SO YOU'RE IN the market for a well-dressed sedan and just can?t bring yourself to buy another Honda Accord? Good news. There are lots of attractive, fun-to-drive sedans on the market right now. I recently drove three, ranging in price from about $26,000 to more than $40,000.
To make things more interesting, the $40,000 car and one of the two less expensive models were, in many respects, the same car under the skin. Automakers boast to the press about how many models they can make using the same basic chassis and lots of shared parts. But consumers wonder, will the cars really be distinctive or merely look-alikes bearing different price tags?
To find out, I compared the Volkswagen Passat and the Audi A6 -- both products of Germany?s Volkswagen and derived from the same basic underpinnings. The Passat is a slick Euro family car priced in the middle $20,000 range. The A6 is a luxury sedan with ambitions of bashing BMW in the $30,000-and-up class. Under the skin, the Passat and the A6 are kissing cousins. Both, for example, have 2.8-liter, 30-valve V-6 engines.
I compared the Passat and the A6 with the redesigned Nissan Maxima for 2000. Like the two German four-doors, the new Maxima, which is hitting showrooms now, tries to appeal to a driver who likes some muscle under the hood, firm handling and luxury touches at a subpremium price.
Nissan won?t like my saying this, but the Maxima fills the same niche for baby boomers that Buick and Oldsmobile filled for our parents. It?s a largish car with more prestige, panache and power than a Chevy, but for less money than a Cadillac.
I drove the Maxima first and found it a reliable performer. The 222-horsepower, 3.0-liter V-6 engine packs a solid punch, particularly in passing maneuvers. My car had a four-speed automatic, but a five-speed manual is available.
The ride was firm but not too stiff. Detroit?s roads are some of the roughest, most crater-ridden tracks this side of Albania, and they put just about any vehicle?s ride and handling to a severe test. The Maxima handled the jolts well.
Inside, the Maxima?s redone interior sports the latest in automotive fashion, such as polished chrome trim around the floor-mounted shifter and on the radio knobs. My test model came with black leather seats, a sunroof and other goodies, such as a rear seat that folded down to allow you to pass skis or other long cargo through from the trunk.
The 1999 top-of-the-line Maxima GLE had a base price of $27,419 (all prices include destination charges). For the new model, Nissan is cutting prices. The most basic, manual transmission-equipped Maxima GXE will start at $21,569, while the top-of-the-line Maxima GLE with automatic starts at $26,769, down $650 from the comparable 1999 model.
Next up was the Volkswagen Passat GLX. Never mind why, but I picked up this car in a dark airport parking lot at the end of a very long day that involved around 1,500 miles of same-day, round-trip air travel, crummy food, hectic meetings?the works. Despite all that, the Passat had me grinning before I?d gotten to the end of the freeway on-ramp. Why? Simple. This car just goes like -- well, it goes fast. It?s not that the Passat?s V-6 engine is excessively powerful. It?s rated at 190 hp. But the combination of its relatively light weight and snazzy technology -- each cylinder has five valves and a fancy system that varies the intake and outflow to achieve maximum efficiency -- makes this sedan surprisingly rapid on the road. My "fjord blue" Passat sedan didn?t seem happy until it was running at about 80 miles per hour.
Adding to the fun was the five-speed "Tiptronic" automatic transmission, a $1,075 option on the GLX model. You can operate this transmission two ways -- like a standard set-and-forget automatic or like a manual that doesn?t have a clutch.
The Passat isn?t perfect. While it competes in the family sedan market, the car is a touch smaller inside than leaders in the class. For example, front leg room is 0.6 inches tighter in the Passat than in an Accord, and Passat rear-seat passengers have 1.5 inches less shoulder room than they would find in the Honda. Plus, German engineers still don?t understand cupholders. The Passat?s delicate little contraption isn?t big enough for the kinds of drinks Americans like.
Finally, I stepped into an A6 Quattro, the cushiest of this lineup of four-doors. If you look at it right, you can see the family resemblance to the Passat in the A6?s roof line. But the Audi is actually a smidgen bigger all around than the Passat. The A6 front-wheel drive has a 17.2-cubic-foot trunk, the Quattro 15.4 cubic feet, compared with 15 in the Passat. And passengers get about an inch more shoulder room in the Audi?s backseat.
The A6?s interior is richer looking, with abundant wood trim and soft leather seats, as well as color-coordinated leather trim on the doors. The dashboard and console are less cluttered.
The Audi?s performance on the highway was also more sedate, befitting a luxury car. While the A6?s version of the VW 2.8-liter, 30-valve V-6 engine delivers 200 hp, the A6 Quattro car is about 200 pounds heavier than the Passat. That?s not a big difference, and it?s explained largely by the all-wheel-drive system. But it makes a difference in the way you feel behind the wheel.
Like the loaded Passat, the A6 Quattro came with a Tiptronic automatic, but as a standard feature. Options included a $1,300 "audio package," with a six-disc CD changer in the trunk, and an $800 "cold weather package," which covered heated front and rear seats, a sack for stowing skis and -- get this -- a heated steering wheel.
I found one of the A6?s luxury features more trouble than it was worth. Like others in this class, the A6 has a system for saving the settings of the driver?s seat and steering wheel. Given that you can adjust the seats 12 ways, this could be handy. But I never got the memory system to work properly. And yes, I did too read the directions.
But I looked good in my racing-green A6. At a Dearborn deli, the guy who brought out the 4-foot-long sub sandwich that I?d been sent to pick up was impressed.
"That?s my dream car! I love that European look," he said. The Audi, he explained, looks muscular because the wheels are pushed out to the edge of the car. He?s right. So many American cars still have bodies that hang over the plane of the wheels like a beer gut spilling over the belt line.
To my delight, the A6 easily accommodated the huge sandwich, and the deli guy expressed more admiration before delivering his parting shot: "It?s probably too expensive."
He had that right. This loaded A6 Quattro runs a total of $41,275, including the all-wheel drive and other options.
Certainly, the Audi A6 looks like a bargain compared with a BMW 528i sedan, which starts at about $39,470 and goes up from there. But was the A6 really more comfortable and fun to drive than the loaded Passat, which for 1999 starts at $28,675? Is it really a better value than a well-dressed Maxima GLE -- which starts at $26,769 and goes up to $28,866 with the optional $899 Bose sound system, $899 power sunroof and $299 traction-control system? Not in my book.
Of this trio, the Passat gave me the most fun per dollar, with the Maxima a close second because of Nissan?s decision to cut the price even as it boosted horsepower. Of course, the prestige of the Audi name and the Quattro all-wheel-drive system aren?t available on the Passat or the Maxima. But that?s a tradeoff some people would consider quite fair while kicking out the jams on the morning commute.
-- By Joseph B. White