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Medium cars are struggling in the face of an SUV uprising. Quite literally, the raising-up of body height and seating position has allowed the sport utility vehicle to act both like a magician entrancing customers, and a grim reaper destroying traditional sedan and wagons. There are massive upsides for those buyers who are determined to fly in the face of fashion, however.
At the launch of the facelifted Mazda 6, the Japanese brand confessed that it needs to dangle a big carrot in the face of buyers walking spellbound towards a CX-5 in the showroom … before adding that if buyers remain fixated on that SUV, at least they’ll still buy a Mazda.
In the case of the Mazda 6 – the most popular privately purchased car in the segment – it means a premium new interior rushed in despite the outgoing one being only two years old.
The 6 is a distant second in overall sales to the Toyota Camry that for 18 years straight has led the medium car class. There is a facelifted Toyota Camry coming later this year, but for now the most popular contender here acts as a mirror to which newer contenders can be judged.
The reborn Hyundai Sonata arrives in Australia with the most comprehensive locally tuned suspension program ever undertaken by the South Korean brand and – as its carrot – a powerful new 2.0-litre turbocharged engine for the price of everyone else’s non-turbos.
The carrot for the brand new Subaru Liberty is price and equipment. Back in the day buyers used to be all starry-eyed for the sedan with stars on its badge because of its BMW 3 Series-rivalling class and dynamics, and they didn’t mind paying a premium over a Camry for it. A lot has changed in that time, though.
PRICE AND EQUIPMENT
The Subaru Liberty 2.5i Premium tested here costs $35,490 plus-on road costs, making it the least expensive sedan of the quartet. Yet it is also comprehensively the most well equipped.
Standard kit includes 18-inch alloy wheels, auto on/off LED headlights, foglights, auto wipers, dual-zone climate control with rear air vents, full leather seats with front heating and eight-way power adjustment, satellite navigation with touchscreen and keyless auto entry with push-button start.
Some of its rivals have some of those features, but none of them also have an electric sunroof, adaptive cruise control and a driver assistance system dubbed EyeSight – incorporating lane departure warning, lead vehicle start alert and pre-collision alert and braking.
By comparison the Mazda 6 Touring sedan costs from $37,280, but you’ll need to spend $38,540 for an additional safety pack to get a blind-spot monirtor, auto dimming rear-view mirror and low-speed auto braking (exclusively both in forward and when you’re in reverse).
Otherwise the Touring remains the second best equipped car here, going toe to toe with the Liberty except for a sunroof, 18s (it gets 17s) and the active safety equipment, while adding front and rear parking sensors to the reverse-view camera on both.
Compared with the Hyundai Sonata Elite that costs $36,990, the 6 Touring is only $290 more expensive yet stays closer to the Liberty’s equipment benchmark.
Over the Hyundai the Mazda gets electric seat adjustment for the passenger and memory function for the driver, LED headlights, front parking sensors, rain sensing wipers, and auto up/down function on all windows, while the booming 11-speaker, 231-watt Bose audio system eclipses all (the others only have six speakers).
Although the Toyota Camry Atara SX is the second cheapest contender here at $35,990, it is also lacking in equipment. The missing big-ticket item is satellite navigation, while compared with the Mazda and Subaru it lacks electric adjustment for the passenger’s seat and memory function for the driver’s seat.
Still, in the case of the Subaru Liberty and Mazda 6 in particular, there is basically no SUV on the market that packs so much equipment in for a mid-$30K pricetag.
INFOTAINMENT AND CONNECTIVITY
The Subaru and Mazda continue their lead for connectivity, too.
Both score 7.0-inch colour touchscreens with high resolution graphics. There is more chintz and a little less intuition to the Liberty interface, which is accessed only by the touchscreen.
The 6’s screen can be touched when at standstill, though it’s complemented by a rotary dial on the console area flanked by shortcut buttons to make switching between functions far easier than in any of the other cars.
Both also come with an integrated app function for Pandora, which allows you to download the internet music streaming app on your smartphone then use the car’s interface to change stations and vote up or down a particular song. It works most easily in the Mazda that also exclusively adds the Aha internet radio app.
