The Future has Four Doors

The big sedan is back. New models from the likes of Chrysler and Toyota offer surprising style, performance and luxury at less than luxury prices.

By Sam Grobart, Money Magazine senior editor

(Money Magazine) -- 5 top full-size sedans rated - see the gallery

It wasn't that long ago that a well-appointed SUV was the only vehicle worth considering if you regularly needed to haul a family or a golf foursome and wanted to do so in reasonable comfort and style. A minivan? Please. We said style. A full-size sedan? After luxury brands like Lexus or Mercedes whose big models are just getting warmed up at a sticker price of 60 grand your choices were basically confined to boring barges best suited to rental fleets.

But that was then. Rumbling around the suburbs in a fuel-guzzling truck suddenly seems far less appealing, politically or economically, than it once did. Crossover SUVs, built atop a passenger car chassis, have solved some SUV image problems. But they still feel like the compromise they are: a truck with "car-like" virtues.

There's a solution. Even as the SUV underwent its identity crisis, mass-market car makers were getting back to work on the old-fashioned large sedan, and the latest are quite good. Old players like Buick and Cadillac both have serious new entries, and newcomers like Acura and DaimlerChrysler have brought real innovation to the field. The middle-brands' top-shelf sedans all offer luxury and performance that's much better than merely car-like usually for well under $50,000. Only one of them, though, gives you the most car for the dollar. To find out which, you'll need to read on.

5th place

Cadillac DTS

$54,420 AS TESTED

4.6-LITER V-8/300 HP 17/24 MPG

"And do you have a preferred route to the airport, sir?"

You may find yourself asking that when you sit down in one of the most commonly used models in dial-a-car fleets. Cadillac has undergone a resurgence in recent years, what with its lauded STS, CTS and SRX models, but sadly, the praise must stop there. The DTS (ne้ Sedan DeVille) is the last big-engine/front-wheel-drive model in the company's lineup, and after driving it, you can see why all the other models are either rear- or all-wheel drive. The problem with front-wheel-drive cars is a condition known as torque steer: When too much power is sent to the front wheels (which also have to steer the car), the wheels pull to one side as you accelerate. With a 294-hp V-8 under its hood, the DTS sends a lot of power to the front end, and you can find yourself gently fighting the steering wheel to keep the car in a straight line.

The DTS is also one big hunk of iron. On the upside, that means its back seat is the roomiest of the bunch here, and the trunk could easily swallow, say, all your daughter's go-to-college luggage. But it also rides like a big hunk. The suspension is tuned more for soaking up potholes than for taking corners, which leaves you feeling disconnected from the road. The interior is nice fit and finish are excellent, and materials are suitably fancy but at over $54,000 (the highest sticker in this test) it had better be. So unless you spend more time in the back seat of a car than the front, there are better choices.

4th place

Buick Lucerne CSX

$40,725 AS TESTED

4.6-LITER V-8/275 HP 17/25 MPG

Under the skin, the Buick and the Cadillac are first cousins, as they share the same drivetrain, suspension and other mechanical components. That means torque steer is still an issue, but the Buick is the more sensible choice. For starters, it just looks better: The Lucerne has a pleasing design that borrows a little from Lexus and a little from Volkswagen but manages to pull it all together into a perfectly respectable package. Behind the wheel, the Lucerne feels less pillowy than the DTS, and the shorter wheelbase is a plus you feel as if you could actually steer this car without having to plan your move two blocks ahead. But since the two share the same engine, they suffer the same problems: an oversensitive throttle and a poorly muffled engine. The slightest touch of the accelerator causes the V-8 to roar unpleasantly and the car to jerk ahead.

Inside, the Buick continues the tasteful-if-forgettable theme. There's a nice center console that's easy to use, and various knobs and switches feel like they came from a more expensive car. On the other hand, the seats could use more wraparound support (you sit "on" them rather than "in" them), and the unilluminated gauges are almost illegible in the daytime. In an era when even proletarian Accords and Camrys have backlit displays that are crystal-clear at any time of day, is there any reason not to expect the same on a car that costs thousands more?

3rd place

Acura RL

$53,200 AS TESTED

3.5-LITER V-6/290 HP 18/26 MPG

If it weren't for price, the Acura would have tied for second. It's a compelling package, mixing a superb all-wheel-drive system with a 290-hp V-6 that rivals some V-8s for both horsepower and smoothness. Another reason to like the Acura: its pricing and options structure. When you buy an RL, you can choose to have navigation or not. Other than picking the exterior and interior colors, that's it: There are no other options to speak of. A leather interior, sunroof, a six-disk, in-dash CD system (even a pre-emptive braking system that will slow the car down when it senses an imminent collision) are all included as standard. In an industry that loves to nickel- and-dime customers over options ("Oh, you'd like the self-dimming mirror? That's part of the $3,200 'technology package'"), Acura's approach is a refreshing change.

