Splashing in the Mainstream BY BARRY WINFIELD Dodge Stratus R/T Honda Accord EX Hyundai Sonata GLS V-6 Kia Optima LX Mazda 6 i Nissan Altima 3.5SE Saturn L200 Subaru Legacy L Toyota Camry SE Volkswagen Passat GL 1.8T If a mid-size family sedan is what you want, the market is flooded with 'em. Despite the burgeoning SUV phenomenon, mid-size family sedans sell well over a million units each year to people who want affordable transportation that doesn't necessarily make a statement about their lifestyles. To gauge the new 2003 Accord's competence and appeal, we decided to pit a four-cylinder, five-speed-manual EX — for $22,060, it comes with air, anti-lock brakes, electric everything, remote access, and a six-disc CD changer — against similar offerings in the marketplace. We didn't consider such cars as the Ford Taurus and Mitsubishi Galant, which are not available with manual gearboxes. And, in alphabetical order, this is what we rounded up in the way of competition. Dodge's face-lifted Stratus, now in R/T array, comes with a standard five-speed manual and 2.7-liter V-6. Priced at $22,475 to start, it would have matched our Accord EX price bogey quite well, but ours got loaded up with $1510 worth of pearlescent paint, leather seats, premium stereo, and power driver's seat. Using that price profile when shopping for a Hyundai Sonata also allowed a V-6 model — the GLS — into the mix. Hyundai typically includes comprehensive equipment at competitive prices, so we could have had an even higher-trim LX with leather upholstery without reaching our price target. But Hyundai did not have an LX test car available. Truth be told, it didn't even have a manual-transmission car for us to test. Thus, we took an automatic and tried to evaluate the car with reference to the shift quality in the Kia Optima LX — the Sonata's platform sibling — which we also added to the mix. The Optima is only available with a manual transmission in four-cylinder form, so that's what we got. At $16,080 (including $85 worth of floor mats), it was easily the least expensive car out the door. You could order the optional 2.7-liter V-6 and still not stray northward of our price point, but then a stick shift is not an option. Having voted the new Mazda 6 s a 2003 10Best honoree on the basis of its V-6, we were very interested in the performance of the four-cylinder Mazda 6 i. The test car had to be pretty loaded —with leather, a sunroof, side airbags, a Bose stereo, a Premium package, a Comfort package, and a Sport package that adds trick bodywork and wheels — before it neared the price target. Delete those extras, and Mazda's 6 i is a sub-20-grand buy. Speaking of value, the Nissan Altima 2.5S manual can be loaded opulently for $22,000, but none was available, so we allowed in the $23,189 3.5SE. It boasts the strongest V-6 and the biggest interior in the group. For those who buy by size, the Altima clearly went into the contest with a major advantage in spaciousness. Saturn's L200 fit the description for this test and entered with a low price, a roomy interior, and the promised refinement of GM's Ecotec four-cylinder engine. And yes, we tried to keep in mind the virtues of undentable doors and all those well-advertised warm and fuzzy dealers, too. With its flat-four engine and all-wheel drivetrain, the Subaru Legacy L was the odd man out. Nonetheless, the specs and the price matched the recipe for this shindig, and the Subaru was invited to show its stuff. At just over 20 large, the car represents pretty good value. We couldn't ignore the segment's current bestseller, Toyota's Camry, represented here in SE guise with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine and five-speed manual. To the base SE we added alloy wheels, ABS, side airbags, and a power driver's seat, pushing the sticker to $22,529. Last to the party is the Volkswagen Passat GL 1.8T, the sole forced-induction vehicle in the mix. Because of revised ordering protocols at VW, the only test car available on the West Coast was equipped with an automatic transmission. Okay, that kind of flouts our rules again for this test, but Passats are available with manuals, so don't bombard us with letters. This test was conducted in California because the winter weather is better than it is in Michigan, right? Wrong, we were deluged by rainstorms raging in off the Pacific. At least every car had all-season tires. Anyway, what better way to assess defoggers, wipers, and wet handling? ----- Tenth Place Saturn L200 Saturn folks like to point out that the L200 has little in common with