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The Warsaw Voice » Society » April 29, 2009
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Mid-Range Company Cars
April 29, 2009 By Bartosz GrzybiŮski   
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For managers, a company car is not just a machine to get from A to B in the course of their duties, but also a status symbol. It reflects both the financial status and prestige of the company and the tastes and preferences of the car user.

Among the many models available on the market some were created with lower- and mid-level managers in mind. Most of these cars belong to the mid-range segment (D), though manufacturers have recently been tempting company car users by emphasizing the looks and equipment of lower mid-range models.

Not just German
Among European producers, Germany leads the way in this segment. The Audi A4, BMW3 and Mercedes C have been associated with luxury for years. Not far behind them are the Volkswagen Passat, for years one of the most popular company cars, and the new Opel Insignia.

Even though German makes are the most prevalent in this group, it does not mean that these are the most prestigious vehicles. Other European manufacturers offer competitive products. The French have the CitroŽn C5, Renault Laguna and Peugeot 407; the Italians have the Alfa Romeo 159; and the Spaniards—the Seat Toledo and Exeo. Far Eastern competitors include the Honda Accord, Lexus IS, Mazda 6, Toyota Avensis, Kia Magentis, Hyundai Sonata, Mitsubishi Lancer and Subaru Legacy. Mid-range cars also include the Skoda Octavia and Superb, Jaguar X-Type, Ford Mondeo, Saab 9-3 Sportsedan, and Volvo S60 and S40, in addition to U.S. automobiles such as the Dodge Avenger, the smallest Cadillac BLS, and the Chrysler Sebring, which are still exotic on the Polish market.

Similarities and differences
What do these models have in common and what sets them apart? Their common feature is that they all belong to segment D, or mid-range vehicles. Still, the border is rather fluid in this case because the Skoda Superb, for example, because of its dimensions, is classified into the upper mid range, while the Octavia belongs to the lower mid range. The same goes for the Volvo S60 and S40: the S60 is classified in the mid range, while the S40 is pigeonholed into the lower mid range.

Until recently, everything was simple: there was only one range—the mid range. But the external dimensions of the new cars previously classified into lower segments have increased; there is also more equipment and extras, and the engines are increasingly powerful. Hence the difficulties in classifying these vehicles.

Visual differences between individual models are beginning to disappear to the point that only those with a keen interest in the automotive industry can immediately tell the Volvo S60 from the S40, for example.

Various sizes and bodies
External dimensions range from around 4.5 meters for the Seat Toledo (4.45 meters), BMW 3 (4.53 meters) and Lexus IS (4.57 meters), the smallest vehicles in this segment, to nearly 5 meters in the case of the Skoda Superb (4.83 meters), Ford Mondeo (4.84 meters), or Dodge Avenger and Chrysler Sebring (4.85 meters). Most of the cars are offered as four-door sedans, less often as five-door liftbacks. The Czech Skoda offers an innovative system known as twindoor in its Superb model. The design of the rear hatch allows it to be opened like a conventional trunk in sedans, or together with the rear window as in liftbacks. This system is especially useful when you load baggage.

On occasion station wagons are also used as company cars. This is mainly because of the preferences of the owner in leading an active lifestyle. Station wagons are no less attractive visually than sedans, while their capability of carrying sports equipment, for example, is much greater. Today, practically speaking, any mid-range model is also available in a station wagon version. This also applies to the Jaguar X-Type. Could anyone have predicted just a few years ago that Jags would actually be available as station wagons?

Not always roomy, but always comfortable
Some models such as the Skoda Superb offer a lot of space in the passenger cabin along with a spacious luggage compartment (565 liters)—as in luxury cars. Other models such as the Lexus IS are far less generous for passengers in the back as far as roominess is concerned.

Standard comfort features in all these cars add up to a long list that covers manual or, more often, electronic air-conditioning, fully electric windows and side mirrors, onboard computer, audio/CD system, and multifunction steering wheel and seats.

The quality of the finishing materials is high. Leather and wood/aluminum inlays are increasingly used in interiors. Practically anything can be ordered as an option: from leather upholstery, heated and ventilated seats, four-zone air-conditioning, backup sensors and cameras, to bixenon headlights and satellite navigation.

