COVER­STORY

Mid-size cars rep­re­sent some of the best buy­ing and driv­ing of any seg­ment. We call our top four

Herald Sun - Motoring - - On the Web -

There’s ar­guably more qual­ity for the cash in the mid-size seg­ment than any other. We com­pare and con­trast four favourites

MARK HINCH­LIFFE

mark.hinch­liffe@cars­guide.com.au GOLDILOCKS would have driven one of these. Mid-size cars are not too small and not too big; they’re just right. A per­fect bal­ance of power, ef­fi­ciency, com­fort, agility, per­for­mance and en­vi­ron­men­tal con­scious­ness.

Sales in the un­der-$60,000 mid-size sec­tor dropped 6.6 per cent last year yet it is still a hotly con­tested seg­ment with 58,053 ve­hi­cles sold and 26 mod­els to choose from. Prices start from $24,990 for the en­try-level Czech-made Skoda Oc­tavia.

We’ve cho­sen four of the best in­ter­na­tional mod­els for this bat­tle of the mid-size cars. At the head of the pack, there is the long-time top-seller, the Aussie-built Toy­ota Camry, which is also the new­est model here. The sev­enth gen­er­a­tion was re­leased just last month.

It is joined by close Ja­panese ri­val, the Mazda6, the Ger­man­made vw pass at and South Korea’s Kia Op­tima.

Vw mar­ket­ing boss Jutta Friese says Pas­sat cus­tomers are look­ing for a mid-size car that ‘‘ fits their stage in life’’.

‘‘ They are most likely to be mar­ried, liv­ing in the metro area and have a suc­cess­ful ca­reer,’’ she says.

With that in mind, we asked a cou­ple of mar­ried, pro­fes­sional fa­thers liv­ing in the metro area to come along for the ride.

Richard New­some and Cameron Cooper agree that these cars fit their life­style and would be suit­able for fam­i­lies with school-age kids.

VALUE

The Mazda6 Tour­ing hatch comes in as the cheap­est at $34,450 for the five-speed auto. The sedan is $1000 less, but the dif­fer­ence is only the tail­gate.

Mazda re­cently added front and rear park­ing sen­sors, leather seat trim and power ad­justable front seats with driver’s side mem­ory func­tion, all for $300 less than the pre­vi­ous Clas­sic mod­els. It also gets Blue­tooth, cli­mate con­trol air­con­di­tion­ing, cruise con­trol and trip com­puter.

The most ex­pen­sive of our se­lec­tion is the Camry Atara SL at $39,990. The flag­ship Camry model has a re­vers­ing cam­era, JBL pre­mium au­dio with 10 speak­ers, Blue­tooth, sat­nav, dig­i­tal ra­dio, RDS live traf­fic up­dates, blind-spot mon­i­tor, au­to­matic high beam and elec­tric front seats.

It’s closely fol­lowed by the tur­bocharged Pas­sat at $38,990. Thevw’s fea­tures in­clude day­time driv­ing lights, rear-view cam­era, heated leather seats, Blue­tooth, tyre pres­sure mon­i­tor­ing and fancy au­dio sys­tem with a me­dia de­vice in­ter­face. Sat­nav with re­vers­ing cam­era is an ex­pen­sive op­tion.

Kia’s top-spec Op­tima Plat­inum sits nicely in the mid­dle at $36,990 and fea­tures a high-end au­dio sys­tem with ipod and Blue­tooth con­nec­tiv­ity, elec­tric sun­roof, dusk-sens­ing HID head­lights with washer, leather trim with wood-look in­te­rior, heated and pow­ered front pas­sen­ger seats, al­loy sports ped­als, cool­ing glove box and day­time LED run­ning lights. But it’s the only one with­out auto wipers.

Kia has just added the Si model at $30,990 which keeps all the safety gear, but loses the sun­roof, LED and HID lights. It also has smaller 17-inch wheels and brakes. In the next few months all Pla­ti­mum Op­ti­mas will come with sat­nav as stan­dard.

TECH­NOL­OGY

All are au­to­mat­ics pow­ered by four-cylin­der petrol en­gines.

Thevwis only one with seven speeds and its 1.8-litre is tur­bocharged. There’s a 2.4-litre in the Kia and 2.5s in the Toy­ota and Mazda.

Most pow­er­ful here is the Op­tima’s en­gine with di­rect in­jec­tion. Its 148kw puts the Camry a dis­tant sec­ond on 135kw, then the Mazda6 (125kw) and Pas­sat 118kw.

De­spite the lack of top-end power, thevw­pulls well thanks to the turbo’s 250Nm of torque, equalling the Kia.

Thevwhas the best fuel fig­ures with 7.2L/100km, com­pared with 7.8 and 7.9 for the Toy­ota and Kia. The Mazda trails on 8.7.

