Medium is the new large. By 2017 when the large car segment will have been thrown into further disarray with the loss of the Ford Falcon and question marks surrounding imported replacements for the Holden Commodore and Toyota Aurion, it really has to be.
The mass exodus from large six-cylinder family sedans that has happened in recent years, however, hasn’t been the expected boon for medium cars. Australians have mostly bypassed the segment and either plumped for small cars or SUVs.
Medium car manufacturers have seen sales fall rather than climb or even remain static, though that’s not to say this doesn’t remain another ultra-competitive category.
At least for sales positions from second downwards. Of the 53,000 sales recorded by the sub-$60,000 medium segment in 2013, a staggering 52 per cent of buyers (if predominantly fleets) chose the Toyota Camry. Although there won’t be a next-generation Camry made locally, that favourite nameplate will continue to be sold here well after the Melbourne manufacturing shut-off in less than three years.
The other six four-cylinder models assembled here in this test of $27,000-$35,000 mid-sizers are much less popular, with the Mazda 6 a distant runner up. The Subaru Liberty will be regenerated in early 2015, but still commands a respectable share of the segment, ahead of Honda’s twin Accords and Volkswagen Jetta, but behind the Ford Mondeo. Those latter four models were not available for this test. The Hyundai i40, meanwhile, will soon return to being one part of a Korean double-act when the Sonata returns to this country later this year. For now, though, i40 remains the one for this test.
Thee remaining trio of contenders are brand new, and the catalyst for this test – the Skoda Octavia, Nissan Altima and Holden Malibu.
PRICE AND EQUIPMENT
Price tags for this test of entry-level petrol-engined automatic sedans climb from the $26,790 Octavia 103TSI Ambition Plus, to the $28,490 Malibu CD, $29,990 Altima ST, $31,990 i40 Active, $32,990 Liberty 2.5i, $33,460 6 Sport and $34,990 Camry Hybrid (although it is the base grade in the petrol-electric line-up, the petrol-only $30,490 Altise was requested but unavailable).
The Skoda, despite being the cheapest car here, is the best equipped.
It gets fog lights (matched only by the Liberty and 6), and it includes a leather-wrapped steering wheel (which only those two plus the i40 match). And it features 17-inch alloys like most of the contenders here, with the Altima and Camry the exceptions with 16-inch wheels.
When the optional ($3900) Tech pack is added, as it was to our test Octavia, its adaptive radar cruise control, front parking sensors with auto-reverse park functionality, and xenon headlights with cornering lights aren’t available among its competitors in this group. Yet it still only breaches the $30K barrier by $690.
The Holden in some ways comes close.
It beats the Skoda’s 5.8-inch colour touchscreen with a seven-inch unit that, exclusively in this class, connects to your smartphone and utilises its internet to access music streaming apps such as Pandora. By contrast the Nissan and Subaru get tiny, pixellated 4.3-inch displays, while the Mazda does, too, but alone adds satellite navigation to help justify its higher starting price.
The Malibu is the only car here to get both rear parking sensors and a reverse-view camera, where the Octavia and i40 only get the former, and the Camry, Liberty and 6 get the latter. The Altima offers neither (as would the Camry in Altise specification).
The Nissan is also the only car here to lack Bluetooth audio streaming, although it joins the Camry, Liberty and 6 by including dual-zone climate control – the Malibu gets single-zone, the i40 and Octavia regular air-con.
Further possibilities abound at Holden dealerships, however. Stretch to the $31,990 Malibu CDX and to match its standard 18s and leather trim buyers would, for example, need to choose the $34,690 Octavia 132TSI Elegance that still lacks the Holden’s electrically adjustable, heated front seats, though it does add sat-nav.
All seven contenders, meanwhile, get electronic stability control systems, while Skoda and Hyundai lead the airbag count with nine – dual front, front-side, full-length curtain, rear-side, and driver’s knee.
The Toyota and Subaru get the knee airbag; the Holden and Mazda lack the latter two.
