Our search for the best midsize sedan in America began with eight remarkable cars: Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima, Mazda 6, Nissan Altima, Toyota Camry, and Volkswagen Passat.
We've driven them in sun, snow, and icy cold to separate the best from the rest and then argued about the results over the long conference table on Highland Drive. (Only basic first-aid supplies were required afterward.) We've looked over, around, and under the cars, then studied spreadsheets of features and specifications. We've even looked at pricing documents (yikes!).
Really, it's been quite a tournament. You can read about the mission we set for ourselves, the driving report for each car, and the smart-ass comments that we made afterward. Here we present the final match between the 2013 Honda Accord and the 2014 Mazda 6.
Honda Accord vs. Mazda 6
2013 Honda Accord Sport
The 2013 Honda Accord has come through this field of midsize sedans to the finals playing the game like a traditional American car, not the small practical sedan from Japan that you might still imagine it to be.
The Building Blocks
Just like the other cars in Midsize Madness, the Accord has left behind the niche of compact sedans it once occupied and adopted a more American way of doing business, emphasizing spaciousness and comfort.
Although its wheelbase has been reduced an inch from the last iteration introduced in 2008, this new Accord is still a big car. The 2013 Accord's wheelbase stretches to 109.3 inches, and this Accord Sport measures 191.4 inches long, 72.8 inches wide, and 57.7 inches high. It weighs 3342 pounds. More important, it measures out to 103.2 cubic feet of passenger space, with 42.5 inches of legroom in the front seat and 38.5 inches in the rear.
The Honda Accord's 2.4-liter in-line four-cylinder engine shows you why the vast majority of midsize sedans are sold these days with four-bangers. This all-new four-cylinder engine runs smooth thanks to internal balance shafts to counteract vibration, combines power with good fuel efficiency thanks to variable valve timing/lift and direct fuel injection, and operates with an easy, free-revving liveliness thanks to careful detailing to reduce friction and because, well, that's just the Honda way. The Accord Sport's engine makes 189 hp at 6400 rpm and 182 lb-ft of torque at 3900 rpm.
This newest iteration of the four-cylinder Honda Accord also abandons a conventional automatic transmission for a continuously variable transmission (CVT), an $800 option-over the excellent standard six-speed manual-that helps optimize fuel economy, as reflected in this Accord Sport's EPA rating of 26/35 mpg city/highway and 29 mpg combined.
What We Said
On the list of standard equipment, you'll find the usual complement of airbags, air-conditioning, a driver-information display, and power windows, mirrors, and door locks. What is different is the standard, as the Accord now provides all the good stuff.
Standard equipment includes: keyless entry; a tilting telescopic steering wheel with controls for the audio/phone system; dual-zone automatic air-conditioning; an audio system with an eight-inch infotainment screen, USB audio, Bluetooth phone and audio, and Pandora compatibility; and a rearview camera. Moreover, the Sport model adds things like eighteen-inch wheels, foglights, a power driver's seat, and a spoiler.
If you look back at our report about the 2013 Honda Accord Sport on the first day of the competition and read the comments made on the second day , you'll see that the most important added feature of the remade Accord is the interior's newfound niceness. All the tactile surfaces are meant to be pleasant to touch. You can see this in the instrument panel's seamless piece of soft-touch material and even the quality of the standard cloth seat upholstery.
Nicely Does It
Niceness is also the best description for the way the 2013 Accord behaves in everyday life.
It's easy to get in and out, and the one-piece folding rear seat supplements a trunk of 15.8 cubic feet. This is still a friendly car to drive, yet now the suspension dampening gives the Accord more composure while effectively subduing any harsh inputs from the Sport model's 235/45VR-18 Michelin Primacy MXM4 tires. The light-effort steering suits the car, and although the chassis rolls a bit when you heel over into an on-ramp, it won't frighten anyone. The engine is alert and responsive yet also quiet and undemanding.
