On Autos: Three midsize sedans offer a compelling alternative to go-to choices

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The 2017 Chevrolet Malibu doesn't sell as well as the Honda Accord or Toyota Camry, but it's another worthy midsize choice. (Brady Holt/The Current)

The midsize sedan market segment is dominated by the best-selling Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, two fine vehicles that deliver a satisfactory ownership experience to hundreds of thousands of customers each year. Consumers uninterested in shopping around can comfortably treat one of these models as a default choice.

But buyers whose interests are more specialized — or who simply prefer having a less common vehicle — may want to explore another model. Various midsize sedans beat the Accord and Camry in various ways: They provide a more luxurious experience, sportier driving dynamics or superior infotainment. Or perhaps they simply offer a different style and flavor.

Three such recently tested models are the Chevrolet Malibu, Mazda6 and Volkswagen Passat.

From some angles, the 2017 Mazda6 looks more like a luxury car than an affordable family sedan. (Brady Holt/The Current)

Of the three, the Mazda is the least like the Camry and Accord — and it’s also the least popular. The Mazda6’s graceful yet aggressive styling would be appropriate even on a luxury car, and even the base $22,820 model is dressed up nicely with 17-inch alloy wheels and a modern dashboard layout. The tested fully loaded Grand Touring model, at $34,530, further benefits from rich leather upholstery. By contrast, even with all the goodies, an Accord or Camry looks and feels comparatively plain inside and out.

In the Mazda6, a focus on style doesn’t leave the vehicle without significant family-car substance. There’s still a decently roomy rear seat — a little worse than the one in a Camry or Accord, but competitive by the high standards of midsize sedans. The same is true of outward visibility: While it doesn’t have the Honda’s extra-large windows, the Mazda6 still has a better view out than some other competitors.

The 2017 Mazda6 interior layout adopts the minimalist style of today’s European luxury cars. (Brady Holt/The Current)

Mazda has also worked to separate its cars from the crowd by injecting some extra handling spice. Indeed, the Mazda6 has quicker responses and greater agility than the midsize sedan norm. Unfortunately, you have to be going fast to truly appreciate all the differences; the Mazda6 isn’t a car that will make you grin while running errands around town. But if you regularly tackle winding roads outside the city, this sedan will distinguish itself.

On the other hand, unlike most competitors, Mazda doesn’t offer an optional engine with more than 200 horsepower. Instead, all models make do with the standard 2.5-liter four-cylinder, which has 184 horsepower. While this engine certainly isn’t terrible — especially considering its excellent rating of 30 mpg in mixed driving — it doesn’t match the best competitors for either sportiness or luxury.

While the Mazda6 has always been known as a sporty option in the midsize sedan class, the Malibu has more of a reputation as a rental car. Indeed, since Chevrolet reintroduced the storied nameplate two decades ago, the Malibu has served as a loyal but forgettable companion during numerous business trips and family vacations.

The Chevrolet Malibu was greatly improved in its 2016-model redesign. (Brady Holt/The Current)

The latest iteration, which debuted as a 2016 model, strives to stand out via more graceful styling and a posher interior, with a slick and user-friendly infotainment system. And fuel economy is impressive, with EPA ratings of 30 mpg from the base 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine, 26 mpg from a 250-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder and 46 mpg from a gas-electric Malibu Hybrid.

The tested Malibu had the 250-horsepower engine. Smooth and peppy, it nicely complemented this sedan’s composed suspension. The Malibu doesn’t feel like it was built to excite, but it’s quite a nice car to drive overall. City drivers will appreciate a low steering effort, which gets appropriately heavier in higher-speed conditions.

The previous-generation Malibu was designed to appeal to a global audience — which prefers smaller cars — and consequently ended up with less interior space than American tastes typically dictate. The result didn’t win many fans on any continent.

The 2017 Chevrolet Malibu’s overall pleasant interior ambiance is marred by some cheap trim pieces. (Brady Holt/The Current)

Even with a more attention-getting design, the current Malibu is a significant improvement over the old car’s practicality. As in the Mazda6, maximum rear-seat room is sacrificed to achieve a sleeker profile, but it’s still a suitable option for carrying four or even five adults.

There are some flaws. Though design and quality are improved, the new Malibu still has some areas of unbecoming rough plastics that seem out of place at the as-tested price of $34,435 — or even the base price of $22,555. Buyers can expect to haggle a significant off-the- sticker price, but note that many options cost more on the Chevrolet than on most midsize sedans.

The Malibu is most similar to the Ford Fusion, another stylish, polished and moderately sporty midsize sedan. The Chevrolet has better visibility, more fuel-efficient engines and a more contemporary dashboard design, whereas the Ford is slightly less expensive, has a more consistently high-grade interior and is offered with all-wheel-drive. Both sedans are credible alternatives to the Camry and Accord as all-around capable family cars, even if neither is quite as flat-out functional.

The 2017 Volkswagen Passat exhibits more styling restraint than most midsize sedans. (Brady Holt/The Current)

Another notable option in the class is the Volkswagen Passat, which received a subtle but comprehensive update for the 2016 model year. Amid a class of sedans with low sleek roofs, aggressive grilles and elaborately creased bodies, the Volkswagen stands out for a more restrained design aesthetic. Inside, too, the Passat adopts a simple symmetry that will be familiar to owners of even some 1990s Volkswagens.

Part of that difference is simply due to age: The current generation of Passat dates back to 2012. But the design was considered conservative even at the time, for better or for worse. What some will find dull, others will consider refreshingly classy.

Volkswagen has continued to update the Passat over the years, with important mechanical and technological upgrades. And it boasts particularly generous rear legroom — the result of VW’s decision to sell a bigger Passat in North America than in Europe.

The 2017 Volkswagen Passat interior focuses on clean simplicity rather than dramatic styling. (Brady Holt/The Current)

Still, this sedan could use some further improvements. Its infotainment system lags the industry’s best, and also trails a new version rolling out in the latest Volkswagen models. Also, the Passat’s suspension remains neither sporty nor super-cushy and gas mileage is falling behind the class standard. The EPA rates it for 27 mpg with the standard four-cylinder engine and just 23 mpg on the tested V6 model. There’s no longer an extra-thrifty diesel option, as VW discontinued the Passat TDI model after admitting that it had illegally cheated the EPA’s emissions testing. Prices for the 2017 Passat start at $23,260.

Buyers looking for something other than the class’s best-sellers would also do well to consider the practical and comfortable Subaru Legacy, which comes with standard all-wheel-drive; the polished yet affordable Kia Optima; and the newly updated 2018 Hyundai Sonata.

Another consideration in the midsize sedan marketplace is that the Accord and Camry are both receiving complete redesigns for the 2018 model year that will be on sale soon. Both cars are promising a major boost in style, driving dynamics, safety and technology, all while retaining the familiar traits of a comfortable ride and spacious interior. If these vehicles live up to their hype, they can present an even greater challenge for niche players in their class.