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Review and photos by Jonathan Yarkony and Peter Bleakney

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2013 Chevrolet Malibu vs 2013 Ford Fusion vs 2013 Honda Accord vs 2013 Nissan Altima vs 2012 Toyota Camry

When it comes to the automotive market, there are certain segments that are simply that much more competitive. Well, it doesn’t get much more competitive than the mid-size family sedan segment. Every brand has an entry, and pricing is usually so close that financing or incentives can turn any car into a great value.

Every year it seems that one segment or another has a wave of new products, and this year it has been the year of the sedan. It’s not often you get updates from most of the major players in a single year, but since last September when the 2012 Toyota Camry was launched, we have seen the introduction of all-new 2013 models in the Nissan Altima, Chevrolet Malibu, Ford Fusion, and Honda Accord.

2013 FAMILY SEDAN COMPARISON. Click image to enlarge

While mid-size sedans don’t account for the volume of compact cars or crossovers here in Canada, it is still an extremely popular segment and is also a reflection of a brand’s best engineering, design, and packaging efforts to capture sales, though moreso in the US market, where mid-size sedans dominate the sales charts.

Two of the vehicles are such household names that they are synonymous with the term family sedan: Accord and Camry. Throughout their long histories, Camry has earned a reputation as comfortable, reliable transport, while the Accord has distinguished itself with a more sporting demeanour to go along with a similar reputation for reliability. The new Camry tries to overcome its ‘vanilla’ flavour, but without alienating its solid customer base. The Accord may not appear drastically different, but is full of simple, yet thoughtful improvements.

The Nissan Altima has always been a bit of an outsider, but surged into sales success with its own sporting pretensions and unique styling, but this Altima seems to have changed tracks and matches softer, fluid styling with a comfort-oriented vehicle.

2013 FAMILY SEDAN COMPARISON. Click image to enlarge

Chevrolet is a brand that is reinventing its identity since emerging from bankruptcy protection, and the Malibu is a key product for them to reach more customers in a traditional market. However, they have an uphill battle, and they would need to deliver a spectacular vehicle to conquest sales away from Toyota and Honda. Not to spoil the surprise, but this car is not it.

And then there is the Fusion, the second generation that this nameplate has taken over from the Taurus, but it arrived like a European supermodel showing up at a frat party. When we lined these cars up, I couldn’t help but think, “Which one of these cars does not belong?” In a sea of drab, conventional designs, in drab, muted colours, the brilliant blue Fusion was a breath of fresh air. But does it have the content to back up that good first impression? And is that styling too much for this ‘white bread’ segment?

We brought together four-cylinder (though one adds battery assist), automatic-equipped samples of each model, although they ranged from a near-base Camry LE to a fully loaded Accord Touring and drove them back to back on the same day to discern the strengths and weaknesses of each and to crown our family sedan king. –JY

Fifth Place: 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco  1LT


2013 CHEVROLET MALIBU ECO 1LT. Click image to enlarge

Who brought the hybrid? Chevy did, that’s who. The 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco is, however, such a mild hybrid that we saw no reason to exclude it—it was also priced right in the heart of our comparison at $31,740 (freight and A/C tax in), which was a couple hundred bucks more than the Fusion and second most expensive in test.

At that price, you’d expect that it would be nicely featured and it was. Aside from the climate control, MyLink with seven-inch touchscreen, satellite radio, and Bluetooth included as standard with the $27,490 Eco model, the Preferred Equipment Group added sunroof, back-up camera, and 8-way power seats for $2,200 combined.

The key feature of the Eco model is, of course, its mild hybrid system that adds a 15-kW electric motor in support of the 2.4L direct-injection four-cylinder making 182 hp and 172 lb-ft of torque. Power for the electric motor comes from regenerative braking and the vehicle also incorporates an auto start-stop system that shuts the vehicle down at stoplights. One thing we noted was how smooth the restarts were after the engine was paused, and once moving the engine pulls strongly and gets the Malibu up to speed, even if it slightly coarse in doing so.

2013 CHEVROLET MALIBU ECO 1LT. Click image to enlarge

You would expect that the hybrid would be the fuel consumption champ, but the Malibu Eco did no better than mid-pack, finishing our drive loop at 9.2 L/100 km, a ways off from its 8.1/5.3 city/highway estimate, but not the worst in that regard (cough-Ford-cough).

But at the end of the day, the Malibu Eco scored lowest in almost every category, scoring a sole win in Cabin Storage, but that is not enough to redeem its muddled looks, marginal quality interior, compromised cargo space, and utter lack of driving character. Even in the Easy to Drive and Ease of Parking categories it lagged behind the others because of poor steering, strange off-throttle hiccups, and poor visibility.

