DRIVEN: Midsize Madness - Day Two

By - March 19, 2013
Family Sedan Spread
Welcome to Automobile Magazine's 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 of 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 practical realities 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.
These cars include: Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima, Mazda 6, Nissan Altima, Toyota Camry, and Volkswagen Passat.
To make our comparisons as direct as we can, we've organized a different kind of scheme, matching the cars in brackets just as you would in an athletic tournament. Lacking a "regular season," we've randomly seeded the participants, pitting competitors against one another by drawing names from a hat. The losers will be knocked out one by one until the winner presents itself.
Today, we present a full accounting of each car, and the match-ups will cut the pack in half, going from eight cars to four. Tomorrow, we cut it in half again, going from four cars to only two. These two will go head-to-head in a comparison on Thursday, and we will declare the winner on Friday.
We start the tournament with four match-ups:
  • Ford Fusion vs. Hyundai Sonata
  • Honda Accord vs. Toyota Camry
  • Kia Optima vs. Volkswagen Passat
  • Mazda 6 vs. Nissan Altima

Ford Fusion vs. Hyundai Sonata

2013 Ford Fusion SE
2013 Ford Fusion SE Vs 2013 Hyundai Sonata SE
The 2013 Ford Fusion SE is plainly the best athlete in this contest. The Aston Martin-style grille that this car wears shows you that Ford intends for the new Fusion to be a European sport sedan. In the same way that the Toyota Camry represents the extreme from the traditional side in this segment of midsize sedans, the Ford Fusion represents the extreme from the sporty side.
The 2013 Fusion is a great car if you're looking for a driving enthusiast's interpretation of a midsize sedan's mission, yet some compromises in utility are also required as a result. To give the 2013 Fusion a sporty roofline that still delivers adequate rear-seat headroom, the car's beltline gradually sweeps upward. Headroom is good, but the interior architecture makes rear passengers feel like they're in the back seat of an Audi TT. When it comes to driving, the Fusion has a sporty, alert instinct for a winding road, yet the car also lets you down somewhat in the daily slog because it feels heavy and the freeway ride is a little brittle.
Problem is, while everyone likes good styling, consumers also buy midsize sedans for their interior comfort and easy, low-cost operation. Problem is, while car people pay lip service to sporty driving dynamics, most people are just trying to get to work.
Nevertheless, if you're looking for a midsize sedan with sporty flavor, then the 2013 Ford Fusion SE should be playing for your team. The 178-hp, 1.6-liter, direct-injected, turbocharged four-cylinder engine seems small and underpowered on the specification sheet, yet as road test editor Christopher Nelson reports, "It feels like it has just the right amount of power." The six-speed automatic transmission even feels sporty as it helps deliver 24 mpg in the city and 37 mpg on the highway.
The same goes for the chassis. "Perhaps the best chassis here," deputy editor Joe DeMatio says of the Fusion. "Excellent steering feel and accuracy. The car feels really nimble." Senior web editor Phil Floraday concurs and says, "Good suspension, accurate steering." At the same time, Floraday notes, "The car is heavier than the competition - in most cases by about 200 pounds - and it feels enormously heavy from the driver's seat in a bad way. Plus compromised visibility cramps the cabin."
As you'd expect in a sport sedan, the seats are top-notch, yet not just in a sporty way. Managing editor Amy Skogstrom says, "The seats are extremely comfortable. Ford took some lessons from Volvo, and it shows." (Well, she likes things that are Swedish anyway, as you can tell from her name.) "As for MyFord Touch," Skogstrom continues, "at least there's a knob to change the radio station. However, I accidentally brushed my fingers across the climate controls and suddenly the temperature was set at 60 degrees."
