On Autos: Three midsize sedans offer alternatives to the best-sellers

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The redesigned 2019 Nissan Altima, priced from $24,645, offers a similar experience to the best-selling Toyota Camry. Photo by Brady Holt

They’re so ubiquitous that they have their own nickname: “CamCord.”

That’s the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, which have been America’s two best-selling midsize sedans for most of the last two decades.

The Camry has built a sterling reputation for spaciousness, comfort and reliability, while the Accord has tweaked the formula to trade a bit of ride smoothness for sportier handling. While not every generation of the Accord or Camry has lived up to their respective promises, their current iterations — both all-new for the 2018 model year — have admirably blended family-friendly spaciousness with pleasant driving dynamics, up-to-date interiors, excellent gas mileage, and top-notch safety.

How do you compete against the CamCord, especially as sedans steadily lose customers to crossover SUVs? Three recently tested sedans take varied approaches, whether by striving to emulate the best-sellers (the redesigned 2019 Nissan Altima) or by pursuing their own niches in the market (the 2018 Mazda6 and the 2019 Volkswagen Passat).

The Altima was last year’s No. 3 best-selling midsize sedan, and the redesigned model is well-positioned to be cross-shopped with the CamCord — the Camry in particular.

The previous Altima was also popular for its spacious interior, excellent gas mileage, and reasonable pricing, but it tended to feel cheaper and less meticulously executed than the best competitors. The most popular engine was noisy, the infotainment system was rudimentary, and the steering could feel unnatural.

The 2019 Altima is a notable improvement, addressing last year’s weaknesses without abandoning the strengths that make it so successful among families, Uber drivers, and anyone else who wants a spacious and pleasant sedan.

Like the latest Camry, the new Altima wears a generally handsome, conservative body and an extra-aggressive grille — in the Nissan’s case, a chrome-flanked inverted trapezoid that spans the entire height of the front end. D.C. buyers’ front license plates will make the effect less striking, for better or for worse.

The interior is an unquestionable improvement. Nissan created a dashboard that is modern yet user-friendly, with big handy knobs, clear buttons, and an 8-inch infotainment touchscreen. The Altima now supports Android Auto and Apple CarPlay smartphone integration (the Camry’s touchscreen collaborates only with iPhones).

The 2019 Nissan Altima’s interior is cleanly designed and user-friendly, but not quite luxury-grade. Photo by Brady Holt

The effect comes up a bit shy of the more luxurious Accord, though; the Altima’s infotainment screen’s bright colors won’t be to everyone’s tastes, and there are some imperfectly fitting dashboard panels. And the controls’ orange backlighting is a vestige of long-past days in which the Altima was a sporty car. Still, the ambiance is pleasant overall.

Better still, the Altima has perhaps the most comfortable seats in its class — delightfully cushy when you first sit down, yet with enough support for a full day at the wheel. The rear seat, already decent, has also grown more accommodating this year.

On the road, the Altima now feels extra-easy to drive — the steering is light but accurate and responsive, and the accelerator is well-calibrated to help you glide smoothly away from a stop. It rides and handles with respectable composure, but you won’t get the outright excitement that you’d find in some Accord models.

The Altima comes with a choice of two four-cylinder engines: a 2.5-liter with 188 horsepower and a 2.0-liter turbo with 236 horsepower (or 248 horsepower if you use premium fuel). The latter engine replaces last year’s V6, though Nissan did not follow Honda in offering only turbos. The base engine is available with all-wheel-drive, rare for a sedan.

The Nissan engines are fuel economy standouts. The 2.5-liter beats some compact economy cars to achieve an EPA-estimated 32 mpg in mixed driving, while even the turbo manages 29 mpg. The tested turbo model delivers effortless acceleration and returned an outstanding 32 mpg in a week of mixed driving, but it doesn’t sound as nice as the Accord’s four-cylinder turbo or the Camry’s non-turbo V6 if you push it harder.

Altima prices start at a competitive $24,645. Every Altima comes with forward automatic emergency braking — a valuable safety feature — and most trims add blind-spot monitoring, a lane-departure warning, and even rear automatic braking. It doesn’t nail every detail, but if you’re looking at the Camry, you should be looking at the Altima too.

