Fourth Place: 2009 Hyundai Sonata Limited

Just as we were packing underwear for this buzzard-and-baloney trip, the Hyundai guys called to ask whether we'd like to sample their latest updates on a 2009 Sonata. "Bring that baby over," we barked.

This light makeover is appealing. The center stack, the IP, and the center console are totally new, and they're far more modern and rich to the touch, especially the convincingly real-looking wood. The nose, with its classy new headlights and grille, has been altered to look "heavier." To us, it looks Lexus-ish. The dampers have been tuned with higher rebound and compression rates. Power is up by 13 horses, yet induction noise has been reduced. A five-speed automatic is standard. And the steering ratio has been quickened.

What's more, this is a Hyundai, so you get a major load of standard equipment. Among other goodies, our Sonata Limited had stability control, a manumatic transmission, a tire-pressure-monitoring system, a leather interior, fog lights, heated front seats, 17-inch alloy wheels, an Infinity stereo with a six-CD changer, and a sunroof. Nice.

What you notice first about the Sonata is that it's big and airy inside. No competitor in this group surpassed its front or rear interior volumes. The trunk is as big as the Fusion's, and the back seat is as comfortable as the Toyota's. What's more, it offers a pleasingly low cowl and a dash that is pushed far forward. Truth is, the Sonata is now big enough to meet the EPA's large-car standard, even though it competes in the mid-size segment.

In the hills, we didn't really notice a huge improvement in handling. The Sonata is still heavily biased toward a velvety ride, and it shifts weight from corner to corner a little too readily. The steering is still light and agreeably accurate -- maybe a titch too quick just off-center -- but its tracking and self-centering are fine. What's more, the slick manumatic makes the Sonata's transmission the most flexible in this group.

The Hyundai still needs to quicken all of its reflexes by about 10 percent, and the platform still doesn't feel as solid and flex-free as the Accord's or the Altima's. Otherwise, this is an appealing long-distance cruiser, a Sonata playing a nicely orchestrated sonata called, "Creeping Up on the Accord."

Third Place: 2008 Chevrolet Malibu LT

Every editor who climbed into the Malibu said the same thing: "Wow, this thing feels huge." In fact, the Chevy is the heaviest in the group, riding on the longest wheelbase, with an extra-large steering wheel. Strangely, it's also the narrowest, which might account for the tight fit in back.

The Malibu goes down the road like a large car, too. The electric power-assisted steering offers a strong sense of straight-ahead, and its weight builds predictably. The ride-and-handling trade-off is suited to the audience. Pushed to its limits, the suspension proved difficult to disrupt, although there was too much dive under hard braking.

All the voters loved the elegant cockpit, especially the delicate spear of brushed aluminum that shoots across the dash to blend into the front doors. The headliner looked as if it might have been swiped from a Maybach. And the front seats were all-day comfortable, with long, supportive cushions.

Even after 600 miles, it still shocked us to be driving a four-cylinder GM product with such terrific engine isolation. In this group, the Chevy was quietest at full throttle, a statement we can't ever recall making. The sound deadening didn't stop there, either. Wind roar, road noise, tire slap, mechanical thrashiness -- all have been filtered to superbly low levels. Even the ticking of the turn signal, noted one editor, sounds "expensively hushed."

There were a few beefs. The clammy plastic steering wheel, in such a pretty cockpit, felt out of place. The "alloy" wheels are actually plastic-covered steel. The fat A- and C-pillars do damage to sightlines. The 16.3-gallon fuel tank meant the Malibu was always the first to hunt for a Mobil station. Apart from drive, the transmission offers only two manual forward selections, making it tricky to hold big engine revs in the hills. And speaking of the transmission, it's a four-speed. A six-speed will arrive later in the year. You might want to wait for it.

The Malibu is built off the same Epsilon architecture as the slow-selling Saturn Aura. We hope the Chevy moves faster out of showrooms. The General's effort here was huge. If it doesn't pay off, we don't want the company reverting to its old ways.

