50-Grand Gazelles: 1999 Luxury Sports Sedans Compared

Mercedes-Benz E430

Cautionary Note: The forthcoming narrative will provide a somewhat biased coverage of five luxury sedans, characterized by sleek aesthetics, opulent interiors, and price tags ranging from $50,000 to $57,000. All are propelled by sophisticated V-8 engines mated to advanced four- or five-speed automatic transmissions. With the exception of the front-wheel-drive Cadillac STS, they all feature rear-wheel drive and are laden with what the industry terms as “content,” encompassing amenities rarely seen in other brands. Despite being marketed as five-passenger sedans, practicality dictates that they comfortably transport only four adults over moderate distances.

Our editorial team deviates from the conventional focus on comfort, silence, and a plush ride. Instead, our evaluations lean towards agility, roadworthiness, and a certain hedonistic quality we believe should be inherent in any automobile, regardless of its purpose or price. This approach sets us apart from other reviewers who may prioritize seating softness, sound system quality, and transmission smoothness. For those seeking such assessments, we recommend consulting Consumer Reports. However, if your interest lies in luxury sedans offering both long-distance, high-speed travel and a blend of comfort and driving pleasure, read on.

5th Place: Infiniti Q45t

To begin, none of the five vehicles under scrutiny can be faulted in terms of quality or overall appeal. However, as our evaluations progressed through two days of rigorous driving in upstate New York, it became evident that we were not dealing with five similar machines but rather two subtly distinct categories – three high-performance European models and two milder, gentler variations on the American theme that failed to ignite our youthful enthusiasm.

5th Place: Infiniti Q45t The Infiniti Q45

introduced in late 1989, has struggled to gain traction in the luxury car market despite its celebrated quality. Its inclusion in this evaluation is based on enhancements to its touring suspension, incorporating adjustable shock absorbers. All Q45s benefit from a mild restyling of the interior and exterior, including a new grille, gas-discharge headlights, and an updated dashboard.


  • Elegant interior design.
  • Potent Northstar V-8 engine provides robust American-style power.


  • Excessive size and bulk.
  • Incremental styling changes.
  • Susceptible to lurking understeer.

Conclusion: Undoubtedly the finest among Cadillacs, yet falls short of class-leading status.

 Infiniti Q45t


Verdict: A capable luxury car in search of a distinctive identity.

Weighing in at 4047 pounds, the Q45t is the heaviest among the group. Its 0-to-60 time of 8.4 seconds places it as the slowest, and its DOHC 32-valve V-8, reduced to 4.1 liters and 266 horsepower, contributes to its modest performance. Despite an adjustable suspension, the Q45t’s handling lacks the dynamism of its competitors. Its strength lies in a spacious interior adorned with luxurious materials, but its performance on fast bends and hard cornering falls short compared to the top contenders.

While the Q45t may not excel as a high-performance sedan, it also lacks the visual impact to compete with the likes of the BMW 7-series and the new S-class Mercedes-Benz. It hovers between categories, suggesting that a transformation into an unabashed full-size luxury sedan might be a strategic move to capitalize on its inherent excellence.

  • 1998 Infiniti Q45t
  • 266-hp V-8, 4-speed automatic, 4047 lb
  • Base/as-tested price: $51,500/$52,600 (est.)
  • C/D Test Results:
  • 60 mph: 8.4 sec
  • 1/4 mile: 16.5 sec @ 87 mph
  • 100 mph: 22.0 sec
  • 130 mph: 36.0 sec
  • Braking, 70–0 mph: 195 ft
  • Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.73 g
  • C/D observed fuel economy: 20 mpg

4th Place: Cadillac STS – A Unique Blend of Size and Power in the Luxury Sports Sedans Category

To start, consider that within the exclusive realm of luxury sports sedans, the Cadillac STS stands out as the longest (201 inches) and widest (75 inches, approximately four inches more than its counterparts). Paired with its weight exceeding 4000 pounds (4034 pounds, to be precise, making it one of the two in the group), the STS found itself in fourth place in the performance hierarchy. This ranking seemed to encapsulate the collective sentiment of the test drivers as they concluded their assessments.

Cadillac STS


  • Elegant interior with rich hardwood and leather accents.
  • Potent Northstar V-8 engine delivers robust American-style power.
  • Well-optioned and lavishly equipped.


  • Unnecessary size and bulk.
  • Incremental, evolutionary styling.
  • Prone to lurking understeer.

Verdict: Undoubtedly the top-tier Cadillac, but falls short of securing the best-in-class status among luxury sports sedans.

The STS boasts an appealing interior adorned with hardwood and leather, offering a well-equipped driving experience. However, a unanimous point of contention was the oversized console-mounted transmission shift lever, seemingly better suited for industrial vehicles than a luxury sedan. While the STS has undergone downsizing compared to its predecessor, it still adheres to the American tradition of equating size with luxury.

