Best Medium Cars

Australia's Best Cars 2018

Best Medium Car under $50,000

There is great variety and a tempting level of performance, value and functionality in the best medium car under $50,000 class.

Winner: Toyota Camry Ascent Hybrid


The eighth-generation Camry heralds a new era for Toyota in Australia. It’s the first time in 30 years that the car-making giant has offered a fully imported Camry range to the Australian market.

The new Japanese-built sedan is available in four specification levels (Ascent, Ascent Sport, SX and SL) and three engines (2.5-litre four-cylinder, 2.5-litre four-cylinder/hybrid and 3.6-litre V6).

And it’s the Camry Ascent Hybrid that has claimed the title of best medium car under $50,000 for 2018.

So how come the Camry soared from also-ran to usurp reigning champion, the Mazda6, in just over a year? Put it down to a complete redesign and a sub-$30,000 RRP that is $500 less than the superseded equivalent hybrid model.

Introduced to Australia in November 2017 immediately following cessation of Australian Camry production, the newcomer is the first sedan to adopt Toyota’s New Global Architecture (TNGA), which the company says has transformed the way its vehicles are designed, engineered and packaged.

According to Toyota, TNGA “enables greater freedom in design, resulting in a more athletic profile with a lower roof and bonnet, a better driving position and improved dynamics due to its lower centre of gravity and greater torsional rigidity”. TNGA packaging has allowed the nickel-metal hybrid battery to be moved from the boot area to under the rear seat, improving cargo space and positioning weight lower in the car.

The new 2.5-litre four-cylinder Dynamic Force Engine provides 11 per cent more power (now totalling 160kW) and four per cent more torque (now 423Nm), with thermal efficiency rated among the best in the world. And a redesign of the hybrid system and new Auto Glide Control system has improved fuel economy to a class-leading 4.2-litres/100km.

Combined with a host of changes to the MacPherson strut front suspension and new rear suspension aimed at improving handling dynamics and ride quality, the boost in performance brings an element of unprecedented driving engagement to the Camry.  

Even the CVT has six quick-shifting ratios for manual-like gear changes, while a new sport drive mode has been added, delivering improved acceleration response relative to pedal input.

The latest safety technology is standard across the Camry range and includes a pre-collision system, autonomous emergency braking and lane-departure alert with steering assist. Also tick boxes for the seven airbags, all-speed active cruise control, auto high beam and a reversing camera.

Connectivity and creature comforts include an upgraded multimedia system, 7.0-inch display audio with Toyota Link connected mobility, Optitron instruments, 4.2-inch multi-information display, power lumbar adjustment on the driver’s seat, dual-zone air-conditioning, keyless entry/ignition and LED headlights.

The extensive engineering and design revisions found favour with Australia’s Best Cars judges, who agreed the Ascent Hybrid was class-leading for smoothness and quietness and equal class-leading for space and ride. It was also awarded top scores in the objective areas of fuel consumption (10 out of 10) and environment.

Significantly, the Ascent Hybrid also scored better than its Atara SL hybrid predecessor in terms of pricing, depreciation, insurance, seating comfort, performance and handling.

All up, this makes the 2018 Toyota Camry Ascent Hybrid a convincing winner and a smart new car buy.

Second place: Mazda6 Touring


Sometimes, despite best efforts and intentions, the planets just don’t align.

Such is the Mazda6’s situation in this year’s Australia’s Best Cars awards. A new, upgraded Mazda6 was launched just over a week after final judging of the awards. Unfortunately, Mazda Australia could not provide an example in time.

It was left up to the outgoing model – reigning best medium car under $50,000 champion and judge’s choice – to fly the flag against Toyota’s new Camry and Subaru’s upgraded Liberty.

Let it be said the Mazda6 remains an excellent car and ownership proposition. Just look at the scores: class-leading ergonomics, build and finish and handling, along with equal class-leading environment and braking. It also scored solidly for depreciation, fuel consumption, safety, build and finish quality, performance, ride and smoothness and quietness.

The new Mazda6 can only be better again, based on details of its update. These include a fresher appearance, all-new interior with added comfort and equipment, as well as engine, transmission, steering and suspension upgrades to improve the driving experience. Bring on next year's awards!

Third place: Subaru Liberty Premium 2.5i


Subaru’s Model Year 2018 all-wheel-drive Liberty sedan range came in for an upgrade in February. Revisions include cosmetics (new grille, bumpers, headlights and wing mirrors), convenience and style (enlarged central display), new-generation infotainment (Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity) and safety (third-generation EyeSight driver-assist system and addition of lane-keep assist).

Premium variants also added a suite of vision-assist features including steering-responsive headlights, adaptive driving beam, side-view monitor and front-view monitor. Subaru also made engine, suspension and transmission tweaks aimed at greater vehicle response, efficiency and driving pleasure.

