Even if you've never owned a luxury car, you know the big players because they've been around so long: Audi A4, BMW 3 Series, Mercedes-Benz C-Class. These veterans of the compact luxury sports sedan class have fresh targets on their backs from the all-new Alfa Romeo Giulia and Jaguar XE.
Now with more choices than ever, we gathered seven luxury sports sedans to see if the segment stalwarts still have the goods. BMW won this Challenge in 2013, but could redesigns from Audi and Mercedes trump the Bimmer, or could the new Italian Alfa Romeo Giulia or British Jaguar XE throw a — what's that classic German idiom? — oh, yes, throw a spanner into the Germans' sausage?
We focused on the turbocharged four-cylinder that's ubiquitous to the class and is, for most models, the volume-selling Used Engine . The 2017 competitors were the Alfa Romeo Giulia Ti, Audi A4 2.0T Quattro, BMW 330i, Cadillac ATS 2.0T Luxury, Jaguar XE 25t Prestige, Lexus IS 200t and Mercedes-Benz C300. Our price requirement was a max of $55,000 including destination charges and options, and that got us a range of sedans from $45,830 to $53,025 with a mix of drivelines: The A4, Giulia and C300 had all-wheel drive and the rest rear-wheel drive. Infiniti declined to participate with a Q50 2.0t, and Mercedes didn't have a car available that fit our requirements, though we procured one, which we explain in the C300 summary below.
Judges for this Challenge were three reviewers and an in-market shopper invited to get an everyman's perspective. Our man, Stan Breon, 57, currently drives a 2006 BMW 330i sedan, so he is familiar with the class. He also owns a 2013 Land Rover Range Rover Sport plus a 1967 Jaguar E-Type (we should have told him he could drive ours only if we could drive his). We recruited Breon through 's consumer panel, The Driver's Seat Community, which is where users can go to share experiences using and get a peek under the hood of new features before they're released to the public.
- Joe Bruzek, managing editor
- Mike Hanley, senior editor
- Joe Wiesenfelder, executive editor
- Stan Breon, in-market shopper
Now, let's get it on:
7 2017 Lexus IS 200t ($47,523), 606 points
The verdict: "The IS 200t's low price is a plus," said Wiesenfelder, "but Lexus needs to add some size, remove some weight and comprehensively rethink major aspects of this model."
A turbocharged four-cylinder Used Engine is relatively new territory for Lexus and the IS 200t, which only just received the Used Engine for the 2016 model year — though this car has been around in a similar shape since the 2014 model year. The 2017 IS 200t F Sport we tested wore the aggressively tuned F Sport suspension, summer tires and wild front and rear styling that, combined with the Ultrasonic Blue Mica paint, gave the IS a big presence on the road. The Lexus wasn't short on features, but it came up short (rather, dead last) in acceleration.
What They Liked
Instruments: The IS' cabin is performance-themed, with a motorized, center-mounted tachometer and F Sport aluminum pedals and steering wheel. Wiesenfelder explained, "I know it's not expressly functional, but some motorized features are cool, and I've always liked the way this Lexus gauge cluster moves to reveal a larger screen when you hit a button on the steering wheel."
Front seats: The F Sport's front seats blended the luxuriousness of the Audi's stately chairs with the support of the Cadillac's Recaros for a winning package. "The front seats expertly blend comfort and support," Hanley said. Wiesenfelder added, "I wanted a little more thigh support, but overall I found the seats rather comfortable — supportive but not hard."
Handling: The F Sport's handling package paired with optional summer tires create one heck of a proficient autocrosser. Judges appreciated the grip and how the Lexus wasn't too eager to light up the tires like some of the others.
What They Didn't
Drivetrain: Despite similar power numbers as competitors, the IS 200t didn't hold its own in straight-line acceleration. Wiesenfelder explained, "Apart from being the pokiest overall, the IS 200t is woefully unresponsive for the first second or two off the line. The Lexus has the same horsepower rating and almost the same curb weight as the Mercedes — and an additional transmission gear — yet it was 1.3 seconds slower to 60 mph and 1 second slower in the quarter-mile. Remarkable."
