Midsize sedans are the automotive equivalent of the refrigerator: They are appliances, and you need yours to work well, and work reliably. If you want one in avocado green, you can get that, but being successful at its mission is the top priority. This is the best-selling car segment in the U.S., and the competitors are better than ever. Our judges, and our family, valued features and drivability over flash and sizzle.
We arrived at this group of midsize sedans by taking the top three cars from our 2014 Midsize Sedan Challenge; we then added models with significant redesigns or refreshes along with the segment sales leader. To be included, cars had to have automatic transmissions, get an EPA-estimated rating of 28 mpg combined and cost $28,000 or less.
2016 Hyundai Sonata (our 2014 champion)
2016 Subaru Legacy (2014 runner-up)
2016 Volkswagen Passat (2014 third-place finisher)
2016 Chevrolet Malibu (redesigned)
2016 Honda Accord (refreshed)
2016 Kia Optima (redesigned)
2016 Mazda6 (refreshed)
2016 Nissan Altima (refreshed)
2016 Toyota Camry (segment sales leader)
We put those cars through a week's worth of testing:
- We drove them on a 220-mile real-world mileage course in and around Atlanta.
- We had our judges drive them back-to-back-to-back on the same pavement to evaluate ride, handling, comfort, acceleration and more.
- We brought in an in-market couple to test the cars for ride, handling, acceleration and more.
From all of the points we awarded in those tests, we found our winner. Our judges were:
- Aaron Bragman, Cars.com Detroit bureau chief
- Jennifer Geiger, Cars.com assistant managing editor, news
- Fred Meier, Cars.com Washington, D.C., bureau chief
- Brian Robinson, PBS' "MotorWeek" producer
- Katie and Ryan Small, our in-market shoppers. Katie is an opera singer, and Ryan is an auditor. They live near Atlanta, and both drive Honda Pilots, one a 2003 and one a 2006, so they're looking to update their fleet and find a car that gets better mileage.
The scoring broke down this way:
- 72 percent from the judges' scoring
- 18 percent from our shoppers
- 10 percent from the mileage drive
What You Get for $28,000
What the Judges Said
92016 Nissan Altima, 541 points
The Verdict: "If this was the $28,000 rental-car challenge, the Altima would've nailed it with its uninspiring road manners, cheap cabin and nonexistent multimedia system," Geiger said.
What They Liked
Room to spare: "Interior space is midpack, with sufficient room up front thanks to a lack of a sunroof and acceptable head and legroom in back," Bragman said. "The trunk is generous, as is the cabin's small-item storage cubbies, especially the useful two-tier center console," Geiger said. "The cabin has a spacious and airy feel," Meier added.
Calm inside: "The lack of any type of sporty character results in a ride that is actually pretty smooth," Robinson said. "I do like the seats," Katie said. "It's definitely more comfortable than the Korean cars, which were so hard inside." "The seats are comfy, front and back, and there's ample room in both rows," Geiger said.
And...: "Visibility straight back and to the rear corners is nice and clear," Geiger said.
Get up and go? "Unlike some of my colleagues," Bragman said, "I found the Altima to be surprisingly sprightly, with decent acceleration and at highway speeds."
What They Didn't
No get up and go: Bragman was right. His colleagues went another way. Robinson hated the "very nonrewarding driving experience," while Geiger found that "power from a stop was anemic, and it strained painfully - and loudly - up hills."
The continuously variable transmission: "It's unpleasantly noisy, and it's mushy unless you take over with the shift paddles. Nissan should hire away the Honda Accord CVT engineers," Meier said. "It packs the most drone-per-minute of any CVT here," Robinson added.
Poor execution: "The minimalist audio system and tiny, low-resolution screen added to a rental-car feel already imparted by the plastic trim and thin, cloth upholstery," Meier said, and he wasn't alone. Geiger agreed: "The tiny, dated multimedia system is woefully inadequate." "The interior materials are still lacking compared to everything else here," Robinson added.
