$26,000 Midsize Sedan Shootout: Results

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

Our judges: Joe Wiesenfelder, Cars.com executive editor; Kristin Varela, Cars.com senior family editor; Kelsey Mays, Cars.com industry editor; James R. Healey, USA Today auto writer; Brian Robinson, "MotorWeek" producer; and Patrick and Raquel Girvin, their daughter Cecilia, and Cecilia's friend Jessie, our family testers from Arlington, Va.

No. 6 2013 Nissan Altima,
595 points

(See the scorecard, the Monroney sticker or research the 2013 Nissan Altima)

What they liked: Nissan's redesigned sedan was our clear winner in the mileage category. "It's hard to argue against the Altima's mileage, but you do pay a price in performance," Wiesenfelder said. Healey enjoyed the "sporty handling without a harsh ride trade-off." Both Mays and Varela liked the features that came along for the purchase price. "The Altima was the only car to have two must-have features: a backup camera and keyless entry. Bravo," Mays said. He added, "The giant trunk opening should swallow you mother-in-law's equally giant suitcase because, you know, she's staying for the next two weeks."

What they didn't: "Oh Nissan, Nissan, Nissan. What happened?" asked Varela. "Everything about this car feels cheaper than the others," Robinson said. What drew the most ire from the experts were the "zero-gravity" seats. "That seat!" exclaimed Wiesenfelder. "I hear NASA helped design this seat and I believe it; the only way I'd be comfortable in it is if I were weightless." "The seats are a formless, unsupportive mess," Mays said. "Most uncomfortable seats in memory," Healey added. The Altima's driving dynamics also drew complaints. "Driving the Altima was not confidence-inducing," Varela said. "There was a very pronounced body roll in the corners, requiring me to slow down in the corners much more than in the other cars." "Potholes send the suspension into clumsy, noisy disarray," Mays said. In the end, "we were surprised at how uninteresting this was for a new car," Patrick Girvin said.

The verdict: "A brand-new car that doesn't look or feel as new as it really is," Healey said.

Key Features

  • All-new for 2013
  • EPA-estimated 27/38 mpg city/highway, 33.71 mpg observed
  • Backup camera (one of two cars with feature)
  • Easy-Fill Tire Alert system chirps the horn when correct air pressure is reached
  • Satellite radio
  • Keyless access (one of three cars with this option)
  • Backup camera (one of two cars with feature)
  • IIHS Top Safety Pick+
  • No adjustable lumbar support

2013 Nissan Altima Payment Facts
Price as tested: $25,065
Monthly payment*: $515.57

Find a 2013 Nissan Altima near you

 

No. 5 2013 Hyundai Sonata,
649.3 points

(See the scorecard, the Monroney sticker or research the 2013 Hyundai Sonata)

What they liked: The Sonata was our big winner two years ago in our first midsize sedan Shootout. Our experts still found plenty to like this time around. "This one feels very civilized to me," Patrick said. "The exterior lines, the interior finish, the keyless start. It all feels more civilized." "Drivers in the Snow Belt will thank Hyundai for including heated seats without needing to get the top trim level," Mays noted. "The Volvo-like design of the clean, simple center stack in the Sonata is a much-appreciated respite among today's overly complex cars," Varela said. For Healey, the Sonata represented "the car for those days that life is simply too hard and you don't want your car to make it worse, or ask anything of you."

What they didn't: Our reviewers see the Sonata as missing out on key touches. "Hyundai's not there yet on crisp, balanced handling," Healey said. "The Sonata still rides on the busy side," Mays noted, "picking up highway ruts that others filter out." "While the engine is peppy, powertrain refinement is not on par with the rest of these cars," Robinson said. "This one feels tight to me because of the seat bolsters," Raquel Girvin said. "No backup camera in the Sonata," Varela asked. "Huh. I would have expected more from Hyundai."

The verdict: "The Sonata won our last Family Sedan Shootout, but that was mostly due to the dynamic styling and the fact that it had a lot more features than most for the money," Robinson said. "Well, the styling is no longer that dramatic and most of these cars are very well-equipped, so it's firmly mid-pack in this comparison."

