Mediums well done

We take the 10 most choice cuts from a crowded and sizeblurred segment, and separate the prime steak from the fat

WORDS NATHAN PONCHARD, BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS & JAMES WHITBOURN PHOTOS NATHAN DUFF

Ford Mondeo Holden Commodore Hyundai Sonata Kia Optima Mazda 6 Peugeot 508 Skoda Superb Subaru Liberty Toyota Camry Volkswagen Passat

Wheels megatest

THE medium-to-large sedan market might be faltering in the wake of SUV mania, but it’s certainly not for want of trying. Roomier, faster, better to drive, better equipped and better value than ever, the family sedan could well be the solution to driving pleasure and breeding pressure that Australia forgot.

The family sedan stalwarts have been working hard to keep the flame alive. Even the oldest (and least common) of our 10-strong field – Peugeot’s five-year-old 508 – received a makeover in 2015, while the Skoda Superb, Volkswagen Passat, Kia Optima, Hyundai Sonata and Ford Mondeo are as fresh as the morning snow, despite carrying over nameplates that date back generations.

Mazda’s brand-defining 6 received a comprehensive slap-and-tickle last year, refining its premium feel, while Subaru’s sixth-generation Liberty – launched late in 2014 – was recently improved by an Oz-specific suspension tune that should have been on the menu from day one.

The Hyundai and Kia also boast local tuning, while the Holden Commodore and Toyota Camry go one further with full Aussie development and manufacture. But does that still mean something in 2016?

Orchestrating a test as mega as this requires a certain degree of ‘engineering’, including relegating the bottom-feeders to the bench (think Holden Malibu, Honda Accord and Ford’s likeable but near-dead Falcon). Day One is dedicated to what we think will be the bottom four, Day Two the middling crew, Day Three the upper end, each with some level of inter-comparison to keep minds sharp. Think Mazda versus Ford; Volkswagen versus Skoda; Kia versus Hyundai.

So here’s what we believe to be the 10 best.

They vary in size, ability and driver appeal, but each packs a USP that argues a solid case against the SUV onslaught. NP

Toyota Camry Atara SL Hybrid

AN OLD DAME IN A PARTY OF STARLETS

Specs

$44,440* *includes moonroof ($1950) Engine 2494cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v + electric motor Power 151kW (max system output) Torque 270Nm (max system output) Transmission CVT automatic Dimensions (L/W/H/W-B) 4850/1835/1470/2775mm Weight 1610kg Cargo capacity 421 litres Tyres Bridgestone Turanza ER33 215/55R17 94V Test fuel cons 9.1L/100km 0-100km/h 8.0sec 0-400m 15.8sec @ 147.4km/h 80-120km/h 4.9sec 3yr resale 45% . Keen and refined drivetrain; competent chassis . Budget interior; laggy CVT; comprehensively outclassed

Score

5.0/10 AFTER a world-beating 53 years building cars in this country – longer than anywhere else outside Japan – the Camry tested here will be Toyota’s sayonara to Australia. Yet in much the same way it signals the conclusion of domestic production, the evergreen Camry bookends the back end of this megatest field.

Perhaps unfairly, the Camry Atara SL Hybrid’s last-place position has more to do with the strength of the competition than any serious weaknesses on its behalf… apart from its interior. While last year’s extensive facelift refreshed every exterior panel, cost considerations meant the Aussie-built Camry missed out on the new dash and fittings that debuted elsewhere, leaving it with 2011’s cheap, cheerless plastics and a low-rent feel about as desirable as a home invasion.

In the Toyota’s defence, it’s roomy inside, with just enough acreage to seat three across the back seat, but it has obviously been designed for maximum wear over flair. There’s precious little beyond the basics – a centre-rear armrest, rear air vents, 600ml bottle holders in the doors, an electric rear window blind, leather-faced trim and pretty ‘Optitron’ instruments in this top-spec variant – and Camry’s seats merely keep bottoms off the floor. It’s a cabin of shapeless surfaces, minimal four-way adjustment for the front passenger and a wash-’n’-wear back section with an overly reclined backrest guaranteed to send tipsy ladies night-night on their way home from the club.

Things improve on the move, thanks to Camry’s sweetly muscular petrol-electric drivetrain and its effective suspension tune. Most punters would be surprised how quickly you can hustle a Camry Hybrid, particularly once you get used to the CVT’s lag and learn to stamp on the right pedal early. Its undeniable punch (15.8sec for the quarter) teams with a fluid and nicely balanced chassis that inspires confidence, at least until the ESC senses any kind of yaw and slams on the stability anchors like an irate parent smacking the dinner table.

That’s a pity because this Toyota has a genuine affinity for Aussie roads. Through bumpy corners, the unruffled Camry holds its line gamely, though suspension refinement isn’t its strong suit. That impression could have been exacerbated by the test car’s rattly centre console – seven of our test cars suffered cabin rattles – but there’s no escaping Camry’s five-year provenance. Like a Hollywood starlet past her prime, Toyota’s mid-sizer is a rapidly ageing proposition among a sea of fresh faces.

Yet there’s a fundamentally sound decency to the workmanlike Camry. Even outside the Hybrid’s preferred environment – city gridlock – its 9.1L/100km test average puts it well ahead of the similarly swift Mazda 6 and Ford Mondeo, if not Peugeot’s parsimonious 508 and the VW Group’s outstanding Superb and Passat. And Camry Hybrid’s deep boot is much roomier than it used to be, supported by a full-size 17-inch alloy spare lurking underneath.

While it does nothing spectacularly, the Toyota Camry is also completely inoffensive (if you can tolerate its interior presentation) and surprisingly capable when the point-to-point chips are down. And let’s not forget its driveability superiority to other Japanese mid-sizers like Honda’s dismal Accord and Nissan’s invisible Altima that didn’t even make this field. Just don’t bother with this $40K variant – value lies with the far cheaper Atara S Hybrid.