Value proposition? "The Altima wasn't the cheapest in the bunch," Meier said, "but it was notably lacking in surprise-and-delight features."
82016 Mazda6, 594 points
The Verdict: "Two years ago, this was the athlete of the group," Bragman said,"but its chassis dynamics and handling prowess have now been matched by the Malibu and Sonata. Add in a multimedia system that feels completely out of date and an engine that sounds coarse and unrefined, and the Mazda's athletic prowess is no longer enough to earn it good marks."
What They Liked
"The whee factor is high": That was Geiger, and she continued: "It's a joy to drive, with firm, precise steering and a nimbleness around corners that's unmatched by other midsize sedans." "It delivers the most satisfying power in this group," Meier said, "and an aggressive Sport mode increases the fun quotient for vigorous driving." "Still the best-handling car of the bunch," Robinson said, and added it has "a Sport mode that acts like a Sport mode."
It's still a looker: Robinson applauded its "low-slung, sporty profile," and Geiger added that "its dynamic styling turns heads. Bulging front fenders and a sculpted body combine to create a taut, ready-to-launch look." "It looks great," Meier said, "and not just for a mainstream midsize sedan."
Material whirl: "The interior quality is fantastic, with rich materials and realistic-looking metal trim on the dash and console," Bragman said.
What They Didn't
That multimedia system: "Its touch-screen rides nice and high on the dash for great visibility," Geiger said, "but controlling it can be confusing: The touch-screen doesn't work while the car is moving; instead, an awkwardly placed knob controls the screen." "It's awful," Bragman agreed, "with its remote knob just forward of the cupholders that isn't particularly intuitive." Ryan added, "I don't love the controller being in front of the cupholder. What if you brake hard and your drink spills into it?"
Noise, noise, noise: "They focused on the handling and acceleration," Ryan said. "Ride and noise weren't priorities." "Noise is majorly intrusive," Geiger said, and Bragman found the "SkyActiv engine is surprisingly loud and coarse, with a lot of rough - not sporty - engine noise making it into the cabin."
Pain in the back: "Rear passengers should plan on a short ride," Geiger said. "A small backseat and a large center floor hump make it uncomfortable." "It seems very small in here," Katie said. "I can't even sit in the middle spot without my head hunched over."
Time lag: "The interior layout/design/tech integration is clearly a generation behind the rest," Robinson said.
72016 Toyota Camry, 616 points
The Verdict: "Everyone loves to hate on the Camry, but for a lot of people, their car is just another appliance they use to make their lives easier," Robinson said. "And the Camry is a pretty darn fine appliance: It delivers a consistently comfortable, reliable driving experience every time you turn it on."
What They Liked
Appearance. No, really! "What kind of alternate world am I living in where the Camry is one of the best-looking cars here?" Robinson asked. He also praised its "sporty-looking interior." "The latest-generation styling, bright blue paint and sporty alloy wheels give Camry some welcome pizzazz," Meier added.
The engine: "The Camry's big 2.5-liter engine is surprisingly powerful, providing oomph that rivals the turbocharged engines in this test," Bragman said. "Power is strong and steady from a stop," Geiger said, "and midrange muscle is furnished quickly and smoothly." "It willingly delivers ample power over a broad range," Meier said.
Ride, captain, ride: "It feels light and controlled in spirited driving," Meier said. "It's still one of the most comfortable cars around," Robinson said. "It rides well," Bragman said, "with a suspension that's tuned for comfort."
And...: "Cargo storage is great with a large trunk," Geiger said, adding it has "plenty of usable small cubbies in the cabin." She also liked "the responsive multimedia system's large screen and big buttons. They're a cabin highlight." For Bragman, "the steering is extremely light and borderline numb, with little feedback, but with little effort required."
What They Didn't
Unfit finish: "The interior quality, the fit and finish, is not as nice as most cars here," Robinson said. "The busy interior mixes some good materials with hard plastics," Meier said. "There is a disappointingly cheap feel to some features, such as the glove box." "The steering wheel leather feels like sandpaper," Bragman said, "and some dash panels are warped." "There's nothing sporty about an interior full of cheap, hard plastic," Geiger said.
