Once upon a time, recommending the best midsize sedan was simple. "Get a Toyota Camry," we'd say, or if you prefer whole-bean vanilla, "Get a Honda Accord." While those two perennial favorites remain excellent choices, today's stiff competition gives buyers a much broader menu to choose from, each offering its own twist on the 4-door midsize-sedan formula in an effort to attract different subsets of buyers. To find out which car appeals best to whom, we gathered together eight midsize sedans, including the 2014 Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, Ford Fusion, Chevrolet Malibu, Mazda6, and Kia Optima. We also included the all-new 2015 Subaru Legacy.
Every one of them, save the Camry, were powered by some sort of 4-cylinder engine ranging from 1.5- to 2.5-liters, and producing around 180 horsepower, give or take 10. All but the Mazda had automatic transmissions -- some with gears, and others using continuously variable transmissions, or CVTs.
Our 2-day road trip took us up the California coast to picturesque Morro Bay and back. Our route took us along the coast toward Santa Barbara, then inland over the hills and valleys before heading back to the coast. The variety of terrain and roads let us sample how the cars coped with different roads, from Interstate highways, to city traffic, to 2-lane roads that wound through mountains and arrowed through wide-open countryside. We also got to try out how well the features like navigation, Bluetooth and other gadgets worked. With a largely similar price-and-features set, we also compared how much car your dollar got you in each circumstance, and to see side-by-side differences in front and rear seat comfort, interior room, cargo space, and the quality of construction and materials.
While it was clear that some of the cars had more strengths than others, we were impressed that none of these were what we'd characterize as "losers." The differences were in the details, and each car had a unique take on the midsize sedan formula, be it lots of features for the money, a roomy rear seat, a huge trunk, or just love-it styling.
Below is a brief summary of our test fleet (in alphabetical order), with links to a more in-depth look at each vehicle.
The Chevrolet Malibu LT included a Premium Package, adding a power driver seat, sunroof, remote start, and rear camera. We all liked the styling and comfortable, quiet ride, but we couldn't ignore the cramped rear seat and small trunk.
The sporty Ford Fusion SE offers beautiful design, and it was fun to drive, too. Still, we couldn't overlook the tiny center display, surprisingly small rear seat, and that our test Fusion came without the optional backup camera.
We all regarded the Honda Accord EX as one of the best all-around midsize sedans in the test, with good fuel economy and a good mix of features for the price. We wish it was quieter though, and wonder why Honda alone uses a single-piece folding rear seatback.
The good looking and comfortable Kia Optima EX felt like a premium midsize sedan. That said, we disliked the tight rear-seat headroom, while the car's odd steering and suspension made it the least rewarding of the group to drive. Some thought the price should have included a navigation system.
Easily the sportiest of the midsize sedans, the Mazda6 Touring's upscale styling and excellent fuel economy charmed us, and even after adding $1,000 for the automatic it remains the least expensive. However, the rear seat was smaller than others in the test, and some thought the interior was too cozy.
The comfortable Nissan Altima SV had a big trunk, and the rear seat was also very good for shorter passengers. Complaints focused mostly on the small navigation screen, lack of adjustability on the driver's seat, and the bland exterior and interior styling.
The all-new Subaru Legacy Premium 2.5i was the only all-wheel drive midsize sedan in our test, offering a good value thanks to features like active cruise control and collision warning. We wished for more dynamic styling, and that the too-eager gas pedal didn't make it feel so jumpy.
The V6 engine in our Toyota Camry XLE V6 made it the hot rod of the group, if you skip the engine and leather -- saving several thousand dollars -- the comfortable interior, huge rear seat, and great highway ride outweigh its bland styling and clunky infotainment interface.
Three More Midsize Sedans
The old and retiring Dodge Avenger notwithstanding, our midsize sedan comparison test comprised all but three of the cars in the category:
The totally redesigned 2015 Chrysler 200 is just arriving now, and we already drove it on a 1,200-mile road trip to the Grand Canyon.
The Hyundai Sonata has also been redesigned for 2015, but wasn't yet available for testing.
The current-generation Volkswagen Passat is the longest-tenured member of our long-term test fleet.