Mid-sized cars are not too small and not too big; they're just right. A perfect balance of power and efficiency, comfort and agility, and performance and environmental consciousness.
While sales in the under-$60,000 mid-sized sector dropped 6.6 per cent last year, it is still a hotly contested segment of the showroom with 58,053 vehicles sold and 26 models on offer with prices starting from $24,990 for the Czech-made Skoda Octavia.
We've chosen four models to compare for this battle of the mid-sized cars. Of course, there is the longtime top-selling, Aussie-built Toyota Camry which is also the newest model here with the seventh generation released just last month.
It is joined by close rival Mazda6 from Japan, the German-made VW Passat and South Korea's Kia Optima. VW marketing boss Jutta Friese says Passat customers are looking for a mid-sized car that "fits their stage in life".
"They are most likely to be married, living in the metro area and have a successful career," she says. "They own their home, have a family and want a comfortable and sophisticated car with the latest technology. They are well educated and want a car that represents their professional stage in life."
With that in mind, we asked a couple of married, professional fathers living in the metro area to come along for the ride. Richard Newsome and Cameron Cooper agree that these cars fit their lifestyle and would be suitable for families with primary school children.
Mazda6 Touring hatch comes in as the cheapest at $34,450 for the five-speed auto, while the six-speed manual costs an extra $2000. The sedan is $1000 less, but the difference is only the rear tailgate.
It even looks the same on the road. Mazda recently added front and rear parking sensors, leather seat trim and power adjustable front seats with driver's side memory function, all for $300 less than the previous Classic models. They also include Bluetooth, climate control airconditioning, cruise control and trip computer.
The most expensive of our selection is the Camry Atara SL at $39,990. The flagship Camry model has a reversing camera, JBL premium audio with 10 speakers, Bluetooth, satnav, digital radio, RDS live traffic updates, blind-spot monitor, automatic high beam and electric front seats.
It is closely followed by the turbo-charged Passat at $38,990. VW also has an extensive array of features such as daytime driving lights, rearview camera, heated leather seats, Bluetooth, tyre pressure monitoring and fancy audio system with a media device interface, but satnav with reversing camera is an expensive option.
The Kia Optima Platinum sits nicely in the middle at $36,990 and features a high-end audio system with iPod and Bluetooth connectivity, electric sunroof, dusk-sensing HID headlights with washer, leather trim with wood-look interior, heated and powered front passenger seats, alloy sports pedals, cooling glove box and daytime LED running lights.
However, it's also the only one without auto wipers. Kia has just added the Si model at $30,990 which keeps all the safety gear, but loses the sunroof, LED and HID lights. It also has smaller 17-inch wheels and brakes. In the next few months all Platimum Optimas will come with satnav as standard.
All are powered by four-cylinder engines, but the VW is the only one with a turbocharger. It's only a 1.8-litre engine compared with the 2.4-litre Kia and 2.5-litre Toyota and Mazda. Most powerful here is the Optima's Theta II engine with gasoline direct injection. It produces 148kW with the Camry a distant second on 135kW, then Mazda6 (125kW) and Passat 118kW.
Despite the lack of top-end power, the VW pulls well thanks to the turbo's 250Nm of torque which equals the Kia. At the same time, the VW has the best fuel figures with 7.2L/100km, compared with 7.8 and 7.9 for the Toyota and Kia, while the Mazda is the worst at 8.7L/100km.
All are packed with technology, but the Camry's remote wing mirrors stopped working and we couldn't get the Passat's Bluetooth to recognise our phones. Quickest and easiest to pair a Bluetooth phone is the Kia.
The Peter-Schreyer-designed Optima won honours at the Australian International Design Awards and Red Dot awards in Europe last year and won the nod from our testers. Cooper says it has changed his impression of Kia.
"If you stuck four circles across the grille it would look like an Audi," says Newsome. They also like the Mazda6, despite its age. "It has a touch of Batmobile in the front. I kind of expect it to transform into something scary at any minute," says Newsome. Despite Newsome saying the Passat looks like a "pocket-sized limo", they found it a little bland, although "classic".
The updated Camry still rings no bells for these testers. "It has no sex appeal," says Cooper. The updated front appears puffy around the headlights like a boxer that's been punched in both eyes. The Mazda6 might be the smallest car in length, width and height but the Camry is another 220mm lower and that gives it a slightly sleeker than before.
Inside, it's a different story with the Camry looking smarter and fresher, yet familiar says Tarago owner Newsome. The Kia cabin was described as "modern", the VW as "austere" and Mazda as "dated", including the traditional key and handbrake.
