One and Done: The Best Midsize Sedan in America

The best midsize sedan in America, and four other cars.

By Jason Davis | Photos By Jason Davis | February 26, 2013
Here is how this story begins and ends: The 2013 Honda Accord is the best midsize sedan in America, and it belongs in your driveway. If you clicked this link to find the answer to that question, you now have it. Thanks for the pageview.
But there's more to the story here, and it starts and ends with coffee. Specifically in this case, under an umbrella on the patio at Martha's 22nd St. Grill in Hermosa Beach on a cloudy morning. There were five of us, one for each car -- the 2012 Chevrolet Malibu LTZ, the 2013 Nissan Altima, the 2013 Honda Accord EX-L, the 2012 Toyota Camry LE, and the 2013 Ford Fusion -- and each reviewer brought his own conflicting interests, driving needs, habits, and experience. Among us were two married guys, another who might as well be, and two bachelors of decidedly different backgrounds. Case in point: One of us doesn't drink coffee, which begs the question: How do you even argue with that person when he says, "I think the such-and-such car has the best cup holders." NO, YOU DON'T DRINK COFFEE, YOUR POINT IS INVALID.
But all of this is really just support for the fact that the 2013 Honda Accord is the best midsize sedan in America (and it belongs in your driveway). That much was unanimous. Uncontested. Even the Honda-hating non-coffee drinker agreed. Exactly how we came to that conclusion, and how close the Accord's victory was, is where the story lies.

Cars and Coffee

The gourmet coffee at Martha's was excellent, the stuffed French toast even better, and the great service, and gently crashing waves in the background made for a setting that was too comfortable to leave. So we drank more coffee, fine-tuned the test criteria, and picked our pre-road test favorites:
Accord - 2 Fusion - 1 Altima - 1 Camry - 1 Our testing method included driving each car in a number of typical road situations, like on the freeway, in traffic, in and out of busy parking lots, and on backcountry roads. We drove each car back-to-back and on the same road and weather conditions, which we feel is the best way to subjectively evaluate the practicality and nuance of each vehicle. Then we sat in the backseat, fitted a Britax infant carrier and toddler's booster seat into each car, and filled the trunk with as many grocery bags we could fit. We asked and found answers to questions like, "Which car provides the best value," "What is the difference between the car I want, and the car I would buy with my own money," and, "Which car would I recommend to a family member?" Finally, despite months of planning, it wasn't possible to get a completely level playing field, because automotive fleets don't always carry every single model with every price point. As a result, our midsize best-sellers ranged from about $23,000 to just more than $32,000. However, keep in mind that the price difference between these vehicles when equipped the same is surprisingly narrow, just a few hundred dollars one way or the other.

