If you ever find yourself shoulder to shoulder in a car with a disheveled bum who’s belching the ABCs while clipping their toenails and swilling salsa straight out of the jar, chances are you know the person. It’s possible you’re even married to them. Until we can say the same about a ride in San Francisco’s BART, we will continue to favor the four-wheeled version of mass transit, where at least the freaks are our loved ones.
In mid-size-sedan form, this mass transit is affordable and efficient, with ample personal space for five, and—when you’re the driver—always running on your schedule under your rules. With American automakers turning their attention to higher-margin crossovers, all five competitors in this test come from Asian manufacturers, although we feel compelled to point out that all are built here in the U.S.
We aimed to test well-equipped models with entry powertrains and prices around $30,000. For the Honda Accord, that turns out to be a $31,050 EX-L. The middle-rung model has adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist, and leather-wrapped cabin surfaces, and it draws power from a turbocharged 1.5-liter inline-four. Honda offers the only manual transmission in the segment, which we’d love to own, but instead we opted to test the continuously variable automatic for the sake of parity.
The new 2020 Hyundai Sonata pairs a boosted 1.6-liter inline-four with an eight-speed automatic and what we mostly agree is sharp styling—up until someone mentions the polarizing chrome ribbon running from each headlight to the window trim. The roughly $33,000 Limited model shown here is easily the content king of the test, with a feature list that could fill a CVS receipt.
In SR guise, the new-for-2019 Nissan Altima is on the lower end of the trim-level spectrum. A CVT and a 2.5-liter four are familiar from the previous generation, but they can now be partnered with an all-wheel-drive system that serves as a sort of vaccine against buying a crossover. Our test model skips many of the luxuries of the Hyundai and the Subaru and starts at $27,945. A handful of gratuitous accessories, such as splash guards and underbody lighting, lift the total price to $30,720.
An all-wheel-drive Altima is a direct and almost personal attack on the new 2020 Subaru Legacy. For decades, Subaru has owned the all-wheel-drive mid-size-sedan segment—indeed, it has mostly been the segment in its entirety. Powered by a 182-hp 2.5-liter flat-four, a mid-level Sport trim with optional blind-spot monitoring, sunroof, and navigation comes out to $30,090. A CVT is standard here, too.
Finally, we have the oddball of the group, a stripper of a Toyota Camry. At $26,183 with floor mats and door-edge protectors as its only options, this LE is about as basic as you can get. We asked Toyota if it wanted to field something just a touch flashier, and the company’s reps were adamant that this value play was an intentional decision. The Camry is powered by a 2.5-liter inline-four driving the front wheels through an eight-speed automatic.
We’re missing one car. When we last ran a family-sedan comparison, in 2016, the Mazda 6 claimed a win over the Chevrolet Malibu and last-generation versions of the Accord and Camry. Mazda could provide only a pricey 6 with its uplevel 250-hp turbo 2.5-liter for this test, so we left it out. As a consolation, know that the Accord has earned a spot on our 10Best list for 22 years running. The Mazda’s last win was in 2015.
Enough with the introductions. Please set down the nail clippers and salsa and let’s take a ride through the current mid-size-sedan pecking order.
5th Place: 2020 Subaru Legacy
Highs: Clear sightlines in every direction, better than riding the bus.
Lows: Slow, noisy, and thirsty; like a bounce house without the fun.
Verdict: Its driving dynamics leave us wanting more sportiness.
Subaru sells a Legacy “Sport” in the same sense that Arby’s sells “food.” On the Legacy, Sport means nothing more than a decade-out-of-date cliché—black wheels and trim, a spoiler, some red stitching. “There’s nothing here that’s perceptibly sporty,” observed testing director Dave VanderWerp. Quite the opposite, actually.
It’s like driving a trampoline. With springs and dampers this soft, the Legacy sops up even the biggest potholes before they can jolt the driver. It’s not a particularly comfortable kind of soft, though. As the Subaru’s body flops, bounces, and porpoises awkwardly over rough roads, the driver’s head sways, bobs, and nods constantly. This is apparently what makes a Subaru a Subaru, because the Legacy drives with the same squishy apathy as the Ascent, the Forester, and the Outback.
The boxer-four reluctantly does its work with a bellyache moan, and wind noise seeps into the cabin around 50 mph, earlier than in the competitors. The CVT is sometimes indecisive at part throttle; revs build, momentarily pause, resume climbing, pause again, then climb some more. Push the accelerator to the floor and the flat-four bellows as the Legacy plods to 60 mph in a slowest-in-test 8.0 seconds. The Subaru doesn’t need all-wheel drive to harness its 182 horsepower, which means that extra driveline hardware is dead weight unless you’re stuck in a snowbank. At 3540 pounds, the Legacy weighs 111 pounds more than the all-wheel-drive Altima, and it suffers a 3-mpg hit in observed fuel economy relative to the most efficient cars in this test.
The Subaru does offer excellent outward visibility from the driver’s seat. It’s also a solid value, with a list of driver-assistance and convenience features to rival the Hyundai. But those small victories can’t outweigh its dynamic shortcomings. Among the many better sedans, the Altima has erased the Legacy’s all-wheel-drive advantage. That leaves the 11.6-inch touchscreen as the Subaru’s single distinguishing trait, and even that is flawed. The graphics belong on a children’s tablet, and the response time can be sluggish. The vertical orientation also means that the Android Auto and Apple CarPlay interfaces use only about one-third of the available real estate, appearing smaller than they do in the Honda and the Hyundai.
Losing is never easy, Sport, but I know something that will ease the pain. Let me buy you a Beef ‘n Cheddar.
4th Place: 2020 Nissan Altima
Highs: Holds its own in corners, CVT does a decent job mimicking a conventional automatic.
Lows: Flinty ride, abysmal rearward visibility, light on convenience features.
Verdict: An injection of character into the Altima gives us hope for Nissan.
Yes, we’re guilty of grading on a curve here, but second to last strikes us as a big win for the Altima. Notice that it nearly snuck into third, ahead of the sales-giant Camry. After years of pulse-lowering performance, the Altima is finally showing signs of life.
There are shades of sports sedan lurking in the Nissan’s chassis tuning. The all-season Hankooks hang on to the road with a tenacious 0.91 g of lateral grip. With its quick and light steering, the Altima turns eagerly into bends. And the firm brake pedal is easily modulated.
The harder you push it, though, the more disjointed the Altima feels. It is faster than it is fluid. Some drivers found the steering too quick and darty. We all agreed the ride is brittle and needs more damping compliance.
Nissan’s stubborn devotion to the CVT finally pays off with some agreeable manners. At part throttle, the transmission executes almost convincing, simulated upshifts. They allow the revs to rise and fall as the car accelerates so that the 2.5-liter inline-four never lingers on a discordant note for too long. You have to dig in your spurs if you want the Altima to gallop. Unlike the lively chassis, the powertrain prefers to loaf. It’s good at that, at least. Despite lugging and churning that all-wheel-drive hardware, the Nissan tied the Toyota and the Hyundai at 31 mpg. Still, the all-wheel-drive system is probably more trouble than it’s worth. Opting for it hikes up the rear of the car, which, combined with the high parcel shelf and the large center brake light, gives the driver a perfect view of the sky behind them.
With wind, engine, and road noise equally in check, the Altima is tranquil at highway speeds. Cushy front seats swallow you like the 40-year-old sofa in Mom’s basement, although they don’t offer much in the way of long-haul support. Everything you grab, push, pull, turn, and touch inside the cabin looks and feels right. It’s the hard plastic expanses in between that make the Altima appear cheaper than it is. The Nissan is also missing a number of features expected at this price, such as heated seats. If a $26,183 Camry comes with adaptive cruise control, so should a $30,720 Altima. A little more stuff would go a long way here.
3rd Place: 2020 Toyota Camry
Highs: Assertive powertrain, competent cornering, as comfortable as ever.
Lows: Gritty engine vibrations, cringe-inducing styling, makes a Michigan winter look cheery.
Verdict: It drives better than you think, even if it is still a Camry in earnest.
The Camry’s beige phase is finally over. Newly edgy Toyota is now experimenting with 50 shades of Camry gray. We counted seven different grayscale finishes on the driver’s door panel alone. The seats are upholstered with cinder bolsters, smoky inserts, and dark-steel stitching. Painted in complementary any-car silver, this particular Camry won’t help Toyota shake the car-as-an-appliance stigma.
That’s a shame, because if you get intimate with a Camry on a winding road, you’ll discover it’s a freak. In a good way. The most powerful engine in the test revs with more verve and stretches higher on the tach, topping out at 6800 rpm. Compared with the labored exertion of the naturally aspirated Nissan and Subaru engines, the Toyota four-cylinder pulls assertively in around-town passing maneuvers. Graceful shifts from the eight-speed automatic make even the best CVTs feel gelatinous. And no matter how close you come to its limits, the Camry never loses composure. The heft of the steering doesn’t waver, and the dampers always keep body motions in check.
This is not the car’s public persona, though. Drive it like an accountant would and the Toyota disappears around you thanks to pillowy damping, arrow-straight highway tracking, and comfortable seats. The Camry is the same reliably predictable transportation that it’s always been to indifferent drivers. That’s a good thing, because the Camry is a shining example that an enthusiast’s desires and a commuter’s needs aren’t diametrically opposed. A car that handles well will always feel controlled, and a car that rides well will corner confidently over broken pavement.
The Camry’s unexpected competence isn’t enough to spark any passion, though. We respect it, but we don’t aspire to own one. And despite the stylists’ best efforts to scare onlookers into noticing it, the Camry’s design is no more suggestive than a Land’s End shirt. Mostly, we just want to look away.