the Opel Vectra from which it is based, and we have to wonder why. Could the Opel be worse? Certainly, the restyling work Saturn did on the nose of the car is not an improvement on the previous look, and the dreary upholstery patterns (likened to 1970s United Airlines cabins by two drivers) produced dismay in our testers. The interior was considered more downscale than both the Korean entries, with a too-short driver's-seat cushion and thin foam side bolsters that soon flatten down to the seat's frame. Those are aspects that evoked strong responses. Much of the car's repertoire was met with sheer indifference. It is possible to drive the Saturn for a short distance and have no strong opinions about it. It's that bland. However, there was agreement that the L200 had a reasonably smooth ride at cruising speeds, and that the engine would rev smoothly and without fuss to its redline. There were some complaints about wind noise and a constant buzz through the clutch pedal, but the major concern was the uncommunicative nature of the controls. Our performance tests put the Saturn below average for this group, but it is as quick to 60 mph as the Camry SE and slightly faster through the quarter-mile than the Subaru. Although the control feedback was somewhat vague, the chassis handled fairly well, managing to post a third-fastest lane-change speed and drawing appreciative comments on our dynamic driving loop. Said tech director Markus: "It feels as though the chassis were tuned in Europe." The space available for rear-seat passengers proved fairly generous, although our jury marked the accommodations down a bit on comfort. Rear headroom, however, was among the best of the group. The Saturn's biggest problem is its lack of passion. The dashboard design is uninspired, the materials look as if they were the cheapest GM could find, and the effect is to render the experience almost totally sterile. Highs: Compliant ride, good rear-seat headroom, friendly dealers. Lows: Bland character, ugly nose, drab interior. The Verdict: The car for touchy-feely people who just need wheels. ----- Ninth Place Kia Optima LX At first sight — if you can get over the Hannibal Lecter Halloween mask that now passes for a grille — the little Kia seems to offer remarkable value for the price. It's well-equipped and quite spacious and gets down the road perfectly well. It's only when pushed beyond a comfortable pace that the Kia's shortcomings emerge. The engine note — a determined snarl at high revs — is quite melodic, but the power is middling, and it takes the car to a sixth- or seventh-place finish in the 0-to-60 and quarter-mile drags. It doesn't help that slow synchromesh and a rubbery mechanism balk gearshifts. Downshifts, in comparison, are dead easy to coordinate if you practice the black art of double-clutching. There are no creaks or rattles from the cabin, but tire roar picks up dramatically on scabrous surfaces. Drivers noted that the Optima exhibited more dive and squat than all the others bar the Hyundai, which shares its chassis but appears to have even softer springing and looser shocks. The handling, too, is secure until asked to perform in extremis, at which time it's marred by a numb helm and languid responses. Although the Optima resisted any tendency to wild rotation in the lane-change exercise, it also described long, lazy arcs in response to steering inputs. You probably won't spin in an emergency maneuver, but you might just hit the obstacle you're trying to avoid. Communication from the steering and chassis while driving in the wet was not very reassuring, although the sense of limited grip may have been due in part to the standard-equipment Kumho tires. But the Kia did feel a touch more sure-footed on the handling loop than did its Hyundai counterpart. And there were comments in the logbook about how the unadorned Kia interior was preferable to the upscale pretenses of the Sonata, fake wood and all. Despite a fairly short front-seat cushion, space and comfort there were adequate. Rear-seat comfort rated about the same as in the Dodge and better than in the Saturn. The standard-equipment stereo with CD player wasn't bad, either, if a little tinny at elevated volumes. Now, all this may sound like damning with faint praise, but the Kia does pretty well for its low sticker price. Highs: Low price, high equipment levels. Lows: Limited dynamic envelope, crude aspects. The Verdict: A real deal for the family on a budget. ----- Eighth Place Hyundai Sonata GLS V-6 The Sonata shaded the Kia in the balloting perhaps because