In several areas, the final Aussie-built Camry is an admirable piece of work. But compared to where the global benchmark is in 2016, it’s well adrift. NP

Soon to be expat

Toyota’s ninth-generation Camry is aiming for a US launch in the third quarter of 2017 and will be a substantially altered car. Riding on a brandspanking Toyota New Global Architecture platform (shared with new-gen Prius), the next Camry is expected to be lighter, stronger and funkier than today’s model, whose underpinnings date back more than a decade. A 2.0-litre turbo-petrol four is rumoured to replace V6 models in the US, likely the 8AR-FTS unit used in Lexus’s 200t variants. No official word as to where Australia’s next Camry will hail from, but expect Thailand, sometime in 2018.

Subaru Liberty 2.5i Premium

ALL THE FAMILIAR TRAITS, WITHOUT THE PERSONALITY

Specs

$35,990 Engine 2498cc flat 4, dohc, 16v Power 129kW @ 5800rpm Torque 235Nm @ 4000rpm Transmission CVT automatic Dimensions (L/W/H/W-B) 4795/1840/1500/2750mm Weight 1568kg Cargo capacity 493 litres Tyres Dunlop SP Sport Maxx 050 225/50R18 95W Test fuel cons 10.0L/100km 0-100km/h 9.2sec 0-400m 16.7sec @139.9km/h 80-120km/h 6.3sec 3yr resale 57% . Price and equipment; grip and handling poise . Lack of charisma; dull steering; irritating ride

Score

5.5/10 CHOOSING a new Subaru used to mark the happy coincidence of logic and lust, and that was before you even reached WRX territory. Near to offering the complete package, Libertys of old delivered personality with reliability and safety, intertwined with sportiness and a penchant for slippery surfaces (thanks to full-time AWD).

In a homogenised age in which characterful allrounders are rare, these qualities might have seen a modern-day Liberty prevail, just as they helped earlier generations conquer COTY in 1994 and ’98.

But while all-wheel drive and a flat-four engine continue in today’s Liberty, the boxer’s off-beat charm has vanished, and the symmetrical all-paw chassis’ talent is buried.

Long-gone is Subaru’s signature frameless door glass, along with the Euro sleekness of the fourth-gen Liberty (2003-09), replaced by an A-pillar quarter window, huge rear-view mirrors and an unfashionably small sunroof that give the sixth-gen car a subtle blue rinse. All-wheel drive remains a USP, however, and the payoff exists in the delivery of any-surface purchase at one end of the dynamic envelope, and inherent handling poise at the other.

However, you have to pare back the layers to unearth that chassis talent in the 2016 Liberty 2.5i Premium.

The worst offender is gluggy steering that, until you press on, removes any sense of front-end eagerness.

Which, with the horizontally opposed engine’s modest weight sitting low in the chassis, does actually exist.

While the Europeans have mastered effortless, flexible, efficient and swift low-capacity turbo fours for every occasion – take the VW Passat’s sterling 1.8 as a prime example – the Liberty still suffers from a typically Japanese lack of engine diversity, or of one standout powertrain. The 129kW 2.5 is a modest performer, yet it only delivers average economy (10.0L/100km on test). The punchy 3.6-litre flat-six alternative, meanwhile, loves a drink.

To its credit, Subaru’s CVT helps wring the most from the flat-four, though it’s not a stirring experience and Liberty remains clearly the tardiest of the group, taking 9.2sec to reach 100km/h from rest and 6.3sec to cover 80-120km/h. In everyday urban driving, the smooth CVT is almost indistinguishable from a conventional auto, and in more challenging conditions it’s nice to have shift paddles and a manual gearlever plane, even if the transmission can be reluctant to select an artificially stepped lower ratio.

Whether you’re working the boxer manually or leaving the CVT to its own mapping, though, there’s no escaping the Subaru’s relative gutlessness, along with its numb steering, as a buzz-killing double-act.

Then there’s the ride, which, while innocent enough on smooth-ish urban surfaces, proves noisy and jiggly on any average coarse-chip country road. It’s enough to irritate over time, and to take the shine off the touring experience, once a Liberty strong suit.

At least the cabin itself is welcoming, with plenty of room in all directions and terrific vision, though you sit ‘on’ the Liberty, not ‘in’ it. And despite its obvious build quality, it somehow lacks the sophistication of the fast-improving Koreans.

The $36K 2.5i Premium, the least-expensive car here, splits the $30K Liberty 2.5i and the $42K 3.6R, and gets a dose of desirable kit over the already well-specced base car (see breakout). But despite its undeniably strong value equation, a core lack of spirit, unexciting wrapping and a lack of ride polish seals second-last place for Subaru’s former star. JW

Liberty with egality

Even the entry-level Liberty 2.5i offers compelling value, with dualzone climate control, automatic headlights and wipers, a reversing camera, 18-inch alloys, seven airbags, no-cost metallic paint and Subaru’s Eyesight active safety suite, which includes AEB, lanedeparture warning and adaptive cruise. To this the Premium adds a smart key and start button, leather trim, heated power-adjustable front seats with memory for the driver, an upgraded infotainment system with sat-nav, electric sunroof, highbeam assist, blind-spot monitoring, lane-change assist and rear crosstraffic alert systems.

8 Hyundai Sonata Premium

MUCH TO LIKE, PLENTY TO IMPROVE

Specs

$42,850 Engine 1998cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v turbo Power 180kW @ 6000rpm Torque 350Nm @ 1400-4000rpm Transmission 6-speed automatic Dimensions (L/W/H/W-B) 4855/1865/1475/2805mm Weight 1645kg Cargo capacity 510 litres Tyres Hankook Ventus S1 Noble 2 225/45ZR18 95W Test fuel cons 10.9L/100km 0-100km/h 7.0sec 0-400m 15.0sec @ 155.2km/h 80-120km/h 4.3sec 3yr resale 45% . Solid; swift; spacious; sensible; generously equipped . Unruly wet-road behaviour; busy ride

Score

6.0/10 LET’S not mince words. The ‘LF’ in Hyundai’s LF-series Sonata could easily stand for ‘Leap Forward’ because, compared to the dynamically lousy i45 that preceded it, this seventh-generation Korean mid-sizer is leagues ahead.

