Car comparison of the latest choice for family vehicles

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Iconic Australian large cars, tough four-door sedans and wagons featuring 6cyl engines and rear wheel drive, are disappearing. Sales are declining and within the next two years the Ford Falcon and Holden Commodore, as we have known them, will be gone.

Replacing them are 4cyl front wheel drive vehicles from a wide range of manufacturers. Following a curious formula where every new model is wider and longer than its predecessor, the current crop of so-called mid-size cars are in fact delivering comparable levels of five-seater comfort and accommodation with the advantage of sophisticated smaller capacity engines delivering good performance and fuel economy.

This year has seen a string of new or upgraded vehicles, poised to take advantage of this shift, and we’ve selected five mid-spec, volume-selling models, evenly matched on price and mechanical specification. These models are popular among private buyers, as opposed to corporate fleet sales. The comparison table provides the statistics, so here we’re focused on their individual characteristics and appeal.

In essence they’re all 4dr, five-seaters, with 4cyl petrol engines suitable for standard 91 RON fuel and driving the front wheels via a 6spd automatic transmission. All are five star ANCAP safety rated and being mid-range they all feature the convenience of smart key operation, electric seats with height and lumbar adjustment, steering reach and tilt plus audio/cruise controls, trip computer, dual zone climate control, light-sensing headlamps, voice activated audio streaming and reversing camera.

Indeed, comparing them, it’s easier to highlight what is missing.

rear view of a Camry Atara SX
Rear view of a Ford Mondeo
Mid-size cars pictured in a row
Rear view of a Nissan Altima
Mid size cars all lined up
Rear view of a Hyundai Sonata Elite

Ford Mondeo

The all-new 2015 Ford Mondeo is a pivotal model from Ford in Europe. Its coupe silhouette and distinctive Aston Martin-style nose herald a car that is spacious and engaging to drive.

Mondeo comes in hatchback or station wagon body styles with the option of petrol or diesel engines. Ford’s EcoBoost 2.0L petrol engine is an example of high output and smooth driving flexibility from a smaller capacity and lighter turbo-charged engine.

The Mondeo delivers around 100Nm more torque than its larger capacity naturally aspirated competition and with its refined driveline and smooth paddle shift auto, it has the easy on-road performance feel of a 6cyl Falcon. Fuel economy is, however, the highest of this group.

Mondeo is a stand-out for its steering and handling package. Ride quality is firm and can thump and skip over poor surfaces. For drivers, Mondeo’s cockpit is smart with good adjustments, information and connectivity, despite some random and fussy switchgear. The biggest issue is more likely to be poor rear vision thanks to the sweeping hatchback design while rear seating is tighter than its sedan competition. This snug-feeling cabin belies its load versatility and massive carrying capacity. The only hatchback, it has the advantage of a load space unobstructed by a parcel shelf. Child seat anchorages are on the seat back and Mondeo employs a unique airbag inflating rear seat belt for added child safety.

Mondeo Trend is the best equipped in this group with standard features including, heated seats, adaptive cruise control, active rear camera guidance, lane departure warning, driver alert and adaptive headlamps.

Presentation and finish are good, if not the best in this group, and while the three-year warranty is looking old hat, lifetime fixed servicing costs are attractive.

Toyota Camry Atara SX

Toyota has claimed a bold new look for Australia’s bestselling car over the past 21 years, taking the opportunity to create a slightly more sporting version with the SX.

Tighter suspension and black 18”-wheel package tailored by local engineers was hoped to further entice private buyers, but the car was still required to fit within Toyota’s conservative parameters. So Toyota has done what it can do best, slashed pricing and on-road costs, but excluded many niceties or convenience features.

Camry comes in sedan only and with the option of petrol or petrol/electric hybrid. Mechanically little has changed, the naturally aspirated 2.5L engine and 6spd auto delivering adequate performance and with an average overall fuel economy.

The revised suspension delivers better handling and cornering grip on good roads, but the trade-off is a choppier ride on poor back roads and more tyre noise on coarse surfaces.

Inside, the smart functional set-up is relatively unchanged from the superseded model. The cabin is spacious and a genuine five-seater.

