Less than a million mid-size choices

2006, Volvo, S60 2.5T

A friend of mine called last week. Well, I'd better clarify that. He
e-mailed me; but reading his note felt like taking his phone call, because I
know this guy well enough to sense in his writing the nuances of intonation
in his words as if I'd been listening to instead of reading them. From the
standpoint of emotional truth, it's fair enough to say I had the impression
of talking on the phone with my friend when really all I did was read his
damn note. Fair enough?

This is the gist of what he said, or rather wrote: The wife's got an Acura
MDX sport/utility vehicle that's she's enjoyed driving for a few years. But
lately it feels bulky ("beefy and hard-to-park," to be exact if it's okay to
quote him according to the principles of "fair-use" enshrined in copyright
law). Now she "wants a sedan." There followed a bit of "howya doin'?" and
"how's the family?" and "let's do lunch sometime"; then the kicker: "Your
thoughts?" About what kind of sedan the wife ought to consider, that is. (To
be precise, he actually wrote "Your thoughts." with a period instead of a
question mark; but I took it as a question. Anybody would.)

Yeah, I got thoughts. Lots o' thoughts; and I told him so or rather, wrote
him so. In the first place, I said that anyone driving an SUV who doesn't
need an SUV ought to be congratulated for wanting to dump the SUV in favor
of one of the many, several and various outstanding sedans on the market
today.

I then went on to suggest a baker's half-dozen sedan models, recommended in
light of what I think I know of this couple's tastes and interests and, dare
I presume, "price tolerance." I might have suggested nine models, but I was
partially preempted by my friend's own note. He wasn't eager to buy another
Acura for now, even though the wife "enjoyed driving the Acura TL (loaner
during a repair)." He added, moreover, "I think the Passat is overpriced
(you tell me)[,] and the Lexus line has never wowed me."

That was all I needed to hear or to read. It was certainly more than any
palmist or Tarot card reader discovers before consigning a client to his or
her fate. As it happens, I would gladly have recommended Acura's TL sedan as
an admirable combination of performance and value; but if my friend wants a
vacation from Acura in order to play the field, by all means he should take
this opportunity to do so. I concurred, as well, that Lexus models on the
whole suffer from a strange personality-deficit disorder.

While I conceded that Volkswagen's Passat might be construed a bit pricey,
particularly in light of its close kinship with competing Audi models, my
first recommendation was to step back a notch and test-drive the
new-for-2006 VW Jetta TDI. This is the diesel-powered version of VW's Gen-X
cult car that costs about $22,000 (base price), delivers 36 mpg/city and 41
mpg/highway, and sports European-flavored road manners.

The Subaru Legacy sedan also merits a look. Featuring legendary
all-wheel-drive as standard equipment, and boasting a 2.5-liter "boxer" or
opposed-cylinder H4 powerplant, Subaru's standard, Special and Limited
Edition models all make 175 hp and range in price from $21,695 to $25,295.
These sedans, in contrast to their station-wagon siblings, are elegantly
styled to within a smidgen of the BMW 3-Series' status-appeal; and their
mechanicals, derived from rally racers, establish a paradigm for the
mid-size category.

Also from Japan is the Mazda6/Mazdaspeed6 duo of sport sedans, the latter of
which appeared here last week. Alas, the cost of Mazdaspeed6's sporty turbo
making 274 hp represents a performance tax to the tune of $33,325. But the
standard Mazda6 is itself no slouch. Two motors are available: a 2.3-liter
four-cylinder making 160 hp and a 3.0-liter V6 worth 215 hp, for prices
ranging from $19,110 to $27,260. Mazda6's entire premise rests upon nimble,
sporty handling, if perhaps at the expense of interior space.

Volvo's elegant S60 grand touring sedan jumps into the next higher price
category with its sticker range of $30,270 to $32,045. Nevertheless, its
combination of refinement, styling, safety and performance make this a
compelling contender. Standard power is 208 hp from a turbocharged 2.5-liter
inline-five; a T5 model produces 257 hp with a smaller but more highly
pressurized turbo 2.3-liter. The all-wheel-drive 2.5T version would be my
choice.

Within this same price category dwell the kissin' cousins known as Nissan
Maxima and Infiniti G35 sedan. The latter's price ranges from about $31,000
to $34,000, whereas the Maxima hovers between $28,000 and $30,000. Their
masterful V6 powerplants are identical in basic design, although Infiniti
tunes its version to 280 hp and Nissan settles for 260 hp. Both are roomy
and powerful sedans, if not particularly noted for sporty handling. The
Infiniti wears the bolder styling; the Nissan makes a virtue of being staid.

The dark horse stalking this collection is Hyundai's new Azera. Content is
king with this ambitious newcomer, and pricing from $24,000 to $27,000
scarcely suggests how much standard equipment is available in addition to
the 3.8-liter V6 making 263 hp. Alas, neither handling nor fuel economy are
strong points; yet Azera certainly raises Hyundai's reputation by a peg or
two.

What my friend and his wife will ultimately purchase remains, for now, a
mystery. Nevertheless their shopping exercise represents a declaration of
war of sorts upon the SUV status quo, destined to disintegrate, I predict,
into a million little pieces.

5-pass., 4-door; FWD & AWD; 2.5-liter DOHC turbocharged inline-5, 5-sp.
"shiftable" auto; 208 hp/236 ft.-lbs.; 20 mpg/city, 28 mpg/hwy., w/ premium;
trunk: 14 cu. ft.; base price range: $30,270-$32,045

5-pass., 4-door; FWD; 1.9-liter SOHC "turbo direct-injection" inline-4,
5-sp. manual or 6-sp. "DSG" auto; 100 hp/177 ft.-lbs.; 36 mpg/city, 41
mpg/hwy., w/ diesel; trunk: 16 cu. ft.; base price range: $21,605-$22,680

5-pass., 4-door; AWD; 2.5-liter SOHC H4 w/ vvt, 5-sp. manual or 4-sp.
"shiftable" auto; 175 hp/169 ft.-lbs.; 22-23 mpg/city, 29-30 mpg/hwy., w/
regular; trunk: 11.4 cu. ft.; base price range: $21,995-$25,295 (GT model
shown)

By Marc Stengel
28/02/2007 12:00 am

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Images of the 2006, Volvo S60 2.5T

2006 Volvo S60 2.5T
2006 Volvo S60 2.5T
2006 Volvo S60 2.5T
2006 Volvo S60 2.5T
2006 Subaru Legacy 2.5i
2006 Subaru Legacy 2.5i
2006 Volkswagen Jetta TDI
2006 Volkswagen Jetta TDI