Midsize Madness 2015: Mazda6, Accord, Sonata, Camry, Legacy Comparison

Picking our favorite new midsize sedans.

Todd LassawriterPatrick M. Hoeyphotographer

Wake up! Reports of the demise of the common passenger car are premature. Though we've been bombarded with statistics about the resurrection of the sport/utility vehicle, the $25,000- to sub-$35,000 front-wheel-drive midsize sedan business remains strong and cutthroat, with each new entry promising to break the mold with a sleek roofline and sleeper sport-sedan dynamics.

Let's correct some misconceptions. First, the latest SUV boom is not the result of last year's sub-$2-per gallon gasoline price plunge. Americans are buying CUVs -- crossover/utility vehicles -- not SUVs, and even when equipped with all-wheel drive, the dip in fuel economy compared to that of four-cylinder sedans isn't too dramatic.

Buyers typically downsize by one segment when they trade in their sedans. Thus Toyota Camry and Honda Accord owners trade in for, say, a Honda CR-V or Ford Escape. Corolla and Civic owners are likely to choose from the emerging crop of B-segment crossovers, tall hatchbacks really, such as the Chevrolet Trax or Mazda CX-3.

So think of our latest comparo of midsize sedans as a kind of reverse trade-in of last year's compact CUV face-off.

Like those CUVs, none of these sedans are cars we'd want to own so much as cars we'd choose to own if lifestyle demands forced our hands. There's not a diesel stick-shift station wagon or a four-door Camaro/Mustang-fighter in the bunch.

Which raises the other misconception: Toyota Camrys, Honda Accords, even Mazda6s and their ilk are by no stretch of the imagination sleeper sport sedans. They're for carrying four or five people in comfort and quiet, with safety, reliability, and fuel efficiency their key attributes. Because of their efficient size -- about the same length as an American-brand compact from the 1960s -- most of them handle reasonably well, until you scrub the front tires into the pavement when you try to drive them like sport sedans. That said, we take note when one of these cars has better dynamics than the rest.

Few Are Chosen

We count 11 mainstream front-wheel-drive midsize sedans on the U.S. market -- 13, if you throw in the semi-premium Buick Regal and Lexus ES 350. We've left behind the also-rans from our last Midsize Madness comparo, including all three domestic-brand models. They will be back someday; the all-new 2016 Chevrolet Malibu launching this year will be considered for next year's competition.

As for the chosen, the Honda Accord and Mazda6 came in first and second, respectively, in Midsize Madness I. The Hyundai Sonata and the Subaru Legacy are all-new since our last test, while America's best-selling car, the Toyota Camry, has benefitted from a major refresh. Any of these has a chance at our top recommendation, while previous also-rans that haven't had any major updates don't. (Click here to find out when all the players in the midsize game are due for a face-lift or a major change before the end of the decade.)

Last year, Americans (including fleet managers) bought a total of 1,139,410 of the five cars in our comparison. Three of them are high-volume sellers:

Toyota Camry: 428,606

Honda Accord: 388,374

Hyundai Sonata: 216,936

Mazda6: 53,224

Subaru Legacy: 52,270

However, these sales numbers have little to do with how we rank the cars.

They all are equipped with four-cylinder engines and automatic or continuously variable transmissions. These days, such cars should have manufacturer's suggested retail prices in the $25,000 to $27,000 range. We tried in earnest to get all five equipped in their popular mid-level trims, though the Toyota Camry and Mazda6 were only available in high-zoot trim with stickers close to $33,000.

Here's how they stack up:

Can a car that feels so uninspired to enthusiasts also be something we'd recommend to most people? Yes. The Toyota Camry is very, very good at its mission. Not bad for a model that received new sheetmetal but otherwise only a mild upgrade for model year 2015.

"It's by far the quietest of the group," daily news editor Joseph Capparella says. "I got out of the Honda and into the Toyota and was shocked by how hushed and silent it is. You can barely hear the engine. Toyota also nailed the primary controls, and the power delivery is very linear, with expertly tuned throttle tip-in and smooth shifts. The brake pedal is predictable and progressive, too."