The Sonata misses both apps connectivity and any form of active safety technology (some of the latter equipment will be coming later this year, but it is unclear at what price) beyond stability control.
It has the largest screen here (at 8.0 inches) but is slanted upwards and attracts sunlight that highlights grubby fingertips on the screen and makes the graphics appear pale.
The interface isn’t as good looking or easy to use as the Mazda’s, particularly the aftermarket Suna sat-nav system, but as with its rivals it syncs easily to Bluetooth and has a USB input that requires no extra cost option for an iPod cable, for example – it just plugs and plays with an Apple cord.
The 6.1-inch screen in the Camry feels its age in terms of both size and graphics. While being a Toyota it is ergonomically flawless, and the surrounding big buttons with oversized fonts are seemingly made for those with vision issues, there is nothing beyond the basics here.
In terms of technology, the Subaru wins with its active safety suite, particularly the active cruise control system that works a treat on the clogged Sydney-Newcastle freeway to keep a safe distance behind wandering trucks and errant other drivers.
The collision alert system can be overly reactionary, however, and when it does go off it turns the whole instrument cluster red and flashes demonically at you.
The auto braking also activated once, needlessly we thought, as coming down a tight laneway the Liberty understood a parked car to be a stationary object that we were about to run into – yet the road simply kinked left so while it thought we were to continue straight and therefore braked, the driver didn’t need to brake as the road was weaving. It proves that while the technology is largely impressive, it isn’t faultless yet.
It’s also worth noting that the Mazda (with safety pack) is the only car here to auto brake if a collision is imminent when you’re reversing up to 8km/h. Although all come with reverse-view cameras and (except for the Liberty) parking sensors, this technology also has the back of your rear bumper.
The purchasing decision for families should be won or lost inside the car, and we can genuinely say if you have long-legged teenagers, these medium sedans offer more rear legroom than pretty much every price-point medium SUV rival. Best to start back there, then.
Stretching 4855mm from tip to toe, the Sonata is the longest car here with a limousine-rivalling amount of back seat space. You may expect that thanks to the added body length compared with the Camry (4815mm), 6 (4800mm) and Liberty (4795mm), though.
The Hyundai also has the smallest centre tunnel to allow more space for the middle passenger, a really plush and supportive bench, doors with both a bottle holder and storage pocket, while it’s the only car here with a 12 volt power outlet back there.
The only area where it dips is with headroom, which is eclipsed slightly by the Mazda and Toyota, though the Subaru is least impressive for head space here.
Conversely the 6 by far has the least legroom, disappointing for a car of its size, but it counters with a really comfortable and deep cushion, and more room for your feet under the front seats than Camry and Liberty (but not the expansive Sonata).
Although it has less legroom than the Toyota, at least you’re not bereft of amenities. Sure, the Camry gives you large door pockets where the 6 only provides bottle holders, but it is the only car here without map lights above, or adjustable headrests behind – only crummy little bumps – or a map pocket on the back of the driver’s seat. The leather feels as vinyl-like as the Mazda’s does genuine, though the seat base itself is among the broadest here.
In a similar fashion, the Liberty gets more legroom than the 6, but its seat base is the shortest here, aiding the sense of space. But it’s also the flattest bench here, most demanding a legs-splayed seating position to make it clear that outright legroom isn’t everything. And growth-spurt teens should stay away.
At least all contenders get a fold-down armrest with cupholders, in addition to rear seat air vents.
These medium sedans are not just about transporting families, though – they are also entry-level business cars as well, for reps and executives.
Moving forward (literally) and only the Mazda 6 among this group has a truly premium interior that is as lovely to sit in and view as it is to use, with tones and textures befitting of a model that costs far more than a mere $37K.
It’s the little things such as the flock-lined glovebox, the roller-door-style cover over the cupholders and the soft leather flanking the centre console that make this interior stand out. That it’s ergonomically polished with great seat comfort is the icing on the cake.
