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I believe this is the story:

The $25,000 Question: Which Midsize Sedan Is No. 1?

OSHOCTON, Ohio — UBIQUITOUS yet practically invisible, midsize family sedans are the appliances of the road. Like refrigerators, they hum along day in, day out, grabbing attention mainly when they start to clunk or grind. Their main mission is to cover as many miles as possible while steering clear of the service manager at the motor mall.

These are all-occasion cars for almost everyone, cautious designs generally lacking in high style or bad taste. Boring? Perhaps. A relic of the last century? Hardly. Even in the age of the S.U.V., midsize cars own a huge chunk of the vehicle market — 24 percent last year, according to Ward's AutoInfoBank. Americans left dealerships with more than four million new Camrys, Accords and like-size cars in 2001, outnumbering all sport utilities of any size.

No other part of the market is so fiercely competitive, and a wave of new models is changing the face of the segment. Redesigned Toyota Camrys and Nissan Altimas arrived last year; the 2003 model year has delivered a revamped Honda Accord and a new model, the Mazda6, which replaces the mostly forgotten 626.

So the time seemed right to gather some of the best-selling midsize sedans for a competitive analysis. Eight automotive journalists took part, and nine test cars were procured. A test site was established in east-central Ohio, where late last month the sedans were put through their paces on some outstanding roads ablaze in autumn color. Driving the cars back-to-back over the same 22-mile loop, shifting from one to another in succession, clarified the differences (and similarities) among them.

With the average new-car transaction around $21,000, discounts from sticker price are common in this segment. For purposes of this test, a $25,000 sticker-price ceiling was established. (Chrysler and General Motors sent cars that exceeded the limit, but since rebates are offered on those cars, the participants agreed to look the other way.)

To stay within the price limit, once options were included, the foreign brands provided 4-cylinder models, with one exception. (The Kia Optima had a V-6.) All of the four-cylinder cars also come with V-6's, and the Optima also comes with a 4.

The three domestic cars, which come only with V-6's, had upgraded, optional engines. Still, in the end, the larger motors and extra horsepower provided little advantage; the four cars that ultimately ranked highest were 4's.

Nor were price disparities much of a factor, despite a $5,000 gap between the least expensive (Nissan Altima) and most costly (Dodge Intrepid) cars. Three of the four priciest cars did not crack the top four.

The participants, in addition to this writer, were Cheryl Jensen, an Ohio freelance writer; Bob Knoll, an automotive engineer who retired in 1997 after 32 years as auto-testing director for Consumer Reports, and who now contributes to these pages as a Connecticut freelance writer; Michelle Krebs and Mark Phelan, both Detroit area automotive writers; Dan Lienert, a New York freelancer and recent college graduate; and Keith Martin, editor and publisher of Sports Car Market magazine in Portland, Ore. (Christopher Jensen, auto editor of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, also took part.)

The testers drove the cars as their owners would, on a variety of roads and driving conditions — not on test tracks or slalom courses. They awarded numeric scores in 18 categories, from noise/vibration and interior comfort to braking and maneuverability; the scores were totaled to determine the rankings. Separately, each driver picked the sedan that he or she liked best over all.

There were differences of opinion, but a consensus emerged: the Mazda6 received the most points and was the favorite car of four of the seven drivers who voted.

But there were essentially four winners: the Accord, Volkswagen Passat and Nissan Altima, in addition to the Mazda, all scored well above the others, and all received at least one first-place vote.

Here is a look at each car:

Critics' Choice: Mazda6i

If the Mazda6 were appearing on Broadway, its marquis would have as many raves as "The Producers."

"It looks like a more expensive car," Ms. Krebs wrote in the logbook. "A stunning, rich interior."

Mr. Martin's entry read: "The most fun I've had all day. It feels like a true rear-wheel-drive sports coupe. Brilliantly matched suspension, performance and appearance." Ms. Jensen wrote: "Nimble and lively — it really has the European handling dialed in."

Success comes at a price. The test car, elegantly sporty in basic black with aluminum wheels and deck spoiler, was the third-most-expensive car at $24,925, because of its many options. But the net effect was a car that in many ways felt and looked like a sport sedan costing $10,000 more.

It wasn't just show; the Mazda's finely tuned suspension impressed even the holdouts who preferred other cars over all. "A wonderfully tight chassis," said Mr. Phelan, who picked the Passat. Mr. Knoll, who chose the Altima, wrote: "The boy-racer styling is a bit much, but the handling is very crisp."

The Mazda's win could be chalked up as enthusiasts letting their hearts overrule their heads, but the Mazda was practical, too. Its interior space fell in the middle of the pack and tall passengers's heads rubbed the roof in the back seat, but the car did not feel claustrophobic. Its trunk was about average, but nicely shaped — with a lid that rose on unobtrusive struts, unlike the Altima's luggage-crushing hinges.

