Second Place: 2008 Infiniti G35 Sport

Now in its second comparison test against the 328i, the 306-hp G35 finds itself second best once again. No big surprise there -- why would the exact same vehicles get a different ending now? It is not our way to repeat a test exactly, so this time we at least learned how the G35 ranks against new competitors. We were surprised that the G took down the newcomers with such ease.

We're still enamored with the G's ability to knife through corners with the grace of a much smaller car, its comparo-leading acceleration numbers -- 0-to-60 in 5.5 seconds and the quarter-mile in 14.1 at 102 mph -- and the features one gets for $38,000. It's not readily apparent unless a 328i is around, but the G35 has struck a Faustian bargain with the car gods. In exchange for speed, spectacular dynamic abilities, and an attractive price, the G35 trades refinement and finesse.

As with most deals made with the devil, the source of the G35's great power is also the source of its defeat: a raspy but very strong 306-hp, 3.5-liter V-6. It doesn't take long to tire of the mechanical drone that accompanies every piston stroke. There is a grating quality to the 77 decibels at full throttle that make us want to reach for earplugs. Yet earplugs would only solve the audio part of the problem; the bad vibes can be felt through the shifter.

G35 updates for 2008 include revisions to improve clutch feel and quell vibrations in the shifter and clutch. These changes, shared with the G37 coupe, still haven't completely stopped the shifter from vibrating like a, well, vibrator, but at least the clutch feel and the reverb through the pedals have improved. Throws are splendidly short, but shifting requires more effort than we like. Second-gear synchros still don't seem up to their job; quick shifts still result in the grating sound of unhappy gears.

Okay, so there are downsides to the G35's bargain with the devil. There are some wonderful advantages, too. For $38,865 you get a fully loaded G35, and as a consequence, this car cleaned up in the features and amenities column. Navigation, heated leather seats, power everything, adaptive cruise control, Bluetooth hands-free phone system, and Bose stereo with iPod capability and integrated hard drive to store songs are all part of the pact. The Infiniti also offers a balanced chassis with 0.89 g of grip, communicative steering, a firm ride (occasionally too firm), and strong brakes. Like all the cars on this comparison test, in isolation the G35 feels like a winner, but it only takes a drive in the 328i to understand why the Infiniti is second best.

First Place: 2007 BMW 328i

Even before we left town, we thought this might happen. Once again, the lambs got eaten by the 328i. How could one of these challengers win when our only gripes about the BMW were that (1) it has a tight back seat for three occupants, (2) one tester complained that his knee would hit the door trim in corners, and (3) the radio display disappears behind polarized sunglasses?

What the 328i does better than its peers is combine the ingredients of the perfect sports sedan: driving dynamics and luxury. A 328i possesses handling and driving dynamics that rival, if not best, many sports cars', but for those who don't have multiple points on their license, the 328i also offers the refinement generally reserved for expensive luxury cars.

The rightness starts with the seats. Equipped with the Sport package, the 328i gets highly adjustable and well-bolstered sport seats. It's easy to find a comfortable seating position behind the thick, small-diameter steering wheel. An upright windshield and a small dashboard confer expansive sightlines. Poking out of the center console is a leather and plastic shifter that feels a bit rubbery but never fails to find the right gear.

Setting the pace through our canyon drive in the 328i was an easy task. Responsive and nicely weighted steering made it possible to place the 3380-pound sedan within fractions of an inch of where you want it to be. Strong brakes that offer bite with every millimeter of travel inspire confidence to slow in time should there be a patrolman around the next corner with a radar gun. Using all the grip from the run-flat Bridgestone Potenza RE050As is stress-free because the controls and the chassis communicate exactly what is happening on the road. Those same run-flats occasionally thud when one encounters a midcorner bump, but the unflappable structure smothers the impact before it gets to the driver.

Machines in motion emit sound: some of it good, some of it bad. The 328i keeps all the bad noises from reaching the driver and only delivers what we want to hear. Road noise is largely absent; gear and transmission whine are inaudible. There is a pleasant, light snarl from the engine's intake, but other than that, the six-cylinder seems as content spinning at 6000 rpm as it is at idle. The engine's lack of obvious stress makes exploiting it a pleasure. Never once did the 328i feel like it was down 76 horsepower on the G35, even though it is. At low rpm the BMW engine lacks the punch of the torquey, larger-displacement engines, but revs build quickly and the 3.0-liter six rewarded us further by returning the best fuel-economy numbers of the bunch.

Once again, a 3-series rises to the top of a comparison test. It is simply the best executed, best conceived, and best sports sedan currently available for the price. As for the competition, like the Chicago Cubs tell themselves at the end of every season, there's always next year.

Retrun to Page 1: Mercedes-Benz C300 Sport and Cadillac CTS DI

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