The $46,000 Sport Sedan Challenge: Results

The judges: Kelsey Mays, Cars.com; David Thomas, Cars.com; Joe Wiesenfelder, Cars.com; James R. Healey, USA Today; Brian Robinson, "MotorWeek"; and Jose and Jimmee Medina, a couple in the market to buy a car in this segment.

See What You Get for $46,000

Here's how the scores break down:

No. 6: 2013 Mercedes-Benz C250 Sport, 671 points

(See the scorecard, the Monroney sticker or research the 2013 Mercedes-Benz C-Class)

What we liked: The word "classy" was thrown around more than a few times, both for the exterior and interior. "I thought the C250 offered a unique style versus the other machines," Thomas said. "An expensive appearance package helped give it a little bit of flash, too." Robinson liked how it "turned in aggressively at the track," and Healey applauded its "nice blend of ride and handling." "Long live the C-Class' hefty shift knob, which slips into Drive with a precise weightiness," raved Mays, who also appreciated the "wide trunk opening and 60/40-split folding backseat that takes the center belt along with it. Nice."

What we didn't: Brakes were the clear problem for just about everyone. "They seemed borderline unsafe in street testing and pretty soggy feeling on [the] track," Healey said. It wasn't just the brakes. "The engine feels strong right off the line, but it runs out of steam in a real hurry," Robinson said. "It was slow," Thomas said, "slow on the track and slow around town." "The C250's sport suspension kept body roll in check, but the handling joy ends there," Mays added. "The tail is hard to work around, and if you keep stability control on, it dials in a lot more understeer." "Even though the formula matches that of the ATS and 328i," Wiesenfelder said, "numb steering and a dearth of engine power left me low on confidence." And Jose and Jimmee found it visually dull. "It seems too plain to me," Jose said.

The verdict: "The Mercedes C250 looks very sporty and has a nice firm ride, but unfortunately none of that really translates into a great-performing sedan," Robinson said.

Key features

  • Rear-wheel drive
  • Turbocharged 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine with a seven-speed automatic transmission
  • 201 horsepower (least powerful and slowest car tested)
  • 12.4 cubic feet of maximum trunk space
  • 4-year/50,000-mile new vehicle warranty and powertrain warranty
  • Unlimited years/unlimited miles roadside assistance
  • Has optional Dynamic Sport Package that includes red seat belts, seats with simulated leather with faux-suede inserts with red stitching, a flat-bottom steering wheel and unique AMG wheels
  • Has a cooled glove box, power-adjustable steering column and power-adjustable head restraints
  • IIHS Top Safety Pick for 2013
  • Satellite radio
  • Does not have touch-sensitive keyless entry
  • Premium gas recommended

2013 Mercedes C-Class Payment Facts
Price as tested: $42,355
Monthly payment*: $871.22

Find a 2013 Mercedes-Benz C-Class near you


No. 5: 2013 Audi A4 2.0T Quattro Tiptronic, 749 points

(See the scorecard, the Monroney sticker or research the 2013 Audi A4)

What we liked: The Audi won over several judges with its sophistication. "Audi's handsome and consistent cabin materials still impress," Mays said, even though the A4 was one of the oldest models in our test. "Stance and elegance make the only statement you need," Healey added. "Sometimes, less is more for me," Jose said. "I like how simple this is." But looks carry it only so far. "The A4's adept eight-speed automatic transmission and torque-laden turbo four-cylinder makes you forget that Audi once offered a V-6 in this car," Mays pointed out. "Who needs it?" Thomas added, "On the track, the A4 seemed to burst down the straights. Its weight and balance made the A4 feel nimble, both on the track and around town." It was "more fun to drive than you originally think," Robinson added. "It comes off the corners really hard. Seems to respond better the harder you push it."

What we didn't: But "at no time does it ever feel fast," Robinson said. "Capable? Yes. Fast? No." Weight distribution was also an issue. "Nose heaviness did a number on the front tires on track day," Wiesenfelder pointed out. "You need to be hard on the gas in a curve if you hope to maintain decent front-rear balance." The interior materials quality was also dinged by a few. "It has a subpar interior, with hard plastic on the console," Healey said. One of the biggest complaints, though, about the A4 was the lack of features for the money, an issue raised by almost everyone. "Not much delight for the dough," Healey said. "The A4's low as-tested price can't absolve a raft of missing features," Mays said. "Bluetooth audio streaming, keyless access, backup camera and navigation are MIA." Backseat space was also a thorn. "I hated that," Jimmee said. "I didn't like the backseat at all because the seat was too low" for her 5-foot-10-inch frame.

