Safest Fun-To-Drive Sport Sedans Comparison

Jump to: Table of safety features, crash tests, and price
Jump to: Table of performance and reliability
Jump to: Summary
Jump to: Misc. notes

This is a comparison (based on published, quantitative information) of the safest, most fun-to-drive sport sedans available in the USA (specifically 2003 models, though most of this should apply to 2004 models as well since few if any of these vehicles have been redesigned for 2004). All of the vehicles on this list are very safe and fun-to-drive compared to the average car available in the USA. Thus, all are good choices to some extent. Nonetheless, direct comparison shows many differences.

I believe this is the most thorough quantitative comparison of the safety and performance of vehicles in this class available anywhere. Typical comparisons done by the automotive press just do not include detailed safety comparisons.

All vehicles on the list are available as 2003 models in configurations that have manual transmissions (or optional automatics transmissions), 4 doors, side torso airbags, side head airbags, ABS, traction control, and stability control. I consider these to be must-have safety features. All vehicles on the list also have seat belt pretensioners and load limiters for the front seat occupants. Most of the vehicles here also have electronic brake-force distribution. I've focused on the higher trim models here as these models tend to have better brakes, and sometimes better handling, as well as more powerful engines that make them more fun to drive for many people. The lower trim levels in this class are usually almost as safe, with equivalent safety features and crashworthiness, for several thousand dollars less.

Safety Features, Crash Tests, and Price

basic specs additional safety features crash test results [1] price [2] (7/12/03)
vehicle weight (lbs.) drive wheels emer- gency brake assist telematics (accident alert, e.g. OnStar) active head restraints IIHS head 1-4 IIHS front 1-4 (cm) [3] EU front % (1-16) NHTSA front driver 1-5 (HIC,g) [4] NHTSA front pass- enger 1-5 (HIC,g) [4] EU side % (1-18) NHTSA side (1-5) (TTI,g) [5] dealer cost (invoice - holdback - incentives) (US$) CarsDirect no-haggle price (US$) option configuration [6] (non-metallic black, zip 94040)
Saab 9-3 Vector 3280 FWD yes yes yes 4 4 BP (67) 81% (13) [7] ? ? 100% (18) [7] ? 29,237 [8] 32,285 touring, sunroof, heated seats
Mercedes C320 3440 RWD yes yes no 4 4 BP (17) 88% (14) 4 (550,49) 4 (519,54) 94% (17) ? 36,543 37,545 C2, C3, C4, TeleAid, heated seats, 6-CD
Audi A4 3.0 3583 AWD yes yes no 4 4 BP (58) 75% (12) 4 (575,50) 4 (681,51) 100% (18) 5 (39,40) 33,919 36,163 premium, sport, cold weather, OnStar
Infiniti G35 3369 RWD yes no yes 4 4 BP (104) ? ? ? ? ? 29,233 32,795 premium, sunroof, winter
BMW 330i 3285 RWD yes yes no 3 4 BP (107) 63% (10) 4 (505,44) 5 (241,44) 83% (15) 3 (77, 130) 37,935 40,838 premium, sport, cold weather, bi-xenons, park assist
Volvo S60 T5 3300 FWD no yes [9] yes 4 4 (102) 63% (10) 4 (502,52) 4 (399,47) 100% (18) 5 (49,67) 31,613 32,941 premium, sport, touring, climate, 4-CD, OnCall
VW Passat GLS V6 3373 FWD no yes no 2 4 BP (139) 75% (12) 5 (377,44) 5 (318,41) 89% (16) 4 (66,87) 26,361 - ? [10] 26,403 ESP
VW Jetta GLI 3179 FWD yes [11] no no 2 or 3 4 (160) ? 5 (373,42) 5 (306,42) ? 4 (59,63) 22,924 - ? [10] 22,567 sound+sunroof, leather, cold weather
Table footnotes:

