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2009 Volkswagen CC, 2009 Nissan Maxima, 2009 Mazda 6 - Midsize Sedan Comparison

Joe LoriowritersJim Fetsphotographers

Many are the mid-size sedan offerings, and most are sold in large numbers. Naturally, whenever a product is produced in great quantities, its very popularity will cause a subset of its audience to seek an alternative. Something a bit sportier, or more luxurious, or more stylish. The Volkswagen CC, the Nissan Maxima, and the Mazda 6 all hail from mainstream automakers, yet all three address this desire for something more in a mid-size car.

Volkswagen's CC - the letters stand for Comfort Coupe - is the newest of the three. This low-slung four-door is essentially a rebodied Passat. VW has wrapped its mid-size sedan mechanicals in a sheetmetal form that is obviously inspired by the Mercedes-Benz CLS (itself a rebodied E-class).

The Nissan Maxima has been a premium mid-size offering forever - or so it seems - but the 2009 version has been restyled inside and out to put more psychic distance between it and Nissan's volume-selling Altima, which uses the same platform.

The 6 is Mazda's volume-selling mid-sizer, except that it's never sold in quantities anywhere near those of its big-name competitors, the Toyota Camry and the Honda Accord. That alone makes it a bit of an alternative choice, and we've long felt that the Mazda provides a greater degree of driver involvement than the typical mid-size sedan. For 2009, the 6 is brand-new, with a particularly shapely new design. West Coast editor Jason Cammisa came back from his initial drive raving about the new version, so we thought a top-spec 6 could hold its own in this company.

Styling is the first element you encounter, and although appearance is ultimately subjective, a few comments can be made. The Mazda's look is a major departure from that of its mundane predecessor, but the design is still perhaps not as dramatic as the other two cars here. The new Maxima is a vast improvement over the previous model and looks nothing like the Altima. The VW is a faithful copy of the CLS, from its banana-shaped profile to its slitlike side windows, but if you're going to copy, the highly successful CLS is a good template.

In all three of these cars, the emphasis on style means a rakish roofline that threatens to seriously clip rear-seat headroom. True enough, medium-height and taller adults risk a painful thwack if they forget to duck their heads getting into the back of any of these cars.

Once inside the Maxima, headroom is barely adequate for six-footers and knee clearance is good, but there is no foot room under the front seats. The Maxima's bench has seatbelts for three but is deeply sculpted for two; its fold-down center armrest includes optional audio and climate controls. The VW doesn't even make a pretense of a middle rider position; its rear seat has a storage console between the two seating positions. Again, headroom is barely adequate and knee space is good, but there's more foot room, and the CC rider sits a bit higher than the Maxima passenger. The Mazda easily has the most habitable back seat. It's the only one with a usable center position, space is good all around, and the view out is the best. Even in Grand Touring trim, however, you'll find no A/C vents or power points for the rear-seat riders.

Moving up to the front seat, the Mazda is nicely dressed in its top-spec duds, although its not-quite-faux-wood trim was somewhat odd, and its navigation system was our least favorite. The Mazda has good visibility and a narrow cowl, which make this car a bit easier to maneuver in tight spots. The Nissan's interior is pretty well done, and our test car - the most expensive here - was packed with features, including a power-adjustable steering column and a rearview camera. The Maxima's navigation controls (borrowed from Infiniti) are first-rate, and we love the feel of the small, fat-rimmed steering wheel. The CC borrows the Passat dash but dresses up its cabin with unique door panels and its own steering wheel. The seats are taken from the V-6-powered Passat and are very comfortable, and the leather (standard on the Luxury trim level) is soft and supple. Volkswagen at last has gone to a touch-screen navigation system but still doesn't offer Bluetooth. The quality of the CC's interior materials was the best of this bunch, beating the Maxima by dint of its consistency.

The Mazda's V-6 is next in the order of power output, with 272 hp from its rather self-effacing six, which does the job but calls little attention to itself. A six-speed automatic is the only transmission (although Mazda offers a manual with its four-cylinder), and it has a manu-matic function but no shift paddles. The Mazda posted the lowest EPA numbers, 17/25 mpg.

Typical of a Nissan, the Maxima boasts the most powerful engine: a 290-hp, 3.5-liter V-6. It's mated to a continuously variable transmission (another Nissan marker) and is the sole powertrain choice. The CVT helps the Maxima outpace the Mazda in the fuel economy derby - with EPA ratings of 19/26 mpg - and it's more responsive to a sudden boot of the throttle. The Maxima is the only car here with shift paddles, which were welcome since we were switching among three cars with no consensus on whether manual downshifts require a pull of the shifter (VW, Nissan) or a push (Mazda). Shifting manually also makes the CVT behave more like a conventional, stepped gearbox. The Maxima is very quick, but even though its chassis is better behaved than the previous version, it still suffered the most steering fight under hard acceleration.

On the subject of steering, give Nissan credit for resisting the trend toward electric boost. The Maxima's hydraulically assisted steering has some nice heft to it, although it's still lacking in feel. We've previously driven the Maxima with nineteen-inch wheels and the sport suspension tuning, but this time we wanted to try the eighteen-inch wheels and the standard suspension. We prefer this setup, which gives up a bit of body control but delivers a significantly less nervous and jittery ride. The Maxima has plenty of grip, but when pushed hard in tight corners, its front tires wash out sooner than those of the Volkswagen and the Mazda.