Kudos for the chassis drowned out some meek criticisms of the engine of the Mazda6i. (The six-cylinder version is called the Mazda6s.) The 2.3-liter 4-cylinder had the least torque in the group, and its 160 horsepower was among the lowest. Of the four-cylinder engines, the Accord's felt better balanced, the Camry's smoother and the Altima's more zippy.

But Mazda's four-speed "manumatic" transmission shifted smoothly, and its manual shift gate let the hot-rodders in the group have fun on the twists of Ohio Route 60, then carom onto a hilly gravel road that formed part of the test route.

With a sport suspension and low-profile tires, the Mazda's ride was far from the group's smoothest, though it was not much more jarring than the newly firmed-up Accord. If a soft ride is near the top of your midsize wish list, the Camry or Impala are probably better choices.

2. Volkswagen Passat GL

The Mazda won by a length, but it took a photo finish to decide the place and show positions. The Passat and Accord ended up tied in total points, and each received a single first-place vote. But the VW finished ahead by virtue of being the second-place selection of four testers, compared with just one second-place vote for the Accord. On another day, or with different examples, the order might be reversed.

Indeed, even those who liked the VW's strong, no-nonsense feel had some reservations about its utility, particularly if used by a growing family. The Passat feels positively compact when placed against larger midsize cars like the Intrepid, and its narrow cabin makes three-abreast rear seating a hypothetical situation for adults. Like most VW's, the cabin is trimmed with high-quality materials, but the spare design strikes some people as austere.

Those same shoppers may find the VW's European chassis too stiff or the car's off-the-line starts too slow. (A turbocharger, the only one in the group, redeems the 1.8-liter engine at higher speeds.) The Passat also had the only five-speed automatic transmission, with a Tiptronic feature for self-shifting. "If you work the gears," I wrote in the logbook, "it feels peppy enough."

Even the Mazda's fans conceded that the Passat's chassis might be better. "Abrupt turns on gravel demonstrated how good the suspension and body structure are," Ms. Krebs wrote in the book, where the phrase "vaultlike body structure" appeared more than once. "Great steering," Mr. Phelan said, and Mr. Knoll said the Passat had "the best stability."

But noise from the engine was described variously as "drony," "boomy" and "high-pitched whistling," and there were complaints of buzzes and rattles.

Of the test cars, only the VW recommended premium fuel.

3. Honda Accord EX

Although the Camry usually outsells it, the Accord tends to get better reviews from auto writers, given its sportier manners. So the beige Accord EX that arrived in Ohio was the odds-on favorite to win best-sedan honors, even with a five-speed manual transmission. (The other cars had automatics, like most midsize sedans sold in the United States).

But the first drivers to take the wheel complained of problems with the steering, and after a quick inspection, Mr. Knoll found the problem: the steering wheel was coming loose. The car was parked and Honda officials were contacted; they dispatched a mechanic from a nearby dealership, and the Accord eventually went on the road again.

The problem was later attributed to unauthorized repairs (not by company employees, Honda insisted) made after the car was driven in a product-introduction program. The test Accord's problems didn't end there. There were unsightly welds inside the doors and — unusual for a Honda — ill-fitting dash panels. The company later conceded that the test car was an early-production model and insisted that Accords at dealerships did not have similar problems.

Like any Honda, the Accord won praise for its simple, logical controls and excellent ergonomics; the new model has a chevron-shaped panel in the center of the dashboard with large knobs for the most-used stereo and air-conditioning controls. And the smooth in-line 4 was, like the engines in most Hondas, beyond reproach. The manual shifter was as slick as any to be found in a mass-market sedan.

The Accord's suspension was singled out for praise. "Transitions nicely on tight curves," Ms. Jensen wrote. "More fun to drive than expected." To which Mr. Knoll added, "Honda is going more European. The handling is crisp. The ride is good." Mr. Martin summed up the general view when he wrote, "The handling is not up to the standards of the VW or Mazda, but it's good." And in a nod to the $22,060 window sticker, he added, "The Accord may be the best overall package of performance, quality and style."

Mr. Lienert, the youngest driver, was the Accord's biggest fan, choosing it as his favorite. "A great car," he wrote. With a better example to evaluate, no one in the group would be likely to disagree.

4. Nissan Altima 2.5 S

It is not easy to get eight people to agree on anything, and there were differences of opinion about most of the cars. The exception was the Altima, which seemed to impress everyone without offending anyone.

Over and over, the words "good value" appeared in the logbook. At $20,338, the 2.5 S was the least-expensive test car, its sole option being a $799 air bag package (which included antilock brakes). Yet little about the seascape-green Nissan felt cheap. "Seems like a much more expensive car," Ms. Krebs wrote.

The rather large four-cylinder was quick off the line, and the car had a light, eager feel. The steering was too light, some said. Some complained that the car understeered — requiring corrections while cornering — while others praised its moves. "Handling is almost as good as the Mazda or Accord," wrote Mr. Knoll, who made the Altima his first choice.

