One indication of the segment's crucial nature is that no one tries to stretch the design cycle. A stale car is the kiss of death in this arena. Four of the major players - Ford, Honda, Nissan, and Chevrolet - have redesigned their midsize sedans for 2013. Two others, Toyota and Volkswagen, were new for 2012.
Let's take a quick look at these six latest offerings, parenthetically giving their base price range:
Chevrolet Malibu ($22,155 to $30,165). The new Malibu turns out to be an attractive automobile with a fairly aggressive stance. It is a nice-handling, exceptionally quiet midsizer with a choice of three engines. In addition to the base 2.5-liter four, the Malibu can be equipped with the eAssist engine first used in Buicks. This engine gets some help from a small electric motor, and that partnership produces decent performance and outstanding EPA mileage estimates of 25 city and 37 highway.
For power seekers, Chevy, like Ford, has substituted a turbocharged four for a much larger V-6, and got better power and much better mileage (21 and 30).
Honda Accord ($21,680 to $33,430). The stylish 2013 Accord suggests a mild departure from the design conservatism it has shared with the Toyota Camry. And its interior suggests that Honda has done graduate work in packaging. The new car is 3.5 inches shorter than its porkier predecessor, yet its cabin dimensions remain the same, and its trunk even grows a cubic foot.
The cabin is also quieter and more nicely appointed than the previous Accord's. The Accord's lively, revised four-cylinder engine represents the automaker's first dance with direct injection in the U.S. market and gets notable EPAs of 27 and 36 when buttoned to a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT).
Nissan Altima ($21,500 to $30,080). The new car, which remains the same size as the old one, is pleasingly styled, featuring that popular coupesque roofline.
The designers took weight out of the car by using high-strength steel, and that contributed to brisker acceleration and better mileage. So did the new four-cylinder engine and CVT. The four-cylinder models now have rousing EPAs of 27 and 38.
Ford Fusion ($21,700 to $32,200). What the 2013 Fusion brings to the party is an exceptionally stylish sedan with amiable European driving dynamics and an unmatched multiplicity of engines. Those engines include a hybrid with projected EPA mileage estimates of 47 city and 47 highway, which would make it the nation's most economical midsize sedan.
Toyota Camry ($22,055 to $30,155). The Camry was mildly redesigned for 2012. The car's styling remains a citadel of conservatism, but now has enough sporty cues to avert boredom. This is particularly true on the V-6 model, whose sportiness is enhanced by a gutsy engine, a more athletic suspension, and more precise steering. The net result is a midsizer as lively and agile as it is practical and roomy. (Roominess is enhanced by nifty tricks like making the doors thinner.)
The Camry's base and V-6 are economical, but the petrol champ is the hybrid model, with EPAs of 43 city and 39 highway.
Volkswagen Passat($20,485 to $33,525). Redesigned for 2012, the Passat is a satisfying sedan with a civil appearance and comfort level, and impeccable road manners. The workmanship, like the engineering, is first rate.
The Passat engine choices include a base, five-cylinder model and a lively V-6. But the mileage maharaja is a quiet, peppy 2-liter diesel with a highway EPA of 43.
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