2004 Big-Money Luxury Sedan Comparison

From the December 2003 issue of Car and Driver.

Let’s just say that a guy who engineers for himself a $197.2 million retirement package as head of the New York Stock Exchange probably doesn’t see himself in a Hyundai. So we’re thinking large this month, inspired by the appetites of Dick Grasso. What’s a good set of wheels for those make-do days when the chauffeur is off?

Has there ever been a better time to be a fat cat? At roughly 70 large, we have three all-new sedans for 2004, another that’s been nicely upgraded, yet another that was so radically redesigned for 2003 we still haven’t, uh, forgiven the maker, and finally, an aging S-class Mercedes-Benz. God knows Mercedes-Benzes don’t have to be new to get respect.

Aluminum is fashionable this season—two of the new guys have light-alloy bodies. One of them even manages to be impressively light. The V-8 Jaguar XJ8 steps off the scale, fully dressed, at 3838 pounds. New money could pretend otherwise in this beauty; the look is an evolution of the svelte shape that’s been winning admirers since it first appeared on the XJ6 in the late 1960s. We should all age so handsomely.

Aaron KileyCar and Driver

At first glance, you get more aluminum for your bucks in the Audi A8L, a hefty 4483 pounds’ worth. In fact, you get more beef, too, some of it invested in the Quattro all-wheel drive, more in the 19-inch tires at each corner, and behold those brake rotors sized to cover manholes. Basic black sheetmetal never looked more potent. Imagine the Terminator in a tuxedo.

Another way of downplaying shiny new cash, at least in theory, is to drive a Volkswagen. With chrome VW emblems the size of salad plates on each end, the Phaeton feigns humility. Just don’t let anyone near enough to see the opulent wood and leather lining of the passenger compartment. Yes, compartment is the right image, kind of the last step up before having your own private railroad car. Although prices have yet to be announced, VW spokesmen estimate $69,800 for the example we tested. And they’re famous for their low-balls.

Aaron KileyCar and Driver

Over the years, BMWs have earned an impressive number of top spots in our comparison tests. But for its all-new 7-series last year, the Munich automaker abruptly changed its winning formula, away from endearing machinery toward an off-putting immersion in control knobbing. The 4.4-liter V-8 is stronger than ever, the chassis packs admirable refinements, but there’s this interface problem. Still, we happily offer second and third chances to anything wearing a BMW label. Let’s give forgiveness one more try.

Nobody, on the other hand, has ever been put off by a Lexus, except masochists. The LS430 treats everybody right. This carmaker puts its efforts into creature comforts and hides the technology behind sumptuous leather. Although this four-door has been around since 2001, upgrades for the new model year include a six-speed automatic, headlights that point where you steer, knee airbags for front occupants, and optional climate-controlled seats both front and back. For those times when Mr. Grasso chooses to be driven, there’s an even better feature, the optional Ultra Luxury package, which elevates back-seat accommodations to the expectations of any Third World dictator. For only $11,320 extra, why not?

Aaron KileyCar and Driver

Of course, dictators are known to prefer Mercedes-Benzes. And the S430 has been pleasing princes, pashas, and potentates since late in the last century. Well, pleasing those willing to forgo the big-V-8 hustle of the S500 and S600, that is. Given Grasso’s current employment status—call him hooted into retirement—we reckon he’s in less of a hurry. But the moderate engine is hardly matched by moderation in price—this Benz is the heavyweight of our bunch at $87,975.

Putting aside the public pickle he’s been in recently, you could argue that Grasso is still one of the luckiest guys on the planet. This staff doesn’t choose new cars for just any mega-mogul. But inquiring minds insist on knowing: What would Dick Grasso drive?

Very well. Let the auditions begin.

Sixth Place: Mercedes-Benz S430

Aaron KileyCar and Driver

The clout of the three-pointed star and the upright Benz grille continue undiminished, but this S-class sedan wearing them is showing its age. The 275-hp V-8 is outgunned by all the others, leaving the S430 in the dust in nearly every acceleration test, and yet ahead of only the Volkswagen in fuel economy. Our 2003-model test car was hobbled with an old five-speed automatic; the 2004 S430—unavailable for this test—gets seven cogs, trumping the six-speeds in the rest of the field. The five-speed is slow to make part-throttle downshifts when you begin to up the pace, and the brakes seem to ignore a great deal of the early pedal travel. Don’t bother me, the Benz seems to say.