It’s clear that the value stars – Octavia and Malibu – expose the lack of equipment in the also-inexpensive Altima, while the nav-equipped 6 Sport justifies its higher pricetag more than the i40 and Camry do. The Liberty is the group’s only all-wheel-drive model, so there’s value there.
SERVICING AND WARRANTY
The Toyota claws back value ground on the servicing front, though the Holden is largely its equal. Nine-month or 15,000km intervals means the Camry requires four $130 services to three years. Its $520 total is the lowest here, although 12-month or 15,000km intervals for the Malibu means it needs only three $185 check-ups for a $555 sum.
The Hyundai needs three, too, at $259 each for a $777 tally, as does the Skoda that totals (via varied per-service costs) $891.
It’s a big jump then to the Nissan and Mazda that each require six-month or 10,000km intervals, meaning hefty $1760 and $2020 totals respectively.
The Subaru, the only manufacturer here that doesn’t offer a capped price servicing program, slips between them, requiring six-month or 12,500km checks for a ‘recommended’ $2005 sum.
Only does it cost about four times as much to service a 6 or Liberty over three years compared with a Camry or Malibu, but the Octavia’s longest-in-class capped price servicing program means that over six years it will have cost only $43 more than what the Mazda and Subaru ask in half that time.
Meanwhile only the i40 gets a five-year, unlimited kilometre warranty, trumping the three years and 100,000km (Camry, Malibu, Altima) or unlimited mileage (Octavia, Liberty) for the rest.
Where once there were smaller medium cars and upper medium cars – to which the Honda Accord Euro and Accord remain respective examples – the lines are blurred these days.
The old ‘narrow body’ terminology can be used here for the Liberty (at 1780mm wide), Octavia (1814mm) and i40 (1815mm). They offer less interior width than the ‘wide body’ Camry (1825mm), Altima (1830mm), 6 (1840mm) and Malibu (1855mm), so if seating three across the rear is required, the rankings are clear.
For length, too, the shortest-here Octavia (4659mm), i40 (4740mm) and Liberty (4745mm) don’t have the measure of the Camry (4815mm), Malibu and 6 (an identical 4865mm) and Altima (4885mm). Yet in this instance rear legroom and boot space measurements don’t follow that order.
Behind the seating position of a 178cm-tall driver, the Holden affords just 230mm of legroom – the same as a Mercedes-Benz A-Class hatchback tested last month. It’s well behind the 280mm delivered by the Toyota, while the smaller-on-the-outside Hyundai and Skoda both beat it, and match the also-larger Mazda’s 290mm.
It’s an upset for the rear room pole position, too, with the Nissan being 120mm longer on the outside than the Subaru but delivering 10mm less rear legroom inside, at 310mm.
The Liberty also has the best front and rear seats with broad and plush support. For those trading out of Commodore and Falcon acreage and comfort, this is the next-best thing, with the Camry and i40 not far behind, the 6 and Octavia lacking some side support, the Malibu being a bit firm, and the Altima much too flat.
The Malibu and Liberty are the only models to include rear air vents, though a $3000 option pack for the Subaru adds them, in addition to leather and sat-nav.
The Liberty also misses a 60:40 split-fold rear seat, as does the Camry Hybrid that sticks the battery pack for its electric motor in the boot up against the seat back. Both cars have among the least boot space – 476 litres for the Subaru and 421L for the Toyota.
The Mazda 6 squeezes between them with only 438L, with the Altima not far behind at 488L, although both get split-fold volume-expansion capability. The others do, too, all of which begin their boot volumes with a ‘5’, including i40 (505L), Malibu (545L) and Octavia (568L – plus unique liftback loading versatility, too).
It’s a shame the Holden and Skoda don’t offer the cabin presentation to match their cargo-carrying ability.
Not only is the Malibu cramped in the rear, but the cabin plastics and fit and finish of this South Korean-built model are poor. There are rough edges around the lip of the glovebox lid, which doesn’t fit well into the dash, either.
