By Patrick Olsen on September 8, 2013
First, a quick reminder about whom our judges are:
Here's how the score broke down: The experts' scores accounted for 75% of the total score; 15% came from the family's scores; and 10% was based on fuel economy. To help you make your own comparisons of these sedans, we've pulled together a list of what you get for $38,000.
What they liked: First impressions matter, and the new Impala's new, more Camaro-like look drew raves. "It looks great from just about every angle," Robinson said. And it wasn't just the exterior, either. "The wraparound [faux] leather-trimmed dash with contrast stitching extends all the way to the door panels," Varela said, "making you feel like a pilot in a sci-fi spaceship cockpit." "It's sleek and stylish, grown-up but not old," Meier added. Fear not; our judges are not superficial. "The Impala's drivability shines," Mays said, "and its ride comfort outshines even the Chrysler twins. It holds its own on the performance front." "It's easy to drive, with nothing pushing or pulling," Wegner said. "The last Impala I drove in was a '68. Wow! What a difference since then." Features weren't lacking either. "The interior has a ton of storage areas, including my favorite in the Challenge cars: an umbrella holder," Newman said. "The household AC outlet in the rear seat is a great feature for families," Varela noted. "Just think of the possibilities."
What they didn't: "The engine feels powerful (though not 305-horsepower strong), but the transmission and I never seemed to be on the same page," Robinson said. "The dashboard's a bit of a circus," Mays said, with cartoonish gauges and whimsical wraparound paneling." Meier agreed: "The near-premium interior is, if anything, a little overdone — the stitched seams are great, but do I really need them in two colors?" While Newman praised the Chevy for its "impressive" safety features, she added, "Thank goodness for all of the safety features, because they're essential; rear visibility is limited because of the Impala's narrow rear window."
The verdict: "The Impala got a great redesign that has really taken it from the worst vehicle in the segment to among the best," Robinson said, "if not the best."
2014 Chevrolet Impala Payment Facts
Price as tested: $35,770
Monthly payment*: $735.77
What they liked: The 300's ride quality won over many of our judges. "The power and handling in the 300S is spot on," Varela said, and Robinson echoed that by saying, "The engine and eight-speed transmission work very well together." And "our sport-tuned 300S still held its own on the ride-quality front," Mays said. "This would make a nice long-distance ride," Wegner said. "I might be able to go all the way to Winnipeg in this." Its distinctive styling still works, several judges noted. "Its masculine looks make it a head turner," Newman said. Others described it as "sinister" and "classy." As for features, Varela called out safety as something that played out in real life. "The rear-cross path detection system literally saved our butts backing out of a parking space after dinner one night," she said, "when another patron decided to try to speed by behind us."
What they didn't: The interior didn't go over as well as the exterior. "It seems like Chrysler cheaped out a bit with the abundance of plastic on the door panels in the 300S," Varela said. Newman agreed: "The 300 is missing the luxury element," and she didn't care for the "odd, rubbery-looking dash. This interior is a miss." The 300's high belt line made visibility an issue for more than one critic. "Very little glass means at times it can be difficult to see out of," Robinson noted. For Mays, "the seats never worked for me. The backrests are too flat, and the head restraints feel too far away." And for good measure, he added: "Get rid of the electronic shifter, Chrysler. It's an ergonomic mess."
The verdict: "The 300 is a satisfying, big rear-drive car with elegant lines that seems more premium than its price," Meier said.
2013 Chrysler 300S Payment Facts
Price as tested: $37,925
Monthly payment*: $780.10
What they liked: "It's not often that a car can wear the adjectives 'sexy, exciting and safe' all at the same time," Varela said, "but somehow the Azera fits all these and more." Robinson and Mays commended the Azera's list of features. "You get lots of toys for the price," Mays said. "It comes with heated and cooled seats, a panoramic moonroof and rear sunshades in every direction — enough to schlep a Kardashian through a crowd of paparazzi." Of course, most shoppers are worried about how a car drives, and the Azera won fans there, too. "It feels every bit as quick as the Charger in accelerating," Wegner said, and he declared the Azera to be the car he would pick if he was buying one of the challengers with his own money. "The Azera's ride is really quiet with not a lot of road noise creeping in," Newman said. "The car felt responsive and secure on the road," Varela said, "yet not unduly harsh."
