2011 Full-Size Car Buying Guide

Last Updated: May 10, 2010

The 2011 Full-Size Car Buying Guide highlights some of the largest sedans in the business; roomy and powerful, they’re aimed at those for whom size matters.

Today’s dwindling stock of full-size autos is a glimpse back at what the average American car was like in the roaring ‘60s and ‘70’s, before fuel-economy concerns and the trend toward downsizing shifted buyers into smaller cars and larger trucks.

The half-dozen models in the 2011 Full-Size Car Buying Guide are roomy, powerful cars with comfortable interiors and civilized road manners. And they appeal to generally older and more conservative buyers than do smaller cars and SUVs. They’re also relatively affordable compared to similarly sized cars such as the BMW 7 Series and Mercedes-Benz S-Class; you’ll find those premium large cars covered in our 2011 Premium Car Buying Guide.

All our full-size cars are four-door sedans in which four adults can stretch out with room to spare and five can travel in reasonable comfort. Better yet, a pair of young siblings can sit in the back seat without ever actually touching each other. Six-passenger full-size cars have been rendered extinct by the demise of the front-bench seat; all these cars have two front buckets divided by a center console that holds the transmission shifter.

These cars do have trunks large enough for a family’s vacation luggage (with some skillful packing). Note that station-wagon versions of these cars have long ceded their roles to SUVs, crossovers, and minivans. And it’s been decades since any of these big cars was offered in two-door-coupe form.

Demand for the rejuvenated Ford Taurus and Buick LaCrosse shows there’s life yet in a class that’s suffered, at best, flat sales in recent years. The Detroit automakers along with Toyota, whose Avalon is the only import-brand car here, aren’t giving up on full-size cars. For one thing, they produce a reliable revenue stream, albeit one fueled in large part by sales to rental fleets and, in some cases, by taxicab companies and law enforcement agencies (the Ford Crown Victoria remains in production as a fleet-only vehicle, for example.)

Evidence of the commitment to full-size cars can be found in the heavily updated 2011 Toyota Avalon and in the redesigned the 2011 Chrysler 300 (its corporate cousin, the Dodge Charger, is due for a model-year 2012 redesigned). The Buick Lucerne remains the senior citizen of the segment. It was to have been replaced by a new rear-wheel-drive version but those plans were scrapped; its days are numbered and the LaCrosse will soon take over as Buick’s flagship sedan.

Traditionally, full-size cars almost exclusively packed thirsty V-8 engines. Today adequate-enough V-6s provide more fuel-efficient power, at least in base models. The Buick LaCrosse is available with a four-cylinder, while the Buick Lucerne, Chrysler 300, and Dodge Charger remain the only cars in the class to offer V-8 engines. The 300 and Charger even come in 400-plus-horsepower V-8 models that recall the classic muscle-car era. The Ford Taurus goes another route in search of performance with a twin turbocharged EcoBoost V-6 in its sporty SHO model. It produces a V-8-like 365 horsepower without a noticeable penalty in fuel economy.

Given new federal corporate average fuel economy regulations that mandate automakers’ fleets become 40 percent more efficient by 2016, expect turbocharged V-6s to replace V-8s in this segment and perhaps turbo-fours supplanting the V-6s.

Automatic transmissions are the norm here. The Lucerne sadly trundles on with an antiquated four-speed automatic, but other full-size cars boast sophisticated six-speed gearboxes for smoother performance and improved fuel economy.

The Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger remain true to their roots by riding on traditional rear-wheel-drive platforms. Rear-drive is preferred for its ride and handling qualities, particularly among larger cars. And employing it avoids the annoying phenomenon of “torque steer,” which tends to pull a front-drive vehicle to one side during rapid acceleration from low speeds. Front-wheel drive puts the weight of the engine over the tires that propel the car, for a traction advantage over rear-drive in snow.

The Ford Taurus, Buick LaCrosse, and 300 and Charger achieve the best of both worlds by offering all-wheel drive. (AWD is standard on the high-performance Taurus SHO model.) AWD enhances traction on wet or snowy roads with the added benefit of slightly improved handling through the curves on dry pavement.

As the most-comfortable non-luxury cars in production, these full-size sedans offer a wealth of convenience items as standard or optional equipment. Luxury-car features such as heated and cooled power leather seats, navigation systems, premium audio arrays, remote starters, power sunroofs, are common in this segment. The Ford Taurus offers a massaging function for the driver’s seat that’s claimed to help prevent lower back pain; the Toyota Avalon comes with reclining rear seats.

Safety features are plentiful as well. Front-side and side-curtain airbags, antilock brakes, and antiskid stability control systems are standard across the board. The Avalon adds a knee-height airbag for the driver. Available lane-departure warning and blind-spot detection systems help prevent collisions on the highway (the system in the Ford Taurus even works while backing out of a garage), while rear-view cameras contribute to easier and safer parking.

Full-size cars earn four- or perfect five-star ratings in government crash tests for occupant protection in frontal and side-impact collisions. Regardless of their ratings, as a group full-size cars tend to have the lowest fatality rates among all car classes. This is owed as much to the conservative driving nature of full-size car owners as it is to the fact that larger and heavier vehicles inherently fare better in collisions with smaller and lighter models.