  1. For frontal tests the IIHS and EU offset tests are more representative of real-world frontal collisions, and are also harder than the NHTSA flat test. Many vehicles do well on the NHTSA test but very poorly on the IIHS or EU test, but most vehicles that do well on the IIHS or EU test also do well on the NHTSA test. For injury stats, note that there is a slight sample bias in terms of the kinds of vehicles good vs. bad drivers typically buy. In assessing the relative importance of different crash tests and safety features like active head restraints, note that according to crashtest.com approximately 48% of collision impacts are frontal, 24% are offset frontal, 24% are side, and the other 4% are rear (figure with specific breakdown at: the response to the rear impact question on their contact page). It isn't clear where crashtest.com got this info. Other sources (such as this report and this report) indicate that the proportion of rear impacts is much higher (20-30%).
  2. One should expect to pay an amount somewhere between dealer cost and CarsDirect's no-haggle price. The dealer needs some profit, but there is no point in paying more than CarsDirect's price when one can simply order through them for that price.
  3. IIHS's frontal offset crash rating (1-4) is provided. BP indicates a "best pick" designation by IIHS. In addition, a simple numerical score (in cm) is computed from IIHS's intrusion measurements as follows: sum of the 4 footwell measurements plus the brake pedal measurement plus 3 times the max of the steering wheel upward or rearward movement plus 3 times the sum of the instrument panel movements and A-pillar movement. I came up with this function based on the 3-to-1 ratio of thresholds in one of the PDF files explaining their ratings.
  4. NHTSA's front crash ratings for driver and then passenger are provided, including the head injury criterion (HIC) and chest deceleration (in g) for each.
  5. NHTSA's side front occupant crash rating (1-5) is provided, including the specific Thoracic Trauma Index (TTI) and pelvis deceleration (in g).
  6. For uniform price comparison, option configurations as similar as possible were used, corresponding roughly to fully loaded except for no navigation system, manual transmission instead of automatic, no upgraded stereo if it was separately optional, no upgraded leather if regular leather or leather seating surfaces were the default, and no 18 inch wheels if 17 inch wheels were already included. This almost always resulted in conifgurations with the following features: leather seats, sport-tuned suspension with 17 inch wheels, xenon/HID headlights, sunroof, heated seats, 60/40 folding rear seat, 6-disc CD changer, telematics (e.g., OnStar), climate control, and sometimes parking assist. Non-metallic black and zip code 94040 were used consistently. Note that it may be difficult to find some vehicles on dealer lots without the additional options like upgraded leather, stereo, navigation, etc., so the cost of some of the vehicles here, notably the Mercedes, BMW, and Audi, may be higher. Of course, it is also possible to skip some options that are included here and/or to go with lower trim levels.
  7. The Saab 9-3 is one of only 4 cars available in the USA ever to receive 5 stars from the European NCAP (New Car Assesment Program) crash tests. The others are the Mercedes C-class and E-class and the Saab 9-5. The C-class and E-class also both performed well in IIHS's test, but did not get top marks in the NHTSA test. It is, admittedly, a bit misleading to tout the 5-star EuroNCAP rating because all of these cars only achieved 5 stars due to a couple extra points awarded for a seat belt reminder that is not directly involved in crashworthiness, but these cars are also the top overall cars (of those sold in the US) ever tested by EuroNCAP in terms of the crash test scores themselves.
  8. Edmunds appears to only pick up GM's Saab manufacturer-to-dealer incentives during the latter half of each month for some reason. The incentive info used here comes from Edmunds, but from 7/21/03 (cars.com agrees on the same date). The GM Supplier Discount site can sometimes be used to find the incentives during the early half of the month (though right now they don't list the different incentives for the different trim levels that the other two sites agree on). It seems likely from the CarsDirect pricing that Edmunds gets most of the rest of the incentive info right and does not miss most of the other vehicles which it listed as not having incentives (VW being the other exception). It is well known currently that the German imports and Infiniti are not using incentives as commonly as GM (which owns Saab) and Ford (which owns Volvo).
  9. Consumer Reports appears to be wrong on this one. The S60 has Volvo's On-Call Plus telematics system available as an option.
  10. I cannot find any info on VW incentive values, but CarsDirect indicates that there are some incentives currently, despite VW chiefs speaking out against high US automaker incentive plans.
  11. The Jetta GLI and a few other top trim levels are the only Jetta trim levels to have brake assist.

Performance and Reliability

measurements engine braking (ft.) handling noise (idle/ full throttle/ 70mph cruising dBA) reliability
vehicle pass- enger vol (cu ft) cargo vol (cu ft) drag coef max torque (lb-ft.) max torque (RPM) fuel economy (city/hwy) (mpg) CR (dry) Road & Track (60-0) Road & Track (80-0) Car & Driver (70-0) Motor Week (60-0) CR (mph) CR rating (1-5) Road & Track (g) Road & Track (mph) Car & Driver (g) Edmunds Car & Driver CR
Saab 9-3 Vector 90 15.1 0.28 221 2500 23/33 [1] 120 [2] 116 209 172 124 [3] 56.0 4 0.86 64.8 0.83 52/78/78 [3] 41/74/67 -10%
Mercedes C320 89 12.2 0.27 221 3000 20/26 132 123 218 172 130 53.5 4 0.84 64.0 0.81 ? 45/71/66 -64%
Audi A4 3.0 90 13.4 0.31 221 3200 18/25 133 125 246 170 131 [3] 54.0 4 0.85 64.1 0.83 <50/73/73 45/79/69 -36%
Infiniti G35 101 14.5 0.27 260 4800 20/27 133 122 218 191 115 54.0 3 [5] 0.86 65.0 0.80 <50/76/76 45/80/70 +21%
BMW 330i 91 10.7 0.31 214 3500 21/30 131 129 230 168 or 186 [4] 103 55.5 4 0.86 65.4 0.83 or 0.78 [4] ? 45/73/69 +12%
Volvo S60 T5 94 13.9 0.28 243 2400 20/27 133 [3] 138 241 177 [3] 121 [3] 52.0 [3] 3 [3] 0.82 61.8 0.77 [3] ? ? +7%
VW Passat GLS V6 92 15 0.27 206 3200 20/28 136 138 253 184 [3] 126 54.5 4 0.74 61.5 0.76 [3] ? ? +4%
VW Jetta GLI 87 13 0.30 195 3200 21/29 139 [3] ? ? ? 123 [3] 51.0 [3] 4 [3] ? ? ? ? ? -91%
Table footnotes:

