These four vehicles may not grab you by the scruff, but they are the mother’s milk of the U.S. auto industry. Combined, they amounted to 775,508 sales last year, or around 6 percent of all light vehicles sold in our fair nation. When they succeed, Americans get raises and promotions and, as all four are built in the United States, overtime pay that goes directly to Main Street. When they fail—doom.
The odds are favorable that you will shop for one or, being the car nut in the family, share your opinion about one. So stop thinking that it would be more fun to read the poster about periodontal disease on the far wall and pay attention!
We chose the high-volume configuration, which means small engine, automatic transmission, mid-grade trim, and a circa-$26,000 price. The Passat is in because it’s a returning champ, having out done its competition in two previous comparison tests against, among others, the Toyota Camry and the Hyundai Sonata.
Herewith we return to the ring an SE with the 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine and six speed automatic transmission.
The other three cars are all new for 2013. The aptly named Fusion fuses styling themes from several former Ford-owned colonies. Aston Martin is recalled in the face, Jaguar in the cab-rearward profile, and Volvo in the ski-jump dash. Well, why not?Ford paid for it all way back when, so it’s not technically stealing. A 1.6-liter Eco Boost turbo charged four-cylinder pairs with a six speed automatic. The only Fusion available to us had $4685 in options, all electronic and comfort related (read: My Ford Touch plus leather and navigation, mainly), so it’s the luxury liner of the test.The new, ninth-generation Honda Accord is 3.5 inches shorter bumper-to bumper and about an inch tighter between the wheels than its fleshy predecessor. And this one is exactly 100 pounds lighter than the gen-eight EX-L we tested in May.
The overhauled “Earth Dreams” DOHC 2.4-liter is Honda’s first example of direct injection in North America, while a Honda-built CVT is your only automatic alternative to a six-speed manual.Nissan’s redesigned Altima in mid-grade SV trim keeps its 2.5-liter long-stroke four cylinder and CVT combo. The billowing new lines evoke current Infinitis, and, unlike the Accord, the Altima is still growing.It added 0.8 inch in overall length and1.3 inches to its beam, moving it to the dimensional middle of a tightly regimented segment (note how close all of the dimensions are in the chart).
Nissan targeted the Altima to be the lightest of its peers, and it is,at 3136 pounds. It’s also the least-expensive contender in our test.
Including all the competitors in the mid size segment, there are more than a million sold annually. They may come bearing“Coexist” bumper stickers, but this is a high-stakes blood fight.4. VOLKSWAGEN PASSAT 2.5 SEWow, that was a short love affair. From pack leader to tail-end-Karl in just a few months.But in defense of our fickleness, consider that the competitors are completely differen there, and we still have lots of good things to say about the Passat.For one thing, it’s a middle-brow limo,with cross-your-legs room in the front and back, and elbow and head clearance aplenty.
Equally, you might find Socratic wisdom in the cave-like trunk. If the décor is plain, it’s seamlessly assembled and presented in buttoned-down understatement befitting a German sedan, right down to the miniature Deutsche Bank lobby clock on the dashboard.
At $25,840 as tested, you get “V-Tex” leatherette seating, an eight-speaker stereo with CD changer and auxiliary jack (but not a USB port, for some reason), heated side view mirrors, a multifunction steering wheel,and a general sense of not having selected the poverty edition—the many blank buttons ringing the shifter notwithstanding.
Furthermore, the chassis is tuned to limit body roll and to turn proficiently. Though it’s the only car here lacking a stability-control deactivation button, the VW was the quickest in our slalom by a significant margin, earning praise for its excellent predictability and lack of body flounce.So where did it fail to connect? The 2.5-liter five-cylinder produces a dull moan and lacks Clydesdales considering its size and cylinder count. As with the other cars, the transmission is programmed to lunge for top gear to save fuel, and the Passat is constantly downshifting to maintain speed going up slight grades.
The moaning only gets sadder as it gets louder.One or two drivers liked the Passat’s higher steering effort, but others thought it excessive for a family sedan. “Like forcing the rack through oatmeal,” read one comment.