The verdict: "Kudos to Audi for having a turbocharged four-cylinder engine that walks and talks like a V-6," Mays said, "but the A4's sloppy dynamics dampen the fun in high-performance situations."

Key features

  • All-wheel drive
  • Turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with an eight-speed automatic transmission
  • 211 horsepower
  • 12.4 cubic feet of maximum trunk space
  • Has no-cost optional, aggressive high-performance summer tires
  • 4-year/50,000-mile new vehicle warranty and powertrain warranty
  • 1-year/5,000-mile complimentary maintenance
  • 4-year/unlimited miles roadside assistance
  • LED accents in headlamps
  • IIHS Top Safety Pick for 2013
  • Satellite radio
  • Has rear air vents with climate controls (one of two vehicles tested with this)
  • Does not have touch-sensitive keyless entry
  • Does not have Bluetooth streaming audio
  • Premium gas recommended


2013 Audi A4 Payment Facts
Price as tested: $40,310
Monthly payment*: $829.16

Find a 2013 Audi A4 near you


No. 4: 2013 Cadillac ATS 2.0T Performance, 762 points

(See the scorecard, the Monroney sticker or research the 2013 Cadillac ATS)

What we liked: The ATS was a driver's car. "The chassis seems tuned almost perfectly for either road or track," Healey said, "and the styling is just edgy enough." "The ATS was the only one that came close to the BMW," Wiesenfelder said, "and sometimes felt even more unflappable on the track. Its Sport mode was the only transmission in the test that seemed to have any smarts." Mays also liked the Sport mode: "Cadillac's six-speed automatic rarely misses a beat, with crisp upshifts and timely rev-matched downshifts." It wasn't all about what's under the hood: "I was completely blown away by the ATS cabin," Jimmee said. "It has a 'right there' feel," Robinson said. "Just about perfect." And then there's the Cadillac User Experience system that uses capacitive controls to adjust climate, radio and a lot more. Some reviewers loved it: "The CUE system is a technological wonder that was the most robust system of those in the test," Thomas wrote. "I'll throw my support behind the CUE," Wiesenfelder added.

What we didn't: But other reviewers were not as impressed. "The infotainment system can do a lot of things," Healey sniffed, "but just try to figure it out." And one can imagine Robinson channeling "Star Trek's" Capt. James T. Kirk shouting at his nemesis Khan as he yelled "CUE!" It wasn't in a good way, trust me. And even Thomas, who praised the system, noted that "it attracts a lot of fingerprints and is hard to see in direct sunlight. Those two flaws negate some of its promise." Interior space, or a lack of it, also drew some criticism. "Witness Cadillac, the headroom thief," Mays said. "The cabin is cramped, plain and simple." Jose noted that the trunk is also tight: "It's not deep enough or wide enough for my liking." And even though the Cadillac drove well, there is still some work to do. "Cadillac needs to drop the eye candy and focus on the details," Mays said. "Look closely, and all that fancy dashboard stitching surrounds ill-fitted panels and unsightly gaps."

The verdict: "When I think Cadillac, I think [of] my grandpa," Jimmee said. "But this is not my grandpa's car."

Key features

  • All-new model for 2013
  • Turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with a six-speed automatic transmission
  • 272 horsepower (second-most-powerful vehicle tested)
  • 10.2 cubic feet of maximum trunk space (smallest cargo space)
  • 4-year/50,000-mile new vehicle warranty, 6-year/70,000-mile powertrain warranty
  • 4-year/50,000-mile complimentary maintenance
  • 6-year/70,000-mile roadside assistance
  • No heated seats (only vehicle tested without this feature)
  • Has frontal-collision alert and lane keep assist
  • Has CUE system that includes navigation and apps such as Pandora, weather, etc. (one of two cars tested with navigation, and the only vehicle tested with smartphone app integration)
  • No split-folding backseat (one of two vehicles tested without folding rear seats)
  • Not yet crash-tested by IIHS for 2013
  • Satellite radio
  • LED headlamps and door handles
  • Has power-adjustable side bolstering and manual-adjustable thigh support (one of two vehicles tested with these features)
  • Premium gas recommended