Winning this contest requires more than just athleticism. We're aware of our own general preference for sporty driving, but even we acknowledge that a car that is used daily needs a certain kind of easy-going utility, and the Fusion might have a little too much personality going for it. - Todd Lassa
2013 Ford Fusion SE
Price:
$24,495/$29,180 (base/as tested)
Powertrain
Engine:
16-valve DOHC turbocharged I-4
Displacement: 1.6 liters (97 cu in)
Horsepower: 178 hp @ 5700 rpm
Torque: 184 lb-ft @ 2500 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Drive: Front-wheel
Chassis
Steering:
Electrically assisted
Front suspension: Strut-type, coil springs
Rear suspension: Multilink, coil springs
Brakes F/R: Vented discs/discs, ABS
Tire size: 235/50R-17 96H
Tires: Michelin Energy Saver A/S
Measurements
L x W x H:
191.7 x 72.9 x 58.1 in
Wheelbase: 112.2 in
Track F/R: 62.7/62.4 in
Weight: 3421 lb
Headroom F/R: 39.2/37.8 in
Legroom F/R: 44.3/38.3 in
Passenger volume: 102.8 cu ft
Cargo volume: 16.0 cu ft
EPA mileage: 24/37/28 mpg city/highway/combined

2013 Hyundai Sonata SE
For the 2011 model year, the Hyundai Sonata left behind a past of generic midsize competence for a new life with cutting-edge styling, and we celebrated it with a spot on our list of All-Stars. We liked the combination of expressive sheetmetal, a feature-laden interior, and value for the money, plus the 2011 Sonata was among the first cars in the segment to abandon the option of a V-6 engine to focus on fuel-efficient four-cylinders.
But even All-Stars get old. Two years later, the 2013 Hyundai Sonata SE still offers a lot of style and features for the money, two strategic factors that have fueled the steady growth of Hyundai's sales. And yet the Sonata falls short in a tournament like this, where it has to match up against so many models that have been recently improved. How can such a thing happen in two years?
The answer is: there are now more cars that can play the style game, plus more models have embraced fuel-efficient four-cylinder engines and abandoned the V-6. "The Sonata is the clear loser of this match-up," deputy editor Joe DeMatio exclaims with surprise. "Excellent power delivery, but the engine is coarse and the transmission is its willing accomplice." Road test editor Christopher Nelson concurs. "I can see why this would've been an All-Star before its competitors were replaced with new models," he says. "It has a very strong engine, but it's coarse, with more idle noise than a good diesel."
When you break down the Sonata's game, you're surprised to find too many negatives. The Sonata's 200-hp four-cylinder is powerful, yet copy editor Rusty Blackwell found its throttle tip-in to be touchy. We also disliked the Sonata's mushy brakes and numb steering, while this car's sport suspension delivered too much road harshness for too little handling improvement. "On a smooth road, the Sonata feels fine, but get it on a road with some bumps and it immediately starts to feel twitchy and unsettled," managing editor Amy Skogstrom says.
The 2013 Hyundai Sonata delivers a lot of game for the money, and this continues to make it a leading value in its segment. Even so, it's just a little bit off from the best in every category, which proves crucial in a head-to-head tournament like this. For example, the bodywork is expressive, yet the roofline noticeably compromises rear-seat headroom. The Sonata SE's interior looks reassuringly traditional at very low cost, yet the same money gets you leather seating surfaces in the Kia Optima EX, for instance, seems like a small price to pay to get so much.
When the Hyundai Sonata SE is cruising calmly along the turnpike at 70 mph and the audio system is playing, this traditional midsize sedan seems like a sure winner. After all, it is a sound all-around player. But when you get the Sonata out of its comfort zone, it makes you wonder if there are more compelling choices in this segment. This is what happens when every team in the league raises its game. - Todd Lassa
2013 Hyundai Sonata SE
Price:
$24,120/$24,720 (base/as tested)
Powertrain
Engine:
16-valve DOHC I-4
Displacement: 2.4 liters (144 cu in)
Horsepower: 200 hp @ 6300 rpm
Torque: 186 lb-ft @ 4250 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Drive: Front-wheel
Chassis
Steering:
Electrically assisted
Front suspension: Strut-type, coil springs
Rear suspension: Multilink, coil springs
Brakes F/R: Vented discs/discs, ABS
Tire size: 225/45R-18 95V
Tires: Hankook Optimo
Measurements
L x W x H:
189.8 x 72.2 x 57.9 in
Wheelbase: 110.0 in
Track F/R: 62.5/62.5 in
Weight: 3260 lb
Headroom F/R: 40.0/37.8 in
Legroom F/R: 45.5/34.6 in
Passenger volume: 103.8 cu ft
Cargo volume: 16.4 cu ft
EPA mileage: 24/35/28 mpg city/highway/combined
Winner: 2013 Ford Fusion SE. The Fusion moves into the final four.