The upgrades – on what was already a very good car – helped the new Liberty to equal class-leading scores for safety (10 out of 10), space, practicality and ride, and above-average scores for depreciation, insurance, standard features, ergonomics and handling.

In terms of performance, there are grounds for argument that the Liberty 2.5i could do with more oomph and grunt. Compared with the 2.5-litre units in the Mazda6 (138kW/250Nm) and, particularly, the Camry Hybrid (160kW/423Nm), the Liberty looks underdone at 129kW/235Nm.

Its continuously variable transmission (CVT), though, is among the best of its kind, shifting smoothly through stepped ratios in the manner of a traditional automatic.

Overall, the Liberty is a comfy, accommodating drive that would meet the expectations of most buyers in the mid-sized sedan segment. This also makes it a worthy placer in our Australia’s Best Cars awards.

Best Medium Car Under $50,000

Best Medium Car Under $50,000

WEIGHTING

Toyota Camry Ascent HV Hybrid

Mazda6 Touring

Subaru Liberty 2.5i Premium

Details

Scores are weighted – critical, high, medium or low – according to their importance to buyers of cars in this class. The overall average totals reflect these weightings.

Type: 4-door sedan
Fuel type: 91 RON/elec.
Fuel economy: 4.2L/100km
Engine size: 2.5L, 4cyl
Transmission: CVT
Ind. drive-away: $33,509
ANCAP: 5 stars

Type: 4-door sedan
Fuel type: 91 RON
Fuel economy: 6.6L/100km
Engine size: 2.5L, 4cyl
Transmission: 6-spd auto
Ind. drive-away: $41,185
ANCAP: 5 stars

Type: 4-door sedan
Fuel type: 95 RON
Fuel economy: 7.3L/100km
Engine size: 2.5L, 4cyl
Transmission: CVT
Ind. drive-away: $40,748
ANCAP: 5 stars

VALUE FOR MONEY
Pricing

High

8

6

6

Cost of depreciation ($)

Medium

8

7

7

Running and repair costs

Medium

7

6

4

Fuel consumption

High

10

7

6

Warranty and dealer access

Medium

4

3

3

Insurance

Low

7

6

8

Standard features

High

4

5

7

DESIGN AND FUNCTION
Safety

Critical

9

9

10

Environment

Critical

8

7

6

Seating comfort

Medium

6

6

6

Space

Medium

7

6

7

Practicality

Medium

5

5

7

Ergonomics

High

7

8

7

Build and finish quality

High

6

7

6

ON THE ROAD
Performance

Medium

7

7

6

Ride

Medium

8

7

8

Handling

High

8

9

7

Braking

Medium

5

7

6

Smoothness and quietness

Medium

8

7

6

OVERALL AVERAGE

788

752

728

Best Medium car over $50,000

The medium car market over $50,000 might be shrinking, but competition in this luxury category is still fierce.

Winner: BMW 330i Sport Line


Medium-size cars are continuing to feel the pinch in the market as our obsession with all things SUV keeps growing. But within the relatively small field for this year’s program, competition is still fierce.

Premium European and Japanese brands dominate the category and typically showcase the best of their powertrain options and technology portfolios, which is great news for buyers. Over the past few years, the trophy for best medium car over $50,000 has been a two-way battle between Mercedes-Benz and BMW, with BMW making it two in a row in 2018.

The specification level of the ‘Bimmer’ has changed from Luxury Line to Sport Line for this year, which brings a slight increase in price.

The BMW continues to get the important things right for this segment, and in key areas like seat comfort and build quality, the 330i has few peers. Research shows buyers in this segment rate these attributes over low running and repair and insurance costs.

BMWs are known for their on-road dynamics, built around a philosophy of close to 50/50 front-to-rear weight distribution and (until recently) rear-wheel drive. That continues to pay dividends in handling, where the BMW excels over its rivals.

A thick-rimmed, leather-wrapped steering wheel communicates high levels of road feel to the driver, while the chassis balance and overall precision have yet to be matched by its competitors.

Nor does sharp handling compromise the 330i’s ability to soak up bumps and it continues to impress the judges with its excellent marriage of ride quality and handling. All this is achieved without introducing road noise – the 330i rates highly in smoothness and quietness.

BMW’s 185kW/350Nm turbo four-cylinder remains one of the best offerings available, with maximum engine torque always at the ready courtesy of BMW’s slick-shifting eight-speed automatic transmission. Acceleration is brisk, and it shades the rest of the turbo four-cylinder brigade in this class over the 0-100kmh dash.

That’s not at the expense of fuel consumption, either – apart from the hybrid Lexus models, the BMW leads the way in economy.

