Speed Traps

Five late-model performance sedans, not only fast but hard to resist

In this country performance sedans, fast, luxurious, four-doors with superior handling, have until recently been regarded much like berets, bidets, and going topless, which is to say, very European. American sedans have flourished because of their very lack of flourishes: They were built as transportation. If you wanted an American car with oomph and entertainment value you bought a convertible or coupe.

That began changing a few years ago when German carmakers thought they detected a strong pulse in a small portion of the American car-buying public, drivers wanting more than four-door mausoleums. It turned out to be a tiny but real niche. If not exactly mainstream, touring or grand touring sedans (to give them their European name) have finally taken root here, and are now such a growing breed that even an old-line American marque like Cadillac has an entry—and a surprisingly good one at that.

The models reviewed here—Audi A6, BMW 540i, Cadillac Seville STS, Lexus GS 400, and Volvo S70 T5—all came out in 1997, except the BMW, which made its debut the year before. They are all medium-size automobiles with relatively modest base pricetags: from $34,000 to just over $50,000. They are neither the largest nor the most powerful performance sedans, a category in which prices begin near $70,000 and quickly escalate. All are called five-passenger cars by their manufacturers, and although they have the five seat belts to back that up, in fact in every one rear legroom is tight and the middle rear seat more statistic than reality.

Audi A6

Neither an enlarged A4 or scaled-down A8, the A6 is brand new, and a quantum leap for Audi. This is a sedan that doesn't look like one: The continuous, elliptical roofline, from sloped nose to rounded trunk, makes the A6 appear more like a racy coupe. Inside, the design is very well conceived and executed, particularly the upper portion of the front-door panels, which nicely combines wood trim, brushed aluminum, door hardware, and tiny tweeter speakers into an eye-pleasing whole. The package is nicely rounded off by a host of standard luxury and performance features: 12-way power front seats; 140-watt, eight-speaker audio system (with trunk mounted subwoofer); forged aluminum light-alloy wheels; Tiptronic five-speed automatic transmission (the same technology available in Porsches, and offering up- and down-shifting without a clutch). Given all that, the $33,750 base price represents excellent value.

Even so, it took me some time to fall in love with the deep-blue (Europa Blue Mica) A6 preproduction model I drove for a week. The main problem with this "performance sedan" was performance: The 2.8-liter, 200 hp V-6 is the least powerful engine among these five sedans (0-60 mph in 8.8 seconds): It spends a lot of time at high revs when you push down on the accelerator, and its buzzy noise intrudes on the cabin ambiance.

The suspension was a bit bouncy, too, and the power steering too sensitive for my taste. But I chalked that up to the front-wheel drive, which I always find too responsive at first. (Audi offers a good option in the "quattro IV" all-wheel-drive system, a bargain at $1,650 extra.) The brakes, however—discs on all wheels with an antilock system—were sensational.

An A6 innovation is the choice of three different "atmospheres"—interiors with different seat upholstery, color and type of wood and aluminum trim—at no extra cost. The A6 I drove combined deep-blue trim matching the exterior with café-au-lait leather seats, brushed aluminum, and generous dollops of vavona wood on all four doors, the dash, and center console.

The integrated design is reflected in the audio controls, which are hidden under a pop-up wood panel, and in the pop-out cupholder in the dash. (But why is the second one just a pop-up clip—and in a bad spot, next to the shift lever, to boot?)

Controls are easy to see and use, but while the red-on-black instrument display is effective, it isn't exceptionally legible like those in the Lexus GS 400, Cadillac Seville STS, and BMW 540i. Roominess, trunk space, and passenger cabin storage, especially the hinged pockets in each door, are all topnotch for a medium-size car. Front-seat headroom is good, even with the power sunroof, and the back seats have the greatest amount of rear head- and legroom of the sedans in this survey. Rear-seat passengers also have their own climate-control outlets and reading lights. The trunk is huge, and the back seats fold down if you need more space. The A6 is a sedan that should appeal to the thrifty rake—especially considering the advanced safety features (standard front and side airbags, for instance) and the three-year/50,000-mile free scheduled maintenance program.

BMW 540i

I had long wanted to get my hands on the six-speed manual version of this elegant eight-cylinder beast. For one pretty obvious reason: to see how it feels to go from 0 to 60 mph in 5.8 seconds. The only other cars available with six-speed sticks are Porsche, Ferrari, and Corvette, making the 540i as close as you can get to orbit velocity (the top speed is listed as 155 mph) for about $53,000.

This 540i, the fourth generation of BMW's venerable 5 Series, has been thoroughly redesigned—new body style, new 282 hp V-8 engine, new transmission, new aluminum suspension, and new interior. (The new 528i is pretty much the same car, but with a six-cylinder engine.) It turned out to be fast, agile, responsive, dynamic, versatile—the ultimate performance sedan for less than a fortune. It requires no coaxing to rip (though I confess I never got close to maximum speed), but it does so with élan—as if Godzilla exhibited impeccable manners while leveling Tokyo.

