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Hyundai Sonata, Mazda6, Subaru Liberty and Toyota Camry 2015 review


Sales of mid-size sedans are struggling amid the mass migration to small cars and SUVs.

Families and fleets no longer crave a car with a big boot, they're favouring hatchbacks and "faux-wheel-drives" that are easier to park in our increasingly congested cities, or can cram more gear for weekend getaways.

But the big brands aren't giving up without a fight: each is giving its all to reverse sales in a declining segment.

As we discovered, there is much to like about the base versions of the best cars in this forgotten class.

With the recent arrival of the all-new Hyundai Sonata and Subaru Liberty, and an updated Mazda6, it was time to acquaint them with Australia's top-selling medium-size sedan for the past 21 years, the Toyota Camry.

Hyundai Sonata Active

It's clear the Hyundai Sonata was designed to shadow the Toyota Camry; the differences in interior room and cargo room can be measured in fractions.

The Sonata is quiet, relatively refined and feels plush over bumps. It's the only car here with rear parking sensors as well as a rear-view camera (although the camera itself is displayed through a comparatively small 4.3-inch screen).

As with the Camry, the Hyundai Sonata has a foot brake (as opposed to the electric park brake in the Mazda and Subaru), which some buyers don't like but which didn't seem to faze our testers.

Downsides? The engine is willing but it is the thirstiest of this lot, and the interior presentation seems lacklustre compared with its rivals and not as elegant as the exterior design.

Mazda6 Sport

It's amazing how much a flash of alloy-look trim and leather-like material with stitching can lift the ambience of an interior.

The recently updated Mazda6 has added some polish to an already capable car that looks good inside and out.

Our testing found it was the zippiest to drive (slightly quicker than the Toyota Camry and Hyundai Sonata, and much more oomph than the Subaru Liberty) and felt the most enjoyable behind the wheel when it came to corners.

And yet, when driven gently, it promises to be the most economical car here, with a fuel rating of 6.6L/100km.

The sloping roofline and slightly more compact proportions mean the Mazda6 has less room than the Toyota Camry and Hyundai Sonata (I bumped my head getting in and out after driving the other cars) and the smallest boot. But the Mazda6 is by no means cramped.

Downsides? As the most expensive car here, price weighs against the Mazda6, it's the second dearest to service ($1380 over three years), and is the only car among this quartet with a space saver spare tyre.

Subaru Liberty 2.5i

Subaru styling has had its ups and downs over the years, so it's pleasing to see the Liberty is a return to form.

The interior has an upmarket appearance and the exterior has an imposing presence.

A sign of the times, and the fact that buyers are more demanding than ever before, Subaru has loaded the new Liberty to the hilt, including 18-inch alloy wheels (with matching spare).

The engine was the least powerful among this quartet but is well matched to the continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) and is much quieter than previous Subarus.

Aided by all-wheel-drive grip, the Liberty feels secure on the road, if a little firm over some bumps on the larger wheel and tyre package.

The ace up the Subaru's sleeve: Eye Sight technology that slams the brakes below 50km/h if you're about to hit the car in front, maintains a safe distance with the vehicle ahead in cruise control mode, and warns the driver if he or she wanders from the lane without indicating.

Downsides? The Subaru is by far the most expensive to service, even under the capped pricing scheme: $2216 over three years.

Toyota Camry Altise

A fridge-white Toyota Camry may not excite some people, but once any prejudices are put aside it's easy to see why it's a sales winner. And not only because of huge fleet discounts.

It's the most metal for the money, with limousine-like space in the back seat (no wonder taxi drivers are switching over), the biggest boot in the class and excellent oddment storage thanks to the massive door pockets, glove box and centre console.

The 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine is relatively zippy (only marginally slower than the Mazda6) and yet delivers respectable fuel economy.

Riding on 16-inch Michelin tyres, the base model is the most comfortable in the Camry line-up and soaks up bumps with ease, while still feeling sure-footed in corners.

The $26,990 drive-away "sale" price has become the norm and massively undercuts the competition, and the Camry has the cheapest new-car servicing in the business: $560 over three years.

In other words: there is not a lot the Camry does poorly.

The Toyota Camry may be viewed as dull, but there is no denying its comfort, capabilities and low running costs

Downsides? The spare tyre is full size but on a steel wheel rather than an alloy, and single-zone air-conditioning is standard (the other cars have relationship-saving dual-zone air-conditioning).

