America loves it some mid-size sedans. Wagons might be more practical and crossovers are now outselling the humble four-door, but mid-sizers remain the chariot of choice for a massive swath of the population. Nearly every automaker offers one and each comes in dozens of flavors, so how do you pick the best? We’re here to help.
Americans bought 3.6 million new sedans last year, with everyone from fresh-faced post-grads to coupon-cutting retirees spending anywhere between $20,000 and $40,000 on what was – until recently – the largest, most hotly contested automotive segment in the U.S. No matter the price range or the level of kit, you can find a mid-size sedan to suit your wants and needs. And that can make it a bit overwhelming.
We’re absolutely spoiled for choice, with automakers constantly one-upping each other with features, amenities, powertrains, and trims. You can spend as little as $22k or as much as an entry-level BMW. But if you’re smart with the options and realistic about what’s essential, you can land the best mid-sizer for your needs for well under $30k.
For the past several months we’ve driven nearly every mid-size sedan on offer. We’ve lived with them day-to-day, logged endless highway miles, flogged them through cities, stuffed them full of luggage, and crammed them with people. We’ve done the things people use them for. Namely, relentlessly throwing the endless tasks of daily life at each to see how they stack up. Here’s what we found and which one is The Best.
When we slipped into the Sonata towards the end of this test, it just felt right. The interior is comfortable and airy, the controls are logical and well placed, and the whole package comes off as more premium than other cars carrying a similar price tag.
The $28,000 starting cost of the Sport 2.0T version we tested nets a raft of features, from keyless ignition, doors, and trunk to blind spot detection, Hyundai’s BlueLink telematics system, and a decent nav system. The 245-hp 2.0-liter turbo is a bit down on power from the last generation, but it’s got more than enough juice to get out of trouble and solid fuel economy to boot. The steering errs on the indirect, sluggish side and the suspension is far more tuned for comfort in something badged “Sport,” but there’s a balance of composure and compliance that’s hard to beat.
This is not the Sonata of even a few years ago. It’s grown up, matured, taken a few literature classes to go along with its econ degree, and come out the other side a well-rounded high-water mark for Hyundai. If you’re looking for the most pliant package with one of the most compelling warranties, the Sonata is it, and with the depth and breadth of the options, you can find the right one to suit any tastes at any price.
The Right Spec: Sport 2.0T with six-speed auto for $28,575
The majority of the mid-sizers in the world are a snooze-fest of mediocrity, and that’s why the Mazda6 stands out. No sedan in this class has any right to drive as well as the 6, from its snug suspension, to its direct steering, and slick-shifting automatic transmission. And Mazda also offers it with a six-speed manual, which is a massive win for those that need a sedan but don’t want to give up on fun.
You can get the top-spec Mazda6 for just under $30k, complete with leather seats, the auto-box, 11-speaker Bose stereo and a navigation system that’s barely passable. Where it falls short is in the power department, with its 2.5-liter four-cylinder wheezing out a measly 184 HP, but in return, fuel mileage is a commendable 26/38 MPG city/highway.
If Mazda would slap in a smaller engine with a turbo, power would match what’s one of the best tuned front-wheel-drive chassis in existence, easily beating some sports sedans costing twice as much in the sheer pleasure department. The interior matches its driver-focused mission, but it’s also the biggest demerit, with some cheap materials and a bit more wind and road noise than you’ll find in the rest of the segment. But such is the price of driver engagement and personality, it’s one of the few sedans with a manual transmission you can get starting at 22 grand.
The Right Spec: Manual Touring for $24,965
Just on paper the Subaru Legacy has a leg up on every other mid-sizer because of its standard all-wheel-drive. But it’s also one of the safest cars in the segment, gets commendable fuel economy from its 175 HP four-cylinder, and starts at $21,695. But it gets even better.
Option up for the Premium model at just over $23k and you can fit the EyeSight system and its associated active safety features for $1,195, adding things like frontal-collision warning and adaptive cruise control that would normally cost two to three times more on other cars in the segment.
The are a few letdowns. The continuously variable transmission, while up to the task, still feels unrefined when hooked up to the raspy boxer four. The Legacy also suffers from a ride that’s less forgiving and an infotainment system that’s attractive and feature-packed but falls short in ease-of-use and basic functionality. However, AWD and a sweet price make many of those concerns evaporate, and you’d be doing yourself a disservice to not seriously consider the Legacy when shopping around.
The Right Spec: 2.5i Premium with Eyesight pack for $25,785
The Honda Accord’s legacy is unmatched. It’s been consistently one of the best sedans available for decades and does everything right. From comfort to drivability to fit-and-finish, the Accord has defined the segment. But you pay for that refinement.
While you can get into a well-equipped, entry-level Accord for around $22k, as soon as you start tacking on the options the price shoots up quickly. Things like heated seats, satellite radio, proximity keys, and Honda’s trick LaneWatch system, which ups the ante on blind spot detection with a video of what’s on your side, means you’ll be shooting towards $30,000 with ease.
It is, however, one of the only sedans that offers a V6 in the segment, and that 278 hp is delivered in a sonorous, spinning blast to a traditional six-speed automatic. The six is arguably the best engine in its class, and while the four-cylinder gets the job done, it makes do with a CVT. But Honda’s laser-like focus on the details seems to be slipping. The seats are hard and offer little support, the navigation system is a mess of buttons and screens, and if you want something that’s properly specced, you’ll be looking at 30-large, easily.
The Right Spec: EX-L V6 with backup sensors for $31,829
The Fusion almost made the cut for its solid build quality and interior space. The handling is far better than its given credit, while the pricing – solidly in Accord territory when properly kitted out – had it slipping from the top pics. And there’s MyFord Touch, which is still a complicated mess.
Like the Fusion and Accord, the Chrysler 200 doesn’t start getting good until you tick the boxes. The interior and options are solid, and pricing is low to start, but it shoots up quickly – particularly if you want the V6 – while the 9-speed automatic continues to hunt and peck for gears.
The Altima is brimming with standard features, from keyless entry to Bluetooth, and comes with a range of upgrades that could make it a solid choice. Where it falls flat is the interior materials, general build quality, and a basic numbness that simply feels like Car.
The best-selling car in the country and was a complete and utter let down. You’d expect more from Toyota and the Camry, but the laurel resting continues, with a laggy infotainment system, rock-hard seats, and an uncomfortable ride that completely lacks of anything resembling handling.
The Passat is getting long in the tooth, although there’s still something reassuring about its straightforward design and utilitarian feel. There’s a hint of luxury, which falls flat when you start playing with the ancient nav system and take a closer look at the interior. With all the new metal available, it just can’t compete, but a new one is around the corner, and we’ll update this guide when we get our hands on it.
A new Malibu is on the way, which is good, because the last model we reviewed in 2013 didn’t fare too well. Once we get our hands on GM’s newest mid-sizer, we’ll add it to our guide.