Although the touchscreen is impressively easy to use, and neatly flips up to reveal a storage cubby hole, the lid feels flimsy and clicks cheaply into place.
The Skoda is sparse but well-built. With the previous-generation Octavia, soft-touch plastics and flush-closing venetian-blind-like air vents challenged more expensive Volkswagen products.
Clearly with this new generation, there’s greater distance between them, exposed by harder plastics and clacky controls that create a bin-liner interior ambience.
There are lots of clever storage nooks and practicality highlights to back its big boot, but clearly the emphasis is on pragmatic versatility rather than style.
Style is also something sorely lacking inside the Camry and Altima, with both cars’ hard plastic door trims contrasting against the nice velour seat trim. Both also lack tactility to their controls, and their colour screens appear low-resolution and downmarket.
The Toyota has the group’s only electrically-adjustable driver’s seat, though, which hands it the best driving position of the lot. The Nissan’s seats are much less impressive, feeling particularly over-stuffed up front.
The Liberty lacks class, too, suffering from lots of hard plastics and by far the least intuitive infotainment system here. But the thin pillars and big glasshouse makes for class-leading over-the-shoulder visibility. Together with stacks of space and benchmark seats, they’re simple but sizeable interior virtues.
The only cars here to feel genuinely a cut-above inside, are the Hyundai and Mazda.
Because the i40 Active lacks a colour screen and climate controls it doesn’t feel as premium as the 6 Sport that teams higher-resolution graphics with a defined, quality feel to its knurled-look silver switchgear.
Both get nice, soft-touch plastics, and quality cloth trim that covers the door trims.
PERFORMANCE AND ECONOMY
The Mazda 6 is challenged more closely under the bonnet. It utilises a 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine that makes 138kW of power at 5700rpm, and 250Nm of torque at 3250rpm.
While that cylinder count is shared by all contenders, the Altima, Liberty and Camry share the same capacity as well. The Nissan and Subaru each make 127kW, at 6000rpm and 5600rpm respectively, with the Altima’s 230Nm at 4000rpm just behind the Liberty’s 235Nm at 4100rpm.
The petrol engine itself in the Camry makes just 118kW and 213Nm, but the Hybrid badge that denotes the addition of an electric motor feeds in its own 270Nm – although you can’t quite add the torque figures together – and boosts power, of which it’s possible to find a total output, to 151kW.
The 2.4-litre Malibu makes 123kW at 5800rpm and 225Nm at 4600rpm, which is actually less power than the 2.0-litre i40 that produces 131kW but at a high 6500rpm.
The Hyundai’s torque figure of 214Nm isn’t delivered until a similarly lofty 4700rpm, either. Its peaky outputs are in direct contrast to the only car here to use a turbocharger, the 1.4-litre Octavia that makes only 103kW but at a lower 5000rpm, and a Mazda 6-matching 250Nm but over a broad 1500-3500rpm.
For performance, it’s a close race – literally – between the Skoda, Mazda, Toyota and Nissan. The Octavia is snappy off the line, delivering both immediate low-rev urge and sweet high-rev flexibility, and its seven-speed dual-clutch automatic is quick to fire through gears. The 8.5-second 0-100km/h claim feels about right … and for its three closest rivals, too.
The extra power of the 6 makes it feel faster as it swings its tachometer needle towards its power peak, but it needs to spend a bit more time up there around town and makes its six-speed automatic work harder. That said, the auto is brilliantly intuitive, a terrific match to a flexible and sporting engine.
Given its outputs it should be faster than the Altima, but it isn't.
The Nissan has a very good continuously variable transmission (CVT) that responds quickly and immediately, and a low kerb weight also helps thrust it into contention. As the only car here with a lightweight aluminium bonnet, roof and bootlid, its 1435kg shades the 1462kg 6, despite Mazda being more boastful about lots of weight-saving technologies heralded under a ‘Skyactiv’ banner. The Nissan engine is quite workmanlike in its behaviour – torquey down low, decently revvy up top, with a gravelly note.