Despite featuring advanced technologies such as “performance algorithm shifting,” “StabiliTrak” stability enhancement, “Magnasteer” variable-assist power steering, and a road-sensing electronic suspension, the STS lags behind in handling tight corners. Its two-ton bulk and a forward weight bias lead to noticeable understeer, leaving some test drivers feeling that the car’s performance was a step behind the competition.

Although boasting larger rear-seat interior volume by SAE measurements, the STS struggles to provide adequate knee and elbow room. Among the five sedans, only the Lexus GS400 offers less comfort for rear passengers with three on board.

Cadillac STS

Certainly, the STS marks a significant improvement in Cadillac’s sedan lineup, and some argue it should stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the best in its class. However, its excessive size, weight, and less-than-agile road manners position it as a contender that needs to address these challenges to truly compete in the fast-paced luxury sports sedans league.


  • 1998 Cadillac STS
  • 300-hp V-8, 4-speed automatic, 4034 lb
  • Base/as-tested price: $48,476/$51,410
  • C/D Test Results:
  • 60 mph: 6.8 sec
  • 1/4 mile: 15.3 sec @ 92 mph
  • 100 mph: 18.5 sec
  • 130 mph: 28.4 sec
  • Braking, 70–0 mph: 192 ft
  • Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.79 g
  • C/D observed fuel economy: 20 mpg

3rd Place: Mercedes-Benz E430 – A Delicate Balance of Luxury and Sport

Mercedes-Benz E430

Keen-eyed enthusiasts may recall our December 1996 comparison test, where the E420, equipped with a robust DOHC 32-valve V-8 generating 275 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque, claimed the top spot. Fast forward to 1998, and Mercedes introduces a sophisticated, highly efficient modular SOHC 24-valve 4.3-liter V-8, maintaining the same power figures. Surprisingly, the E430 slips to third place. The perplexing question arises: how can this be when the E430 accelerates to 60 mph in 6.4 seconds and completes the quarter-mile in 15 seconds at 97 mph, outperforming its predecessor? Positives:

  • Classic, solid Mercedes-Benz structural integrity.
  • State-of-the-art three-valve, fuel-efficient V-8 engine.


  • Familiar, somewhat uninspiring styling.
  • Interior design reminiscent of a US Airways coach in a Concorde body.

Verdict: A superb automobile edged out by two superior contenders.

The explanation lies in the shift of competition dynamics. In the previous test, the focus leaned more towards luxury. However, with the inclusion of the sport-oriented GS400, we introduced Sport and Touring models of the 540i, Seville, and Q45, all featuring enhanced handling. While Mercedes provides a Sport package for the E430 at a substantial cost, we opted against it, as the improvements did not justify the expense.

Priced at $56,742, the E430 competes in both luxury and sport categories, aligning with the less athletic Q45t and STS while closely matching the performance of the more dynamic 540i and GS400.

Despite its slightly unexciting styling, particularly beyond its distinctive front end, and an interior design bordering on severity, the E430 shines in contemporary automotive design. Weighing a mere 3580 pounds, it nearly matches the BMW and Lexus in speed, although some may sense a Teutonic severity that slightly diminishes the “fun to drive” factor. However, the E430 excels in interior space utilization and boasts top-tier fuel economy (25 mpg during our 900-mile test). Moreover, there’s a prevailing sentiment that over 200,000 miles, the Mercedes would likely excel in overall solidity and depreciation rate. Despite a close finish in the rankings, these enduring qualities, along with a marginal point difference, could have made the E430 a repeat winner in the hearts and minds of devoted Mercedes-Benz enthusiasts.

Mercedes-Benz E430


  • 1998 Mercedes-Benz E430
  • 275-hp V-8, 5-speed automatic, 3580 lb
  • Base/as-tested price: $52,259/$56,742
  • C/D Test Results:
  • 60 mph: 6.4 sec
  • 1/4 mile: 15.0 sec @ 97 mph
  • 100 mph: 15.9 sec
  • 130 mph: 24.5 sec
  • Braking, 70–0 mph: 187 ft
  • Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.82 g
  • C/D observed fuel economy: 25 mpg

2nd Place: Lexus GS400 – A Formidable Contender in the Realm of Luxury Sports Sedans

In Lexus’s initial attempt to bridge the gap between the flagship LS400 and the upscale ES300, the first-generation GS300 fell short, delivering lackluster performance and forgettable styling. However, the landscape changed with the arrival of the new GS400 last year. Boasting radical bodywork and a robust 300-hp, 4.0-liter V-8, it swiftly ascended into the esteemed German domain, proving itself capable of competing at the forefront of the luxury sports sedan class. If not for concerns regarding rear-seat capacity and mixed opinions on its distinctive design, the mere one-point difference from the BMW might have easily been reversed.

Lexus GS400
Lexus GS400


  • Impressive speed and handling.
  • Unrivaled fit and finish.
  • Abundant amenities.


  • Polarizing love-it-or-hate-it styling.
  • Somewhat harsh ride.

