Big American Sedans
For a while, it seemed as if big American sedans with equally big V-8s were resigned to history's Dumpster. But the traditional (and affordable) V-8 "roller" is making a big comeback, $3-per-gallon gas notwithstanding. Here are six of the standouts, all of them packing a V-8 punch and costing less than $35,000:
Buick Lucerne CXL ($30,460): GM's 32-valve, DOHC 4.6-liter Northstar V-8 used to be a Cadillac-only exclusive. No more. To jump-start Buick's appeal to prospects whose next car won't be their last car, Buick now offers the same basic engine you'd find in a Caddy DTS or XLR in the much less expensive Buick Lucerne, a comfortable and attractively styled five-passenger cruiser. The Lucerne is the second-least-expensive V-8 powered large car you can buy right now, and the most powerful in the $30,000 and under category.
Like its DTS cousin, the Lucerne's underpinnings and exterior styling have been comprehensively updated. Hydroformed frame rails give it a tight body, and extensive use of GM's "quiet steel" laminates keep drivetrain and road noise from intruding into the passenger cabin. Lightweight structural foam is even injected into hollow portions of the stampings to add strength and quiet without adding weight.
Also in keeping with the DTS, the Lucerne offers impressive ride and handling technology to complement the basic soundness of its chassis, including the same Magnetic Ride Control (MRC) system that first appeared on the XLR roadster and then the Corvette. This is probably the first Buick since the '80s-era Regal Grand National that doesn't fear curves like Dracula fears garlic.
The CXL V-8 is arguably one of the best power-for-the-dollar deals in the entry luxury segment you can lay your hands on at the moment, with its only obvious weakness being the absence of a GPS navigation system. But this can easily be rectified with the addition of an aftermarket unit - while it'd be much harder to swap a V-8 into one of the Lucerne 's six-cylinder competitors.
It doesn't get more traditionally American than the six-passenger, rear-drive, full-frame and V-8-powered 'Vic. For the price of a typical mid-size, V-6-powered, and front-wheel-driven sedan, you can live large the way we used to, when cars like the 'Vic were the family-car standard. It has more room on the inside than a Mercedes E-Class or BMW 5-Series, a 20.6-cubic foot trunk that could almost swallow up both of them and a classic American V-8 that has the highway patrol's seal of approval, since more cops use Crown Vics to chase down scofflaws than any other make of car.
And it's not just the power delivery of the 4.6-liter, 224-hp V-8 that appeals to the law - and ought to appeal to you, too. Unlike smaller, lighter-duty cars that can't take much of a hit, the body-on-frame Crown Vic is capable of absorbing serious punishment, whether it's popping curbs at 40 mph while in hot pursuit to getting T-boned by a minivan-driving cell phone Chatty Cathy. The 'Vic has consistently earned the highest possible scores/ratings for occupant safety in government and insurance industry crash testing, in both frontal and side-impact crashes. In addition to its built-in crashworthiness, the 'Vic also comes standard with safety enhancements like four-wheel-disc brakes with ABS and Brake Assist, as well as dual-stage airbags with seat-position sensors.
To make the most of the Crown Vic, order up the optional sport and handling package, which will outfit your 'Vic with most of the same equipment that comes in police cars, including high-performance dual exhausts (upping engine output to 239 hp), a performance-calibrated torque converter for the four-speed automatic transmission, a more aggressive 3.27 final drive ratio and performance tires/suspension settings.
Granted, it isn't flashy and lacks "bling" and it's not as current in style as competitors like the Chrysler 300. Its bigness can also be intimidating in close quarters and it will definitely fill up your garage. But if you simply want the largest, safest, most comfortable large sedan your $25,000-$30,000 can buy, there's really no contest.
Anyone with Vanishing Point or Bullitt fantasies must make an appointment for a test drive. Don't let the four doors fool you; the new Charger R/T's 350-hp 5.7-liter HEMI V-8 is more than a match for the 440 Magnum used in the classic-era Chargers of the 1960s and early '70s.
Stand on the brake and ease into the gas (traction control off, naturally). You'll feel the HEMI's torque (nearly 400 lb-ft) assault the holding power of the rear discs, which very quickly give up the fight. Now it's up to you how long you want to smoke the tires, because the HEMI has the grunt to shred them to their cases. Less than six seconds later, you are at 60 mph - quicker, by the way, than most of the two-door Chargers of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Keep your foot in it and quarter-mile is done with in about 14.5 seconds - again, as good or better performance than its muscle car forbears.
So effective is all this at ginning up the mystical muscle car ambiance that you almost forget the new Charger is a four-door sedan. It doesn't feel like one and it sure doesn't drive like one. And insofar as how it looks, Dodge has done amazing work here, too. The hunky lines and angry brow up front say power as effectively as the absence of an extra pair of doors might on a lesser performance car.
And yet it does have four doors so it can serve as a family car, something few other "attitude cars" can manage. Usually, it's either-or. You take your pick and you live with the compromises.
