$26,000 Midsize Sedan Shootout: Overview

Six midsize sedans costing less than $26,000 squared off in our shootout.

About one in six new cars sold today is a midsize family sedan. In 2012, more than a dozen family cars accounted for more than 2 million in new-car sales. More than half of those sales came from just four nameplates: the Toyota Camry, the Honda Accord, the Nissan Altima and the Ford Fusion — all regulars in the industry's top 10 monthly best-sellers. Redesigns for all four cars debuted for the 2012 or 2013 model years, helping increase sales for the entire segment by a healthy margin in 2012.
Midsize sedans aren't just today's best-sellers; they're some of the most common cars you'll see on the road. A report early this year by Experian Automotive found the Accord and Camry alone — introduced in the U.S. in 1976 and 1983, respectively — account for 5.2 percent of all vehicles in operation. Both nameplates are best-sellers for their automakers — as the Altima is for Nissan — so continuous product investment has been crucial.

When redesigned versions hit dealerships, shoppers rewarded those investments by spending more. Fusion buyers spend $3,700 more per car for the latest generation versus its predecessor, Mark Fields, Ford president of the Americas, told reporters in New York last month. Thomas King, a senior director at J.D. Power and Associates, notes that 80 percent of the segment was introduced or redesigned in the past two years, and shoppers are forking over more cash: "The vehicles are getting very, very significant increases in their average transaction price," King told "What we're seeing is folks are saying, 'Hey I really like this product and I'm really willing to buy it with higher content [and] features.' "

Because of all this history and activity, naturally we decided to join once again with USA Today and "MotorWeek" for our second Shootout targeting midsize sedans. After discussions with J.D. Power about average pricing for this segment — placed at $24,660 — and our pricing for the most recent Shootout ($25,000 without destination charges), we decided that $26,000, including the destination charge, was the right place to be. What do you get for $26,000? We set the mileage minimum aggressively — at 28 mpg combined city/highway.

That left us with these six sedans for the Shootout:

It unfortunately kept us from testing the most recent Volkswagen Passat, which was's Best of 2012 winner, because its gas version was not efficient enough, but its diesel TDI version was too pricey. It was largely the same story for the popular Chevrolet Malibu, whose gas-only version was not efficient enough, but whose Eco version was too expensive.

Our tests were done in much the same way as they usually are:

    • One-day 185-mile mileage drive, where the experts spend time driving each car to account for varying weights and driving styles.
    • One-day expert round robin, where the experts drive the cars back-to-back on exactly the same course, so differences in acceleration, handling, ride, etc., pop out.
    • One day with the family, who goes from car to car judging seating, cargo, features and ride quality.

Our judges for this Shootout:

    • Joe Wiesenfelder, executive editor
    • Kristin Varela, senior family editor
    • Kelsey Mays, industry editor
    • James R. Healey, USA Today auto writer
    • Brian Robinson, "MotorWeek" producer
    • Patrick and Raquel Girvin, along with daughter Cecilia, 14, and her friend, Jessie, also 14.

The judges' scores in 10 categories make up 72% of the final score, the family's scores are worth 18%, and the mileage results make up the remaining 10%.

You should read our Results to see which car won, but we can tell you that this was an extremely close competition. We had a clear winner, but if you're interested in one of these family sedans, pay close attention to the comments, as they are likely instructive for anyone considering the cars.'s Editor-in-Chief Patrick Olsen contributed to this report.

© 12/27/2012