A third kid is on the way, and the Triumph TR6 in the garage spends more time with the hood up than down-not that you have time to drive it anyway. A Mini Cooper won't hold the whole family, and let's face it, that new Audi A6 just isn't in the budget. Yes, it's time to settle down and come to terms with reality. It's time for a nice, conservative family sedan. But the Toyota Camry is taking conservative a bit too far, and that Chrysler Sebring with the great dealer incentives . . . we'd suggest you weld a back seat in the trunk of the Triumph and keep working on the carburetor. So, you ask, how can you spend $25,000, maintain a bit of youthfulness, and be a responsible parent?
The mid-size sedan segment has traditionally kept wallets full throughout the industry. But with the SUV market still booming, American automakers have lost their grasp on a segment once vital for their survival. With once-important sedans such as the Chevy Impala and the Ford Taurus running on life support, the more youthful Japanese models have full reign over the market. Most notable among the many Asian options are the Honda Accord (a longtime standard of engineering and refinement), the Mazda 6 i (our favorite for the past two years), and the newly redesigned Subaru Legacy (the latest and most significant change within the class). We opted for the base four-cylinder models, which, at just over $20,000, keep plenty of distance between themselves and $30K sedans including the BMW 3-series, the Cadillac CTS, and the Infiniti G35, whose refinement and athleticism are a class above.
When the seventh-generation Accord was released for 2003, we were impressed by Honda's ability to make the car more Euro-like and more conservative at the same time. It is this ability that keeps Accord sales at the top of a large, very competitive class of automobiles. With styling that won't put you to sleep (sorry, Toyota) and amazing refinement, the Honda's success is not surprising. It isn't dull enough to make enthusiasts cry just thinking about the more desirable but less practical S2000 parked on the other side of the dealer's lot, but it offers a ride that will never make even the softest bones ache.
Inside the cabin, the story is the same. Design and materials are stylish but conservative, enjoyable but useful. Steering feel is light as a feather, as is rowing through the gears (and doing so conservatively will help you achieve 26/34 mpg EPA fuel economy). The Accord also offers the roomiest cabin of the group, trumping the opponents in everything but front leg room, where the Subaru achieves slightly lengthier measurements.
The Accord is not, however, flawless. A few rough, off-camber turns will quickly make you realize that the Honda's almost Buick-like suspension is not meant for anything remotely close to a racetrack, and keeping the car neutral may have taken a few years off our lives. Most Accord owners obviously have no intention of visiting a track, but an emergency situation could bring about a similar uneasiness of the chassis. Frequent wheel spin in corners and from a stop also made us wish Honda would offer traction control in four-cylinder models.
In the end, the Accord is an exceptionally refined sedan that we would not hesitate to recommend to our friends, our neighbors, and even our mothers. But for our twenty grand and change, the mid-size Honda has too many compromises to make us feel content. The Mazda and the Subaru are simply more aesthetically pleasing and provide a driving thrill uncharacteristic of this class.
Mazda 6 i
Mazda's mid-size 6 has stood on our Automobile Magazine All-Stars pedestal unchallenged for two strong years. In that time, we have praised the car's sport-sedan driving dynamics and unique styling. We are obviously not the only ones impressed with the 6, as parent company Ford seems to be releasing 6-based concepts more frequently than the average Focus makes a service visit.
On the road, the 6 i is delightful to drive, and the 160-horsepower 2.3-liter four is actually smoother than the 3.0-liter V-6 found in the 6 s. We would welcome an extra infusion of torque, however, as the Mazda can feel a bit doggish in city driving. Clutch and shifter feel are also a bit disappointing, especially in comparison with Mazda's other products (specifically the RX-8 and Miata). Steering is almost perfectly weighted, which contributes greatly to the car's nimble feel. This sedan's prowess does have its pitfalls, though, as the suspension is jittery in comparison with the Subaru and Honda.
The stylish, modern cabin still looks good but is beginning to seem a bit dated compared with the beautifully done Mazda 3 and the BMW-like Subaru Legacy. The 6's silver plastic trim that was so modern two years ago now seems like a bad clich. Otherwise, the seats are comfortable and supportive, the controls are easy-to-use, and the air vents are simple and user-friendly. The vents actually seem quite popular in the Ford family parts bin, as they are now found in both the new F-150 and the 2005 Mustang. The Mazda's 15.2-cubic-foot trunk will gobble up more than a cubic foot more than the Accord and nearly four more than the Legacy. And with wagon and hatchback versions now available, the sedan's cavernous trunk is just the beginning.
There is no better word to describe Subaru's history than quirky. The past few decades have brought us the odd (in both looks and name) Brat, the cult-classic SVX, and the rally-bred Impreza WRX of recent success. The Legacy, now in its sixteenth year and fourth generation, has never had much success outside a following of soccer moms and granola lovers who enjoy the Legacy and its Outback variant as safe, clean SUV alternatives. With the WRX putting Subaru on the map, the new Legacy sets out to strengthen the company's growing grasp on the market.
The first thing we noticed about the Legacy was the dashboard, which appears to be transplanted directly from a BMW 3-series. Going rearward from the dash, the style continues, with an interior a class above the competition. Seats are well bolstered, material quality is outstanding, and gauges are easy to read and good-looking. Wrapping up the interior is a handsome body that may be a bit anonymous but is a step up from the even less exciting previous generation.
If the ride of the Mazda is too stiff and that of the Honda is too soft, the Subaru is just right. The tenor tone of the 168-horsepower flat-four is a delight to the ear, and the motor packs a more powerful punch down low than do the competitors. The clutch pedal, despite an oddly short range of travel, is a friendlier companion than the Mazda's. Driving dynamics in the new Legacy are quite neutral, and it takes only a few bends in the road to show that German similarities extend far past the elegant dashboard. And while the car may not provide the twisty-turny thrills of the 6, the Subaru demonstrates a higher level of refinement and has a pleasing overall balance.
Whether it's the Accord's buttery-smooth refinement, the Mazda's athleticism, or the Legacy's not too hard but not too soft dynamics, each of these three vehicles is a great buy in the low-$20K range. The 6's hatch and wagon offer increased utility, and the Subaru's wagon and Outback tall wagon take that utility a step further for just a few thousand dollars extra. Either would make a fine SUV substitute, and the Honda loses a few points with us for having no such offerings. And all that talk of reliability isn't enough to make us forget that the Accord is just no fun to drive. Despite the Mazda's ability to make us smile on winding roads, its torqueless engine and oversprung suspension get old fairly quickly. Like Goldilocks sitting down to her third bowl of porridge, we find the Subaru Legacy just right. A great engine and class-above interior are just the beginning with this car. The only problem comes when it puts on its fully loaded GT dress bearing a $32,000 price tag. But a base car, such as our tester, is a screaming deal and a perfect middle ground between the sports car you dream of and the boring appliance you fear.