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HomeClassic Car1999 Luxury Sports Sedans Compared

1999 Luxury Sports Sedans Compared

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From the November 1998 issue of Car and Driver.

Fair warning: The following will be slightly prejudicial reportage on five automobiles generally described as luxury sedans. In a broad sense they all qualify, pos­sessing as they do svelte lines, sumptuous interiors, and as-­tested prices from $50,000 to $57,000. All are propelled by advanced-design V-8s spinning through similarly advanced four- and five-speed automatic transmissions. And all, save for one—the front-drive Cadillac STS—are rear-wheel-drive cars. Each is laden with what the industry likes to call “con­tent,” accoutrements and convenience items seldom found on lesser brands. Although their manufacturers—two German (BMW 540i, Mercedes-Benz E430), two Japanese (lnfiniti Q45t, Lexus GS400), and one American (Cadillac STS)—describe them as five-passenger sedans, they are in reality useful in transporting only four adults over reason­able distances.

The staff of this magazine tends to skew its evaluations of vehicles in this class not on the basis of comfort, silence, and soft ride but rather on agility, roadworthiness, and a certain hedonistic quotient that we believe ought to exist in any auto­mobile regardless of its mission or price class. This is where we depart from other professional testers who might con­centrate on seating softness, sound-system quality, and trans­mission suppleness when dealing with this five-some. Anyone seeking such evaluations is directed to Consumer Reports. But for those interested in luxury sedans offering long-dis­tance, high-speed transport in equal dollops of comfort and driving pleasure, read on.

For openers, none of the five machines treated here can be reasonably faulted in terms of quality or general appeal. But as we narrowed our evaluations during two days of hard driving in the hills and hummocks of upstate New York, it became apparent that we were dealing not with five similar machines, but with two subtle but seriously divergent types—three full-blown, high-performance machines in the European idiom, and a pair of tamer, kinder gentler variations on the domestic theme that failed to enflame our admittedly boyish enthusiasms.

5th Place: Infiniti Q45t

Since the Infiniti Q45 was introduced in late 1989, accompanied by a hilariously pretentious advertising campaign featuring bonsai trees and Japanese rock and sand formations, it has been dogged by ennui. Long celebrated for its superb quality, the big sedan has, despite three styling iterations, yet to find real traction in the luxury-car market. Its inclusion in this test was based on the enhancement of its touring suspension to include adjustable shock absorbers. Also, all Q45s benefit from a mild restyling of the interior and exte­rior—a new grille, gas-discharge head­lights, and a new dash.


HIGHS: Jewelry-like fabrication, comfortable and capacious interior.
LOWS:
Dreary, derivative styling; fluid but forgettable on-road personality.
VERDICT: A competent luxury car in search of a vivid identity.


At 4047 pounds, it was the heaviest car in the group. And the slowest—it did the 0-to-60 trick in 8.4 seconds, almost two seconds off the pace, and turned the quarter-mile in a modest 16.5 seconds at 87 mph. Its DOHC 32-valve V-8 was defanged in 1997 from 4.5 liters and 278 horsepower to 4.1 liters and 266 horses—­the second-smallest displacement and lowest output of the lot. That, coupled with its two-ton heft (more than 250 pounds heavier than the quickest of the five, the BMW 540i), explains the rather sluggish performance and mannerly but unremark­able handling, regardless of its adjustable suspension. (That system ostensibly offered both luxury and sporting capabil­ities, but none of our testers could discern much difference.)

The Infiniti’s strength lies in a spacious interior and a luxurious cabin featuring yards of soft leather and literally board­-feet of fairly convincing fake wood trim. The decor is tastefully subdued, save for the odd placement of a white-faced, chrome-bezeled clock in the middle of the instrument panel that appears to have been stolen from a 1940 Philco radio. Rear-seat room for two and three passengers tied the Benz for best of the group.

Although the Q45t deports itself prop­erly on lengthy freeway jaunts, its useful­ness as a high-performance sedan is lim­ited when compared with the best cars in this group. Fast bends produce a vague sensation of flotation, and hard cornering quickly reveals that the Q45 offers con­siderably less grip than the other entrants.

Still, it was hard to pinpoint major shortcomings of this Infiniti, and we found it difficult to define any strong sensations, an impression best stated by one test driver as “acutely bland, a Japanese Taurus.” Another noted, “No character.”