of its 170-hp V-6 engine, which we believe would have beaten the Kia's four resoundingly had it been equipped with the manual transmission we sought for this test. As it was, the Sonata was 0.3 second slower to 60 mph and 0.1 second slower through the quarter-mile. That's hard to equate, so perhaps it was the equipment levels that helped sway us. The Sonata is certainly loaded with stuff. Among a long list of items, there are a power-adjustable driver's seat, map lights, power trunk and fuel-filler switches, and a pretty good 120-watt CD player. On the other hand, some of the execution drew criticism. The phony wood is laughable, and the mouse-fur upholstery seems silly, but comfortable. Whereas the radio and ventilation controls are big and easy to use, the door-mounted power-window switches aren't illuminated. The seats — soft enough to be comfortable during highway cruising — were found wanting for lateral support. A cushy highway ride is definitely the Sonata's forte. Pick up the pace in the twisties, and you soon discover the comparatively narrow operating bandwidth of Hyundai's chassis tuning. There's a sense of uncertainty in the steering, with an artificially heavy, rubbery control feel. There's also little feedback from the contact patches, especially in the rain, when the steering offers nonlinear responses to inputs. In our lane-change maneuver, the Sonata proved resistant to yaw, but it was also unresponsive to fast directional changes, as was the Kia. On bumpy roads, the comfortable highway ride is transmogrified to floating motions through dips and swells and crashing impacts on bad bumps. Hard cornering produces wallowing, with poorly damped roll motions. Also, severe steering kickback over bad bumps temporarily stalls the assist and freezes the wheel. Nonetheless, for normal family use, the Sonata is a lavishly equipped car for a low price. The moral? Spend less, go easy. Highs: Luxurious specification and V-6 power for not much money. Lows: A narrow-spectrum performer. The Verdict: Another bargain deal, with a V-6 as a bonus. ----- Seventh Place Dodge Stratus R/T Dodge's Stratus R/T comes standard with a 2.7-liter V-6 and a five-speed manual transmission, and its price is all over the Accord EX's like a cheap suit. A perfect domestic entry, we thought. But the R/T appellation should have told us something about the precise targeting of Dodge's intended demographics. This car is unabashedly in search of drivers with high hormonal levels. Its 200-hp V-6 propels it to second-fastest top-speed and acceleration numbers behind the Altima, despite comments about its not feeling that muscular at first acquaintance. Set up with old-school chassis parameters, the Stratus has reasonably compliant spring rates, but its tight roll control and shock valving result in clearly heard and felt bump impacts on gnarly roads, along with pronounced head toss as the road camber varies. Although the tall gearing and the reasonably soft springs allow comfortable highway travel, the combination also lends the perception of an underpowered car with uncontrolled body motions on fast mountain passes. There's jitter through the wheel, crash-through in jounce, and violent jolting in depressions. And the turning circle is dismal. Noted one editor, "It's a chassis from another point in time." Inside the Stratus we find a low-slung driver's seat with good lateral support but shifter that is rubbery and imprecise, with long, heavy throws. We sometimes had to hunt for first gear. The stereo has clear sound and simple controls, but its CD changer is slung under the console where it is obstructed by the cup holders. After checking out the moribund dashboard design and thick strip of fake carbon fiber adorning it, we had to wonder what had become of the company that pioneered tasteful American interior design under Trevor Creed years ago. Our jury of back-seat drivers rated the Stratus's rear accommodations the worst in the group (tied with the L200) for comfort and space with two occupants in place. Its score improved with three passengers back there (equaling the Passat's rating), probably due to the width of the seat. For buyers looking for expressive styling and a narrowly defined sporting image, the R/T might work, but we think its sportiness is just skin-deep. Highs: Extroverted personality for the exhibitionist. Lows: Underwhelming powertrain, abrupt ride motions, crude interfaces. The Verdict: The "R/T" element is mere window dressing. ----- Fifth Place (tie) Nissan Altima 3.5SE This is where the guys who move