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At the risk of flogging the proverbial horse, we often wonder why more people don’t buy mid-sized wagons over medium SUVs.

We understand the appeal of the latter body type’s high riding position, with its greater visibility, ease of access and feeling of safety. But with some equanimity we’d counter that passenger car alternatives often offer more, for less.

More cargo space, legroom, equipment, greater fuel economy and handling, and — subjectively we’ll admit — slinkier designs. Wagons are not in vogue, but trends are also not always right by default.

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Three of the better and more popular wagons on the market can be found here, and yet none of their sales are even a patch on the numbers drummed up by the Mazda CX-5 and Hyundai Tucson.

They are the new-generation Volkswagen Passat, the just-updated Mazda 6, and the familiar but still sharp Hyundai i40. We wanted to throw a Ford Mondeo in to the mix, but alas the stars did not align and we couldn’t source one in time.

Here we test upper-spec models priced at or around the $45,000 (plus on-road costs mark), using the top-selling engines in their respective line-ups. The contenders are the Hyundai i40 Premium v the Mazda 6 GT v the Volkswagen Passat Comfortline.

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Price and equipment

All three cars here come absolutely loaded with equipment for the prices, which respectively come in at $43,490 plus on-roads for the mid-range Passat Comfortline 132TSI, $43,990 for the second-from-top Mazda 6 GT 2.5 petrol and $44,850 for the i40 Premium.

There’s a caveat, in that we tested the i40 Premium in diesel guise. One, because it was what we could get. But two, because unlike the other pair, it’s actually a bigger seller than its petrol sibling and therefore more consumer-relevant. It’s $42,250 if you opt for the petrol engine in this spec.

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Each has a rear-view camera, parking sensors, push-button start with keyless entry, electric leather seats, satellite navigation, Bluetooth/USB, multi-zone climate control, an electric parking brake, auto headlights, rain-sensing wipers and daytime running lights.

In addition the Hyundai i40 Premium has a massive panoramic sunroof, an electric tailgate, lane assist, park assist and heated front seats.

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The Volkswagen Passat Comfortline has rear traffic alert, lane assist, electric tailgate, radar-guided cruise control, low-speed autonomous emergency braking (AEB), blind-spot monitoring, multi-collision braking system, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto integration and tri-zone climate control.

The Mazda 6 GT has a sunroof, rear traffic alert, low-speed AEB, blind-spot monitoring, front and rear heated seats, head-up display and DAB+ digital radio.

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It’s hard to pick a winner. Do you value a sunroof over radar cruise? A head-up display over Apple CarPlay? A self-parking system over AEB? Rear heated seats over an electric tailgate? You be the judge. Our two cents: the Mazda or Volkswagen edge the Hyundai.

Read our detailed specifications table below for a clearer rundown.

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Cabins

The Hyundai i40 is the oldest design here, dating back to 2011 — a fact that’s clear from the cabin layout. However, despite the slightly dated design and the small lo-fi touchscreen, the Korean’s interior remains well built, and sports high quality plastic and leather materials.

Like the others, you get ample cabin storage (big door pockets that will hold a one-litre bottle, decent glovebox, sunglasses holder and more), well-finished leather seats, plentiful seat and steering wheel adjustment and a crisp sound system with good bass levels.

Adding some razzle-dazzle to proceedings is the huge glass roof that lends a tremendous ambience on a spring day — though the cloth cover feels a little flimsy.

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The Hyundai’s back seats offer good knee-room and shoulder, though it’s third here in toe-room and headroom, the latter of which is affected by the sunroof. Anyone under 180cm will be fine. The slick design also means small side windows, reducing ‘airiness’.

Rear amenities include LED reading lights, air vents, a flip down middle armrest with storage and one-touch windows (that don’t go all the way down, unlike the Mazda and Volkswagen). The second-row seats can be folded flat by levers mounted near the headrests.