HIGHS: The clever shifter that’s always in manumatic, the way the wood drapes in ribbons across the dash and doors, the lusty note of the V-8.
LOWS: Obtuse HVAC controls, gimme-a-minute attitude of the automatic (the brakes, too), awkward driving position.

Aaron KileyCar and Driver

Still, there are high spots. The brilliant console shifter is in the manumatic mode whenever it’s in D. Bump the lever left for downshifts, right for upshifts, or hold briefly to the right for a quick default back up to D from any gear.

This Mercedes was also endowed with road grip exceeded only by that of the BMW. Both were equipped with optional sport suspensions and special-purpose tires. On this car, that means 245/45-18s in front and 265/40-18s in back, both ends labeled Michelin Pilot Sport. In addition to the $5100 initial cost of the tire-and-bodywork package, there will always be a certain inconvenience associated with this larger-in-back tire sizing—the spare can never be right for both ends of the car.

Aaron KileyCar and Driver

What’s the extra road grip worth? Three cars in the group stand above the others, having braking distances of 169 feet or better, and skidpad adhesion above 0.82 g. The grippy trio—Mercedes, BMW, Audi—all wore summer tires. The downside is that the tread wears away faster, and the tires are not suitable for temperatures near freezing or below. Being a New Yorker, Grasso would need a change of shoes for his northern winters. Even when switching is not a financial burden, it’s a nuisance.

The summer-shoes Benz gave a first-rate account of itself as it slipped through the lane-change test at 57.4 mph, 1.7 quicker than the next-best Audi, and 4.3 better than the slow-guy Lexus. When pushed, the S430’s steering response had the athletic tautness we expect of performance tires. Most of the praise for this car came during brisk driving.

Aaron KileyCar and Driver

The Benz ranked last for driver comfort—the driving position is high and awkward—and barely ahead of the Audi for rear comfort. Thigh support back there is lacking almost completely. And we never made friends with the climate control.

For a chart-topping $87,975, we can hold our applause.

THE VERDICT: Fading talent at an ambitious price.

2003 Mercedes-Benz S430
275-hp V-8, 5-speed automatic, 4333 lb
Base/as-tested price: $73,320/$87,975
Interior volume, F/R/trunk: 53/52/15 ft3
60 mph: 7.2 sec
100 mph: 18.3 sec
1/4 mile: 15.5 sec @ 92 mph
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 167 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.85 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 19 mpg

Fifth Place: Volkswagen Phaeton

Aaron KileyCar and Driver

Apart from shocking folks with its chutzpah—a 70-grand Volkswagen!—the Phaeton widens eyes on a few other fronts. The interior is magnificent. So much honey-colored wood burl so artistically shaped! We can’t decide which we like best: sitting up front close to the action as the motorized wood-grain shutters majestically swing up to reveal the dashboard vents, or lounging in back for proper perspective on the long, curving sweeps of furniture along the flanks.

Or maybe it’s the fine chrome detailing of the instrument cluster that fascinates, or the center-stack mosaic of flush-fitting buttons.

HIGHS: Queen Mary detailing inside, jewelrylike instrument cluster, silent operation of powered wood shutters that conceal parts of the dash.
LOWS: So many seat buttons chasing such an elusive comfort spot, body quivers follow each bump, having to agree with VW lawyers before making basic control adjustments.

Aaron KileyCar and Driver

Some of these details look better than they work. The small gauges can’t convey their information at a quick glance. Flush buttons, even large ones, are tricky to find by feel alone. The Phaeton scored behind all but the BMW for ergonomics.

The Phaeton is a lot of VW, 5028 pounds’ worth. Never mind that it issues from the same corporate loins as the Audi A8L and shares the same aluminum V-8—this is a steel car. Add to that 4MOTION, and the scales groan.