Feel the beat: "The Camry's lack of road isolation is unfortunate," Geiger said, and Robinson found it "noisier than I remember." "It lags the best in the field," Meier chimed in.
Dated safety tech: "The [Toyota representative] talked a lot about the safety features of the Camry," Katie said, "but it was old-school safety: crash tests and airbags. No mention of the new-style stuff, like automatic lane-keeping, adaptive cruise control or automatic braking." Meier found that "collision-avoidance safety technology is not available on the Camry at this price."
Poor handling: "While acceleration and ride have improved, the brakes have not," Bragman said. "They're still squishy and soft, and lack confident bite." Ryan said he'd "be afraid to take it harder. It doesn't really hug the turns."
And...: "Visibility is not the best," Robinson said. "Light, twitchy steering on the highway requires near-constant correction," Geiger found. "These are the worst seats in the test," Bragman complained. "They're wide, completely flat chairs that offer no bolstering or support whatsoever."
62016 Subaru Legacy, 648 points
The Verdict: "The Legacy is the sensible-shoes choice, with its earnest practicality, standard all-wheel drive and abundant safety features," Meier said.
What They Liked
The all-wheel drive: "Bad weather is snow problem," Geiger punned, "and the all-wheel drive gives the Legacy a leg up against the competition." Several judges agreed.
Handling a plus: "Its steering is very responsive," Robinson said, "giving it a fun nature." "Road noise is nicely muted at highway speed," Bragman said, "and the steering is light and nimble." "It's pleasant on the highway," Geiger said. "Its composure over bumps is good for an overall comfortable ride."
Easy to see: "Like most Subarus, the low belt line and slim pillars provide for a fantastic view out in all directions," Bragman said. Most judges agreed.
Car seat friendly: "The Legacy has ample room for two car seats," Geiger said, "and exposed Latch anchors take the sting out of car-seat installation."
A natural at safety: "The Legacy provides a load of peace-of-mind safety technology for the price, including automatic emergency braking, lane departure assist, blind spot warning and rear cross-traffic alerts," Meier said.
What They Didn't
"Slooooooow": That painful moan was uttered by Robinson, who was joined in spirit by the other judges. "It's harder to get sportier acceleration without dropping it into manual-shift mode," Ryan said. "Zero-to-60-mph acceleration could be measured with an hourglass," Bragman said, "especially when the air conditioning is activated." "The four-cylinder base engine will make you wish you'd ordered the six," Meier chimed in.
The CVT: "It won't let you forget it's equipped with a CVT," Geiger said. "The drone is an annoying, ever-present reminder."
And...: "It has a firmer ride than I would have expected," Robinson said. "Subaru EyeSight may be an impressive feature, but the lane departure warning is annoying as hell," Bragman said, "constantly bleeping when driving on a two-lane, twisty road." "The sloping roofline cuts into the rear passenger headroom," Geiger added.
52016 Honda Accord, 687 points
The Verdict: "The Accord is a solid entry in the class, with plenty of room and safety features," Geiger said, "but it's dullsville to drive, and the drone from the CVT and engine saps any sense of refinement."
What They Liked
Believe it or not, the CVT: "If you must have a CVT, this is a master class in how to do one," Meier said. "Paddle shifters let you take over when you want the feel of gears." "The fact that I'm not complaining about the CVT doesn't necessarily mean that I like it, but I certainly don't dislike it," Robinson said.
Spiffy styling: While exteriors are often ignored in our Challenges because beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the Accord drew raves from the judges. "The Sport trim looks fantastic, with its big wheels and wide tires, poppin' red paint and deep side sills," Bragman said. "It actually rivals the Mazda6 in style." "Our Accord stood out in this crowd, and not just for a Honda," Meier said.
Safety tech: "Collision warning with automatic emergency braking comes at a family car price," Meier said. "Kudos to Honda for offering lots of active safety features at an affordable price," Geiger said.
