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$46,000 Sport Sedan Challenge Part 1: The Contenders

$46,000 Sport Sedan Challenge Cover

This is part 1 of a two-part series on the challenge, introducing the contenders. For detailed results and observations, click here for part 2.

Sport sedans represent one of the most hotly contested segments among the luxury carmakers, often being where each of their best-selling vehicles can be found with a few exceptions. Over the past several years, many of the cars in this range have been redesigned, or in the case of the Cadillac ATS, are brand new. With so many quality options competing for consumer dollars, the time is right to see which one stands out.

Our friends at Cars.com came up the $46,000 ceiling, then went to the automakers and said "do your worst." Here are the six cars that made it into the aptly titled "$46,000 Sport Sedan Challenge":

(The Lexus IS and Infiniti G37 are the most glaring omissions, but with both cars scheduled for complete redesigns in 2014 their inclusion was not necessary.)

This segment in particular was ripe for a comparison thanks to a new focus on overall automotive fuel efficiency that has brought with it big changes for sport sedans. Many of these cars used to feature six-cylinder engines, but thanks to recent redesigns and model changes, now offer turbocharged four-cylinders instead in an effort to bring fuel economy numbers up to par. There were a couple exceptions on this test, notably the Volvo S60 and its turbo five-cylinder and the Acura TL with its V-6, and as expected these two cars got the worst fuel economy figures during the mileage testing.

We, along with Cars.com, USA Today, and Motorweek spent several days with the six contenders in Southern California putting them through stringent and rigorous testing that stretched all of their capabilities. The cars went on a winding 180-mile mileage drive through the mountains and freeways of Southern California, then spent a day at the track and underwent 0-60 and braking testing at a drag strip. Next, they were vigorously tested on a real-world street driving route through traffic and over broken pavement, and finally were thoroughly picked over by an in-market family.

The six cars had many similar features as expected of vehicles of this price and pedigree. Each contender offered automatic climate control, keyless entry, and LCD screens to control the audio system, powered front seats, and they all recommend premium fuel. When looking at the cars in this segment, the devil really was in the details. When features one might expect in a $46,000 car were missing, their omission was more irksome than it would be in say, a budget-friendly compact. The primary example of this was a rearview camera, found only in the TL and ATS, which was strange considering each car had an LCD screen preinstalled and that it comes standard on many new cars, even the latest Honda Civic.

Now, it's time to meet the six contenders for the crown, with more nuanced impressions found here:

2013 Acura TL

2013 Acura TL 2013 Acura TL Interior

Sticker Price (as tested, includes destination): $44,080
Mechanical: 305-horsepower, 3.7-liter V-6; six-speed automatic; Super Handling all-wheel drive system
Other Features:

  • Navigation system with traffic and weather updates
  • Bluetooth phone/audio streaming functionality
  • Rearview camera
  • Only car with a V-6 in the challenge
  • No folding rear-seat
  • IIHS Top Safety Pick+ ("Good" rating on the new small overlap front crash test), Four-star Overall Safety Rating from NHTSA

2013 Audi A4

2013 Audi A4 2013 Audi A4 Interior

Sticker Price (as tested): $40,310
Mechanical: 211-horsepower, turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder; eight-speed automatic; Quattro all-wheel drive
Other Features:

  • Our tester featured high-performance summer tires as a no-cost option
  • iPod cable not compatible with iPhone 5
  • Bluetooth connectivity, but no Bluetooth audio streaming
  • IIHS Top Safety Pick, Five-star Overall Safety Rating from NHTSA

2013 BMW 328i

2013 BMW 328i 2013 BMW 328i Interior

Sticker Price (as tested): $45,745
Mechanical: 240-horsepower, turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder; eight-speed automatic; rear-wheel drive; M Sport Line Package that adds an upgraded suspension
Other Features:

  • Quickest 0-60 acceleration, best braking, and best fuel economy
  • Auto start/stop fuel-saving technology
  • Bluetooth connectivity, but no Bluetooth audio streaming
  • iDrive system with a large flat-screen display
  • IIHS Top Safety Pick, Five-star Overall Safety Rating from NHTSA

2013 Cadillac ATS

2013 Cadillac ATS 2013 Cadillac ATS Interior

Sticker Price (as tested): $45,775
Mechanical: 272-horsepower, turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder; six-speed automatic; rear-wheel drive; Brembo performance brakes
Other Features:

  • No folding rear-seat
  • CUE system replaces most physical controls with touch-controls on the center console
  • Bluetooth phone/audio streaming functionality
  • 8-inch color touch display (largest screen)
  • Rearview camera
  • Power sunroof
  • Five-star Overall Safety Rating from NHTSA (not yet tested by the IIHS)

2013 Mercedes-Benz C250

2013 Mercedes-Benz C250 2013 Mercedes-Benz C250 Interior

Sticker Price (as tested): $42,355
Mechanical: 201-horsepower, turbocharged 1.8-liter four-cylinder; seven-speed automatic; rear-wheel drive
Other Features:

  • Cooled glove box
  • Dynamic Sport Appearance package (including red seatbelts)
  • Power-adjustable steering column
  • mbrace2 telematics system (with three month subscription included)
  • Bluetooth phone/audio streaming functionality
  • IIHS Top Safety Pick, Five-star Overall Safety Rating from NHTSA

2013 Volvo S60

2013 Volvo S60 2013 Volvo S60 Interior

Sticker Price (as tested): $38,170
Mechanical: 250-horsepower, turbocharged 2.50liter five-cylinder; six-speed automatic; all-wheel drive
Other Features:

  • Power moonroof
  • Volvo's City Safety system with collision detection
  • Bluetooth phone/audio streaming functionality
  • IIHS Top Safety Pick+ ("Good" rating on the new small overlap front crash test), Five-star Overall Safety Rating from NHTSA

Click here for part 2 to see the results of our testing and our impressions of each car.

Interior images courtesy of Joe Bruzek, Cars.com

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