New Car Reviews

Palme (Four) D’or: Acura RL, Audi A6, BMW 545i, Cadillac STS, Infiniti M45, Jaguar S-type, Lexus GS430, and Mercedes-Benz E500 Vie for the Sport Sedan Crown

These are sedans: real transportation with real utility, and real people can even aspire to own them. Yet each car has a dimension of sporting character that brings dreams to life, a kind of greatness built into the metal.Palm Springs is the right place to drive them. Designers have been finding something special in the pure desert light since the 1940s, when adventurous architects came here to build vacation homes for the power elite. Their spare, modern houses were “machines for living,” buildings that gave concrete form to the philosophy of Le Corbusier, the famous Swiss architect of the 1920s. Today, Palm Springs is a treasure trove of post-World War II design, what has become known as Mid-century Modern. This stripped-down design ethic tries to do more with less, and it’s a way of thinking that has a particular relevance to cars.

On a midwinter morning with the sunlight shimmering, these cars all have memorable shapes, the automotive equivalent of fine architecture. The BMW 5-series breaks the classic unified automotive form into a collection of fractured surfaces, and it’s the only car in our memory that has inspired mention of a painting by Picasso. But, as in so many discussions of cubism, the word beauty never enters our conversation about this car. The Cadillac STS looks equally experimental, but its lines worked far better for the CTS in the prototechnoid world of The Matrix Reloaded than they do in this softened deluxe presentation.

Cadillac STS

The cars from Acura, Infiniti, and Lexus also push the design envelope but in a different way. The elements of the RL‘s shape are not exactly radical, but they signal a rebirth of inventiveness at Acura. The Infiniti M45 has a kind of futuristic geometry, and the massive taillights make you think of a starfighter launching from Battlestar Galactica. The GS430 isn’t entirely original, especially in the BMW-like kink of the C-pillar, yet it dramatically expresses the first trace of an overall design direction ever to emerge from Lexus.

The Jaguar and the Mercedes-Benz are the classic entries here. The retro-style S-type is utterly recognizable as a Jaguar, and it looks better now with its cleaner detailing. The current Mercedes-Benz design vocabulary looks more baroque every day, yet the E500 is instantly identifiable as a Benz, and that’s important.

BMW 545i

The has been the subject of some controversy, as styling director Walter de’Silva has laid an overstated grille on the spare modernism of the Audi shape. We have some problems with the grille, but we love the way the new A6 brings muscularity to the classic Audi shape. For us, this car matches a pro-vocative style with clear brand character, the ideal in this market segment. “The grille gives a useful and reasonably subdued visual cue to us that Audi is breaking with the past,” says contributor Preston Lerner.

In Palm Springs, you drive everywhere, from the galleries on North Palm Canyon Drive in the old downtown to the exclusive shopping district on El Paseo Drive in nearby La Quinta. All the cruising at 45 mph from stoplight to stoplight gives you a keen appreciation for a car’s interior environment. We’re reminded that a sport sedan is meant to be a relatively compact driver’s car with four-door utility. It affords great driving for one, cross-country accommodations for two, and dinner transportation for four. If there are five people in the car, you’re probably taking kids to a soccer game.

Infiniti M45

Here again, the Audi makes a strong impression on us. It features materials that are special to look at and delicious to touch. Technical editor Don Sherman notes, “The A6 creates an instantaneous rapport with the driver, with an openness in the cockpit, a logical layout, and a seat and steering wheel that I love.” The Acura has the same carefully formatted layout and impeccable sense of materials, though its look is closer to formal luxury. The Mercedes is much the same, but this particular car’s all-white treatment is too close to 1970s-style Hollywood Regency for us.

The Jaguar’s unique club-room interior has improved, but the details still lack quality, and the cockpit seems narrow. The interior of the BMW is just too dark, plain, and cold, and the Lexus does a better job of combining visual austerity with good materials. The adventurous Infiniti has more style than we want, while the poor choice of materials in the Cadillac obscures whatever style it’s trying to capture.