Another noted that it felt too heavy at slow speeds and too light at velocity. Either way, nobody absolutely loved it, nor that the brake pedal moved through two inches of slack before activating the calipers.Hanging over all, though, was disappointment that the Volkswagen didn’t feel German enough. Compared with the epically stiff Fusion, it lacks structural starch,creaking and squeaking over patchy pavement.A few too many yards of interior plastic feel hard and seem cheap. Maybe the others are just better at hiding it.
The generic design is about as memorable as the back of your eyelids.In making its play for higher volume, VW kept the Passat’s price and in offensiveness to a minimum. Ditto for its personality,unfortunately.3. NISSAN ALTIMA 2.5 SV What is Nissan? It can’t decide if it’s the samurai performance dojo that created the GT-R, the polar-bear rescue squad behind the Leaf, or Team Versa, which aims to clobber not just the Koreans but also the Chinese and Bulgarians on price. Likewise, the Altima is a confusion of aspirations and priorities,all of which fight each other to a stalemate.Look at the styling for your first hint of turbulence.
It’s flowing, organic, and definitely cribbed from Infiniti’s catalog of expensive undersea beasts, but in a lumpy,awkward way that says “price cut.” Somebody noted uncharitably that it looks like a Camry that’s been attacked by bees.Likewise, in the airy cabin you slip behind a wheel and dash nicely trimmed with small glints of silvered plastic and all is well. Just don’t look left or right where all the hard,monotone black plastic lurks. Or up at the dash top, which is crowned by a cooled lava flow of plastic rock. Or down at the seats,which have a decidedly institutional feel to their mouse-fur cloth. The Honda wears cloth, too, but its plushier nap feels richer.
The GT-R company built the runner of the group, the Altima just edging out the Honda with a 0-to-60-mph time of 7.6 seconds and a quarter-mile in 16 seconds flat.But the penny-squeezers at Versa, Inc.,insist the old port-injected QR25 2.5-literstick around, with revisions, as more of apack mule than a stallion. It sounds coarse and unhappy at the high revs the CVT holds it at to deliver any performance.
The Leaf company tunes the CVT to race for the tallest ratio, from which it preferred not to budge. To its credit, the Altima delivered the best fuel economy in a test beset by hot weather and lots of idling. Our ace pilot mostly liked the direct steering and the deep groove in effort that amplifies the on-center feel.
No doubt, the GT-R boys also gave the Altima its “Active Understeer Control,” a software logic that brakes the inside front wheel in a turn to increase yaw. You do feel it working to aim the car in some situations.
But it would function better had the Versa and Leaf guys not insisted on efficiency tires that give up the grip early and in a squealing hissy.We don’t know if it was the GT-R or Leaf contingent that made the Altima so light, or perhaps it was the Versa folks who pulled the excess mass out of the structure.
Either way,the Altima recoils over bumps and felt shakiest of this foursome.When the Hertz man slides the key across the counter, though, you won’t despair. Nissan tried to build the quickest,cheapest, best-handling, most fuel-efficient,and most luxurious-looking car in the segment.In some respects it succeeds, but the end result lacks any outstanding qualities beyond having the largest trunk opening (though not the largest trunk). Maybe that’s the best we can expect from a committee.
2. FORD FUSION SE ECO BOOST It’s so transparent what Ford has done, and yet we’ve totally fallen for it.
This new Aston Jagu Volvo imports much-needed styling flair into a segment overflowing with three-box snoozers, and we’re letting a few glaring flaws slide because of it.Ford is the only company to challenge fully the aesthetic dominance of Hyundai’s exuberant Sonata. The rakish face and wind swept roofline evoke all manner of more expensive metal, mostly from former Ford subsidiaries. Were James Bond real—just another mid-grade government employee with two kids and a Tesco card—this is what he’d drive.
The Michigan-made Fusion (well, some are built in Mexico) is the heaviest car hereby 180 pounds. It also has the smallest engine: a 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder mated to a busy six-speed that changes ratios furiously to keep up the power. You pay $795 extra for the British-imported 1.6over the basic, Mexican-built 2.5-liter non boosted four. A third engine, the 237-hp 2.0-liter Eco Boost four (from Valencia, Spain), is also offered in the SE, with other equipment,for $2250. So, lots of international choices.
