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All testing was done at and around the Shannonville race track near Belleville, Ont.
2005 Family Sedan Shootout
No easy winner in collection of all-new family sedans
By Bill Roebuck
There are five main competitors in the all-new 2005 Family Sedan category this year -- a pair of large cars -- the Ford Five Hundred and the Buick Allure -- and three medium-sized contenders from Subaru, Mazda and Pontiac. That characteristic makes it a challenge to compare all these models directly, but we did it anyway.
Our back to back testing of the models took place at the annual Test Fest of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC) in and around Shannonville, Ont., at the end of October, 2004.
With prices ranging from $27,865 to $41,795, we had expected dramatic differences among the five contenders. However, the performance figures showed a great deal of similarity between the models.
For example, even though two of the entries, the Ford Five Hundred and the Subaru Legacy, are all-wheel drive, fuel economy differs by no more than 1 litre/100 km for the whole group. The contenders are all-new 2005 models that will be in dealerships by the end of the year, or are on sale already.
And although the engine horsepower ratings range from 200 to 250, acceleration times -- save for the very quick Subaru Legacy GT -- are only about a second apart. Braking, likewise, varied only 2.3 metres from the shortest to the longest distance. All models were equipped with ABS.
That means the real differences are in the details.
BUICK ALLURE CXS
The Allure's main competitor in this category is the Ford Five Hundred, which is similarly equipped and priced. Despite the all-new Allure's new design, the exterior still looks like a Buick and the interior remains somewhat old-fashioned.
Yet this new model, which costs $36,160 as tested, offers surprisingly crisp handling for a large sedan, with little body roll and a smooth ride. One annoying characteristic was that at around 75 km/h on a flat country road, the transmission hunted for the right gear, continuously shifting back and forth between third and fourth.
Acceleration is in the middle for the group, yet at 7.7 seconds to 100 km/h, still pretty quick. The engine is a 3.6-litre V6 -- the biggest in the group -- generating 240 hp, only 10 hp less than the acceleration leader, the Legacy.
Even on hard acceleration, the Allure remained the quietest model tested.
Bonuses in our test model included rear-parking assist, a remote starter, minimal wind noise and leather seating. There's plenty of space up front, but legroom and headroom are somewhat tight in the rear seat.
The Allure has a large trunk area, but a high floor reduces capacity to just 453 litres, significantly less than the Five Hundred, which boasts 600 litres.
FORD FIVE HUNDRED
The first thing you notice when you stand beside the $36,050 Ford Five Hundred is its height; it's unusually tall for a sedan. It also has the longest wheelbase and overall length of the models tested. The all-new model is built on a Volvo platform so shares some of that maker's engineering prowess.
The high seating position makes it feel like you're in a SUV or crossover vehicle, although it's a big step up to get in.
Our tester had the six-speed all-wheel drive option with a CVT (continuously variable transmission), so there were no noticeable gear changes when accelerating. The result was a smooth and quiet ride.
However, the fact that the Five Hundred is the heaviest vehicle in this group probably contributed to the significant amount of understeer displayed on the track, when we pushed handling performance to its limits.
Despite its imposing size and enormous trunk, the Five Hundred has an interior volume only slightly larger than the Subaru Legacy, and 300 litres less than the Mazda6 hatchback.
However, the trunk capacity shines at 600 litres. (The Mazda6 is slightly larger at 622 litres because of its hatchback design.) Ford says its trunk is the largest in the world.
The rear seats are very comfortable, with plenty of legroom and headroom. The rear seat backs split and fold down to extend cargo capacity, though they do not lie completely flat.
Our tester was equipped with extra features like a reverse sensing system, a compass, Homelink and an in-dash six-disk CD changer that plays MP3 files.
The lightest model of the group, the Mazda6 Sport, a hatchback design, also boasted the best interior volume at 3,332 litres. That also translated into the largest cargo capacity at 622 litres (rear seats up) and 1,662 litres (folded).
The rear seats have a novel feature. When the seat backs are lowered, the seat cushions slide forward, allowing the backs to lie flat, improving the versatility of the cargo area. It's an ingenious and practical design.
There also is 42 in. of space between the wheel wells in the cargo area, making it one of the widest in this group. The hatchback design also allows for a huge cargo area opening, ideal for loading large boxes.
The $32,995 Mazda6 Sport was also pretty quick on the track, zipping from 0-100 km/h in just 7.4 seconds, only a half second behind the Subaru Legacy GT. That's thanks in part to an easy-to-shift five-speed manual -- the only non-automatic entered -- and a smooth 3.0-litre engine that churns out 220 hp.
The steering has a light feel, yet hard cornering shows the Sport to have excellent grip. One drawback: The sound meter we used in testing displayed the loudest interior noise numbers.
It's noteworthy that the Sport already has an award-winning heritage. The Mazda6 Sedan won this category last year. We forecast a repeat performance.
PONTIAC G6 GT
Despite the GT badge on our G6 tester, this was the slowest model in this group, even with its large, 3.5-litre engine. Although it produces just 200 hp, it powers the second lightest model, so we expected better performance. During track testing, acceleration felt sluggish.
The handling was certainly not sporty either. Our highway test turned up some wind noise and engine whine on hard acceleration. Both the overall interior volume and the trunk space also are the smallest here, even though the G6 is longer than the Subaru Legacy and Mazda6.
But there's good news: The all-new G6 is the lowest priced model in the group at $27,685 -- in fact, it is $5,300 less than the next cheapest model. It includes many features that make it a good value. These include a remote starter, automatic transmission with a manual shift tap mode, tilt and telescopic steering wheel, and power adjustable pedals.
SUBARU LEGACY GT
This was the mover of the group, both on and off the track. It's a quick sedan, running to 100 km/h in under seven seconds, the best acceleration here. It has the group's most powerful engine -- a 2.5-litre turbocharged to produce a smile-generating 250 hp.
It's also quiet, handles superbly, and abounds in safety features. All this comes at a price, though, as the $41,795 Legacy GT is the most costly model in the family sedan category.
While the outward appearance isn't changed much from earlier models, the 2005 Legacy is on a totally new platform that's larger, much stiffer, better balanced and safer. Engineers even designed the mirrors and side windows to displace dirt for better visibility.
Rear seat room is tight, even for two adults, but smaller people will be comfortable. Unfortunately, the rear seats are fixed, except for a fold-down pass-through for long items.
This was certainly the most fun-to-drive model in this category. However, interior room is generally tight in the Legacy. If your family is young, it could be an ideal contender that's great to drive with the family or alone.
Bill Roebuck is Editor of CarTest.ca and a member of AJAC.