their lips while they read our charts write in to tell us we have the wrong rankings. It did not escape our attention that the Altima simply blasted every other car out of the water in the performance stakes. At 5.9 seconds to 60 mph and 14.6 seconds through the quarter, the Nissan Altima 3.5SE is in the next county before most of these other cars hit top gear. Nonetheless, the Nissan lacks some of the finesse we look for in this class of car. The grade of plastic used in many of the interior moldings — along with some of the graining on them — is cheap and cheerful. Even the interior design feels big and bland. The triple-barrel instrument binnacle, for example, seems slightly larger than human scale, with an awkward splay that exaggerates its size. The engine pulls with gusto throughout its range, but the shifter feels a little rubbery in action, with gritty engagements. All that torque tugs the car's nose around, too, producing a power-induced wander that the driver is constantly correcting. Although the Altima will cruise a rain-slicked highway with reassuring security, it becomes a bit darty on tortuous routes. With seats that are at once comfy and supportive, and an expansive view across a wide, low windshield, this is not a bad place to be. A pity then that some road vibration can be felt through the steering wheel and that the ride is more unsettled on uneven surfaces than that of the best cars in this pack. Floor it, and it's clear there is more motor than chassis. Even with the second-highest skidpad grip (after the Mazda 6 i), the Altima is only midpack through the lane change. That tells you its transient handling responses aren't optimal. Nonetheless, this is a big and roomy car, with attractive exterior styling and an acceptable interior ambience. Its rear-seat space and comfort scores trail only the Accord's and Camry's, and its trunk space is third largest of the group. With another layer of refinement and a dab more poise, this car could be irresistible. Highs: Torquey engine, generous interior room, an unexpectedly low price. Lows: Not as refined as the class leaders. The Verdict: Good space, good pace, good value. ----- Fifth Place (tie) Subaru Legacy L It's hard to see the Subaru Legacy in a tie for fifth place with a car that outguns it handily in the power stakes, eclipses its modest interior dimensions, and outruns it by more than 20 mph in top speed, but that's the strength of the Legacy's appeal. The sheer quirkiness of the car captivates. Sitting low in the supportive seat, you look out over a low cowl and grip a tidy leather-wrapped wheel. You start the motor, and it warbles a unique flat-four tune. Apart from the car's grip (just above average for the group) and its exceptional lane-change results (second behind the limpetlike Mazda), the numbers don't tell you much about the car. It takes a sortie through a rain-drenched pass to impress upon a driver just how much reassurance the all-wheel-drive system lends and how supple and stable the chassis feels. The Subie's steering may have the best feel and weighting of the group. Although there doesn't seem to be much suspension travel, the body motions are well-controlled, and the structure feels as solid as a rock. Some drivers noted that the car's handling was deliberate rather than responsive, yet the lane-change exercise produced enough rotation that decisive throttle application was needed to straighten it out. We think that's a measure of the car's handling range. The impression did not go away on our dynamic assessment loop, where it was noted that the Legacy was "remarkably poised and buttoned down." Even the noise it admitted over the roughest sections was muted in comparison to the rudest cars in this bunch. But as much as we enjoy canyon carving, this isn't all about handling. The Legacy did remarkably well in the rear-seat test, too, scoring near the top of the group with two passengers. However, putting three adults in the rear stretches everyone's patience, and the front seat doesn't track back enough for humans more than six feet tall. All-wheel drive adds weight, but it's one of the reasons people buy Subarus, and it helped get the car back on the road after one of our testers swerved to avoid a large animal. What's that worth to you? Highs: Charming personality, all-wheel traction, sporty reflexes. Lows: Not that roomy. And not that quick. The Verdict: Makes friends easily. ----- Fourth Place Toyota Camry SE A large interior, comfortable accommodations, and buttery-smooth control mechanisms might lead one to