Verdict

The competition among these cars is stronger than we've experienced in other vehicle categories.

Each of these cars is so good, distinguishing the differences is like splitting hairs.

The Sonata is another step forward for Hyundai (it's roomy, well made, well-equipped, sharply priced, comfortable to drive and the only one here with a five-year warranty).

But the Sonata is the thirstiest among this quartet, has lacklustre interior presentation, and the smallest screen for a rear-view camera.

The judges agreed the Mazda6 looked the best inside and out and was the best mid-size sedan to drive.

The Mazda6 is also reasonably well equipped (since last month's update, it's the only base model with navigation and auto-up windows for all four doors).

But price weighed against the Mazda6: the current drive-away price is $9000 more than the Toyota Camry, and $2500 to $3000 more than the Subaru Liberty and Hyundai Sonata.

The Subaru Liberty has lifted its interior ambience from previous models and feels solid on the road. The only blot on an impressive report card is the Subaru's high servicing costs: more than triple that of at least two rivals.

The ace up the Subaru's sleeve: Eye Sight technology could save a life, or at the very least protect the no-claim bonus on your insurance.

But there was one car that surprised us all. The Toyota Camry may be viewed as dull, but there is no denying its comfort, capabilities and low running costs.

It's pleasing to drive, the roomiest among these four, and the cheapest to service. It may lack the automatic emergency braking of the Subaru, the four auto-up windows of the Mazda and the five-year warranty of the Hyundai.

At the recommended retail price it's not a match for the Subaru and Mazda. But at $26,990 drive-away – the price it has been for seven of the past nine months, and between $6000 and $9000 cheaper than the other cars here – it's impossible to beat.

Hyundai Sonata Active

RRP: $29,990 plus-on road costs
Drive-away price: $33,182 to $33,985 (varies by state)
Engine: 2.4-litre four-cylinder
Power: 138kW/241Nm
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Consumption: 8.3L/100km
Fuel cost over three years: $1867.50
Servicing cost over three years: $777
Service intervals: 12 months, 15,000km
Spare tyre: Full size, 17-inch alloy wheel
Warranty: Five years, unlimited km
Safety: Six airbags, rear-view camera, five-star rating
Length, width, height, wheelbase: 4855, 1865, 1475, 2805 (mm)
Weight: 1500kg
Boot capacity: 510 litres

Mazda6 Sport

RRP: $32,620 plus-on road costs
Drive-away price: $36,062 to $36,510 (varies by state)
Engine: 2.5-litre four-cylinder
Power: 138kW/250Nm
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Consumption: 6.6L/100km
Fuel cost over three years: $1485
Servicing cost over three years: $1380
Service intervals: 9 months, 10,000km
Spare tyre: Space saver
Warranty: Three years, unlimited km
Safety: Six airbags, rear-view camera, five-star rating
Length, width, height, wheelbase: 4855, 1840, 1450, 2830 (mm)
Weight: 1462kg
Boot capacity: 474 litres

Subaru Liberty 2.5i

RRP: $29,990 plus-on road costs
Drive-away price: $33,537 to $33,901 (varies by state)
Engine: 2.5-litre four-cylinder
Power: 129kW/235Nm
Transmission: Six-speed CVT automatic
Consumption: 7.3L/100km
Fuel cost over three years: $1642.50
Servicing cost over three years: $2216
Service intervals: 6 months, 12,500km
Spare tyre: Full size, 18-inch alloy wheel
Warranty: Three years, unlimited km
Safety: Seven airbags, rear-view camera, five-star rating
Length, width, height, wheelbase: 4795, 1840, 1500, 2750 (mm)
Weight: 1542kg
Boot capacity: 493 litres

Toyota Camry Altise

RRP: $30,490 plus-on road costs
Drive-away price: $26,990 
Engine: 2.5-litre four-cylinder
Power: 133kW/231Nm
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Consumption: 7.8L/100km
Fuel cost over three years: $1755
Servicing cost over three years: $560
Service intervals: 9 months, 10,000km
Spare tyre: Full size, 16-inch steel wheel
Warranty: Three years, 100,000km
Safety: Seven airbags, rear-view camera, five-star rating
Length, width, height, wheelbase: 4815, 1825, 1470, 2775 (mm)
Weight: 1465kg
Boot capacity: 515 litres