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 Audi A6 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.
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."