Honda Accord vs. Toyota Camry

2013 Honda Accord Sport
2012 Toyota Camry LE Vs 2013 Honda Accord Sport
The Honda Accord is a familiar player in the top rank of midsize sedans. It's a fan favorite that sold 331,872 examples in America during 2012, which made it the second-most-popular sedan in the country behind the Toyota Camry. Just like the Camry, the Accord builds its game on the core values of quality, durability, and reliability. And just as the Camry was comprehensively revised for 2012, the Accord comes onto the floor in 2013 thoroughly revised after some serious rethinking of its game.
Of course, we also remember the last-generation Accord, which changed its game plan from a handy-size international-style car to a fuller, more mature car for full-size Americans, and the reception from fans was mixed. Thankfully the 2013 Honda Accord plays the game in the light-footed style that we remember so fondly, both with a more expressive appearance and a livelier personality.
We particularly appreciate the fit and finish of the 2013 Honda Accord Sport's interior, which has a mature sophistication that's new to the brand. Almost everyone among us who has driven the 2013 Accord comments on the great look and feel of the cloth seat upholstery, which is in telling contrast to the impression made by the cloth upholstery of the 2013 Nissan Altima 2.5 SV and 2012 Toyota Camry LE. And you can call us techno-phobic Luddites if you like, but we also pile praise on the knobs and buttons used to control the Accord's audio system, which are such a relief after a spell in the 2013 Ford Fusion with its MyFord Touch electronic interface.
The Accord earns high marks in powertrain refinement, too. While we're hardly fans of continuously variable automatic transmissions in general, we couldn't complain about this one. "The Accord's CVT really suits Honda's way of doing things and here at last it has refinement," West Coast editor Michael Jordan says. Copy editor Rusty Blackwell enjoys the characteristic smoothness with which the Honda's 189-hp, 2.4-liter in-line four makes power. Road test editor Christopher Nelson reports the engine's surprising responsiveness even in the middle range of the tachometer. Respectable EPA fuel-economy ratings of 26/35 mpg city/highway further confirm that the 2013 Accord has all the right moves when it comes to engine performance.
Driving the 2013 Honda Accord is hardly the dynamic revelation that this model was when the Accord was about the size of today's Honda Civic, yet its maker has made big strides in ride quality for 2013. Jordan applauds the well-damped suspension and surprisingly controlled body motions. Deputy editor Joe DeMatio is pleased with the accuracy of the electrically assisted steering. Although none of us would call the 2013 Accord the best-handling car in this group, it does deliver the best compromise between a smooth ride and responsive, fun-to-drive handling.
When you look to the box score, the 2013 Honda Accord Sport racks up more points than the competition with a surprisingly luxurious cabin, a very smooth and controlled ride, and an incredibly refined powertrain. It has every phase of its game in order. - Phil Floraday
2013 Honda Accord Sport
Price
: $24,980/$24,980 (base/as tested)
Powertrain
Engine:
16-valve DOHC I-4
Displacement: 2.4 liters (144 cu in)
Horsepower: 189 hp @ 6400 rpm
Torque: 182 lb-ft @ 3900 rpm
Transmission: Continuously variable
Drive: Front-wheel
Chassis
Steering:
Electrically assisted
Front suspension: Strut-type, coil springs
Rear suspension: Multilink, coil springs
Brakes F/R: Vented discs/discs, ABS
Tire size: 235/45R-18 94V
Tires: Michelin Primacy MXM4
Measurements
L x W x H:
191.4 x 72.8 x 57.7 in
Wheelbase: 109.3 in
Track F/R: 62.4/62.4 in
Weight: 3342 lb
Headroom F/R: 39.1/37.5 in
Legroom F/R: 42.5/38.5 in
Passenger volume: 103.2 cu ft
Cargo volume: 15.8 cu ft
EPA mileage: 26/35/29 mpg city/highway/combined
2012 Toyota Camry LE
The Toyota Camry enters this tournament with a number-one ranking. After all, it's the top-selling sedan in the country. Some 405,000 examples of the Toyota Camry were sold to Americans last year, a number so prodigious that only the Ford F-Series and Chevrolet Silverado pickup trucks exceeded the Camry's sales success. This should be vindication for the complete makeover that the Camry had received for 2012, a rethink of style, equipment, and engineering to keep the car in the game with the improving competition.
But once its rivals show up, the Camry falls back on its old, familiar game plan. That is, QDR - quality, durability, and reliability. Beyond the laudable virtues of everyday utility, the 2012 Toyota Camry LE can't keep pace with the other cars in our test.
