Battle of midway
The big brands in the four-door segment aren’t yielding their territory to small cars and SUVs without a fight
SALES of mid-size sedans are slumping amid the mass migration to small cars and SUVs yet there is much to like about the best cars in this forgotten class.
The big brands aren’t giving up without a fight. The Hyundai Sonata and Subaru Liberty are new and the Mazda6 has been updated — it’s time to acquaint them with Australia’s topselling medium sedan for the past 21 years, Toyota’s Camry.
It’s clear the Sonata was designed to shadow the Camry; the differences in interior room and cargo room can be measured in fractions.
The Sonata is quiet, relatively refined and feels plush over bumps. It’s the only car here with rear parking sensors as well as a rear-view camera (with the image displayed on a comparatively small 4.3-inch screen).
As with the Camry, the Sonata has a foot-operated parking brake, which some buyers don’t like (the Mazda and Subaru each have an electric park brake).
Downsides? The engine is willing but it is the thirstiest of this lot. The interior seems lacklustre compared with its rivals and fails to match the elegance of the exterior design.
It’s amazing how much a flash of alloy-look trim and leatherlike material with stitching can lift the ambience of an interior. The recently updated Mazda6 has added some polish to an already capable car that looks good inside and out.
Our testing found it was the zippiest to drive (slightly quicker than the Camry and Sonata, and much more oomph than the Liberty) and felt the most enjoyable behind the wheel when it came to corners.
And yet, when driven gently, it promises to be the most economical car here, claiming 6.6L/100km.
The sloping roofline and slightly more compact proportions mean the Mazda has less room than the Camry and Sonata (I bumped my head getting in and out) and the smallest boot. But it is by no means cramped.
Downsides? In this quartet, it’s the most expensive car to buy, the second dearest to service ($1380 over three years) and is the only one with a spacesaver spare.
Subaru styling has had its ups and downs over the years. The Liberty is a pleasing return to form, its interior having an upmarket appearance and the exterior an imposing presence.
In response to buyers demanding more than ever, Subaru loads the new Liberty to the hilt, including 18-inch alloy wheels (with matching spare).
The engine, the least powerful of the four, is well matched to the continuously variable automatic transmission and is much quieter than previous Subarus.
Aided by all-wheel-drive grip, the Liberty feels secure on the road, if a little firm over some bumps on the larger wheel and tyre package.
The ace up the Subaru’s sleeve is the EyeSight technology that slams the brakes below 50km/h if you’re about to hit the car in front, maintains a safe distance from the vehicle ahead in cruise control mode and sounds a warning if the driver wanders from the lane without indicating.
Downsides? The Subaru is by far the most expensive to service, even with capped pricing scheme: $2216 over three years (serviced sixmonthly).
A fridge-white Camry may fail to excite. Put aside the prejudices and it’s easy to see why it’s a sales winner, not only because of huge fleet discounts.
It’s the most metal for the money, with limousine-like space in the rear, the biggest boot in the class and excellent oddment storage thanks to massive door pockets, glove box and centre console.
The 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine is relatively zippy (only marginally slower than the Mazda6) and yet delivers respectable fuel economy.
Riding on 16-inch Michelin tyres, the base model is the most comfortable in the Camry lineup and soaks up bumps with ease, while still feeling surefooted in corners.
The $26,990 drive-away “sale” price has become the norm and massively undercuts the competition.
The Camry has the cheapest new-car servicing in the business: $560 over three years. There is not a lot the Camry does poorly.
Competitive quartet: (from left) Liberty, Sonata, Mazda6 and Camry