Key Features

  • EPA-estimated 24/35 mpg city/highway, 29.75 mpg observed
  • Selectable Eco mode
  • Cloth seats with leather bolstering
  • Only car with heated seats
  • IIHS Top Safety Pick
  • Satellite radio
  • Keyless access (one of three cars with this option)

2013 Hyundai Sonata Payment Facts
Price as tested: $24,720
Monthly payment*: $508.48

Find a 2013 Hyundai Sonata near you

No. 4 2012 Toyota Camry,
670.1 points

(See the scorecard, the Monroney sticker or research the 2012 Toyota Camry)

What they liked: The Camry continues to be the best-seller in this category, and with good reason. "The exterior styling is better than the previous generation," Robinson said. "It looks sportier, but still like a Camry." Wiesenfelder liked that the "engine sounds pretty smooth among the surprisingly raucous competition." Several liked the storage space offered inside. "The in-door storage bins in the backseat have space for three drinks or bottles of water," Varela said. "While this may sound like an unimportant detail, the kids can have space to store their own things rather than distracting me while driving by passing their drinks up to me." And Healey noted how "the light-color upholstery made the car feel very open and roomy."

What they didn't: Even with a redesign, there seemed to be several steps backward for Toyota. "The interior feels and looks cheaper than the previous generation," Robinson said, "especially the woodgrain trim." "The traction-challenged tires protest on uphill starts and modest curves," Mays said. "Turn the car harder, and it skitters all over the place trying to keep up." "The Camry does not have a trunk release either up front or on the trunk itself, requiring you to use the one on the key that you can't find because it's at the bottom of your purse," Varela said.

The verdict: "The Camry is smooth and easy to drive," Varela said, "and the 10 standard airbags instantly grabbed my attention, raising the car above the others in terms of safety for my family."

Key Features

  • EPA-estimated 25/35 mpg city/highway, 31.21 mpg observed
  • Only car with sunroof
  • Woodgrain interior trim (one of two cars with this feature)
  • Cannot control iPod via buttons on radio, must use iPod to change songs
  • IIHS Top Safety Pick

2012 Toyota Camry Payment Facts
Price as tested: $25,710 (highest in Shootout)
Monthly payment*: $528.84

Find a 2012 Toyota Camry near you

Editor's note: While we were able to declare a clear winner in this Shootout, it was easily the closest results we've ever had. Only about 10 points separate No. 1 from No. 3. What you'll prefer is, of course, up to you, but we were impressed by the class of competitors.

No. 3 2013 Kia Optima,
677.6 points

(See the scorecard, the Monroney sticker or research the 2013 Kia Optima)

What they liked: While it wound up in third place, it trails the top two by only a few points. The Optima was the Girvin family's final choice as the car they would choose, and they weren't alone. "The Kia Optima was the clear winner in my book in terms of interior fit and finish," Varela said. "If I were to spend my own money on any one of the cars here, this would be the one for me." "The Optima had perhaps the most impressive interior quality and design, and blissfully simple controls," Wiesenfelder said. That interior also wowed others: "You can tell they paid a lot of attention to making it nice inside," Raquel said. "The finishes and materials are really a step above the others," Patrick said. Healey loved the shape of the car's "exciting silhouette." But it wasn't all looks for him: "Where other six-speed transmissions stagger through their downshifts, the Optima's knocks off two-gear kickdowns with aplomb." "I was pleasantly surprised by the Optima's zippy acceleration and quiet ride," Varela chimed in.

What they didn't: It wasn't all love for the Kia. "The Optima was the only car in our test to have leather seats, but Kia needs to work on cushioning; the backrests are hard and the lumbar feels lumpy no matter where you adjust it." Wiesenfelder seconded that motion: "The driver's seat doesn't tilt, which I find has major implications for families with drivers of varying heights." Robinson took notice as well. "While it's the only car with leather seats, the leather is not great." He also complained that the "steering lacks feel."

The verdict: "This might be the current Optima's third year on the market," Mays said, "but the competition has yet to leapfrog it."

