Walk through any supermarket parking lot or look at the cars stopped at a light around you, and you're bound to see multiple samples of various best-selling models. In the midsize sedan class, the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord are the ubiquitous sales leaders; the Nissan Altima, Ford Fusion and Hyundai Sonata also abound.
Perhaps you're looking for an automotive experience that's not identical to your neighbors, but still want many of the same virtues that make those bestsellers appealing. Two models to consider are the Mazda6 and the Volkswagen Passat.
To be clear, both of these midsize sedans can fill unique niches – they aren't quite as well-rounded as an Accord or Camry. Both offer their own notable design aesthetics, and the Mazda promises a sporty driving experience while the VW offers outstanding interior space.
Visually, the Mazda6 is the more distinctive of these two sedans, perhaps the flashiest car in its class. An aggressive front end slips into a sleeker, arched body that could pass for a luxury car from some angles. Mazda furthers this impression by keeping even the base $22,820 model looking expensive, with standard 17-inch alloy wheels rather than the more basic setup that you'd find on similarly priced competitors. Extra-large 19-inch wheels further dress up all but the base model – they're well-suited to the car's styling, but do be aware of potentially higher tire costs.
Inside, the Mazda6 benefits from a cabin that was spruced up for the 2016 model year. And despite the sporty styling, interior space is quite respectable, even in the rear seat. It doesn't lead the class, but this sedan is capable of carrying five adults in acceptable comfort.
Where Mazda generally tries to be a particular standout is its cars' handling. Here, the Mazda6 is among the better midsize sedans – by the standards of the class, it has quick responses and high handling limits. However, it's not in a league of its own; this Mazda isn't so brilliant that the Honda Accord and Ford Fusion can't claim similar levels of driving enjoyment. Updates for 2017, shared with the smaller Mazda3, brought a clever new system that uses the engine to minimize the need for steering corrections either around a curve or in a straight line.
One issue is that the Fusion and Accord – and most other competitors – are available with bigger engines than the Mazda6. Its base engine, a 2.5-liter four-cylinder with 184 horsepower, is competitive with the standard engines on other midsize sedans. But that's as good as the Mazda gets, even on the tested fully-loaded model with a sticker price of $34,530. Buyers seeking either a luxury experience or a sporty one may well wish for a faster, quieter powertrain. EPA ratings are an excellent 30 miles per gallon in mixed driving, at least.
The Volkswagen Passat, meanwhile, works to blend a European luxury experience with the everyday versatility and value of a family sedan. The clean styling aesthetic, both inside and out, reflects VW's global design cues. In contrast to Asian and American competitors, it's a simpler design that's mostly stripped of curbs, swoops and other embellishments. Some will find it plain but others will find it classier than the competition.
VW updated the Passat for the 2016 model year with subtle styling tweaks and a host of small improvements throughout the car, including improved interior materials and new features. While it dates to the 2012 model year, this Volkswagen still has a particularly airy cabin and class-leading rear legroom for two passengers (though a third passenger must straddle a large floor hump). A number of competitors, in pursuit of sleeker styling, have actually ended up with less space over the years. Despite some upgrades, though, the Passat doesn't stand out for its infotainment system – tech lovers will seek a bigger screen, and anyone would appreciate a more intuitive control layout.
Some reviewers consider the Passat to be surprisingly fun to drive, but it only really starts to impress when you're pushing it hard. In normal driving, the steering feels light and only loosely connected to the front wheels. The tested Passat comes with the optional V6 engine, which is smooth and powerful while being rated for 23 mpg in mixed driving. The standard engine, a 170-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder, hits a competitive but unremarkable 27 mpg.
Prices for the Passat start at $23,260, and the tested fully-loaded model hit $34,815. Shop it, and the Mazda6, against the class's compelling sales leaders, in particular the Accord, Camry and Fusion, along with the slower-selling but still impressive Kia Optima and Subaru Legacy.