Cooper thought the Camry had the best driving position. "The seats are comfortable with good lower back support. I could sit in it all day without any problems," he says. Winner in rear legroom is the Kia, followed by the Toyota, VW then Mazda, but Newsome didn't like the lack of headroom in the Optima.
All have generous cargo areas but the Passat has the most usable space with a large square area, while the rear wheel arches intrude into the others, but least of all in the Mazda6.
All four cars have maximum five-star ANCAP safety ratings. The new Camry is yet to be tested but is not expected to be below its previous five-star rating, especially this flagship model with features such as a blind-spot monitor. Optima adds hillstart assist control to stop it rolling backwards when stopped on a hill and static cornering lights.
Mazda6 and Optima have six airbags, the Camry has seven with a knee airbag for the driver, while the Passat has eight, adding extra side protection for the rear passengers. VW also has a driver fatigue detection system and tyre pressure monitors but no standard rearview camera. It is only available with the $2300 satnav option.
Optima and Camry have reversing cameras fitted as standard while the Mazda6 is the only one without them. However, it has front and rear parking sensors like the VW and Optima. The Toyota only has rear sensors. Newsome found the Kia the worst for visibility with thick A pillars and small rear window and Mazda6 the best for visibility.
It never rains but it pours in Queensland and our test day featured buckets of rain and flash flooding. The weather provided a solid test for the dynamics of these vehicles which we took through a suburban landscape and out into the country where the cars could stretch their legs and prove their abilty to be family tourers.
The auto wipers also came in handy, although our testers claimed they were a little slow to respond to changing patterns of rain. All cabins are quiet, despite the extra tyre noise on wet roads and hammering rain on the windscreen, but the Camry remains the benchmark for shoosh. Our testers knew nothing of the power figures, but were quick to spot the snappy response of the Optima and Camry.
The Passat felt sluggish off the line until the turbo kicked in, but we had to be careful in the rain not to get caught out by the sudden turbo boost. There were no complaints about the ride in any of the cars despite urban potholes and broken country roads.
This latest Camry will not scare the horses or the fans; here sits a comfortable and competent tourer. It feels a little bigger than the VW and Mazda, a little less agile than all, and the steering a bit soft-over-easy. But ride comfort and road manners are decent and, given a prod, the Camry's 2.5 litre sounds pretty good.
Toyota Camry 2.5 Atara SL auto
Warranty: 3 year/100,000km
Service: five $130 capped-price services for first four years or 75,000km
Engine: 2.5L 4-cylinder, 135kW/235Nm
Transmission: 6-speed auto
Dimensions: 4815mm (L), 1825mm (W), 1200mm (H), 2775mm (WB)
Somewhere lately the Passat became middle-class. It is a precise enough piece of machinery despite that little bit of turbo lag at times (especially on rolling starts). Steering, brakes, ride and handling are excellent, well up there in this crowd. But these safe and mature Euro dynamics cannot always inspire and it does not quite have yesterday's cachet.
VW Passat 118TSI auto (only available as auto)
Options fitted: metallic paint, satnav and Park Assist 2 ($3900)
Warranty: 3-year unlimited km
Engine: 1.8 litre 4-cylinder, turbo, 118kW/250Nm
Transmission: 7-speed auto DSG
Dimensions: 4769mm (L), 1820mm (W), 1490mm (H), 2711mm (WB)
The mid-sized Mazda has long brought a little sportiness to this class; tauter chassis, lively engines and gearboxes for pressing on in cars easy to place on the road, harder than rivals to upset. This current version retains that "zoom-zoom" character, it's quick and comfortable over all manner of roads but newcomers have shifted the goalposts a bit.
Mazda6 2.5 Touring auto
Warranty: 3 years, unlimited km
Servicing: 6 months/10,000km
Engine: 2.5L 4-cylinder, 125kW/226Nm
Transmission: 5-speed auto (
Dimensions: 4735mm (L), 1795mm (W), 1440mm (H), 2725mm (WB)
Finally, our hero car of this test. The Kia muscles its way into this company with a sharp and sporting edge. It sits flat and taut, it has the most eager engine and transmission of the mob and rarely puts a wheel wrong in back-road touring. Some may find the steering a tad too meaty but response and feedback from the front-end are forever encouraging and involving. This is the driver's car here.
Kia Optima 2.4 Platinum (0ne trim level - auto only)
Warranty: 5-year unlimited km
Engine: 2.4L 4-cylinder GDI, 148kW/250Nm
Transmission: 6-speed auto
Dimensions: 4845mm (L), 1830mm (W), 1455mm (H), 2795mm (WB)