The extra 545 pounds over the Audi is offset by more power (335 hp versus 330) and a shorter axle ratio (3.65:1 versus 3.32). They’re neck and neck to 60 mph. The VW slips behind only 0.1 second and 1 mph in the quarter-mile. On the skidpad, the VW actually outperforms the Audi by a tick, darn good considering its four-season tires.

Aaron KileyCar and Driver

By a wide margin, we disliked the steering. It’s light, which is okay if the effort builds in proportion to cornering forces. It doesn’t. So you need to sandpaper your fingertips like a safecracker to feel what’s happening.

Another surprise: The ride is quite harsh, and the body jiggles after impacts. We couldn’t love the seats, either. The adjustment controls in front are complex, rather like first-class on British Airways, but not all of us could find a sweet spot. In back, the seat itself is okay, but the seemingly vast legroom narrows to the Strait of Hormuz on the size-12 Reeboks. Plus, the ride is even shakier back there.

Aaron KileyCar and Driver

Fun to drive? Not really, but there’s lots of marveling at certain behavioral details. You can hear, and feel, the drive-by-wire controller playing the throttle even when your foot doesn’t move, apparently smoothing the engine’s torque quirks. It’s slick at matching engine revs when you lever down a gear. And we can’t remember ever shuttling a power shade under a sunroof before.

Let’s just say this ain’t your father’s Volkswagen.

THE VERDICT: You ain’t seen it all until you’ve beheld a $70,000 VW.

2004 Volkswagen Phaeton
335-hp V-8, 6-speed automatic, 5028 lb
Base/as-tested price: $64,000/$69,800 (est.)
Interior volume, F/R/trunk: 54/55/13 ft3
60 mph: 6.5 sec
100 mph: 17.1 sec
1/4 mile: 15.1 sec @ 94 mph
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 175 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.83 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 17 mpg

Fourth Place: Audi A8L

Aaron KileyCar and Driver

Basic black really works on this car. Let the shape talk. It’s long and assertive. The proportions are powerful. Those tall wheels, 19-inchers, say fast forward. Why the long rear doors? Who’s in there? So mysterious. Should you stare or avert your gaze? It’s gotta be a movie star at the wheel, or a hit man—for sure, somebody important.

Grasso? Let ‘im through!

This Audi will get respect, even for those with sagging poll numbers.

HIGHS: Looks large and in charge, like Mr. Universe in a tuxedo; eye-pleasing interior, too.
LOWS: A bit of a ruffian over bumps, followed by too many jiggles in the body structure; plenty of road noise, too.

You might be thinking: same engine as the Phaeton, and all-wheel drive… Is this the big VW in a different shirt? No, forget that idea. It’s a different car, in both body and behavior. The A8L has a much sportier, more athletic stride. It rides firmly, responds quickly, and makes jock sort of noises over the road. You hear the tires. And the wind. And the V-8 when you leg it. That part sounds especially thrilling. This is luxury that’s proud to be a car, which is different from the Phaeton’s way, which is more like a beautifully built shipping container for people.

Aaron KileyCar and Driver

The cockpit feels like a place for driving. The seat is big and firm and supportive without being confining. The suspension makes reassuring motions. The steering gives confident path control. The dash shapes and textures are pleasing. The computer screen folds away behind a panel in the dash, leaving no trace except for the button that will summon it once more. That’s curious, because we never found a way to seek radio frequencies without the screen.

Performance, by most measures, was average for the group. Zero to 60 in 6.5 seconds will keep you toward the front of most packs, but the BMW, the Jaguar, and the Lexus are a shade quicker.

More troubling, we think, is ride quality. Even though the body structure is entirely different from the Phaeton’s, they both shake after impacts. We have the sense of some significant mass being a little loose in its moorings. A few squeaks and rattles, too.

Aaron KileyCar and Driver

Space for rear passengers is very good, but we liked the Audi seat shape least of all. The backrest ramps forward at the bottom, pushing the editorial butt into a bad-posture place. “Oddly shaped” applies to the outside door handles as well. The backside feels angled in a way that slides your fingers off the handle when you pull.