Multimedia system: Lexus has multiple versions of its Remote Touch multimedia system, and judges favored the joystick in the IS 200t compared with the touchpad in the Lexus RC coupe, but both are more complicated to use while driving compared with similar rotary or touchscreen systems. "With its joystick-like controller, the Remote Touch multimedia system is abysmal to use," Hanley said. Breon echoed these thoughts, saying, "It's not smooth, it's jerky. You're gonna have to look at it the whole time. I'm not a fan of this."
Cabin quality: The gauges were a highlight of the IS' interior. From there, however, there wasn't much praise. "Unlike the ATS, which uses many different surfaces and textures successfully, the Lexus fails," Wiesenfelder explained. "The textured black panel is OK, but the expanse of sparkly gray plastic on the center console is super cheap. The faux metal on the steering wheel and armrests is clearly not authentic and, unlike the others that include imitation metal, it's right there where you touch it and get reminded it's not genuine. I don't like the touch-sensitive temperature sliders, and though they're real buttons, the ones below are tiny and chintzy. The other cars have a nice, woven headliner. The IS' appears to be spandex."
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6 2017 BMW 330i ($47,345), 648 points
The verdict: "The model that smoked its competitors four years ago in a previous Challenge is already struggling," said Wiesenfelder.
BMW's 3 Series won the last luxury sports sedan comparison, and it did so without breaking a sweat. Oh, how the tables have turned: The 3 Series received an update in 2016 but hasn't been given a big refresh like the A4 or C-Class, both of which have undergone radical changes since that last comparison. It shows: More than just being outdated in some ways, the as-tested 3 Series wasn't the best suited for our handling course or much of any dynamic driving.
It was a base-suspension car — not the M Sport like before — and came with winter tires, which we received in Atlanta during a spell of 90-degree spring days. With only one available day of performance testing and a narrow window of weather, we had to press on testing with the winter tires. As-equipped, the BMW 330i we tested is a generic-driving "Ultimate Driving Machine"; it takes the optional M Sport Package and optional Track Handling Package with summer tires and sport steering to turn this BMW into a sports sedan more on par with the Giulia, and ours didn't have those goodies.
What They Liked
Engine and transmission: Judges noted the BMW's Used Engine and transmission refinement have held up well despite being one of the oldest combos of the bunch. Hanley said, "With good low-end power and a quick-shifting automatic transmission, the 330i's drivetrain is a highpoint." The 330i did well in acceleration testing.
Ride quality: Judges commented that the suspension is super plushy and pairs well with the soft tires to make ride quality fit for back-pain sufferers everywhere. "For a car without an adaptive suspension, which the A4 had as an option, it rides nicely, comfortably," Wiesenfelder noted. Hanley added, "Likely helped by winter tires, the 330i's ride was comfortable."
IDrive controls: Though it had a rough start, BMW has continuously refined its iDrive controls, and many judges thought this version was one of the better examples. "BMW's iDrive multimedia system is intuitive and features a high-resolution dashboard screen," Hanley noted. Wiesenfelder added, "The older version of iDrive in this car doesn't have the improved graphics of newer BMWs, but it's pretty easy to use compared with the latest version of Audi's Multi Media Interface." Breon also noted iDrive had an "intuitive, good feel to it, solid. I think the menu's great."
What They Didn't
Brake-pedal feel: More than the long stopping distances, Wiesenfelder took offense to the brakes. "You can blame the tires for the long stopping distance but not the pedal feel. It's nonlinear when you apply, and they just let go immediately when you begin to release. Surprisingly, the worst of the group."
Cabin quality: Even with some interior options like real leather replacing the standard leatherette, our BMW's inside didn't stand out. "Our test car's leather upholstery was a $1,450 option, but the stuff doesn't feel or look like leather; I first thought it was simulated leather," Hanley said. Wiesenfelder added, "When you're willing to spend the money, the 3 Series has some nice materials, and quality finishes extend all the way down the doors unlike some cars here. But somehow, the leather-wrapped steering wheel feels like urethane, and other aspects can be perceived only as cheap: plain, two-dimensional gauges; one power-lock button for the whole car, inconveniently located in the center of the dashboard; and a turn-signal stalk that springs back to center rather than stays where you put it — a design abandoned in other models." And Breon, a 3 Series owner, wasn't seeing anything that surprising inside: "If you're a BMW customer, it's not radically new."
