• Feb 25th 2008 at 5:23PM
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We drive south to Ohio's Hocking Hills often, not only for the challenging byways but also for the roadside amusements. You'll find Martha Hitler Park and the Pumpkin Festival in Circleville, which is also home to the Ted Lewis Museum. Lewis was the vaudevillian who called himself "the high-hatted tragedian of song" and whose signature line was, "Is everybody happy?" In Laurelville, there's the world's best cider from Bob Bowers. There's the Washboard Music Festival in Logan. And on the way down, we can stop in homely Waldo to dine at the G&R Tavern, famous for its bologna sandwiches ($3.50), bologna salad ($2.50), and braunschweiger sandwiches ($2.25). On a good day, the G&R serves 180 fried-bologna sandwiches, each featuring a half-inch slab of ground, smoked sausage hidden beneath a crush of pickles, tomato wedges, lettuce, and a hunk of onion large enough to choke a longshoreman. Everything is served on paper plates, including the half-pound slices of cream pie. And yes, they pronounce it baloney.

As it turned out, the baloney theme was appropriate, because we were evaluating salt-of-the-earth Everyman family sedans, a segment that accounts annually for two million U.S. sales. Each of our competitors was fitted with a DOHC 16-valve four-cylinder engine and an automatic transmission. We aimed for base prices in the $22,000 vicinity, although we wound up with a $4300 variance -- a sum sufficient to purchase 1228 bologna sandwiches.

We conducted a similar comparo as recently as February 2007. Since then, however, new players have alighted, notably the Chevrolet Malibu, the eighth-generation Honda Accord, and a freshened Hyundai Sonata. The Chrysler Sebring that we included in the last outing was this time replaced by its Dodge Avenger sibling.

During a photo shoot, we were ominously scrutinized by at least 100 turkey vultures perching in nearby trees and atop a state-park lodge, all glaring with either curiosity or evil intent. Many had spread their wings. With a wingspan of six feet, they were a little threatening. Shifting from foot to foot, the vultures appeared to be evaluating the most tender portions of our anatomies.

Our purpose in the hills was to determine whether seven ubiquitous Wonder-bread family sedans featured any meat in the middle. It seemed like the vultures' purpose was to determine whether we were full of baloney.

Seventh Place: 2008 Dodge Avenger SXT

It may look like a seven-eighths-scale Dodge Charger, but any other claim the Avenger may lay to its big brother's well-earned reputation is a stretch.

What most damages the Avenger is its 173-hp, 2.4-liter "world engine," built just down the road from us in Dundee, Michigan. It produces way too much racket -- the noisiest in our group at full throttle and at 70-mph cruise. And the sound quality was alternately described as "walnuts in a Cuisinart," "a weed whip with a loose spool," and "four shot wheel bearings."

What's more, the engine felt overwhelmed in this package. To 60 mph, it was the second slowest in the group, and the four-speed transmission was often guilty of summoning the wrong gear. On backwoods roads, it was sometimes difficult to keep the powerplant on the boil, which at least mitigated the noise. The upside, however, was that the Avenger equaled the Camry for best observed fuel economy.

The Dodge lost points for its plasticky interior, with so many hard and angular edges that it resembled a gray Picasso. "There's no common theme in here," griped one editor. "Watch what your elbows bang into, because it's gonna hurt." With its squat, upright windshield and high beltline, the Avenger felt small, inside and out. And it wasn't wholly an illusion. In this group, its back seat proved the most cramped for two adults, and the Dodge offered the least capacious trunk.

Which isn't to say the car came up snake-eyes. The front-passenger seat folds flat, and the cushions are firm, with seatbacks that are supportive in the right places. The gauges feature easy-to-read black numerals on white faces. The steering proved agreeably accurate, with appropriate heft. You can store chilled drinks in the beverage bin. The chassis remained composed when called on to hustle. And our 22,000-mile test car was not only the least expensive in this group -- by a wide margin -- but also more rattle-free than the Camry.

Still, if you're drawn to the Avenger, cough up the extra $1350 for the DOHC 2.7-liter V-6. It's worth it.

