market segment. Aimed at the BMW 3 Series, the ATS delivers an agile, well-balanced ride, digging into corners while shrugging off broken pavement on the daily commute. A 2.5-liter V6 is available, but the 272-hp turbocharged 2.0-liter four with a six-speed manual is the enthusiast-approved choice. All-wheel drive is also available. The available CUE entertainment system controls most navigation and infotainment features through a touchscreen interface that acts like a portable tablet. A small trunk and tight rear seat might dissuade those looking for more utility, but for a premium car with an athletic soul, the Cadillac ATS is tough to beat.
Sedans Under $55,000
A lean figure in a smart suit, the Audi A6 sets a new bar for refinement in a luxury sedan. Though loaded with advanced convenience and safety technology, the A6 doesn’t simply vector down the road. This new version of Audi’s midsize sedan feels lighter and more engaging than the last model, and we actually preferred it to the BMW 5 Series in a recent comparison test. With a choice of a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine or a supercharged 3.0-liter V6, this Audi offers both power and efficiency. The A6 also offers one of the best interiors in the business — a cool, comfortable environment filled with features that make it a tech nerd’s nirvana.
Where the Audi A6 dazzles with its sporty manners and fancy gizmos, the Mercedes-Benz E-Classforges ahead with an enduring formula of elegance and sophistication. Available with a 3.5-liter V6 engine or a 3.0-liter diesel V6, the E-Class deftly balances ride quality, confident handling, meticulous craftsmanship, innovation and comfort. You don’t buy an E-Class to whip through corners, but don’t underestimate this luxe sedan’s ability to deliver a thrill. This being a Mercedes, there is plenty of safety technology, including blind spot detection, lane departure warning and adaptive cruise. And the easy, intuitive COMAND electronics interface is still one of our favorites.
With its redesign last year, the Lexus GS no longer lingers as a prosaic also-ran in its market segment. The GS offers crisper handling while retaining the refined ride quality that is the signature of Lexus, plus a high-quality interior and advanced electronics. The Lexus GS is available in only one trim level, with a healthy 3.5-liter V6 making 306 hp and 277 pound-feet of torque. The GS comes with a six-speed automatic with manual shift-paddle control in either rear- or all-wheel-drive configurations. A massive 12.3-inch display comes with the optional navigation system and is operated via a mouselike joystick. Offering classic Lexus quality with a newfound attitude, the GS is one of the top picks in this segment.
Sedans Under $70,000
Truth be told, this is an odd category. Frankly, not many luxury cars start their pricing lives in this range. Nevertheless, there are some excellent cars and our three recommended are incredibly different from each other. The Audi A7 is essentially an A6 that has been given a striking styling makeover. It looks lower and wider from the front, and its tail end tapers into a long, slinky point thanks to its hatchback trunk. Besides this added dose of style, the hatchback design also affords a more useful cargo area. A superb supercharged V6, benchmark interior quality and engaging driving dynamics round out its personality.
The Lexus LS 460 might slot into this price category, but it actually competes quite strongly with the full-size flagships in the over-$70,000 crowd. A complete redesign for 2013 brings sharp new styling and an even sharper driving experience that make it seem less geared toward the over-70-year-old crowd. No matter your age, the new LS boasts a serene, whisper-quiet interior with loads of space and higher-quality materials than before. Its Remote Touch electronics interface isn’t for everyone and its engine trails the competition in terms of both power and fuel economy, but the Lexus LS 460 nevertheless deserves attention.
And now for something completely different, the Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG. This high-performance wild child of the C-Class range brings with it a mighty wallop. While most other AMG “63” Mercedes have switched to a smaller, twin-turbo V8, the C63 maintains its big, snarling 6.2-liter V8. And though the C63 doesn’t possess the sort of corner-taking abilities of the recently departed BMW M3 sedan, it’s certainly no slouch. Without question, this is some of the most fun you can have in something with four doors. And because it has four doors, it can serve double duty as a regular, everyday car.
Sedans Over $70,000
We could easily pick a Rolls-Royce Phantom or Bentley Mulsanne in this category, but we decided to keep things marginally realistic. Nevertheless, you aren’t really missing much by opting for aMercedes-Benz S-Class. Though only a year away from a complete redesign, the S remains at the top (or at least near it) in terms of technology, safety, space, comfort and luxury. Its unmatched lineup of engines also provides a little something for everyone, from the fuel-sipping diesel S350 to the V12-powered S65 AMG.
Nipping on the heels of the S-Class, though, is the new Audi A8. Frankly, we could recommend it based on its interior alone, which isn’t so far away from the aforementioned Bentley. Photos and words simply don’t do it justice. Besides its opulent, tech-filled cabin, the A8 provides a more involved driving experience than not only the S-Class, but also the BMW 7 Series to which it has played second fiddle for years. Simply put, the Audi A8 is the most well-rounded of all the sedans in the category. Only its rather anonymous styling is disappointing.
The Porsche Panamera would be lucky to be described as anonymous, since few kind words have been said of its sheet metal. However, that just makes the rest of its résumé that much more impressive. Its engines range from “robust” to “gut-punching.” More importantly, its handling truly lives up to what you would expect from something wearing a Porsche badge. The interior does not — and that’s a good thing. It’s far bigger than you’d expect, with room for four 6-footers. It’s also beautifully constructed and highly customizable. The Panamera manages to achieve the exact midway point between a sports car and a practical luxury sedan.