What they didn't: "The exterior looks very contemporary indeed," Robinson said, "but it looks a bit out of place. I don't think buyers in this segment are looking for flash." Interior choices puzzled Meier: "Why is there a giant wheel in the middle of the dash that looks very important but is just your basic radio knob?" he asked. "Like too many Hyundai products, the Azera suffers highway steering issues," Mays said. "The wheel falls into a dead zone at 12 o'clock that requires constant corrections." "It had a gorgeous panoramic moonroof, but that ate away at the car's headroom for the driver and front passenger," Newman said. A couple of related seat issues troubled Varela. "The driver's seat bottom was a little too long for my shorter legs (even after retracting the adjustable thigh support), causing some slight pressure just below my left knee," she said. "As a result of my slightly shorter height, the dead pedal for my left foot was too far forward to rest my foot on, and I found myself searching for a comfortable place to rest my left foot."
The verdict: "I like this layout the best," Wegner said. "It goes together very nice. It seems like the dash and such are more pressed back rather than right up in my space. I feel like a king overlooking my domain in this car."
2013 Hyundai Azera Payment Facts
Price as tested: $37,255
Monthly payment*: $766.32
What they liked: "The Charger trades luxury for fun," Newman said. "With its tight handling and V-6 engine, driving it is a blast." "Leave it to a couple of rear-wheel-drive cars [the Chrysler was the other] to shame the front-wheel-drive competition," Mays said. "The looks may make you think Hemi V-8, but the more frugal V-6 and eight-speed transmission are responsive and plenty for most buyers," Meier said. "And their lighter weight makes for more balanced handling." It's not just the driving experience, though. "The Charger has some of the 'fluffiest' extras that you never knew you needed," Varela said. "I laugh a little at the image of a rough-and-tumble muscle-car driver reveling in the Charger's cooled cupholders, daintily sipping a grande skinny mocha Frappuccino." At least two judges called out the Uconnect entertainment system for praise. "Works great, and it's easy to master," Robinson said, and Mays echoed that sentiment. "Uconnect exposes Ford's MyFord Touch for the dog it is. It has big icons, logical menus, fast response times. Learn from this, Ford." Finally, the Charger was clearly distinctive: "Looks mean," Robinson said.
What they didn't: But those "mean" looks also posed a problem, Robinson noted. "It looks like a cop car," he continued. "Whenever you get behind someone in this car, they immediately slow down to 5 mph below the speed limit." The sporty ride drew some criticism: "The ride is a little harsh, with a fair amount of road noise," Varela said, and while that can be "fun at first," Newman added, "It can be exhausting after logging many miles behind the wheel." Wegner questioned the need for paddle shifters: "Is that the gimmick of the 2000s?" In the end, Mays' issues bottomed out. "The sport seats that come with the Blacktop Package are overstuffed at the shoulders, and are too flat farther down," he said. "They never conformed to my back." And the Dr. Dre sound system was not the prescription for Meier: "The Charger's Beats system best fits folks whose playlist sounds good with thumping bass."
The verdict: "The Charger definitely has the highest driving fun factor of the group," Varela said. "However, its sportier suspension could be tiresome for long days spent driving over rough city streets."
2013 Dodge Charger Payment Facts
Price as tested: $37,910
Monthly payment*: $779.79
What they liked: "The best thing going for the Avalon?" Newman asked. "Its price. You get a luxurious-looking sedan with 10 airbags for around $32,000. That's impressive. And the redesigned exterior is a knockout." Meier also gave it big points for the new look. "It's stylish, and not just for a Toyota," he said. "Huge improvement for the perpetually dowdy Avalon." It was "surprisingly fun to drive for a Toyota," Robinson said, and Mays said that "despite myriad issues, the 3.5-liter V-6 shoves you back in your seat with impressive ferocity, even for this group." Space in back was big. "The titanic backseat has virtually no floor hump," Mays said. "Seems to have the most luxuriously finished interior of the bunch," Varela said, "with a soft center console, cupholders wrapped in [faux] leather ... need I go on?" "It seems like a steak-and-potatoes car," Wegner said, "and I like steak and potatoes."
What they didn't: "The base model lacks features expected in these cars even at Avalon's lower price, such as backup camera or folding rear seat," Meier said. "It's not cheap, but feels cheap." Others agreed. "What? No ventilated seats?" Varela asked. "Toyota had me fooled for a minute. I guess it is a Toyota and not a Lexus after all." The driving experience raised some questions for some judges. "Several editors noted a metal-on-metal grating noise at highway speeds and random creaks at hard stops," Mays said. "Toyota quality? I'm skeptical." "The Avalon's steering isn't responsive, and it takes a while for the car to settle down after going over road bumps," Newman said. "I'm not really a fan" of the Avalon's center stack or capacitive buttons," Wegner said. "You can see all the fingerprints."