Reflecting its progress is the styling, transitioning from the i45’s interesting, if intense, ‘Fluidic Sculpture’ theme to a rather sober fastback silhouette, underlining a newfound maturity that permeates throughout this freshly focused four-door.

There’s a reassuring thud the instant a door closes shut, setting a tone of sensibility that’s reflected in the Hyundai’s cabin, which could be mistaken for being German (Opel, sadly, not Audi), right down to pleasing fit and finish.

Few rivals are as practical or generously spacious, the Sonata offering abundant room for feet, legs, knees and shoulders – though the Premium’s panoramic sunroof does eat into rear headroom – backed up by well-padded seating and an expansive view.

The sunroof is standard, along with bi-xenon headlights, parking sensors at both ends, eight-way electrically adjustable and heated/ventilated front seats, rear-door sunblinds, electric folding mirrors, touchscreen sat-nav, rear-view camera, keyless entry/start, leather, dual-zone climate, and 18-inch alloys. Sonata Premium heaves with kit.

Yet it somehow leaves us lukewarm. This is by-the-numbers stuff that neither offends nor inspires. Accommodating driving position? Check.

Comprehensive instrumentation? Check. Ample ventilation? Check. From the hexagonally shaped centre console with its stupendously simple switchgear – too much so in the case of its very junior touchscreen graphics – everything is where it should be. What could be handier when driving away from a rental depot in some far-flung foreign port?

Be sure to check the speed limits first, though, because the oomph from Sonata’s 180kW/350Nm 2.0-litre turbo is startling, and prone to front axle tramp and torque-steer in the wet owing to Hankook Ventus tyres unsuited to its level of performance.

On smooth, dry roads, the latest Sonata is a very satisfying drive. It handles more fluidly than its closely related Kia cousin, with beautifully measured steering response for newfound handling poise and control completely alien to any former Hyundai mid-sizer.

Sonata has greater dynamic finesse than Kia’s Optima, too. Strong suits are a keener turn-in, a sweeter transition between steering input and body reaction, more consistent balance, a firmer brake pedal with less travel, and a more effective Sport mode delivering less overly sensitive throttle response and crisper, less muddy steering.

But much of that refinement ebbs away once the surface deteriorates. Its steering rack rattles and its ride is consistently busy, and occasionally too bumpy over rougher stuff. Like the Kia, its brake pedal is prone to momentary hesitation during panic stops, but its inferior tyres are reflected in the secondlongest braking distance in our 100km/h-0 test.

Despite unexpectedly accomplished dry-road steering and handling, and its undoubted performance, space and equipment, Sonata lacks the all-round appeal of its more youthful Kia cousin. Thankfully, an MY17 update wearing the same Michelin Pilot Sports as the Optima GT (and featuring fresh driver-assist tech and adaptive cruise for a $45,490 ask) will go a long way towards bridging the gap.

While Hyundai’s mid-sizer is seriously better than any preceding version, it’s no Passat-beater. But as a work-in-progress, Sonata is on the right track. BM

Less than Stellar career

Believe it or not, Sonata shares some heritage with Ford’s Mondeo, since Hyundai started out building the Mk2 Ford Cortina under licence in 1967.

That eventually became the pretty Giugiaro-penned Stellar (1983; above) based on the TE/TF Cortina (as the latter morphed into the European Sierra), with the Sonata badge initially used only on upmarket versions from 1985. Australia saw the Y2 Sonata, which ditched the Stellar prefix and switched to front-drive Mitsubishi Galant mechanicals in 1989, while in Europe the front-drive Mondeo replaced the rear-drive Sierra in ’93.

7 Mazda 6 GT NOTHING A DIESEL WAGON WOULDN’T FIX

Specs

$42,690 Engine 2488cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v Power 138kW @ 5700rpm Torque 250Nm @ 3250rpm Transmission 6-speed automatic Dimensions (L/W/H/W-B) 4865/1840/1450/2830mm Weight 1498kg Cargo capacity 474 litres Tyres Bridgestone Turanza T001 225/45R19 92W Test fuel cons 9.6L/100km 0-100km/h 7.7sec 0-400m 15.5sec @ 145.9km/h 80-120km/h 5.1sec 3yr resale 55% . Smooth-road handling; slick interior quality; driver appeal . Gearbox calibration; pattery ride; road rumble

Score

6.0/10 In the three-and-a-half years since the third-generation model arrived, it’s become clear that how highly we rate the Mazda 6 depends very much on which 6 it is that we’re talking about.

The wagon, with its 80mm-shorter wheelbase, greater agility and sportier look, trumps the sedan.

The 2.5-litre atmo petrol four – terrific as it is – can’t match the turbo-diesel’s broad, cultured delivery, or its efficiency. And while 2015’s facelift brought many improvements, models wearing 17-inch wheels and tyres remain more comfortable than those on 19s.

From the outset, then, our GT petrol four-door on 19-inch wheels is seemingly the Mazda 6 in its leastconvincing spec. But, given a price-point in the high- $30K/low-$40K region and a requirement for petrol sedans, this was the default choice for our Megatest.

Urban impressions of the engine are of a rorty, vocal worker with surprising zest. Mazda’s 2.5-litre four-pot, like Subaru’s boxer, stays the atmo course, while the majority take the smaller-capacity turbo route.