Bottom line, the Audi is our first choice as something to stand beside for photos. When the numbers are all added, however, it earns just 178 out of 220 possible points, ahead of the VW by a clear margin but one point behind that German we still can’t forgive.

THE VERDICT: Beautiful to look at, but disappointing in conversation.

2004 Audi A8L
330-hp V-8, 6-speed automatic, 4483 lb
Base/as-tested price: $69,190/$74,690
Interior volume, F/R/trunk: 53/54/18 ft3
60 mph: 6.5 sec
100 mph: 16.4 sec
1/4 mile: 15.0 sec @ 95 mph
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 169 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.82 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 19 mpg

Third Place: BMW 745i

Aaron KileyCar and Driver

This is a driver’s car for geeks with pixel-deprivation anxiety—can’t bear being out of sight of a screen (see sidebar,”Who Asked for the Lawyer Screen”). If it went back to a friendlier way of dealing with people, we’d love it.

It has winning moves, thanks in part to a strong engine and the optional $3200 Sport package (which includes a sport suspension and summer tires). Path accuracy of the steering is mostly very good, but the 19-inch Michelins are pulled off the line by road irregularities. Different-sized drivers can all find a happy working relationship with the controls. The big, solid dead pedal for the left foot is placed just right.

HIGHS: Big power when you want it, poise on the back roads, unlimited legroom up front.
LOWS: In-your-face contrariness of ordinary cockpit controls, bad-dream location of steering-wheel shift buttons, pulling our gaze off the road to look at the &@*# screen

Aaron KileyCar and Driver

By a small yet repeatable margin, it outruns all the others. Zero to 60 mph clocks 0.3 second ahead of the second-best Lexus. It clears the quarter-mile 0.2 second and 1 mph up on the No. 2 Jaguar. And it grips the skidpad at 0.87 g, better than the second-best Mercedes by 0.02 g.

The BMW earned top marks for stopping—163 feet from 70 mph, four feet better than the summer-tired Benz. Fuel economy on our 750-mile test trip was 19 mpg, right on the group’s average.

Aaron KileyCar and Driver

Ride is reassuringly firm in front, and hang-on stiff in back, by far the roughest of the bunch. BMW has gone to an adaptive suspension—road sensing, you might say—to limit certain suspension trade-offs. In turns, it resists big roll angles, then softens in straights to ease the head-toss motions associated with roll-resistant suspensions. We think that part works very well. It also does a nice job of limiting the impact noise of the tires. But the vertical accelerations felt by rear passengers are just plain unkind.

We don’t think dignitaries will ever be happy back there. The door armrests fade away just at the point where you need them most, and there’s only a single vanity mirror centered over the tunnel. It swivels, requiring vanities to wait their turns.

The 745i is also less appealing than all the others in its interior design. It’s solemn inside, maybe even gloomy. The wood is stained so dark it masks the grain. The center cockpit shapes and details put priority on access to the odious control knob. And the screen, with its relatively fine print and odd abbreviations, is hard to decipher, practically impossible with polarized sunglasses. Moreover, it’s tediously slow to load new menus.

Aaron KileyCar and Driver

Do you get the idea this is the car we love to disparage?

THE VERDICT: So relentlessly high-tech even the dashboard wood looks virtual.

2004 BMW 745i
325-hp V-8, 6-speed automatic, 4545 lb
Base/as-tested price: $69,195/$79,145
Interior volume, F/R/trunk: 55/50/18 ft3
60 mph: 6.0 sec
100 mph: 15.3 sec
1/4 mile: 14.6 sec @ 97 mph
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 163 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.87 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 19 mpg

Second Place: Jaguar XJ8

Aaron KileyCar and Driver

Even after a hard look, it would be easy to mistake this for an older model. Jaguar stepped into deep don’t-do back in the 1980s when it “modernized” the replacement for the original XJ6. Square headlights? Digital gauges? Crisp fenders? Would-be customers held their noses. After years of mea culpas and face-lifting back to ’70s grandeur, the just-replaced sedan finally got The Look back. Now Jaguar restates it in aluminum, with just enough letting out at the seams to get big-car space in the back seat.

