New Car Reviews

Midsize Madness – Day Three

Welcome to the second round of Automobile Magazines Midsize Madness, our comparison test of the kind of car you see on American roads every day, the midsize sedan.

As we noted in our Day One introduction, we’ve gathered eight of the best front-wheel-drive midsize sedans with fuel-efficient engines, and our mission is to sort them out in a way that will let their whole characters be revealed. We’ve driven all these cars at the same time on the same roads, and we’ve made our notes and organized our facts and then argued about the results.

To our way of thinking, these are the best midsize sedans available in America right now. We’ve tried to ensure that our test cars represent a practical level of features – nicely equipped, as they say – yet don’t cost too much. Given the challenges of acquiring so many test cars at the same time, they aren’t priced exactly the same, but they all cost within $7800 of each other.

We’ve gathered here eight of these American-market midsize sedans that speak to the priorities that we have at Automobile Magazine: Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima, Mazda 6, Nissan Altima, Toyota Camry, and Volkswagen Passat. Some have style, some have speed, and some have reliability, yet all have a unique, definable character. By choosing one of them as the best, we hope to not only define the current state of the American midsize sedan but also define the character that those of us who read Automobile want in a practical, everyday kind of car.

During our first round of competition yesterday, some favorites went down and some outsiders prevailed:

  • The Toyota Camry lost to the Honda Accord, as the Camry’s unimpressive style made the Accord seem like a luxury car, plus the Toyota’s easygoing usability didn’t prove as compelling as the Honda’s refinement and energy.
  • The Volkswagen Passat unexpectedly trounced the Kia Optima, as the Passat delivered an interesting combination of American practicality and European driving dynamics, while the Optima didn’t entirely deliver on the sporty message sent by its styling.
  • Meanwhile, the Nissan Altima seemed like a large luxury car with its styling, passenger space, and freeway comfort, yet we preferred the even more stylish and fun-to-drive Mazda 6.
  • And finally the Hyundai Sonata, a 2011 Automobile Magazine All-Star, was knocked out in the first round by the Ford Fusion, a reminder that the choices in the midsize-sedan segment have dramatically improved in the last few years.

As the tournament continues, the competition involves less driving and a lot more arguing, as the comments below indicate. It’s not just about whether these midsize sedans excel in one way or another – because they all do – but instead it’s about finding the right kind of combination that meets our expectations about daily transportation. It’s also clear to us that our preferences are falling into two categories, comfortable overall usability and everyday driving enjoyment.

As the tournament continues, here are the match-ups for our semifinalists:

Honda Accord vs. Volkswagen Passat

2013 Honda Accord Sport

  • Executive editor Todd Lassa: “There’s a lot of road noise.” West Coast editor Michael Jordan (sarcastically, as always): “No, in a Honda?”
  • “Somehow Honda has managed to counter the suck-tide of cheapness that’s been dragging down the company for a decade,” says Jordan.
  • Road test editor Christopher Nelson says, “For a little under $25K, you get a car that feels more expensive than it is.”
  • The hard plastics don’t look as cheap as they do in comparable cars, and the leatherette on the doors is extremely soft. “Honda is learning how to grain plastics,” says associate editor David Zenlea. “No more elephant skin.”
  • The side mirrors are a bit small and the B-pillars are a bit big, but lots of glass helps make up for it. Forward and rearward visibility is phenomenal.
  • Good cargo opening but not a lot of usable cargo space, Nelson discovers. Oh, did we mention the rear seats don’t split? You’ll turn your family sedan into a two-seater anytime you go to Home Depot.
  • “The steering is light but precise,” says managing editor Amy Skogstrom. “There’s also a bit of body roll when taking fast corners.”
  • “Great powertrain, with smooth, impressive power throughout the rpm range, plus a nice sound when you reach redline,” copy editor Rusty Blackwell says. “CVT works with surprising harmony.”
  • “The gauge cluster looks wonderful at night,” says deputy editor Joe DeMatio, “and the center stack – while admittedly a bit cluttered – is clearly marked with big, easy-to-read buttons.”
  • Skogstrom: “The two, contrasting black fabrics on the cloth seats look and feel great.” DeMatio: “I could live with a sofa made out of this material.”

2013 Volkswagen Passat SE

  • Jordan says. “When I got in this car, I found myself asking it to take me to the Berlin train station. It’s very spacious, yet it’s also very austere in a way that reminds me of a European taxi, which ironically makes it more like a traditional American sedan than any other car in its segment.”
  • Volkswagen does Bauhaus-style minimalism here – simple, handsome design, both inside and out.
  • The seats have flat-bottom cushions and don’t offer much lateral support. DeMatio: “The driver’s seat is made for fat Americans.” Lassa: “Fat Americans of German descent.”
  • We love the upright windshield (minimal reflections), the low dashboard, and the slim A-pillars, which combine to deliver great visibility and a feeling of safety in congested traffic.
  • “This car’s styling should age extremely well, like a Brooks Brothers suit,” says DeMatio.
  • The radio is rudimentary, so it fits in well with the humble interior.
  • By far the best trunk in this competition.
  • “Plain and simple, this is a German Camry,” says senior web editor Phil Floraday.
  • “While not inspiring, the Passat drives like a confident car,” says Skogstrom.
  • “For all the cost-cutting that went into this car, it has good dampening and good brake-pedal feel, both of which you’ll appreciate every time you drive,” says Floraday. DeMatio continues, “It’s refreshing to be in a midsize car with Germanic capabilities, even if they have been watered down for American buyers.”