Neither fish nor foul, the Infiniti Q45t is not quick or nimble enough to get high marks in the luxo-sports-sedan league, nor does it offer sufficient visual impact and élan to compete with true luxury cars like the 7-series BMW and the new S-class Mercedes-Benz. Rather than leaving it in a marketing limbo, perhaps the Nissan product planners would consider adding eight inches to the wheelbase and trans­forming the Q45t into an unabashed full­-size luxury sedan. That might create a market niche for what is essentially a superb automobile.

1998 Infiniti Q45t
266-hp V-8, 4-speed automatic, 4047 lb
Base/as-tested price: $51,500/$52,600 (est.)
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 8.4 sec
1/4 mile: 16.5 sec @ 87 mph
100 mph: 22.0 sec
130 mph: 36.0 sec
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 195 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.73 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 20 mpg

4th Place: Cadillac STS

For openers, consider that among this group of players, the STS was the longest (201 inches) and the widest (75 inches, about four inches more than the rest), and with the Infiniti, one of only two to tip the scales at more than 4000 pounds (4034 pounds, to be exact). This heftiness more than offset the 300 horsepower produced by its much-celebrated DOHC 32-valve Northstar V-8 and therefore relegated the Cadillac to fourth place in the performance standings—a position that seemed to rep­resent the overall sentiments of the test drivers as they tallied their final scores.


HIGHS: Tasteful interior, lusty Northstar V-8 offers Yankee-style power.
LOWS:
Unnecessary size and bulk, evolutionary styling, lurking understeer.
VERDICT:
The best Cadillac, but not the best in class.


There is much to like about the STS, including its handsome interior, lavished in hardwood and leather, and the car is well-optioned. The only component that qualifies for universal scorn is the out­sized, console-mounted transmission shift lever that appears better suited to a Class 8 Kenworth or a D9 Cat bulldozer. (Note: Only the Caddy and the Q45 have four­-speed automatics; the three others offer more contemporary five-speed autos.) Although this STS is smaller than its pre­decessor, it is still built on a somewhat out­dated, larger scale, adhering to the age-old habit of American carmakers to believe that bigger is better, especially when trying to create an aura of luxury.

Despite such smartly labeled gadgets as “performance algorithm shifting,” a stability-enhancement system called “StabiliTrak,” “Magnasteer” variable­-assist power steering, and a road-sensing electronic suspension, the STS lagged well behind the leaders in the twisty stuff. It was, no doubt, inhibited by its two-ton bulk and 62-percent forward weight bias that can generate nasty understeer. Said one editor following a brisk drive through a series of sweepers, “All the Cadillac’s moves feel a step behind, as if one more mild curve would throw the whole works in the ditch.” “Unrefined” was the adjec­tive chosen by another staffer when describing the STS in comparison with the best of the entries.

Its large, economy-size external dimen­sions notwithstanding, the Cadillac does not fare well in passenger comfort and capacity. Although by SAE measurements its rear-seat interior volume is larger than the others’, actual knee and elbow room seem to suffer, and only the Lexus GS400 offers less comfort among these five sedans with three passengers in the back.

Surely, the STS is the finest Cadillac in recent history, and some would argue that, as perhaps America’s premier four-door sedan, it ought to rank with the best in this class. But until its excessive size and weight and cumbersome road manners can be dealt with, “the Standard of the World” will be playing catch-up in this very fast league.

1998 Cadillac STS
300-hp V-8, 4-speed automatic, 4034 lb
Base/as-tested price: $48,476/$51,410
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 6.8 sec
1/4 mile: 15.3 sec @ 92 mph
100 mph: 18.5 sec
130 mph: 28.4 sec
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 192 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.79 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 20 mpg

3rd Place: Mercedes-Benz E430

Sharp-eyed readers will recall our December 1996 comparison test (“The 50-Kilobuck Class”) in which the E420, pow­ered by a DOHC 32-valve V-8 producing 275 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque, ranked first. For 1998, Mercedes upgraded to an advanced, new, highly effi­cient modular SOHC 24-valve, 4.3-liter V-8 producing the same horsepower and torque—and slipped into third place. How can this be, you might ask? After all, the E430 rockets to 60 mph in 6.4 seconds and hits the quarter-mile in 15 flat at 97 mph. That’s well ahead of the pace set by the E420, which in any case wasn’t the quickest car in its comparison test.


