The midsize sedan is by far the most popular car segment in the U.S., with more than 2 million sold so far this year. So it’s no surprise that some of the best-selling vehicles in the country are midsize family sedans, such as the Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima and Ford Fusion. It’s also one of the most competitive markets, with over 20 moderately priced models on sale today.
Over the past few months, the market has heated up even more. Toyota is launching the all-new 2012 Camry this month, and it will boast more features, improved gas mileage and more-affordable pricing for midlevel trims. The redesigned 2012 Volkswagen Passat is now a legitimate player in the moderately priced family sedan category, moving away from the premium category. Its starting price of $19,995 offers novel features, such as dual-zone automatic climate control, standard.
So which sedan is the best-equipped — and also the most affordable — car for the money? For this latest affordability study, we decided to pit the redesigned 2012 Camry and 2012 Passat against the 2012 Hyundai Sonata and the 2012 Fusion. All four have attractive pricing with lots of features.
To put the cars on an even ground, each one needed the following features that car buyers often seek:
We also added two years’ worth of gas, to better differentiate cars with good or bad gas mileage. We calculated gasoline at $3.67 a gallon for 30,000 miles, a price near what the U.S. Energy Information Administration is projecting until the end of 2012.
2012 Toyota Camry
A longtime favorite among car buyers, the redesigned 2012 Toyota Camry comes just in the nick of time before redesigns of the Chevrolet Malibu and upcoming Nissan Altima hope to diminish the model’s dwindling sales lead even more.
The new pricing model, free maintenance and best-in-class fuel economy make the redesigned Camry one of the best bargains in the family sedan category.
All Camrys now have a standard six-speed automatic transmission, Bluetooth and USB port for the stereo. That takes care of the lion’s share of our requirements at $21,995. To get remote keyless entry, steering-wheel-mounted controls and automatic headlights, you need to upgrade to the LE trim, which Toyota says will make up most of the Camry’s sales. The $22,500 LE trim also gets you a 6.1-inch touch-screen display and Bluetooth audio streaming, which are rare finds at this price. The LE trim is $200 less expensive than the 2011 Camry, but it loses its standard driver-side power seat. In order to get a security system you have to opt for a V.I.P. Plus Security System accessory.
The Camry’s class-leading fuel economy — 25/35 mpg city/highway and 28 mpg combined — means that gas will cost you only $3,838 over two years of driving. That’s the least of any family sedan evaluated here.
Add it all up, and the 2012 Camry will cost you $27,397, including destination and two years’ worth of gasoline. Once you subtract the two years of free maintenance and add the dealer-installed security system at $299, the 2012 Camry will be one of the most affordable family sedans when it goes on sale in the coming weeks.
2012 Volkswagen Passat
Volkswagen took a bold step by redesigning the Passat not only to be larger than the car it replaces but significantly less expensive, too. VW did the same with the Jetta compact to positive sales results but lukewarm feelings from auto journalists.
The 2012 Passat is now made in America specifically for American customers. That means it is a lot roomier, yet it maintains most of its sporty-minded handling characteristics of past sedans from the German automaker. Despite the sub-$20,000 introductory price, the Passat still looks premium, inside and out.
Unlike the redesigned Jetta — which has a low starting price that rapidly increases as you add features — the new Passat keeps pricing competitive throughout its trims.
Every Passat comes with dual-zone automatic climate control, Bluetooth, steering-wheel-mounted audio controls, auxiliary port, alarm system, automatic headlights and three years of free maintenance, all standard. To get a six-speed automatic transmission, you need to upgrade to the 2.5L S with the Appearance Package, which starts at $22,690. That package also gets you 16-inch alloy wheels, a rear center armrest and driver- and passenger-side vanity mirrors with illumination.
Fuel economy isn’t the Passat’s strong suit, though. The punchy five-cylinder gets 22/31 mpg city/highway, the poorest ratings in this comparison. The Passat is the fastest car of the bunch, though, going from zero to 60 mph in 7.9 seconds. Overall, the average fuel economy figures will cost you $4,350 over two years — or about $450 more than the Hyundai Sonata or Toyota Camry would.
Despite the fuel economy penalty, the feature-rich Passat comes in at $27,810. That’s $4,827 less than what it cost to own and operate the previous-generation Passat. That places the 2012 Passat among the top five most affordable family sedans in the country.
2012 Hyundai Sonata
Now in its second model year, the 2012 Hyundai Sonata is feature-rich, affordable and one of the most fuel-efficient entries available.
The 2012 Sonata starts at $19,695, and that gets you Bluetooth, cruise control, steering-wheel controls, USB with iPod connectivity and a security system standard. A six-speed automatic transmission adds $1,000. To get automatic headlights, you must add the $750 Popular Equipment Package. That also gets you an eight-way power driver’s seat with lumbar support, a rarity in this price range.
For 2012, the Sonata gets Hyundai’s Blue Link telematics system standard, too. The Sonata has the second-best fuel economy, trailing only the Camry, at 24/35/28 mpg. Once you add $3,938 for two years of gas and $760 for destination, the Sonata costs $26,143.
That makes the Sonata the most affordable family sedan available today. It costs around $1,000 less than the next most affordable sedan, the Chrysler 200.
2012 Ford Fusion
Despite an attractive starting price, the 2012 Ford Fusion’s obstructive feature packaging and mediocre gas mileage make it the most expensive sedan tested.
All Fusions come standard with an anti-theft system, remote keyless entry, alloy wheels and safety features like MyKey, for $19,850. To get automatic headlamps, steering-wheel controls and cruise control, you need to upgrade to the SE trim, which starts at $22,830 and also comes with a standard automatic transmission. The upgrade also gets you satellite radio, 17-inch wheels and an eight-way power driver’s seat.
You have to get the Ford Sync option for $395 to get Bluetooth; you also get a USB port and voice-activated connectivity. Altogether, the tested price for the Fusion comes in at $23,140, which is the most expensive of any model we ranked while being no better equipped.
SE trim models are rated at 23/33 mpg, which amounts to $4,134 in gas over two years. That’s the second-highest fuel cost of the bunch. Add in destination, and the 2012 Fusion costs $28,069.
Despite the comparatively high price, the Fusion still outperforms many competitors, like the Chevrolet Malibu, Kia Optima and Honda Accord in terms of pricing and might have incentives attached to it.
All four vehicles scored well in their respective Cars.com reviews, yet the critical acclaim doesn’t come at the expense of the everyday car shopper.
All four cars have below-average ownership and operating costs in the category, and two of the models — Camry and Sonata — have class-leading fuel economy figures.
The fact that the Camry did so well in this affordability study isn’t a fluke. Toyota has clearly done its homework when it comes to marketing the Camry, keeping the family sedan competitive against the fast-selling Sonata and Fusion. Volkswagen has certainly learned a thing or two with mainstreaming the Passat.
With all four models so competitively priced, only time will tell if the novel features – like the Camry’s touch-screen or the Passat’s dual-zone automatic climate controls, or the Camry’s and Sonata’s stellar fuel economy ratings — will become deciding factors.
~Total includes destination fees not shown
*Based on 45% highway, 55% city driving, 30,000 miles and a fuel price of $3.67 per gallon of gasoline
^Tested price includes required features outlined above