Overall, it seemed that too much of the cost was invested in a drivetrain technology that adds little value and holds little appeal, and the Eco might well be the least desirable model in the Malibu lineup. –JY

Pricing: 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco 1LT

Base price: $27,490
Options: Preferred Equipment Group $2,200 (Sunroof – 1,195; cargo net, auto-dimming rear-view mirror, back-up camera, 8-way power driver seat – $1,005).
Freight: $1,500
A/C Tax: $100
Price as tested: $31,740

Fourth Place: 2013 Nissan Altima 2.5 SV

2013 NISSAN ALTIMA 2.5 SV. Click image to enlarge

This is another mainstream family sedan that has been reinvented for 2013. The Altima adopts the swoopy body curves of its big-brother Maxima, and while this 2013 model is larger than the one it replaces, it is actually lighter thanks to a structure with more high-strength steel and the inclusion of an aluminum trunk, roof, and hood. Indeed, it checks in at 111 kg (245 lb.) less than the Honda Accord in this test.

That’s like hauling one less Argo linebacker around.

This sedan, with an as-tested price of $29,828 ($1,695 freight and A/C tax in), goes down the road quite swiftly thanks to its 2.5L inline-four that puts out 182 hp and 180 lb-ft at 4,000 rpm and, according to Senior Editor Jonathan Yarkony sounding quite like a baby brother to Nissan VQ V6 with its signature raspy howl. Like the Honda, it has a CVT (continuously variable transmission), but unlike Honda, Nissan has been in the CVT business for a long time. That’s not to say this unit is any better than Honda’s, but it does work well, largely avoiding the engine drone (unless you’re really hammering it) and bestowing this sedan with brisk acceleration. The Altima felt the most enthusiastic here when it came to throttle response. It was also the second thirstiest in the test at 9.6 L/100 km, next to the Fusion. Official estimates claim it should do 7.4 in the city and 5.0 on the highway. Ummmm…

Anyhow, settle your butt into the front seats and it feels like you’re sitting in a La-Z-Boy, but not some newfangled leather one. These are soft and squishy, featuring a new memory foam that Nissan says reduces pressure points on the body and covered in a velour that will take you back to the 80s. Having driven this car for a week previously, I can say comfort is not an issue, but I much prefer the support offered by the excellent firm yet contoured Fusion chairs.

This tester’s cabin certainly looked bright and airy thanks to its all-beige treatment but the fuzzy seat and door fabric would surely pick up the dirt in no time. While back-seat legroom is not quite as generous as the Honda’s or Fusion’s, you won’t be getting any complaints from two normal sized adults.

2013 NISSAN ALTIMA 2.5 SV. Click image to enlarge

The Altima’s dash and “clear vision” instrument cluster get full marks for visibility, functionality, and ease of operation. It’s a handsome and clean design bereft of gimmicks that appears well constructed.

We didn’t like the Altima’s steering, however. It has a disconnected and wooden feel, and is not particularly linear off centre. Combine that with a chassis that doesn’t feel very buttoned down and the fun factor diminishes rapidly. The Altima’s ride is plenty compliant, but so is the Honda’s, and that car has a dynamic flow that eludes the Nissan.

Will most buyers even notice? Likely not. In isolation, the Nissan is a fine, conservative family sedan that offers a serene and comfortable driving experience, suitably upscale digs and good value. As mentioned earlier, I had it for a week and my wife loved it.

This 2013 Altima is measurably better than the outgoing model. It’s just not measurably better than its competition. –PB

Pricing: 2013 Nissan Altima SV

Base price: $28,033
Options: Navigation – $1,035
Freight: $1,695
A/C Tax: $100
Price as tested: $29,828

Third Place: 2013 Ford Fusion SE 1.6 Ecoboost

2013 FORD FUSION SE 1.6 ECOBOOST. Click image to enlarge

We had decidedly high expectations of the 2013 Ford Fusion in this comparison because, well, we love it. It’s gorgeous and sporty and is the car many of us here at would actually buy. But that’s not how these comparisons work. We evaluate these cars on a range of qualities we believe are important to consumers in this segment, and it’s impossible to overlook certain weaknesses once we objectively evaluate a car against its competitors.