HIGHS: Traditional, ingotlike Mercedes-Benz structural integrity; new state-of-the-art three-valve, fuel-efficient V-8 engine.
LOWS:
Been-there, seen-that styling; US Airways coach interior in a Concorde body.
VERDICT: A great automobile squeezed out by two even greater ones.


Our answer hinges on the fact that the Benz’s competition in the last test was skewed more toward the luxury end of the spectrum. This time out, inclusion of the overtly sporting GS400 prompted us to invite Sport and Touring models of the 540i, the Seville, and the Q45. These pack­ages all include suspension modifications to enhance handling. Mercedes offers a Sport package on the E430, but for a lofty $4227, it only includes fatter 17-inch wheels and tires and an extensive aero body kit. Grip might have been improved (our test car’s 0.82 g was already 0.01 g better than the BMW’s), but the car’s handling demeanor and below-average lane-change performance would not have been enhanced $4000 worth, so we opted against it. As it was, our test car’s $56,742 sticker price surpassed the BMW’s price by more than a grand and soared past the GS400’s price by more than $6000.

The E430 is the crossover machine of this group, covering the luxury turf occu­pied by the less sporty Q45t and STS and, at the same time, performing almost in step with the steamier 540i and GS400.

On the downside, the Benz’s styling, at least aft of its goggle-eyed fascia, is per­haps overly familiar and a little boring. Likewise, the interior design—although warmer than some previous Benz designs—borders on the severe among competitors in this group.

Still, the E430 is a dazzling example of contemporary automotive design. Weighing just 3580 pounds, it is within a few tenths of a second from being as quick as the BMW and the Lexus, although we sense a certain Teutonic severity that less­ened the all-important (to us) “fun to drive” quotient. Offsetting this is the E430’s excellent utilization of interior space and its top ranking in fuel economy (25 mpg during our 900-mile test). Moreover, a general sentiment was expressed that if any of these machines were kept for 200,000 miles, the Mercedes would likely fare best in overall solidity and rate of depreciation. Those endearing qualities, plus a mere five points in the bal­loting, would have made the E430 a repeat winner, at least in the hearts and minds of Mercedes-Benz loyalists.

1998 Mercedes-Benz E430
275-hp V-8, 5-speed automatic, 3580 lb
Base/as-tested price: $52,259/$56,742
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 6.4 sec
1/4 mile: 15.0 sec @ 97 mph
100 mph: 15.9 sec
130 mph: 24.5 sec
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 187 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.82 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 25 mpg

2nd Place: Lexus GS400

The first attempt by Lexus to produce a mid-size sedan that would fill the gap between its flagship LS400 and the gussied-up, Camry-based ES300 was a dud. The old GS300 was an overpriced, flaccid performer, and it was forgettably styled despite its Giugiaro pedigree. It posed no threat to the class-leading Benzes, Bimmers, and Audis and was ignored by enthusiasts and luxury-car lovers alike. But the arrival last year of the new GS400, with its radical bodywork and 300-hp, 4.0-liter V-8, instantly elevated it into the heady German domain, proving to be capable of running nose to nose with the best of the breed. Had it not been for low scores in rear-seat capacity for three passengers—it was decidedly more cramped back there than it was in the four other back seats in this test—and debate over the new shape (some editors thought it dazzling, others felt it too bustle­-backed), the one-point loss to the BMW would surely have been reversed.


HIGHS: Eyeball-popping speed and handling, unsurpassed fit and finish, gobs of amenities.
LOWS:
Love-it-or-hate-it styling, rather harsh ride.
VERDICT: Just when you thought only the Germans knew how to make high-performance four-doors. . .


Performance-wise, the GS400 was for all intents and purposes the equal of the winning BMW. Zero-to-60 and quarter­-mile times were but a tenth slower—6.2 seconds to the BMW’s 6.1, and 14.8 sec­onds at 97 mph versus the Bimmer’s 14.7 at 98 mph. The Lexus bested the BMW in 70-to-0 braking distance (166 feet vs. 175), in top speed (148 mph vs. 131, both gov­erned), in fuel economy (24 vs. 22 C/D-­observed mpg), and on the skidpad (0.83 g to 0.81). It also scored better in such sub­jective evaluations as transmission effi­ciency (crisp and aggressive, aided by a manual-override mode controlled by shift buttons on the steering wheel), fit and finish, and general content.