Key Features

  • EPA-estimated 24/35 mpg city/highway, 29.69 mpg observed
  • Leather seats (only car with feature)
  • Satellite radio
  • Selectable Eco mode
  • IIHS Top Safety Pick+
  • Keyless access (one of three cars with this option)
  • Woodgrain interior trim (one of two cars with this feature)

2013 Kia Optima Payment Facts
Price as tested: $24,524 (lowest in Shootout)
Monthly payment*: $504.44

Find a 2013 Kia Optima near you

No. 2 2013 Ford Fusion,
678.5 points

(See the scorecard, the Monroney sticker or research the 2013 Ford Fusion)

What they liked:
First impressions matter a lot, and for our reviewers, their first impression of the Fusion was effusive. "Gorgeous," raved Healey. "Best looking of the bunch by far," Robinson added. "The outside looks American, but the inside looks European," said Patrick. But it wasn't just looks that landed this sedan in second place. "At-the-limit dynamics and roadholding are the best," Wiesenfelder said. And it "handles very nicely without being harsh," Healey added. "Despite its fastback roofline," Mays said, "the Fusion has decent backseat headroom and a high-enough seating position. Typically, that's an either/or situation in the others." For Varela, the key was a useful family feature: "Although the Fusion requires a key to start it up, at least it's a MyKey, helping parents set limits for teen drivers; when I mentioned this to the teenagers in our test, a look of sheer panic flashed across their faces."

What they didn't: Visibility was a sore point for several reviewers. "The A-pillars are way out in front of the driver and are much too thick," Wiesenfelder said, "which causes problems on winding roads and around pedestrians." The Fusion "feels a little tighter inside than its rivals do," Healey noted. "Even if that's illusory, it's a drawback." "Beyond being brand new, the Fusion didn't offer much in the way of extra amenities" compared to its competitors, Varela said. "There just seem to be too many buttons up front," Patrick noted. "It all looks a little overwhelming."

The verdict: "The Fusion obviously wins the award for Best Looking," Robinson said, "but it's also a very fun car to drive, and the 1.6-liter actually has plenty of power. The interior, though, doesn't quite live up to the style of the exterior."

Key Features

  • All-new for 2013
  • EPA-estimated 23/36 mpg city/highway, 28.49 mpg observed
  • Rear parking sensors (only car with feature)
  • One-touch up-and-down for all power windows (only car with feature)
  • Ford's Sync multimedia connectivity
  • IIHS Top Safety Pick+
  • Satellite radio

2013 Ford Fusion Payment Facts
Price as tested: $25,585
Monthly payment*: $526.27

Find a 2013 Ford Fusion near you

And the winner is ...

No. 1 2013 Honda Accord,
687.1 points

(See the scorecard, the Monroney sticker or research the 2013 Honda Accord)

What they liked: Well, it's a Honda and it's a Shootout. You just knew it was going to do well, didn't you? "Honda's latest gander at a continuously variable automatic scores a hit," Mays said. "The Accord's transmission responds in a jiffy, serving up passing power in concert with your right foot." Wiesenfelder "found it surprisingly athletic and light on its feet, closer to the Fusion than the others dynamically, but with quick, better-weighted steering," a perspective shared by other reviewers, as well. There were several call-outs for Honda reliability and comfort. "One of only two cars in the test with a backup camera," Varela noted, "the Accord wins double extra brownie points for squeezing this feature in at this price point." Visibility was also a plus. "I can tell the belt line is lower," Raquel pointed out. "And at least this one has a manageable set of buttons up front."

What they didn't: While handling, comfort and visibility drew raves, other aspects were less effective. "The Accord is on the noisier side, especially when accelerating," Wiesenfelder said, and Robinson called out that "the ride is definitely rougher than I expected." "The interior isn't as nice as the Fusion," Patrick said. "Skews slightly bland," Healey said, "but that's not a big surprise from Honda." "The cupholders imprison small drinks," Mays charged, "and the center console and glove compartment seem stingy."

The verdict: "Like the Camry, the Accord does most things reasonably well, and its nimble handling and eager drivetrain add a little excitement the Toyota lacks," Wiesenfelder said.
 
Key Features

  • All-new for 2013
  • EPA-estimated 26/35 mpg city/highway, 31.87 mpg observed
  • No rear air vents
  • Backup camera (one of two cars with feature)
  • SMS text message reading and responding (only car with feature)
  • Selectable Eco mode
  • Pandora Internet Radio application in multimedia system (only car with feature)
  • No split-folding backseat (only vehicle without a 60/40-split folding rear seat)
  • No roadside assistance offered with standard warranty
  • IIHS Top Safety Pick+
  • LED accents in headlamps

2013 Honda Accord Payment Facts
Price as tested: $24,980
Monthly payment*: $513.82
Find a 2013 Honda Accord near you

*Monthly payment assumes good credit, no money down, 60-month loan, 5% interest and 9% sales tax.

© Cars.com 12/27/2012