Value: "At $47,345 as equipped, it was one of the more affordable cars, but even after taking that into account, the 330i is relatively expensive for what you get," Wiesenfelder said. Other cars had more features for the money, like the Lexus and its suite of collision avoidance features for nearly the same price as the BMW.
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5 2017 Jaguar XE Prestige ($50,458), 667 points
The verdict: "The XE was a blast to drive on our autocross course," said Hanley, "but on regular roads, it lost some of its magic and felt less interesting."
Along with the Alfa Romeo Giulia, the 2017 Jaguar XE is the other all-new competitor looking to shake up the status quo. As you can see, the fifth-place Jaguar didn't hit as hard as some of the others, and a lot of what we didn't like is with the Jag's fundamental shape and layout, not how it came equipped. The Jaguar excelled in the fun department, however, with a fantastic dynamic experience.
What They Liked
Fun to drive: The XE is one of the most entertaining cars to drive, and on the handling course let the judges experience tight handling and a surprising amount of grip from its all-season tires. "The XE was a lot of fun to drive on our autocross course and was the easiest to steer with the gas pedal," Hanley said. Wiesenfelder agreed: "If you like a rear-wheel-drive car you can steer with your right foot, the XE is for you. It has wonderful balance and controllability, and it will let you hang the tail out all day long — though more power would certainly help in this regard. The steering is among the best here."
Ride quality: The Jag's proficient handling didn't come at the sacrifice of ride quality, which is a tough balancing act that many don't do well. Wiesenfelder said, "For a car with its handling capabilities, the XE's ride is comfortable — without an adaptive suspension," and Hanley agreed: "The suspension delivers a good balance between ride comfort and handling." Breon added, "This is your daily driver. It's very comfortable."
What They Didn't
Cabin design: The XE isn't an uncomfortable car seating-wise, but judges noted the cabin is claustrophobic with small, narrow windows, a high beltline and thick pillars. Judges also thought the XE needed more sprucing up. "Taking chances in cabin design can pay off (ATS) or fail (IS 200t)," said Wiesenfelder. "Not taking chances is risky in itself, and the XE's austere design shows the pitfalls. It needs more adornment, maybe more color. And the doors' larger speaker grilles look plasticky and cheap." "I'm not sure I'm wild about the plastic," Breon added about the interior's black trim.
Cabin storage: Other than a small cubby forward of the pop-up rotary gear selector, there wasn't much in the way of open storage. "Maybe Brits don't carry as much with them, but I need more storage space in the cabin," said Wiesenfelder. "The door pockets are wee. The center console employs a wonderful rotary dial gear selector but then doesn't capitalize on its space-saving nature: The knob motors upward to sit all alone on a broad platform, on display like it's the freakin' Hope Diamond; meanwhile, the drive mode controls, cupholder and too-small storage bin get shoved way back. Hello? Mates?"
Steering feel: A minor knock against the XE, which drives so well, is the steering feel that's a little looser than the ATS. "Looser, lazier steering feel isn't as rewarding as the ATS," Hanley said. The truth is, however, that that goes for just about every car other than the ATS, which had the favorite steering of the bunch.
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4 2017 Cadillac ATS 2.0T Luxury ($45,830), 682 points
The verdict: "An athletic performer that keeps up with the best of the lot but could stand to be a good bit larger," said Wiesenfelder.
Almost as old as the BMW, the Cadillac ATS has held up well with incremental updates keeping the sedan fresh since our 2013 test. The ATS' $45,830 as-tested price was the lowest of the group this time around, which was a different approach from our previous test, where the ATS' $45,775 price was the highest. The ATS in this test was rear-wheel drive and had the optional Carbon Black Package, a racy package adding Recaro sport seats, carbon-fiber interior trim, a blackened grille and wheels, and a rear spoiler. Cadillac also checked the box for a brake upgrade package with slotted rotors and upgraded pads. In the end, the ATS scored fourth in this comparison, which was also its ranking in the last one, though perhaps more impressive because it edged out three others cars instead of two, including the 3 Series that won last time.