Sixth Place: 2008 Ford Fusion SEL

This wasn't the Fusion we wanted. Its as-tested price was far too high, due mostly to its optional sunroof, nav system, and several other gratuitous gewgaws -- all of which we tried to ignore. Still, if you specify just the five-speed automatic ($875), the sport-tuned suspension ($895), and the leather skins ($895), you'll wind up with a quite luxurious little sedan fetching just over 23 grand.

This Ford's interior was a knockout, with joyful red-leather inserts in the seat cushions, matching red stitching, a jewel-like analog clock, and a leather-wrapped wheel. Forward sightlines were excellent. The trunk was as large as the Hyundai's.

Set off by tasteful alloy wheels, the Fusion's sharp-pleated exterior was uplifting, too, lending the whole package a whiff of elegance unexpected in this class.

We would have preferred that the HVAC controls weren't buried down in the inky-black well of the center stack and that the driver's seatback could be adjusted electronically. What's more, the lone signal/wiper stalk always confused us, even after 600 miles of experience.

With its 18-inch performance-biased rubber, the Fusion not surprisingly evinced best-in-group skidpad grip and was equally athletic around our "Hockingheim ring," where it was abetted by sharp steering, sure turn-in, and nicely controlled body motions -- all at little cost to ride quality.

So why didn't the Fusion rank higher? First, its 160-horse, 2.3-liter Duratec just couldn't get the job done. In this group, the Ford was slowest to 30 mph, to 60, through the quarter-mile, and in both our top-gear tests. Lowest top speed, too.

Second, its transmission acted like some sort of steroidal homing pigeon, drawn perpetually to high gear. The car would step off smoothly, but if you didn't summon full throttle ASAP, the trans was in fifth gear about 10 feet later. Because the shifter offers only drive and low, our pilots had little choice but to mash the throttle to summon donkey-slow two- or three-gear kickdowns that would snap your neck. "It's like the engine is either on or off," wrote one editor.

Despite its solid, composed platform, the Fusion was difficult to drive smoothly. Former Ford consultant Jackie Stewart would have slugged someone.

Fifth Place: 2008 Toyota Camry LE

There's a scene in a Seinfeld episode in which George Costanza's father, played by Jerry Stiller, screams, "Serenity now!" He should have been driving a Camry.

This Toyota goes about its business with regal deliberation and narcotic tranquillity, offering the sort of ride you'd expect from a limousine. It was also the quietest at idle, and no other contestant was quieter at a 70-mph cruise. "An engine like a cage full of finches," wrote an editor.

On the other hand, the Camry steadfastly declined to engage in any childish behavior, supplying the least skidpad grip, the slowest lane-change speed, the most body roll, and the least power -- 32 horses shy of what the Accord's inline-four produces, for instance.

It's no secret that the Camry is aimed at 50-something baby boomers. Just look at its center stack. The radio buttons are large, round, and exactly where they were in the '60s -- on/off control on the left, volume control on the right. Want to switch modes? The AM button is three inches long. The three rotary HVAC controls are even larger and equally intuitive and can be adjusted while you're wearing gloves. At full whack, the ventilation fan simply purrs. Backlit by a baby-blue luminescence, the center stack evinces a serene art deco look.

The Camry's transmission was seamless, too, shifting up and down unnoticed. But it doesn't want you second-guessing it -- witness the diabolical left-right maze you'll need to negotiate to shift manually from D to 4 to 3 to 2 to L.

The steering proved a little numb for our tastes, but at least it was light. The brake pedal was easy to modulate. The back-seat cushion offered excellent thigh support. The optional stability control ($650) was transparent and saved our bacon -- our bologna, actually -- two or three times on slushy apexes in the hills. And the Camry sidled up to the gas pumps as infrequently as the Avenger.

In stark contrast to the Fusion, it was almost impossible not to drive the Camry smoothly, making it the car everyone wanted to inhabit during heavy-traffic slogs. At day's end, however, it came up long on practicality and short on exuberance. Sometimes the living room isn't easily converted into the game room.

Next Page: Hyundai Sonata Limited, Chevrolet Malibu LT, 2008 Nissan Altima 2.5S and Honda Accord EX

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