  1. Most of the fuel economy numbers here come from Edmunds, but Edmunds doesn't yet list the numbers for 9-3 Vector/Arc high output engine, so the 9-3 numbers here are taken from Car and Driver. These numbers come from standardized EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) tests, and so they are comparable regardless of being reported by Edmunds, Car and Driver, or whoever. Update (9/2003): Everyone seems to list different numbers for the 9-3 (despite that they are all supposed to be the official EPA numbers). Road & Track lists 23/30. Edmunds for the 2004s lists 22/30 for the 6-speed manual Aero-formerly-called-Vector, which is worse than the 23/31 that they list for the 5-speed manual Arc with the same engine, which doesn't make sense and also worse than what they list for the automatic Vector, which doesn't make sense either, so I don't trust the Edmunds numbers too much anymore. Fueleconomy.gov doesn't seem to distinguish between the two different versions of the engine, and appears to list only the numbers for the version in the Linear. Whatever the case, it appears that the 9-3 has the best overall fuel economy of the vehicles here. The only question is by how much.
  2. Consumer Reports said of the 9-3: "Braking performance was excellent, achieving the shortest stopping distance we've ever recorded for a sedan." They also said, "on wet pavement, the 9-3 stopped shorter than most cars do on dry."
  3. A different trim level was tested which may have worse performance due to different sized brakes, different tires, and/or different suspension tuning.
  4. Two different tests by the same organization produced different results.
  5. Consumer Reports and Edmunds both commented that the G35's tail had a tendency to spin out when handling at the limit. CR said that lifting off of the gas tended to increase this problem, and also said that the stability control worked hard to keep the tail in line. This is presumably why CR gave it a lower score on their 5-point scale compared with other vehicles with similar speeds in their emergency lane change test.

Summary

Most of the vehicles in the (entry-level luxury) sport sedan class provide a reasonable combination of safety and performance.

The newly redesigned Saab 9-3 appears to stand-out from the rest. It provides an impressive value in safety, performance, and fuel efficiency for the money:

The 9-3 is the most recently redesigned vehicle in this list. Vehicles tend to get better over time as technology and engineering improve, and this may have something to do with it standing out as an impressive value at this point in time (July, 2003). The lower price is also due to the fact that Saab does not have the cachet of the BMW, Mercedes, or Audi marks and thus their price premiums, together with the fact that GM has been one of the biggest advocates and users of cash incentives in recent months.

The Mercedes C-class and Audi A4 are reasonable runner-ups, for more money, with NHTSA front crash test scores that fall short of top marks, and with worse reliability. They are also available with AWD and so become top choices if that is a necessity. The Infinity G35 is impressive for its engine and low price, but has not been crash tested yet.

(The VW vehicles here, which are not typically considered to be in the same entry-level-luxury class, do a commendable job of providing safety and performance almost as good for much less money. Still, compared to the upper-trim level versions of a Jetta or Passat, a base Saab 9-3 is similarly priced and probably provides more safety and comparable performance.)

Other Misc. Notes

If you notice that information for one of the cells with a '?' is available, drop me a note with a pointer.

On sources

Consumer Reports' website requires a subscription to access road test and rating information. Car and Driver's website doesn't seem to make their road test numbers available anymore (or they are well hidden). Back issues of both these magazines (with their numbers) can often be found in local libraries. In addition, many issues of Car and Driver have a couple pages near the end that list a summary of road test numbers from the past several years.

On vehicles not included

The Lexus IS300 is not included because stability control is not available with the manual transmission and its crash test scores are not at the top of this class anyway. The most directly other competitors that also might have been included here are the Jaguar X-Type, Cadillac CTS, Acura TSX and possibly the redesigned Nissan Maxima. Each of these either has crash test scores that don't beat the vehicles here or is too new to have enough test results. If I had infinite time, I'd expand the chart to include all of these vehicles.

The Mazda 6 and Nissan Altima are not really in the same class with the vehicles above, though they are somewhat sporty sedans. They are not included because they are not available with stability control. The Subaru Impreza WRX is not in the same class, and does not have stability control nor head airbags, though perhaps it will in the form of the Saab 9-2 when that debuts within a year. The Jetta and Passat are not really in the same class either, but since they both are available with stability control and head airbags, they are included for comparison (as representatives of the compact/economical sedan and family sedan classes respectively).

On performance figures not included

Acceleration from 0 times are not included because the times that auto magazines report for stationary starts depend on techniques that most drivers just don't do in normal driving. For these vehicles, all of whose weights are reasonably close together, torque is a better measure of how the vehicle will feel to the driver in response to stepping on the gas.


More information about automobile safety.

Other health and safety related consumer info that I've collected. In particular, see the disclaimer.

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Karl Pfleger
kpfleger@cs.stanford.edu
July, 2003