What They Liked
How it drives: The ATS' driving experience remains a strong point. "I really liked the ATS' steering tuning. It's quick, direct and engaging," said Hanley. Wiesenfelder added, "Great rear-wheel-drive handling combines with possibly the best steering of the group. Though I preferred the Jaguar XE's nimbleness and balance, the ATS was fun at lower speeds as well."
Value: At its low price, the ATS included a heated steering wheel, real leather seats, wireless phone charging and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration, which aren't a given in this class yet, and having them is a leg up not only because other cars didn't have them but also because you rely less on using Cadillac User Experience's distracting touch-sensitive controls. "The ATS had the lowest starting price in our Challenge, and its as-tested price was far below the others, yet it delivered the goods. You can spend a little more on options — or step up to a higher trim level with more power and features for roughly the same cost as the tested competitors," said Wiesenfelder.
Cabin design, quality: The Carbon Black Package adds real carbon-fiber trim to the interior, which was one of the interior materials that stood out to judges. Wiesenfelder explained, "Like the Lexus, the ATS dabbles in many different finishes for one cabin, but Caddy does it right. It's not loaded with real metal, but neither does it have fake stuff that fools no one. Even the seats, which I found uncomfortable, look good. A Cadillac's interior is as distinctive as its exterior."
What They Didn't
Multimedia system: Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are merely a bandage on a difficult-to-use entertainment system. "CUE's overreliance on touch-sensitive controls hurts the user experience," Hanley said. Breon remarked, "It's an awkward system" at first use of CUE and after evaluating all the others.
Small backseat: The suspension may be livable, but judges didn't find as much to like in the backseat, not helped by the Recaros seatbacks that intrude into rear passenger space. "The backseat is too small," Wiesenfelder said. "To my way of thinking, if you don't want to use the backseat, buy the ATS coupe. If an automaker is going to have two versions, the four-door's backseat should be more accommodating." Hanley agreed: "The backseat is very small, with limited headroom and a knees-up seating position." Breon added that from the backseat, "My head was touching the ceiling."
Recaro seats: While some took offense to the bulging Recaro seatbacks in the backseat, others didn't like how they fit when seated in them. Wiesenfelder explained, "Those optional sport seats have many adjustments, but none of them backed off the bolsters far enough to feel comfortable to me. Meanwhile, the head restraint isn't adjustable at all — nor is the bottom cushion length, and it's needed. Everything I've cited is the opposite in the Giulia's great seats."
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3 2017 Mercedes-Benz C300 ($53,025), 707 points
The verdict: "In a class where most models strive to be sporty, the C300 keeps the focus on luxury with its premium interior and comfortable ride," said Hanley.
We invited Mercedes to participate in this comparison, but it didn't have a vehicle in its media fleet that met our $55,000 price requirement. Because the C300 is one of the newer redesigns, a high-volume seller and was named 's Best of 2015, we procured one through a broker matched to our specs, attempting to mirror the rest of the field's equipment. That included the optional sport suspension, AMG styling, upgraded Burmester stereo, head-up display, heated steering wheel and more. In all, the $53,000 price tag was the highest of the group. The C300 didn't excel in any particular area but posted consistently higher-than-average scores across the board to be the sleeper sedan in this comparison.
What They Liked
Interior quality: Judges liked how the C300's quality interior pieces stood out, such as the metal speaker covers on the optional Burmester stereo and textured wood laid across the center dashboard and door panels. "The cabin feels rich and classy," observed Wiesenfelder. "Ours was equipped with black matte-finish, open-pore wood that I think is the perfect middle ground between conventional genuine wood and contemporary piano black or carbon fiber." Hanley seconded that opinion: "Rich materials like open-pore wood trim give the cabin a classy feel."