It might be the best-selling sedan in the country and one of the most important vehicles in our group, but the Camry just doesn't look that way. This innocuous silver Camry LE even led one of us to walk right by it when the cars were scattered in a parking lot during a stopover to switch drivers. Deputy editor Joe DeMatio declares that the exterior look of the Camry is as "exciting as a grocery cart." Managing editor Amy Skogstrom called the combination of silver paint and completely uninspired exterior styling "deadly."
There are also few words of praise for the Camry's interior. DeMatio approves of the above-average visibility, noting the slim A-pillars, but finds the fabric seat upholstery to be on par with "bad drapes from J. C. Penney, circa 1988." And even though this basic Camry LE test car's dash layout represents an effort to embrace the era of touchscreens and voice recognition, the buttons and knobs that remain look clunky and dated, though usable. Skogstrom speaks for us all when she says, "The interior needs some help."
One area where the Camry doesn't need any help is powertrain refinement. The engine and transmission perform with extreme smoothness. "The engine and transmission work with remarkable harmony, and this sets the car apart," says Jordan. Moreover, the Camry's chassis tuning also elicits overwhelmingly positive comments. Skogstrom discovered that the Camry soaks up bumps that send a Sonata skipping. DeMatio remarks upon an "overall feeling of competence," and he suggests that this is what comes of decades of experience in the creation of midsize sedans that meet the approval of a majority of Americans.
The 2012 Toyota Camry LE didn't win us over with its staid appearance, although we like its similarly traditional ride comfort and powertrain performance. In the end we'd recommend the Camry for friends and family who need reliable transportation, but this is not a car that plays the midsize-sedan game in the way that we personally prefer. - Phil Floraday
2012 Toyota Camry LE
Price:
$23,260/$23,700 (base/as tested)
Powertrain
Engine:
16-valve DOHC I-4
Displacement: 2.5 liters (152 cu in)
Horsepower: 178 hp @ 6000 rpm
Torque: 170 lb-ft @ 4100 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Drive: Front-wheel
Chassis
Steering:
Electrically assisted
Front suspension: Strut-type, coil springs
Rear suspension: Control arms, coil springs
Brakes F/R: Vented discs/discs, ABS
Tire size: 205/65R-16 94S
Tires: Firestone Affinity Touring S4
Measurements
L x W x H:
189.2 x 71.1 x 57.9 in
Wheelbase: 109.3 in
Track F/R: 62.4/62.0 in
Weight: 3190 lb
Headroom F/R: 38.8/38.1 in
Legroom F/R: 41.6/38.9 in
Passenger volume: 102.7 cu ft
Cargo volume: 15.4 cu ft
EPA mileage: 25/35/28 mpg city/highway/combined
Winner: 2013 Honda Accord Sport. The Accord moves into the final four.

Kia Optima vs. Volkswagen Passat

2013 Kia Optima EX
2013 Kia Optima EX Vs 2013 Volkswagen Passat SE
Sometimes the game changes in unexpected ways. The previous-generation Kia Optima was such a loser that fewer than 40,000 examples were sold in the U.S. during 2009, the car's last full year of availability. Now the Optima has so much game that in 2012 more than 150,000 copies of the completely different, completely more attractive Optima found owners. If you don't have six figures in your sales charts, you're not a serious player in the market for midsize sedans. It's clear that the 2013 Kia Optima EX is a now serious player, and that is how it has brushed aside more familiar nameplates to get into this tournament.
The best place to experience the 2013 Optima, we have concluded, is from the driver's seat of another car following it from behind. The Optima looks darn good as it goes down the road, and its crisp, clean lines and sporty profile are aging well. Compared with the modern exterior, however, the interior might look too traditional, what with its large panels of fake dark wood. Nevertheless, managing editor Amy Skogstrom argues, "The two-tone palette of dark cherry and beige gives the car a rich feel." At the same time, everyone agrees that the bodywork's high beltline and kick-up in the rear doors induce claustrophobia for rear-seat passengers.
In all matters relating to the Kia Optima, we find ourselves comparing it with its corporate cousin, the Hyundai Sonata. Both cars are built at newish manufacturing facilities in the U.S., the Sonata in Montgomery, Alabama, and the Optima in West Point, Georgia. Kia has tried to position itself as the sportier of the two brands, and indeed the Optima drives kind of like a Sonata, only with the bass turned up. As West Coast editor Michael Jordan says, "Heavy steering, stiffer tires, stiffer dampers? All the clichés of a sport sedan are here." This strategy doesn't necessarily help the car feel very poised, though. Once you leave the freeway, the impressive body stability falls to pieces and the engine whirs unhappily.
