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by Daniel DeGasperi

The Mazda 6, Toyota Camry, Honda Accord Euro, and Hyundai i40 all recorded on average a 10 per cent increase in sales in 2012 compared with 2011, so they’re becoming increasingly more relevant to consumers.

Medium is the new large, according to Australians who purchased a new car last year. The mid-sized segment – of which the above four nameplates snared more than half of all segment volume – surpassed the large class (which includes Falcon and Commodore) by 1600 sales, claiming seven per cent of the market to just 5.2 per cent.

What hasn’t changed in 17 years is that the Toyota Camry is the number one selling medium car – last year by a staggering six to one ratio over the second best seller, claiming more than one third of all sales in the class.

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The Mazda 6 nabbed that silver medal last year, claiming 9.2 per cent of sales, while the Honda Accord Euro and Hyundai i40 each took roughly a four per cent share. The still-excellent Ford Mondeo could have figured into our comparison test, but an all-new model is due later this year.

The medium class is no doubt buoyed by new product. The all-new, seventh-generation Toyota Camry led the charge late last year, followed earlier this year by the all-new, third-generation Mazda 6. The Hyundai i40 is the Korean manufacturer’s best car in our view, but until recently it was available only as a wagon. Finally, a sedan joins the range. Since its introduction in 2008, the best car in the medium class has been the Honda Accord Euro, our fourth and final contender.

The overwhelming specification of choice in this category are base model, petrol-engined, automatic transmission-equipped sedans. The Mazda 6 and i40 offer diesel availability, while the Australian-made Camry counters with a petrol-electric hybrid option. For the Euro, it’s petrol power or bust.

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PRICING AND EQUIPMENT

Hyundai’s i40 Active 2.0-litre four-cylinder kicks off proceedings at $31,990, followed by Honda’s Accord Euro 2.4-litre at $32,640, and Mazda’s 6 Touring 2.5-litre at $33,460. Toyota could only provide a mid-spec Camry Atara SX 2.5-litre, which at $35,990 tail-ends the group.

Each car has its own standard equipment highlights. In the i40, nine airbags are standard, including dual front, side and curtain protection. Only the Camry matches its standard driver’s knee airbag, while i40 uniquely gets rear-side impact airbags. The Hyundai also gets front and rear parking sensors, but misses out on the Accord Euro’s standard 17-inch alloys (the i40 gets 16-inch alloys), six-CD stacker and dual-zone climate control.

The Mazda 6 Sport matches the Euro’s kit, then adds satellite navigation, reversing camera, and electrically adjustable driver and passenger seats. Not even the more expensive Camry Atara SX gets standard voice navigation or electric adjustment for the passenger seat, but it does match the Mazda 6 Sport everywhere else.

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Above: Honda Accord Euro

LONG-TERM COSTS

The long-term value equation improves for the Toyota Camry when servicing costs are factored in. Toyota offers fixed-price servicing, charging $130 for each 15,000km or nine-month check-up, meaning a cost of $520 over three years or 60,000km.

Hyundai also offers a fixed-price schedule for the first three services, but the i40 needs 15,000km or 12-month check-ups, at an average cost of $777 if three years comes up for, or $1167 to 60,000km.

Neither Mazda nor Honda offers fixed price servicing, and both require 10,000km/six month workshop visits. According to a major Sydney dealership, over the standard three years/60,000km the 6 Sport will cost $1889 in genuine servicing, the Accord Euro $1951 (prices vary between dealers). That’s almost $1500 the Honda requires over the Toyota over a three-year ownership period, helping the Camry to claw back ground on the value front.

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Above: Toyota Camry Atara SX

FUEL ECONOMY

That other long-term cost – fuel economy – also allows the Mazda 6 to improve its long-term ownership package. Its official consumption, recorded in a laboratory designed to replicate a mixture of a city and freeway driving, claims 6.6 litres per 100 kilometres, the best of the group by far.

On our test, based around a similar mix of driving but with some harder country-road driving thrown in, the Mazda 6 slurped 10.3L/100km. The Hyundai i40 claims 7.5L/100km, but drank 11.5L/100km on test, while the economy sticker on the window of the Toyota Camry reads 7.8L/100km, yet it used 12.1L/100km. Worst of the group was the Honda Accord Euro, which gurgled 12.3L/100km of its required premium unleaded, up from its 8.5L/100km claim. The Euro is the only car here that won’t run on standard unleaded – it needs premium unleaded – further adding to its running costs.