The Mazda is quite refined on the highway and generally good in the twisties, but bump isolation is a weakness, and you can feel the weight of the V-6 on the front wheels. The steering feels great when you first start driving, but effort doesn't build and there's a dead spot at center.

VW's electrically assisted steering is absurdly overboosted at low speeds but provides more reasonable levels of assist, and a great deal of precision, once you get rolling. The CC offers a welcome bit of extra firmness compared with the Passat, although it's still not a sports car. With its four-cylinder engine, the CC carries about 200 pounds less weight than the Mazda and the Nissan - all of it on the front axle. As a result, it feels more balanced and was more enjoyable through the corners.

Overall, the Mazda 6 is impressive for a car playing a bit beyond its league. It has a lot of style considering that, in its most basic trim, the 6 starts at less than $20,000. Our Grand Touring V-6 cost nearly $33,000, but there were clues to its humble origins. Tire noise is pronounced, some interior elements are rather basic, and the leather feels industrial grade. But the Mazda won points for practicality, with the most accommodating back seat and the roomiest trunk - neither a surprise, given that it has to slug it out with practical transport like the Camry and the Accord. Dynamically, the 6 is always competent but rarely excels, at least in this company. The Mazda may be a standout in its class, but perhaps not to the degree that it rises a class above.

We like this version of the Maxima more than the overtly sporting example we drove a few months ago. The mellower suspension tune and the slightly smaller wheels help ride quality more than they hurt handling. The Maxima puts up game-winning numbers and can be loaded with a full-on luxury sedan's worth of equipment. But for $38,000 as equipped, we couldn't help feeling that we'd rather be behind the wheel of an Infiniti G37, which is a far more natural sport sedan than the Maxima will ever be.

The CC is far from perfect, and Volkswagen's pricing philosophy - which seems to be something like, "It's German, so of course it costs more" - means that its turbo four goes up against competitors' sixes, and its own six costs several thousand dollars more. That puts the CC at the bottom of the price/performance matrix. Interestingly, though, we might have liked this car less if it had been equipped with a V-6. If the turbo four is quick enough for you, going that route pays real handling dividends for a front-wheel-drive sedan. And its fuel economy is impressive. If you can live without leather - and VW's two-tone vinyl is nicer than you might think - you can get the base model and a six-speed manual transmission that makes the turbo four even more lively. (That combo also drops the price to $27,480.) As it is, the Luxury version we tested had the richest leather and an impressive interior overall. The suspension upgrades over a Passat are subtle but welcome, and the exterior style proved to be a real head-turner, literally stopping passersby in their tracks. The CC makes a convincing upgrade over a conventional sedan, one that stands apart from the mid-size multitudes.

VOLKSWAGEN CCPrice (base/as tested) $32,640/$34,630

Powertrainengine Turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4displacement 2.0 liters (121 cu in) horsepower 200 hp @ 5100 rpmtorque 207 lb-ft @ 1700 rpmtransmission type 6-speed automaticdrive Front-wheel

Chassissteering Power-assisted rack-and-pinionsuspension, front Strut-type, coil springssuspension, rear Multilink, coil springsbrakes f/r Vented discs/discs, ABStires Continental ContiProContact M+Stire size 235/45HR-17

MeasurementsL x W x H 188.9 x 73.0 x 55.8 inwheelbase 106.7 intrack f/r 61.1/61.4 inweight 3374 lb (per manufacturer) EPA mileage 19/29 mpg

MAZDA 6sPrice (Base/as tested) $28,930/$32,790

Powertrainengine DOHC 24-valve V-6displacement 3.7 liters (227 cu in) horsepower 272 hp @ 6250 rpmtorque 269 lb-ft @ 4250 rpmtransmission type 6-speed automaticdrive Front-wheel

Chassissteering Power-assisted rack-and-pinionsuspension, front Control arms, coil springssuspension, rear Multilink, coil springsbrakes f/r Vented discs/discs, ABStires Michelin Pilot HX MXM4 M+Stire size 235/45WR-18

MeasurementsL x W x H 193.7 x 72.4 x 57.9 inwheelbase 109.8 intrack f/r 62.4/62.4 inweight 3547 lb (per manufacturer) EPA mileage 17/25 mpg

NISSAN MAXIMAPrice (base/as tested) $32,650/$38,130

Powertrainengine DOHC 24-valve V-6displacement 3.5 liters (214 cu in) horsepower 290 hp @ 6400 rpmtorque 261 lb-ft @ 4400 rpmtransmission type Continuously variabledrive Front-wheelChassissteering Power-assisted rack-and-pinionsuspension, front Strut-type, coil springssuspension, rear Multilink, coil springsbrakes Vented discs, ABStires Goodyear Eagle RS-A M+Stire size 245/45VR-18

MeasurementsL x W x H 190.6 x 73.2 x 57.8 inwheelbase 109.3 intrack f/r 62.4/62.4 inweight 3579 lb (per manufacturer) EPA mileage 19/26 mpg