About that engine. Although the 2.4-liter four-cylinder eagerly sends 200 hp to the ground through a six-speed automatic transmission, the direct-injection engine is noisy. Skogstrom says, "It simply doesn't feel as refined as the four-cylinders in the Camry and the Accord." As a result, it's less fun to drive this muscled-up chassis as quickly as the aggressive styling promises.
The 2013 Kia Optima EX looks like a toned athlete, but it lacks the coordination and sophistication to win. This car wants to be a sport sedan on the other side of the midsize-sedan continuum from the traditional-style Hyundai Sonata, but it plays better to the emotions of the showroom than to the realities of the daily commute. The Koreans have looked to Europe for their styling and to America for their product planning. Now they need to raid the engineering offices of BMW, Ford of Europe, or Volkswagen AG so they can up their dynamic game. - Joe DeMatio
2013 Kia Optima EX
Price:
$24,275/$25,524 (base/as tested)
Powertrain
Engine:
16-valve DOHC I-4
Displacement: 2.4 liters (144 cu in)
Horsepower: 200 hp @ 6300 rpm
Torque: 186 lb-ft @ 4250 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Drive: Front-wheel
Chassis
Steering:
Hydraulically assisted
Front suspension: Strut-type, coil springs
Rear suspension: Multilink, coil springs
Brakes F/R: Vented discs/discs, ABS
Tire size: 215/55R-17 93V
Tires: Kuhmo Solus KH25
Measurements
L x W x H:
190.7 x 72.1 x 57.3 in
Wheelbase: 110.0 in
Track F/R: 63.0/62.6 in
Weight: 3223 lb
Headroom F/R: 40.0/37.6 in
Legroom F/R: 45.5/34.7 in
Passenger volume: 102.2 cu ft
Cargo volume: 15.4 cu ft
EPA mileage: 24/35/28 mpg city/highway/combined

2013 Volkswagen Passat SE
The Volkswagen Passat has finally learned the rules of the game. When the car was recast to reflect American tastes by making it bigger, simpler, and cheaper, it suddenly became a big success in the U.S. There is a lesson in this about a simple formula for the American midsize car. While we'll miss the cut-price Mercedes-Benz that the Passat once was, we have to admit that the 2013 Volkswagen Passat SE is relevant to our market in a way that its forebears were not.
We'd argue that the optional, turbocharged four-cylinder diesel engine is the best choice for this model, though, as our opinions about our test car's five-cylinder gasoline engine are split. At 170 hp, this engine delivers less horsepower than any of the four-cylinder engines in the other seven cars we tested and produces less torque (177 lb-ft) than all the others except the Camry. Executive editor Todd Lassa says it shakes more at idle than the Camry four-cylinder, plus it makes, "an awful noise, especially under throttle tip-in." Meanwhile, senior web editor Phil Floraday says he likes the broad powerband nevertheless: "It's my favorite engine/transmission combination here." Road test editor Christopher Nelson probably takes the engine's true measure when he says, "It's better than the Korean engines but not as good as those of the Japanese." West Coast editor Michael Jordan concludes, "At least you're aware that the Passat has an engine, which is not something that can be said of the other cars in this test."
When it comes to chassis dynamics, there is no dispute, because the 2013 Passat SE shines where some of the other cars here stumble. Jordan says, "The Passat might look American but it is utterly like a European car in the way it goes down the road. The long-travel suspension is compliant, and you can feel the wheels stroking up and down as the car rides the bumps." In addition, the steering is accurate and communicative even if the effort level is very light, and you have a good idea of what's going on at the road surface, which is a core tenet of German chassis tuning.
A core tenet of American chassis design is passenger space, and the Passat has plenty, with an enormous rear seat and trunk that make this car a fine platform for road trips, although we wish there was a little less road noise. There's also an impressive sensation of space for the front-seat occupants thanks to the low dashboard, unobtrusive instruments, and slim windshield pillars. Visibility is very good in all directions. Managing editor Amy Skogstrom also says, "The layout of the interior is functional, but it feels clinical, as so many German cars do." The driver's seat has a pretty flat bottom cushion without much lateral support, but it has power lumbar adjustment and proves pretty comfortable on long drives.