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The cargo area in all three of these cars is massive — more so than like-priced medium SUVs. With the rear seats in use, Hyundai claims 506 litres of capacity, expanding to 1672L with them folded. The cargo floor length is about 1.9 metres with the front seats in use, and there’s more than a metre between the wheel arches. This about matches the others, give or take a few centimetres.

As with the others, the i40 comes with a pull-out cargo cover and a separate cloth cargo barrier that stows away. It also has the cleverest storage solutions here, with its fantastic rail-mounted adjustable fixed barrier with extendable straps. There are also metal kickplates and a full-size spare wheel under the floor.

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Compared to the others, the Mazda 6 GT’s cabin looks and feels like Hollywood. Or more accurately, like a German luxury car. Its touchscreen may be equal smallest here with the Hyundai (7.0-inches), but the way it’s mounted atop the dash, and controlled by the brilliant MZD Connect rotary dial when on the move, is pure BMW.

Also great is the pop-up head-up display, which may look a little flimsy but is a great safety feature (and the only way the get a digital speedo on the Mazda). The leather and plastic materials used are of properly upmarket quality, and the contrasting colours are tasteful. The dials and switchgear are also of a very high standard, as is the newly designed steering wheel.

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The 11-speaker Bose sound system is the most impressive on paper, and the MZD system offers the best user experience, but in reality it’s only on a par in terms of sound quality. Everywhere else, though, the Mazda feels and looks quite primo.

Rear seat occupants also enjoy a little more toe-room than in the Hyundai, and more headroom thanks to the smaller sunroof. The all-round one-touch windows also go all the way down, and you get rear seat heating — unlike the Hyundai and VW.

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Cargo space with the seats in use is the same as the Hyundai (506L), expanding to 1648L, making it narrowly the smallest.

The Mazda also has a similar pull-up cargo barrier and pull-out vinyl cargo cover to the others, though its spare wheel is steel not alloy, and the tailgate is manually operated.

To Mazda’s credit, both it and the Volkswagen have very helpful levers in the cargo area to flip the rear seats without having to walk around to the back passenger doors.

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The Volkswagen Passat’s cabin lacks the showmanship of the Mazda, but its design is elegance personified and the materials of consistently outstanding quality. The doors also close with the signature Volkswagen ‘thunk’ it’s so famous for.

The Passat also offers the best screen here with superior smartphone integration, has the strongest sound system, and offers magnificently comfortable seats. They’re about the best you can buy on any car under $100k.

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The German also has the best rear seat space and the best outward visibility, while its seats also fold 40:20:40 (via levers in the cargo area). It’s also the only car here with temperature adjustment for its rear vents, and it has the best LED reading lights and the most accomodating door apertures. There’s no sunroof as standard, however.

Volkswagen claims the most capacious cargo area here at 650L to 1780L, thanks to the boxy design. Its loading floor is the longest and it seats fold flattest and fastest, though the Passat is the narrowest here between the arches. It sports the same cargo blind/cover setup as the others.

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Meanwhile its electric tailgate opens really high, the back seat fold thanks to flippy levers, there’s a similar blind and cover setup to the Hyundai, a welcome full-sized spare wheel and a loading length nudging two-metres.

The Hyundai’s cabin benefits from that massive sunroof, and it’s one that will age well and will fit things that a Tucson just won’t. The Mazda feels upmarket and European, with by far the most dynamic bent. But the Volkswagen is more spacious and comfortable, which makes it the winner.

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Drivetrains

Elephant in the room time. Why on earth have we tested a Mazda 6 and Volkswagen Passat petrol against a Hyundai i40 diesel?

Mostly because these are respectively the top-sellers in their ranges, and thus are the best reflection of buyer behaviour. They’re also the best value point. They’re also the cars that we could get at the same time and place.

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With that out of the way, let’s get down to details. The Hyundai i40 Premium as tested sports a 1.7-litre turbo-diesel engine with the least power here (104kW at 4000rpm) but the most torque (340Nm between 1750 and 2500rpm).