The Volkswagen Passat combines a surprisingly space-efficient package with very capable driving dynamics, and it proves more energetic than we expected. Even so, the Honda Accord surpasses it when you factor in convenience and entertainment features, a sense of spacious interior luxury, smooth-riding freeway comfort, and a notably more fuel-efficient powertrain. These cars are playing the same kind of game, but the Accord is simply better.

Winner: 2013 Honda Accord Sport. The Honda Accord moves into the final round.

Ford Fusion vs. Mazda 6

2013 Ford Fusion SE

  • “The Fusion drives like a car that’s just stopped in this category for a courtesy cup of coffee on its way to an Audi A4 comparison test,” says Jordan. “Actually, I think it might win a comparison like that.”
  • Pudgy and obtrusive styling corrupts the airy cabin we want, the tallish Christopher Nelson says.
  • Absolutely great cargo capacity; now if only it were more usable. Try to reach deep into the trunk and the bumper holds you back. Maybe if you had a stick to move things around.
  • The Fusion’s sleek exterior doesn’t wow us any longer. “It looks slab-sided in profile, what with all the metal below the high beltline,” says Skogstrom.
  • “MyFord Touch needs more attention than I can give it,” says Blackwell. “For instance, just adjusting the climate control takes my eyes off of the road for longer than I’d like.”
  • “Well, at least MyFord Touch actually looks good,” says DeMatio. “I’m surprised by how comparatively ugly the screens are in other cars in this class.”
  • There’s a solid quarter-inch gap where the door panel meets the instrument panel at the A-pillar, Lassa discovers. Maybe Ford’s build quality isn’t as good as some of its competitors’.
  • The way the doors shut and the trunk closes reminds you that you’re driving, well, a Ford. “The execution is slightly half-assed,” says Nelson.
  • It’s stylish and good to drive – but neither stylish enough nor good enough to drive that it should shrink the view from the driver’s cockpit the way it does,” says Zenlea.
  • For a car that’s all about sport, there’s an extreme focus on form over functionality. Everything you touch tries too hard to be stylish rather than usable.
  • A little heavy and underpowered compared with the competition, even though it feels very sporty and alert. And it’s not that comfortable and quiet on the freeway, is it?

2014 Mazda 6 Grand Touring

  • Nelson is hoping to discover a cut-price BMW 3-Series but is disappointed to find just another midsize sedan. He says, “To say it’s more exciting to drive than its competitors is like saying a bowl of Special K breakfast cereal with banana slices is more exciting than plain old Special K.”
  • The direct-injected Skyactiv-G four-cylinder is lively but isn’t powerful in the midrange. Good thing it’s aided by a very good automatic transmission; we love that manual mode will hold gears to redline.
  • “The well-placed paddle shifters encourage you to use the manual mode, which makes the car really enjoyable,” says Skogstrom.
  • The car looks gorgeous from the front-three-quarter view, but the exterior isn’t so attractive that it puts the rest of the midsize pack to shame.
  • “What a likable personality this car has,” says Jordan.
  • “Mazda can’t make magic with its interior the way it has with its exteriors,” says DeMatio. It’s very dark inside the Mazda 6, and the rear seats are comfortable but a bit claustrophobic. Less overall legroom than the Fusion.
  • A wide trunk opening, lots of usable cargo space, and 60/40-split folding rear seats that go down almost completely flat.
  • “This is a great balance of style and usability,” says Zenlea. “I like the sporty steering wheel, supportive seats, and even the handbrake.”
  • Reassuringly tight feel to the structure, exceeded only by the Fusion, which is about 200 pounds heavier.
  • Better city fuel economy than the Fusion by 2 mpg; better on the highway by 1 mpg.
  • “Fine highway comfort although a bit more road noise than you’d like,” Jordan says. “A cruising range of about 500 miles if you’re up to it.”

Ford and Mazda are playing the same sporty-sedan game, but the Fusion can’t match the 6’s poise or prowess. While Ford is pushing the boundaries of consumer preferences with a car that doesn’t look or drive like the usual choices in this segment, the automaker didn’t nail down this car’s details. The Fusion has a great chassis and a good powertrain, but it doesn’t feel like a put-together package. The Mazda does, and this makes it a friendlier, more usable car in daily life.

Winner: 2014 Mazda 6 Grand Touring. The Mazda 6 moves into the final round.

We’re down to our last two cars as the Honda Accord and Mazda 6 vie for overall victory. Check back tomorrow to read the head-to-head comparison of our finalists.

Buying Guide
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2013 Ford Fusion

2013 Ford Fusion

MSRP $27,200 Hybrid Sedan


22 City / 34 Hwy

Safety (IIHS):

Best Pick

Horse Power:

170 @ 0