The 6 pulls heartily from low revs and develops a lovely rich note as revs rise into the mid-range, to the point you could almost be forgiven for thinking you’re in an old-school hot hatch. A bit gruntier than the Subaru, and a bit lighter, the result is more than noticeable on the road – at 7.7sec 0-100km/h and 5.1sec for the 80-120km/h bracket, the Mazda is pretty much on par with the sprightly turbocharged Passat.

The SkyActiv-G engine does a lot with what it’s got, then, while delivering slightly disappointing mid-field economy to just pip the Liberty at 9.6L/100km.

On smooth hot-mix, the Mazda handles obediently, with a dose of adjustability. It’s no Mondeo – like many, it lacks the Ford’s linearity and fluency – but it’s still a satisfying thing in which to hustle.

On a bad back road, however, the 6’s chassis composure begins to unravel. Its ride becomes brittle (though extra occupants help calm it) and the longstanding Mazda bugbear of coarse-chip tyre drone and vibration quickly introduce themselves, along with wind rustle around the door frames, which make it tiring for longer runs. Throw bumpy corners into the equation and steering kickback corrupts feel.

Front-seat ergonomics remain odd, too, with ultimate comfort remaining elusive no matter how much you fiddle with the seat and wheel. Yet in the back, aside from a flat cushion, it’s an accommodating place that offers a well-sited backrest, air-con vents, central armrest and padded outer armrests, cup and bottleholders, a pair of map pockets, and Isofix points in the outer positions.

Open roads reveal a lack of turbo-boosted flexibility and shove, but the atmo 2.5 still performs well, worked via responsive wheel paddles on twisty sections.

In fact, using the paddles is the only way to make consistently brisk progress because the six-speed auto is tiresomely fixated on maintaining upper ratios in Normal mode, yet is too rev-happy in Sport. A single, well-calibrated setting in between these extremes would be a major improvement.

It’s very likely that a Touring diesel wagon would have excelled in almost every key area in which the petrol GT stumbled, nudging the likeable 6 much closer to the pointy end here. Provided you were happy to forgo a bit of spec, choosing this version would also save you around $1000. JW

The G-Vector spot

A system called ‘G-Vectoring Control’ is set to give the Mazda 6 heightened oncentre steering connection and turn-in response. It uses software to mimic the corner entry technique of a pro driver by trimming engine power (in just 50 milliseconds) to transfer weight to the nose on turn-in. Our first taste of the system (Wheels, August) suggested subtly improved connection, precision and driver satisfaction. A right-specced 6 with the vectoring chassis tickle might be the car to challenge our Megatest podium-getters. We’ll see GVC first on the Mazda 3 facelift in August before it’s progressively rolled out across the range.

6 Peugeot 508 Active HAS EVERYONE BEEN WRONG ABOUT THE BIG PUG ALL ALONG?

Specs

$37,790* * includes metallic paint ($800) Engine 1598cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v turbo Power 121kW @ 5000rpm Torque 240Nm @ 1400-4400rpm Transmission 6-speed automatic Dimensions (L/W/H/W-B) 4830/1828/1456/2817mm Weight 1414kg Cargo capacity 497 litres Tyres Michelin Primacy HP 215/55R17 98W Test fuel cons 8.4L/100km 0-100km/h 8.4sec 0-400m 16.1sec @ 142.0km/h 80-120km/h 5.5sec 3yr resale 51% . All-round ability; chassis balance; economy; value . Firm urban ride; flair-free styling

Score

6.5/10 SINCE its 2011 launch, we – as in Wheels, new-car buyers and basically the world at large – have been largely apathetic about the Peugeot 508.

An oddly Germanic French mid-sizer, with an allure more Angela (Merkel) than Angelina (Jolie), the 508 lacks the timeless prettiness and dynamic proficiency of, say, the 406 of the ’90s. This is a largely forgotten car.

But has the world been too hard on the hapless Peugeot? Or has the 508 improved with age?

The oldest of this group by some margin, a 2014 update brought a squarer jaw, cleaner console graphics, more kit and improved powertrains. And the result is a car with plenty of plus points and impressively few flaws.

Let’s begin with the cabin, which happily seems larger than the Pug’s pert exterior dimensions suggest. Elegant, yet completely non-ostentatious, and with an appealing simplicity, what the dash lacks in pizzazz it makes up for in practicality. Firm, supportive front seats, an excellent driving position, attractively legible dials, effective ventilation and sufficient storage all suggest Hermann rather than Henri was in charge of layout.

Yet delightful details abound: the Saab-esque retractable cupholders (just below the vents, helping to keep beverages hot or cold as required); a beautifully simple head-up display; rear-window blind; proper rear-door handgrips; and contrasting cabin materials that could have come from a Norman Foster workspace.

Somehow, especially after the showy Koreans, the 508’s overall ambience is akin to the timeless grey flannel suit Cary Grant wore in Hitchcock’s North By Northwest. A useably large boot is the cherry on top.

Annoyances? The relatively narrow body means the rear seat is tight for a trio of adults; ratchet rather than superior infinite front-seat backrest adjustment is rare in a Euro; and a few squeaks occasionally reared their unwelcome heads.

But the interior is quieter than most of the others here, adding to our newfound affection. Part of that is due to the smooth, sweet, and quiet engine.

Small at just 1.6 litres, it nevertheless makes the most of the available 121kW/240Nm, stepping off the line with lusty intent and pulling strongly through the mid-range; to 40km/h it’s only 0.2sec shy of the searing Skoda. Comparatively low weight and sensible gearing from the newly minted six-speed auto must take some credit, since the 508 never feels sluggish, except when steep hills or off-boost turbo lag slow things down.

Better still is exceptionally low fuel consumption, beaten only by the VW Group teetotallers. Peugeot is serious about regaining the high ground.