Some cost-cutting was evident in the cabin and trunk, where a protruding latch on the lid threatened scalps. The modern instrument panel got good scores for its design but demerits for its cheap-feeling plastic, like a flimsy door over a storage bin.

5. Chevrolet Impala LS

The three domestic sedans rated fairly poorly, which would not surprise anyone who drives a lot of new cars. What surprised some of the test drivers was the relative good showing of the Impala, a car that proves that beauty is more than skin deep.

The exterior and interior styling took a beating in the written comments, which panned the cabin's exposed screws and a lack of gear markings on the shifter, among other things. Yet there was considerable praise for the Chevy's road manners. "Car has terrific ride and handling and a proven motor," Ms. Krebs said. "But I wouldn't be caught dead owning one."

The Impala's ride was among the smoothest in the group, and the relatively big car handled the course's twists and turns with aplomb. The old-fashioned pushrod V-6 felt as if it were loafing much of the time, and it came alive, Corvette-style, at the touch of the accelerator.

The cabin was roomy and the trunk was the largest. Yet the Impala failed to rise to the top. "Ramschackle looks, but fun to drive," was Mr. Lienert's assessment.

6. Toyota Camry LE

No one could be more surprised at the Camry's lackluster scores than the people who handed them out, but there was no doubt that the popular car generated little enthusiasm on the winding roads of the test course.

"Handles like an overboiled wet noodle," Ms. Krebs said. Mr. Knoll was kinder, but damned the car with faint praise: "It's not bad, but it's like an older American car. It would be a pleasant car for a long trip."

The Camry has many attributes, however, starting with high-quality materials and meticulous assembly. It rides softly — too softly, some said — and quietly. Its four-cylinder is powerful and whisper-soft.

Yet the car felt confused navigating sharp curves, and the body leaned as if inebriated. The front disc-rear drum brakes felt squishy, especially compared with the Accord's solid four-wheel discs. The styling was summed up by Mr. Phelan as "body by Wonder Bread."

The Camry seems like a car that is at its best on Interstates, where its smoothness, quietness and blandness work in its favor.

"So much beige!" Mr. Lienert wrote in the log book. He was referring to the interior trim, but the comment summed up the Camry's performance as well.

7. Dodge Intrepid SXT

Love it (like Mr. Phelan) or hate it (like Mr. Lienert); the Dodge left no one at a loss for words. "The Intrepid is surprisingly good for a big old car," Ms. Krebs wrote. Mr. Lienert took another view: "A pretty bad car."

But the Intrepid handled impressively for its size, remaining glued to the sharpest curves. Its V-6 was powerful, though a bit raucous — contributing to a din in the cabin that Mr. Jensen likened to "a big, noisy drum." Road noise thundered and echoed through the car.

Even the car's fans panned its cabin, which one driver described as "a great looking interior if you like cheap, hard plastic." To me, the Intrepid's seats, which felt like unreinforced foam, were clearly the worst.

But the interior is spacious and the trunk is huge. A year before it is due to be discontinued, the Intrepid still feels unfinished.

8. Ford Taurus SEL

Despite its cleaned-up styling and advanced air bags, the Taurus drew some scathing criticism. Several testers said the car, once the trend setter in this market, felt old and tired.

"The Taurus squeezes every ounce of joy out of driving," Ms. Krebs said. She found the steering sloppy and likened the handling to a dog wagging its tail. Yet Mr. Martin, who was harshly critical of some Japanese models, liked the Ford, which he called the "surprise of the day, with a terrific engine and decent suspension."

Most of the other drivers found the Taurus had a distinct rental-car feel, with seats like plywood, excessive wind noise and overassisted steering. Mr. Phelan likened the car to an old relative fallen into squalor, whom no one visits anymore. Fortunately, Ford has a replacement on the way.

9. Kia Optima SE

Kia's first midsize car, which shares many of its parts with the Hyundai Sonata, was not originally intended to be part of the test. But it was on hand — Mr. Lienert had driven it from New York — and served as a stand-in when the Accord was sidelined.

The Optima, though impressive in many ways, was simply outclassed. Though about the same size as the Passat, it would be better matched against "entry midsize" cars like the Chevrolet Malibu.

But the test car came well equipped at the group's second-lowest price, with leather seats, a sunroof and CD player. The amenities were fine and the drivetrain won some praise, although Mr. Jensen experienced "violent upshifts" at low speeds. Most drivers complained about what Ms. Krebs called a "sloppy, unpredictable suspension," vague brakes and cabin noise.

The test car was a 2002 model; the Optima received a face lift for '03. Kia's warranty, with drivetrain coverage for 100,000 miles, is the best in the group, but even that didn't make up for the lack of refinement.

"The engine response is all sound and fury, signifying nothing" Mr. Phelan said. Mr. Lienert said: "I want to like it, but it has a long way to go."

That was the american story. And, if they said it (and they are so pretentious and critical) it must be quite a car ... ;)
Like we didn't know it!!!
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