2013 Cadillac ATS Payment Facts
Price as tested: $45,775 (most expensive)
Monthly payment*: $941.57

Find a 2013 Cadillac ATS near you


No. 3: 2013 Acura TL 3.7 SH-AWD Tech, 775 points

(See the scorecard, the Monroney sticker or research the 2013 Acura TL)

What we liked: The consensus among the reviewers was the TL was very comfortable and that its V-6 engine gave it plenty of go. "It absolutely hauls around the track," Robinson said. "Acura's torque-vectoring system can send the TL on gratifying four-wheel power slides," Mays said. "The smooth V-6 power almost always trumps turbo four," Healey added. "The ride quality can't be denied," Wiesenfelder pointed out. The TL was larger than most competitors, and that translated into more space. "The backseat was not only the roomiest," Thomas said, "but the seats back there were also the most comfortable. Taking another couple to dinner would be most pleasant in the Acura." He also praised the TL's technology. "Not only did the iPod integration and Bluetooth work flawlessly, it also had a very accurate voice-recognition system."

What we didn't: That extra size led to the feeling that the TL was extra heavy. It "feels heavy" was a common refrain from more than one reviewer, and Thomas said the "girth made it difficult to navigate in the tightest turns on the track." Wiesenfelder noted that the TL's "mileage shows the classic trade-off we once had to make for acceleration — but clearly don't need to anymore." Mays was unhappy with the "embarrassingly small trunk and no folding backseat to boot." Thomas dinged it for a "navigation system that looks dated in terms of graphics." Jose said that the TL felt "just like the Accord," and Jimmee seconded that, saying, "The quality is just not there."

The verdict: "The TL is a great choice if 'sedan' is more important than 'sport' in your personal sport-sedan calculus," Healey said.

Key features

  • All-wheel drive
  • 3.7-liter V-6 engine with a six-speed automatic transmission
  • 305 horsepower (most powerful car tested)
  • Backup camera (one of two vehicles tested with feature)
  • Navigation system with real-time traffic and weather updates (one of two vehicles tested with navigation and real-time traffic)
  • 12.5 cubic feet of maximum trunk space
  • 4-year/50,000-mile new car warranty
  • 6-year/70,000-mile powertrain warranty
  • 4-year/50,000-mile roadside assistance
  • IIHS Top Safety Pick Plus for 2013 (received highest score of Good in new small-overlap frontal crash test)
  • Satellite radio
  • No split-folding backseat (one of two vehicles tested without a folding rear seat)
  • Premium gas recommended

2013 Acura TL Payment Facts
Price as tested: $44,080
Monthly payment*: $906.70

Find a 2013 Acura TL near you


No. 2: 2013 Volvo S60 T5 AWD Premier, 793 points

(See the scorecard, the Monroney sticker or research the 2013 Volvo S60)

What we liked: Comfort was the watchword for the Volvo. "By far, the most comfortable car here," Robinson said. "Our S60 has Volvo's base suspension setup, and it rides marvelously," Mays said. "Shock absorption, cabin isolation and suspension noise (or lack thereof) all stand out." And the seats? "Among this group's taut seats, the Volvo's cushy chairs are a welcome break," Mays added. Our couple liked the dashboard's "understated elegance," and the "nice, worn-in look" of the seat leather. "Very non-pretentious," Jose declared. "The price makes it a relative bargain in this group," Healey noted, "even if you add in the price of the crucial infotainment gear that it lacks." The S60 was the declared winner for our couple, and Jimmee said she was caught by surprise by the Volvo: "I would've never thought that we would look at a Volvo, but this is very nice."

What we didn't: The consensus was that while the S60 was very comfortable, it wasn't great as a track performer. "Feels front-heavy, and overall heavy, on the track," Healey said. "The handling is good for a Volvo, with minimized torque steer, but I don't give 'most improved' awards," Wiesenfelder said. "The mileage makes it much harder to be excited about the quick acceleration," he said, especially in the 328i's company. "Soft brakes, sloppy steering and plenty of body roll limit the handling front," Mays pointed out, "and you'll notice it on winding roads, not just a racetrack." Robinson concurred: "When you push it really hard on the track, it just feels awkward." Finally, more than one reviewer noted that some of the interior materials were not up to snuff. "Some materials didn't exude luxury, especially the shifter and its plastic cover," Thomas said, and Wiesenfelder agreed. "Worst, the plastic window atop the shift lever looks so cheap," he said. "Did you ever build a model car or plane and accidentally get cement on a window? That's what it looks like."