A Malibu for Mommy Stacy

The first leg of our journey was a multicolored-follow-the-leader-convoy out of Los Angeles. Freeway traffic was listless and thick, though typical for the area: We were surrounded by truckers and contractors and business people too busy yapping into their cell phones to notice commuter dread -- red brake lights -- and its foreshadowing of a disappearing sun, its here-now then gone-again presence through patches of darkening clouds and the bleak-eyed stares of the not-yet-caffeinated.
That's when Married Guy #2 broke the radio silence to brag about the Malibu's fuel economy. "Guys, I don't want to be that guy [who reports the fuel economy readout every three minutes for the entirety of a 300-mile road trip]," he said while definitely being that guy, "but the Malibu is averaging just under 26 miles per gallon. That's 3 mpg better than what we were getting with the Malibu Eco." His smugness was quickly shattered when everyone else piped up with his own readings. No other car had registered less than 30 miles per gallon, and the humdrum Camry was leading the pack with a whopping 37 miles per gallon. Commuting is the least interesting component of a car comparison, but fuel economy numbers are important to commuters. Not only does commuting provide a thorough examination of a car's comfort, its audio quality, or its fuel-sipping tendencies, it tests a driver's patience, too. It is, perhaps, the most relevant exercise in reviewing a car since it's how most Americans spend their time behind the wheel. By that point, though, we were well into the valley, having already driven 25 miles, a seemingly aimless drift in wont of more coffee. So we exited the freeway and pulled into a gas station to find a Starbucks on GPS without the distraction of traffic. That's when we met "Victor," a man who had noticed how we too carefully pulled into five parallel spaces for a conspicuous photo op. "Which one's the best?" he asked, while leaning out the window of his refrigerated van. "That one," said Married Guy #2, pointing indiscriminately toward all the cars. "I don't know," said Married Guy #1. "The day is young. But, check in a month for the answer!" After Victor drove off, Bachelor #2 broke formation and parked the Accord next to a premium look alike, his attempt at directly pointing out the obvious: an already stale attempt at characterizing the Honda's looks as a role reversal, where Hyundai used to copy Honda design. "It's a great-looking Genesis," he mentioned, several times, waiting for someone to take the bait so he could keep arguing the point. No one did.
If it were strictly a design competition, the Malibu just might come out on top. It's a knockout of a design: handsome, sculpted well, although somewhat bulbous from certain angles. It matters to the kinds of people who don't read the in-depth parts of car reviews, and who buy a car based on looks and available colors. For that group, Chevrolet has scored big.
The Malibu looks great from the inside, too, as though designers spent as much time there as they did on the outside. This, too, is important, because what the Malibu lacked in fuel efficiency, it made up for in comfort. Inside is an array of clever features, dashing lines (the lighting is especially neat at night), and squishy, wide front seats. "It feels special inside," said Bachelor #1. And, "It feels like GM put a lot of effort into it," said Bachelor #2. Unfortunately, the dash was too complex, with too many buttons, forcing the driver to rely on GM's MyLink connectivity. It worked mostly well, albeit with a cluttered and not-so-intuitive menu system. But despite the vivid 7-inch display and $32,000 price tag, there was no navigation system, aside from GM's OnStar service; the two other similarly priced cars had nav systems. Another bummer: While the front seats were spacious and accommodating, we felt the backseat was rather limited, and that it had the least amount of usable space. Under the hood, our Malibu was fit with the 2.5-liter four-cylinder and a six-speed automatic transmission, and was rated by the EPA for 26/34/22 mpg on the city/highway/mixed driving scale. Those numbers aren't bad for a car that felt appropriately able to get out of its own way. On the highway, the Malibu felt soft and springy, and was the most Cadillac-like of the group. "It's a fantastic highway cruiser," thought Bachelor #2. "It feels heavy, secure, and the ride soaks up every bump." But it had issues there, too. The steering "felt twitchy, and dead in certain spots," continued Might As Well Be Married Guy, and at freeway speeds, we found the Malibu difficult to keep straight.
It's a shame. The Malibu was clearly one of the two best looking cars in the segment, but it's held back by poor fuel economy, a small backseat, and an overall package that wasn't the sum of its impressive parts.
"It's a better car than I think most people would admit," Bachelor #2 added. "No one should feel ashamed to own one." That's true, but you'd be missing out on great.

Cold Fusion

As most Californians do, we measure driving distance more by time rather than by actual distance. Gauging by time, we had a lot of ground to cover before the short day's sundown photo shoot, and worse if the rain made good on its threat.
That's when Married Guy #1 announced a route alteration. As a general rule, straight lines are the quickest way to get from Point A to Point B. Naturally, our route addendum bended those rules. We took the first exit toward Castaic Lake, a dammed lake at the terminus of the California Aqueduct famous for being the filming location for the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers TV show, to see which of our family sedans, if any, had any sporty pretentions lurking beneath. This is a good place to discuss the two very distinct approaches to building a midsize sedan. In one camp, there are cars not known for high styling, but which offer an easygoing ride with space to spare. In the second camp are cars that are styled to stand out from the pack, but which occasionally suffer from a lack of space to accommodate the pretty lines. The Honda Accord and Toyota Camry exemplify the former category, while in the latter you have the new Ford Fusion and Chevy Malibu. It gets confusing when the sporty-looking car doesn't drive as sporty as one of its plain-Jane competitors. That was the case with our Ford Fusion SE, one of our two early front-runners. And let's be honest about our superficiality on this one: Looks do matter, and sometimes, what's on the outside can adequately mask deficiencies on the inside. Yep, the Fusion is a looker in an otherwise stale segment. "The Fusion was the most elegant and intimidating car in our comparison," said Bachelor #2. "Like a German car, it feels like it was carved out of a single piece of steel." "It's refreshing, and modern" said Bachelor #1, "and it looks more expensive than it is." And while we're still on the question of looks, the Fusion looks pretty great on the inside, too. It had, perhaps, the best-presented package of any sedan in the comparison. Married Guy #1 tried, but "couldn't find where Ford went cheap on the interior." Bachelor #1 spoke highly of the piano black accents and beautiful contrast stitching, and Might As Well Be Married Guy found it the easiest infotainment system to sync his iPhone to. Speaking of infotainment: the latest generation of MyFord Touch and Sync worked great. Bachelor #2 marveled that it no longer needed awkward catchphrases, and that it worked when prompted and without hesitation. And our audio snob, Married Guy #2, felt the Fusion's 6-speaker audio system was the most powerful in the group, and second in sound to only the Accord.
But that's where the praise ends. "Don't let the looks fool you," Married Guy #1 cautioned, "the Fusion is not sporty feeling AT ALL."
Most of our quibbles are the result of what's unseen. Under the hood, the 1.6-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder provided punchy acceleration, but it was hampered by a balky and confused six-speed automatic transmission. Off the freeway, the EcoBoost didn't respond promptly when we floored it, a characteristic it shares with many turbocharged engines. That's usually not a big deal since the power is strong when it does come on. As a defining rule, we're not an enthusiast source. But if Ford is going to build a $30,000 family sedan that kind of looks like a $100,000 Aston Martin, then it ought to at least partially live up to the billing. Sure, it was a capable freeway cruiser, but none of us expected it to be such a handful on country roads. "The suspension was all over the place," said Married Guy #1. "When I pushed it harder [in the corners], the thing leaned heavily. The suspension got really wobby; not sporty feeling AT ALL." "The transmission is too laggy, the engine is too laggy," said Bachelor #2. "The car doesn't want to get tossed into a corner the way the old one did. It just doesn't want to play." And that's a shame. The Fusion is almost a great car, and it's very appealing to look at and play with, but it doesn't fulfill the promise of its styling. "This car is sooo close to being the ideal family sedan," said Married Guy #1. "It's got high style, but it's just not high on substance."