Cabin storage space: A column-mounted electric gear selector frees up cabin storage space, which seems an inane thing to comment on for sports sedans, but storage space up front isn't a given in this class. Wiesenfelder noted, "In addition to classing up the cabin, Mercedes serves occupants with decent-sized center console storage and door pockets."
Engine and transmission: Though on the low side of the power spectrum as numbers go, the C300 illustrated how specs are sometimes misleading by performing well in acceleration testing. "The turbo four-cylinder makes good power and works with a cooperative automatic transmission," Hanley said.
What They Didn't
Brakes: During panic braking testing from 60 mph, the Mercedes skidded like it was on ice as the antilock brakes worked feverishly to slow the car and maintain control. Our test car had a mere 150 miles on it when we started, so we're guessing the tires weren't quite broken in yet — grip should improve with more miles. More than just the distance, however, was the brake feel. "Again, on top of the poor stopping distance, the pedal is numb and the action nonlinear," Wiesenfelder said.
Handling: For having an optional sport suspension, the C300 didn't impress judges in the twisties. Wiesenfelder had gripes with the steering, too: "We named the C-Class our Best of 2015 in part because its drivability was much improved over earlier generations, but this one didn't stand out on the autocross course, and during evasive maneuvers, I questioned if the front wheels were connected to the steering wheel. The handling is too disconnected, perhaps reliant on the adaptive suspension with which our test car wasn't equipped." Breon also picked up on the looseness: "It's not as firmly planted on the backroads. I'm not as confident."
Wind noise: The C300 has an unusual amount of wind noise for this class, which seemingly comes from the driver's window area. Some judges noted how they remembered the noise from 's 2015 C300 long-term test car, which we drove for approximately 17,500 miles.
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2 2017 Alfa Romeo Giulia Ti ($51,140), 709 points
The verdict: The Alfa Romeo Giulia jumps into the luxury sedan segment guns ablaze and holds its own as a sports sedan skewing heavily toward handling and performance, but less so in luxuriousness.
Nothing threatened the German cars more in our test than the all-new Giulia. The Alfa is geared for performance and dominated our measured acceleration and braking tests, posting the quickest zero-to-60-mph and quarter-mile times, plus stopping shorter than the others and earning maximum acceleration and braking points. In subjective "seat of the pants" scoring of handling, powertrain and braking, the Alfa also took home many points, sealing its fate as the most die-hard sports sedan of the group.
What They Liked
Handling: Razor-sharp reflexes and huge grip with its optional summer tires let the judges blast through the handling course with minimal effort. "With its quick steering response and a suspension that reads all the little irregularities in the road, the Giulia feels incredibly dialed in," said Hanley. Wiesenfelder agreed, saying, "The Giulia was one of only two cars that made hay of its slightly firmer suspension; it remained well planted with acceptable body roll."
Acceleration: The Alfa's 280 horsepower felt like 380 hp to some. "The drag-strip results speak for themselves, but I'm rating it tops because it excelled where others failed: It was the fastest-acting transmission that made no missteps," said Wiesenfelder.
Paddle shifters: There are steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters, and then there are the Giulia's paddles, which are about 7 inches long and attached to the steering column. "It was always responsive to the pedal or the paddles — and it's the latter that made it a 10 versus a 9: giant metal paddles attached to the column where they belong," said Wiesenfelder. Hanley added, "Massive shift paddles on the steering column feel great and initiate quick gear changes, making them more satisfying than most shift paddles."
What They Didn't
Interior quality: Some judges noted the low-rent materials feel a class below the best interiors of the group. "The rickety feel and sound of the controls, and the much-hated spring-back turn signal and gear selector, drag down the otherwise passable interior quality," said Wiesenfelder. Hanley added, "Cabin materials fall short of most of the competitors in this test; the interior doesn't look or feel particularly luxurious."
Small backseat: A miniscule backseat means you can likely cross-shop this with a coupe. "The backseat is the worst of the group. Apart from being the smallest, the front seatbacks are hard and their pockets are nets — better for ensnaring than holding," said Wiesenfelder.
