So yes, the midsize sedan's grip on family transportation is weakening. Ford certainly thinks so, yet this change in consumer preferences comes at a time when the current crop of sedans is sensational. They're bigger and more powerful, yet also more efficient. Safety scores are impeccable. They even look better than ever.
So before running out to score one of the bajillion little SUVs flooding the market, why not ponder this trio of midsize sedan all-stars that might actually work better? Over the course of three consecutive weeks we tested the 2018 Camry XSE V6, 2018 Accord Touring 2.0T and the perennial critical-darling 2018 Mazda6 Signature. The latter was thoroughly overhauled and, perhaps as such, bucked the segment trend by actually selling more in June this year. Each was a range-topping trim level with all the bells and whistles, plus the most powerful engine available. Really, you couldn't find cars closer in power, price and feature content.
Performance and fuel economyToyota bucked the turbocharged trend by sticking with naturally aspirated engines for the 2018 Camry, and when it comes to its 3.5-liter V6, it's sure hard to argue with that decision. For starters, it produces 301 horsepower. Let that sink in for a moment. A 301-hp Toyota Camry. That crushes the others, while its 267 pound-feet of torque is only 6 less than the Accord. This is a strong, smooth engine that only gets better when you realize it matches the 26-mpg combined fuel economy of the others.
Honda, meanwhile, followed the masses by switching to a turbocharged four-cylinder for the Accord's engine upgrade (and its base engine, for that matter). Though its 252 hp is considerably down on the Camry and its 271 lb-ft is only a smidgen more, the Accord's torque arrives earlier in the rev range without feeling overtly turbocharged. It also has 143 fewer pounds to contend with. When wrung out, this new 2.0-liter belts out a beautiful, typically Honda song made possible by the smart 10-speed automatic (the base 1.5-liter is paired to a CVT that results in more drone than mechanical music) that thankfully doesn't draw much attention to itself.
Now, should you prefer fewer gears and more pedals, the Accord is the only car here to offer a manual transmission with its upgrade engine. Sure, you can only get it with the lesser-equipped Sport trim level, but whatever. Beggars, choosers, etc.
As for the Mazda, its newly available 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder is growlier than the Accord's new turbo mill and not as smooth as either competitor engine. Its output also depends on the gas you use: 227 hp on regular gas and 250 hp with premium. Its 310 lb-ft of torque remains the same with either, however, and you're more likely to notice that any way. It suitably feels stronger than the others off the line, and it benefits from superior responses to driver inputs. The throttle is superb, reacting to delicate inputs without feeling overcaffeinated. It's also unchanged when you press the Sport button, which, unlike those of the other cars here that also fiddle with the steering and suspension, only alters the transmission.
And what an alteration it makes, as Mazda's six-speed downshifts readily and smartly. Brake going into a corner and the transmission will drop a cog for you, not unlike the sport modes of a Mercedes-AMG or Porsche. Yes, it has paddles like the others, but I didn't actually find myself needing them. That's a sign of excellence, which makes it a little more palatable that the best car to drive does not have a manual. It's only available on the non-turbo base model. Boo.
Ride and handlingThat's right, the Mazda6 is the best one to drive. It's agile, playful and light on its feet. While I wrote last year that the new Camry feels more like the 6, after driving them in short succession, it's still not on the same level. Actually, the Toyota feels about 800 pounds heavier despite the actual disadvantage being 17 pounds. Perhaps Mazda's new-fangled G-Vectoring Control has something to do with that, but I'm crediting its benchmark steering. It's low friction on center with a buttery smooth turn-in and just-right effort. It weights up naturally as you turn through a corner and almost feels hydraulic. A poor man's Porsche wouldn't be far from the truth.
Right, so the Camry and Accord aren't going to be winning the fun-to-drive category. Actually, neither are particularly fun, but they aren't loafing appliances, either. The Camry's sportier XSE trim has impressive grip and remains flat through corners. If a skidpad revealed it pulled more lateral Gs than the 6, it wouldn't be surprising. It should definitely be better than the squealing Accord. At the same time, the Camry also had the most comfortable and compliant ride of the group. That's in contrast to the previous Camry SE, which could never quite reconcile its platform's original comfort-oriented mission with new, handling-focused orders.
Ultimately, the Camry is let down by its steering, which is just too high in effort (and it gets even heavier when you activate Sport). There are those who equate heavy steering with sportier steering, but this reviewer does not. In this case, it's a hindrance to feeling what the wheels are doing and probably adds to that hefty car feel. However, this could certainly be the result of, and the downside to, having a heavier V6 engine sitting atop the front wheels. At the press launch, the four-cylinder Camry did feel more agile than the V6 model.
Steering also disappoints in the Accord. It's a bit disconnected, although its Sport mode does a better job of dialing in a bit of extra effort than the Camry's. It never feels as alive in your hands as the 6's does, nor older Accords', either. In general, the Honda feels lighter on its feet than the Camry (no doubt cause it's a lot lighter), and although not "fun," so much about it just feels right.
As for the Accord's ride, other trim levels are probably better. The as-tested Touring trim comes with adaptive suspension dampers. That could be great, but Touring also comes with 19-inch wheels that stick out from their razor-thin sidewalls and will be constantly curbed (as our test car's were on arrival), and also seem to make the Accord clop over bumps like a sprinter wearing Dr. Martens. I also suspect the mild suspension float experienced over road undulations (not present in the other cars here) could be the result of compensating for the harshness created by so little sidewall (235/40 R19). The Camry and 6 also rode on 19's yet didn't suffer from the same sort of ride degradation.
Want the biggest car here? Get the Accord. It's not just a matter of specs, either.