And what about the niche players? If the Altima is like a Camry, the Mazda6 is more like an Accord, hanging out on the sporty and luxurious side of the midsize sedan class. To further the effect, Mazda recently added a more powerful engine option and more luxury features.

The 2018 Mazda6, priced from $22,845, combines family-friendly spaciousness with an extra dose of style and sportiness — but so does the Honda Accord. Photo by Brady Holt

The Mazda6’s upscale qualities start with its elegant styling, recently enhanced with a new grille design that integrates seamlessly with the headlights. The sleek body is stretched gracefully across a long frame, maximizing the benefit to a sedan over a crossover — you can’t get the classical long and low proportions from an SUV. The Accord has a similar silhouette but some more polarizing details compared to the Mazda6’s straightforward lines.

The driving experience lives up to the sporty styling, as the Mazda6 rivals the Accord as the best-driving midsize sedan. The steering is responsive and handling is composed, even as the ride is smooth — and quieter than ever after a recent update.

Starting with the 2018 model year, the top three trim levels use a 227-horsepower 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine (250 horsepower on premium fuel), while only the base two models continue to use a non-turbo 2.5-liter 187-horsepower four-cylinder. Like the Altima’s, the turbo engine isn’t exactly thrilling, but it’s decently quick and quiet.

The extra power makes for a more cohesive sporty sedan, while the old engine had been a weak point for some buyers. EPA estimates are 29 mpg with the base engine and 26 mpg for the turbo, which are competitive but not amazing.

The interior features a minimalistic dashboard design, achieved in part by shifting the audio and infotainment controls to the center console between the seats. The tested Signature model coats the seats and dashboard in richer materials, but every Mazda6 looks and feels upscale, starting with the base $22,845 Sport model.

A few details — a clunky turn-signal stalk, plain gauges and a smallish dashboard screen — could still use an upgrade, though. And although the infotainment system now supports Apple CarPlay, Android Auto integration still isn’t available.

The cabin is impressively spacious and comfortable for such a high-style sedan. Like the Accord, the seats are on the low side; that contributes to the car’s sporty feel, but older folks might find it more annoying to get in and out.

Overall, the Mazda6 is good enough to serve as a family car even though it’s also stylish and fun to drive — a compelling combination. But if those qualities aren’t your priority, it’s probably not the very best midsize sedan you can buy. That little bit of extra space, fuel efficiency and ride smoothness found in the “CamCord” and Altima make them the more mainstream choice in the segment.

Another midsize sedan with its own flavor is the Volkswagen Passat, which brings European design simplicity to a segment dominated by Asian and American models. The current Passat dates to 2012, but even when it was new, it strove for the clean, classically handsome looks rather than maximum pizzazz. That’s particularly true inside the cabin, which could pass for a 20-year-old Audi.

The 2019 Volkswagen Passat has a spacious interior at reasonable prices, plus classically handsome styling, but it’s showing its age in other ways. Photo by Brady Holt

The Passat also stands out for plus-size interior space. Volkswagen designed this Passat to appeal to American tastes, prioritizing spaciousness and value over maximum poshness and sporty handling. That said, its unmistakably German looks give it some upscale aura, and it does handle with decent agility.

However, newer competitors feel thoroughly luxurious, with richer interiors, quieter rides and more powerful engines. Volkswagen in fact moved the opposite direction this year, discontinuing the Passat’s optional V6 engine to leave only a 174-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder, and also dropping the most luxuriously equipped high-end models.

The Passats you can buy are well-equipped for the money, starting at $26,190 with generous standard equipment. There’s also a long warranty. But fuel economy, safety ratings and interior materials all trail the best midsize sedans. It’s a rare German sedan that’s both spacious and affordable, but it’s a niche option.

The Passat will be redesigned for the 2020 model year. The new vehicle will share the same mechanical pieces as the current 2012-era Passat but will boast freshened styling.

To see more photos of the tested 2019 Nissan Altima, you can visit tinyurl.com/altima-current. To see more photos of the tested 2018 Mazda6, you can visit tinyurl.com/mazda6-current. To see more photos of the tested 2019 Volkswagen Passat, you can visit tinyurl.com/passat-current.