Its trip fuel economy was 27.6 mpg.

Daily news editor Eric Weiner calls it "the beigest … the Camry is better than before, with better materials, improved steering, and a very comfortable ride, but everything about this car puts me to sleep. There is also something very staid and lifeless about this interior, especially for one that is totally loaded to the tune of almost $34,000."

Yes, sometimes you can be too unobtrusive. The engine's power and torque are perfectly adequate for merging into traffic and instilling confidence on freeways. It offers a smooth and quiet ride and decent handling, though body control could be better, as the car suffered significant head-toss on some of the pie-crust roads west of Ann Arbor.

Bottom line? We respect the 2015 Toyota Camry far more than we like it. Thanks to its evergreen reputation for reliability and quality, it remains the best car to recommend to people who forget what they drive once they park it. Conversely, Toyota seems to rely on return buyers who will trade in their old Camrys for new ones every three years. Despite the face-lift, the car has fallen behind the midsize state-of-the-art in terms of rich, sumptuous interiors and technical advances. If your 2012 Toyota Camry is still running like a top, it's probably worth waiting for the all-new 2018 model.

2015 Toyota Camry XLE Specifications

  • Base Price: $26,975
  • Price As Tested: $33,448
  • Engine: 2.5L DOHC 16-valve I-4/178 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 170 lb-ft @ 4,100 rpm
  • Transmission: 6-speed automatic
  • Layout: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD sedan
  • EPA Mileage: 25/35 mpg city/hwy
  • L x W x H: 190.9 x 71.7 x 57.9 in
  • Wheelbase: 109.3 in
  • Cargo Room: 15.4 cu ft
  • Weight: 3,340 lb
  • 0-60 mph:

    • 7.8 sec
  • Top Speed: N/A

4. 2015 Subaru Legacy 2.5i Premium

Does it say more about this segment or more about Subaru that because it made the Legacy much more mainstream, it has lost any vestige of what once made it more than a family car? Subaru offered the Legacy, until the present model arrived for 2015, in 2.5 GT form, which combined a 265-hp turbocharged flat-four with an available six-speed manual gearbox. While the fifth-generation Legacy (model years 2010-2014) was more than a bit gawky-looking, Gen IV (2005-2009 in the U.S.) was downright handsome, especially the station wagon.

Subaru has rationalized its midsize lineup, so the taller crossover/utility Outback is no longer available as a four-door sedan, and the sedan-height AWD Legacy is no longer available as a wagon. The 2015 Subaru Legacy enters its sixth generation, however, with the other attributes for which Subaru is known: the boxer engine and standard all-wheel drive.

"Plenty of Camry buyers would do well to shop for a Legacy instead," Capparella says. "It's not more interesting than the Toyota, but offers some significant improvements in terms of interior style, visibility, fuel efficiency, and its AWD, while it retains all the strengths that make the Toyota so popular."

Weiner finds the exclusive AWD feature the Legacy's only advantage.

"It's not a bad car, especially considering how similar all these midsizers are, but it is the most blandly styled in a segment replete with vanilla," Weiner says. "The interior feels cheap, with flat seats, plasticky buttons and a generally hollow, budget feel to the cabin."

Indeed, the Subie's center dash screen information/entertainment system looks straight out of the late '90s, with tiny touchscreen buttons to switch stations and between XM/Sirius, FM, and AM radio. On a couple of occasions, the radio seemed to want to switch stations on its own. However, we found the Subaru's Bluetooth easiest for pairing smartphones.

On a more serious note, the flat-four sounds thrashiest of the five cars under throttle, and the paddle shifters seem superfluous in doing anything interesting with the continuously variable transmission, which we quickly deemed second-best of the two CVTs in this comparo. On the plus side, the Legacy scored the best trip fuel mileage of the five, at 30.3 mpg -- which is especially impressive from the only all-wheel-drive car in the bunch. And its steering turn-in is reasonably quick, with minimal understeer for a car in this category -- we'd credit the flat-four's low center of gravity -- but the numb steering does nothing to help take advantage of this trait, and the chassis is pretty soft. Capparella describes the feeling as "squishy."