Mine was silver (German racing color) and came with a premium sound system. (That's one of the few options, not for lack of imagination on BMW's part but because so much is standard.) About the only thing I wasn't wild about was the styling, a bit on the generic side despite the dropped nose and sloping hood, which is admittedly pretty racy for a sedan. The all-gray interior and muted burl-walnut trim contrast pleasingly with the performance: This is a sprinter in pinstripes.

Ergonomics, instrumentation, and controls are as good as they get, although the center console armrest has no storage room, just space for a phone. The lighted display is a beauty, with an amber background that provides excellent legibility. The cockpit is designed to maximize the feeling of separate space for driver and passenger, and it has ample headroom, even with a moonroof. As is usual with sports sedans, the back seats are tight and have minimal head- and legroom, though rear-seat passengers have separate climate-control outlets and cupholders. While not huge, the trunk is deep and easily holds six suitcases.

The 540i bursts from a standstill as if zapped with a cattle prod, and gobbles up corners and curves. I liked hearing the husky powerplant at work (a visceral adjunct to driving and one that has been bred out of too many luxury models). Listening to the engine is an important part of manual shifting, as the six-speed gearbox, even though smooth, needs close attention to produce maximum performance.

In short, the 540i is a real driver's car—and BMW has done everything it can to make that a safe experience. All-season traction keeps the manual version under control; third-generation Dynamic Stability Control, along with all-season traction, does the job in automatics. All-wheel disc antilock brakes, front and side airbags, and a new inflatable Head Protection System are all standard. But the real tipoff of driver-friendliness is the left footrest: It is in exactly the right place and at precisely the right angle. Gentlemen, start your egos.

Cadillac Seville STS

The reengineered, redesigned STS is an impressive, even groundbreaking, touring sedan that measures up to the overseas competition in comfort, drive, and performance. In fact, GM says it hopes to sell 20 percent of the production abroad, an astonishing figure for a big American car (although the STS is three inches shorter than its predecessor).

If you've driven earlier models of the STS, you won't believe all the changes that have gone into the latest version. The steeply raked windshield and rear window give this version a racy, Euro-cool look. It also has a fashionably upswept trunk lid, sexy headlight assemblies, and a pair of twin exhausts integrated into each side of the rear fascia (a strip below the bumper), like matched double-barreled elephant guns.

The simple, elegant, all-of-a-piece interior is even more of a departure. Climate controls and audio systems are sensibly designed and placed, the dashboard is nicely proportioned, and the controls match and handle easily. (Even the cupholders—pop-outs placed near the shift lever—are up to snuff.) There is lots of wood and lots of leather. Most appealing of all is the eye-catching instrument display, a pitch-black background over which red speedometer and tachometer indicators hover.

The acceleration is terrific, courtesy of the brutish, 300 hp Northstar V-8, and the handling nimble, abetted by a slick-shifting, four-speed automatic transmission. Safety considerations have moved to the front row: front and side airbags, stability control, all-speed traction control, and four-wheel antilock disc brakes are all standard. On the road, the STS excels in a way I have never experienced in an American car. They've been fast and powerful before—and the STS shows real muscle-car giddyup, growling engine and all—but never handled as well as this. The agile performance comes from the eager-to-shift transmission; surefooted suspension which absorbs bumps but keeps road contact; and StabiliTrak, Cadillac's version of stability control. The STS may not corner with the suavity of some of the other performance sedans (there's no lurch but a little more lean), but for a car like this the handling is pretty close to miraculous. The power steering is solid and unjittery—unusual for a domestic car, and the brakes inspire confidence.

Reinvention for the world market has cost the Cadillac Seville STS a few things: good old American headroom (reduced to European and Japanese standards with the optional sunroof), massive trunk space (it's merely large), and back-seat legroom. But this sedan is so snappy that most people will not even notice.

Lexus GS 400

The trademark Lexus luxury and comfort are here, but this boisterous performer dispels the marque's image as a safe, passionless, deluxe salon on wheels. The all-new GS 400 is smoothly powerful and comes with a generous dose of attitude. That it does so at a base price of $44,800 surely makes BMW and Mercedes-Benz blanch.

The reason for all that zip is the lusty V-8 that produces more power than every other sedan in this survey except the STS (a tie at 300 hp). The GS 400 leaps to 60 mph in only six seconds, making it faster out of the gate than all but the manual BMW 540i. And this road rocket boasts the kind of all-out handling that used to be the province of the Europeans.

I drove an Alpine Silver Metallic model whose sticker price was bumped to nearly $50,000 by the addition of moonroof, rear spoiler, chrome wheels with larger tires, and six-disc in-dash CD auto changer. The styling is sleek but hardly startling, a tad less conservative than might be expected. The elliptical profile, rounded corners, short, dropped nose, and foreshortened, upthrust tail are similar to the Audi A6's in nudging, not breaking, the sedan mold. My two quibbles here are the taillight assemblies, which seem out of scale, and the separate brake lights embedded in the trunk lid, which look a bit odd.

But inside, it's all lap-of-luxury Lexus. The passenger compartment gleams with California walnut-wood trim and leather, and all the bells and whistles are in the right places. The instrument panel display, black indicators on a backlit white field, is striking and highly readable, and the controls are easy to understand and use. The center console is at the right height, and it has real storage space inside. My only caveats are just-adequate headroom; the thick driver's-side door post that partially blocks the side view in a critical area; and the front-seat cupholders, which are well-placed but not the pop-up type.

