Sport Sedan class takes a break from testing
Sport Sedan class takes a break from testing. Photo: Haney Louka. Click image to enlarge

By Haney Louka

For car nuts like me, AJAC’s annual Canadian Car of the Year TestFest is the must-attend event of the year. This was my fourth such visit to Shannonville Motorsport Park and I can’t wait to go again next October.

When it came time to decide which category I wanted to evaluate for this year’s competition, the choice was easy: sports sedans. To me, a sports sedan provides practical transportation for those who cherish the driving experience. While not particularly spacious, these vehicles provide decent room for four but should focus on the needs of the driver above those of the passengers.

Manufacturers provided a total of four entries in this group: Audi A4, BMW 330i, Lexus IS 350, and Subaru WRX. That’s right, a hot-rod Subaru found its way into this group of otherwise upscale marques and, as I found out, handily held its own in the “sport” department.

Audi A4 3.2 quattro

Base price: $48,780
Price as tested: $54,030

2006 Audi A4 3.2
Photo: Laurance Yap. Click image to enlarge

Audi’s smallest sedan comes to the market this year with two new engines along with revised styling inside and out. I’m a big fan of Audi’s new styling direction. The A4’s new corporate grille is tastefully bold and instantly recognizable. Unfortunately, mounting a front license plate in the middle of that new snout does detract somewhat from its attractiveness.

We drove the upscale 3.2 quattro model, with a V6 that motivates the 1,700-kg car using 255 horsepower and 243 lb-ft of torque with the help of FSI direct injection. Equipped with a six-speed automatic transmission, the car achieved a zero-to-100 time of 7.5 seconds and an 80-to-120 time of 6.0 seconds in AJAC’s independent tests. The A4 is a smooth operator on the road, with silky power delivery, responsive steering, and a nice, if overly traditional, interior.

While a six-speed manual will be available for this car, only the slushbox with the same number of gears was available for the AJAC competition. While no doubt a liability for this category, the automatic, particularly in “Sport” mode, acquitted itself well.

On the track, the Audi proved not as balanced as the others, feeling a little heavy in front and resigning itself to understeer in the corners. It was fun to listen to on the track though: the A4 is a candidate for best-sounding car of the year.

BMW 330i

Base price: $47,900
Price as tested: $57,200

2006 BMW 330i
Photo: Haney Louka. Click image to enlarge

At first sight, the new 3-Series allowed all of us to breathe a collective sigh of relief. It’s completely redesigned, but visually isn’t as radical as the larger 5-, 6-, and 7-Series cars and in the end the new look suits it quite well. It’s still an acquired taste, but it doesn’t take as long as other new BMWs.

The Bimmer’s 3.0-litre inline-six engine produces 255 hp and 220 lb-ft of torque using steplessly variable valve lift technology. With a six-speed manual, the 330i achieved zero-to-100 and 80-to-120 times of 6.4 and 5.0 seconds respectively.

The rear-drive Bimmer proved to be well balanced and light on its feet around the track, particularly with BMW’s active steering system that varies the quickness of turn-in with vehicle speed. It’s a little weird at first, and I’m not convinced that it’s worth its $1,500 price tag. But more importantly, hustling the car was enjoyable thanks to a feeling of connectedness between driver and pavement that the others couldn’t match.

On the road it was a joy to drive with everything fitting just so and, at least with our non-navi test cars, a clean interior design. My biggest complaint? The overall look doesn’t scream “upscale” like the Audi and Lexus do, especially its hind-quarters.

Lexus IS 350

Base price: $48,900
Price as tested: $51,150

2006 Lexus IS 350
Photo: Grant Yoxon. Click image to enlarge

It was with great caution that I approached the redesigned IS from Lexus. I was one of the old car’s biggest fans because it was such a smooth and tight handler. True, it was the black sheep of the Lexus family, heavily based on Japan’s domestic market Toyota Altezza and not wearing a level of luxury commensurate with the “L” on the grille – or its price-tag.

So now we have a completely new IS, and Lexus is serious about a world-class sports sedan with an equal helping of luxury. That’s not a bad thing. The IS 350 is very fast; its 3.5-litre engine propelling it to 100 in 5.6 seconds and from 80 to 120 in 4.7. It’s also quite a handler, with balance on par with the 330i.

And while I liked the looks of the old car, the new one is more aggressive and upscale at once, and strikes a unique profile with its long hood and short rear deck wrapped tightly around the four wheels pushed to the car’s corners.

With the help of the new Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM) stability control system, the IS found its way quickly around the track but in a way that’s less involving to the driver. The lack of a manual transmission with the 3.5-litre engine is a liability in my books, since this class is about sport. Unfortunately there were no manual-equipped IS 250s on hand for us to drive.

Subaru WRX

Base price: $35,495
Price as tested: $35,495

2006 Subaru WRX
Photo: Haney Louka. Click image to enlarge

This is where it gets interesting. We started with three cars with price-tags north of 50 grand, comparing the quality of leather, size of the sunroof, number of speakers, and relative merits of their stability control systems. Then along comes this obnoxious Subaru with a big hood scoop, a thrashy four-cylinder engine, and economy car duds.

What to do?

First, we have to remember that this is the sports sedan class, where emphasis should be duly put on “sport.” And to that end, the Subaru shines. Its zero-to-100 time of 5.6 seconds puts it in a tie with the Lexus for quickest of the bunch, and a passing acceleration time of 4.5 seconds clinches the lead for the Subie. It’s well balanced and light on its feet – a testament to its 1,452-kg curb weight which is 100 kg lower than the next-lightest BMW.

The Subaru lacks a stability control system, but some laps around the track revealed that it did just fine without electronic aids. That’s because the conditions at the car’s four contact patches are telegraphed clearly to the driver and all-wheel-drive means that involuntary tail-happiness doesn’t come easily.

So with arguably the best performance of the bunch and a price tag that’s at least $15,000 more palatable than the others, something has to give. In this case it’s refinement and luxury that are absent in the WRX. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Haney’s pick for sports sedan of the year: Subaru WRX.
Honourable mention: BMW 330i.

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