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Fast Fun with Foor-Doors
Performance sedans offer style and luxury.

Perhaps it’s the backlash from too many years in too many boxy and boring SUVs, but carmakers have been gearing up the bestselling model of all time, the sedan, with enough style and performance that you could even describe these babies as four-door sports cars. And there are luxury touches, along with such necessities as cup holders and a USB port in the console to play your iPod on the surround-sound speaker system—even paddle shifters on the steering wheel.

BMW has been doing this forever (the Ferrari-like feel, not the USB port), and its 3 Series consistently tops the list of road-hugging four-doors. But it’s certainly not alone in the performance-sedan garage. Here’s a look at others that could knock the 3 off its pedestal in 2008.

Jaguar XF
The Jaguar XF (pictured above) looks like a coupe with a couple of extra doors and backseat room for a fifth passenger. But it drives like a legendary cat, growling around turns and sprinting down straightaways, its wide-track rear wheels providing suction-cup stability. The XF is designed to behave more like its famous ancestor—the iconic, long-nosed XKE vroomer and its modern version, the XK—than the X-Type sedans.

The XF is an important new model for Jaguar. It replaces the S-Type (which looked more like its worker bee Ford Taurus cousin) and signals a new design and technology direction for the venerable British marque—which may or may not still be part of the Ford family as you read this. Jaguar is betting that this new X marks the spot for mid-size luxury
performance sedans, even at around $10,000 more than the one it replaces.

Start the engine, and cockpit and console spring to life—the drive selector rises into the palm of the hand, and rotating vents open from their flush, ‘parked’ position. The V8 engines—a 4.2 liter with or without super-charging—are electronically limited to 155 mph. So you can’t try for 160 on the Blue Route, even if the steering-wheel-mounted paddles make you believe you’re on Pocono Raceway. But those race cars don’t have Bluetooth and iPod and MP3 interfaces. Order now for delivery in March as a 2009 model.
MSRP: $67,973

 

 

Chrysler Sebring LX
Named for the Florida racetrack, the Sebring convertible has been a consistent sales leader for Chrysler, before and during its ill-fated marriage to Mercedes-Benz parent Daimler. The Sebring sedan was introduced in ’07 and offers the same two engine choices as on the drop-top, a fuel-efficient 173HP, 2.4 liter, and a 186HP, 2.7 liter that can run on regular gas or E85 flexfuel. The 2.4 is rated as a PZEV (partial zero emission vehicle), meaning it meets stringent tailpipe standards set by Pennsylvania, New York, California and five other states. The sedan is available as an all-wheel drive, a plus when Philly is chilly and snowy. Chrysler’s MyGIG entertainment system lets you plug in your own iPod or flash drive to play through the sound system.

The Sebring roars with beefy acceleration, cornering without any lean. Inside roominess makes it feel like a larger car, but it handles like a smaller one, and an unusual (for mid-size performance sedans) plus is a fold-flat front passenger seat. With the standard rear 60/40 split, that means trunk-to-front cargo room for surfboard, snowboard or the haul from Home Depot. Another nice feature is the sliding center console— as in Chrysler and Dodge minivans—for easier access for backseat passengers. All good, as is the low price.
MSRP: $18,690

 

Cadillac CTS
If Elvis were still with us, he would trade in his pink Cadillac with the block-long tail fins for a sleek and sexy CTS, redesigned for 2008 with a bigger engine, bigger wheels and both lowered emissions and price. Caddy actually has shaved $540 off last year’s MSRP, while adding oomph and torque to its Northstar engine—the one that’s as good as anything the imports produce but doesn’t get nearly the respect it deserves.

The new 304HP, 3.6-liter direct injection engine pumps out 25 percent less hydrocarbons than before, and the 363HP version stables five more horses than last year in the same space. Space Age engineering and materials lighten the load to balance the added weight of optional all-wheel drive (rear-wheel drive is standard), which adds up to super handling and
stability in the trenches.

And the lower price includes as standard such former extras as 17-inch wheels and tires and pressure monitoring, and a Bose eight-speaker surround-sound system (a pricey optional on other makes and models). Ditto the 40-gig hard disc drive that can store audio tracks ripped from CDs or flash drives (whether or not they are Elvis hits) and a TiVo-like radio that can pause and replay live radio. Think the “C” in CTS stands for “cool”?
MSRP: $32,990

 

Audi A4
The redesigned A4 seems to have taken cues from its fellow Germans. The knife-edge side details resemble the gorgeous Mercedes CLS 550 (my personal choice for the most beautiful sedan on the road, although too big for this performance category), but size and handling is more like the benchmark Beemer 3. Although the wheelbase is a smidge longer than before, the hood and trunk are shorter, providing more stability in turns and more knee room for child seats and other backseat drivers.