The biggest disappointment is the lack of kit. A significant miss in this group is no satellite navigation. So despite a new styling edge, Camry remains bound to its traditional solid, enduring and reliable image. A conservative three-year warranty is bolstered by the first five services fixed at $140.

Nissan Altima ST-L

It’s not new and it’s probably not the first car that springs to mind in this category, but Nissan’s Altima ST-L should not be overlooked. Traditional large car ride quality and comfort, blended with conservative elegance and straightforward controls make this Nissan fit like a glove in normal suburban use. Altima comes in a petrol sedan model only.

Top of the range Ti-S sports a more lively 3.5L V6, but the more common 2.5L naturally-aspirated engine has the lowest power and torque figures of the group, where it moves comfortably if not spritely. The 6spd auto shifts efficiently and unobtrusively, and this engine/transmission combination delivered surprising fuel efficiency. It works well around town but is not ideal for any challenging section of road. Altima’s cabin is spacious and comparable to the Mazda6, as is its large boot capacity. The 60/40 split-fold rear seats have a boot release for security, but reveal a reduced opening to the cabin.

Drivers will find the dash instrumentation and controls smart and functional, but lacking in inspiration. Altima ST-L is reasonably well equipped with navigation, fog lights, rain sensing wipers and front- and rear-parking sensors, but there are no additional active safety features. It does, however, carry a full-size alloy spare wheel. Our test Altima showed good build quality with a sense of luxury in its full leather trim. Nissan provide fixed price servicing for the first six years or 120,000km, while warranty is the usual three-year 100,000km.

Mazda6 Touring

Since its 2012 introduction, the Mazda6 featuring “Kodo”-soul of motion design and “Skyactive” engine and driveline technology has been the benchmark for mid-size premium sedans.

This 2015 update has simply enhanced that blend of stylish body architecture, elegant interior presentation and smart functionality. Mazda6 comes in sedan or wagon and with the choice of 2.5L petrol or 2.2L diesel engines. Despite lacking the power and torque figures of its turbo competition, performance is good in all situations.

Mazda6 also recorded the lowest fuel consumption figures on every leg of our test. Ride and handling are well refined over all types of roads. Occupants will find the cabin has a clean style and open feel, with features such as the lower dash height aiding vision.

There is a sense of efficiency and logical function. Overall cabin presentation is not only tidy and well thought out, but appealingly elegant and well finished. Equipment specification doesn’t come close to Mondeo, with only the option of blind-spot information adding to its safety package, but in all other respects it is well kitted with convenience features. Rear seat space is on a par with Mondeo and slightly tighter than Camry or Sonata with shaping aimed at comfort for two. The 60/40 split/fold carries the large/square full boot width through to the cabin and while it looks like a hatchback, there is a structural rear parcel shelf for child seat tether points.

ISOFIX is provided, but it carries a space saver spare wheel. Servicing is now at the more logical 12-months or 10,000km, with fixed pricing for 16 services and warranty the usual 3-year unlimited km.

Hyundai Sonata Elite

Featuring the most significant redesign of the model, the Hyundai Sonata comes in petrol sedan only, the principal difference between the three variants, apart from equipment specification, being the two engines. The entry level Active is fitted with the naturally aspirated 2.5L, while Elite and Premium feature the significantly more powerful 2.0L turbo. Our Sonata Elite has the highest power and torque figures of this group, but also the highest government fuel consumption figure.

With the 6spd auto and “drive select” in sport mode, we noted that this power output combined with an aggressive throttle launch could tax the limits of front wheel drive traction. Silky engine and transmission operation are impressive and mid-range performance and flexibility are outstanding.

The car feels nicely balanced over all types of roads and has evenly weighted steering. Cabin space is good and on a par with Camry for accommodating five adults. There is a large deep boot with a full-size alloy spare wheel and the familiar 60/40 split-fold function. The solid parcel shelf contains child seat mounts but reduces the opening to the cabin. Elite matches the majority of its competitor’s standard features, although misses out on additional active safety items and small conveniences such as fog lights or rain sensing wipers.

Hyundai’s five-year warranty and lifetime fixed servicing costs are appealing, but service intervals are much closer at 7500km. Sonata has clearly made the biggest step up in this comparison and now sits among the best in class.

* More RACV road tests and car reviews.

Written by Ernest Litera, Photos Greg Hill
September 01, 2015