When you look closely at the 2013 Volkswagen Passat SE, you won't find a cut-price Mercedes-Benz. Instead you'll find something that might be even better, a classic American sedan built affordably in Tennessee yet engineered with German flavor and quality. Just make sure you test-drive the diesel. - Joe DeMatio
2013 Volkswagen Passat SE w/sunroof & navigation
Price:
$24,790/$27,790 (base/as tested)
Powertrain
Engine:
20-valve DOHC I-5
Displacement: 2.5 liters (151 cu in)
Horsepower: 170 hp @ 5700 rpm
Torque: 177 lb-ft @ 4250 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Drive: Front-wheel
Chassis
Steering:
Hydraulically assisted
Front suspension: Strut-type, coil springs
Rear suspension: Multilink, coil springs
Brakes F/R: Vented discs/discs, ABS
Tire size: 215/55R-17 97H
Tires: Continental ContiProContact
Measurements
L x W x H:
191.6 x 72.2 x 58.5 in
Wheelbase: 110.4 in
Track F/R: 62.1/61.0 in
Weight: 3221 lb
Headroom F/R: 38.3/37.8 in
Legroom F/R: 42.4/39.1 in
Passenger volume: 102.0 cu ft
Cargo volume: 15.9 cu ft
EPA mileage: 22/31/25 mpg city/highway/combined
Winner: 2013 Volkswagen Passat SE. The Passat moves into the final four.

Mazda 6 vs. Nissan Altima

2014 Mazda 6 Grand Touring
2014 Mazda 6 Grand Touring Vs 2013 Nissan Altima 2 5 SV
The Mazda 6 has always struggled to find its niche in the midsize segment. From the first, it has played the game like a scrappy minor-leaguer - small and athletic. In its 2003 iteration, we loved it and named it an All-Star, yet people in the real world kept buying Toyota Camrys. Even when it stretched a handful of inches for 2009, the Mazda 6 still played the game like a sport sedan instead of a traditional midsize sedan, and we liked that. Of course, Americans kept right on buying Camrys.
The 2014 Mazda 6 is still relying on the same scrappy strategy, but now every aspect of its game has been thoughtfully improved and the result is a genuine major-league effort. What gives us hope that people will embrace it at last is its styling. "This car is gorgeous, nothing like the generic Japanese cars of the past," notes West Coast editor Michael Jordan. This car's proportions convey a rear-wheel-drive look while its sinuous curves suggest right-size elegance, which is quite a feat since the front-wheel-drive 2014 Mazda 6 measures slightly larger in all exterior dimensions than a Toyota Camry.
This revised platform for the 2014 Mazda 6 has been stretched a couple of inches, so there's plenty of room for passengers, although the interior feels a bit tighter than the Camry and the Honda Accord. "From the driver's seat, the cabin feels spacious and airy," says managing editor Amy Skogstrom. Still, the cabin doesn't live up to the exterior's standard of style, as good fit and finish is undercut by unadventurous design and use of color. The small touchscreen that serves as the interface for the navigation system and radio seems pleasantly unobtrusive to some and too small to use to others. But as always, Mazda has nailed the stuff that matters to drivers, which means legible gauges, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, deeply bolstered sport seats, and an honest-to-goodness handbrake.
The 2014 Mazda 6 doesn't drive like a four-door Miata, but it is fun to drive in that inimitable Mazda way. Its chassis is tautly controlled and nicely balanced, plus the electrically assisted steering is sharp, although it should offer a bit more feedback. The 184-hp, 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine is no powerhouse, but it responds well when you flog it and gets good fuel economy when you don't thanks to Mazda's smooth six-speed automatic transmission. The flip side of such driver engagement is that the sporty Mazda 6 isn't as plush to drive as the Accord or the Camry. "It's a little too lively, as if it's a Mazda 3 in disguise," says Jordan. There's also a bit more road noise than we'd like, especially in the back seat.