believe that the Toyota Camry embodies middle-of-the-road virtues. Think again. No matter one's reaction to the conservative styling, this is a thoughtfully set out product, with space, comfort, and a healthy dollop of dynamic capability blended in. Consider that the Camry's brake-pedal feel was unanimously derided as "squashy," yet it recorded the third-shortest stopping distance of the group. Then, despite numerous logbook comments about the modest amount of power generated by the 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, the Camry equaled the Saturn L200 and the Kia Optima to 60 mph (8.3 seconds) and was capable of cruising at 90 with no sign of stress. The torque spread — helped by Toyota's variable valve-timing technology — was such that the car will launch at little more than 2000 rpm and still get respectable acceleration, something the Mazda 6 i couldn't manage. The five-speed gearbox felt more remote than some, but it was accurate enough never to miss a shift and to tolerate snappy upshifts during acceleration tests without crunching. The only misstep was some hesitation to accept full throttle after a fast shift at the redline. In SE configuration, the Camry gets firmer springs, shocks, and bars, and although the chassis easily absorbed the worst surfaces with no impact transmission to the cabin, there was some body displacement over bumps that threw occupants around a bit. Of course, it's possible the car is calibrated for five passengers. It certainly has room for them, scoring the highest space and comfort ratings (tied with the Accord) for this group. And the furnishings are comfortable, although various drivers commented on the lack of lateral support. One look at the trunk hints at the Camry's mission. It's cavernous and uses gooseneck hinges that slide harmlessly out of the way. Why use a four-bar system if you don't have to? And why tune the car for sporting sensibilities when that's not the market? Given the Camry's success, it's hard to argue with the logic. Highs: Space, quality, versatility. Lows: Ho-hum looks, bland to drive. The Verdict: The usual subtle servility masking brilliant engineering. ----- Third Place Volkswagen Passat GL 1.8T Here's a car that may have done better had we not been forced to accept an automatic tranny — albeit a Tiptronic unit — in place of the standard five-speed manual. The nonlinearity of this turbocharged engine's output is somehow exaggerated with a slushbox, leading to several complaints about surging in city driving and a general agreement that this was not the perfect marriage of engine and transmission. Still, this third-place finish emphasizes what a good overall impression the Passat made. The log records nearly unanimous approval of the car's interior, praising the buff-colored two-tone upholstery (while questioning its resistance to dirt) and the clear layout of the controls and instruments. Some even liked the blue instrument lighting, and there was more than one compliment paid to the steering wheel's grip and appearance. imilarly flattering things were written about the seats, which were described as having a firm Germanic feel with good support. Vertical adjustment was so far-ranging that one driver felt as if she were sitting in a tub before cranking up the cushion. One writer despised the rotary backrest adjustment knob, and another liked the seat so much he wanted one for an office chair. VW's turbocharged 1.8-liter four was lauded for its superior passing power and commended for its ability to shrug off altitude, which greatly sapped the other cars' output in the mountains. Some turbo lag was detected, but the engine's smoothness was appreciated, particularly on the highway, where the throttle could be used like a rheostat to modulate boost. What really drew verbiage was the car's handling on our dynamic loop, where drivers raved about good on-center feel, a wonderfully balanced chassis that was still supple enough to soak up uneven surfaces, and confidence-inspiring sure-footedness. When you add mountain-goat agility to a smooth ride, high seat-comfort ratings, and impressive ergonomics, you get a versatile performer with pleasing aesthetics. All that produces a worthy third-place finisher. Highs: Does everything well, and it's comfy, too. Lows: Small case of turbo lag. The Verdict: All-around excellence. ----- Second Place Mazda 6 i The blurb on the accompanying press materials said it all: The authentic sports sedan is finally here. Truly, if Mazda fans are looking for more of that zoom-zoom character, the 6 i has it