The verdict: "Toyota has been trying for years to build a Buick," Robinson said, "and they've finally done it. Although I like the design of the interior, the whole car still reeks of old money."
2013 Toyota Avalon Payment Facts
Price as tested: $32,010
Monthly payment*: $658.43
What they liked: The judges loved slinging the Taurus around. "The Taurus still steers like a champ," Mays said. "It handles great for such a big car," Robinson agreed. And a couple of the judges liked the driver's seat itself. "It was incredibly comfortable," Newman said. "It hugged in all the right places and had the perfect amount of cushioning." Varela found the backseat to be "the most comfortable of the bunch, even including the soft and cushy rear middle seat." "The 2010 Taurus redo raised the bar on style and performance for this class," Meier said, "and it's still a contender." And virtually every judge noted the Taurus' humongous "megatrunk," as Mays called it. "It's so big that it had me wondering if people have to climb into it to reach items in the very back," Newman said. She also threw Ford an unusual compliment: "Many Cars.com editors have complained about MyFord Touch, but I found it very easy to pair my phone to it."
What they didn't: Newman was alone in her praise for the entertainment system. "Despite countless revisions, MyFord Touch continues to disappoint with slow reaction times, tiny screen icons and awful capacitive non-buttons below," Mays said. He was not alone in holding that opinion. Another running theme for the Taurus was a cramped cockpit for drivers. "If you're looking for lots of room up front, look elsewhere," Robinson advised. "It almost feels a little sports-car-like, the way you're in there," Wegner said. "Your right leg really has no place to go," he said. The car's interior seemed dated to Varela, and reminded her "of a car that my parents would drive, and not in a warm, fuzzy, nostalgic way." Wegner, Mays and Newman noted poor brake response, and Newman also noted a lot of road noise during her testing: "Driving over any road imperfection — potholes, road expansion joints — sounded like there was a drum section in the backseat," she said.
The verdict: "Recent updates have made the Taurus' modest cabin space more hospitable," Mays said, "but Ford's capacitive controls need to go."
2014 Ford Taurus Payment Facts
Price as tested: $35,790
Monthly payment*: $736.18
What they liked: "It's just fun," Meier said. "The great V-6 and performance-tuned CVT [continuously variable automatic transmission] make it a driver's car." Mays agreed: "The Maxima has a nimbleness that underscores the fact that it's one of two cars in this Challenge below 3,600 pounds [the Avalon is the other]." This Maxima has Nissan's earlier generation CVT, which makes it snappy, a couple of judges noted. "Wow, this is pretty quick," Wegner said, "and this is a CVT?" "It has good power and great handling for a car this size," Robinson said. And roominess is not a problem for Newman, who praised both the headroom (despite there being a moonroof) and "plenty of room for front passengers to stretch out."
What they didn't: The Maxima is admittedly dated. "A few interior bits are starting to show their age, with outdated window switches and a gearshift that shimmies into Drive," Mays said. "The nav screen is still partying like it's 1999," said Robinson, and Wegner echoed that thought. "This navigation is like the one you would go buy at RadioShack, compared to the others," he said. "Backseat passengers get shortchanged in the Maxima," Newman said. "The roof slopes dramatically, leaving them with just a few precious inches of headroom." While the CVT was praised for its responsiveness, it comes at a cost. "With very pronounced wind noise on the highway, a CVT that groans loudly when punching it, and excessive road and tire noise, I may never have to hear my kids whine in the car again," Varela said. "See? There's a bright side to just about everything."
The verdict: "What worked a few years ago for the Maxima doesn't anymore," Newman said. "It fails to keep up with the competition."
2013 Nissan Maxima Payment Facts
Price as tested: $37,475
Monthly payment*: $770.84
Cars.com editor Robby DeGraff contributed to this report.
*Monthly payment assumes good credit, no money down, 60-month loan with 5% interest rate and 9% sales tax.
Editor’s note: This story was updated to reflect that the Impala’s dash and the Avalon’s cupholders are wrapped in vinyl.
Editor-in-Chief Patrick Olsen was born and raised in California. He loves pickup trucks and drivers who pay attention. Email Patrick