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$46,000 Sport Sedan Challenge Part 2: Results

by Brian Wong (May 3, 2013)

$46,000 Sport Sedan Challenge Part 2

(This is part 2 of our two part Sport Sedan Challenge review. For part 1, click here)

To recap, we spent several days in Southern California with six luxury sport sedans vying for the crown in the $46,000 Sport Sedan Challenge. The contenders were:

This was a pretty closely matched contest that came down to the details. We introduced the six sedans earlier (click here for more details on each model) and now it's time to hand out a few awards.

Fuel Economy

2013 Acura TL Mileage Drive 2013 Volvo S60 and others, Mileage Drive

Our mileage drive stretched over 180 miles in and around Southern California. The driving route covered all manner of roads and conditions, from windy mountain highways, to day-to-day street driving, to a Southern California staple — freeway traffic. Drivers were rotated approximately every 30 miles to account for differences in driving styles. The cars also ran in consistent conditions, with the AC on and fuel economy aids (ECO modes, start/stop systems) turned off.

Here were the results (observed mileage first, followed by EPA estimates), in order of finish:

  • 2013 BMW 328i: 28.1 mpg observed (EPA: 22/33 city/highway)
  • 2013 Audi A4: 26.4 mpg observed (EPA: 20/30 city/highway)
  • 2013 Mercedes-Benz C250: 25.3 mpg observed (EPA: 22/31 city/highway)
  • 2013 Cadillac ATS: 25.0 mpg observed (EPA: 21/31 city/highway)
  • 2013 Acura TL: 21.6 mpg observed (EPA: 18/26 city/highway)
  • 2013 Volvo S60: 20.4 mpg observed (EPA: 20/29 city/highway)

Each of the cars fell pretty much where you'd expect them to base on the EPA estimates, the one exception being the Volvo S60 (which dipped all the way down to 20 mpg). Four of the contenders have turbocharged four-cylinder engines under the hood and with their smaller displacement, were clearly the class of this category with the S60's turbo five-cylinder and the TL's V-6 lagging behind.

Winner: 2013 BMW 328i

Performance

2013 Acura TL Track Day 2013 Mercedes-Benz C250 Drag Strip 2013 Cadillac ATS Track

During the track day, each of the cars also underwent testing at the drag strip in three areas: 0-60 mph, quarter mile time, and 60-0 mph braking. The first two tests measured each car's acceleration, first to 60 mph and then all the way up to the quarter mile, while the brake test measured stopping power. Each car was tested in controlled conditions on a drag strip, with the times/distances and averaged across three runs.

Here were the results:

  • 2013 BMW 328i: 0-60 acceleration: 6.62s; 60-0 braking distance: 118.9 feet; Quarter-mile acceleration: 15.22s @ 94.4 mph
  • 2013 Volvo S60: 0-60 acceleration: 6.80s; 60-0 braking distance: 130.6 feet; Quarter-mile acceleration: 15.31s @ 92.6 mph
  • 2013 Acura TL: 0-60 acceleration: 7.05s; 60-0 braking distance: 134.9 feet; Quarter-mile acceleration: 15.48s @ 92.9 mph
  • 2013 Audi A4: 0-60 acceleration: 7.65s; 60-0 braking distance: 122.6 feet; Quarter-mile acceleration: 15.99s @ 90.4 mph
  • 2013 Cadillac ATS: 0-60 acceleration: 7.97s; 60-0 braking distance: 130.4 feet; Quarter-mile acceleration: 16.21s @ 90.2 mph
  • 2013 Mercedes-Benz C250: 0-60 acceleration: 8.23s; 60-0 braking distance: 130.4 feet; Quarter-mile acceleration: 16.40s @ 88.64 mph

A resounding victory for the BMW 328i, which swept all three measurable performance categories after winning the fuel economy battle as well.

What we discovered from the track/road testing:

  • Not only did the BMW have the best straight-line numbers, it also had great road feel, excellent steering, and a well-sorted chassis that felt at home both on the track and on the street.
  • The Acura TL's SH-AWD system is the real deal, complete with a display in the instrument panel that shows in real-time how it's splitting torque. I'm not sure what was more amusing, watching that readout dance around or plowing the TL around the track.
  • All of our testers were very critical of the Mercedes-Benz C250's brakes, which turned soft and unresponsive after the track day. It was also the slowest car we tested.
  • The Volvo S60 turned in a surprising performance, coming second best in both acceleration tests. I expected the Volvo to be the least dynamic (read: softest) of the bunch, but was pleasantly surprised by the S60's acumen both on the track and the highway.

Winner: 2013 BMW 328i

Best Interior

2013 Volvo S60 Interior

Winner: 2013 Volvo S60

The Volvo was by far the most comfortable car in our test, with supportive, supple seats and excellent sound insulation that kept the outside world at bay. I was also impressed by its minimalistic center console; many of the other cars in the challenge got button-happy with the center console, making the Volvo's simple and elegant design a welcome departure.

The BMW 328i was a very close second, being one of two cars to offer extra thigh support on the front seats along with a center console that mounted the 328i's LCD display very high on the dash which made it easy to read without moving your head very much while driving. However the turn signal stalk and gear selector were not intuitive and I wasn't able to adjust to them even after a few days with the car, which knocked it down a peg.

What we discovered:

  • The Acura TL had a large overall interior, but the middle seat in the second row is rendered basically unusable due to the size of its hump. A quick trip to dinner one evening spent perched on that seat was unpleasant to say the least. On any turn, I found myself sliding off of the perch and I had to kink my head practically horizontal to keep it from bouncing off the roof.
  • While the futuristic look and clean design of the Cadillac ATS was appreciated, its CUE system was not. While the touch-base system was revolutionary it still needs more refinement. Hunting for controls to perform simple tasks like changing the audio volume or adjusting the climate temperature while driving should be intuitive.
  • The Mercedes-Benz C250's Dynamic Sport Package added my personal favorite interior feature of the weekend: red seatbelts which matched the Merc's screaming-red paint job.

Best Value

2013 Volvo S60 Exterior

Winner: 2013 Volvo S60

Not only did the Volvo S60 we tested have a sticker price of only $38,170, nearly $8,000 under our limit, it also had the lowest starting base price of all the contenders. Despite this handicap, the S60 posted the second best performance times and was the most comfortable sedan we had. The only feature that was really missed on the Volvo was a rearview camera, but that was also the case with more than half of our cars — all of which cost more. While the S60's did post lower fuel efficiency numbers than the rest of the contenders, its overall difference in cost is so great that it still wins the day.

Overall Winner

2013 BMW 328i Exterior

Winner: 2013 BMW 328i

Although the Volvo might offer better value, there was no questioning the BMW 328i's place as the class of this competition. Not only did it sweep the performance categories, it was also the most efficient and the most fun to drive. The move from a straight-six engine to a turbocharged four-cylinder hasn't slowed the 328i at all. In fact, other competitors had more horsepower on the spec sheet but that didn't translate to the tests.

Our tester also included the M Sport Line package, a $3,850 option. It added some interior/exterior trim pieces, but most importantly, it also brought 18-inch wheels with summer performance tires and an M sport suspension. The larger cogs and upgraded suspension added more sportiness to the equation and gave the 328i a serious leg up on the rest.

The BMW 3-series has been the benchmark in this segment for a long time and as cliché as that sounds, it remains the simple truth.

Interior images courtesy of Joe Bruzek, Cars.com

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