Its power and handling: "It's no slouch," Geiger said. "Power is ample from a stop and builds steadily for confident passing and merging." "It feels sporty," Ryan said. "It's engaging: the steering, the handling and the engine." Robinson found it "surprisingly agile," while Bragman found it an "easy and unchallenging car to drive."
What They Didn't
Poor value: "There's not a lot of content at this price," Bragman said, "aside from cosmetic flashiness: No Honda LaneWatch, no navigation, not even a decent-looking multimedia screen." Geiger found that "the lack of keyless entry with push-button start strikes me as a cheap move in a $27,000 car."
Awkward multimedia system: Geiger said it was "visually a mess, with a deep-set screen and a dizzying array of buttons and knobs. More important, it was a chore to use." "One of the least user-friendly," Robinson said. And "just one USB port and no Apple CarPlay or Android Auto add to the multimedia letdown," Meier said. "I don't know why automakers still rely on 12-volt cigarette lighter technology," Ryan said, "and there are no plugs in the back."
Touchy tech: "The forward collision warning is on high alert," Robinson said, "which means it's quick to trigger even if you have things under control. It's better to be safe than sorry, I guess, but it can get annoying."
Interior layout: "The interior design lacks imagination with its flat-black palette and chintzy plastic trim," Geiger said. "The backseat is reasonably comfortable, but it lets down the occupants with no USB or climate vents," Meier said. Bragman also noted that, in the backseat, "there's no toe room underneath the front seats, which makes it a little cramped for passengers."
42016 Hyundai Sonata, 694 points
The Verdict: "A solid performer in the ride and space categories, the Hyundai falls down on acceleration, quality feel and pizzazz," Bragman said. "All of the style, artistry and charm of the last-generation Sonata is gone, replaced by a generic blandness."
What They Liked
Quiet ride and good handling: "Sonata was one of the quietest cabins in the group, a big improvement for Hyundai," Meier said. "It handled well," Geiger said, "with a planted feel on the highway and solid composure on corners." Others agreed with her.
Tech wins: "The Sonata has good technology content that rivals the Malibu for multimedia options," Bragman said. "At this price, it still had a 7-inch screen and was one of just two cars with both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration," Meier said.
Easy rider: There's "excellent passenger comfort up front, with big supportive seats," Bragman said, "but the backseat feels a little low." "The new interior is more conservative in design, but the materials look good," Meier said. "You get comfortable, leather-trimmed and heated seats for the lowest price in the group."
And...: "The optional hands-free smart trunk is a grocery-shopper's best friend," Geiger said, "automatically opening the [large] trunk when it senses the key nearby."
What They Didn't
Lack of power: "My god, it's slow," Bragman complained. "Getting out of this and into the turbocharged Kia really lets you see what you're missing when you opt for the Sonata's base engine." "The base engine felt winded in a hurry," Meier said. Other judges agreed.
Plain-Jane looks: "The Sonata's styling lost its edge," Geiger said, in a comment that was echoed by most judges. "The conservative looks blunt the styling edge Sonata used to own among the midsizers," Meier added. "The dash is very one-dimensional," Katie said. "It looks like a control panel for an airplane or a rocket ship. I'm not a fan."
Steering into oblivion: The Sonata suffers from "uninspired handling," Robinson found. "At high speeds, the steering was prone to wandering and became a chore to manage on the highway," Geiger said. "I had higher expectations for the Hyundai," Ryan said, "but maybe they've plateaued."
Safety tech: "The Sonata is lacking in the more important safety features department," Geiger said. "Missing are forward collision, lane departure and blind spot warning systems."
32016 Chevrolet Malibu, 716 points
The Verdict: "The Malibu certainly gets the award for the most improved," Robinson said. "With the '16 redesign, it went from rental-car reject to one of the best in class."
What They Liked
The quiet, refined ride: "The Malibu is easy on the ears, with a very quiet cabin and a refined tone from the little 1.5-liter turbo engine," Meier said. "Chevy spent a lot of time on the ride and handling," Bragman said, "and it shows." Several judges agreed.
