At a recent driving-instruction event, we coaches were talking about the kinds of cars we’re seeing at high-performance driving schools these days. We agreed that it’s no longer necessary to get a sports car or even a two-door coupe, or sacrifice the flexibility of a four-door sedan, to get a fun, fast, confident and safe automobile.
The four 2010 sedans that shared our driveway last month are good examples of the diversity in purpose and price.
In sticker price order, a Mazda6 at $25,030 offered good value without any serious compromises; a MazdaSpeed3 at $25,840 was the smallest car in the group but produced whoa-Nellie performance; an Acura TSX V6 at $38,760 was the largest, with the most powerful engine; and the BMW 528i at $50,975 was the second most powerful of the group, and the most luxurious.
Let’s use the Mazda6 I Touring Plus as our benchmark. New a year ago, it offers all the latest safety equipment, including antilock brakes, traction control and dynamic stability control, which by themselves would be sufficient to justify buying this car over a four- or five-year-old used car that may be more luxurious but not have the safety equipment that can make the difference between life and death on wet or icy roads.
The new design is bigger than the previous Mazda6, with enough room for five adults and exceptional rear legroom. The 16 cubic feet of trunk space is extendable (folding rear seats), so a family could use this car for road trips and warehouse store jaunts.
The “Touring” package offers cloth-trimmed seats (more practical for a family than leather) but has the complete set of amenities that have become standard, like powered CD changer, MP3/aux input and Bluetooth connection.
Although powered with a 4-cylinder, 170-horsepower engine through a five-speed automatic transmission, the car is spirited, with no hesitation in freeway merges, but still delivers a reasonable 21 mpg city, 30 mpg highway in fuel efficiency. Handling was predictable and confident, one of the areas in which economical four-door sedans have improved dramatically in the past five years.
If the family has a taste for something more luxurious, powerful and, yes, edgy in styling, the Acura TSX, with the optional V6 engine upgrade available for 2010 still costs less than $40,000.
For the extra money, you get a 3.5-liter V6 producing 380 horsepower, the most in our group, putting this upscale member of the Honda family in the “performance sedan” category. Though bigger and less powerful than the BMW 3-series and Mercedes C-Class, we were reminded of those cars when we floored the accelerator entering I-280. We also liked the direct steering feeling, which lent confidence to sweeping curves and quick lane changes.
Surprisingly, the doubling of horsepower over the Mazda6 didn’t change fuel efficiency much, with this runner still rated at 18 mpg city, 27 mpg highway.
Acura didn’t stint on equipment. The standard “Tech” package includes navigation with real-time traffic and weather, 10-speaker surround sound and satellite radio, MP3/USB jacks and a backup camera. Interior trim includes sport seats with perforated leather, power-adjustable front seats with heaters and steering-wheel-mounted controls.
Having proven that a family could meet all its transportation needs for $25,000, and enjoy upgrades in performance, luxury and equipment for the Acura’s $39,000 price, one has to ask why there would be a need to pay another $12,000 for the BMW 528i.
The 528i comes with a 3-liter inline, 6-cylinder engine – BMW’s bread and butter powerplant – producing 230 horsepower, which felt equivalent in push to the Acura, and got just about the same fuel economy, at 17 mpg city, 27 mpg highway.
We enjoyed the optional 6-speed manual transmission and the optional Sport Package, which included bolstered front seats and sports suspension, but we’re in the minority in this department. The vast majority of U.S. drivers today order their sedans with automatic transmission and prefer more comfortable seats and suspension.
Deleting the Sport Package would save $2,900. We don’t like that BMW charges $950 extra for the remote garage-door opener and auto-dimming mirrors on this $51,000 car, when they’re standard on the Acura and other cars.
For those who want a real performance sedan, we suggest the BMW M3. The $55,000 base price includes the M3 bragging badge on the back deck lid.
There’s no question the 528i is a BMW. It feels luxurious inside, with the elegant exterior styling BMW has spent nearly 10 years perfecting. If a sedan is your thing, and you have a yen for a kidney-shaped grille, then a 5-series BMW may be just the ticket. Skip the Sport Package if you want comfort with your elegance.
If you do want performance along with practicality, here’s a thought: Buy the Mazda6 and the MazdaSpeed3, for roughly the same price as the BMW M3. At just under $26,000, the yee-haw MazdaSpeed3 produces more grins for fewer dollars than anything we’ve driven recently. It offers 263 horsepower (30 more than that big BMW) with 280 turbo-boosted pound-feet of torque.
You even get an extra door; the rear hatch opens and the seats fold down so you can haul your Swedish furniture kits home.
Even at this price, Mazda doesn’t scrimp on the amenities, with all the standard safety and audio equipment, and classy sport seats in an upholstery pattern matching the MazdaSpeed dash. The tech package gives you navigation, satellite radio and a keyless remote for only $1,200 more.
One piece of advice: If you buy a high-performance car like this one, spend another $350 for a day of advanced driving instruction at a local track so you’ll know how to control this little beastie.
Los Altos residents Gary and Genie Anderson are co-owners of Enthusiast Publications LLC, which edits several car club magazines and contributes articles and columns to automotive magazines and online services.