Of course there are those Lexus subtleties: three-nozzle windshield sprayers and the lack of door-latch buttons, so it's impossible to tell from the outside if the doors have been left unlocked. The back seats are more comfortable than most and afford a little more head- and legroom than all but the Audi A6, and access is excellent because of the deep-cut doors. Back-seat passengers have their own separate air-conditioning controls. Safety is addressed with front and side airbags, four-wheel antilock disc brakes, and a computerized Vehicle Skid Control system.

It's in the driving that the GS 400 shows how different it is from previous Lexus models. The first clue is the steering wheel, which has terrific feel. On it are up- and downshift buttons that allow the driver to control the five-speed automatic transmission. I found them to be almost as responsive as a stick shift. When I punched the downshift button at 40 mph and flicked the accelerator, I was doing 80 in a heartbeat.

The power steering is splendid—a little heavy, the way I like it because it provides maximum control. The brakes are up to the hard driving the car invites, and the brilliant suspension even smooths out speed bumps without sacrificing road feel. The GS 400 powers through curves flat and balanced, just like the BMW 540i, and whines in a distinctly un-Lexus-like fashion when pushed. Of course, I had to roll down a window to actually hear it: The buttoned-up GS 400 is still quiet as a church.

Volvo S70 T5

Turbocharging a Volvo might seem the automotive equivalent of feeding your spinster aunt espresso until she jumps up on the parlor table. But that's what Volvo has done with the S70 T5. It's still a Volvo—there's no mistaking the conservative countenance, even with a more rounded style replacing that square-shouldered Scandinavian look. The only hint that this is a performance sedan is a small spoiler wing (optional) curving over the rear deck, a tiny T5 emblem on the trunk lid, and standard five-spoke alloy wheels. But now, with 236 hp coaxed out of that practical five-cylinder engine, it's a fast Volvo.

In Volvo tradition, it's what's under the S70's skin that counts: safety features such as advanced crumple-zone engineering, standard front and side airbags, and four-wheel antilock disc brakes. True, as in all Volvos, there's no high-speed traction or stability-control system, even as an option, but on the upside, that makes Volvos some of the purest driving machines on the road.

Despite the new design, the S70 T5 is bland as dry toast inside. The color scheme is an unremitting battleship-gray without a speck of wood trim (although it is available as an option in the T5); the instrument display is logical but nondescript; the climate-control and audio systems have rotary switches, knobs, and slides other automakers consigned to the dustbin years ago. The slide-out cupholders are flimsy but in the right place—the center console. There is decent legroom in the back, but no climate-control vents or cupholders.

However, the S70 is a different cat once it gets going. Acceleration is a trifle hesitant from a stop—a characteristic of turbocharged small engines—but after that it has good punch, and the five-speed manual gearbox is remarkably smooth. (There's also a four-speed automatic.)

Handling is easy. The S70 moves deftly—if not exuberantly—through curves, keeping its balance nicely when pushed.

The power steering is responsive, yet not too light; the brakes sure and solid with good pedal feel; engine and road noise are muted even with the windows open; and the comfort factor is right up there with La-Z-Boy. The S70's suspension tames the bumps without losing the road.

There's a kind of antistatus to the S70 T5, and there's nothing wrong with that. But what's most fun about this mild-mannered-looking car is surprising the lingonberries out of a Porsche driver at a stoplight. This good, gray lady can scoot.

Audi A6
Engine: 6 cyl/200 hp
0-60 MPH Secs 8.8
Weight Lbs: 3,473
Mileage MPG-Hwy/Cty: 28/17
Trunk Cu. Ft.: 17.2
Base Price: $ 33,750

BMW 540i
Engine: 8 cyl/282 hp
0-60 MPH Secs 6.4 (auto), 5.8 (man)
Weight Lbs: 3,803 (auto), 3,748 (man)
Mileage MPG-Hwy/Cty: 23/18 (auto), 23/18 (man)
Trunk Cu. Ft.: 11.1
Base Price: $ 51,070 (auto), $ 53,870 (man)

Cadillac Seville STS
Engine: 8 cyl/300 hp
0-60 MPH Secs 6.9
Weight Lbs: 4,001
Mileage MPG-Hwy/Cty: 26/17
Trunk Cu. Ft.: 15.7
Base Price: $ 46,995

Lexus GS 400
Engine: 8 cyl/300 hp
0-60 MPH Secs 6.0
Weight Lbs: 3,690
Mileage MPG-Hwy/Cty: 23/17
Trunk Cu. Ft.: 14.8
Base Price: $ 44,800

Volvo S70 T5
Engine: 5 cyl turbo/236 hp
0-60 MPH Secs n/a
Weight Lbs: 3,333 (auto), 3,272 (man)
Mileage MPG-Hwy/Cty: 25/18 (auto), 25/19 (man)
Trunk Cu. Ft.: 15.1
Base Price: $ 34,985 (auto), $ 34,010 (man)