In isolation the Hyundai Sonata is a nice place to be up front, with even more generous front seats trimmed in similarly high quality leather. But in some places this dashboard feels as though it has been designed down to a price, which is no surprise when the Sonata is aimed at the American market where the Camry and Accord rule the sales roost and price is critical.
The general design is handsome and ergonomically sound, but the thinly padded armrests, abundance of grey and silver, and swathes of scratchy plastic across the lower dash make it feel a bit like a base model. Where that lower dash meets the upper, soft-touch material (just to the left of the climate controls) doesn’t align perfectly from a fit perspective, either.
The Euro-designed, older i40 still has the edge in terms of design.
Likewise the new Subaru Liberty is in front in terms of plastics materials, and the lushly padded armrests and the chubby, right-sized steering wheel are particular highlights.
Above: Toyota Camry (top); Hyundai Sonata (bottom).
Shame, then, that the driver’s seat has a hugely comfortable seat base not matched by its backrest – after one and two hours behind the wheel respectively, two testers complained of a sore back behind the wheel of the 2.5i Premium.
Then there is the Toyota Camry, which prioritises the big and simple – big storage bins everywhere, big seats, simple design, simple controls. It feels the most low-rent inside, though, with a super-sized steering wheel.
That being said, colleague Trent Nikolic said that his girlfriend Paula, a client service manager who drives 40,000km per year all around New South Wales in her Camry Altise, falls for the functional aspects of the interior before the form. After a brief flirt with a previous generation Mazda 6 – which was deemed too small and noisy – she is now back in a Camry.
Above: Subaru Liberty (top); Mazda 6 (bottom).
Paula also loves the boot size of her Camry, and particularly the way the boot is square inside and therefore boxes can be squeezed in without hassle. With that in mind, we open each of the boot lids to find (surprise, surprise) the Toyota leads with its 515-litre cavity.
The boot is big and square, impeded only by gooseneck bootlid hinges that also crush your luggage in the Sonata, are at least tucked away in the 6, and aren’t a problem at all in the Liberty that uses gas struts to hinge its lid.
The Hyundai’s boot is virtually identical in size at 510L and also comes with the broadest opening. Conversely, the Liberty (rated at 493L) may be larger than the 6 (at 474L), but the Subaru is actually less usable, suffering from an extremely small port-hole opening that makes loading taller items in virtually impossible. Only the Mazda gets a space saver spare tyre though – impressively, the others get a full-size wheel underfloor.
PERFORMANCE AND ECONOMY
Light weights of the group are the 6 and Camry, but we don’t mean for performance.
The kerb mass of each comes in at 1494 kilograms and 1495kg respectively, lighter than Liberty (1528kg, though the group’s only all-wheel drive model) and relatively portly Sonata (1560kg).
Lucky for the Hyundai it is powered by the strongest engine of the group, a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder producing 180kW of power (at 6000rpm) and 350Nm of torque (between 1400rpm and 4000rpm).
Perhaps not coincidentally these are identical outputs to a BMW 328i with the same-sized turbo engine. Perky off the line, genuinely gutsy through the mid-range in particular, and a smooth revver to redine, the Hyundai engine is mostly a gem; those used to the torque of a Falcon big-six will not be disappointed.
Where the engine feels a little under-developed is in terms of idling refinement and economy. When cold the engine buzzes at 1500rpm when you turn it on, and at a set of lights a small but noticeable thrum feeds through the steering wheel.
Claimed combined cycle economy is a below average 9.2 litres per 100 kilometres.
The other three contenders all have 2.5-litre non-turbo four-cylinder engines.
It’s the Mazda that stars with 138kW at 5700rpm and 250Nm at 3250rpm, and claimed economy of just 6.6L/100km.
The Toyota is almost a match for power (but not torque) with 135kW at 6000rpm and 235Nm at 4100rpm, but unlike the other 2.5s it doesn’t have fuel-saving stop-start technology, and claims 7.8L/100km.
That leaves the Subaru second-heaviest and least well endowed, with 129kW at 5800rpm and the same torque as Camry but produced 100rpm lower.
It does, however, claim 7.3L/100km for an on-paper silver economy medal in this quartet.
