By Brady Holt
Regular Auto Drive readers know about recent improvements to two class leaders in the midsize family sedan class: the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. These models are better than ever these days, with outstanding fuel efficiency, improved driving dynamics, fancier interiors, and more luxury and convenience features.
You may have also read about a pair of less popular cars in this class: the Mazda6 and the Volkswagen Passat, reviewed last year. They’ve also undergone some recent changes that increase both their value and their appeal, albeit to different customers from each other.
Let’s start with the Mazda6, a favorite in car-enthusiast circles for its elegant styling and sporty handling. Since the car’s last full redesign as a 2014 model, Mazda has quietly lavished upgrades on its slow-selling sedan, and this year brought an important one: an available turbocharged engine.
The engine resolves an important complaint from the car enthusiasts who otherwise loved the Mazda6. It had previously offered just one engine: a 2.5-liter four-cylinder with 185 horsepower. While respectably fuel-efficient and decently peppy, this engine never offered much excitement in a straight line — even compared to such mundane-sounding models as the Accord or Camry.
Now, a 250-horsepower 2.5-liter turbo comes standard on three of the Mazda6’s five trim levels. That’s less than a V6 Camry but competitive with the top engine in the Accord and most other competitors.
Mazda also continued to improve the car’s refinement and luxury, helping elevate it above the humble norms of the midsize sedan class. While an Accord may not be any less luxurious or fun to drive, the Mazda6 matches its high standard while standing apart visually.
Not only do you see the Accord everywhere, but the Mazda6 is the more classically-handsome sedan. Where the Accord is festooned with showy details, the Mazda6 oozes confidence. The latest updates for 2018 smoothed out the looks rather than complicating them, most notably by better integrating the headlights and grille. Overall, the body stretches gracefully across a curved frame, looking more expensive than other cars in its class.
Inside, the Mazda6 also has an upscale-looking dashboard. By moving the audio controls to the center console between the front seats, Mazda cleaned up the dashboard to create an elegant starkness. Not everyone will love how the controls work, though, and the Mazda6’s infotainment screen is on the small side. The good news: Android Auto and Apple CarPlay smartphone integration are now available.
The tested top-of-the-line Signature trim brings an extra dose of luxury to the Mazda6 experience, with wood trim and suede-wrapped dashboard panels. A few pieces here and there will still remind you that you’re not in an Audi, but the aesthetic is nice overall. And although the Mazda6 looks sleek and sporty, it still has a comfortable rear seat and an acceptable (though below-average) 14.7-cubic-foot trunk.
The best news of all: the Mazda6 is a relative bargain in its class. Buyers on a budget will skip the tested $36,435 fully-loaded Signature, but much of the Mazda6’s appeal lives on in the base $22,845 Sport model. Equip it comparably to the competition, and the Mazda6 joins the humbler Hyundai Sonata in undercutting the Accord and Camry by a couple thousand dollars.
The Mazda6 isn’t quite as fuel-efficient as the Honda or Toyota, but it’s close behind with a rating of 29 miles per gallon in mixed driving. The turbo slips to 26 mpg, competitive with similarly powerful midsize sedans. Unlike some competitors, it runs happily on regular fuel, too, though you need premium for maximum horsepower.
Overall, the Accord and Camry continue to provide a higher degree of mechanical polish than the Mazda6, even with the latest improvements. But the Mazda6 can make up for it with rarity, character, elegance and value.
Meanwhile, the Volkswagen Passat tries out its own take on those four points. It also brings a unique design aesthetic to the class: German simplicity. The Passat is defined by straight lines and little fuss, and plenty of buyers will like it that way.
Even more appealing is the Passat’s value. It’s been on the market without major changes since way back in 2012, but Volkswagen has taken that time to add loads of standard equipment — creating a strong value at a base price of $23,890. Like Mazda, Volkswagen also uses big alloy wheels to make affordable models look more expensive; the tested R-Line costs a reasonable $27,040.
Volkswagen also replaced the standard four-cylinder engine this year, improving both power and fuel economy. The new 2.0-liter turbo has 174 horsepower and an EPA rating of 29 mpg in mixed driving. The tested Passat also blew past that rating to average 36 mpg, an impressive showing. (A powerful but fuel-thirsty V6 is also available, but it will soon be discontinued.) As a further value play, VW has emulated Hyundai in promoting a longer warranty than nearly every competitor — though the Sonata and its Kia Optima twin still have the edge.
However, Volkswagen prioritized a massive interior over maximum luxury, resulting in a utilitarian ambiance — it gets the job done without fuss. From a distance, the dashboard looks like an older Audi model, but there’s little luxury up close. Nor does the Passat drive like a sports sedan, resembling a Sonata more than an Audi A4 or even an Accord. Like the Sonata, it’s a functional budget car that feels like a functional budget car.
But if you’d rather have a functional budget car with a European design aesthetic — along with better gas mileage than the Hyundai at similar prices — the Passat is a worthy option.
Brady Holt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association.