Safety as the top priority
Safety features include the Anti-Lock Braking System (ABS) and Anti-Spin Regulation (ASR) as well as the Electronic Stability Program (ESP)—which is increasingly offered as a standard feature—in addition to front and side airbags, air curtains and active headrests, not to mention seat belts with pre-tensioners, reinforced body structures and controlled crumple zones.

When it comes to crash safety, a revolution has taken place. Safety features that just a few years ago were only offered in luxury cars are now available in all mid-range vehicles. Attention to passenger safety is confirmed by the results of Euro NCAP crash tests and the fact that most models in this segment have won the maximum five stars. The first two mid-range models that secured five stars were the Renault Laguna and Mercedes C. Today automakers are also increasingly concerned about pedestrian safety.

Powerful engines
Most mid-range models are fitted with gasoline engines that deliver from 100 to 200 hp and their engine capacity ranges from 1.6l to more than 3.0l.

The Volvo S40 with a 1.6l unit delivers 100 hp, while the factory-tuned version of the Mercedes C 63 AMG delivers 457 hp. This last car, fitted with an eight-cylinder 6.2-liter engine, accelerates from standstill to 100 kph in just 4.5 seconds. Top speed is electronically limited to 250 kph.

A recent trend involves downsizing, or turbocharging relatively small engines. Fiat, Toyota and Volkswagen use such engines to power not only small cars, but also mid-range and upper-range models. A Volkswagen-designed turbocharged engine with a capacity of just 1.4l delivers an impressive 122 hp and works superbly in the Skoda Superb. Each automaker offers three or four gasoline engines to choose from, including turbocharged units, and at least one Common Rail turbodiesel. Some makes such as Audi offer a range of as many as 10 different gasoline engines plus a diesel. BMW, Fiat, Ford, Renault, Mercedes, Volvo or VW offer an only slightly smaller choice.

Most producers offer at least one sports model. Audi marks its most powerful versions with the S and RS symbols; BMW uses the letter M; Renault labels them as GT, and Mercedes as AMG. Saab names them Aero, and Mitsubishi calls them Evolution. These models are intended for those who like to drive fast and will appreciate the horsepower and responsive engine. The Mercedes AMG with a 457 hp engine is not the only model that makes heads turn as it purrs down the street. The BMW M3 delivers a whopping 420 hp, the Lexus IS F is fitted with a 423 hp engine, and the Audi S4 has a 333 hp unit.

The range of engines also features Common Rail turbodiesels in Volkswagen, BMW, Ford, Fiat and PSA (CitroŽn and Peugeot) cars. Modern turbodiesels boast excellent acceleration. The BMW 330d’s in-line Common Rail engine delivers an astounding 204 hp and its maximum torque is 410 Nm at 1,500 rpm. In practice, any model can be fitted with a diesel, even the Jaguar X-Type (2.0D/130hp).

In most models, power is transmitted to the front wheels, and less often to the rear (BMW, Mercedes, and Lexus). As an option, four-wheel drive is available in the Alfa Romeo, BMW, Mercedes, Subaru, Mitsubishi, Volvo, and cars offered by the Volkswagen corporation (Skoda and Seat), and probably the best known example—the Audi Quattro. Five- or six-speed manual transmissions and automatic transmissions with six, seven and even eight gears (as in the Lexus IS F) with the possibility of manual shifting are widely used.

Brand image
While equipment, finishing materials, active and passive safety features and engines can be compared, comparisons in terms of brand image are difficult in the case of these cars. Brands like Audi, BMW, Mercedes and Lexus have worked hard on their image for decades. Others, like the Kia Magentis, still have work ahead of them—even though the car is comfortable and offers a long list of goodies as standard, in addition to an exceptionally attractive price tag.

For now, brand image is still of key importance to customers, but at a time of crisis price plays a greater role than ever. This may be a chance for the newcomers...

High profile
Some brands are firmly associated with prestige. Even the least powerful BMW 3 with an entry-level 1.6l/122 hp engine costs more than zl.107,000. Adding an extra zl.30,000 one could buy the top-of-the-range Hyundai Sonata with a 3.3l.V6/250 hp engine. The cheapest Lexus IS, fitted with a 177 hp diesel, costs more than zl.132,000. This is just about the price of two 1.6l/110 hp Ford Mondeos in the Silver X trim level, each at zl.64,200, with some cash still left for fancy extras...

Just what model a firm picks for its company car depends on many factors, but chiefly on its financial status. Some executives make their own decisions in this area. Their preferences and familiarity with the market determine what car they drive.
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