2015 Mazda6 Grand Touring
$21,190 base start, $33,345 as tested; MPG: 28 city/40 highway; mazdausa.com/mazda6
Not much has changed for the 2015 Mazda6, which is a good thing. This new-generation sedan is one of the more stylish in the midsize segment. Our tester was the vivid Soul Red, which is one of our favorite red finishes. The 2.5-liter SkyActiv-G engine produces 184 horsepower and 185 pound-feet of torque. The base model comes with a rare-in-its-class manual transmission, with an available upgrade to a 6-speed automatic. For 2015, Mazda introduced new packages for lower trims. One feature we were intrigued with is the i-ELOOP regenerative engine braking, which comes with the Technology Package ($2,080). The system captures energy when you take your foot off the gas pedal. The car then stores that energy to help power in-car electronics, such as the air conditioning and power steering. Mazda says it saves fuel by as much as 5 percent. The technology package also includes safety features such as radar cruise control, forward-obstruction warning and lane-departure warning.
2014 Toyota Avalon Limited
$31,340 base start, $42,735 as tested; MPG: 21 city/31 highway, 40/39 for hybrid; toyota.com/avalon
The last model year's complete redesign made this full-size sedan more appealing — not just for those with AARP membership cards — with a contemporary coupelike exterior design and technology upgrades inside. For 2014, the Avalon added a few tweaks, such as a backup camera that's now standard for all trim levels. The Limited trim, like the one we tested, has dynamic guidelines on the display to better gauge distances to objects while backing up. The sedan also gets a three-signal lane-change blinker and ambient lighting for the dash. The 3.5-liter V-6 provides ample power, with a smooth-shifting 6-speed transmission with paddle shifters. The ride is more engaging, less "floaty," with better handling and steering feel than the previous generation. The Avalon is now one of the more appealing full-size sedans on the market — both inside and out. The cabin is comfortable, roomy and Lexus quiet. Looking for entry-level luxury? The Avalon fits the bill.
2014 Lexus ES350
$36,620 base start, $44,092 as tested; MPG: 21 city/ 31 highway; lexus.com/models/ES
The ES350 is built on the same platform as the nation's bestselling midsize sedan, the Toyota Camry. The ES350 is something of a wallflower compared to others in the Lexus lineup, but to quote from Seinfeld — not that there's anything wrong with that. The 3.5-liter V-6 is strong enough, but the 6-speed transmission seems a bit dated, especially since Lexus has a great 8-speed automatic that is one of our favorites. The interior has the usual Lexus quality. Both of us like the bamboo trim — one of our favorites. It is used on the leather-trimmed shift knob, the steering wheel and elsewhere, and brings a calming feel to the cabin. But there's nothing calming about the infotainment system, which still has the mouselike controller. Lyra finds it cumbersome to use, forcing you to take your eyes off the road. Peter concedes her point but thinks the controller can grow on you.
2014 Lexus LS460 F Sport
$72,140 base start, $85,130 as tested; MPG: 16 city/24 highway; lexus.com/models/LS
If you like Lexus' flagship full-size LS460 sedan, but would like a little more fun out of it, then the F Sport package ($8,350) is the solution. It adds sportiness to an otherwise stately car. Start with the looks: The big black hourglass grille of our Ultra White test car is complemented by two-tone, 10-spoke forged-alloy wheels, lower grille inserts and LED foglights. Chrome trim and integrated polished exhaust tips adorn the rear. The 4.6-liter V-8 puts out 386 horsepower and is paired with an 8-speed automatic transmission. The package adds handling improvements as well that include a limited-slip rear differential, lowered adaptive suspension, stabilizer bars and Brembo brakes. All these tweaks result in a more athletic ride with better road feel. Inside, the black leather interior has bolstered sport seats, black Alcantara headliner, aluminum pedals and a sport steering wheel with paddle shifters. Consider the car an alternative to German sports sedans.