However, fans of the Fusion can be consoled with the fact that the Fusion scored better in the vehicle ratings, but the Camry’s efficiency and value turned the tables and pushed it ahead of the Fusion in our final calculations. The 2013 Fusion SE with the 1.6 Ecoboost engine was well equipped and rang up at a pricey $31,499 ($1,550 freight and A/C tax in), but not the most expensive in test (Accord). At that price, customers can expect leather seating, high quality interior, back-up camera, heated front seats, and driving aids like lane-keeping system and blind-spot detection.

Also included at that price was the controversial MyFord Touch system, with its touchscreen infotainment unit and touch sensitive plastic panel for audio and climate controls. None of our testers experienced any system failures, and it worked well in our limited use, but we’d all like to see the screen response times improve. Other than that, the stereo and other features were all appreciated, but nowhere did the Fusion perform as well as on the road.

This is the driver’s car of the bunch, sweeping the Fun to Drive, Handling, Steering, and Brake feel categories, and almost matching the Accord in Comfort, not to mention dominating in Exterior Styling and emotional appeal that is through the roof. Toss the Fusion into a corner and you’ll come out grinning thanks to its responsive chassis and well-sorted steering.

Factor in that you can get a slick-shifting six-speed manual with the 1.6 SE, allowing full use of its 178-hp turbocharged 1.6L inline-four and you have your driver’s choice right there. But even with the six-speed automatic, 1.6L turbo’s 184 lb-ft of torque, on tap as early as 2,500 rpm, is enough to motivate the 1,551-kg (3,421 lb.) sedan to adequate acceleration until you begin to eclipse highway speeds. However, the Fusion’s 1.6 Ecoboost and six-speed automatic seemed coarse and rough compared to some of the smooth operators in this crowd.

2013 FORD FUSION SE 1.6 ECOBOOST. Click image to enlarge

Whether we drove the Fusion a bit harder because of its eager responsiveness is impossible to say, but it delivered worst-in-test fuel consumption of 10.4 L/100 km. Compare that with its official estimates of 8.7/5.5 L/100 km city/highway. Not good, but the Nissan was still further off from its estimate, so Ford is not alone in this ‘optimistic’ rating game.

But returning to a family sedan’s core duties, the Fusion managed to match the Accord in Ride Comfort and even scored better in Cargo Space thanks to its large, fully lined square trunk and wide pass-through when folding the seats down. The stereo was as good as any in this test, and its seats were admired in all four primary positions, but it was the tightest squeeze with three abreast in the back, and the child seat installation was difficult.

As much as we like it, we can acknowledge that it performs best in those categories that we subjectively prioritize (driving dynamics, looks), yet it has a ways to go when it comes to appealing to the masses looking for a practical, reliable, transportation for the family. In some ways, it just looks too good for people to believe it is actually a fairly practical car. –JY

Pricing: 2013 Ford Fusion SE 1.6 Ecoboost
Base price:
Optional equipment: $5,350 (SE Tech Package: MyFord Touch, back-up camera – $850; Equipment Group 205A: luxury package, heated front seats – $3000; Driver Assistance Package: lane keeping system and blind spot detection — $1500)
A/C tax: $100
Destination charge: $1,550
Price as tested: $31,499

Second Place: 2012 Toyota Camry LE

2012 TOYOTA CAMRY LE. Click image to enlarge

If you’ve followed our previous comparison tests, you may have gotten the impression that we hate Toyotas. This is not the case. It is just the unfortunate circumstance that we were performing tests in segments where Toyota was well into its model cycle and several years old from a development perspective. Well, this time we have the 2012 Toyota Camry, a year out of a full redesign, and a product that has earned Toyota a reputation for comfortable, reliable, and efficient transportation that appeals to a wide range of people.

Not only that, but you could make the case that the Camry is the quintessential family sedan, and the gold standard for mid-size sedans. The sales charts back me up on that, the Camry is set to eclipse 400,000 units in sales south of the border for the first time since 2008 (the only mid-size sedan to achieve that kind of volume), and perennially the bestselling car in America. It’s also a solid seller in Canada, although last year both the Hyundai Sonata and Ford Fusion outsold it in this market, but it is back on top this year.

But sales don’t win you Comparison Tests, and the Camry sneaks into second place on value, efficiency, and a surprisingly capable road manners. At $25,365 ($1,565 freight and A/C tax in) as tested, we were afraid that the base Camry LE would be underequipped, but the Camry’s impressive list of standard equipment covered the basics of modern transportation.