Fluid steering further adds enjoyment, providing informative and involving handling, especially as speeds increase, when the chassis and brakes gel together best. However, despite the ride being generally comfy and contained, it can err on the firm side, and that’s one of the less-desirable characteristics Peugeots have acquired this millennium. There’s also a tendency for the front-end to kiss its bump stops over fast, undulating roads.

Regular readers will know how enthusiastically we rate the latest 308, but the 508 lacks its sibling’s superb suppleness, polish, and panache. Here, more than anywhere, is where age is taking a toll.

Still, look past the 508’s confused identity and sombre design and you’ll find a stoic, solid performer of pleasing consistency and depth. The time has arrived to finally reconsider a mid-size Peugeot. BM

Exalted future

Peugeot promises there will be no more boring sedans after the current 508 dies in about two years, and if the Exalt Concept from 2014 is anything to go by, then we’re excited. Overseen by suave design boss Gilles Vidal, the next-gen mid-sizer from Sochaux scores the company’s EMP2 platform that underpins the brilliant 308, suggesting newfound athleticism, lower weight, increased refinement and improved efficiency. A return to the good old days of the 406, then? Qui vivra verra: ‘Whoever lives shall see.’

Kia Optima GT IMPRESSIVE, AND SURPRISING, ALL-ROUND PERFORMER

Specs

$45,940* * Includes moonroof ($1950) Engine 1998cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo Power 180kW @ 6000rpm Torque 350Nm @ 1400-4000rpm Transmission 6-speed automatic Dimensions (L/W/H/W-B) 4855/1860/1455/2805mm Weight 1650kg Cargo capacity 510 litres Tyres Michelin Pilot Sport 3 235/45ZR18 98Y Test fuel cons 11.0L/100km 0-100km/h 6.9sec 0-400m 14.9sec @ 155.2km/h 80-120km/h 4.3sec 3yr resale 46% . Slick cabin; performance; equipment; excellent tyres . Dynamics and ‘Drive Mode’ calibration still need work

Score

7.0/10 IT WAS just over five years ago that Kia’s trendily styled but dynamically dire Optima finished dead last in an 11-car Wheels Medium Megatest. Yet here we have the latest Optima GT sitting proudly at number five, just one position behind Skoda’s lauded Superb and two ahead of Mazda’s well-liked 6. That’s the level of improvement Kia has wrought with this all-new car.

Sharing its underpinnings, 2805mm wheelbase and peachy-keen 180kW 2.0-litre turbo-petrol four with Hyundai’s Sonata Premium, the Peter Schreyerpenned Optima is a more visually interesting proposition than its Korean blood brother.

That impression begins the moment you sink into the Optima GT’s better-bolstered, higher-quality leather seats, drink in its more creative dashboard design and grip its sexier, sportier three-spoke wheel. The Kia scores wheel-mounted shift paddles, too, along with a heated steering wheel, cornering headlights, automatic high-beam and a rear-seat USB port. If Sonata Premium heaves with kit, then Optima GT is fit to bursting.

In so many ways, the Optima and its Sonata cousin are so alike it’s uncanny. Voluminous 510-litre boots, similarly opulent and accommodating rear seats, and real-world performance and fuel economy so close to identical it’s almost freaky.

What really advances the Optima GT’s cause are its tyres – expensive 235/45ZR18 Michelin Pilot Sport 3s. Having so much more grip to play with enables the Optima to properly capitalise on the urgent performance it offers. Doesn’t matter if the surface is wet or dry, the Optima gets its power to the ground with far more confidence than the Sonata, let alone the axle-tramping Skoda, and that’s important in a turbo-boosted, family-focused front-driver.

Those Michelins also allow the Optima a bit of leeway when it comes to dynamics. They clearly telegraph the car’s handling limit, making the Optima almost chuckable on sinuous roads, and even though the Hyundai, Mazda and Peugeot display greater handling polish, there’s a deep-seated ability in the Optima’s chassis that makes it quite entertaining when you’re up it.

What the Kia ultimately lacks is finesse. Until there’s quite a bit of lock wound on, the steering feels rather wooden and disinterested, and even though it enthusiastically favours its outside-rear wheel once pointed into tighter corners, the transition is rather abrupt and lacking in fluency.

The flipside is a smooth, reasonably level and relatively sophisticated ride compared to many of its rivals, though again without the sweetly damped finesse it deserves. That said, what the Optima lacks in rough-road composure – especially compared to something like the unflappable, if unrefined, Camry – it makes up for in overall smoothness and quietness.

So while the Optima GT may not have the Toyota’s Aussie-bred toughness, the Subaru’s all-wheeldrive purchase, the Hyundai’s dynamic fluency, the Peugeot’s Gallic poise, or the Mazda’s hard-driven precision, it’s a better all-rounder than all of them.

With a colourful, beautifully built interior, more performance and grip than most people could ever want, as well as a market-leading seven-year warranty, suddenly paying $45K for a Kia sedan seems like value. It isn’t exciting, or brimming with personality, or stunningly beautiful to look at, but there’s an honesty to the Optima GT that somehow makes it more impressive the more time you spend with it. NP

On the wagon

Like seven of the other cars in this test, Kia’s latest-gen Optima is available in wagon form, though not in Australia just yet. Unveiled at the Geneva Show in March for a European on-sale later this year, the handsome Optima SW shares the sedan’s engine line-up, as well as its overall length, though it’s 15mm taller and accommodates 552 litres of cargo space underneath a retractable blind.

Kia Australia is currently evaluating the SW, but is yet to make a decision.

