Thursday, November 13, 2008

The hottest sedans for 2009

The new sedans rolling into showrooms are meant to get attention. They take passengers farther on a tank of fuel, look more stylish than ever, and boast advanced technology to keep drivers informed about traffic and weather.

And the deals available are phenomenal.

As slumping sales pummel nearly every automaker, the effort to create appealing sedans - and get shoppers to drive one home - is at a fever pitch.

Our annual roundup of new and improved sedans includes design trendsetters like the sleek Jaguar XF, Maserati Quattroporte and Volkswagen CC, which bring fresh appeal to the familiar four-doors-with-a-trunk body style.
The latest premium diesels, like the BMW 335d, and hybrids, like the Mercedes-Benz S400 BlueHybrid, add greater fuel efficiency to the upper echelons of the market, where it has been sorely lacking.

Luxury Hybrid Sedans
Lexus LS 600h L

Mercedes-Benz S400

And the Lincoln MKS ushers in technological innovation that is sure to stand out. The advanced system in its dashboard features a high-resolution touch-screen and software smart enough to tell you where the fueling station with the cheapest gas is.

Go to the accompanying slideshow for a full list of new and improved sedans.

Focus on Fuel Economy

The new Mercedes S-Class won't look much different than the current model, but it will offer a new hybrid system that is likely one of many to come from luxury carmakers. It joins Lexus' LS 600h L and GS 450h in giving buyers an upscale hybrid alternative to the Toyota Prius.

Like Lexus, Mercedes trades some of the fuel efficiency that its hybrid system offers for more power and performance.

The Mercedes S400 BlueHybrid pairs a 15-kilowatt electric motor with a 3.5-liter V6 gasoline engine. The car boasts 299 horsepower with plenty of torque delivered by the electric motor.

It helps conserve fuel the same way existing hybrids do. Its combustion engine powers down at temporary stops, which helps deliver around 30 miles per gallon in mixed city/highway driving. The S400 BlueHybrid is expected to go on sale in the fall of 2009.

BMW is looking to diesel technology as its next step toward higher fuel efficiency, and the company's best-selling model, the 3 Series, will be the first to get it in the United States. The BMW 335d maintains the high level of performance and strong acceleration of gasoline-powered 3 Series models, but with significantly better fuel economy. It will get an estimated 23 mpg in city driving and 33 mpg on the highway.

Advanced emissions systems ensure that the new diesel engine will comply with the most stringent standards set by the state of California.

"The average consumer may be wary of diesels, but we have seen Mercedes-Benz have some success with their diesel E-Class," says Mike Omotoso, manager of automotive powertrain forecasting at J.D. Power & Associates in Westlake Village, Calif. "BMW is hoping that their clientele will have the same appreciation for the genre's performance and technology."

Omotoso estimates that sales of diesels will more than double over the next three years, to 1 million vehicles annually. As a percentage of all new cars and light trucks sold, diesels would increase from 2.6 percent in 2008 to 6.5 percent in 2012.

Volkswagen's' next generation of fuel-efficient cars will kick off halfway through next year with two diesel versions of the Passat, the company's largest sedan sold in the United States.

The Passat BlueTDI will have a 140-hp 2.0-liter four-cylinder diesel engine that gets an estimated 45 mpg in mixed city/highway driving.

The Passat BlueMotion will have a less-powerful 108-hp 2.0-liter diesel engine with a stop/start function to shut it down during temporary stops. It will get an estimated 48 mpg overall.

A third new version of the Passat, already on sale, focuses on aesthetics rather than fuel economy. The Passat CC is what Volkswagen calls a "four-door coupe," which is an oxymoron because coupes have two doors.

For the Sake of Style

German automakers appear to be enamored with the contradictory "four-door coupe" designation. Besides Volkswagen with its new CC, Mercedes uses this designation for its CLS-Class and BMW for its X6 crossover utility vehicle.

"The design objective for the CC was to create an accessible entry-level luxury vehicle with the visual power to make an emotional connection over and above the rational connections our brand tends to generate," says Brett Scott, product planning manager Volkswagen NA. "It makes a compelling and powerful design statement."

Simply put, these vehicles are sleeker than most four-doors. "Designers are imparting greater style into four-door cars, and the 'coupe' look is just the next iteration," says Leo Parente, an auto industry consultant based in New York. "At least we've moved on from the vinyl roof, the opera window and the stand-up Rolls-Royce-wannabe grille."