"The ride is well-controlled, but the car ends up feeling limp and soft when you push it through the corners," he says.

2015 Subaru Legacy 2.5i Premium Specifications

  • Base Price: $24,590
  • Price As Tested: $25,984
  • Engine: 2.5L DOHC 16-valve I-4/175 hp @ 5,800 rpm, 174 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm
  • Transmission: Continuously variable
  • Layout: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD sedan
  • EPA Mileage: 26/36 mpg city/hwy
  • L x W x H: 188.8 x 72.4 x 59.0 in
  • Wheelbase: 108.3 in
  • Cargo Room: 15.0 cu ft
  • Weight: 3,455 lb
  • 0-60 mph:

    • 8.8 sec
  • Top Speed: N/A

While Toyota, Honda, and Nissan extended mainstream models' lifecycles from four years to five in the last couple of decades, Hyundai has gone from five to four. The 2015 Hyundai Sonata replaces a model that was all-new for 2011; that earlier car broke out from vanilla midsize-sedan styling with swoopy expressiveness. This can make designing the follow-up car problematic. There was no way the 2015 Hyundai Sonata couldn't come across as more conservative, short of another breakout design. But the 2015 Sonata still manages to move the brand's needle forward, with an even richer near-premium interior and handsome, if more subdued, sheetmetal.

In typical Hyundai fashion, the interior is wonderfully designed and will make most owners feel like they've landed a bargain on an entry-premium sedan. The center stack is easy to use, with clearly laid-out buttons and a class-leading infotainment touchscreen, Capparella notes, adding that the back seat feels roomier than other sedans. Still, it suffers the claustrophobia-inducing high beltline common with midsize sedans that try to evoke a sporty image.

Its trip fuel mileage was lowest in this group, at 26.3 mpg.

The new Sonata shows that Hyundai has made some progress in chassis development, though it has a way to go.

"Pushing the Sonata in the corners isn't so unpleasant," Capparella says, "It is willing to hustle, especially in sport mode, which also helps with transmission response. Body control is good, but the steering really lets this car down with its unnecessary heft and its lack of feel. Sport mode only makes this worse, making me think that Hyundai subscribes to the BMW philosophy that heavy steering means sporty steering. Not so."

"The engine and transmission work well together," Weiner agrees. "The transmission has smooth shifts, but they're a tad slow. The car strikes me as a really good balance between the driver-focused Mazda6 and the sense-depleted Toyota Camry. The Sonata also exhibits classic Hyundai suspension tuning with lots of travel but strange damping."

The 2015 Hyundai Sonata provides a compelling combination of Mazda6 distinction, Honda Accord value, and Toyota Camry roominess. It's the midsize sedan we'd most recommend to friends and family who care most about comfort and convenience and don't mind a little extra style in their automotive appliances.

2015 Hyundai Sonata Sport Specifications

  • Base Price: $23,985
  • Price As Tested: $27,560
  • Engine: 2.4L DOHC 16-valve I-4/185 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 178 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm
  • Transmission: 6-speed automatic
  • Layout: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD sedan
  • EPA Mileage: 24/35 mpg city/hwy
  • L x W x H: 191.1 x 73.4 x 58.1 in
  • Wheelbase: 110.4 in
  • Cargo Room: 16.3 cu ft
  • Weight: 3,329 lb
  • 0-60 mph:

    • 8.4 sec
  • Top Speed: N/A

Our perennial favorite, the 2015 Honda Accord nearly stole the show with its combination of predictable chassis dynamics, a capacious interior, and classic low-cowl outward visibility, which makes it an exceptionally easy car to drive in any traffic. The car emphasizes design simplicity, and it is not overtly sporty. It is very well mannered.

"Better steering than the Mazda's," Weiner says. "It's a bit quicker and more fluid. The design is perhaps showing its age a little, but everything in this car is easy to engage with. Most of the time I am not thinking much while driving this one, but when I do I'm impressed with it. Fantastic ride/handling balance; just stiff enough to stay composed in corners, planted on the highway, and stable on rough roads. Not nearly as quiet as the Camry, but not as loud as the Mazda."