Skoda Superb LEFT-WING ALTERNATIVE TO CONSERVATIVE PASSAT 4

Specs

$39,990 Engine 1984cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo Power 162kW @ 6200rpm Torque 350Nm @ 1500-4400rpm Transmission 6-speed dual-clutch Dimensions (L/W/H/W-B) 4861/1864/1483/2841mm Weight 1463kg Cargo capacity 625 litres Tyres Pirelli Cinturato P7 235/45R18 94W Test fuel cons 8.0L/100km 0-100km/h 6.6sec 0-400m 14.7sec @ 157.8km/h 80-120km/h 4.1sec 3yr resale 39% . Value; grunt with efficiency; styling; space . Uncontrolled ride; lack of traction; stingy front seats

Score

7.0/10 THE Skoda Superb might just be the ultimate hipster machine; the not-quite-cool car you don’t even know about yet. And this, from craft beer to bands, is the quality that makes it perfect for the modern man who wants to stay true to his trend-setting roots.

Ironically, like Holden’s Commodore, it’s also slightly out of place in a Megatest of mid-size cars because, while the platform and pricetag fit the bill, the Superb is large. If you value space to stretch in the back seat, only the Kia Optima and Hyundai Sonata come close, but even they can’t match the Superb’s Statesman-like rear accommodation.

The rear seat cushion and backrest offer longhaul comfort with excellent lateral support, plus generous headroom. And back-benchers want for nought because they get their own air-con vents with temperature control, a 12-volt outlet, a big ashtray/ bin, carpeted door pockets, a centre armrest with twin cupholders, twin map pockets, mesh sidewindow blinds, even angled footrest mats.

The high-mounted front seats, however, feel flat and rather stingy, in total contrast to the excellent buckets in VW’s Passat. But the Skoda’s driver is often too busy revelling in this car’s generous performance to care. Yes, Golf GTI power goes alright in a Superb; the effervescent 162kW 2.0-litre turbo four copes effortlessly with the Skoda’s additional weight (about 150kg more than the Golf).

With a 0-100km/h time of 6.6sec, not only is the Skoda deep in hot-hatch territory, it’s quicker than everything else here. The Commodore matches it on power-to-weight, but the Superb is a tenth quicker from 80-120km/h and has it all over the Holden in terms of refinement, low-speed effortlessness and rorty energy.

It’s also 30 percent thriftier than the Holden and a virtual match for the miserly Passat, which certainly earns it a gold in the engine compartment.

Given the smooth swell of low-down torque, the six-speed DSG doesn’t have to rely too heavily on its smarts and, despite a lack of shift paddles, and the fact the manual gear-lever plane is contrary to our preferred forward-for-downshift orientation, it’s an able ally for the engine.

On smooth urban roads the Superb is typical MQB Volkswagen fare, scaled up. Benign initial steering responses segue into a pointier sense of connection the further the wheel is twirled into its lock, while soft suspension delivers a town-car approximation of a Golf, with most of the balance but little of the cohesion or involvement.

Where the softness really undermines the Superb’s poise and comfort is on country roads. Underdone – yet also underdamped – spring rates result in a catalogue of problems, from axle tramp during hard take-offs (and it was still quickest on the strip!) to mild float on undulating roads and wallowing, pogolike handling through really bumpy corners.

The Superb treats occupants to more shush than the Mazda, but instead of emerging as the expected better-riding, more pragmatic Volkswagen twin, it falls well short of the Passat’s cohesion. That suggests that this, the automotive world’s wearer of thick-rimmed glasses, has overshot its raison d’être, like many a misguided hipster. But like a semi-established indie band’s Difficult Third Album, there’s still time for it to become The Next Big Thing in family sedans. JW

More Superb

Making a Superb, well, more so might involve a ticking of the Tech Pack option, which brings adaptive dampers and an improvement to wheel and body control (as well as premium audio and extra safety).

Alternatively, you could shop up-spec, skipping the turbo-diesel mid-ranger in favour of the 206TSI 4x4 wagon ($52,690), which gives you Golf R outputs in a massively practical all-wheel-drive package. Given the standard Superb’s pointy baseline pricetag, neither will induce financial ruin, and the latter path might just deliver a budget Audi S4 Avant.

3 Holden Commodore SV6 Black

STILL MAKING A CASE AFTER ALL THESE YEARS

Specs

$40,490 Engine 3564cc V6 (60°), dohc, 24v Power 210kW @ 6700rpm Torque 350Nm @ 2800rpm Transmission 6-speed automatic Dimensions (L/W/H/W-B) 4966/1898/1471/2915mm Weight 1685kg Cargo capacity 495 litres Tyres Bridgestone Potenza RE050A 245/45R18 100V Test fuel cons 11.4L/100km 0-100km/h 6.6sec 0-400m 14.7sec @ 156.7km/h 80-120km/h 4.2sec 3yr resale 42% . Excellent seats; strong performance; handling . Knobbly ride; thrashy V6; relative thirst

Score

7.5/10 THERE’S plenty of myth surrounding Holden’s defiantly relevant and ever-popular Commodore. While it might look like a dinosaur on paper, championing rear-drive and a large-capacity, naturally aspirated six like its ancestors have done for decades, the reality remains rooted in the present.

Make no mistake, as far as family sedans go, the VFII Commodore is at the pointy end for space and comfort. It’s the only car here than can easily seat three across its deep, beautifully trimmed rear bench and cedes chauffeuring honours to the Skoda mainly due to the Czech sedan’s enormous legroom.

But a few crow’s feet are starting to show. By virtue of its drivetrain layout, the Holden has a large centre hump to accommodate its driveshaft, its rear cupholders are in a fold-down ski port, and there are no rear 12-volt or USB outlets. But it compensates with air vents, nicely padded door armrests and a deep, flat boot with a full-size 18-inch alloy wedged underneath.

Things are pretty impressive up front, though, with deeply supportive yet broad buckets, plenty of adjustment range (for the driver, at least) and a nicely kitted cabin for its $40K ask. The SV6 Black’s charcoal dash trimming modernises Commodore’s three-yearold interior, and we have no qualms about its chunky steering wheel and neat switchgear. Only the thickness of the A-pillars and the SV6’s low-grade instrumentpack screen graphics lower the tone a touch.