The verdict: "Volvo packed a lot of style, comfort, performance and features into the S60 with a low price tag," Thomas said.

Key features

  • All-wheel drive
  • Turbocharged 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine with a six-speed automatic transmission
  • 250 horsepower
  • Has an overboost feature that allows for a maximum 290 pounds-feet of torque for up to 10 seconds at full throttle (only vehicle tested with this feature)
  • 4-year/50,000-mile new vehicle warranty and powertrain warranty
  • 3-year/36,000-mile complimentary maintenance
  • 4-year/unlimited miles roadside assistance
  • 12.0 cubic feet of maximum trunk space
  • IIHS Top Safety Pick Plus for 2013 (received top score of Good in new small-overlap frontal test)
  • Has Volvo's City Safety system
  • Satellite radio
  • Has touch-sensitive keyless entry
  • Premium gas recommended

2013 Volvo S60 Payment Facts
Price as tested: $38,170 (least expensive)
Monthly payment*: $785.14


Find a 2013 Volvo S60 near you


And the winner is ...

No. 1: 2013 BMW 328i M Sport sedan, 859 points

(See the scorecard, the Monroney sticker or research the 2013 BMW 3 Series)

What we liked: "What wasn't there to like?" Thomas enthused, and he was hardly alone. Just by the numbers, the 328i shone. It not only had the fastest time in our zero-to-60 and quarter-mile time trials (and the best braking performance), it also returned the best observed mpg. Nice combination! "Divine balance and controllability, with good steering and feedback as well," Wiesenfelder said. "Flawless performance," raved Mays. "It's the first car that's made me smile," Jimmee said. And it wasn't just the performance aspects. "Brakes like this would encourage faster driving in any car," Mays noted. "It feels very stable at high speeds, like it can handle anything you throw at it," Robinson said. "I could forgive a smaller backseat in light of all the other positives," Wiesenfelder said, "but it's not small." Jimmee, who had complained about a variety of interior material surfaces, found that the 328i's other attributes overshadowed that. "If it drives this well, who cares what the inside looks like?"

What we didn't: Despite all the applause, the 328i wasn't a perfect car. "With each generation, it loses a little more feel," Robinson said. "Sure auto stop/start is worth a little extra mpg from the EPA," Healey said, "but it's customer unfriendly, and BMW does it worse than almost any other automaker." "The turn signal is a springy toggle, which I loathe," Wiesenfelder added. And a couple of reviewers commented on the "unnatural electronic shifter," as Mays called it: "It's the bane of an otherwise decent interior." Finally, it was very expensive to boot, a few reviewers pointed out. "BMW charges a lot for the cachet that goes with the hood ornament," Healey said.

The verdict: "The 328i is an outstanding combination of performance, fuel efficiency and roominess that makes its relatively high price easy to accept," Wiesenfelder said.

Key features

  • Rear-wheel drive
  • Turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with an eight-speed automatic transmission
  • 240 horsepower
  • Has the M Sport Line Package that adds a sport suspension, M appearance accents, sports seats, etc.
  • 13.0 cubic feet of maximum trunk space (largest cargo space)
  • 4-year/50,000-mile new vehicle warranty and powertrain warranty
  • 4-year/50,000-mile complimentary maintenance
  • 4-year/unlimited miles roadside assistance
  • IIHS Top Safety Pick for 2013
  • Satellite radio
  • Has power-adjustable side bolstering and manual-adjustable thigh support (one of two vehicles tested with these features)
  • Has auto start/stop fuel-saving technology (only vehicle tested with this)
  • Has rear air vents with climate controls (one of two vehicles tested with this)
  • Does not have Bluetooth streaming audio
  • Premium gas recommended


2013 BMW 3 Series Payment Facts
Price as tested: $45,745
Monthly payment*: $940.95

Find a 2013 BMW 3-Series near you

*Monthly payment assumes good credit, no money down, 60-month loan, 5% interest and 9% sales tax.

© Cars.com 04/8/2013