"Getting out of the Sonata and into the Accord is like getting into a Ford Fiesta ST," Capparella concurs. "This car is light and responsive and lively, with light, quick steering. Impacts are never harsh, but the ride is nice and firm, exactly as I think a midsize sedan should be."

Our trip fuel mileage was 27.9 mpg.

But the Accord's interior hasn't kept up with the state-of-the-art. Interior minimalism, even in an affordable sedan, is so 2012.

"The interior is starting to look drab," Capparella continues. "And the infotainment interface is unintuitive and dated. I don't have much confidence that Honda will fix these problems, as its new touch-sensitive interface in the Fit and CR-V isn't much better."

2015 Honda Accord Sport Specifications

  • Base Price: $24,685
  • Price As Tested: $24,685
  • Engine: 2.4L DOHC 16-valve I-4/189 hp @ 6,400 rpm, 182 lb-ft @ 3,900 rpm
  • Transmission: Continuously variable
  • Layout: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD sedan
  • EPA Mileage: 26/35 mpg city/hwy
  • L x W x H: 191.4 x 72.8 x 57.7 in
  • Wheelbase: 109.3 in
  • Cargo Room: 15.8 cu ft
  • Weight: 3,342 lb
  • 0-60 mph:

    • 7.5 sec
  • Top Speed: N/A

1. 2016 Mazda6 Grand Touring

Our pick for best of these five midsize sedans is the sole Japanese model that has its act together in the interior department, but that is not the sole reason for our preference.

This $33,000 2016 Mazda6 Grand Touring, with its sumptuous and nicely bolstered leather seats, was one of the most expensive cars in this comparison, though Capparella priced out a "decently equipped" '6 Touring and came up with a competitive sticker price of $25,815. Our trip fuel mileage was 29.2 mpg.

We agreed the Mazda6 is the sleekest, best-looking sedan here, though the outward visibility and rear seat package suffer as a result. To make a sedan look this rakish without severely compromising headroom, designers raise the beltline between the B- and C-pillars, which creates a sort of cavernous effect for rear-seat passengers.

Though the Mazda6 has an overtly sporting flavor, we'd rate the 2.5-liter Skyactiv-G inline-four engine -- and the car's well-balanced ride and handling dynamics -- within a hair of the Honda Accord either way.

"It's the only one of the bunch that could even remotely be called a sport sedan," Capparella says. "There's a fluidity to the handling that even the Accord can't match. I love the steering weight, and you completely forget the Mazda is a 191-inch-long sedan while at speed because of its eager, tossable, lightweight feel."

If one thing put the Mazda6 over the top, it was the car's six-speed automatic transmission -- or more precisely, its lack of a CVT.

"It has very accurate steering, solid brakes with a good feel, and snappy shifts from the transmission," Weiner says.

Editors also acknowledge the Mazda6's relative light weight, which means it has a bit less insulation than the competition, which, in the end, means more road noise. Unlike Honda, Mazda has given up on trying to make its midsize entry the kind of car that pleases the propensity of customers who are in the market for a front-wheel-drive midsize sedan. That may explain more than anything else why it's the sedan we'd choose first.

"Maybe the Honda is more well-rounded and better serves the average consumer, but the Mazda shines brighter in so many ways that others don't -- and I can't ignore it," Weiner says. "I don't care about the wind noise, the stiffer ride, the engine noise -- it's worth it."

2016 Mazda6 Grand Touring Specifications

  • Price: $31,015
  • Price As Tested: $33,395
  • Engine: 2.5L DOHC 16-valve I-4/184 hp @ 5,700 rpm, 185 lb-ft @ 3,250 rpm
  • Transmission: 6-speed automatic
  • Layout: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD sedan
  • EPA Mileage: 28/40 mpg city/hwy
  • L x W x H: 192.7 x 72.4 x 57.1 in
  • Wheelbase: 111.4 in
  • Cargo Room: 14.8 cu ft
  • Weight: 3,250 lb
  • 0-60 mph:

    • 7.7 sec
  • Top Speed: 137 mph

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