On Autos: Today’s midsize sedans offer many talents

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The Toyota Camry XSE has been redesigned.

Many car enthusiasts in the U.S. have an inferiority complex. They look across the ocean to a field of light, agile, stylish small cars that are wildly popular in Europe yet not offered in this country.

They look at the best-selling American cars and see oversized trucks, SUVs and sedans that focus on interior volume and a smooth ride — and assume that a worldly European would find our top picks to be either amusing or just plain sad.

Exhibit A: the Toyota Camry. Widely ridiculed as a dull, lifeless appliance, the Camry reliably outsells every other passenger car in the United States.

But Toyota has worked to invigorate the Camry, all without alienating the buyers who appreciate its traditional strengths: that spacious interior and gentle ride. Would it be enough to impress a European?

The Current invited Gabriele Lo Surdo — this reporter’s brother-in-law, who visited the D.C. area this month from Milan, Italy — to try out the redesigned 2018 Camry and share his thoughts.

Until recently, Lo Surdo drove Europe’s best-selling car: the Volkswagen Golf, a small but premium-feeling hatchback with a smartly finished cabin and an artfully composed suspension. Shortly before visiting the U.S., he upgraded to a BMW 3 Series, which further magnifies those qualities.

Even in that context, the Camry was a hit. Equipped with a sport-tuned suspension and a 301-horsepower V6 engine, the tested Camry XSE rocketed capably through empty back roads in rural Maryland. Toyota’s efforts to stiffen the chassis and improve the steering system were on full display — this wasn’t quite a BMW, but it was no sofa on wheels.

The eight-speed automatic transmission did prove reluctant to upshift and provide instant access to the engine’s power, which did betray Toyota’s historical focus on saving fuel over maximizing performance.

Despite the Camry’s cornering prowess, Lo Surdo saved his most glowing praise for the Camry in highway and urban driving, where he called it the most comfortable car he’d ever driven. Even with the XSE model’s sport suspension, the Camry absorbed bumps gracefully and hummed along quietly.

And while the cabin still has some areas with cheap plastics, and lacks Android Auto and Apple CarPlay smartphone integration, the latest Camry’s interior is a significant upgrade over the decidedly ho-hum 2017 model. Available red leather upholstery also sends a clear signal of the car’s sporting intentions.

The 2018 Honda Accord Touring delivers the feel of a sports sedan.

Lo Surdo didn’t get a chance to try out the Camry’s archrival, the Honda Accord — which is also newly redesigned for 2018. As a sports sedan, the new Accord advances even beyond the Camry, particularly in the tested Touring model. While its 2.0-liter turbocharged engine trails the Toyota’s V6 output, the Accord Touring delivers the feel of an Audi sports sedan: maximum build quality, maximum composure. The Camry feels capable when you’re pushing it hard, but the Accord feels even more natural.

The Accord’s low seating position and low dashboard also evoke luxury cars more than the Camry does. The Toyota feels like a very nice family sedan, while the Accord goes a step further. Still, the Accord matches the Camry’s extra-spacious interior and even offers a roomier trunk than the Toyota.

But the Accord’s styling has proved more divisive — its long, low silhouette is contrasted against the more upright Camry. Honda also uses more aggressive details on the hood, wheels and body that critics have derided as fussy. The Accord is also missing the Camry’s height-adjustable front passenger seat, a valuable feature for some households.

Both these sedans are priced from around $24,000 for a base model to above $35,000 fully loaded. Both get exceptional fuel economy with their base or hybrid powertrains, and still produce respectable mileage out of their most powerful motors. They also feature a full suite of high-tech safety features either as standard equipment or a low-priced option, unlike many competitors.

And although their driving dynamics are most impressive on a winding road, both the Camry and Accord remain comfortable and quiet in gentler D.C. conditions. They’re both among the best midsize sedans you can buy today.