2004 Honda Accord. Photo: Honda
by Tony Whitney
It’s the toughest market of all to go shopping in, and for automakers, the most intensely competitive.
It’s that segment containing mid-sized, mid-priced sedans like the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, but also includes such products as the Chevrolet Epica and Malibu, Chrysler Sebring, Ford Taurus, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Magentis, Mazda6, Mitsubishi Galant, Nissan Altima, Pontiac Grand Am and G6, Saturn L300, Subaru Legacy, Suzuki Verona and Volkswagen Passat – I did say this was a highly competitive market slot!
So how does a buyer sort them all out? Is one product that much better than another, or are they too close to call? I won’t make any attempt to grade these sedans according to my tastes, but I will try and outline a few buying tips for anyone shopping this busy segment.
Often, choosing a new vehicle comes down to “sweating the details,” regardless of make. It’s sometimes those minor features that can clinch a decision to buy one car over another. All too often, buyers overlook the small things when caught up in the undoubted excitement of buying a new car. I know from past experience, that there have been times when I’ve been so anxious to get behind the wheel, I’ve overlooked important details and perhaps shortcomings that I had to live with for years. I’d guess that just about every motorist has some tale or another about a purchase that was made without enough forethought.
Older buyers should be especially watchful when it comes to comfort. Is the car easy to get in and out of? Do the seats feel supportive and comfortable? Is it easy to find a good driving position? Is there enough room in the back to accommodate those pals you run down to the local golf course – not to mention a large trunk for their clubs? All these factors are critical to enjoying the car over a period of years.
Of course, major features are always going to play a part in any vehicle purchase. Most of the cars in this class offer you a choice of 4-cylinder or 6-cylinder engines. Buyers should determine whether or not they really need the extra power of the six, given that there are so many very satisfying 4-cylinder powerplants available nowadays. For some reason (probably a disinterested market) manual transmissions are quite rare in this sedan class, so this may be a determining factor right from the word go. Insist on a manual gearbox and your choice will narrow considerably. The same goes for all wheel drive, which is even rarer in the mid-size/mid-price sedan class than the manual gearbox. For a wider choice of mid-sized sedans with all wheel drive, you’ll have to up your price limit and take a look at Audi, BMW and so on.
I’ve always believed that one of the key aspects of day-to-day satisfaction with a car is the way the cockpit is laid out and the readability of the instrumentation. If you wear glasses, make sure you can read the instruments without taking them off – or switching to reading glasses. Having driven just about every vehicle available on the Canadian market, I can confirm that there are some gauge panels out there that are almost unreadable under any conditions and others that are clearly decipherable in any light and with almost any grade of corrective lens. It’s all in the typography and size of the numbers – not to mention backlighting – but some automakers are still struggling with the problem. This is something you can easily check on the showroom floor.
All the sedans mentioned above come with second-generation front air bags, but some now have side bags as standard and curtain bags as an option. Safety conscious buyers may see this as a key reason for buying a specific vehicle. People with very young children should also check if the front passenger air bag can be switched off when a child seat is used there, though kids are always safer in the back seats.
Buyers can expect to find power door locks, windows and the like as standard on many cars in this class, but remotely-operated locks, in particular, can cause frustration. Some systems lock you into the car when you drive off and others insist that the doors be unlocked with multiple touches of a remote fob. Still more insist that the trunk is opened with the remote fob or from a button inside the vehicle, rather from a latch that’s unlocked with the doors. The most important thing to bear in mind here is that some sedans allow you to “customize” the door locks to your own tastes and needs, while others are dealer-programmable. Some models allow you no control of this locking/unlocking routine at all and that can be annoying as time goes by.
Of course, all the cars mentioned come with a decent sound system even in their most basic form, but there are many types of stereo systems and you’ll also have to consider the audio media you use. A clincher for me would be the kind of AM/FM radio/CD/cassette system some models offer. Like most people, I still have a lot of cassettes I like to play in the car and wouldn’t buy a vehicle that didn’t have the ability to handle them as well as CDs. I also value MP3 capability in a sound system, but if, like Homer Simpson, you need to play those old 8-tracks, you’re going to be out of luck.
Buying a sedan in this busy segment is certainly a challenge, but if you list your specific needs before you start shopping around, you’ll probably find it a lot easier to pare down the list make that all-important final decision.