HIGHS: Confident in its Jaguarness; light and agile and quick on its feet, with a cockpit computer that knows its place.
LOWS: Steering gets nervous in rainy high-speed cruising, there’s a longish pedal stroke before serious braking begins, cockpit is rather intimate for such a big car.

Jaguar always saw its cars as roadgoing sports jackets. An intimate cockpit was part of the deal, a narrow space for the driver with the console right up close, and a low roof. The theme carried on to the rear, style and grace with four doors.

Aaron KileyCar and Driver

The new XJ8 is remarkably faithful to that original idea. The driver’s space is still narrow. The wood and leather surroundings seem close and personal. The market insists on a useful back seat for its $64,595, and the XJ8 delivers, but there’s less leg and foot space than in the others. The old headroom shortage has finally been cured, however.

Even though the ride quality back there is quite good, and sound is nicely muted, you shouldn’t think, even for a minute, that Jaguars are about back seats. This new car never forgets its sporty DNA. The steering is light and quick and very sharp. You point it down the road by instinct, and it knows where to go. It’s quick to your spurs, too, lively, eager. The six-speed flicks down readily. The V-8 reads your mind. This car feels spirited in a way that the others never match.

Aaron KileyCar and Driver

Light weight is always its own celebration. F=ma is not subject to negotiation. With less m than the others, and 294 horsepower worth of F from the aluminum 32-valver, the XJ falls just behind the BMW in 0-to-100 sprints and in the quarter-mile. On our test trip, it tied the Lexus for best fuel economy, at 21 mpg.

The cockpit is quiet and peaceful. The body never jiggles. Nothing upsets this car, although it does get tentative, even nervous, at speeds nearing three digits.

Aaron KileyCar and Driver

This Jaguar has a purity about it that’s missing in the others. It’s not stuffed with distractions in the way the Phaeton is, or annoyances like the BMW. It’s a car, with a simple presentation of those things you need to be comfortable, and no froufrou. Yes, it scored lowest on our Features/ Amenities rating. No power-folding mirrors, no “parking assist” to sound a beeper as your bumper nears some object.

A gizmo-free luxury car? What a brave and wonderful idea.

THE VERDICT: Traditional Jaguar flavor expressed in 21st-century alloys.

2004 Jaguary XJ8
325-hp V-8, 6-speed automatic, 3838 lb
Base/as-tested price: $59,995/$64,595
Interior volume, F/R/trunk: 56/50/17 ft3
60 mph: 6.3 sec
100 mph: 15.8 sec
1/4 mile: 14.8 sec @ 96 mph
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 185 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.79 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 21 mpg

First Place: Lexus LS430

Aaron KileyCar and Driver

If you just walked up and asked, we’d say this is not a Car and Driver sort of car. But like gravity, the Lexus kept pulling on us. It’s so confident. It does so many things beautifully. It’s like the salesman who never quits, and finally, you find yourself agreeing with him.

HIGHS: Gorgeous interior details, whipped-cream ride, silky shifts, rear-seat accouterments to dazzle the most demanding potentate.
Tires eager to squeal, brakes eager to make big whoa instead of deft modulations, never very involving on the back roads.

Aaron KileyCar and Driver

The Lexus ride is unmatched in this group. There’s a switch on the dash that lets you make it a little worse if you must. Go ahead, if more sinew in the suspenders makes you think handling is better.

If you really want muscles, opt for the sport suspension with 18-inch summer tires. The 17s on the test car were quick to moan when pushed. Skidpad grip was weakest of all, 0.73 g. But don’t confuse that with stumbling behavior. This is an agile dancer wearing slippery shoes.

It’s best that you have a light touch on the controls when you hustle. The steering and the brakes are almost delicate in their feel. You must caress them. And when you do, the responses come with precision. Still, this sedan is at its best on the expressway. The steering knows exactly where straight ahead is, and the faster you go, the more it locks onto that heading.