The downside to the 330i is its pricing. With an indicative drive-away price of $77,459, it falls behind the Mercedes C200 and Volvo S60 by a big margin, countered to some degree by a reasonable standard features list that includes BMW’s intuitive iDrive system and clear head-up display.

The winner and finalists all score 10 for safety, no surprise when advanced features such as lane-departure warning, autonomous emergency braking, pedestrian warning, and cross-traffic alert are the norm.

Second place: Mercedes-Benz C200


The Mercedes C200 remains a popular choice in this segment and C-class models easily outsell the rest by a big margin. With an indicative drive-away price advantage of almost $10,000 and a features list uncompromised by its cheaper entry point, it’s not hard to see why.

The C200 matches the BMW for seat comfort and the electric front seats feature electro-pneumatic lumbar adjustment, making it ideal for longer trips. Space is an area where none of the combatants fared that well – they are mid-sized sedans after all – and the Mercedes scores slightly lower than the BMW there.

Despite having convenience features such as steering wheel-mounted gearshift paddles, the Mercedes trails the BMW in ergonomics but remains ahead of the rest in the category.

Its all-round approach to on-road dynamics compared to BMW’s focus on driver engagement is where the Mercedes really falls away from its long-standing German rival. Not that the Mercedes is a slouch in any sense; its 2.0-litre turbo-charged four-cylinder engine and nine-speed auto combination is refined and delivers good levels of performance while maintaining a reasonable 6.5L/100km fuel consumption figure.

The brand is synonymous with safety and, as such, features nine airbags, blind-spot assistance and an active bonnet to reduce the severity of impact in a collision with a pedestrian or cyclist.

Third place: Volvo S60


With indicative drive-away pricing just above the minimum threshold for entry in the class, you can’t question the S60’s value for money – it leads the rest by a country mile. It’s definitely no ‘poverty pack’ premium sedan devoid of features, either, with electric leather-faced front seats, rain-sensing wipers, and a seven-inch colour touchscreen giving the S60 a class-leading score.

Volvo and safety go hand in hand, so it’s no surprise the S60 gets a 10 on that score, equal with the frontrunners. Where it starts to lose pace is in the ‘design and function’ and ‘on the road’ criteria, with the overall design starting to show its age in more than a few areas. It lagged in seat comfort and the lack of space compared to the others was noticeable.

Ergonomically, Volvo’s multimedia infotainment system and general layout have aged quickly, and the S60 is crying out for the sort of interior and functionality that has been introduced to Volvo’s more recent models, including the just-launched XC40.

The 140kW/300Nm turbo-charged four-cylinder wants for some performance, too, not helped by a six-speed DSG. The package has to work much harder than its contemporaries when pushed along and the resulting low score for smoothness and quietness is not ideal for this class of car.

Best Medium Car Over $50,000

Best Medium Car Over $50,000

WEIGHTING

BMW 3-Series 330i Sport Line

Mercedes-Benz C200 STD

Volvo S60 T4 Kinetic

Details

Scores are weighted – critical, high, medium or low – according to their importance to buyers of cars in this class. The overall average totals reflect these weightings.

Type: 4-door sedan
Fuel type: 95 RON
Fuel economy: 5.8L/100km
Engine size: 2.0L, 4cyl
Transmission: 8-spd auto
Ind. drive-away: $77,459
ANCAP: 5 stars

Type: 4-door sedan
Fuel type: 95 RON
Fuel economy: 6.5L/100km
Engine size: 2.0L, 4 cyl
Transmission: 9-spd auto
Ind. drive-away: $67,633
ANCAP: 5 stars

Type: 4-door sedan
Fuel type: 95 RON
Fuel economy: 6.2L/100km
Engine size: 2.0L, 4cyl
Transmission: 6-spd auto
Ind. drive-away: $55,177
ANCAP: N/A

VALUE FOR MONEY
Pricing

High

4

6

10

Cost of depreciation ($)

Medium

5

7

9

Running and repair costs

Low

5

4

7

Fuel consumption

High

7

6

6

Warranty and dealer access

Medium

2

2

2

Insurance

Low

3

7

9

Standard features

High

5

5

8

DESIGN AND FUNCTION
Safety

Critical

10

10

10

Environment

Critical

7

7

7

Seating comfort

High

7

7

6

Space

Medium

7

6

5

Practicality

Medium

7

7

6

Ergonomics

High

8

7

6

Build and finish quality

Critical

8

8

6

ON THE ROAD
Performance

High

9

7

6

Ride

High

7

7

6

Handling

High

8

7

5

Braking

Medium

7

7

7

Smoothness and quietness

High

8

7

6

OVERALL AVERAGE

882

860

850

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