Based on our figures, over the average 15,000km Australians drive each year, and with regular unleaded at $1.50 per litre and premium unleaded at $1.70 per litre, driving a Mazda 6 will save you $890 at the pumps compared with an Accord Euro, $405 over a Camry, and $270 over an i40.

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Above: Mazda 6 Sport

DRIVETRAINS

There’s a performance gain to be enjoyed in the Mazda 6, too. With 138kW of power produced at 5700rpm, and 250Nm at 3250rpm, its 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine is gutsy when pushed, sweet to the ear, and effortless around town, yet clearly economical.

The six-speed automatic is also the best here, with fine intuition on hills and quick adaptability to a harder (or more relaxed) driving style.

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Above: Mazda 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine

The same-capacity engine in the Toyota Camry is also a strong unit. It pushes hard through the middle of the rev range, though it doesn’t move its tachometer needle quite as quickly as the Mazda and doesn’t sound nearly as good doing so.

There’s performance aplenty on offer, thanks to similar outputs – 131kW at 6000rpm and 255Nm at 4100rpm. The Toyota does, however, weigh 1505kg, 21 kegs more than the Mazda. With an adequate six-speed automatic, this is a functional, workman-like drivetrain.

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Above: Toyota 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine

The smaller 2.4-litre Honda engine is quite the opposite. It lacks a bit of performance, particularly on hills, where plenty of throttle needs to be used. It actually doesn’t lack torque – often a Honda criticism – because it feels perfectly relaxed in most situations.

Yet it’s when pressure is applied that the Honda ultimately feels slow to rev, possibly a consequence of its 1555kg kerb weight that makes it the heaviest car here. Its 148kW isn’t delivered until 7000rpm, which hints at this engine’s personality; the Euro has the most sporting engine of the quartet. Keen to be kept revving hard, it sounds fantastic doing so. The five-speed auto – although one gear short of this pack, not helping its consumption – does a sterling job of keeping the Euro on pace.

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Above: Honda 2.4-litre four-cylinder engine

Although it has the smallest engine here, the 2.0-litre Hyundai i40 produces some very good numbers. Its 131kW at 6500rpm almost matches the half-a-litre- larger Mazda, while its 214Nm at 4700rpm demonstrates its efficiency – generally 200Nm or less is standard for a 2.0-litre engine.

At 1441kg, the Hyundai is also the lightest car here, yet the high-ish revs at which its maximum torque is produced gives clue that this engine lacks punch down low in the rev range. It feels slowest of the group, although it sounds better working hard than the Camry, and its six-speed automatic is very smart selecting lower gears quickly.

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Above: Hyundai 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine

INTERIORS

The Hyundai i40 is efficient in other ways. Not only is it the lightest car here, but it’s also one of the roomiest. It stretches 4.74 metres, the same length as the Accord Euro, but the Hyundai has far more stretching room in the back seat. It matches the Camry and Mazda 6 for rear accommodation, yet they measure 4.81m and 4.87m long, respectively.

Hyundai is trying hard with its interiors, and the i40 is its best effort yet. The soft-touch plastics are nice, and pleasantly consistent, and the rubber-trimmed proper door grabs tactile.

But it dips in the detail – such as the imitation-leather steering wheel, the ‘clacky’ ventilation controls, and storage spots that aren’t lined.

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Above: Hyundai i40 dash layout, rear seat, and boot space

The Camry beats all for boot space, however. Its 515-litre cavity just edges out the i40 (505L), Euro (467L) and 6 (438L).

Inside the Toyota Camry Atara SX is a car that prioritises basic functionality, and the driving position, seat comfort, and ergonomics of the interior are spot on.

Neither the fit and finish of its trim panels, however, nor the style of its controls look or feel high quality.

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Above: Toyota Camry dash layout, rear seat, and boot space

Despite being the oldest car here, with a five-year vintage, the Honda Accord Euro remains unmatched for interior quality. Its front seats are superb, even featuring prominent shoulder support, although rear occupants suffer from the least amount of sprawling space here.

All controls move with tactility and precision, and even the storage pockets beneath the stereo and on either side of the transmission tunnel are lined with velour. Only the non-colour screens and unintuitive Bluetooth (without music streaming) betray the Accord Euro’s age.

Its boot beats only the Mazda’s, however.

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Above: Honda Accord Euro dash layout, rear seat, and boot space

Not only does the Mazda have the smallest boot, but with a high loading lip and smaller opening than its rivals, it further hinders practicality. That said, it joins all rivals here in offering split-fold rear seats and rear seat air vents.