in spades. Arguably the best-looking car in the bunch (even with an aero body kit that accompanies wheels and tires as part of the $860 Sport package), the Mazda wears its sporting colors like a team blazer. The interior echoes the theme, with handsome pewter trim, disc-type air registers, chrome gauge bezels, and a tidy three-spoke leather wheel. Very supportive leather seats encase the driver and front-seat passenger, leading you to think that rear-seat size and comfort might have been a low priority. But to our surprise, the Mazda trumped all the cars here except the Honda, Nissan, and Toyota family movers. Equipped with the new MZR 2.3-liter four-cylinder (with variable valve timing), the Mazda 6 i isn't the torquiest tool in the box, but it pulls pretty hard when given free rein, beating five of these cars to 60 mph and through the quarter-mile. When stepping off, there's little grunt to be had below 3500 rpm, and you can't even hook the car on the clutch to move off until about 3000 rpm. But the 6 i comes alive on the road with the pure flavor of sporty motoring. The steering is almost as keen as a rear-drive BMW's, and the car's performance through our lane-change test spoke volumes about turn-in response, body-motion control, yaw damping, and chassis geometry. With its razor-sharp reflexes, it even beat out the cool moves of the Subaru. And on the handling loop, logbook notes became delirious. "The 6 is the all-around athlete of the group," wrote online editor Kiino. "It's like riding in a roller coaster." Other entries agreed. "At speed, this car's chassis comes alive." "The 6 appears to be the fun-to-drive champ of the group." "Awesome grip in the wet." And so on. To our surprise, the ride isn't hurt much by the car's handling priorities. If perhaps a bit firm, it was clearly not firm enough to inhibit our enthusiasm when it came time to vote. Highs: Handles like a sports car should. Lows: Four-cylinder not that flexible. The Verdict: A closely focused driver's car. ----- First Place Honda Accord EX If superiority in the mid-size family-sedan market is about sweeping excellence — and we think it is — then the Accord has come through once again. This is a vehicle that can reconcile conflicting requirements — seamlessly. The Accord's supple ride seems to do little to harm its canyon-carving potential, and the lightness of its controls fails to blur the accuracy of their operation. The only time we discerned the negative impact of a design objective was during our lane-change test, where the Accord's limited roll stiffness allowed enough side-to-side lunge to prevent quicker runs. In every other way, the driver's perception is of a car translating directives with fluent responses. "No sign of the roly-poly lane-change car here," reported one driver after a trip through a mountain pass. Indeed, out in the real world, the Accord feels light on its feet, ready to change direction any time. Generally, ride motions are well-damped without being firmly constrained. Some drivers found the steering to be a tad too light, but that was forgiven because of its accuracy and linear gain. We even found it possible to induce a little rotation under braking when we needed it. The Honda's i-VTEC four puts out the same power as the Mazda's engine, but it feels much more flexible at low revs, with immediate throttle response. It revs smoothly to the redline and then picks up the next gear without missing a beat. Shifts are short and slick, and clutch action is light and easily read. The brake pedal, too, has a clear sense of operation feeding to the driver's sole. Despite the avant-garde console, with its new-fangled ventilation and audio controls, operation of the various devices proved easy to figure out and quickly became second nature. We liked the finely detented, almost scientific action of the rotary control knobs. Resources are sensibly allocated. For example, the driver's seat gets pricier power height adjustment — versus less-expensive manual adjustment — making it easier to find a comfortable height and eliminating potential latch distractions. Fore-and-aft adjustment is manual and works well with no fuss. Riding on the third-longest wheelbase, the Accord has huge interior space and outscores the rear-seat space and comfort of the Altima, which is two inches longer. What else can we say? If car design is a compromise, Honda has achieved a nearly perfect compromise with this Accord. Highs: Superb integration, marvelous balance. Lows: Frumpy rear-end styling. The Verdict: Sweeping utility and enjoyment.