Still, when the road gets challenging, any of these cars is a welcome partner, eagerly turning in, gamely hanging on, and goading the driving on to further bad behavior. The chassis wizards in Munich have not only imbued the 3-series with an athlete's reflexes but also managed to provide a supple ride. Nice bonus. The Benz takes a slightly more heavy-handed approach to suspension tuning, its stiff springs and dampers providing iron-fisted chassis control and a more strident reporting of bumps. The ride is saved by Mercedes' use of sixteen-inch wheels where the other cars have seventeens. The Lexus most faithfully telegraphs bad pavement, its engineers probably figuring that they've got the magic-carpet thing covered with the ES300. We thought Pennsylvania's devilish Route 666, with its heaving pavement, sudden dips, and surprise hairpins, would sift out this trio. But after repeat runs, we found them to be closely matched when handling in extremis. The Lexus can get ragged, with lots of understeer, the Mercedes is composed, and the Bimmer is the most playful.
Clearly, in this class, choosing a winner has never been more difficult, and anyone shopping this bunch is lucky indeed. The Lexus IS300 is an exciting new entry, lively, fun, and a hands-down bargain. But its persona won't be complete until its manual transmission arrives next year, and we'd also like more road feel from the otherwise excellent steering.
The engineers at Mercedes-Benz have made the new C-class both more youth-ful and more beautiful. Furthermore, the C-class--in Sport guise, at least--exhibits the Germanic solidity missing from some of the company's recent efforts. The 3.2-liter V-6 is unassailable (although the European 2.7-liter turbo-diesel torque monster is even better, if you can believe it), but a manual transmission is offered only with the C240's 2.6-liter engine. The C320 Sport will cover ground as quickly as the 330i but at a cost of a slightly firmer ride. And, not insignificantly, the Mercedes is the most expensive car here.
The 3-series has the lightest steering and the most comfortable ride, which sounds like an inauspicious start to a great sport sedan. But the supple ride extracts no penalty in cornering ability or body control; the 3.0-liter straight six is a jewel, as is the five-speed gearbox; and the driver's environment is beyond reproach. The margin of victory is narrow, but the 3-series retains its crown.