As a perennial challenger, the 2014 Mazda 6 can't afford to be exactly like an Accord or Camry for fear of being lost among the taller players on the court. Nevertheless, this latest iteration is sporty and stylish enough to stand apart from its more popular competitors while still meeting them head-on with important things like fuel economy and a package that's easy to drive. - David Zenlea
2014 Mazda 6 Grand Touring
Price:
$30,290/$31,490 (base/as tested)
Powertrain
Engine:
16-valve DOHC I-4
Displacement: 2.5 liters (152 cu in)
Horsepower: 184 hp @ 5700 rpm
Torque: 185 lb-ft @ 3250 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Drive: Front-wheel
Chassis
Steering:
Electrically assisted
Front suspension: Strut-type, coil springs
Rear suspension: Multilink, coil springs
Brakes F/R: Vented discs/discs, ABS
Tire size: 225/45R-19 92H
Tires: Bridgestone Blizzak LM60
Measurements
L x W x H:
191.5 x 72.4 x 57.1 in
Wheelbase: 111.4 in
Track F/R: 62.8/62.4 in
Weight: 3232 lb
Headroom F/R: 37.4/37.1 in
Legroom F/R: 42.2/38.7 in
Passenger volume: 99.7 cu ft
Cargo volume: 14.8 cu ft
EPA mileage: 26/38/30 mpg city/highway/combined
2013 Nissan Altima 2.5 SV
The Nissan Altima broke out of anonymity in 2002 by offering more power, more personality, and - most important - more size. By becoming a big, brawny car, it elbowed its way underneath the basket with the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. The Altima confirmed its enduring appeal last year when 302,934 examples were sold. This makes it the third-most-popular car in the immensely popular category behind the Camry and Accord.
The 2013 Nissan Altima has been comprehensively revised, yet it rides on the same basic platform that it has since 2007 and looks much like it has for the last ten years, only softer and more upscale. It aspires to real style but in a way that won't offend anyone. The same can't be said for the cabin, unfortunately. This affordable trim level of the Altima, with its beige cloth upholstery, looks like it's from the past. "The mouse-fur upholstery looks like something you'd find in a 1970s custom van," says copy editor Rusty Blackwell.
What the interior lacks in style, it makes up for with space. Front passengers enjoy scads of legroom, and the back seat feels more comfortable to us than the competition even though its measurements aren't much different. "I could spend a few hours back here and be happy," notes deputy editor Joe DeMatio. It helps that the seats both front and back are soft and wide enough to please the softest and widest Americans. Traditional, intuitive control knobs and buttons also please us.
Nissan once promoted this model as something of a sport sedan, but the rethought 2013 Altima comes into the game in a far less muscular state of tune. As they say, an athlete's legs are the first to go, and while the Altima's suspension feels fine on the freeway, its knees buckle at the mere suggestion of cornering forces. Flaccid electrically assisted steering also offers no hint of what the front wheels are doing. This big man doesn't show much instinct for speed, either. The 182-hp four-cylinder engine is paired with a continuously variable automatic transmission, and while the combination provides acceptable thrust, the engine discourages hard acceleration by moaning plaintively under full throttle. "If I were deaf, I might like this powertrain," says managing editor Amy Skogstrom.
All this isn't to say the 2013 Nissan Altima drives badly. When we behave ourselves, the 2013 Altima impresses us. "The Altima bounds down the road with a fluidity that many competitors do not possess," notes DeMatio. Even so, this is a long way from being a four-door sports car. "The Altima feels like a big car," adds West Coast editor Michael Jordan, "although in a good way."
The 2013 Nissan Altima plays the game like the established player it has become. It's spacious, comfortable, fuel-efficient and easy to drive. "It doesn't try to be anything other than a midsize sedan, which is actually refreshing," concludes road test editor Christopher Nelson. But for us, this also makes the Altima, in the words of another editor, "the least interesting car in our test." - David Zenlea
2013 Nissan Altima 2.5 SV
Price:
$24,880/$27,005 (base/as tested)
Powertrain
Engine:
16-valve DOHC I-4
Displacement: 2.5 liters (152 cu in)
Horsepower: 182 hp @ 6000 rpm
Torque: 180 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm
Transmission: Continuously variable
Drive: Front-wheel
Chassis
Steering:
Electrohydraulically assisted
Front suspension: Strut-type, coil springs
Rear suspension: Multilink, coil springs
Brakes F/R: Vented discs/discs, ABS
Tire size: 215/55R-17 93V
Tires: Continental ContiProContact
Measurements
L x W x H:
191.5 x 72.0 x 57.9 in
Wheelbase: 109.3 in
Track F/R: 62.4/62.4 in
Weight: 3121 lb
Headroom F/R: 39.1/37.1 in
Legroom F/R: 45.0/36.1 in
Passenger volume: 100.5 cu ft
Cargo volume: 15.4 cu ft
EPA mileage: 27/38/31 mpg city/highway/combined
Winner: 2014 Mazda 6 Grand Touring. The Mazda 6 moves into the final four.

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