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Pretender or Contender: Large sedans

New Wheels comparo feature pits the category sales leader against its newest challengers

  • Large sedans

The large-sedan market is relatively small in Canada, with only about 23,000 vehicles sold in all of 2013. By comparison, the Honda Civic sold 64,000 units alone.

But these flagship vehicles are where auto makers truly get a chance to shine, and therefore seem like a good place to start this new feature, Contender or Pretender.

In a nutshell, I will test four vehicles in a specific category — the current sales leader and the three newest or most compelling challengers. I will focus on how each car feels and drives, in an effort to judge which contender the leader should fear the most.

For large sedans, the Canadian sales leader is the Chrysler 300, followed closely by its Dodge Charger sibling. The newest contenders are the all-new Kia Cadenza and the redesigned Chevy Impala and Toyota Avalon. Others to consider are the Ford Taurus, the Nissan Maxima and the second-generation Hyundai Genesis that arrives this spring.

2014 Chevrolet Impala LTZ

Large sedans

Price: $39,645 base, $43,405 as tested

Stats: 3.6 L V6, 305-hp, 264 lb.-ft., 6-speed automatic with manual mode on the shifter. Rated at 11.1 L/100 km city and 6.9 highway, but I was closer to 12.1 combined.

Safety: Rear-parking sensors and camera, rear cross-traffic alert, forward collision alert, blind-spot detection, lane-departure warning.

Bells and whistles: Navigation, Bose surround-sound audio, power mirrors, leather seats, heated and ventilated front seats, panoramic sunroof, 20-inch aluminum wheels, heated steering wheel, remote starter.

How it drives: Although the Impala is similar in size to its competitors, it looks, feels and drives much bigger. After several days of seat adjustment, I finally found a comfortable driving position, although the sight lines remained hampered by the tiny rear window and high back end (the opera windows in the rear pillars do help a bit).

What’s good: This car is at its best when cruising at highway speeds, with endless power, a butter-smooth ride, responsive steering and an eerily quiet cabin. At 532 litres, the massive trunk has family road trip written all over it.

What’s bad: The transmission often seemed to be hunting and pecking for the right gear, especially at lower speeds, and there was a noticeable lag time whenever I tried to really punch the gas. And, although I would probably get used to it, the MyLink infotainment system seemed clunky and unnecessarily complicated, especially for simple tasks like setting radio presets, and not at all intuitive. Thankfully, the voice recognition worked flawlessly.

What’s interesting: Push a button and the touch screen rises to reveal a hidden storage bin in the dash. The centre console has a 120-volt power outlet for laptops, cellphones or other electronic gear. The Impala is built in Oshawa.

Pretender or Contender: Pretender. The Impala is an impressive car inside and out, with a smooth, silent and powerful ride. I can see why it’s been getting rave reviews. However, it ultimately felt too big and lumbering for my tastes, especially in heavy traffic and parking lots. I never did feel truly comfortable driving it.

2014 Chrysler 300C Luxury

Large sedans

Price: $34,295 base, $49,160 as tested

Stats: 3.6 L V6, 300-hp, 264 lb.-ft., 8-speed automatic with paddle shifters. Rated at 11.4 L/100 km city and 7.3 highway, but I was closer to 12.2 combined.

Safety: Rear-parking sensors and camera, rear cross-traffic alert, forward collision alert, blind-spot detection, front and rear fog lights, auto high-beam control and adaptive headlights.

Bells and whistles: Navigation, 18-speaker Harman Kardon audio, remote start, power mirrors, leather seats, heated and ventilated front seats, heated rear seats, heated steering wheel, panoramic sunroof, hot and cold cupholders, rain-sensing wipers, 19-inch wheels.

How it drives: Primarily a rear-wheel-drive vehicle, the 300C automatically switches to all-wheel-drive when needed — although I seemed to spend most of my time driving all four wheels. That was fine with me, since the big car handles much better and feels more powerful in AWD. However, switching to sport mode for a “firmer suspension and firmer ride” just made it feel sluggish and hesitant. I usually thrive on sport modes, but I avoided this one like the plague.

What’s good: You either love the 300’s bold boxy design or hate it. I love it (although not quite so much in pearl white!). This car truly stands out in this crowd, even compared to the Impala. The interior is stylish and comfortable, and the infotainment interface is the best in this group (although, oddly, the Bluetooth streaming couldn’t identify the music it was playing from my phone).