The Hyundai engine is matched to a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission as standard. An anaemic 121kW/203Nm 2.0-litre petrol can be had, but the diesel is the better bet for an extra $2600.

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The Volkswagen Passat uses a 1.8-litre turbo-petrol unit with 132kW (between 5100 and 6200rpm) and 250Nm (between 1250 and 5000rpm), likewise matched to a seven-speed dual-clutch auto.  There’s no diesel available until you step up to a Highline, priced near $50k.

The Mazda 6 takes a different route, with a 2.5-litre naturally aspirated four making 128kW (at 5700rpm) and 250Nm (at 3250rpm), matched to a more conventional six-speed automatic with torque converter. A punchy 129kW/420Nm 2.2 diesel can be had for a $2850 premium.

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All models tested in this specification level are front-wheel drive. You can get the Passat in all-wheel drive if you step up into the high-riding $50,790 diesel-only Alltrack crossover.

As you’d expect, the Hyundai i40 is the most efficient car. It’s frugal diesel has a factory claim of 5.1 litres per 100km (combined-cycle), though on our mixed-cycle (urban and dynamic loops) test we were averaging in the mid-to-high 9s. It’s on highways where the relaxed oil-burner really shines, and if you do lots of long trips, it’s a good choice.

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The small capacity turbo in the Passat has a factory claim of 6.0L/100km, though unlike the Mazda it drinks pricier 95 RON premium fuel at a minimum. Our real-world return of 10.5L/100km under hard driving was acceptable given what the diesel Hyundai managed.

The Mazda’s larger capacity but normally aspirated SkyActiv unit has a factory claim of 6.6L/100km (91RON and even E10 compatible, laudably), which offsets the real-world reading of around 11L/100km. Both the Mazda and VW have nicely damped and non-intrusive stop-start systems, incidentally.

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It’s the Mazda’s ultra high-compression engine we were least enamoured with on test, though. We rarely recommend diesels, but the 420Nm turbo-diesel is a superior choice here.

First, the loud idle on cold start detracts from the ambience. The arrival of maximum torque later in the rev band also means you have to work it harder than the others, though its response is instantaneous. Much of this due to the fantastic six-speed auto, which is smooth and intuitive, and in sport mode aggressively downshifts.

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The Passat’s 1.8-litre turbo-petrol is a gem once you’re up and about, with a typically muscular mid-range that gives it an urgent rolling response, while at lower speeds it’s also exceptionally refined. The DSG auto has the odd moment of indecisiveness around town still, and the throttle response is less immediate than the Mazda.

The Hyundai’s diesel is a bit of a slug compared to many others out there, but it’s extremely relaxed, and the broad swathe of torque from low engine speeds gives it an effortless feel and acceptable rolling response. It’s also exceptionally quiet and refined, either at idle or a cruise.

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The DCT automatic has some typical urban jitters and indecisiveness, but the Auto Hold function that stops creeping at idle and prevents rollback (the same system is also on the VW) really helps. We were surprised how much we enjoyed the diesel Hyundai, and its refinement and economy, and price-point equal to petrol rivals, makes a compelling case.

Dynamics

The benefits of a typical wagon over even the most well-sorted SUV has traditionally been the superior body control and dynamism in corners thanks to their lower centre of gravity. And even the very best of the brilliant modern crossover crop still fall a little short of the best wagons.

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The ‘least-good’ performer here (because it’s not bad) is the Hyundai. The independent suspension and damper set up were tuned in Australia, but this earlier iteration falls a little short of the latest Hyundai crop, such as the Sonata, Elantra and Tucson.

The suspension isolates the seat and steering wheel from most sharp inputs and lower amplitude ruts, though the huge sunroof has the odd creak over the latter, given it reduces body rigidity in order to offer a better sky view.

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The car is quite firmly sprung after a European fashion, meaning it stays flat and tied down mid-corner, which is complemented by the well-weighted electro-mechanical steering. My notes mention the car isn’t plush as befits the brand, but it’s controlled and disciplined.