The Mazda 6 interior runs the Euro hard, as it should being a brand new car. Its touchscreen interface isn’t perfect, however, with cheap graphics and similarly average Bluetooth operation.

The design is suave and modern, with piano black and silver accents, and trim quality high. It best balances style, space and quality.

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Above: Mazda 6 dash layout, rear seat, and boot space

STEERING, RIDE AND HANDLING

Although the Camry has a strong engine, it is lacking in terms of both steering precision and handling finesse. To go from full left steering lock to full right lock takes 3.2 turns – which means more arm twirling to fit the Toyota into a tight shopping centre car park spot.

By comparison the Hyundai needs 2.8, the Accord Euro 2.7 and the Mazda 6 a quick 2.6 turns lock to lock.

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On the freeway, the Camry lacks on-centre steering feel, and is prone to ‘wander’ requiring small but noticeable steering corrections. The i40 offers the best Hyundai steering system to date, and is nicely light, direct and consistent.

But a switch to the Accord Euro and Mazda 6 reveals the best steering, with the Euro taking honours by being fractionally more direct just off the wheel’s centre position than the 6.

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Both Japanese mid-sizers lead the way for handling excellence.

The new Mazda 6 is brilliantly agile, balanced and fun. It continues this medium car’s history of rewarding enthusiastic driving, but now cossets occupants more during commuting.

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The Accord Euro perhaps has an even sharper front end than the 6, with stacks of grip and a real stand-on-its-nose cornering disposition. Unlike the Mazda, however, the Honda lacks control of its body on a rough country road. It bounces and heaves on the same bumpy bitumen that the others smother.

On the flipside, the Honda has the nicest around-town ride comfort, so if you spend most of your days commuting in the city and suburbs, look no further than the soothing, bump-blotting Accord Euro.

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The Mazda 6 comes close, and is hugely improved over too-firm previous models, but like the Hyundai i40 it can jiggle around a bit on ostensibly smooth surfaces.

The i40 forces its driver to work harder to keep up with the Mazda and Honda on a twisty road, but it has decent front-to-rear balance – that is, you can feel when the front tyres start to lose grip, and after lifting the throttle or brushing the brake, the car shifts its weight slightly to maintain a cornering line. Still, it lacks the agility of its two Japanese rivals.

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The Toyota Camry, meanwhile, struggles to find a satisfactory balance between ride and handling, at least in this Atara SX spec with sports suspension. On the freeway, it fidgets annoyingly, and bumpy country roads send shivers through the steering wheel and dash, such is its firmness.

Yet the Camry chassis never delights, feeling wallowy and pushing at the front early when hustling it through corners.

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VERDICT

We know from experience that a base model Toyota Camry Altise or hybrid H with standard suspension both offer decent ride comfort, and we’d suggest these are a wiser (and cheaper) choice. In fact, the ultra-frugal petrol-electric Camry is one of the smartest family car choices around if you’re looking for pragmatic, sensible motoring.

Where the Honda Accord Euro offers driving panache at the expense of space, the opposite is true for the Hyundai i40. Depending on your priorities, either is a fine mid-sized car, but the Euro just edges ahead. Meanwhile our fourth contender here blends both attributes to take the crown. The all-new Mazda 6 is a brilliantly complete mid-sized car.

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This comparison review first appeared in the April issue of the CarAdvice iPad magazine app. Head to the Apple App Store to download the entire issue.

Honda Accord Euro
 
Price: $32,640
Engine: 2.4-litre four-cylinder petrol
Power: 148kW at 7000rpm
Torque: 230Nm at 4200-4400rpm
Transmission: Five-speed automatic
Fuel consumption: 8.5L/100km claimed (12.3L/100km on test)
CO2 emissions: 202g/km

Hyundai i40 Active
 
Price: $31,990
Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol
Power: 131kW at 6500rpm
Torque: 214Nm at 6700rpm
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Fuel consumption: 7.5L/100km claimed (11.5L/100km on test)
CO2 emissions: 176g/km

Mazda 6 Sport
 
Price: $33,460
Engine: 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol
Power: 138kW at 5700rpm
Torque: 250Nm at 3250rpm
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Fuel consumption: 7.8L/100km claimed (10.3L/100km on test)
CO2 emissions: Not available

Toyota Camry Atara S
 
Price: $35,990
Engine: 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol
Power: 133kW at 6000rpm
Torque: 235Nm at 4100rpm
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Fuel consumption: 8.7L/100km claimed (12.1L/100km on test)
CO2 emissions: 183g/km






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