The $46,000 Sport Sedan Challenge: The Family

ONTARIO, Calif. — Hard work and, in the right car, hard driving distinguish the California couple who served as the reality check in the Cars.com/USA Today/"MotorWeek" $46,000 Sport Sedan Challenge.

Jose and Jimmee Medina, both 34 and from Anaheim, are about to reward themselves by replacing the 2004 Mazda3 that Jose has been driving hundreds of miles every week to work and school. They want the kind of car represented by the half-dozen contenders in the Challenge.

He'll graduate in June with a civil engineering degree from California State Polytechnic University at Pomona. The degree gives him a better shot at a workplace promotion in the engineering department in the city of Fullerton. And his commute will drop to less than 100 miles a week, so the new car won't face the wear and tear that the Mazda did.

They have no kids, so why not a pure sports car?

Jose and Jimmee Medina are in the market for a new sport sedan.

They need a usable backseat because they spend a lot of weekends with nieces and nephews or with other couples they're taking along on getaways. And, Jose said, he can borrow his father-in-law's Chevrolet Corvette, "and that's all the sports car I need."

Her parents' cars "are available to us because my parents don't drive much," said Jimmee (jim-ME). Her mom has a Mercedes-Benz sedan. The couple is discriminating by nature, and that's been honed by the time the two have spent in her parents' high-end vehicles.

For example, when they examined the half-dozen Challenge cars, they discussed items that are often overlooked, such as the headliner material.

Jimmee, who drives a Lexus IS convertible, works in the human resources department for the city of Irvine, where she handles union negotiations. She has a master's degree in public administration from California State University at Fullerton, and a negotiator's certificate from Harvard Law School.

But she won't negotiate on this point: She does not want a car that's just like what everybody else drives. In their neighborhood that's likely to be BMWs, Audis and Mercedes-Benzes, not Toyotas and Hondas. For a while during their Challenge driving, a budding love affair with the BMW 328i made it appear she might have to overrule her mind.

The couple's sport sedan shopping list included some of the cars in this Challenge, and a few others. A little time behind the wheel overhauled their list dramatically.

Jose and Jimmee Medina tested all the cars in our Challenge.

Here's what they had to say about the six contenders:

  • "Audi's off," Jimmee declared after driving the sparsely furnished A4 in the Challenge. "There's no 'wow.' "
  • The Acura TL stayed on the bubble for a while. Jose liked the power of the only V-6 in the Challenge. In California driving, he said, "you've got to get around, get ahead of that guy, where you don't have much room to merge." Jimmee said, "I'm comfortable in this," but "I don't feel unique."
  • The BMW 328i with M Sport tires and suspension "is the first car to make me smile," she said. "I've never driven a BMW before; this car is so sweet." Jose: "It's the perfect balance of power, agility, superior handling." Jose almost didn't get to find that out. Jimmee was having such fun driving the BMW she wasn't happy about stopping to change drivers.
  • The Cadillac ATS interior appealed strongly to them, and Jimmee said that if it drove as nicely as the BMW, it would be an easy choice. "But it doesn't."
  • Both described the Mercedes-Benz C250 as "smooth" but underpowered, and they said the brakes felt "squishy."
  • The Volvo S60, the last car they drove, won their hearts and their minds. If they were forced to choose among the six Challenge sedans, they said it would be easy to take the Volvo keys.

The S60 lacked some technical finery such as navigation (desirable) and backup camera (not so much in their minds). The Medinas loved the Volvo's classy, comfy interior. They thought the car accelerated and handled as well as the BMW. And they couldn't ignore its $38,000 price tag, a bargain compared to the others in the Challenge.

Navigation and a backup camera are part of the S60's highest trim level. It increases the tab by about $3,800, making the S60 more expensive than the $40,000 Audi A4, which didn't have a navigation/camera system, but less than the BMW or Cadillac.
 
But ax the Volvo's all-wheel drive — something seldom needed in California; three of the test cars didn't have it, and the Medinas didn't care
and that shaves $2,000, making the Volvo's final price around $40,900, which is just a few hundred dollars more than the A4.

"I'd never have thought I'd go to the Volvo dealership," Jimmee said, "but now I would."

© Cars.com 04/8/2013