These eight cars are in the midst of the infotainment revolution, with elaborate electronic controls for the audio, navigation, and ventilation systems. Some of us prefer touch screens, and we like the Lexus‘s best. Some of us prefer mouse-type control, and our favorite is the Audi‘s. Yet the truth is that voice activation is meant to be the primary control system in every case, and it requires more time to learn than anyone except a dedicated owner will devote to the cause. More important than the control method is the logic of the system itself, and the Acura seems to be on the leading edge with its intuitive menus. Assistant editor Erik Johnson says, “The RL‘s nav system is easy to program, even on the fly, and it never steers me wrong.”

During the winter, you can stand by a swimming pool in Palm Springs in a T-shirt and see snow-covered Mount San Jacinto a few miles away. You can easily drive to the top of the San Jacinto Mountains on a route the locals call the Palms to Pines Highway. It climbs into the dry desert hills, crosses pine-covered valleys, winds through icy hollows in the forested mountains, and then drops down again to the desert plain and returns to Palm Springs via a freeway. You can experience everything a car has to offer in a loop of a hundred miles.

On the desert floor, the Acura RL is a great favorite-very quiet and utterly intuitive as a transportation device. Once we begin the climb into the hills, though, the 3.5-liter V-6 just doesn’t have the midrange power to keep up the pace. The RL also weighs in at 4020 pounds, with 58 percent of the weight on the nose, and that doesn’t make for alert responses. At least the all-wheel-drive system delivers added grip in the corners, although it doesn’t handle the icy spots in the road as well as we hoped. “Really get on it, and the car is fast,” executive editor Mark Gillies allows, “but the steering lacks on-center feel, and overall, the RL seems like an overgrown front-driver.”

The Cadillac STS also features all-wheel drive, and it makes the car stable when we drive over icy roads in Idyllwild at the crest of the mountains. But the car weighs 4280 pounds, and the DOHC V-8 clatters and gasps as it struggles with the load. Sherman notes, “The STS‘s suspension calibration does a good job of balancing ride and handling, but the steering is like a video game, with barely a sniff of simulated road feel.”

The also shows up with its customary Quattro all-wheel-drive system, and you can feel the friction in the drivetrain, as if the car were trying to run with muddy boots. Although this car is as heavy as the Cadillac, it drives extremely well. “On a twisty road, it’s unflappable,” Gillies notes. “The steering livens up as you load the tires, and the chassis feels light and deft. It shakes off its around-town torpor in an instant.” Sherman notes that Audi engineers have made a big effort here with a V-8 engine that loves to rev to redline despite its undersquare cylinder dimensions, while the elaborate, four-link front suspension has two virtual outer pivot points to optimize suspension geometry for the betterment of both steering and handling.

The Jaguar S-type’s road manners have the same relaxed elegance you find in the styling. Gillies says, “The steering is lovely and accurate, and the car rides broken pavement in a supple, controlled manner.” The transmission smothers the goodness of the engine with its squishy power delivery, but the poise of the chassis more than compensates.

Acura RL

In the same way, the Mercedes-Benz E500 harnesses its extraordinary highway composure to the demands of fast driving. Straight-line stability is the message of the well-damped chassis and its slow, high-effort steering, but everything works nicely when you bend into a corner. Lerner adds, “The engine is like a locomotive. There’s 339 lb-ft of torque from 2700 to 4250 rpm.”

The BMW 545i is the car that everyone identifies with fast driving. Although most enthusiasts review this car only when it’s equipped with the massive wheels and stiff-legged suspension of the pricey sport package, we’ve decided to try out the civilian version at a more affordable price. We’re sorry we did. The V-8 is wickedly strong, and the engine seems able to unleash a thunderclap of power at any rpm. The trouble is that it’s hard to get a handle on it. The effort of the variable-ratio active steering goes light once you move the steering off center, and the chassis floats just as the front end heels over. Gillies says, “It feels as if BMW is using all this steering technology to enhance the driving experience without realizing it often isolates you from feeling what’s going on with the chassis and tires.”

The Infiniti M45 takes all the classic BMW attributes and amplifies them. The body is in-credibly stiff, the engine is incredibly powerful, the suspension is incredibly damped, and the brakes heat up and grab incredibly swiftly. The car delivers great test numbers, but it makes you feel uncomfortable, especially the steering, which becomes very light once you turn into a corner. Sherman says, “It feels like a case of premature removal from the development oven.”