It’s best to talk about these three engines together, given their similarities, but first we should note the Mazda 6 also has the best six-speed automatic here. It boasts superbly intuitive response and a Sport mode that blips the throttle when braking and keeps the engine in its sweet spot.
The Hyundai auto with the same number of gears is very clever, but doesn’t have quite the same sporting breadth of ability.
Where the Mazda is more silken at idle, the engine is noisiest on light throttle and makes a racket when revved. Depending on your perspective, that noise is either rorty and sporty, or dreadfully deafening.
The Toyota is quieter, but more machine-like in its noise, and its six-speed automatic is quick to respond but struggles to hold the right gear.
Jump into either 6 or Camry after the Liberty and you’ll feel like you’ve moved into a new class of performance.
Around town in the default Intelligent mode, the Subaru with its automatic continuously variable transmission (CVT) is frustratingly dull and sluggish. Even in Sport mode the gearbox whirrs and slurs to keep the engine revving hard to keep up with the others.
Having driven the previous Liberty with basically the same engine, and found it amicably perky, I ponder why the new one feels so off the pace. Then the penny drops: the new one weighs 79kg more than the old one.
Engine refinement is a strength, particularly how subtly the car turns itself off and on at the lights, which is less noticeable than it is in the 6. However a slow performance doesn’t translate into terrific economy, with our test loop through the suburbs, out to country backroads, and home via a long freeway stretch yielding 8.6L/100km.
The Mazda delivered a superb 7.8L/100km, well ahead of the similarly quick and driveable Toyota at 9.5L/100km. Given that the Hyundai has the best performance, we expected it to use the most fuel, but didn’t expect the awful 11.9L/100km it managed.
Arguably it is the 6 that best balances performance and economy, but for smoothness and driveability the Sonata blitzes this field. If only it didn’t suck so hard.
STEERING, RIDE AND HANDLING
Given that reps do freeway and sometimes country miles when working, and it is much the same for families on holidays, our test route was carefully considered.
Big cars should produce a small amount of road noise, and Mazda has admitted road noise has been picked up as an issue with the outgoing 6, claiming the facelifted version is much quieter.
So is Paula safe to choose a Mazda 6 now compared with her Camry?
According to our decibel (Db) meter, at 80km/h on a country road the Toyota produced 85-87Db up front and 82-83Db rear.
The Mazda was virtually identical (83-88Db front/80-82Db rear) as was the Hyundai (82-87Db front/82-83Db rear). The Subaru was quietest up front (81-85Db) but about average rearward (82-83Db) where we noticed it was silent for wind noise, but had the most roar drumming up through the parcel shelf.
Beyond space and noise, however, there is a clear divide among this group for overall comfort.
During our four-up testing over said average country road and then in the backstreets of Sydney, the Mazda and Hyundai proved clear leaders.
The softened suspension of the facelifted 6 works a treat at medium speeds around town, where it now ignores small imperfections the old car picked up. But as we detected at the local launch, it is now a bit floaty, and over speed humps around town or undulations on a country road, the Mazda can bounce its front end too much (even bottoming out on one occasion).
The Sonata feels firmer and a fraction knobbly at times, but it absorbs big hits even better than that rival, and generally feels more settled and sophisticated. What’s clear is that this is easily the best tune the Korean brand’s Aussie engineers have delivered, and that’s even before we talk handling (more on that shortly).
There is a demonstrable drop down to the Camry and Liberty.
The sports suspension of the Atara models is nowhere near as comfortable as the standard suspension in Paula’s Altise or the base hybrid version. If you want more luxury in a Camry, though, you have to choose needlessly hard suspension that verges on being crude the way it thumps and bumps around.
At least the Toyota keeps its occupants from swaying around, though.
The Subaru seems to ride well at first, but it quickly falls out of its depth. To get technical for a moment, it becomes obvious that when the damper extends it is quite soft, yet on rebound it is overly abrupt. That’s why the Liberty ignores small imperfections on the road, but as soon as it tackles a speed hump or bigger irregularities it harshly jerks the backs of occupants.