The Toyota’s trick is the instant torque provided by its electric motor. Initially slow to wind up off the line, its CVT isn’t as good as the Nissan’s. But nothing here can touch the Camry for acceleration from speed, where despite a heaviest-here 1610kg kerb weight, a pinned throttle sees it surge forward like a six-cylinder car.
Its battery-recharging braking regeneration function means the pedal responds way too abruptly, however.
Although there’s nothing inspiring about this drivetrain, the way the petrol engine subtly switches off around town, or can be put into a dedicated EV-only mode below 30km/h for emissions-free running, is technically inspired.
At 1439kg, the Liberty is lighter than the 6 and only 4kg heavier than the Altima, yet that doesn’t seem to liberate its 2.5-litre. The boxer engine is gravelly and quite torquey, but it doesn’t like chasing the top end of the tachometer.
The CVT is even more brilliant than the Nissan’s, though. As with the Camry, it is slower to wind up, but it also has an intuition almost every other CVT lacks, cleverly holding revs in the mid-to-high range if it detects hard driving.
So while the Subaru isn’t fast – a 9.8 second 0-100km/h is claimed – it is among the most driveable here.
The exact opposite is true for the Holden, and to a lesser degree the Hyundai.
The Malibu engine has been quietened, which may explain the porky 1583kg kerb weight (barely 30kg less than a V6 Commodore). It needs to be flogged not only to deliver meaningful performance, but to keep the set speed on moderate country-road hills. Yet it’s teamed to one of the most poorly calibrated six-speed automatics we’ve experienced; it flares and hunts constantly, refusing to hold gears on hills.
The i40 has too little engine to pull 1441kg, but the 2.0-litre is a much, much sweeter unit and while the six-speed automatic also lacks intuition, the combination doesn’t struggle nearly as much.
During this test all bets were on that the Holden would use the most fuel, but its 10.9L/100km (up from 8L/100km claimed consumption) was second-worst … after the excessive 12.3L/100km from the hard-worked Hyundai (7.5L/100km is claimed).
The Nissan was third-worst with 9.5L/100km (7.5L/100km claimed), while the hybrid Toyota’s 9.1L/100km was more reflective of a fuel log taken during open road testing where its electric motor adds a performance boost, rather than takes a load off the petrol engine. Still, it claims the same benchmark 5.2L/100km as the Skoda, yet the Octavia recorded a class leading 7.7L/100km in identical conditions, although it’s the only car here to require premium unleaded.
The Mazda – which uniquely gets stop-start tech, and a system called i-ELOOP that stores braking energy in a capacitor to power interior electrics instead of the engine – came second with 8.4L/100km (6.6L/100km claimed). The Subaru (below) took third with 8.9L/100km (7.9L/100km claimed), especially admirable for an all-wheel-drive model carrying extra mechanical weight.
STEERING, RIDE AND HANDLING
The Mazda and Subaru each shuffle up a place for their driving behaviour, because although ride comfort and quietness are a priority for family cars, both the 6 and Liberty mix in a high level of driver entertainment, too.
The Subaru initially feels like a curious mix. It has quite a firm, sensitive ride quality around town, yet at speed on a country road it feels the floatiest of any car here. It works, though, allowing the car to breathe over larger hits without becoming unruly.
For those who will miss the rear-wheel-drive feel of a Commodore and Falcon, the Liberty, which sends 50 per cent of drive to its back wheels, comes closest to matching them; it rolls onto its outside rear tyre and powers out of corners with a smidge of oversteer. It’s the most involving car here, and its dull and too-heavy steering at low speeds transforms to become incisive in corners.
The 6 is ultimately sharper and tighter on a country road, and smoother around town.
Its steering is superb everywhere – light and resistant-free at parking speeds, with enough meatiness and precision when winding on lock on a twisty road.