Like the BMW 5-series, the Lexus GS430 is a showcase of technology. It’s always thinking and then expressing itself through fly-by-wire this or electronically distributed that, from the electronic-assist steering to the unique integration of the stability control. Nevertheless, the GS proves to be the easiest car to drive quickly, especially since it weighs only 3860 pounds. Lerner says, “It takes no time at all to get up and go, and once it’s going, it keeps scooting along with seemingly unlimited verve.” Gillies adds, “The engine is amazing, with wonderful refinement and midrange power, while the transmission shifts so unobtrusively it could apply for a job as a butler.”

Sorting out the winners from the losers in a comparison of sedans like these calls for excellence across the spectrum. We want a completely premium driving experience, and we don’t want to make any hard choices about comfort, practicality, or price. We want it all, and we’re not ashamed to ask for it.

The Acura RL is the most virtuous car here, but, as Lerner notes, “It’s still in the near-luxury class, without the grunt or gravitas to compete with its rivals.” The BMW 545i is terrifically fast, but it suffers from a mixed performance that doesn’t live up to the price, and so it becomes what Lerner describes as “the good, the bad, and the ugly.” The Cadillac STS‘s disappointments are amplified by its stratospheric price, with $19,000 in options. The Infiniti M45 promises much, but, as Lerner says, “The standards have changed since the Infiniti planners benchmarked the M45.” The Jaguar S-type unexpectedly wins us over, proving to be a great car for daily driving, but it still needs to shine a little brighter in quality before it becomes an elite ride.

For us, the Mercedes-Benz E500 is certainly of the elite. As Gillies says, “After a strange hiatus, we have a Benz that feels the way a Benz should. It’s solid, planted, and poised, and it doesn’t make any excuses for being a German luxury car.” We rate the Lexus GS430 just a notch higher than the Mercedes, because it maintains its standard of extraordinary refinement in a package that drives with captivating enthusiasm. “The GS should finally get Lexus the respect it deserves,” says Lerner, “because it competes with the European marques in terms of emotion, lan, and prestige.”

We are surprised that our three days of driving have brought us to see the Audi A6 4.2 Quattro as the right car to drive. We’ve grown accustomed to thinking of any Audi as a nearly-there kind of car, but the A6 delivers such extraordinary satisfaction in every aspect of driving that we find it irresistible. Gillies says, “It is both beautiful and bang up-to-date, proving that being at the cutting edge doesn’t mean missing the mark. It feels bored at 80 mph and doesn’t break a sweat at 100 mph.” Johnson notes, “It isn’t a superstar in any single category, but it possesses such a high level of excellence in all areas that it deserves the gold medal.” Sherman says simply, “I would happily live with it.”

Mercedes-Benz E500

The Audi A6 delivers a premium experience, and it marks you as a driver who appreciates both great design and great driving.

Of course, such artistic excellence needs to be matched by practical excellence in such things as quality, durability, and even residual value, and that’s the aspect of the Audi equation that remains unproven. For now, though, the A6 is unquestionably a great car, and we think it provides a solid foundation on which to build a great car company. As our experience in Palm Springs reminds us, there’s no reason to settle for less than the best.

Base Prices:
Acura: $49,470
Audi: $51,220
BMW: $56,495
Cadillac: $47,495
Infiniti: $47,360
Jaguar: $51,995
Lexus: $51,775
Mercedes-Benz: 57,620

Jaguar S-type

Acura: 3.5L SOHC V-6, 300 hp, 260 lb-ft
Audi: 4.2L DOHC V-8, 335hp, 310 ft-lb
BMW: 4.4L DOHC V-8, 325 hp, 330 ft-lb
Cadillac: 4.6L DOHC V-8, 320 hp, 315 ft-lb
Infiniti: 4.5L DOHC V-8, 335 hp, 340 lb-ft
Jaguar: 4.2L DOHC V-8, 294 hp, 304 lb-ft
Lexus: 4.3L DOHC V-8, 300 hp, 325 lb-ft
Mercedes-Benz: 5.0L SOHC V-8, 302 hp, 339 lb-ft

Acura: 4-wheel
Audi: 4-wheel
BMW: Rear-wheel
Cadillac: 4-wheel
Infiniti: Rear-wheel
Jaguar: Rear-wheel
Lexus: Rear-wheel
Mercedes-Benz: Rear-wheel