Midsize Madness - Day Two

Patrick M Hoey

Kia Optima vs. Volkswagen Passat

2013 Kia Optima EX

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
$24,275/$25,524 (base/as tested)

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

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

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
$24,790/$27,790 (base/as tested)

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

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

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.

Tony Costa
Mazda 6!
The Optima is way better than the Passat, you people are really crazy.My choices are Optima and Fusion.
Carlos Cueto
Accord is the best in its class
Michael Lagadia
Simone Branchi
mazda ;)
Van K
It's as if they are penalizing the Fusion and 6 for having the effrontery to have the tiniest smidgeon of soul or performance attitude. This sounds more like CR's typical salute to blandness than an enthusiast's view.
Tundra Dweller
The reviewers comments are hysterical!  Altima -  "The mouse-fur upholstery looks like something you'd find in a 1970s custom van," says copy editor Rusty Blackwell. Camry -  Deputy editor Joe DeMatio declares that the exterior look of the Camry is as "exciting as a grocery cart."

Peter Perreira
Nick Ardito
Japan all the way Mazda makes the best!
Manuel Diaz
Manuel Diaz
Marc Hamady
Fusion all the way
Marc Hamady
VW is better
VW Passat over Kia Optima?!?!?!?! common guys, VW looks like a rental and the interiors are awful, I like your magazine, but it seems like you compared the Kia Optima with Hyundai Sonata, and the VW with nothing.
Gregory Easton
Ford - great design.
With the way that middling review of the Fusion went, I did not think it would be the one to advance!
And it's good that they recognize the irony in their own review. Just about every review of the Fusion that I've read says "finally, a sporty mid sized sedan that you'd actually want to drive on the weekends!". Now they say that it's a fault... Ok...
I wonder if I leaf forward to the Mazda6, will they have the same criticism? I doubt it. I bet they laud the sporty ride and would be surprised if it doesn't win the whole damn comparo.
Willian Dagua
los 2 paeswe
Willian Dagua
chevere parse
Jeff Schimetz
Ford all the way.
Dammy Onafowokan
Kevin Celeste
Alienx Trm
(}) Mazda6
Adel Amid
Adel Amid
Marcelo Brenes Hernandez
Weisler Dutes
(zoom zoom)
Erick Ople
Can't wait to see how the new 1.8 liter TSi engine would ante up the game for the Passat!
Erick Ople
John Hand
Whay is the 6 on snow tires?
Brennan Shanks
the interior of that Mazda is at home in a 1992 Oldsmobile.
Why winter tires on the Mazda?
Bruce Ballard
Geoff Ekenstam
Martin Meyer
Geoff Ekenstam
Andrew Cavett
The Altima is built in the U.S. Keep the American economy going
Tim Lucas
These are VERY similarly styled!
Tim Lucas
The Fusion is the most beautiful car in the bunch
Rodney Miranne
The 6 in a walk.
Brian Michael
Nissan with a V6 option for the win.
Brian Michael
Daanesh Chanduwadia
The 6 was on Blizzaks?!
Alsson Mata
Mazda obviously!
Jim Bur
Mazda all the way
Billy Crowe
Mazda 6, I purchased one 4 weeks ago and my dad purchased on about 2 weeks ago. Great car, love the way it drives! Mazda 6 all the way!
Faulkner Mazda
Ryan Merkl
Gimme the sonata here and the Mazda 6 overall
Alienx Trm
Mazda6 in final four as expected
Geoff Ekenstam
Pretty amazing that the Camry and Accord just "happened" to be pulled out of the hat and compared to each other!  

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