Where the i40 is excellent is on a smooth highway such as Melbourne’s Citylink, where its quiet diesel engine is most relaxed and there’s good isolation from wind noise (that slippery shape with good coefficient of drag) and tyre roar. It’d be a lovely thing to drive up to Sydney.

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There’s a solid argument, depending on your perspective, that the Mazda is either the best or worst here. Its NVH suppression, such as tyre roar from its big 19-inch wheels/slim tyre package, engine drone under moderate throttle, is the worst here, which is a long-running Mazda peccadillo.

On the other hand, as befits Mazda’s brand, it’s a great corner-carver, with feel-some steering that’s responsive from centre, good turn-in, disciplined body control under lateral loads and when settling after undulations and that well-sorted gearbox calibration mentioned earlier.

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Considering the low-profile tyres, it’s also good at rounding off sharp edges and hits. We’re impressed with how initial impacts into speed bumps, and the seat feel over cobbles, are both more than acceptable. It’s a quite well-compromised package, this.

But it’s not as well-sorted as the Passat, which has the best NVH suppression on test; rounds off square edges, sharp hits and lower-amplitude surfaces better than the others; and offers the best balance between soft (lower force on the compression) damping yet well-sorted body control. It settles beautifully.

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The steering is lighter and less communicative than the Mazda’s, but the cushiness on display, which never delves into wallowing or pitching, gives it the best balance. The VW is typically well rounded, in that it’s fun to throw at corners, but also supremely comfortable and quiet.

We’re always being criticised for giving Volkswagens such high marks in ride and handling, but it’s not our fault that those engineers in Wolfsburg are so accomplished. Remember that the Passat is VW’s top-seller, so it was hardly going to do a half-cocked job.

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Estimated ownership experience

The Volkswagen Passat comes with a three-year/100,000km warranty with full roadside assistance. The company offers transparent capped servicing costs that, like with all brands, is scaled to inflation and other potential price drivers. In other words, prices can change, but have to be advertised.

Service intervals are a long 12 months/15,000km, with the first six visits at current prices costing: $482, $482, $563, $656, $482 and $563. You also need to pay $56 every two years for a new pollen filter and $138 every two years for new brake fluid.

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The Mazda has the same warranty term as the Volkswagen, though roadside assist is $68.10 annually. Service intervals are an inferior 12 months or 10,000km. Like VW, the prices can change, but at present levels the costs over the first six visits are: $302, $330, $302, $330, $302 and $330.

Like the Passat, you’ll need a new Mazda air filter every two years ($67) and new brake fluid every two years ($68).

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The dealer experiences of these two contenders should be interesting to monitor. Volkswagen has been rightly criticised for years for its middling dealer sales and service experience, finishing poorly in industry surveys. But its current boss has vowed to stop at nothing to fix it. Mazda usually wins or performs strongly in the same tests. Individual experiences are likely to be different.

But it’s the Hyundai with the most comprehensive after sales policy. First, it has a five-year/unlimited kilometre warranty, and up to 10 years of roadside assist if you serice the car at a Hyundai dealer rather than somewhere such as Ultra Tune.

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Because our test car was a diesel, it’s pricier to service. This is common and offsets the fuel savings. Intervals are 12 months/15,000km and cost (at current rates): $339, $339, $339, $439, $339 and $520.

Verdict

This was a hard test to split. Despite showing its age a little in terms of cabin presentation, equipment and ride, the Hyundai i40 is a stylish and spacious wagon with a relaxed and quiet diesel engine at a reasonable price. Good ownership costs, too.

The Mazda 6 GT has the most upmarket cabin presentation here, and looks a million dollars in your driveway. It’s also the most fun to throw into corners, though its NVH suppression and engine let it down just a little.

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So, we’re left again with the austere but well-rounded Volkswagen. No doubt we’ll cop criticism for the choice, but there’s no escaping the German’s practicality, quality and comfort in a class where these talents are most highly sought.

