I had a geology professor named Dr. Bates, an Ichabod Crane look-alike who allegedly carried a bottle of Scotch in his bag. In fact, he did. One day, he whipped out the bottle — several girls in the class gasped — to demonstrate a method of testing ground water. Mix the water and Scotch, he said, and if the resulting libation turns black, then the water contains too many parts per million of solids and is technically polluted. It was one of the great delights of his life that you could sometimes accomplish this using brands of expensive bottled water. "Polluted!" he'd bellow, "and most of you think it's a badge of honor to drink this stuff." Whether he meant the water or the Scotch was never made clear. I never saw him pour a black cocktail down the drain.
I mention the lovable Dr. Bates because it was he who explained to me the geology of Ohio. When the Pleistocene ice sheets rolled through — rather less rapidly than, say, a BMW 330i — they flattened what is now Wood County, south of Toledo, no doubt angering many locals who may or may not have owned effective snow blowers. The glaciers continued south, then melted, carving the courses of the Ohio and lower Missouri rivers. They also dropped their accumulated solids — illegal dumping, a misdemeanor in Ohio — to form the Hocking Hills.
So there it is. We have Bates's cocktails and God's ice to thank for two major attractions along our favorite comparo route. First, the serpentine roads of hilly southern Ohio — roads that are to sporting suspensions what Boulder Mountain Spring bottled water is to 25-year-old single-malt Macallan: a real test. Second, we have Snook's Dream Cars, a museum in pancake-flat Bowling Green, where you can view everything from a '56 Lotus Eleven to a '33 Cadillac. (Admission is $5; call 419-353-8338.) Ask the Snooks to trot out their 1933 Illinois license plates made not from metal — a precious commodity during the Depression — but from soybeans. Such plates are rare. Not because they're 69 years old but because most were eaten by Illinois livestock. This is true.
Which brings us, via an admittedly tortuous path, to the business at hand — not hungry heifers but sports sedans, with base prices ranging from $27,645 to $40,644 and with engines producing from 215 to 270 horses. Right now, you're possibly muttering, "Moses in a muumuu, hosannas on horseback — didn't these guys just run this comparo about a week ago?" Well, sort of. We can't seem to stop ourselves. The cars in this category are fast, tasteful, luxurious, fun, and five-passenger practical.
We last visited the niche in February ("36 on the Floor"). A BMW 330i won. Sounds familiar, right? But those were manual-transmission cars. Now we're onto the automatics. Not only automatics but also manumatics, of which each vehicle in this test boasts a version. One you push north to downshift, four you push south to downshift, one you push west to downshift. Discussing which direction is correct is like discussing campaign-finance reform.
A few losers in previous sports-sedan comparos weren't invited this time. That cleared the way for some new blood — the Infiniti G35, the Mercedes-Benz C320, and the VW Passat W-8. We don't mind admitting we're sort of looking for a player to knock off the BMW. Our six contestants offered driveline layouts spanning the gamut: two front-wheel-drivers (Acura and Audi), three rear-wheel-drivers (Infiniti, BMW, and Benz), and one all-wheel-driver (VW). Four cars conceived in Germany, two in Japan.
In most comparos, a dog raises his flea-ridden paw in the first 100 miles — the ValuJet of the group, the car everyone loves to hate. In this group, no such hound barked its name. This deprived us of one of life's great pleasures: kicking a car when it's down. You know, really just Rodney Kinging the thing until hell won't have it. Alas, there were no canines in this kennel.