Externally, Commodore remains timelessly handsome, and on the road it’s still an entertainer.

Holden’s ageing 3.6-litre V6 might sound thrashy up top, but it loves a rev and offers big-hearted performance to easily match Skoda’s rapid, but traction-deprived Superb. Who said you need a turbo?

Where the atmo Holden concedes ground is in everyday driving. It can’t quite match the effortless low to mid-range punch of the gruntier turbos, and its 11.4L/100km test average is the group’s thirstiest.

Still, for the largest and heaviest car here to be within half a litre of the Sonata, Optima and Mondeo says volumes about the Holden V6’s competence.

That underlying ability really comes to the fore on challenging roads. You can tell the SV6 has been tuned by drivers, from the way it will manually grab a lower gear as early as possible (unlike the recalcitrant Korean twins) to its keenness to change direction.

With less weight over its nose than a V8 SS, the SV6 displays superbly accurate yet progressive turn-in and a light-footed agility that belies its size and wheelbase.

With great power-down and ample grunt, it proves you don’t need a V8 to have fun in a Commodore, though it lacks shift paddles and its ride is arguably too firm.

Had we tested the VFII we wanted (see breakout), ride quality would’ve been a highlight, but the sporty SV6 doesn’t offer the suppleness we know its chassis is capable of. Even with a full load, its knobbly ride constantly nibbles away at its sense of calm, though big-bump damping excellence, taut body control and hushed refinement all remain part of its repertoire.

If we were buying a VFII Commodore for $40K, we’d stick with the supple Calais and trade the SV6’s firmness for a sweeter package. Either way, the rear-drive Holden is withstanding the test of time incredibly well. Strong, spacious, well-equipped and suited to the demands of Aussie roads and families, it’s a proven formula that deservedly keeps on giving. NP

Back in Black

We asked for a base Calais but ended up with a limitededition Commodore SV6 Black because apparently our favourite non-Redline VFII is a bit of an orphan. Had the plush-riding Calais been on the grid, it would’ve likely rated 8.0 stars. But there’s no denying the value of the SV6 Black sedan (currently $38,990 driveaway). A headup display, sat-nav, black-out grille, trim detailing and mirrors, black lip spoiler, bespoke 18s, red seat stitching, ‘Black Edition’ floor mats and badging are all part of the deal. And 20-inch ‘Baretta’ black alloys are a $1000 option.

2 Ford Mondeo Titanium Ecoboost

SO MUCH TO ADMIRE, BESIDES ITS THIRST FOR PLONK

Specs

$44,740* * Includes metallic paint ($450) Engine 1997cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo Power 177kW @ 5300rpm Torque 345Nm @ 2300-4900rpm Transmission 6-speed automatic Dimensions (L/W/H/W-B) 4871/1852/1482/2850mm Weight 1695kg Cargo capacity 557 litres Tyres Michelin Primacy 3 235/45R18 98Y Test fuel cons 11.2L/100km 0-100km/h 7.7sec 0-400m 15.5sec @ 148.4km/h 80-120km/h 4.9sec 3yr resale 49% . Refinement; dynamic fluency; practicality; value . Thirst; rattles; messy instruments; SYNC2 glitches

Score

8.0/10 FORD’S spiritual Falcon replacement seems to be perpetually behind the eight-ball. Two years late getting here due to European factory issues, the fourth-generation Mondeo is now struggling to gain traction in a declining segment – an undeserved predicament for such a capable car.

On many important fronts, the latest Mondeo is at the top of its game. Engineered to be profoundly enjoyable, it possesses comfort and refinement to catch out a Mercedes-Benz C-Class, and dynamic prowess to challenge a BMW 3 Series, for up-spec Camry cash. If only Ford adopted Audi’s design, interior presentation and quality acumen… Not that Mondeo Titanium’s cabin is terrible, as the fundamentals – access, space, comfort, ventilation and storage – work admirably. It’s just that dated or oddball detailing undermine Mondeo’s greatness: squeaks and gremlins (see sidebar); complicated instrumentation; an over-proliferation of buttons; no digital speedo (and the analogue’s markings are too small and tightly spaced).

Yet repeated exposure reveals nicely tactile surfaces, usefully comprehensive vehicle/trip data, thoughtfully executed ergonomics and a hugely useful hatchback. Equipment levels are also outstanding, including an electric tailgate, rear seatbelt airbags, 220-volt outlet, adaptive cruise, AEB, swivelling headlights and 10-way powered front seats.

Furthermore, by the time you read this, Ford’s nextgen (and much-improved) SYNC3 multimedia will usurp the flawed SYNC2 system in Mondeo, bringing massively improved functionality and visuals, as well as a broader range of capabilities including Apple CarPlay/Android Auto compatibility.

Any initial hesitations melt away the moment you sink into the sumptuously supportive seats. Adding to high comfort is low fatigue. Mechanical and road noise intrusion is notably muted, aided by this group’s only adaptive suspension with electronic dampers that virtually smother bumps and irregularities away, without feeling floaty. Mondeo’s refinement would wow at twice the price.

Prodding the pedal reveals how well harnessed the 177kW four-pot turbo’s muscular power delivery is through the front wheels, though performance feels perkier than our track numbers suggest. Brisk rather than blistering (exposing the 1690kg Titanium’s weight), out in the real world the turbo kicks in quickly yet progressively, providing a sizeable and smooth wallop right up to the low-ish 6250rpm redline.

The six-speed torque-converter auto is a useful companion, with an intuitive Sport mode, and properly sorted ratios keeping the spirited engine on the boil.

Just as fast and fluid is the electric steering, defined by an effortless finesse for pin-point cornering and backed up by satisfyingly taut body control, regardless of prevailing conditions. Though assisted by torquevectoring tech, it’s still astounding how Ford’s lounge suite on wheels manages to handle so sweetly. No competitor is as poised or as plush.