What’s bad: Perhaps because of that boxy design, the front-seat legroom is the lowest in this group, which forced me to move the seat all the way back, cramping the rear seat behind me. And I never did get used to the electronic shifter, which is spring-loaded and returns to centre as you shift. When aiming for reverse, I often found myself in neutral or, more alarming, drive.

What’s interesting: The adjustable brake and gas pedals are a welcome touch for my family of tall and short drivers, especially since they are tied into the memory setting that resets the seats, mirrors and steering wheel. The Ford-style capless fuel filler is a bit disconcerting at first, but could grow on me.

Pretender or Contender: Pretender. The 300C is a handsome, powerful and sure-footed ride but ultimately felt too rough and tumble for my liking. I never got past the fact the sport setting somehow made the ride worse, not better. And the fact it costs up to $10,000 more than other contenders in this category may explain why the less-pricey Charger is gaining ground.

2013 Toyota Avalon LTD

Large sedans

Price: $36,800 base, $38,900 as tested

Stats: 3.5 L V6, 268-hp, 248 lb.-ft., 6-speed automatic with paddle shifters. Rated at 9.9 L/100 km city and 6.4 highway, but I was closer to 10.5 combined.

Safety: Stability and traction control, rear-parking sensors and camera, rear cross-traffic alert, forward collision alert, blind-spot detection, lane-departure warning.

Bells and whistles: Navigation, 9-speaker audio, power mirrors, leather seats, heated and ventilated front seats, panoramic sunroof, 18-inch alloy wheels.

How it drives: In Normal mode, the Avalon floats and flies, with smooth shifts and seamless power. Hit the Sport button on the centre console and it tightens the steering and punches the acceleration for those of us who prefer driving to cruising. Unfortunately, it defaults back to Normal every time you shut down.

What’s good: In Sport mode, this car matches the Cadenza in pure driving enjoyment. The seats are comfortable, the sightlines are good, steering is crisp and quick, and the engine responds to every flick of the toe with an instant surge and silky acceleration. The exterior styling is a huge improvement over the previous Avalon.

What’s bad: Although the Avalon is all-new for 2013, the interior seems surprisingly dated, with bland styling, and throwback controls like the pop-up push-and-turn buttons for the seat heater/cooler. I found the infotainment controls equally dated and clunky. Ironically, one attempt to add some flash and dash has chrome strips running around the instrument panel, which annoyingly reflect streetlights on the highway and had me constantly checking to see what was flashing.

What’s interesting: The Avalon is the least-expensive of these four cars, at base and as-tested prices that are 11-per-cent lower than the previous model. Although it is the smallest of the four in overall length, width and height, it is second only to the Cadenza in front legroom and the Chrysler in rear legroom and rear headroom.

Pretender or Contender: Pretender. What the Avalon offers in superb comfort, ride, fuel efficiency and performance is slightly offset by the bland interior and dated controls. It just didn’t feel like an all-new design.

2014 Kia Cadenza Premium

Large Sedans

Price: $37,795 base, $44,995 as tested

Basics: 3.3 L V6 direct-injection, 293 hp, 255 lb.-ft., 6-speed automatic with manual mode and paddle shifters. Rated at 11.2 L/100 km city and 7.4 highway, but I was closer to 11.9 combined.

Safety: Rear-parking sensors and camera, adaptive cruise, blind-spot detection, lane-departure warning and adaptive headlights.

Bells and whistles: Navigation, Infinity 12-speaker audio, power folding mirrors, leather seats, panoramic sunroof, 19-inch alloy wheels and heated front seats, rear seats and steering wheel.

How it drives: The Cadenza handles effortlessly, offers instant power and sucks up bumps and potholes on even the worst roads. Whether I was fighting traffic on the DVP or pulling a U-turn on the back roads north of Port Perry, the Cadenza just seemed to make life easier behind the wheel.

What’s good: Smooth power, sports-car-like handling, comfort and class beyond its price range. The infotainment system is very intuitive, with seamless Bluetooth connectivity and sound quality.

What’s bad: The panoramic sunroof is tricky to adjust, and the old-fashioned analogue clock is just silly in the middle of so much high-tech. The lane-departure warning beeped constantly on the DVP, until I gave up and turned it off.

What’s interesting: The Cadenza is based on the same platform as the Hyundai Azera.

Pretender or Contender: Contender. The Cadenza is my champ in this category, but it will need to convince more buyers to look past the nameplate. Sister company Hyundai has made that leap, as did Toyota before that. At the very least, add this car to your list for consideration.

This is the first of an occasional feature. The vehicles tested by Wheels associate editor Doug Devine were provided by the manufacturers. Email: ddevine@thestar.ca

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