No matter whether the 2013 Honda Accord Sport was pounding down the interstate through Ann Arbor or bounding over the rolling hills to Hell, Michigan, this car never broke a sweat. We didn't, either.
2014 Mazda 6 Grand Touring
The 2014 Mazda 6 comes onto the court from the opposite direction of the Accord, as it proudly proclaims its compact-car heritage with the agile way it drives even as it delivers a useful dimension of full-size comfort.
The Building Blocks
The 2014 Mazda 6 is the last of the midsize sedans to adopt large-car dimensions. Its wheelbase now stretches a long, long 111.4 inches. It measures 191.5 inches overall, 72.4 inches wide, and 57.1 inches high. This heavily optioned Grand Touring model weighs 3232 pounds. Passenger volume measures 99.7 cubic feet, with 42.2 inches of legroom in the front and 38.7 inches in the rear.
Mazda has cleverly optimized its technology to create the Mazda 6's new 2.5-liter in-line four-cylinder engine. Like other in-line fours these days, it has balance shafts to control vibration, plus variable valve timing and direct injection to deliver both usable power and good fuel efficiency. At the same time, Mazda has also worked hard to change its manufacturing methods to permit a very high compression ratio of 13.0:1 to deliver maximum power, good fuel economy, and cleaner combustion. The Mazda 6's engine makes 184 hp at 5700 rpm and 185 lb-ft of torque at 3250 rpm.
There's a conventional six-speed automatic transmission for the Mazda 6 (a six-speed manual is standard on lower trim levels), but here again the company has optimized its performance, and Mazda claims the result is more efficient than either a dual-clutch automatic or a CVT. This Mazda 6 is EPA rated at 26/38 mpg city/highway and 30 mpg combined.
What We Said
Because the only Mazda 6 available at this early date proved to be a fancy Grand Touring model, it is a bit difficult to sort through the standard equipment to compare the car directly with the Accord Sport.
While the Grand Touring has an elaborate complement of standard equipment, the base Sport model, when equipped with an automatic transmission, incorporates many important items on the list including: keyless entry; a tilting telescopic steering wheel; an audio system with a 5.8-inch touchscreen interface, USB audio, Bluetooth phone and audio, and Pandora compatibility; and a rearview camera for parking. Instead of the Grand Touring's navigation system, moonroof, and eleven-speaker stereo, it was the 6's high-bolstered sport seats with leather upholstery that got our attention, since this is a driver's car.
If you look back at our report about the 2014 Mazda 6 Grand Touring on the first day of the competition and read the comments made on the second day, you'll see that it's an occasion to walk up to the Mazda 6 and a treat to drive it. This is the kind of driver engagement that we look for in any vehicle, something that transforms the ownership experience.
The Mazda 6 has an enhanced dimension of practicality that puts this car in the midsize game at last, yet the things that still set it apart remain styling and driving performance.
This car is perfectly practical to use, as the 60/40-split folding rear seat enhances the utility of the 14.8-cubic-foot trunk. The rear seat doesn't feel as large as its dimensions suggest, and the black interior proves a bit oppressive, as does a bit of noticeable road noise.
On the highway, you're struck by the Mazda 6's impressive straight-line stability and the strong response from the steering. The chassis is controlled very well, although there's still some harshness from this car's nineteen-inch tires. The chassis loves the rolling hills around Hell, although it bounds over the bumps a bit more than we'd like. The engine feels somewhat weak at midrange rpm, so you have to rely on the transmission's notably quick gearchanges triggered by the shift paddles on the steering wheel to keep your speed up.
When you settle behind the wheel of the 2014 Mazda 6 Grand Touring, you're there to drive, not ride.
Yes, there's still one more day to go before the winner is named. We have to catch our breath and check with the referees before we look up at the scoreboard. We should probably get our explanations in order and prepare to sprint for the parking lot, since the sore losers will no doubt start throwing folding chairs into the bleachers when they get the news.
See you tomorrow with the last day of Automobile Magazine's Midsize Madness.