DRIVE TIME


Best Midsize Sedans

Mark Solheim

Take a peek at the winners for 2009.



In the super-competitive midsize-sedan category, the Mazda6 has been an also-ran. Slightly smaller, less powerful and burdened with more quality problems than its competitors, its sales relegated it to the back of the pack since its introduction six years ago. But Mazda has high hopes for 2009's redesigned 6. Larger and more powerful, the new model answers the big customer complaints: tepid air-conditioning, squeaky brakes, a too-wide turning radius and too much wind noise.

SEE THE SLIDESHOW: Best Midsize Sedans

We compared the new Mazda6 with five other mainstream midsize sedans: the Chevrolet Malibu, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, Nissan Altima and Toyota Camry, ranking them all for value and safety as well as performance. For each car, we chose the top-of-the-line four-cylinder model with automatic transmission.

The best. A year ago, the Mazda6 ranked last among the half-dozen midsize sedans in its category. After a remake, it leaps to second place, behind the Hyundai Sonata Limited. The Sonata gets better fuel economy -- 22 miles per gallon in the city and 32 on the highway, compared with the Mazda6's more typical 21 mpg city, 30 highway. So if gas is, say, $3 a gallon and you drive 15,000 miles a year, you'll pay $75 more to fuel the 6. Also, the Sonata has about an inch more front legroom and headroom. Its basic warranty is five years, compared with three years for the Mazda. And the Sonata Limited costs $24,645, versus $25,580 for the Mazda6 Grand Touring.

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But the 6 has attributes the Sonata lacks. The Sonata is like a reliable kitchen blender -- merely functional. But the Mazda is serious about zoom-zoom: It's fun to drive, with responsive handling from a stiffer suspension and a transmission that's tuned to be sporty. And the 6 has features you won't find on the Sonata, including rain-sensing windshield wipers and standard Bluetooth for hands-free phone calls.

The Mazda6 also has a new blind-spot monitoring system that alerts you with a beep when another vehicle is next to you. And, according to Kelley Blue Book, the Mazda6 is expected to be worth 50% of today's value after three years. The Sonata's resale value -- 39% after three years -- is the lowest of the group.

And the rest. The Chevrolet Malibu LTZ captures third place in our rankings, boosted by a full complement of safety features, strong resale numbers and, with a six-speed automatic transmission, the best fuel economy of the group (22 mpg city, 33 highway). Its $26,670 price tag, however, is on the high side.

The Honda Accord EX-L ($26,925), in fourth place, is also pricey. Its 190-horsepower, 2.4-liter engine is the most powerful of the bunch, and its resale numbers are strong: 58% after three years. But despite being longer and wider than the others, it ranks near the bottom for rear legroom and front headroom. And it has the smallest trunk.

Next comes the Nissan Altima 2.5 S ($25,845 with the SL package). The Altima is appealing, with the best combination of horsepower- and torque-to-weight numbers, strong resale value, and excellent fuel economy (23 mpg city, 31 highway). But it loses points because electronic stability control isn't available, even as an option -- for that, you need to upgrade to the 3.5 V6 Altima.

Despite its bragging rights as the best-selling vehicle in the U.S., the Toyota Camry XLE ($26,295) brings up the rear. Its resale value is strong (57% after three years), but it has the least amount of power of the six sedans and is near the bottom for trunk space and headroom. Plus, stability control is a $650 option.

In mid November, manufacturers were offering incentives on most of these models. Among the most generous: Toyota's 0% financing on a 36-month loan for the Camry and Honda's 1.9% rate on the Accord. Of course, to snag those rates, your credit needs to be squeaky-clean.




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