The LE includes tilt and telescoping steering wheel with audio controls, power windows, mirrors, keyless entry, A/C, 6.1-inch touchscreen for the six-speaker audio system with Bluetooth streaming and an auxiliary USB port. In order to keep its price point this low it goes without power seats, navigation, leather, alloy wheels (16-inch steelies for the LE), satellite radio, sunroof, push-button start, auto climate control, premium audio system, heated seats all of which are available as you move up to SE and XLE models. Not surprisingly, the Camry brought up the rear in our Feature Content category, and the stereo delivered disappointingly poor quality.

Despite the dearth of creature comforts, the Camry is comfortable and pleasant, its cloth seats promising durability, though little in the way of comfort. While not as comfortable as other seats in this test, the Camry was spacious and roomy in back, judged to be the best option for three-wide seating if that’s a priority in your family.

2012 TOYOTA CAMRY LE. Click image to enlarge

On the road is where the Camry surprised us the most. No, it’s not a handling champ like the Fusion, but it holds its own and the powertrain, steering, and handling were all rated middle of the pack, and thanks to great sightlines, parking was easy (second in test) even without a back-up camera. Of course, the Camry was the comfort champ, its smaller, high profile tires working with the suspension to eliminate bumps and rough roads from impacting passengers; “Wafty” and “Sooooo comfy” were a couple of notable comments from the driving notes.

While the 178-hp, 170 lb-ft 2.5L four-cylinder engine was non-descript in operation and the six-speed automatic unobtrusive, that’s a good thing because in this class, many people just don’t want to be bothered by engine noise or transmission lurches. Highway speeds are achieved at a leisurely 1,800–2,100 rpm (100–120 km/h), and the cabin is quiet except for a hint of wind noise.

It also delivers the expected efficiency finishing the test at 8.9 L/100 km, not far off its official rating of 8.2/5.6 for city/highway cycles.

So, while giving up a lot of features to the other entrants, the Camry’s essential qualities and convenience shone through, and its low price of entry were enough to earn this signature Toyota a second place finish.

It’s about time. –JY

Pricing: 2012 Toyota Camry LE
Base price:
Optional equipment: None
A/C tax: $100
Destination charge: $1,565
Price as tested: $25,365

First Place: 2013 Honda Accord Touring

2013 HONDA ACCORD TOURING. Click image to enlarge

Even in the face of our enthusiasm for the Fusion’s style and driving dynamics, the $33,330 Honda Accord Touring got the win. And it was no great surprise for our group of testers.

This new ninth-generation Accord has an overreaching sense of rightness that covers every aspect of its being. Sit in the comfortable seats and you’re ensconced in a high-quality environment. The leather feels rich yet durable and the interestingly sculpted dash is fashioned from soft-touch plastics. All the controls are well marked and logical. The big LCD screen and backlit instrument panel provide all the necessary info at a glance—and we were not ready for the NBA-grade rear legroom and massive trunk.

Once underway, the Accord manages to feel light on its feet yet also substantial. It steers and handles with confident grace and the ride is never harsh or busy. The reworked DOHC 2.4L four, now featuring direct-injection and hooked to a continuously variable transmission, makes 189 hp and 182 lb-ft at 3,900 rpm. It works smoothly, quietly, and in the tradition of good Honda engines, spins happily to its 6,400 rpm redline.

This sedan is fleet and agile, and I will confess that I didn’t even know it had a CVT transmission until halfway through our test day, such is the transparency of this new-for-Accord fuel saving device. Between the ‘Earth Dreams’ engine and CVT, the Accord pulled off a best-in-test 8.8 L/100 km on our drive loops.

The low beltline and tall greenhouse make for plenty of headroom and good sightlines. A cool optional feature is a clever blind-spot camera called LaneWatch. Turn on your right signal and a rear-facing camera on the passenger side mirror shoots up an image on the central screen—especially good for lane changes or checking for approaching cyclists when making inner city right turns.

2013 HONDA ACCORD TOURING. Click image to enlarge

The traditional Honda front wishbone suspension makes way for a MacPherson strut setup here, but hey, it works just fine for BMW and Porsche.

While this new, slightly smaller Honda Accord looks every inch the conservative family sedan, it was the (distant) runner up in the Beauty Pageant. The classy front-end treatment and general cohesiveness of design make for a pleasing, if not particularly flashy presence. We’re pretty sure the Honda, Chevy, Nissan, and Toyota were talking catty behind the sexy Fusion’s back.

Ah, but what can we say? The 2013 Honda Accord has a terrific personality, and that’s what won us over. –PB

Pricing: 2013 Honda Accord Sedan Touring
Base Price: $30,390
Options: $1,200 (CVT)
Freight and PDI: $1,640
A/C Tax: $100
Price as tested: $33,330

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