That old Mazda bugbear comes through with the 6 being the loudest car here for engine noise on light throttle, and for road noise particularly on coarse-chip surfaces.
The Skoda is the only other noisy car here, but for road roar only. Unlike with the Mazda, however, that lack of refinement extends to the worst ride quality of the bunch.
In corners the Octavia feels like the previous-generation 6 such is its dartiness and lack of body roll. Its agility and cornering speed trounces even the Mazda and Subaru thanks mainly to a shorter wheelbase, firm damper rates and grippier Michelin tyres, while the steering is mid-weighted and precise.
But it feels immature. Where the higher-end Octavias score an independent rear suspension setup, this 103TSI with a simpler torsion beam at the rear feels wooden. Yet even the front end constantly fidgets and jiggles.
On the open road, jumping out of the Skoda and into the Nissan or Toyota is like switching radio stations from death-metal to opera. Both are the quietest cars here and use their chubby 60-aspect 16-inch tyres for maximum ride quality effect, with the Altima in particular boasting the most plush ride of the bunch.
Its handling is the worst of the bunch, however, although blame falls to the appalling Yokohama BluEarth tyres. In corners the body stays reasonably flat, but the tyres give up and make it feel squidgy even at moderate pace.
Around town, jumping from Octavia to Altima is more like switching from go-kart to cruise liner. The Nissan feels huge, and it isn’t helped by a wide turning circle and too-heavy and slow steering that is precise at speed but makes parking a pain.
The Toyota feels much better balanced and grippy.
We know from experience that choosing the lower-profile 17-inch tyres on the higher-grade Camry Hybrid HL (and any petrol Atara) ruin the ride quality. It’s amazing, then, how suited the Hybrid H’s chubby rubber is to a suspension tune that strikes the best balance between compliance and control here.
So it’s a shame the steering is so vague, with a sizeable on-centre vacant patch and looseness as lock is wound on.
Moving then between the Malibu and the i40 feels like leaping two generations ahead.
The Holden feels strong and planted, its handling is well balanced – it is based on an Opel Insignia platform – and its steering is reasonably consistent if not sharp.
It’s also decently quiet in terms of road noise, but its thrashy engine and ride quality that is far too jiggly and unrefined – worse even than the Octavia – hurts it.
The Hyundai is much calmer on all surfaces, although it too is a mid-fielder for road noise supression.
Its neatly balanced chassis ultimately lacks sharpness and suffers from an overly intrusive stability control.
The steering is a bit looser than Malibu’s, but it maintains its weighting consistency and isn’t too slow like Altima’s nor vague like Camry’s.
This seven-strong comparison test has a middle order so chunky you could carve it.
Just below that group is the Holden Malibu, which struggles to compensate for its below-average interior finish, cramped rear seat and driveability flaws with low servicing costs and a high equipment level.
Strong performance, a quiet cabin and a plush ride are big virtues for the big Nissan Altima, but it lacks equipment, it is expensive to service and it has average dynamics. Almost its exact opposite, the Skoda Octavia is next to go because although it’s a sharp yet economical drive, and offers lots of technology and a big boot for a low price, it lacks the expected ride and interior quality and refinement.
Unlike those two, the Hyundai i40 hits no great highs except with its benchmark warranty. It is a convincing all-rounder, though, and just needs more equipment and for its sweet engine to be enlarged for it to rise higher in our rankings.
Which leaves the Toyota Camry in third, although that placing is reserved for this Hybrid H that rides a lot better than the Hybrid HL and Atara. It takes the Altima’s virtues then offers improved suspension control and extra efficiency, while cheap servicing offsets its higher pricetag.
The Subaru Liberty then takes all the Camry’s virtues and blends in rear driver involvement, while the Mazda 6 further adds fine steering and interior finish. And it’s the mid-sized Mazda’s near-ideal balance of driver enjoyment and pragmatic considerations that makes it our top pick - compensating for its average road noise, while a better value equation than the Camry and i40 help offset higher servicing costs.