Verdict: A stellar performer challenging the German dominance in crafting high-performance four-doors.

Performance-wise, the GS400 closely rivaled the victorious BMW. Its zero-to-60 and quarter-mile times were a mere tenth of a second behind, showcasing remarkable acceleration. The Lexus outperformed the BMW in braking distance (166 feet vs. 175), top speed (148 mph vs. 131), fuel economy (24 vs. 22 C/D-observed mpg), and on the skidpad (0.83 g to 0.81). Notable strengths included a transmission with crisp and aggressive efficiency, a manual-override mode controlled by steering wheel shift buttons, impeccable fit and finish, and an impressive array of features.

Despite some minor complaints about a slightly choppy ride, likely attributed to ultra-low-profile tires, the GS400 received high praise for its overall handling, being described as “light, nimble, and ready to play.” The steering was particularly lauded for its responsiveness and precision.

Apart from the compact rear seat, the interior garnered positive remarks, especially for the ergonomically friendly instrument panel and the backlit, silver-blue-tinted instruments that adjust to ambient light conditions.

Lexus GS400

With a price tag of $50,347, the GS400 stands as the most economical choice in our luxury sports sedan lineup, over five thousand dollars less than the winning BMW. While the one-point separation in scores might be perceived as a tie in this particular test, the undeniable conclusion is that the new Lexus GS400 is a force to be reckoned with in the realm of luxury sports sedans.


  • 1998 Lexus GS400
  • 300-hp V-8, 5-speed automatic, 3811 lb
  • Base/as-tested price: $45,946/$50,347
  • C/D Test Results:
  • 60 mph: 6.2 sec
  • 1/4 mile: 14.8 sec @ 97 mph
  • 100 mph: 15.8 sec
  • 130 mph: 24.5 sec
  • Braking, 70–0 mph: 166 ft
  • Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.83 g
  • C/D observed fuel economy: 24 mpg

1st Place: BMW 540i – A Singular Triumph in the Realm of Luxury Sports Sedans

Much like the enduring presence of Mercedes-Benz E-class sedans, BMW 5-series vehicles have been constants at Car and Driver since the time when some of the current editors were in diapers. In April 1998, we concluded a long-term test of the six-speed-manual-transmission variant of the 540i—admired the car, though we frowned upon the somewhat elevated maintenance costs. As we approached this comprehensive five-car evaluation, our anticipation was high, knowing that the five-speed-automatic version, especially when equipped with the $3333 Sport package, would hold its own in performance and overall appeal. The automatic 540i not only matched but slightly exceeded the prowess of the six-speed sibling within this exclusive group of five. What set the BMW apart was not merely individual performance metrics but the holistic excellence of its ride-and-handling balance, power, comfort levels, and build quality. While both the Lexus GS400 and the Mercedes-Benz E430 proved equals or surpassed the 540i in certain aspects, it was the BMW’s comprehensive excellence that earned it the top position, albeit by a mere point over the GS400.

BMW 540i


  • Genuine, all-encompassing high performance.
  • Enthusiastic engine.


  • A hefty price tag for a moderately-sized sedan.

Verdict: Reigning supreme for now, but the crown rests uneasily.

Subject to our subjective judgments, the 540i earned high praise for its 4.4-liter, 32-valve DOHC V-8, producing a mesmerizing exhaust note uncommon for a luxury sedan. Despite a horsepower rating of 282—slightly below the STS and GS400 V-8s—BMW’s 310 pound-feet of torque matched the best in its class. This, coupled with the vehicle’s relatively light weight of 3792 pounds, contributed to its class-leading acceleration and midrange passing capabilities.

Beyond sheer power, it was the overall athleticism that distinguished the 540i. Described as “exactly what you’d expect from a BMW—feels smaller, more compact, more fun,” by one editor, and “hugely competent and comfortable,” by another, the BMW’s excellence shone through. Minor complaints about on-center dead spots in the steering and a perceived laziness in downshifting were outweighed by high scores for exceptional seats, a robust structure, four-passenger comfort, and world-class over-the-road competence in all conditions. It was nearly impossible to assign significant demerits to the 540i, even when compared to recent grand-touring coupes and alleged sports cars.

While the desire for a more accessible price point was unanimous among the tested sedans, the BMW 540i, regardless of its price tag, stands as a paragon of noble craftsmanship in the automotive realm. Thus, it unquestionably deserves its top ranking in this exclusive and exceptional group of luxury sports sedans.

BMW 540i


  • 1998 BMW 540i
  • 282-hp V-8, 5-speed automatic, 3792 lb
  • Base/as-tested price: $52,125/$55,458
  • C/D Test Results:
  • 60 mph: 6.1 sec
  • 1/4 mile: 14.7 sec @ 98 mph
  • 100 mph: 15.4 sec
  • 130 mph: 23.6 sec
  • Braking, 70–0 mph: 175 ft
  • Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.81 g
  • C/D observed fuel economy: 22 mpg

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