Honda Harmony

There is one place, and only one, that the all-new Accord is not significantly better than the car it replaced: The center stack. And that's it. In fact, even the center stack is an improvement compared to the 2012 Accord, just not significantly.
The 2013 Honda Accord is technically a redesign, but not much is actually new. Sure, its 2.4-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine now has a continuously variable transmission and it now conforms to the latest craze in advanced injection technology, both as measures to improve fuel economy, but a lot of the actual bones of the car are carryover. More stuff does not equal better, except when it's actually better stuff. So how did something so middle-of-the-road become something so great? We asked Honda about that, and they gave us a very PR-like answer. Except that it's also true: "The engineering team's goal was to build a car that simply excels in all areas, including fuel economy, ride and handling, passenger and cargo space, cabin quietness, driver and passenger visibility, and the seat-of-the-pants fun quotient that over 11 million past Accord buyers have come to expect. Anyone who drives Accord should clearly see that it's definitely not a one-trick pony." The new Accord is better looking; at 30/27/36 mpg on the city/mixed/highway fuel economy scale, the new Accord is more fuel efficient; with the same engine, and the best CVT in the game, the new Accord is quicker and quieter; with a new suspension and electrical steering, it's easier to drive around town and more fun to drive on a mountain road; it retains the same class-leading rear interior passenger space, and an impressive trunk; the dash is still cluttered with redundant buttons and layout, but it's toned down from before; the audio is cleaner and clearer sounding; and if the right-turn lever's blindspot camera isn't an industry standard by 2014, it will be by 2015. In fact, all of these things, minus the center stack and infotainment layout, are pretty much the best in segment. Which is pretty impressive considering the modest price increase in most Accord models amounts to about an average of $200. "The Accord was an able city cruiser, but it's also an overwhelmingly capable driver's car," wrote Bachelor #1. And that's the difference between the Accord and everything else in this class. No other car felt so clean, so cocky and nimble and smooth around town, and then duplicated it -- to our surprise -- when the roads got narrower and bendy-er. "It handled the mountain roads with the finesse and ease of a sports car," he continued.
"Ignore every gadget, every scrap of leather, every electronic bauble, and this is still the best car, simply because of the way it drives," gushed Married Guy #1. "The steering is linear, and nicely weighted... the suspension is extremely well sorted, and in the mountains, it moved predictably."
"It's a huge leap forward," beamed Might As Well Be Married Guy. And, "in terms of appeal and value, the Accord is at the top of the class," said Bachelor #1. That's pretty high praise for what many have long considered a dull front-wheel drive family car. After all, it's not a sport sedan, though it is the sportiest in class -- when you want it to be. But don't get us wrong, it can drive Miss Daisy, if that's your thing. And we suspect many Accord owners will never discover its backcountry charm, begging the question: Is it still the best, without an appreciation for its sophisticated engineering? Yes, and by a long shot. Take any car in this comparison for a test drive, then drive the Accord afterward. It doesn't take an enthusiast or a racecar driver to feel and experience the difference. The 2017 Accord is going to have very, very large shoes to fill.