Aaron KileyCar and Driver

Acceleration is brisk: second best to 60 mph; third in the quarter, at 95 mph, as it showed taillights to three of the four Germans. Yet its fuel economy on our trip tied the Jag’s at 21 mpg, topped the Audi’s, BMW’s, and Benz’s by 2 mpg, and bettered the VW’s by 4. All that plus the sound of ripping silk when you toe into the power. Oh, yes.

Power, though, is something you take for granted in this class. It’s the Lexus interior that keeps amazing. Are pleasure palaces this fine? The Ecru leather is so soft ($1460). The seat is such a perfect shape, and amazingly, it feels that way for every driver. The wood grain is so radiant, so expressive, so intricate and self-illuminating . . . how often must you change the batteries?

Aaron KileyCar and Driver

Unlike Jaguar, Lexus mounts a full-frontal gizmo attack, particularly with the optional Potentate package ($11,320) that turns the back seat into hedonist heaven. There’s a power slider that puts you into recline, heaters and coolers in the cushion, a tingler/tickler somewhere in the backrest to give you that Magic Fingers massage, plus cup holders, window shades, light dimmers, door closers, a refrigerator, your own back-seat air conditioner, and—are you ready?—an “optical deodorizer.” We forgot to test it! Well, the back seat is just not our promised land.

But if Dick Grasso is buying, yes, thanks, we’ll have one in Cypress Pearl, and have his people call our people as soon as it’s ready.

THE VERDICT: The next step up from silk underwear.

2004 Lexus LS430
290-hp V-8, 6-speed automatic, 4271 lb
Base/as-tested price: $55,750/$70,380
Interior volume, F/R/trunk: 57/48/18 ft3
60 mph: 6.3 sec
100 mph: 16.4 sec
1/4 mile: 14.9 sec @ 95 mph
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 179 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.73 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 21 mpg

Who Asked for the Lawyer Screen?

None of the cars in this test will give you full control until you agree with their company lawyers. In some, you must do so every time you start up. The screen opens with a warning that such devices in cars are unholy distractions. You must click on “I agree.”

Navigation systems work best when they show you where to go; that means some sort of display.

Does any other in-car feature need such detailed visuals? Probably not (forget e-mail in cars). Yet the latest luxo crop has become screen dependent, to the point of ruination in the 7-series BMW.

“It wouldn’t be that bad if they changed a few things.” That’s from the staff’s most ardent 745i defender. The majority of us think iDrive, as BMW calls its computer interface, needs a clean-sheet redesign.

Aaron KileyCar and Driver

BMW tried to take over control of HVAC, audio, chassis settings, trip info, navigation, etc., with a screen. You make your choices with a single knob that turns, toggles, and clicks; it’s a mouse substitute. Worse yet, the company forced ordinary controls into some contortion of the knob thing; for example, you must select the part of the seat you want to adjust by pressing a button, then twist or toggle a knob to make it move. Okay, but what was wrong with the old way?

In fact, the 745i has buttons and rockers scattered about the dash that let you adjust HVAC and do very basic radio/CD changes without using iDrive. But they’re so haphazard in their logic that they only add to the annoyance.

We’ve given iDrive 18 months to persuade us. It failed. Now the F is in ink. Fearless prediction: The 745i will take a beating on resale.

BMW’s pickle is made worse by the fact that it’s all by itself at the irritating extreme. The Jaguar and the Lexus are very friendly; they have touch screens, surely the easiest input method, and they provide full HVAC and entertainment control without the screen. In fact, you needn’t agree with their lawyers if you don’t use the navigation.

Audi and VW are almost as screen-centric as BMW, but they have a critical improvement: Separate buttons, well-labeled, bring up the various menus. Their graphics are also vastly superior to BMW’s. We find them relatively easy to operate, particularly the VW’s.

Like Jaguar and Lexus, Mercedes doesn’t force you to use the system for trivial jobs, but the basic controls operate on their own quirky logic.

The lawyers are right: Screens are distracting. And the friendliest cars depend on them the least. —PB

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Fredrick R. Siegel

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