We think this is the golden age for the midsize sedan: Never have there been more stylish, comfortable and dynamic models to choose from, no matter your driving preference. The three sedans here — different models of cars we've reviewed recently — only reinforce that belief.
2014 Nissan Altima 2.5 SL
$30,625 as tested
The Altima, which was redesigned for the 2013 model year, does budget luxury well. The SL trim is the top level for the 2.5-liter 4-cylinder models, which put out 182 horsepower and come with Nissan's Xtronic Continuously Variable Transmission, or as we like to call it: the dreaded CVT. The CVT can make for a noisy experience, especially when paired with a 4-cylinder, but Lyra thought the Altima's improved sound insulation has helped; Peter still found it excessive. The car's acceleration, though, is strong and, as Lyra said, you feel confident that when you "punch it" to merge in highway traffic, the power is there. The handling and steering are lively, better than average for this class. The mpg is the best of the three sedans here at 27 city, 38 highway. We liked the Cayenne Red exterior paint. Where the Altima really shines is its attractive interior, which in our SL trim was beige and looks like it belongs to a more expensive car. Peter thinks the leather seats are among the most comfortable and supportive in the midsize class. The SL trim also comes with electronic bells and whistles that include rearview camera, remote engine start, Bluetooth phone and audio, push-button start and a Bose audio system. The optional Technology Package adds a 7-inch color display and navigation system, blind-spot warning, moving object detection and lane-departure warning.
2013 Toyota Camry XLE
$29,945 as tested
Toyota has sold boatloads of Camrys by virtue of a laserlike focus on dependability and practicality. If, like many consumers, you think of your car as primarily a means of getting from Point A to Point B, then the Camry is your poster child. Even the styling, which has improved incrementally in recent years, is guaranteed not to offend. The most exciting thing about our tester's appearance was its Clearwater Blue Metallic paint. (We debated: Is that powder blue? Baby blue? Carolina blue?) So if the Camry tends toward the bland side that's okay; it features a quiet, roomy cabin, a ride that's composed even on bumpy roads, and electronics that won't leave you scratching your head. The 6.1-inch touch screen has large, easy-to-use buttons, and the steering wheel controls are ergonomic. The six-speed automatic mated to the 2.5-liter inline 4-cylinder delivers all of its 178 horsepower smoothly and quietly, even if the steering and handling is somewhat lackluster. The estimated mpg is 25/35, which slightly lags the behind the competition here. Our top-of-the-line XLE tester had $4,330 worth of option packages and accessories, including the touch screen with navigation, Toyota's Entune smartphone integration system and a backup camera. The interior was made more attractive by the addition of (faux) wood-grain accent trim and a leather package. The most drama we could coax out of our tester was this line on the window sticker: "Rear Bumper Appliqué, $69." Wow, really? (Note: For 2014, the Camry is unchanged but adds another trim level, the SE Sport.)
2014 Mazda6 Touring (manual)
$24,710 as tested
For the opposite of the Camry experience, we turn to the Mazda. Having driven the new 6 in its top-line Grand Touring model, we were eager to give the more modest (and manual) Touring a try. It starts at less than $25,000, which is a good deal for those who can do the shifting themselves. Our tester's 6-speed was paired with Mazda's 2.5-liter SkyActiv 4-cylinder, which delivers an estimated 25 mpg in the city and 37 on the highway (the automatic actually is slightly better at 26/38). The shifter has short throws and engages smoothly, although Lyra felt the clutch was too light. The 4-cylinder is largely quiet, but the cabin in this trim does allow a lot of noise to enter. Still, the manual gives it character: The acceleration off the line is especially peppy for a 4-cylinder. The cabin, though, was a bit more budget — there was little to break up its all-black color — compared to the Grand Touring model we drove earlier this year. Still, an impressive list of standard features included Bluetooth phone and audio, as well as a rearview camera, blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert. (There was no navigation system in Touring trim, so why was there a button for it?) The trunk is huge, and the rear seats fold down in a 60/40 split, with the release conveniently located in the trunk. We think the 6 is one of the style leaders among midsize sedans, especially with Mazda's classy new grille design, but the Liquid Silver paint was a bit on the drab side. Mazda's Soul Red Metallic, in our opinion, is the only way to go.