An objective of designing molecular vehicles exhibiting virus-like transgene delivery capabilities but with low toxicity and immunogenicity continues to drive synthetic vector development. As no single step within the gene delivery pathway represents the critical limiting barrier for all vector types under all circumstances, improvements in synthetic vehicle design may be aided by quantitative analysis of the contributions of each step to the overall delivery process. To our knowledge, however, synthetic and viral gene delivery methods have not yet been explicitly compared in terms of these delivery pathway steps in a quantitative manner. As a first address of this challenge, we compare here quantitative parameters characterizing intracellular gene delivery steps for an E1/E3-deleted adenoviral vector and three polyethylenimine (PEI)-based vector formulations, as well as the liposomal transfection reagent Lipofectamine and naked DNA; the cargo is a plasmid encoding the beta-galactosidase gene under a CMV promoter, and the cell host is the C3A human hepatocellular carcinoma line. The parameters were determined by applying a previously validated mathematical model to transient time-course measurements of plasmid uptake and trafficking (from whole-cell and isolated nuclei lysates, by real-time quantitative PCR), and gene expression levels, enabling discovery of those for which the adenoviral vector manifested superiority. Parameter-sensitivity analysis permitted identification of processes most critically rate-limiting for each vector. We find that the adenoviral vector advantage in delivery appears to reside partially in its import to the nuclear compartment, but that its vast superiority in transgene expression arises predominantly in our situation from postdelivery events: on the basis of per-nuclear plasmid, expression efficiency from adenovirus is superior by orders of magnitude over the PEI vectors. We find that a chemical modification of a PEI-based vector, which substantially improves its performance, appears to do so by enhancing certain trafficking rate parameters, such as binding and uptake, endosomal escape, and binding to nuclear import machinery, but leaves endosomal escape as a barrier over which transgene delivery could be most sensitively increased further for this polymer.