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

Brian Konoske
Passenger Side Front Half View

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.

Full Front Interior View

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.

Full Front Interior View

BMW 545i

The Audi A6 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.

Full Front Interior View

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.

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