Performance isn't flawless: For all its performance prowess, there's still room for improvement in the areas of braking and steering. Wiesenfelder noted, "The steering is overassisted for such a sporty car. I typically like a lighter wheel, but this went too far even for me." Hanley said, "The brakes are grabby at low speeds, making for annoyingly jerky stops." "The transmission is not as refined as I'd hoped," Breon added, stating he thought it shifted harder than it should in Normal mode.
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1 2017 Audi A4 2.0T Quattro ($52,325), 777 points
The verdict: "The all-around champ, the A4 can appeal to driving enthusiasts with its power, brake-pedal feel and surefooted all-wheel drive," said Wiesenfelder. "But it also provides excellent space, quality and comfort with advanced features that are well-executed, not merely present."
The redesigned 2017 Audi A4 prevails with high-tech gadgetry and oodles of luxury. The A4's luxurious cabin won over judges who scored it highest in interior quality and convenience features. The A4 wasn't all show and no go, however, posting quick acceleration — second only to the Alfa Romeo. Breon, our in-market shopper, picked the A4 as his favorite even after coming into the comparison with his eyes on the Alfa. After driving most of the field and then getting into the A4, Breon said the "Audi has reset everything for me."
What They Liked
Interior quality: If someone asked, "Which one is the nicest?" our judges wouldn't hesitate pointing to the Audi. There's a wonderfully classy metallic accent that stretches across the dashboard and door panels. "With high-grade materials and a focus on the details, the A4's cabin quality is impressive," said Hanley.
Interior roominess: The A4 isn't short on luxury trimmings or space, with a perfectly usable backseat and trunk. "It's roomy and comfortable with a clean design and some rich materials," said Wiesenfelder. Breon also noted the ease of ingress and egress of the backseat.
Surprising punchiness: The Audi's 252 hp may not be the biggest number on paper, but its responsiveness is noteworthy and acceleration almost as potent as the Alfa's. Wiesenfelder said it had "quickness nearly matching the Alfa but with a quicker launch and what feels like a smarter all-wheel-drive system." Hanley also thought the power came on strong right off the line: "Power from the turbo four-cylinder Used Engine is strong and immediate, which was especially welcome on our autocross course. "
What They Didn't
Short on sport: Our judges commented that the A4 isn't eager to handle spiritedly, and while it's certainly capable with Quattro all-wheel drive putting down the power, some wouldn't call the car fun to drive like the Giulia, ATS or XE. Hanley was disappointed in particular with the steering and suspension tuning, saying, "The steering lacks feedback and doesn't engage the driver, and the suspension tuning creates an isolating, disconnected driving experience." Wiesenfelder was on the same page, adding, "While the handling is good overall, there's a numbness common to Audis that's definitely present here, and the all-wheel drive's rear bias wasn't able to offset the nose-heaviness evident when driving back to back with such nicely balanced rear-wheel-drive cars."
Posh pricing: Gadgets including Audi's Virtual Cockpit, adjustable-firmness suspension and well-executed semi-autonomous driving features are differentiators, but they also rack up the cost to more than $50,000. The A4 wasn't the most expensive in our test, but the price was notable for a few reasons. Wiesenfelder explained, "Despite having the second-highest as-tested price, the A4 technically delivers value with what's onboard — but its restrictive option packages may mean you're paying more for features you don't want."
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How the Competitors Fared in Each Category
How We Tested
A team of judges drove these cars outside of Atlanta on winding backroads, a track for measured acceleration and braking, and an autocross-style handling course. Specific testing included a street course for each judge to drive the cars back to back, zero-to-60-mph and quarter-mile acceleration tests, which you can read about in our acceleration story, and child-safety seat evaluations — these are sedans, after all, and make for a nice break from (and addition to) the seven-seat kid carrier in the garage.
The 1,000-point scoring scale includes measured acceleration and braking plus a heap of subjective scores for interior quality, value, comfort and driving experience. The breakdown of scoring is:
- 59 percent from judges' subjective scores
- 24.5 percent from measured testing
- 9.8 percent from our shopper Stan Breon's scores (though displayed on a scale of 10, Breon's scores counted as half to keep a weight of less than 10 percent)
- 6.5 percent from child-safety seats
Here's how each car scored: