The mid-size family sedan may not have the market wind of SUVs these days, nor end up, in wallpaper form, as heart-fluttering reminders on many people’s home screens; rather, it’s their overall value that have kept them a mainstay of the automotive marketplace for generations now.
Luxury cars may cost double our $40k budget, but don’t offer anywhere close to double the room, practicality, comfort or cargo space...
Luxury cars may cost double our $40k budget, but don’t offer anywhere close to double the room, practicality, comfort or cargo space of these six impressive family haulers. And with half of them being hybrid models (in one case with a plug), there’s even less chance of that hypothetical $80k luxury sedan coming close to these in terms of fuel efficiency either.
As usual, we tried very much to keep our six comparo competitors as close as possible in price. Given the fully loaded nature of most available press vehicles, we ended up with most of these cars right at or near the top of their price ladders, with the 2017 Honda Accord, Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid, Mazda6 and Hyundai Sonata Hybrid all coming in with as tested prices between $36,530 and $39,394 (after options and fees, but before taxes). The Volkswagen Passat just tipped over that bar at $40,890, with the Fusion Energi coming in priciest at $42,288, but with government incentives that bring it under $40k in BC, Quebec and Ontario.
Sadly, there were a few worthy entrants that didn’t make it to the party. We couldn’t find a similarly priced Subaru Legacy, so we reluctantly decided not to include it this time. Similarly, there was a super-loaded Chrysler 200 available, but given its $5,000 MSRP price difference from most of the competitors here, and the fact that it technically went out of production in 2016, we made the call not to include it here either. Nissan had no Altima available in time. We asked the current Toyota Camry to come out to play as well, but with an all-new 2018 Camry model already unveiled and coming by the fall, they decided to sit this one out.
Plans are already in the works to bring the next Camry and Legacy together with our winner. But in the meantime, after two days of driving and battling through the last vestiges of a stubborn winter, crawling in and out of back seats, examining trunk intrusions and fold-down capabilities, here’s how these super-efficient family rigs stacked up.
Sixth Place: 2017 Honda Accord – Lesley Wimbush
Well you can colour me gob-smacked and flail me with a wet noodle – that’s how surprised I was by the Accord’s final ranking.
Honda’s mid-size sedan has always been a perennial favourite in Canada – nearly 13,000 of us bought them last year. Our winner, the Hyundai Sonata, sold only 10,191 models in the same time span.
But perhaps the Accord’s poor ranking wasn’t a condemnation, but a testament to the excellence of this segment. The mid-size sedan segment – once rather stodgy – now offers some of the most stylish and feature-laden cars you can buy.
Accords of old once resembled boxes, then morphed into rounded and inoffensive – usually silver – cars resembling a great stream of foil-wrapped baked potatoes coursing down our roadways.
The current design is virtually a carryover from 2013, but it shows a great deal of European influence in its sharply executed lines and tidy dimensions. It may not be as pretty as the Mazda6, nor as upscale as the Fusion, but for a mainstream, sensible sedan, the Accord’s a decent-looking car.
The Accord’s interior falls mid-pack, it’s roomy and comfortable with plenty of soft-touch materials. Optional leather seating is comfortable but rather flat and without a lot of bolstering – a reflection no doubt of its demographic’s more generous proportions. Only the Passat had higher scores for seating comfort.
When it comes to cargo space, the Accord’s 447 litres gave it top ranking. With plenty of cubbies and door pockets, the interior’s cargo flexibility wasn’t as good as the Passat, or Mazda6, but scored far higher than the Fusion.
The Accord got top points for visibility, and the brilliant side view camera was probably responsible for some of that. The amount of technology in this group of sedans was impressive. Even with Apple Car Play/Android Auto, Honda Sensing suite of driver’s aids, which includes forward collision warning and mitigation, lane-departure warning and lane-keeping assist and adaptive cruise control – the Accord was outranked, with only the Malibu coming in behind it.
While the Accord is loaded with technology, the infotainment system made most of us unleash torrents that would make George Carlin blush. HondaLink was unanimously lambasted as the most convoluted, needlessly complex user interface in mainstream use today. Don’t get me started on how difficult the navigation system is to use while moving – and the voice recognition is to be avoided at all costs unless you like your destination to be a surprise.
The Accord is available with a beautiful, refined V6 engine whose 278 hp output makes it one of the most powerful on the market. In that trim it is mated to a traditional automatic that is decent, if not spectacular. There is also hybrid powertrain available which we rate highly, but it too wasn't available for this comparo.
Sadly, our unit was actually the four-cylinder with 185 hp at 6,400 rpm and 181 lb-ft at 3,900 - mated to a CVT.
Handling is composed, and the firm suspension controls any undue roll while cornering. But it also earned the Accord a lot of negative feedback for harshness , crashing over pavement and sending noise and vibration throughout the cabin. Steering feel is very good with decent feedback and only the sporty Mazda6 scored higher.
The Accord was priced cheapest in the group after we were given the wrong trim and actually fell outside our price range - a factor not discovered until later. Still our judges ranked it tied for last in value. It also achieved the lowest score for “wow factor” – a completely subjective vote based on our personal opinions.
Overall, I think the Honda Accord is a well-built mainstream sedan that offers plenty of features, a long-held reputation for reliability and resale value, in a fairly attractive package.
Fifth Place: 2017 Ford Fusion Energi – Michael Bettencourt
Ford’s fine-looking Fusion Energi was the only hybrid here that could actually be plugged into any wall socket for some quiet and futuristic no-gas driving. This was its most distinct advantage over the other sedans here, but unfortunately, the logistics of this particular test also highlighted a significant handicap as well: this noiseless mode evaporates very quickly, especially in winter weather. Our commute to our meeting point as well as our lengthy test loop meant there was none of the Fusion Energi’s secret silence sauce left by the time it came to back-to-back driving.
So our results in this test reflect the fact that the Fusion’s raucous (compared to the others) four-cylinder engine was largely working full-time, which is not where the Fusion Energi is at its best, sadly. But it is where the Fusion Energi will spend a significant portion, if not the majority, of its time in the hands of most Canadians in colder weather, because a fully charged battery in the Fusion Energi offers roughly 20 km of range in winter with the heat set to a comfortable temperature.
Even if your total commute is less than 20 kilometres, its engine pull for heat and defrost will mean you will use at least some pricey gasoline in the winter, no matter how religiously you plug in the Fusion. Not pricey gasoline as in premium, but in comparison to powering it by electricity.
Since I had driven the Fusion Energi last year for a full week, I had experienced it at its luxury car-imitating, electron-burning best, and therefore became its unofficial champion amongst the many significant grumbles folks had after driving it. The Level 2 charger in my garage allowed me to easily recharge it nightly to experience about 40 kilometres of creamy, smooth electron surfing in the summer, or roughly double what it offers in the dead of a southern Ontario winter.
Here on this day, however, the most common gripe was this Fusion Energi’s grabby brakes. “The brake pedal was one of the ugliest I’ve ever experienced – it was total light-switch stuff, full on, or full off, and nothing in between,” moaned our own Jacob Black, the most extreme example of what everybody mentioned. Those who drove it longer later reported that it became somewhat manageable once your foot became accustomed to it, but I don’t remember this much grabbiness in my prior time with it, so I’m wondering if there was actually an issue with this particular unit’s binders.
The Fusion Energi’s plug-in capability also brought on the Fusion’s other major issue: cargo capacity. A depressingly large chunk of the Energi’s trunk is taken up by its sizable lithium-ion battery, proving that plug-in capability was not part of the program when the Fusion was originally designed. But unlike some hybrids, the seats do at least fold down, helping somewhat, though the huge battery hump makes that an arguably minimal benefit.
“What’s the point of those fold-down rear seats, unless you’re transporting a surfboard in the mailbox slot that appears?” asked Jil McIntosh. “I suppose it’s better for putting stuff in the back seat, since you’re putting your cargo on the flat seatbacks rather than the seat cushions, but that’s about all.”
Then there’s pricing, which is all over the map – literally. The base Fusion Energi SE starts at a very reasonable $32,088, with the one-up Titanium at $34,288 – prices that have been chopped substantially in the last few years as battery prices have come down. But our fully loaded Platinum came in at $42,288, the highest of our group, and much higher than other Fusion Energi trim levels. That price added cooling to the heated seats and steering wheel, an impressive 12-speaker Sony stereo featuring Sync 3 (also on Titanium), moonroof, auto high-beams and a voice-activated GPS system.
Yet a major pricing bonus with any of Ford’s Energi models is the major government incentives from the three most populous provinces: $2,500 in BC, $4,000 in Quebec and a hefty $7,730 in Ontario. Roll these government discounts into a lease deal, and you could be looking at significantly lower monthly payments, plus the carpool lane advantages that come with the green plates in Ontario and Quebec.
Is the Fusion Energi the best sedan anywhere in the country? No. Is it the best family sedan deal anywhere? Perhaps in Ontario, especially at lower trim levels, and if you have a short commute. But in this group, fifth is where it lands.
Fourth Place: 2017 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid – Peter Bleakney
When Chevrolet reimagined its Malibu sedan from tires to roof for 2016, their darling of the rental fleets became a legitimate contender in the tough mid-size family sedan category. Handsome, roomy and fine driving, the new ’Bu was no longer an also-ran. Now they’ve sent one over the fence with this fuel-sippin’ hybrid. Say hello to our mileage champ.
By the numbers, the Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid is more efficient than the Ford Fusion Hybrid, Kia Optima Hybrid, Hyundai Sonata Hybrid and Toyota Camry Hybrid. Only the Honda Accord Hybrid bests it at the fuel pumps. Of course, it’s all about real world results, and on this test the Malibu clearly delivered.
Its two electric motors and regenerative braking system are pilfered from the Chevy Volt. A 1.8L four-cylinder works with said motors to produce a combined 182 horsepower and a useful 277 lb-ft of torque that gives this green-tinged family cart some effortless shove off the line. There is no EV button to lock it in electric-drive mode – Chevy says the car is already set up for maximum efficiency.
As a driver, the Malibu Hybrid is more appliance than inspired. Our testers gave this hybrid powertrain the lowest score here, but in isolation it works quite well. It switches between power sources largely unnoticed, and while some had issue with the regenerative braking, I found the system to be quite linear. As it is equipped with a CVT (continuously variable transmission), looking for meaningful forward thrust has the gas engine moaning away while the car plays catch-up. Yet over all, the Malibu Hybrid is a quiet, refined sedan with a compliant ride and competent handling.
Compared to the other cars in this test, the Malibu’s interior feels down a notch in quality and execution – there’s too much cheapish plastic, the switchgear feels unsubstantial, the fake chrome accents are old-school GM and some of the seams are a little slipshod. I also found the seats to be a bit saggy, although comfort was not as issue.
No complaints with the MyLink interface and dash ergonomics – everything is clear and logical. Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and SiriusXM are included in the base audio system, along with the Teen Driver feature. Also standard is GM’s OnStar that bestows, among other things, navigation and a 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot. These features are free for six months – after that, pony up.
And then there is the issue of the 1.5 kWh battery pack. Jil noted, “The trunk space isn’t as cramped by the battery as the plug-in Fusion’s is, but there’s still intrusion. It’s made just a little better by the fold-down seats, which let you put in longer, narrow cargo, but Hyundai got around the trunk issue, so it can be done.” It was also the only car here without a pull handle on the trunk lid.
Being the least expensive car here (MSRP $36,530) the Mailbu lacked certain niceties like a sunroof and heated steering wheel, but there’s no arguing with this sedan’s room, functionality and effective hybrid powertrain. As Editor-in-chief Michael Bettencourt put it, “It’s the super-smart kid in school who’s just a little ‘off’ socially – a great engineering effort thwarted by GM’s sharp-penciled accountants.”
Third Place: 2017 Mazda6 – Steven Bochenek
At first, any auto enthusiast would be surprised that the much-lauded Mazda6 only placed third in a comparison with five other competitors.
But there’s more to the story. The race was tight, very tight.
Neither the first nor second-place vehicle scored even two percentage points more than the Mazda6. Meanwhile, the sixth place earned just two percent fewer. The field was so narrow, it was like watching an Olympics sprint without Usain Bolt.
Which is great news for you. These are all great cars. Let’s look at the Mazda6’s winning attributes, so you can keep them in mind and try not to be seduced by them when testing it. Then we’ll run down the (shorter) list of last places to see if you can live with those.
When it comes to design, both inside and out, it wasn’t even close. The Mazda6 is sleeker than an ’80s love scene with Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke. It was the runaway winner in both categories, well ahead of second. And it rated number two for quality (fit/finish).
Looks aren’t everything, but the Mazda6 is also a hard worker, earning the highest rating for both handling and ease of driving; same goes for steering and braking. Again, the scores were practically photo finishes but I believe it deserved those wins. This thing’s as nimble as a cat. The weather on the test day was shockingly cold and snowy. The Mazda6 performed heroically on every inch of a short but comprehensive route that included some quiet neighbourhoods and holey airport byways, then culminated in a stretch of Toronto highway cluttered with – um – Torontonian drivers. Mazda’s rack and pinion steering with speed-sensing electric assistance reports feedback from the road only Fred Flinstone’s feet could outperform. The grip is lovely in tight corners. And the performance in Sport mode will make you think it’s your birthday.
The Mazda6 comes with a decent 2.5L inline four-banger which achieves 184 hp at 5,700 rpm and 185 ft-lb at 3,250. It placed second-last for its engine.
The fuel economy of 8.9 L/100 km in the city and 6.7 on the highway is normally nothing to whine about but several competitors were hybrids, which rendered splendidly. My excessive use of Sport mode probably didn’t help.
The comfort of the ride in the back did rate number one though; a generous wheelbase leaves loads of legroom while abetting the aforementioned handling and grip.
The Mazda6 was also a runaway favourite when it came to overall perceived value. It comes loaded better than the bridal dowry from a family of medieval social-climbing bankers. Standards include a thorough list of interventionist and safety features like blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert, traction and dynamic stability controls; fog lights (use them once and you’ll understand why I consider them a safety feature); adaptive front lighting; a capacious moonroof; 19-inch wheels; Bose audio system with speakers kitted out in 11 spots throughout the car (although the stereo was rated almost poorest among the pack); and rain-sensing wipers. If it just would only fix martinis, you could give up dating.
The final category that the Mazda6 placed first in was WOW factor! (NB: I tried but it’s impossible to type that phrase without caps and an exclamation point.)
It seems like a niggling point but the Mazda6 rated lowest for cabin storage. So you’ll need to plan ahead if you’re storing more than your sunglasses, phone and wallet up front. Plus it scored lowest for ease of parking – though they all came with rearview cameras, which is your best friend in any parking lot or garage. Besides, the entire range of parking scores fit between the Mazda6’s 7.5/10 to the highest, of just 8. (Not much wiggle in that niggle.)
The moral? Be sure you get out and vote at the next election. When the race is close, every last number counts.
Second Place: 2017 Volkswagen Passat – Jacob Black
With the best engine/drivetrain combination here in my mind, the Volkswagen Passat was always going to do well. It’s one of those cars that just churns along and achieves all its stated goals, with little fuss or flash.
Were you a consultant of some type, the Passat is the sort of car that might help your clients know you’re successful, without making them think they pay you too much.
Peter explains: “This car has an elegance both inside and out. Feels decidedly Yuro-peeean. Yeah a bit staid, but very solid.”
“The interior is also classically simple and still will be when these other models look strange and dated. Simple design, simple controls, simply lovely,” says Jil.
Volkswagen’s six-speed DCT is a wonderful accompaniment to the 3.6L V6 and our testers took gleeful advantage of the 280 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque on tap. We were all impressed with the Passat’s on-road manners, sharp handling and excellent visibility. Though Jil took umbrage with the blind-spot detection warning system:
“What rocket scientist thought that putting an orange turn signal indicator and an orange blind spot monitor warning right beside each other on the mirror was a good idea? At a quick glance, it’s hard to tell just what the mirror is trying to say,” she opined.
Regardless, Jil was impressed, especially with that drivetrain. “It’s smooth and effortless, and the gearbox is a perfect fit to it.
“That said, it’s a steep price step and probably more than many people will need.”
The Volkswagen took three of the main criteria categories – more than the two wins for the Sonata and Mazda6 – but scored a big loss on fuel economy. It also dropped points in the individual lines for feature content and value.
The niggles about the Passat were consistent but small. And despite Lesley’s assertion that she wished her backside was as flat as the seats (seconded by Peter), it won the Seating category courtesy of generous space and ease of access.
We were all frustrated by the over-boosted electric steering that felt too light to generate any confidence, especially on our snowy test roads. Doubling our frustration was a lack of heated steering wheel. When I am King of the World, heated steering wheels will be mandatory. I’ll also give cars a mandatory minimum horsepower of 500. #VoteJacob
Whenever we do these tests the top three all have the same thing said about them: “This is an excellent choice if….” and it’s the same here. The Passat does all the traditional “car things” like having a strong engine, low noise/vibration/harshness and solid handling.
Of the selection, the Passat and the Sonata are the best “family cars” here. The remainder are really best suited to small families or couples.
It is the most practical of all the cars in this category by far, with a cavernous trunk and large opening if you use the split-fold rear seats. Cabin storage is great, the gauges are clear and easy to read and the radio one of the best units to use and listen to there is.
If what you like most is performance, driveability and practicality the VW is your pick of this litter.
Many of us rated the Passat our favourite car of the day, but the combination of fuel economy and a lack of some features found in the Sonata gave the Hyundai the narrowest of wins.
Winner: 2017 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid – Jil McIntosh
When Sally Ride, the first female American astronaut, was getting ready to blast off into space in 1983, a reporter asked if it meant women had finally achieved equality. Ride replied that would be when a woman went into space and no one made a fuss about it.
It’s an anecdote that pretty much sums up our sedan comparison. The Sonata Hybrid won, while the Malibu Hybrid and Ford Fusion plug-in placed fourth and fifth. Once viewed as bizarre creations seemingly plucked from UFOs, they now work so seamlessly that all our testers gave its price and features as much weight as its driving performance. In effect, it’s a mainstream model that just happens to get really good fuel economy.
The Sonata Hybrid comes in three trim levels. It starts at $29,649 before freight and taxes, but we had the fully-kitted Ultimate at $37,499. Ontario and British Columbia only give “green” rebates to the Sonata Plug-In Hybrid, but while Quebec knocks $4,000 off the plug-in (which is $43,999), it will cut you a cheque for $500 for the regular Sonata Hybrid as well.
The Sonata Hybrid starts with a 2.0L four-cylinder gas engine that makes 154 horsepower and 140 lb-ft of torque. It’s mated to a 38 kW electric motor that works with it for a net system combination of 193 horsepower at 6,000 rpm.
Many people think of Toyota as the “hybrid company”, as it was the first, but Hyundai and Ford also make some of the better units on the market. In the Sonata’s case, it was “the smoothest and most refined powertrain and package of the bunch,” according to Michael Bettencourt, and I agree with him.
What makes the Sonata an even better driver is that while almost all other hybrids use a continuously-variable transmission (CVT), Hyundai pops in a six-speed automatic, with the electric motor and clutch tucked in where the torque converter would normally sit. The result is that it feels like a conventional car, just one that switches to battery power when possible (and which it can do at up to 120 km/h, depending on driving circumstances). There’s also virtually no fuel penalty, as the Sonata is officially rated at a combined 5.8 L/100 km: not as good as the Malibu Hybrid’s combined 5.1 L/100 km, but better than the 6.1 L/100 km rated for the Fusion Energi when it hasn’t been plugged in and is running as a regular hybrid.
The Sonata’s hybrid battery stores under the trunk, giving it 380 L of space, the most of the three gas-electrics tested. It’s roomy for passengers as well, although its front-seat comfort rated higher than its rear-seat relaxation. Hey, we’re hard-core: we’re all about ourselves, and if you don’t like the back seat, here’s a bus token. (Only kidding, of course, and the Sonata rated equally with the Passat, Accord and Fusion for ease of child seat placement, ahead of the Mazda6 and Malibu.)
The list of features also helped push this to the top of the class – as Jacob Black said, “Heated steering wheel for the win!” It was the third-priciest of the group, behind the Fusion Energi and Passat, but the Ultimate level includes such luxo items as an eight-inch navigation-equipped touchscreen that’s ridiculously easy to use, heated and ventilated cowhide chairs, heated rear seats, auto-levelling xenon headlamps, adaptive cruise control, and auto-dimming mirror.
So what didn’t we like? Basically, the Sonata is so smooth and comfortable that it’s “dull as dishwater”, as Peter Bleakney put it, and Black described its looks as “a brown wool sweater worn by a struggling strip-mall accountant.” (Don’t tell him our car isn’t brown; we’re quietly looking into getting him glasses.)
And really, that’s what most consumers want: good driving characteristics, lots of features for the price, and a long warranty. That’s what the Sonata Hybrid delivers, and that’s why it topped the charts this time around.
||2017 Honda Accord||2017 Ford Fusion Energi||2017 Chevrolet Malibu||2017 Mazda6||2017 Volkswagen Passat||2017 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid|
|Peak Horsepower||185 @ 6,400||188||182||184 @ 5,700||280 @ 6,200||193 @ 6,000|
|Peak Torque||181 @ 3,900||129 @ 4,000||129 @ 4,750||185 @ 3,250||258 @ 2,500||140 @ 5,000|
|Cargo Space||439 L||232 L||328 L||419 L||430 L||380 L|
|Price as Tested||$35,185||$42,288||$36,530||$39,290||$40,890||$39,394|
|Optional Equipment||None||None||$5,930 – Leather and Convenience Package $5,960; Leather and Convenience Package Credit –$525; Blue Velvet Metallic paint $495||$4,600 – Soul Red Metallic $300; Technology Package $2,800; Premium Package $1,500||$1,350 – Driver Assistance Package $1,350||None|