Some complaint was registered over what a few test drivers believed to be a faintly choppy ride, perhaps traceable to the 235/45ZR-17 ultra-low-profile tires (although the BMW was similarly equipped). However, the overall handling of the Lexus received rave reviews, including such notations as “light, nimble, and ready to play,” “I love the steering, no lost motion, easy to point,” “perfectly weighted,” and “the sports car of the bunch.”

Save for the compacted rear seat, the GS400’s interior also received high marks, centered on the ergonomically friendly instrument panel; and the backlit, silver­-blue-tinted instruments that automatically adjust to ambient light conditions.

Added to these appealing features is a sticker price of $50,347, the lowest in our luxury herd and more than five grand less than the winning BMW. Based on such numbers, one could certainly question the GS400’s No. 2 finish. Suffice it to say that in this particular test, a one-point separa­tion in scores might be considered a tie. The new Lexus GS400 is that good.

1998 Lexus GS400
300-hp V-8, 5-speed automatic, 3811 lb
Base/as-tested price: $45,946/$50,347
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 6.2 sec
1/4 mile: 14.8 sec @ 97 mph
100 mph: 15.8 sec
130 mph: 24.5 sec
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 166 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.83 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 24 mpg

1st Place: BMW 540i

Like the Mercedes-Benz E-class sedans, BMW 5-series machines have been known quantities at Car and Driver since some of the current editors were still in Pampers. In April 1998, we completed a long-term test of the six-speed-manual-­transmission version of the 540i—loved the car, frowned at the rather high main­tenance costs. We knew going into this five-car evaluation that the five-speed­-automatic variation would give little away in performance and overall appeal. Not only is the automatic 540i a lusty per­former compared with the six-speed, but—equipped as ours was with the $3333 Sport package—it’s also superior (although marginally) within this group of five. But it was not so much individual numbers recorded by our test gear that served the BMW so well, but rather the total package that drove it to the top of the rankings: its ride-and-handling balance, its power and comfort levels, and its build quality. Without question both the Lexus and the E430 are the equal of the 540i in many categories and surpass it in several, but when con­sidering the sum of all its parts, the BMW was awarded the top spot, but by just a single point over the GS400.


HIGHS: Genuine, serious, all-around high performance; passionate engine.
LOWS:
Fifty-five big ones is a lot for a smallish four-door sedan.
VERDICT: King for now, but uneasy lies thy crown.


Being victims of subjectivity, we gave top marks to the 540i’s 4.4-liter, 32-valve DOHC V-8, which produces a remarkably spellbinding exhaust note for a high-dollar luxury sedan. Although rated at only 282 horses—as opposed to the 300 of the STS and GS400 V-8s—the BMW’s 310 pound-feet of torque matched the best in class. That, coupled with the car’s reasonably light weight of 3792 pounds, helped to account for it class-leading acceleration and midrange passing capability.

But discounting the BMW’s broad spectrum of power, it was the car’s overall athleticism that won the day. “Exactly what you’d expect from a BMW. Feels smaller, more compact, more fun,” noted one editor. “Hugely competent and com­fortable,” said another. If there were any complaints, they dealt with what some drivers felt was an on-center dead spot in the steering and a cer­tain laziness in the downshift from fifth to fourth gear while passing. But these deficiencies were offset by high scores for the excellent seats, the stiff structure, four-passenger comfort, and world-class over-the-road competence under all conditions. Therefore, giving the 540i any serious demerits was impossible, even when comparing it with a number of pure grand-touring coupes and alleged sports cars we’ve driven lately.

Yes, like the rest of the sedans in this group, we would like to see the BMW priced closer to $40,000 than to $60,000, where it would represent high value rather than a questionable luxury for status seekers and the profligate rich. But at any price, the BMW 540i represents noble high purpose in the art of car building, and thus it surely deserves its top ranking in this small, exclusive, and generally excellent group of automobiles.

1998 BWW 540i
282-hp V-8, 5-speed automatic, 3792 lb
Base/as-tested price: $52,125/$55,458
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 6.1 sec
1/4 mile: 14.7 sec @ 98 mph
100 mph: 15.4 sec
130 mph: 23.6 sec
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 175 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.81 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 22 mpg

Headshot of Brock Yates

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