Altima Says Hi, Few Noticed

Like the Ford Fusion and the Honda Accord and the Chevy Malibu, the 2013 Nissan Altima is also brand new. And like the Accord, it's still a lot of familiar territory: the 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and continuously variable transmission are from the previous model, and the styling isn't too different than the one it replaced. None of this is a bad thing; despite the similarities, the Altima is more premium looking than before, when it was turning into one of America's favorite midsize sedans.
But it isn't more premium than the car it replaced. "I'm surprised by how little has changed," said Married Guy #1. It's still plain looking on the outside, though it looked massaged in the right places, and there's not much to look at on the inside, either. And that totally conceals that the new Altima has a fantastic platform for weekend duties. The engine is peppy and gets up to speed nicely, and the continuously variable transmission, although it results in a distractingly loud engine, was the most responsive performer of the group. Stomp the gas to pass on the freeway, and the Altima responded like that dork in high school whose hand shot up at every question in class -- pick me, pick me, PICK ME! Compared to other family sedans, we mean, the Altima is very dynamic, and eager, like an amped-up puppy. Which belies its sedated appearance. But that's about it. In fact, it's a lot like the Camry (see below), except that it's fun to drive. Sure, the Altima was fine on regular roads, though a bit noisy, and it was well composed, too. It did very well in real-world fuel economy, second only to the Camry, and that's important. But our real problem with the new Altima, and this is our harshest criticism of it, is that we felt the interior was alarmingly unrefined. This same approach won Honda zero new fans when its cheapened 2012 Civic debuted with a less refined interior than the previous generation. And Honda was chastised by the press.
"It's like Nissan spent all of its development money on the chassis, and nothing for the rest of the car," complained Bachelor #2. The shiny plastic schematic is insultingly cheap and "already dated," moaned Bachelor #1. The center stack felt "bulky and cheap," said Might As Well Be Married Guy. "What a letdown," remarked Married Guy #2. "It still feels like it takes a backseat in refinement compared to the rest of the group," said Married Guy #1.
But were the interior features at least functional? The audio was uninspiring, and the satellite radio lost its signal and couldn't retrieve it on our drive; Married Guy #1 is a giant, as is Might As Well Be Married Guy, and they both felt the seats were too upright, too short, nicely squishy, but otherwise annoying. And the backseat? Not as spacious as the Accord, Camry, or Fusion, and particularly lacked headroom. So, for $26,000, what you're left with is a best seller with a fantastic but noisy ride, and a cheap, half-assed interior dominated by an unsightly, wobbly, center console. A second-year refresh could take the Altima a long way.

Another Terrible Metaphor

Automotive Journalism is a lot like food writing: A critic visits a restaurant, samples some food, and writes a review. But good (and bad) reviews of good (and less than good) restaurants do nothing to deter people from continually eating at McDonalds.
Look, we're not saying that the Toyota Camry is the automotive equivalent of McDonalds, but its popularity, like McDonalds, is both absolutely reasonable, and certifiably baffling. Which is to say that no other car on this list was as hotly debated as the Toyota Camry. One of us placed it last on his list, while two others placed it as high as second and third on their lists. First, the good: It's a Camry, so you know it'll drive to the moon and back. Secondly, it's a Camry, so you know you can drive to the moon and back comfortably with four extra passengers. And, since it's a Camry, you know you can drive to the moon and back comfortably with four extra passengers and still have enough room for a trunk full of lavender-scented hand towels from Bed, Bath, and Beyond. Also, no one would question that you got the best fuel economy in the Milky Way by virtue of it being a Toyota. Camrys are good at that. And then the less than good: The good engine is mated to a frustratingly-intolerant transmission, the suspension was stolen from a 1980s Buick, and the steering is about as intuitive as a unicycle's (it's good at going straight!). "Everything about this car is good," said Might As Well Be Married Guy.
And that's the problem. It's so blandly good that almost nothing about it stands out. "It looks good," said Bachelor #1. "Front seat was very good, the cloth seats would be good for long trips," he continued. "Visibility is good," said Married Guy #1, "and there's a good-sized trunk."
And when it's not good, it's basic. Or honest, inoffensive, solid, simple, unexciting, un-engaging, appliance-like, bland, grayge, durable, reputable, middle-ground, standard, rudimentary, unsophisticated, un-flashy, anonymous, supportive, cheap, and smart. These are the actual uninspiring descriptors we used in our comparison notes to explain the Camry. If these words were sent to you in a love letter, you'd actually be offended. "It doesn't evoke much feeling," remarked Bachelor #1, "not like the Fusion, anyway. But it offers everything shoppers in this segment care about." And that's true, and important to remember. The Camry is very fuel efficient. It's safe. It has a spacious, mostly comfortable interior, both front and back. The trunk is huge. And Toyota's brand perception is at an all-time high in terms of quality, reliability, and value. A lot of people want those things in a car. "The reason the Camry sells so well is because it manages to hit all those high points, and for people who don't need anything beyond that, they're happy," said Married Guy #1.

