Life is all about compromises. If you have come to the point where you need a midsize four-door sedan, but you want something enjoyable to drive, there are two ways to go: A European sport sedan, or a brand new “sporty” version of a mainstream sedan.
I got a note from a reader that had the following dilemma:
I’m looking for a sedan under $30,000 that is fun to drive. A manual transmission is preferred, but not a must have. I keep looking at some nice CPO examples of either a BMW 3 Series or Audi A4.
I’m also tempted by the “sport” trim versions of regular stuff like the Accord or Mazda6. The new cars are going to give me longer warranty coverage and probably be more reliable, but are they worth it if you really care about driving?
Can a sporty midsize family sedan match the fun you’d get in a 3 Series? Let’s look at some of our options.
The Mazda6 is the default recommendation from practically every auto-journo to someone looking to buy a family sedan. It looks great, the handling and steering feel is spot-on, and the fit and finish is top notch. The whole lineup is practically the “sport” version.
Here are my criticisms with the Mazda: from a practicality standpoint the backseat is a little tight and the trunk is small. Also, it is slow. For a company whose tagline is supposedly “zoom-zoom,” you can only get a naturally aspirated four cylinder engine with 184 horsepower. That’s not bad, but when every other brand offers a higher-powered option, it’s kind of a letdown.
If power is not a priority, Mazda is the only Japanese brand that will let you get a three-pedal car and won’t force you to get cloth seats. The six-speed Touring trim prices at a very reasonable $24,675 and includes some advanced safety features such as Blind Spot Detection and Rear Cross Traffic Alert.
While the Mazda6 is the go-to recommendation for car people, the Accord seems to be the default choice for everyone else. There is a good reason for this. The Accord has established itself as one of those cars that just will not let you down. With a large backseat and trunk, the Honda will handle kids and gear just fine.
For buyers that want to be connected to their car, the Honda is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the Sport version looks pretty sharp with the dual exhausts, 19-inch wheels (that are very popular with thieves), and a firmer suspension that can carve corners just as good as the Mazda6.
On the other hand, if you want to row your own gears you are stuck with the 2.4-liter four-cylinder motor with 189 HP. Though that engine feels a bit quicker than the Mazda, mostly due to the fact that Honda’s six-speed manual is an absolute joy.
Unfortunately, if you pick the manual, you better be happy with cloth seats and not much in the way of extras. Honda also charges you $25,100, which is slightly above the Mazda6 Touring.
The Accord Coupe can be had with a beefy V6 and a manual gearbox, but that doesn’t solve your need for doors.
Nissan offers an SR trim, which sounds serious, but it is not to be confused with the Altima SE-R that came out in 2005. For that car, Nissan basically crammed a bunch of 350Z parts into a front-wheel-drive sedan. It’s hard to believe given Nissan’s current lineup, but there was a time when the brand would use the “R” moniker on something other than the GT-R to inject some fun into an affordable car.
Today’s SR is mostly an “appearance package” upgrade over the standard Altima with 18-inch wheels, a spoiler, and some paddle shifters that are kind of pointless given the continuously variable transmission.
The four-cylinder SR does price a little lower than the Honda and Mazda when those cars are equipped with an automatic.
The Altima’s one advantage is that you can equip the SR with a 270 HP V6 and keep the price under $30,000, though both motors only get you cloth seats and no additional packages.
Toyota has updated their pitch on the “sporty” Camry with the following:
- Inspired handling.
- More excitement.
- It’s how grown-ups have fun.
- Blur the line between sports car and sedan.
Sounds like bullshit, right? Because it is.
Like the Altima, the Camry isn’t a car you buy because fun is your priority. You buy the Toyota because you want to own it for 10 years and never have to worry.
One upside is that while there is no manual option, the Camry comes with a genuine 6-speed automatic unlike the CVT units from Honda and Nissan.
However, the Camry does price a bit higher if you compare the level of equipment. If you wanted the equivalent to an auto Mazda6 Touring with an automatic (MSRP $26,111), Toyota will charge you $28,060 for a similar XSE. Add on a 268 HP V6 to that trim and you top out at $32,205.
The Toyota may have the reliability and resale value, but if you are looking for a nice overall package at a lower price point than all the other imports, the Sonata has you covered. Like Toyota and Nissan, Hyundai isn’t offering much in the way of “engagement” with the Sport trim. You get some upgraded wheels and nicer styling bits to give it a more aggressive appearance.
What you can do is load up the already well equipped, Sport with a starting MSRP of $24,235 with the Premium and Tech packages and you will add heated leather-trimmed seats, advanced safety features, sunroof, and navigation for only $28,585. You can also upgrade to the Sonata Sport 2.0T for $29,760 that gets you a turbocharged motor with 245 HP, but it is not as quick as you expect.
Some of you may want to shop the Sonata’s cousin the Kia Optima, but Hyundai offers you more trim options and better features at slightly lower price points than Kia.
Even though the Koreans get all the press for being the “value brands,” the Ford Fusion might be the best bang for your buck in the segment. The SE trim starts at only $23,995, but has no three-pedal option.
Though you do get a choice of three motors, the base engine is a 175 HP 2.5-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine similar to the other cars listed above. Also available are 1.5-liter and 2.0-liter turbo four cylinder motors with 181 and 240 HP respectively.
You can load up a 2.0-liter equipped car with almost every option box checked and still stay under $30,000 with the current advertised incentives.
Also, the Fusion is the only “sport” trim sedan at this price point available with all-wheel drive.
Volkswagen Passat, Jetta GLI
There was a time when you could get a Passat with a turbo engine and a manual transmission. Those days are gone. But at a reasonable $24,705, a six-speed automatic Passat R-Line will get you a 1.8-liter, 170 HP motor, 19-inch wheels and some snazzy sport trim pieces. For an additional $865 you can upgrade to the R-Line with Comfort Package and add heated leatherette seats.
If you are leaning toward the Passat, I would strongly suggest a test drive in the smaller Jetta GLI. The backseat and trunk are pretty generous for a compact sedan, and the GLI shares a lot of hardware with the GTI. You can have yourself a brand new, 210 HP, manual-equipped, German sport sedan with a lot of nice features for only $27,740.
New or Used
Should you give choose one of these “more rational” choices over a lightly used German sports sedan? It all depends on your priorities. Honda, Mazda, and to some extent Volkswagen make a real attempt at giving you something affordable that you can actually engage with, while other brands are really just dressing up quality cars that aren’t too exciting to drive.
None of the cars above are going to be able to match the dynamics of something made by Audi, BMW, or Mercedes. Remember, a brand new 3 Series, A4, and C-Class could price up to $60,000, depending on equipment. Picking one of those up after the initial depreciation with some CPO warranty will make the value proposition much better.
Something else to keep in mind is that if getting a manual transmission is a priority, you can shop carefully and you’ll be able to find a nice selection of BMWs and Audis with three pedals. Unlike the mainstream sedans, you won’t have to give up luxury features like leather seats, navigation, and a sunroof.
What do you think is the best choice here?