The safety tech: "The Malibu is virtually uncrashable," Geiger said. "It's loaded with safety features usually found on much more upscale and expensive cars." "A payback for the highest price in the group is the longest list of collision-avoidance safety technology," Meier said, "including the only pedestrian avoidance system."
Infotainment: Geiger found the multimedia system "delightfully simple." Bragman found that "the tech options are top-notch: four USB outlets, two 12-volt sockets and a 120-volt outlet combine with the best screen here. And Apple CarPlay puts the Chevy's electronics on top," he said. "We don't have Apple phones, but the technology is impressive," Ryan said.
A responsive engine: "It's hard to believe that the Malibu has the smallest engine here," Bragman said. "Thanks to its turbocharger, it's responsive, snappy and never feels underpowered."
What They Didn't
A less-than-responsive engine: So, not everyone agreed with Bragman. "I have no problem with four-cylinder engines, even in this class of car," Robinson said, "but a 1.5-liter? Not. Gonna. Do it! Especially when there's no real fuel-economy benefit." Ryan found the Malibu felt "heavy in acceleration and handling."
Cloth on the dash: "I hope wall-to-wall carpeting is not the next trend in auto interiors," Geiger said, and she wasn't alone. "That big swath of upholstery cloth wrapping the dash contours is a question mark for durability and cleaning," Meier said. "I like the fact that they are trying something different," Robinson said, "but this doesn't really work for me." "I'd be worried about the fabric on the dash," Katie said. "I can't wipe it clean."
Odd design choices: Beyond being described as "polarizing" by several of the judges, "the quirky interior is missing things: height-adjustable seat belts, a trunk release lever, a max air conditioning button," Bragman said. "These are common things made notable by their absence." Robinson bemoaned the "awkward placement of the start button."
Stop. Start. Stop. The biggest praise for the auto stop-start came from Meier: "I barely noticed it - but you should be able to turn it off." Bragman offered a good reason for that: "There's no way to shut off the stop-start and, as a result, it kills the air conditioning while you're sitting at a stoplight. That's very annoying in hot, humid Atlanta."
The sound: "Too much road noise had me pumping the volume on the radio," Geiger said.
22016 Kia Optima, 734 points
The Verdict: "The fact that both the Optima and the Sonata share the same bones underneath is amazing," Bragman said, "since they feel nothing alike. The Kia's turbocharged engine makes it less stressful to drive, with plenty of power available, and a suspension that feels much softer and more compliant."
What They Liked
Boy, does it go: "Midsize cars can be fun to drive," Geiger said, "and the Optima nails the sporty vibe with its peppy turbo engine and agile handling." "The Kia's 1.6-liter turbo led the field in mpg," Meier pointed out, "and was still among the leaders in satisfying power." "Although barely bigger than the Malibu's 1.5-liter, the Optima's 1.6 feels way more capable, and it's in much better harmony with its transmission," Robinson said. "It's pretty mean," Ryan said. "It's balanced through the turns."
Value: "The Kia offers some unexpected treats for the price, such as the driver's seat memory, dual-zone climate control, multiple USB ports and an 8-inch dash screen with navigation," Meier said.
Making connections: "Using the straightforward touch-screen multimedia system was a snap," Geiger said, "and connecting my phone to the Android Auto system was seamless."
Soft ride: "The small wheels and tall tires contribute to an extremely plush ride," Bragman said. "It's like a limousine compared to some competitors."
A dash of design: "The slight angling of the dash screen and center controls toward the driver makes them easy to see and reach," Meier said. Other judges agreed. "This feels very similar to the Hyundai, but I like the shape of the dash a lot more," Katie said. "It looks much less 'spaceshippy.' " She also appreciated "all the cubbies and storage in here, and the backseat armrest and bottleholders in the doors both feel bigger."