The all-new dynamic suspension is mostly weight-saving aluminum, and independent damping produces that famous Euro-tight, hug-the-pavement response. This mid-size baby feels like it knows what you’re thinking—accelerating all-out on the Autobahn or swerving around an errant beer stein on the road—and reacts instantly. There are five engine choices, from 143HP to 265HP, all with direct fuel injection for increased fuel efficiency.

The A4 is available in Audi’s legendary Quatto permanent all-wheel drive or as a front-wheel drive. Factory-installed iPod hook-up is optional, but the formerly optional sporty three-spoke steering wheel and 18-inch alloy wheels are now standard. Or, you could upgrade to the souped-up
S package.

MSRP: starting at $28,900

 


 

Hybrid Performance: Lexus 450h

 

A Prius it is not. A finely-tuned Lexus performance sedan it is, vaulting from 0 to 60 in a blink—and 70-90 in even less—in your choice of normal or tighter sport-suspension. This racehorse just happens to have four doors and a hybrid feature. It delivers the power of a 4.5-liter V8, but its hybrid-ness gives it the fuel efficiency of a V6. The switch from electric to gas is seamless, as it is in all Toyota and Lexus hybrids, at around 15-20 mph.

The most disconcerting thing about the 450h is its sound—none when you turn it on, none when you throw it into park, none when you’re checking the rear-view camera on the front console. During a recent 500-mile test drive on hills and highways around Southern California, I only heard the electric motor once, when the windows were open. Even at watch-out-for-the-cops speeds, the fit, finish and sound-dampening technology is so good there’s none of that whoosh or wind noise you hear in some cars.

The sport mode control is on the console, not on the transmission gear, where the “S” control engages the electronic braking system. This is a less-efficient driving mode than the regular “D” gear, but it proved effective to shift from D and S to shave off a couple of mph at highway speed. The hybrid motor makes the 450h heavier than its same-sized conventional GS sibling, so it sticks to tight turns without drifting, ready to take the next switchback before you are.

And yes, of course, there’s all the luxury you’d expect from Lexus—heated and air-cooled seats, remote ignition, Mark Levinson sound system (optional), traction and stability control, etc. The only thing it lacks is trunk space—approximately the size of an overhead bin in a 747. It’s too small even for a spare tire, which is why the 450h has run-flats as standard equipment.

So how good is mileage? Sorry you asked. My overall average just under 23 mpg—impressive for a car with this sort of performance and style, but not so much for hybrids in general. In the end, the 450h will do more to boost your green status with your neighbors than save you green at the gas station.
MSRP: $54,900 (2007 price)

 

 


 

Good Thing, Small Package

 

 

Maybe it’s because I drive a minivan, but a recent 20-minute test drive of the Smart Fortwo had me grinning ear-to-ear. Eight feet, 8 inches long by 5 feet wide and weighing 1,700 pounds, this collaboration between Swatch watch inventor Nicolas Hayek and Mercedes-Benz was first introduced in Germany in 1997 and later earned a place in the Museum of Modern Art.

Powered by a 71HP, 1.0-liter three-cylinder engine capable of 90 miles per hour on the highway, this second-
generation model boasts enhanced comfort, agility and safety. It earns high marks when it comes to fuel economy (it averages 40 miles per gallon), size and planet-hugging street cred (parts are 100 percent recyclable). Its functional modular design includes interchangeable body panels made of recycled plastic, and the car’s reinforced steel roll cage has front and rear crumple zones.

I wasn’t thinking about any of this while zipping along 202 on a test drive courtesy of Mercedes-Benz of Devon. I was too busy enjoying the clutch-free five-speed automated manual transmission. You can change gears using the stick shift or by squeezing levers under the steering wheel.

The Main Line loves its toys, and the Smart Fortwo makes for a great everyday addition to anyone’s not-so-eco-friendly luxury fleet. To learn more, visit smartusa.com or call (888) 857-9895. —Dawn E. Warden

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