Passenger and cargo space
To provide the toughest test possible, the front seat was positioned for this particular 6-foot-3 driver who then got out and sat in the back seat. The Accord had a soda can's worth of space remaining between knee and seat back. The Camry's seat was just grazing knees. The Mazda6's driver seat had to be scooched up to create enough room. All would be more than fine for those of average height, though the Accord's size advantage could come into play when fitting a rear-facing child seat. Rear headroom was comparable all around, but the Camry's available panoramic sunroof (versus the regular sunroof listed in its specs) reduces front headroom. The new Camry's driving position may have been pleasantly lowered and sportified for 2018, but it can make things a little squishy. Unfortunately, the panoramic sunroof is tied to the XSE trim level and therefore the V6.
As for the trunk, we tested them using two midsize check-in suitcases and two carry-on roller suitcases. The Accord and Camry accommodated them all between their wheel wells, but the Honda's extra trunk length would allow for bigger or extra bags than the Toyota could manage. The Mazda could only fit the bigger bags between its wheels, leaving the smaller ones to be awkwardly stacked atop each other. There's noticeably less space, though at least its gooseneck hinges are shrouded and won't crush anything. Cubic-foot measurements in the spec sheet echo these real-world observations.
If you're thinking you'd have to be nuts to pay $36,000 for a Honda Accord or $38,000 for a Toyota Camry, maybe you'd be right. But at least their interiors look, and for the most part, feel the part. Recent generations of each have generally been unremarkable.
Interior quality, design and usability
The Camry has made the bigger jump, which is actually more evident in the lower LS trim. No matter what you pay, however, Toyota's cabin design is nearly as busy as its exterior. Compared to the refreshingly minimalist Accord and Mazda6, there's a lot going on and it probably won't age well aesthetically. Its materials and craftsmanship should hold up, though, as both are stronger than before. Really, if the plastics and pleathers found in one of these competitors is better than the others, it's not so great to be obvious.
The Mazda's interior was significantly updated for 2018, and although not a full re-do, it's indeed more attractive. The new range-topping Signature trim adds ritzier cabin materials, including a distinctive brown suede-like material that's actually pretty similar to the stuff covering the IKEA chair in my living room. I like that Strandmon, so I liked the trim.
The Accord's attractively minimalistic cabin probably won't wow you, but everything is high quality. The climate control knobs click like an Audi's. More importantly, its cabin is also the most functional. The abyssal under-arm storage bin puts the 6's glorified change purse to shame, while its bin forward of the shifter features a USB port and is large enough to fit any number of phone sizes (though wireless charging is not included, unlike the Camry). This is also a perfectly random opportunity to note the Accord's superior visibility.
TechnologyThe 2018 Accord corrects Honda's brief dalliance with terrible infotainment systems. This latest touchscreen has better graphics, a more sensible menu structure and physical accompanying controls. It's very good. The Camry's new Entune 3.0 touchscreen is also easy to use and unlikely to cause headaches -- you may even like it better than the Accord's -- but Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are not available. They also weren't on our 6, but unlike Toyota, Mazda is actually rolling it out in September as an update to cars sold and unsold. Our test car just hadn't been updated yet.
So we can't comment on how they might work with Mazda's knob-and-screen infotainment system, but we don't have high hopes. Though it has its merits and certainly isn't the worst interface out there, it has a number of usability problems that constantly frustrate (you can't see your radio preset list and satellite radio info as the same time, for instance). It feels like it's behind the times. At least the Mazda6's Bose stereo sounded the best of the bunch while the Honda's Honda stereo was the weakest.
In terms of safety tech, the Accord and Camry come standard with a suite of accident avoidance features. Similar items are standard on every 6 but the base trim, where they are at least optional. Good all around, then. In terms of how they actually function, the 6's systems trust you more and are less likely to cry wolf. For instance, its lane keeping system makes no noise and instead gently vibrates the wheel and subtly corrects the steering. Your passengers are unlikely to notice. By contrast, the Honda's forward collision warning system, despite improvements, still erroneously beeps and blares "BRAKE!" at you in moments where no collision is likely or even possible.
The Camry and Accord's adaptive cruise control systems are a bit better, though, as the 6's is a little to jabby on the brakes and not quite as natural in its reactions.
ConclusionI feel bad for the Toyota Camry. It finally gets the accolades to match its perennial bestseller status only to have Honda steal its spotlight with a wildly improved and impressive Accord. The redesigned Camry is so good in so many ways, particularly its V6, but there's little it does that Honda doesn't match or better. That goes for its reliability reputation as well. Yet, at least it strikes a more emotional connection. The rear and profile look excellent, especially the low swooping beltline, and the XSE's front is at least more tolerable than the LE/XLE's more gaping maw. I like the way it looks.
Many will prefer the sleek Mazda6, though, even with the test car's boring grey paint doing it zero favors. It's also the most engaging here to drive and the only one that could legitimately be described as fun. In terms of an emotional connection, the 6 tugs the heartstrings stronger than the others while its substantial updates for 2018 make for a more refined, competitive overall package.
However, after back-to-back-to-back weeks in these three family sedans, the 2018 Honda Accord is the one that would get my strongest recommendation. Practically and rationally speaking, it's extremely well-rounded. It's also engaging enough to drive and offers a manual transmission, while the new design is an eye-catching knock out. From certain angles, its sloped roofline, cab-rearward haunches and blunt nose evoke the second-generation Mercedes CLS — or the first-generation Hyundai Azera. Either way, it's the one I thought looked the best.
And really, if your personal style choice ultimately makes the decision here, that's just fine. So too if you dig driving one more than the other, or to be perfectly realistic, get a killer deal. Because these three really are the cream of the midsize sedan crop. If they can't save the species, well, then it really is doomed.