Given a successive line of bumps, it can feel both floaty and harsh, and it was the only contender here to make our rear passengers queasy on a standard bit of country road; probably because every tester noted it can rock side to side like a boat.
It is particularly disappointing given the Liberty used to be a dynamic and sporty performer, though on the upside it still steers and handles decently. You can feel the extra traction of all-wheel drive when you have it loaded up in a corner, and the steering is on the heavier side of weighting but is consistent and precise.
The Camry steering, meanwhile, manages to be featherweight and vacant on the centre position before turning gloopy and heavy when winding on lock – just like the harsh ride, it is far from ideal around town and in this case when parking. Yet its handling is roll-prone without the balance to make it acceptable.
Settling back into the Mazda 6 is a revelation. Its steering is light, lovely and smooth, its front-end sharpness and general agility unrivalled in this company. Or is it?
Moving to the Sonata, I managed to drive only a handful of corners before stopping and jumping back into the 6, and then repeating the routine.
That’s because the Hyundai runs the Mazda extremely close for driver enjoyment.
The Sonata’s steering is very good, but lacks the touchy-feely precision of the 6, and its front-end can’t match the nimbleness of the medium car that has long been the dynamic benchmark.
But the way the engineers have tuned the suspension to feed in a fraction of rear-end movement when cornering will delight keen drivers, and there is genuine balance there to be enjoyed.
Even more astonishingly, its stability control system seems very well tuned.
The biggest let-down for both cars is their tyres – tall profile Toyo Proxes on the Mazda and Hankook Kinenergy GT on the Hyundai both squeal far earlier than the Subaru’s Dunlop SportMaxx and Toyota’s Bridgestone Turanza rubber.
Torque steer is noticeable on the Sonata Elite, and it joins the 6 Touring by axle tramping easily in the wet. For that reason, keen drivers are well advised to spend the extra on the 6 GT and Sonata Premium, both of which have wider, grippier rubber.
Five year, unlimited kilometre warranty cover will please every Hyundai buyer (the others have three year cover, with a 100,000km cap only for the Toyota) but servicing the turbo model every six months or just 7500km is irksome.
The Subaru also has six month intervals if 12,500km doesn’t come up first, while the Mazda has yearly intervals if 10,000km doesn’t come up first.
Toyota leads with 12 month or 15,000km intervals.
With each capped price service of just $130, the Camry costs just $520 to service over three years or 100,000km.
If the calendar changes over three times you’ll need to give your Mazda dealer $924, or if 50,000km comes up first an even fuller $1549.
The Hyundai splits the difference – to three years or 45,000km it costs $1254 – while the Subaru costs more than both, either over three years ($2216) or over 50,000km ($1526).
So, can these mediums lure you away from the gaze towards an SUV?
Clearly according to the sales charts, the Toyota Camry can. It is as big, simple and inoffensive as ever, and more favourable for its servicing costs than it is for its price to equipment ratio.
Sports suspension has no place in a Camry, though, so we’d suggest (like Paula) choosing the budget Altise or base hybrid over any of the Atara range.
The Camry is more averagely consistent than the Subaru Liberty, which hits great highs in terms of its equipment and technology, but disappoints both in terms of driveability and comfort.
In contrast to the Toyota it is loaded but expensive to service, though both brands have a bullet-proof reputation for quality and durability that will win many over.
There is a big step up to the remaining contenders, and while a decade ago we could have seen the Mazda 6 beating a Liberty, we couldn’t have imagined a Hyundai Sonata doing the same.
More than that, the 6 and Sonata are virtually inseparable at the finish line, playing tit-for-tat constantly during the final scoring: the Mazda feels more premium inside and comes with more equipment, but is less spacious; the Hyundai is faster, but much thirstier; the Japanese contender has greater polish in steering and transmission calibration, the Korean rival has a broader suspension tune.
Quite simply it comes down to is this: if you need sprawling space buy the Hyundai Sonata, but if you’re feeling a little bit selfish and want the most premium contender, the Mazda 6 maintains a lead.
Or flip a coin. We did.
Click the Photos tab for more images by Christian Barbeitos.