The Camry’s mir­ror re­mote stopped work­ing and the Pas­sat’s Blue­tooth failed to recog­nise our phones. Quick­est and eas­i­est to pair a Blue­tooth phone is the Kia.

STYLING

The Peter Schreyer-de­signed Op­tima won hon­ours at the Aus­tralian In­ter­na­tional De­sign Awards and Red Dot awards in Europe last year and got the nod from our testers.

Cooper says it has changed his im­pres­sion of Kia. New­some adds, ‘‘ If you stuck four cir­cles across the grille it would look like an Audi.’’ They also like the Mazda6. ‘‘ It has a touch of Bat­mo­bile in the front. I kind of ex­pect it trans­form into some­thing s at any minute,’’ says New­some. He also says the Pas­sat looks like a ‘‘ pock­et­sized limo’’ but they re­gard as bland.

The up­dated Camry ‘‘ ha sex ap­peal,’’ says Cooper. T up­dated front ap­pears puffy around the head­lights like a boxer who’s been punched both eyes

In­side, it’s a dif­fer­ent stor with the Camry look­ing smarter and fresher, yet fa­mil­iar, says Tarago owner New­some. The Kia cabin is

t to scary - d it as no The y a d in

ory r s

‘‘ mod­ern’’, thevw‘‘aus­tere’’ and Mazda ‘‘ dated’’ with its con­ven­tional key and hand­brake.

Cooper thinks the Camry has the best driv­ing po­si­tion.

‘‘ The seats are com­fort­able with good lower back sup­port. I could sit in it all day with­out any prob­lems,’’ he says.

Win­ner in rear legroom is the Kia, fol­lowed by the Toy­ota, Vwthen Mazda, but New­some doesn’t like the lack of head­room in the Op­tima.

All have gen­er­ous cargo ar­eas but the Pas­sat has the most us­able space.

SAFETY

All cars have max­i­mum fives­tar ANCAP safety rat­ings. Though the Camry is yet to be tested, it shouldn’t drop the pre­vi­ous five-star rat­ing, es­pe­cially as this flag­ship model fea­tures a blind-spot mon­i­tor.

Op­tima adds hill­start as­sist con­trol to stop it rolling back­wards when stopped on a hill and static cor­ner­ing lights.

Mazda6 and Op­tima have six airbags, the Camry has seven with a knee airbag for the driver, the Pas­sat has eight, adding ex­tra side pro­tec­tion for the rear pas­sen­gers.

Vwhas a driver fa­tigue de­tec­tion sys­tem and tyre pres­sure mon­i­tors but no stan­dard rear-view cam­era. It’s avail­able with the $2300 sat­nav op­tion.

Op­tima and Camry have stan­dard re­vers­ing cam­eras and only the Mazda6 lacks one. How­ever, it has front and rear park­ing sen­sors, as with the Vwand Op­tima. The Toy­ota has rear sen­sors. The Kia the worst for vis­i­bil­ity, New­some says, with thick wind­screen pil­lars and small rear win­dow, and Mazda6 the best.

DRIV­ING

It never rains but it pours and our test day fea­tured buck­ets of rain and flash flood­ing.

The weather pro­vided a solid test for the dy­nam­ics of these ve­hi­cles, which we took through a sub­ur­ban land­scape and out into the coun­try where the cars could stretch their legs and prove their abilty as fam­ily tour­ers.

The auto wipers also came in handy, although our testers claimed they were a lit­tle slow to respond to chang­ing pat­terns of rain. All cab­ins are quiet, de­spite the ex­tra tyre noise on wet roads and ham­mer­ing rain on the wind­screen, but the Camry is the bench­mark for shush.

Our testers, de­spite know­ing noth­ing of the power fig­ures, are quick to spot the snappy re­sponse of the Op­tima and Camry. The Pas­sat is slug­gish off the line un­til the turbo kicks in but we have to be care­ful in the rain not to get caught out by the sud­den turbo boost. There are no com­plaints about the ride in any of the cars de­spite ur­ban pot­holes and bro­ken coun­try roads.

VER­DICT

There isn’t a bad car here. The Mazda6 re­mains the sharpest tool in the shed dy­nam­i­cally but is show­ing its age in terms of per­for­mance and ef­fi­ciency.

A pol­ished per­former, the Pas­sat is a good choice for any­one want­ing a Euro-car ex­pe­ri­ence but it’s a lit­tle bland for our tastes.

The new Camry still isn’t the most in­volv­ing drive but it’s a class act so ex­pect to see most Aussies vote with their feet in its di­rec­tion.

This brings us to our win­ner, Kia’s eye-catch­ing Op­tima, which takes the gold for its im­pres­sive mix of style, per­for­mance, value, safety and ef­fi­ciency.

Pic­tures, cover: Bruce Long

Global stage: The mid­dleweight con­tenders are Korea’s Op­tima, Australia’s Camry, Ger­many’s Pas­sat and Ja­pan’s Mazda3. And the win­ner is ... (see panel, right).

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