The Maserati Quattroporte(© Maserati)

Unfortunately, these models' svelte silhouettes present some serious drawbacks. For starters, their low, sweeping rooflines make getting in and out more difficult than in "regular" four-door vehicles, and the extreme slant to their windshields and rear windows can hamper outward visibility.

"Buyers will choose these cars as expressions of elegance in the luxury or near-luxury markets," says Tom Matano, a car designer and executive director of the School of Industrial Design for the Academy of Art University in San Francisco.

But the cramped interiors and narrow trunk openings of these swoopy "coupe" wannabes limit their practical appeal. "Really, these cars are for the owner with occasional full-passenger-capacity needs," Parente says.

Jaguar's all-new XF and Maserati's updated Quattroporte are two other examples of sedans with sexy profiles, but they're not called "four-door coupes" and both do a good job of balancing practicality with aesthetics. The Jag XK has a large trunk, for instance, and the Maserati Quattroporte's interior is ample enough to comfortably accommodate four or five adults.

Sports-car makers are also showing interest in super-sleek sedans. Porsche, for one, plans to unveil a sexy four-door called the Panamera. Aston Martin and Lamborghini are also considering coupe-like four-door cars.

Trendsetter Remade

BMW's new 7 Series is a full-fledged four-door that won't be mistaken for a "coupe." When last redesigned in 2002, its styling caused a stir among industry insiders because it looked different than anything else at the time.

The recast 2009 7 Series takes BMW design in a new direction, with a more subdued look and a fresh front end that will influence what all BMWs will eventually look like.

The new 7 Series maintains its sporting character with a 400-hp V8 engine. A new speed-sensitive, rear-wheel steering system promises nimbler cornering.

BMW continues to refine its iDrive, which has been frustrating drivers and passengers since its debut six years ago. This system uses one knob to control all functions in the car, from air conditioning to radio. By turning and pressing the knob, users select their choices from menus on a dash-mounted screen.

The new 7 Series' updated iDrive has a larger screen, a few new buttons, and improved menus.

The systems that other automakers use vary in their learning curves. But regardless of how they're executed, these complicated systems are changing from novelties to necessities, because of the growing number of high-tech convenience and entertainment features on premium sedans.

2009 Bentley Continental Flying Spur Speed
see more photos >
(© Bentley)

"High-tech by and of itself is risky," says Tom Libby, senior automotive analyst with the marketing information firm J.D. Power. "It needs to be user-friendly as well, and the user component needs to be defined by actual customers, not factory people who think they know what the consumer wants."

Tech Revolution

Intriguing new technology is being offered for the first time on 2009 models.

The new Sirius Travel Link system is optional on the Lincoln MKS sedan as well as several other vehicles under Ford's umbrella. The service provides real-time traffic data, weather information, ski conditions, sports scores, movie-theater schedules, and gas prices with automatic routing to a selected station.

To get Sirius Travel Link on the Lincoln MKS, buyers must add a $2,995 navigation package. The Travel Link service is free for the first six months, but it costs $7.99 a month after that.

Not to be outdone, BMW is incorporating wireless Internet connection to display Google Maps in its 3 Series. The service requires the optional $2,100 navigation system and $750 BMW Assist satellite-based communication system with Bluetooth capability. This allows drivers to search for restaurants, hotels, service stations, banks, supermarkets, cinemas and public facilities by keyword, then initiate route guidance. Drivers also can place hands-free calls to a selected point of interest via a Bluetooth-enabled cell phone.

For those seeking the same kind of Web access in their cars as they can get in their homes, Chrysler is offering a dealer-installed "uconnect web" accessory on the 2009 300C and Dodge Charger sedans. This enables laptop computers and other Wi-Fi enabled devices like as Apple's iPhone and Nintendo's DS portable gaming system to connect to the Internet via a wireless network. The Wi-Fi module costs $499 and there is a $29 monthly fee for Internet service.

Though such amenities add to the cost of buying a car, the deals that automakers are offering these days can be a way for gadget lovers to offset the high price of advanced technology.

Let's Make a Deal

With the economy in turmoil, the natural reaction for most people might be to hunker down. "There is a sense of caution among our buyers," says Mark Templin, Lexus' group vice president and general manager. "We have dealers telling us that they've sold cars, only to have customers call back and cancel their orders as they watch the stock market drop."

However, those who can look past the headlines will find dealer lots rife with good deals.

The Jaguar XF(© Jaguar)

For example, Lincoln is financing its MKS sedan for as low as 0.9 percent, according to Consumers' Checkbook, whose CarDeals newsletter tracks vehicle incentives. The money saved from the lower interest rate could help offset the cost of the navigation package with Sirius Travel Link.

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