Hero Shot

All this standing around, drinking coffee, and driving slow family cars on windy roads seriously cut into our schedule. With sundown two hours off, we had a long drive ahead of us or we'd miss the light for the final photo shoot.
Of course, that's when it began to rain. It was a light sprinkle at first, mostly just Zeus toying with Married Guy #2 -- who is also our photographer -- and the possibility of a wrecked feature shot. But as we climbed out of the valley and closer to the coast, our wipers went frantic. And then the rain stopped. And when Married Guy #2 thought, "Hey, we might make it after all," it began to rain again. And it didn't stop until we reached our point, a dirt pad overlooking a Pacific Ocean on the cliffs above Malibu. It was picturesque and quiet and dark, the perfect spot for BMW-driving teenagers to "watch the sunset, baby." Watching the sunset was all we could do, too, since it was ultimately too dark and rainy and windy to take photos of wet cars.

Friends with Words

We accomplished very little over a beer at a restaurant overlooking the Santa Monica and Malibu coastlines. The 2013 Honda Accord won the comparison, and the Malibu finished last. That much we knew. It was figuring out the rest of the lineup that became an issue. The arguments against each car were thus: "The Fusion has a bad suspension. The Altima's interior sucks. And the Camry is a Camry." Really, none of us were budging an inch, and despite each editor's best efforts at convincing the others at the table that he was right, and they were wrong, we left without a decision.
We reconvened the following Monday morning for a photo shoot on the beach. The weekend away had mellowed our grumbling, for the most part, though everyone seemed to still be knocking the Camry while simultaneously singing its praises.
After the photo shoot, we drove to our favorite breakfast hangout, Pacific Diner, in San Pedro, Los Angeles' port city and Long Beach neighbor. It was another warm'ish late-November morning, and the sun was shining. As we parked, a sharp-edged curb jumped up and bit the Camry in the shoe. The timing of the air whooshing out of the right front tire couldn't have been better, falling on its sword to relieve a glut of cars scheduled over the Thanksgiving weekend. So Might As Well Be Married Guy helped Bachelor #2 change the tire, and we called Toyota and informed them of the casualty. Which brings us to the final tally, which after the tire change went undisputed:
5. Chevy Malibu -- less than the sum of its parts
4. Nissan Altima -- an excellent chassis and drivetrain, let down by underwhelming refinement
3. Toyota Camry -- good at everything, while not being outstanding at anything
2. Ford Fusion -- sexy inside and out, and a suspension and transmission away from challenging Accord
In the end, the only thing we could agree on was that none of us wanted anything other than the Accord anyway. So here is how this story unfolds: The 2013 Honda Accord is the best midsize sedan in America, and it belongs in your driveway.
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The Accord is the best looking, but the Camry is the best choice if you're looking for reliability! The Camry has the traditional engine/drivetrain config-no direct injection and no cvt tranny like the accord auto! Read forums, these two features are over sold and may just lead to very expensive repairs down the road! I'm guessing manufacturers will regret DI and CVTs! These two features have not delivered as promise in the mpg department either as promised! All the cars are good looking outside and competition is tightening, but this should be known to the buying public! The chevy and chrysler engine/drivetrain is still sub par too ( I rent them), but getting better! Thanks, picky EngineerĀ 

Audi Love
Audi Love

The Fusion is the best of them all, honey! ^^^^^

Gregory Smitherman
Gregory Smitherman

I'm chevy all the way, both the Honda and Chevy Malibu looks the best.

It takes a little coercing to get our staff photographer (and talented writer if you haven't read the story yet) out of the dark dungeon known as our cubicle-walled office. But when he gets out, he does a great job. -Jacob

Alex Brown
Alex Brown

This is a great picture.... If the fusion was in a different color, I'd give it the best grill award. Def goes to Honda tho! :)