These days, the once-staid midsize family sedan market segment is quickly becoming anything but boring.
Just look at the class's two bestsellers: the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. Both are benefiting from 2018 redesigns that have transformed their characters.
Previously, these two models were as famous for their high degrees of competence as they were for their plain characters – lacking the luxury, style and sporty performance that distinguish mainstream cars from luxury ones. Now, both blur that line, at least based on short preview drives. These sedans remain spacious and affordable, yet they now boast flashier styling, posher interiors, more solid-feeling ride quality, more responsive steering and handling, and zippier acceleration.
The 2018 Camry stood out from the crowd when it appeared over the summer, and the new Accord promises to join it when it hits the market this week. The Camry tops the Accord for brute-force horsepower, but the Accord's turbocharged four-cylinder engines are punchy and light. Both cars are rated for economy-car fuel consumption, with base models comfortably exceeding 30 mpg in mixed driving.
At least based on quick drives, it's truly hard to find much fault with either the Camry or Accord, even for professional nit-pickers like your Auto Drive columnist. Many cars require tradeoffs – you sacrifice some quality to get another. Certainly that was true of the old Accord and Camry, which were pleasant but decidedly imperfect and, by today's standards, rather downscale.
Sure, the Camry is still missing Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration. Yes, it's true that the Accord's new engines all use turbochargers – an increasingly common way of boosting acceleration and fuel efficiency, but a method that tends to spark some grumbling about greater mechanical complexity and less-rich engine tones.
Also, reflecting their ample standard safety features, their meticulously crafted interiors and their sophisticated driving dynamics, the 2018 Accord and Camry are indeed a little more expensive than their predecessors and a number of competitors. Many buyers will consider the cost difference to be worth it, and neither car should be considered a ripoff – base prices are still below $25,000. Luxury options can push the cars past $35,000, but such features really do make these sedans into luxury vehicles in every way but their humble names.
But perhaps you're less interested in luxury and performance than space, functionality and value. Hyundai hopes there are a lot of buyers like you, because you'd be the customer base for its updated 2018 Sonata. Its base sticker price of $22,935 is about $1,500 less than the Accord or Camry, and it also boasts a longer warranty. Depending on what features you want, the Hyundai's price advantage may grow further still over a comparably-equipped Toyota or Honda, and also expect some more room to haggle off the Sonata's sticker price.
And in terms of pure function, the Sonata is perfectly serviceable. The interior is spacious, the dashboard is user-friendly and there's a respectable balance of ride versus handling. Crash-test scores are unimpeachable, and the 2018 update also added some new features and made others – including important safety tech – either standard equipment or at least more widely available options.
But the 2018 Sonata wasn't a full redesign like the Accord or Camry, and it shows. Even when it was new in 2015, the current Sonata generation felt like a something of a budget car, and that characteristic continues. The functional dashboard lacks verve, without the stylistic flair or top-grade materials that set apart the new Camry and Accord. The Hyundai's engines sound raspier, and its suspension doesn't feel as confidently buttoned-down. Moreover, some of its cost savings disappear at the pump compared to the thriftier competition; the most popular Sonata trims are rated for just 28 mpg in mixed driving.
For style, luxury and performance, shop the Accord and Camry against the Chevrolet Malibu, Ford Fusion and Mazda6 – but aside from aesthetic tastes, which will vary, the Honda and Toyota offer the better balance of luxury and performance with interior space and fuel economy.
If you're more interested in functional value, shop the Sonata against the mechanically-related Kia Optima, which is generally similar yet boasts a slightly more premium-grade interior; and the Nissan Altima, which is more fuel-efficient than the Sonata and Optima but duller to drive and a little more expensive.
Note that even if “functional value” sounds perfect to you, you won't want to write off the new Accord and Camry. Despite slightly higher prices, they deliver function and value aplenty – along with a host of other advantages.