Or as thirsty. Its 11.2L/100km test average was a huge 3.2L/100km adrift of the strapping Skoda, almost matching the big-capacity Holden V6, and that’s what ultimately undermines the Mondeo.

Not so much behind the eight-ball, then, as ahead of the other eight, the charming, occasionally frustrating Mondeo Titanium EcoBoost comes tantalisingly close to sinking every mid-sizer. BM

Not on Trend

Our intended mid-range Trend ($37,290) ended up being a Titanium range-topper, slapping on $7000, more weight and bigger wheels to potentially compromise the Trend’s fabulously supple ride. We needn’t have worried, as it turned out, but increasingly frequent rattles from the sunroof blind, glass roof seal and A-pillar trim almost drove us to distraction. It also suffered from an intermittent electrical glitch that affected the driver-assist systems, voice control, sat-nav and multimedia connectivity. But with Ford’s completely re-engineered SYNC3 system rolling out in Mondeo from July, such problems should be a thing of the past.

1 Volkswagen Passat 132TSI Comfortline

INDISPUTABLE ABILITY THAT RISES ABOVE THE CHAOS

Specs

$40,690* * Includes metallic paint ($700) Engine 1798cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo Power 132kW @ 5100-6200rpm Torque 250Nm @ 1250-5000rpm Transmission 7-speed dual-clutch Dimensions (L/W/H/W-B) 4767/1832/1456/2791mm Weight 1450kg Cargo capacity 586 litres Tyres Continental ContiPremiumContact 5 215/55R17 94W Test fuel cons. 7.9L/100km 0-100km/h 7.7sec 0-400m 15.7sec @ 149.1km/h 80-120km/h 4.9sec 3yr resale 48% . Smooth; quick; efficient; composed; comfortable . Not quite as dynamically polished as it could be

Score

8.5/10 SCHADENFREUDE, or deriving pleasure from somebody else’s misfortune, could have been invented for Volkswagen’s current situation.

After two decades of growth, awards and adulation, the twin cracks of unreliability and scandal have undermined the former German golden child’s reputation. But competitors will be smiling on the other side of their corporate faces when they realise how consistently accomplished Volkswagen’s latest Passat 132TSI Comfortline is.

Some 200kg lighter and 45kW shy of the Mondeo, the eighth-generation Passat sipped an unbelievable 3.3L/100km less than the Ford, yet both recorded identical 0-100km/h and 80-120km/h times, with the German sedan just 0.2sec adrift over the quarter.

Such efficiency is remarkable, but equally so is the Passat’s silken delivery. Its 1.8-litre turbo-petrol and seven-speed dual-clutch combo, while not explosively eager off the blocks, provide turbinesmooth punch for easy and effortless motoring.

Someone suggested the Passat’s ultra-planted chassis deserves to swap engines with the related Superb’s 162kW 2.0-litre turbo tearaway, due to the Volkswagen’s superior ability in stringing together corners with unflappable calm, poise and control.

In comparison, its Czech mate struggles to join the dots with such conviction.

The Passat’s steering feels somewhat light initially (especially after a stint in the feelsome Mondeo), but welcome extra weight at higher speed infuses a harddriven 132TSI with imperious roadholding confidence and capability, backed up by its lightweight agility, resulting in serious point-to-point pace.

Passat’s classy cabin offers up more praise, thanks in part to plenty of space front and rear, along with liberal lashings of sensual materials and slick metallic trim throughout, while lush leather sports seats also rate highly. Perfectly positioned, you can drink in the dashing instruments, slick wheel, handy central touchscreen, climate switchgear and facelevel full-length vents while thinking, in terms of ambience, you could be in an Audi. Design, on the other hand, is rather pedestrian seeing Passat’s fascia is just like an upscaled Golf’s, lacking in originality.

Still, back-seat passengers are looked after with temperature controls, air outlets and a comfy bench.

Headroom isn’t brilliant and the cushion feels flat after a while, but all the basics are there and the interior remains pleasingly cocooned from the outside world. On smooth roads, anyway.

Hit a few bumpy sections, however, and some of that serenity slips away, raising an eyebrow or two as well as a few rattles – a malady not helped by a slightly busier and louder ride than expected. This is quite a disappointment, given the smaller wheels compared to the supremely cushy Mondeo. The VW’s suspension simply lacks the Ford’s suppleness.

Additionally, damp roads revealed unexpected front-axle tramp when the driver attempts to power away quickly from standstill, further upsetting the Passat’s sense of imperviousness. This only occurs under provocation, however.

In the broader scheme of things, the 132TSI Comfortline rarely puts a wheel wrong. What it lacks in visual panache is more than made up for by prodigious talent at every single turn. Literally.

So snigger at Volkswagen’s troubles all you like; this car’s completeness is as indisputably colossal as it is colossally indisputable. While not quite as brilliant as a base Golf, the Passat deserves to be the future-model benchmark for every rival product planner, and at the top of every buyer’s shortlist. BM

Spirit of R36

The flagship Highline is available in $45,990 140TDI diesel-only guise, building on the 132TSI Comfortline’s keyless entry/ start, 8.0-inch screen with Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, sat-nav, tri-zone climate control, and air-filtration system with ‘comfort sports’ front seats, LED tail-lights, Nappa leather, piano-black trim and 18-inch alloys, bringing it in line with the lavishly equipped Mondeo Titanium. But fear not, turbopetrol fans, because by October the Passat 206TSI 4Motion should be here, with all four wheels driven by a 206kW/350Nm 2.0-litre turbo, capable of about 5.5sec to 100km/h. Aimed at Holden’s Insignia VXR, it should slip in at under $55K. Memories of the late and lamented Passat R36 4Motion, without the V6.