Second Place: 2008 Nissan Altima 2.5S

Déjà vu. A Nissan Altima 2.5S finished second -- to an Accord -- in our February 2007 version of this test. Then as now, the Altima struck us as the sports car of the bunch. Check it out: Quickest to 60 mph, quickest through the quarter-mile, quickest in our top-gear tests, quickest in a rolling start to 60 mph. And when it was time for lunch, the Nissan was quickest to achieve zero mph, too.

The Altima was our only combatant with a CVT, which elicited some of the standard gripes. With no gears, the engine can call attention to its droning, especially on freeway entrances, where it hangs at WOT for longish spells. Fortunately, Nissan's CVT is smart, even supplying engine braking on downhill stretches. Plus, if you tire of it, you can switch to the manumatic, which expertly blips the throttle on downshifts and whose steps are perfectly spaced.

Around town, the Altima's steering is well-weighted but becomes a little heavy at speed. Nonetheless, the rack delivers more information about road surfaces than the Accord's. Turn-in is sharp, and once you select an arc through a turn, the Altima pursues it like a bloodhound. "And when you do manage to get this car all unweighted," wrote one editor, "you can just tap the brakes and it settles, hunkering down like a cat stalking a mouse."

Complaints? A few. For starters, no four-cylinder Altima can be had with stability control. At speed in the snow, we really missed it. The interior was relentlessly dark -- "like falling into a well," griped one voter. (Unless you have a heavy supply of Prozac, pick a combo that has a Blond or Frost interior.) The plastic surrounding the shifter made no attempt to disguise its crudeness. The back seat was cramped. The 175-horse engine delivered the worst observed fuel economy, although not by much. And the pushbutton starter was slow to cause any underhood parts to whir. Why can't we all agree these systems are just dumb?

The Nissan is a solid, confidence-inspiring car with a rigid platform, smart looks, and excellent control relationships. And we're not the only ones who've noticed. Through November of last year, the Altima was the sixth-bestselling auto in the U.S.

First Place: 2008 Honda Accord EX

In its 32-year existence, the Accord has landed on C/D's 10Best Cars list 22 times. We must have cost Honda a pile of cash in trophy cases alone. In this group, our Accord carried the highest base price, but it was because we wanted to sample the 190 horsepower that comes with the EX, rather than the base LX's 177. It paid off. Our test car was the second quickest to 60 mph.

The Accord's essential goodness, however, doesn't derive from power alone. Even with the standard stability control chipping away, our EX was also the fastest through our lane-change test.

Honda has simply nailed the econosedan formula, and it isn't just a matter of building the highest-revving engine, the most competent suspension, and the most ergonomic interior. The trick is getting every component talking openly and honestly to every other component. It's that sonorous mechanical interplay that lends the Accord its agility and charm. Throttle tip-in reminds us of a BMW 3's, and there's steady power delivery right up to 7100 rpm. Steering heft and linearity are spot-on, although some of us noted that this new rack doesn't transmit road textures as clearly as did its forebear. The taut-yet-frictionless chassis makes up for it, however, posting regular updates on available grip. The brakes are easy to modulate. The thin A-pillars let you see around turns. In short, no car in our cast was as eager to establish a friendly rhythm when the roads got tricky.

Although the Accord was tied with the Avenger for loudest idle, it was merely a matter of our microphones registering quantity of sound versus quality.

Like the Sonata, the Accord is now officially a large sedan, with the extra room paying dividends abaft. For two or three adults, the rear seat proved the most spacious in this group. But try it yourself -- the seatback is steeply reclined. We loved the three-tier dash, whose bulges and contours place all secondary controls at your fingertips. Which is lucky, because the center stack -- ahem -- contains 34 buttons.

We wish the Accord came with a manumatic, but you can shift manually by pulling straight back from D, to D3, to 2, to 1. Left to its own devices, the five-speed is prescient about holding lower gears on downhill grades and during spirited driving.

Like its predecessors, this latest Accord contains real meat in the middle. And that ain't no baloney.

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