What They Didn't
Not enough dashes of design: Geiger had issues with the interior. "The Optima's bold face and crisp angles stand out in a sea of plain-Jane sedans, but the cabin's design and materials are straight-up boring," she said. "Those small wheels provide a great ride," Bragman said, "but combined with the drab gray paint of the car, they make the Optima look like a rental car."
Unsettled in driving: "I would have given it a better handling score, but the steering feel is lacking," Robinson said. For Meier, "the steering felt twitchy, requiring a lot of little corrections." "At low speeds, the transmission's behavior needs work," Geiger said. "Shifts can be rough and oddly timed."
Bring on the noise: "The engine's note blasts past sporty sounding and is just plain loud," Geiger said, and Meier added that "the cabin noise level needs work to challenge the best in this group."
Tech fails: "Having Android Auto but no Apple CarPlay is disappointing, especially since you can get both in the Sonata," Bragman said.
12016 Volkswagen Passat, 759 points
The Verdict: "I think this is my favorite car!" Katie exclaimed. "Oh my god, are we going to get a Volkswagen?!"
What They Liked
Fahrvergnügen: That means "driving fun" in German, and that's what our judges responded to most when they picked this as their favorite midsize sedan. The Smalls both joined them in that love, easily making this their choice. "This one's fun," Ryan said. "The power is more accessible because you don't have to drop it into Sport mode or Manual to use it." "The 1.8-liter engine is smooth, and never really feels like a turbo, until you want it to," Robinson said. "Outstanding driving performance," Bragman raved. "Quick acceleration, solid steering, strong brakes and an utter lack of road or engine noise around town."
Road-trip ready: "The Passat's cushy seats, and pleasant ride and handling balance, make it long-trip comfortable," Geiger said. "The handling is capable and European-firm," Meier said, "with a ride that is smooth, but not soft."
Backseat nirvana: "Even though you know it's very roomy inside, the amount of rear-seat space will still surprise you," Robinson said. "This is the best backseat in the test," Bragman agreed. "It almost feels like a full-size sedan." "The material quality doesn't drop for the second row, unlike several in this group," Meier said.
Tech heaven: "The integrated Apple CarPlay and Android Auto add features and help future-proof the multimedia technology," Meier said. "Many automakers keep saying that their cars will eventually be equipped with both CarPlay and Android Auto, but few have delivered," Geiger said. "The Passat works well with both integration systems."
Refreshing cabin design: "After sitting in one boring, black plastic box after another, the Passat's two-tone gray-and-black cabin design with faux wood trim was a refreshing and handsome change," Geiger said. "The interior quality is top-notch," Bragman added, and Meier praised the "leatherette upholstery's quality feel. It's likely more practical for a family for the second row than either the real thing or the cloth we found in most of these sedans."
Safety tech value: "The collision-avoidance system with emergency braking is standard on the Passat," Meier pointed out, "not an option or bundled into an expensive package."
What They Didn't
Shifting troubles: "The lag on the dual-clutch automatic transmission engagement is noticeable, especially when shifting between Park, Reverse and Drive," Bragman said. Geiger found that "the transmission is unpredictable, with occasional erratic, rough shifts at low speeds."
That multimedia screen: "Unlike SpongeBob, I do not live in a pineapple under the sea," Geiger admitted. "The multimedia screen is set awkwardly low, and the backup camera's view is cut off at the sides, giving the image a fishbowl-like quality." Meier noted that could mean "extra time with your eyes off the road." Bragman found it "frustrating when using it on the go," and Robinson said it "seems outdated compared to the rest here."
Fuddy-duddy styling: "Your parents may approve of the conservative styling, but it won't impress your neighbors," Meier said. Robinson referred to it as "old-man styling."
And...: "The seat upholstery is laughably bad - there's no way anyone would believe this is leather," Bragman said. And Robinson noted that "you can't get a diesel version for the time being."
How the Competitors Fared in Each Category
Editor's note: This story was updated on June 7, 2016, to reflect that the Honda Accord and Nissan Altima are refreshed for the 2016 model year.