The interior, awash in simple plastics, is even more disappointing. The urethane steering wheel is as inviting as the Bowflex in your spare bedroom. The screens in the center stack and instrument cluster are small, low-resolution things. And the engine emits a diesel-like grittiness at low rpm that becomes a thrashy buzz when pushed harder. For us, living with these flaws isn’t worth the discount the Camry offers over the competitors that finished ahead of it.
2nd Place: 2020 Hyundai Sonata
Highs: Assertive, torquey engine; loaded with tech; big parking-lot presence.
Lows: Awkwardly high seating, confused suspension tuning, a tornado of wind noise.
Verdict: Despite constant improvement, Hyundai still does value better than dynamics.
Looking almost Audi-esque in profile and stuffed with more tech and luxury than any of the other sedans, the Sonata gives off the impression that it’s been entered into the wrong test. It hasn’t. This is just typical Hyundai delivering more car than you pay for.
It’s fitting that the turbocharged cars placed first and second in this comparison test. By pumping more air into an otherwise meek four-cylinder, a turbo breathes enthusiasm into the car. Thanks to its heap of low-end torque, you’d never guess that the Sonata’s 180-hp 1.6-liter engine is the least powerful of the five here. And while the Camry hits 60 mph in the same 7.3 seconds, the Sonata feels more refined and less strained in accomplishing the feat. Around town, the Hyundai’s eight-speed automatic shuffles gears quickly and efficiently, with none of the sluggishness inherent in a CVT.
The suspension dithers between too soft and too stiff, depending on what you’re doing at the moment. Take a corner at speed and the Sonata rolls only slightly less than the Subaru. Drive over a patchwork asphalt repair and the Michelin tires thwack the road with short, hard hits.
A small tornado’s worth of wind noise makes its way into the cabin, which is surprising because the Sonata is the only car here with dual-pane glass in the front doors. Both tall and short drivers found the Hyundai’s seating position too high. With no shortage of crossovers available for drivers who need to sit on a perch, why sully sedans with this clumsy flaw? The Sonata’s rear seat is roomy for two people but not three. Strangely, Hyundai scallops the headliner only over the outboard seats.
The Sonata distracts from its rough edges with leather, screens, and dramatic styling to convince you the car costs another $5000. The list of features on our Limited model includes a digital instrument cluster, heated and ventilated front seats, a competent lane-centering system, and the ability to move the car into and out of a tight parking space with the key fob while the driver stands next to the car.
This Sonata drives better and looks more fashionable than any prior generation, but its presiding strength is the same as any Hyundai’s: value. That current strategy has vaulted Hyundai from bottom-rung fodder to front-of the-pack finisher, but it might be time to shift the focus. Comparo winners offer a level of polish that a value play rarely achieves.
1st Place: 2019 Honda Accord
Highs: Finely tuned control calibrations and responses, unnecessarily quick, a rational purchase.
Lows: Sloppy active lane-keeping assist, there are quieter competitors.
Verdict: A wholesome family sedan that knows how to cut loose.
Honda’s 3209-pound sedan drives nothing like a 3200-pound mid-engine Cayman. And yet, the Accord comes off as Porsche-like in its excellence. Similar to the Porsche, the Honda is the product of an all-encompassing vision. The major controls work in symphonic harmony, and the character of the machine is palpable in your every interaction with it.
For a family sedan, the Accord is far more gratifying than it needs to be. It brakes with a progressive pedal, steers with verve, and motors away from a stoplight with authority. Pitch and roll are tightly controlled by a taut suspension, but the dampers deftly round off the sharp hits. “The chassis and steering are absurdly good for a car in this category,” noted staff editor Annie White.
Honda’s CVT is smoother than George Clooney; the faux shifts never feel clumsy. Notch the shifter into Sport mode and the transmission response follows your right foot obediently. The Accord’s 192-hp turbocharged 1.5-liter walked away from the other sedans when it hit 60 mph in a legitimately quick 6.6 seconds. Yet the Honda’s appeal has little to do with the numbers. It netted 30 mpg in our drive, landed mid-pack in the skidpad and slalom, and posted a last-place 176-foot stop from 70 mph without shading our opinion of its aptitude—well, that braking number could be better. All this with the CVT. (Remember, there’s an even more engaging manual-transmission model.)
It’s a sensible thing, too. The Accord offers comfort on par with the Camry and outward visibility to rival the Legacy. There’s plenty of storage for objects small and large, with smartly designed in-cabin cubbies and the largest trunk in the test. And while every sedan here offers generous legroom, the Accord is the complete package, with more elbowroom and overhead clearance than the others can boast.
Our criticisms are few and trivial. The lane-keeping system is lousy, losing the scent in the gentlest highway curves. VanderWerp, reaching as deep as the Atlantic, pointed out that the Toyota’s shift lever is better damped than the Honda’s.
If you want to drive a family sedan to work and back with the full suite of driving assistants active, you might want a softer and quieter car than this. But recalibrating the Accord to accommodate those desires would dilute the Honda’s charm. The Accord is always ready to drop its family obligations and unwind a coiled road as though it’s the only thing that matters. And that matters to us.
From the December 2019 issue.