The Fusion posts the shortest stopping distance (175 feet) and ties with the Accord for the best skid pad performance (0.87 g)while coming closest to matching the Passat in the slalom. Endowed with a stiff structure,tightly restrained body motion, and excellent steering response, it rates among the best chassis in the segment, feeling more German than the one German car here.
Our well-documented complaints with the slow, ungainly, fault-prone My Ford Touch system notwithstanding, the dash layout is friendly, with its panel of touch sensitive buttons handling climate and some radio functions. A clutter bin sits below the center stack, bracketed by two flying buttresses.
Metal-trim accents abound,and the contrasting-stitched leather chairs(part of a $2375 package) feel accommodating and look like British luxury.Packaging is the Fusion’s biggest weakness.Somehow, it has the longest wheel base by 1.8 inches and ties with the Passat for longest overall length, yet manages to feel like it has the smallest back seat in the group. Knees rub the front seat backs, and forget using the middle seat belt. The front buckets are set farther back behind thick B-pillars, and that—plus wide, plastic sill extensions—makes getting out more of a squirm job, especially if you’re short. The Fusion also has the smallest fuel tank and the narrowest trunk opening,items that can become daily annoyances.
Our pre production test car suffered multi pleneural crises, at times flashing warning lights as if it were Christmas in Times Square.Attention Dear born: Fix this stuff before showtime. Ford wanted the world’s eyes on this car, or it wouldn’t have given it that racy bod. Now that the Fusion has our attention,let us pray that it doesn’t disappoint.
1. HONDA ACCORD EX At low points in the past few years, we’ve doubted Honda, but the big H is back. The new Accord is a convincing reminder of the company’s core values and, considering all that Honda has been through with an earthquake that smashed its Tochigi R&D center and floods in Thailand that crimped production, a triumphant return to form.Once again, Honda conducts a masterclass in packaging.
Against its porcine predecessor,the ninth generation shrinks on the outside, yet the cabin dimensions vary hardly at all. The Accord still feels like the biggest car in the test, with two roomy and extra-comfortable front buckets and a backbench where you and two friends can stretch out. Moreover, the capacious trunk is one cubic foot larger than before.The Accord also drives as if it’s constructed out of old-fashioned Honda Light weightium.
In fact, it’s not the lightest car here—partly because the spiffier EX trim includes a power sunroof—but it feels as if it is. The steering, brakes, and suspension work in harmonious balance to make the Accord seem agile and springy. Yes, instead of control arms it now has struts in the nose,but so does a Porsche Cayman. The Accord hustles through turns with fog-free steering,no complaint from the tires, and it never seems to be working very hard.The 2.4-liter four likes to rev and boasts the most horsepower in this group, but not by much.
It’s the CVT’s tuning that makes the Accord feel fleet. Honda has minimized the typical rubber-band delay, and the throttle responds curtly when you ask for acceleration(though sometimes with a bit of audible transmission whine at high revs). In mountain snakers as well as on city streets,the CVT works so efficiently that it all but disappears, and you never notice the lack of manual control. Of course, we’d prefer the six-speed stick, but finally, a belt-and-pulley transmission we can live with!
The dash is done to Honda’s familiar template of large, maxi-print gauges and many,many small buttons. Lacking navigation and the associated extra panel of controls, our EX had a deep what-not drawer hidden behind a clumsy plastic door. Lessons have been learned from the distressed Civic,though, and that door is the only off note in an interior that has been upgraded with softer materials and better sound insulation.
With a flat roof and a highly conservative rake to its glass, the Accord remains apologetically a mid-size family car. You can complain about the design’s lack of sizzle,but not its practicality. The door openings are wide, the step-over sills are narrow, and the beltline is kept unfashionably low to create huge glass portals. If people don’t look at you because your vehicle is plain, at least you will see them.We’ve got exciting news: Honda wants to be Honda again.