Click the Photos tab for more images by Tom Fraser. 

Specifications

Hyundai i40 Premium

Mazda 6 GT

Volkswagen Passat Comfortline

Price (MRLP)

$44,850

$43,990

$43,490

Engine as tested

1.7-litre turbocharged four-cylinder diesel

2.5-litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder petrol

1.8-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol

Power

104kW at 4000rpm

138kW at 5700rpm

132kW between 5100 and 6200rpm

Torque

340Nm between 1750 and 2500rpm

250Nm at 3250rpm

250Nm between 1250 and 5000rpm

Transmission

Seven-speed dual-clutch auto

Six-speed auto with torque converter

Seven-speed dual-clutch auto

Fuel economy

5.1L/100km

6.6L/100km (91 RON or E10)

6.0L/100km (95 RON)

Driven wheels

Front-wheel drive

Front-wheel drive

Front-wheel drive

Braked towing capacity

1500kg

1500kg

1800kg

Kerb weight

1692kg

1531kg

1483kg (tare mass provided)

Length/width/height (mm)

4775/1815/1470

4800/1840/1480

4767/1832/1456

Wheelbase (mm)

2770

2750

2791

Suspension

MacPherson strut/multi-link

MacPherson strut/multi-link

MacPherson strut/multi-link

Claimed cargo space seats up/seats down

506L/1672L

506L/1648L

650L/1780L

Wheel package

17-inch alloys with full-size matching spare

19-inch alloys with 17” temporary steel spare

17-inch alloys with full-size matching spare

Airbags

Dual front/side/curtains/driver’s knee

Dual front/side/curtains

Dual front/side/curtains/driver’s knee

ANCAP rating

Five stars

Five stars

Five stars

Reversing camera

Yes

Yes

Yes

Parking sensors

Yes

Yes

Yes

Rear traffic alert

No

Yes

Yes

Lane assist

Yes

No

Yes

Park assist

Yes

No

No

Radar-guided cruise control

No

No

Yes

Autonomous emergency braking

No

Yes

Yes

Blind-spot monitoring

No

Yes

Yes

Multi-collision brake

No

No

Yes

ISOFIX

Yes

Yes

Yes

Push-button start with proximity key

Yes

Yes

Yes

Seats

Leather with electric adjust and heating up front

Leather with electric adjust and heating front and rear

Leather with electric adjust and memorry

Sunroof

Yes, panoramic

Yes

No

Rain-sensing wipers

Yes

Yes

Yes

Screen size

7.0-inch touchscreen

7.0-inch with MZD Connect rotary dial

8.0-inch touchscreen

Head-up display

No

Yes

No

Satellite-navigation

Yes

Yes

Yes

DAB+

No

Yes

No

Apple CarPlay/Android Auto

No

No

Yes

Bluetooth/USB connectivity

Yes

Yes

Yes

12V inputs

Yes

Yes

Yes

Speakers

Seven

11

Eight

Climate control

Yes, dual-zone

Yes, dual-zone

Yes, tri-zone

Electric park brake

Yes

Yes

Yes

Auto headlights

Yes

Yes

Yes

Daytime running lights

Yes

Yes

Yes

Electric tailgate

Yes

No

Yes



VOLKSWAGEN PASSAT BREAKDOWN

Medium wagon comparison:: Hyundai i40 v Mazda 6 v Volkswagen Passat
  • 8.5
  • 8
  • 9
  • 8.5
  • 8.5
  • 8.5
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MAZDA 6 BREAKDOWN

Medium wagon comparison:: Hyundai i40 v Mazda 6 v Volkswagen Passat
  • 8
  • 7.5
  • 8.5
  • 8.5
  • 8.5
  • 8
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HYUNDAI I40 BREAKDOWN

Medium wagon comparison:: Hyundai i40 v Mazda 6 v Volkswagen Passat
  • 7.5
  • 8
  • 8.5
  • 7.5
  • 7.5
  • 7.5
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