So why didn't it win? Size, for one thing. The RL is the biggest sedan Acura makes, but it's not that big overall (as we noted in a comparison last year, the Acura TL is nearly as big but costs less). Rear-seat space is at a premium, and the trunk is considerably smaller than the competition. There's also the styling. Like the Buick, it is completely inoffensive but also a bit anonymous (you can walk past this car in a parking lot and completely miss it). Finally, there's the price: At $53,500, the Acura is 10 grand to 15 grand more than the next two cars on our list. That kind of money could be better used for other things (see The Long View on page 44 to find out what). If prices were equal, it'd be a tough call, but since they aren't, it's tough to recommend the RL when others do an excellent job and cost far less.

2nd place

Toyota Avalon

$37,563 AS TESTED

3.5-LITER V-6/268 HP 22/31 MPG

Considering buying a Lexus ES350? Stop. Buy this Toyota instead. Made by the same company, it's a roomier car that will save you $5,000. If you want to know why Toyota is doing so well in almost every corner of the auto industry, this would be a good place to start. The Avalon is a spacious, comfortable and capable sedan that sets new standards in the class for fit and finish and interior comforts. Heated seats are commonplace, but the Avalon ups the ante by offering cooling seats as well. Voice-activated controls? Yep. Radar-based cruise control used to be available only on cars costing almost twice as much, and yet here it is in the Avalon.

So much praise, and yet a second-place finish. What gives? The Avalon is perfect in almost every way, save passion. It's a detached driving experience. Everything works well, but you feel the car is doing all the driving and you're merely a passenger. On the highway, you could engage the adaptive cruise control and almost curl up with a novel while the car drives you to your destination. The Toyota provides unparalleled levels of refinement: The cabin is nearly silent, the transmission shifts imperceptibly, the steering is hyper-accurate. You can't help but admire it, but you don't love it. True, passion is not a word you'd normally associate with this category, but it's why the car that has it takes first place.

the winner

Chrysler 300C

$41,035 AS TESTED

5.7-LITER V-8/340 HP 17/24 MPG

Unless you've been out of the country for the past few years, it's unlikely you've missed the hype surrounding Chrysler's full-size sedan. The 300C still turns heads when it rolls down the street (really: driving around New York in a black one caused everyone from teens to seniors to swivel), and it still has auto designers running back to their drawing boards (Ford's Five Hundred sedan is due to get an earlier-than-scheduled makeover to provide a more dramatic look, says the automaker).

But what gets drowned out in all the talk of the 300's appearance is how good a car it is (one of the first and best fruits of the oft-maligned Daimler-Benz/Chrysler amalgamation). When you sit down in a 300 and close the door, there's an unmistakably Teutonic thunk. And there's more to it than that: The 300 shares its suspension and transmission design, steering, interior controls and four-wheel-drive technology with Mercedes-Benz's last-generation E-Class (which was no slouch itself). That's the surprise of this car: You could write it off as a superficial styling exercise, but then it wows you by also being a serious driving machine.

There are many different kinds of 300 you can buy. The base models, with their six-cylinder engines, are nice, but the reason the 300 takes the blue ribbon here is that Chrysler had the crazy idea of stuffing a 5.7-liter V-8 under the hood. With 340 horsepower, the "Hemi" provides the 300C with almost as much thrust as its rich uncle, the Mercedes-Benz S550. That kind of power is impressive in any kind of vehicle, but to find it in what should've been a humdrum large sedan is astonishing. And for a car this large, it's surprisingly nimble pulling a U-turn reveals the tight steering radius that Mercedes (and now Chrysler) is known for.

The Chrysler is also tremendously well equipped: navigation, Bluetooth, rear-parking sensors and all-wheel-drive are available. The 300 falls short only in the cockpit. The dash is utilitarian, at best the sharp lines and hard plastics are a victory of bean counting over design. Then again, you're less likely to focus on the aesthetics of the dashboard when you're cruising a twisty two-lane road and that Hemi V-8 is warbling under the hood. The 300C started out as a looker, but it also has the goods. It wins.

HOW WE RATED THEM

Each car was judged in four categories: design, luxuries (features and their execution), performance (driving characteristics) and quality (fit and finish, materials). Each category has a maximum of 25 points. To account for price, we awarded bonus points in reverse order of price (the least expensive car received four bonus points, while the most expensive received none).

FEEDBACK: sgrobart@moneymail.com Top of page

Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer LIBOR Warning: Neither BBA Enterprises Limited, nor the BBA LIBOR Contributor Banks, nor Reuters, can be held liable for any irregularity or inaccuracy of BBA LIBOR. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.
Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer LIBOR Warning: Neither BBA Enterprises Limited, nor the BBA LIBOR Contributor Banks, nor Reuters, can be held liable for any irregularity or inaccuracy of BBA LIBOR. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.