Drive this car and it's 1958 again. The sky is sunny and America 's number one. Vietnam , OPEC, and crappy little front-wheel-drive cars are still years away. Savor the cushy seats, the expansive dashboard, and the long hood. The reassuring feel of heavy doors that slam shut like the doors of a man's car ought to slam shut.
But the Chrysler 300C is more than skin deep. In addition to the heroic 340-horsepower HEMI engine - which also features fuel-saving cylinder deactivation technology that improves gas mileage by as much as 10-20 percent - your $34,055 also gets you 18-inch spoked alloy wheels, a five-speed automatic transmission with semi-manual shift function, impressive high-capacity brakes (13.6 inch discs up front, 12.6-inch discs out back), dual zone auto climate control, heated driver and front passenger seats, power tilt/telescoping steering wheel, leather seats and, instead of the usual fake wood, some really interesting semi-translucent tortoise-shell steering wheel trim and interior accents. For another $1300 and change you can add full-time all-wheel drive to the HEMI-equipped C.
Now, the 300C is not everyone, just as the similarly aggressive, in-your-face "letter series" cars of the 1950s and '60s weren't for everyone, either. Not everyone needs or wants a HEMI; some might find the 300's street heavy styling a bit intimidating. But if you agree with Machiavelli (and Don Corleone) that it is better to be feared than loved, you'll almost certainly love the swagger of the newly anointed capo di tutti capi of large sedans.
2006 Pontiac Grand Prix GXP2007 Pontiac Grand Prix GXP ($27,330):
In the '60s, big Pontiacs with big V-8s like the Catalina and Bonneville ruled the far left lane. Triple deuce (three Rochester two-barrel carburetor) 389s and Super Duty 421s pushed the hawkish beaks of these proud tin Indians effortlessly through traffic and gave them a satisfying muscle car rumpety-rump exhaust note at the curb. You'll find the same endearing qualities in the V-8 powered Grand Prix GXP, Pontiac's first eight-cylinder-equipped sedan in more than 20 years.
Standard equipment in this model is a 5.3-liter V-8 with 303 horsepower feeding into a sport-calibrated four-speed automatic transmission with manual and automatic shifting modes. With the traction control turned off, Dale Earnhardt-style smoky burnout launches are just a foot stomp away. But the main attraction is the car's torquey forward rush from a low-speed roll-on. While that kid in the next lane is running his rice rocket to redline in second, you're steamrolling ahead of him without even trying too hard. If the kid's got something quick, just ease a little deeper into the pedal and let the wonder of cubic inches do its thing. There truly is no replacement for displacement.
But while underhood potency is shared in common with its 389 and 421 forbears, the new GXP also has the goods to track fast around a corner - something the old lead sleds never managed especially well. Eighteen-inch aluminum wheels replace the pretty but skinny eight-lug rims used on classic Pontiac road kings, while four-wheel-disc brakes with ABS are far more suited to panic stops than four-wheel finned drums. The GXP also comes standard with a performance-calibrated version of GM's StabilTrak active handling traction/stability control system; it is programmed with higher limits before the computer begins to intervene, allowing the driver more control during spirited cornering.
Another cool feature that comes with the GXP is the head-up display (HUD). The HUD projects data, such as your current speed, onto the windshield, so that it appears to float in the air just above the hood and directly in your line of sight. The idea is to keep you informed without your having to take your eye off the road. Adding to the jet-fighter ambiance are red-backlit gauges tucked into a hooded central nacelle, with the center stack canted toward the driver - just like it was in the old Grand Prix SJ of the classic era.
Chevy had a winner in the Corvette-powered, Caprice Classic-based Impala SS of the mid-late 1990s. But that model was dropped so GM could churn out more trucks and SUVs at the plant in Arlington, Texas, instead. Bad move. When the old Impala SS disappeared, so did Chevy's last credible performance sedan. The former V-6 Luminas were two cylinders too short, and all the NASCAR-style marketing couldn't hide the deficit under the hood.
That's no longer an issue - and the SS is back. The new SS has four doors, holds six passengers and like the old Caprice-based Impala of the '90s, this one also features a Corvette-derived small-block V-8 to get all that moving. The big difference between then and now is the horses drive the front wheels instead of the rears. This is a "pro" in slick weather, though - conditions that are to a rear-drive muscle machine what a lump of Kryptonite is to the man of steel. Power's not much help if all you're doing is spinning your wheels, after all. And in dry weather, the new SS's front-drive layout is not the hobble it would have been 10 or 20 years ago, when too much engine and front-wheel-drive led to herky-jerky torque steer (and often, premature CV joint and axle/half-shaft failures due to the excessive loads put on these parts). The new SS launches hard and steady, the steering wheel unperturbed and no need for violent counter-steering to keep the beast on course.
The SS versions of the Impala are visually discrete, too, with minimal exterior ornamentation to give the game away to competitors (or cops). It's great for discrete high-speed cruising under the radar. And the V-8 features gas-saving Displacement on Demand technology, which shuts down four of the eight cylinders when they're not needed, saving as much as ten percent on annual gas bills and boosting mileage to a very respectable (for 303 hp) 28-mpg highway fuel-economy capability.