2003-2004 Family Sedan Comparison Test

  • Full Review
  • Pricing & Specs
  • Road Tests
  • Comparison (1)
  • Long-Term

2004 Honda Accord Sedan

(2.4L 4-cyl. 5-speed Automatic)

  • Comparison Test

Introduction

Sport-utility vehicles may be all over the road, but for most people, the midsize sedan remains the most practical and affordable way to drive to work or pick the kids up from school.

In the past, family sedans were easily dismissed as dull, flavorless cars that people bought because they needed them. While today's batch will still be purchased out of necessity, these are no longer the boring cars that you remember. They're fast. They're stylish. They're spacious, comfortable and even luxurious. And a few of them handle like sport sedans. All of this works in the buyer's favor, as you're likely to end up with a car that serves your needs while offering a few bonuses that make the ownership experience enjoyable — or even entertaining.

Although we conducted a four-car Premium Family Sedan Comparison Test two years ago, it had been a long time since we did a full-scale test of this large segment. So we gathered together all the strong candidates from the last two comparison tests, along with all the recently redesigned cars and newcomers — ultimately capping the field at 10 sedans.

This group includes the freshly reworked Chevrolet Malibu, Honda Accord and Mitsubishi Galant, and newcomers like the sporty Mazda 6 (a replacement for the old 626) and the Suzuki Verona. Also on the guest list was our defending champ, the Volkswagen Passat, along with such perennial contenders as the Nissan Altima and Toyota Camry. (The Camry SE V6 was fitted with a bigger engine for 2004 to better enable it to do battle with the V6 versions of the Accord, Altima and Galant.) We then filled in the ranks with value leaders like the Chrysler Sebring and Hyundai Sonata.

As in other comparison tests we conduct, the sedans were evaluated on the basis of a comprehensive 23-point evaluation, feature content, their performance in instrumented testing, price and each editor's personal and recommended rankings (see the Scoring Explanation for further explanation).

With such a large field of highly qualified sedans, the competition in this test was cutthroat — there was a spread of less than seven points between the first-place and fifth-place cars. Although we definitely feel that the winner of the test is the best all-around family sedan, any car that finished in the top half of this test would make a satisfying addition to your household.

Tenth Place: 2004 Suzuki Verona

When we added up all the numbers, the Suzuki Verona had the lowest score and therefore had to be considered the least qualified family sedan in this test. But it's not as if it was devoid of redeeming qualities — its cohesive cabin design, for example, puts the mishmash ensembles in the Sebring and Sonata on notice. And there's something to be said for a low purchase price and a 7-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty that's fully transferable to successive owners. Obviously, these aren't compelling reasons to go out and buy a car that failed to measure up in so many other areas, but we liked the Verona enough to say, "You played a good game."

The Verona is a newcomer to the family sedan segment this year, but you've seen glimpses of it before. As part of a partnership with General Motors, Suzuki rebadges the Korean-manufactured Daewoo Magnus for the U.S. market (GM has ownership stakes in both Suzuki and Daewoo). The Verona/Magnus is the successor to the Daewoo Leganza sold here from 1999 to 2002. Thankfully, the Suzuki Verona is a much better car than the Leganza and far better suited to the typical American buyer. Just looking at the car tells you plenty: The sheet metal is nothing memorable, but the Verona has crisp, handsome lines and none of the Leganza's odd styling details.

Inside, Suzuki's midsize sedan offers a pleasing two-tone ensemble not unlike that of an Accord or Passat. The material used on the dash and door tops has an upscale grain pattern and is soft to the touch. White-faced gauges light up in a soothing lime-green color that matches the readouts for the automatic climate control and stereo head unit. Faux wood inlays appeared in abundance in our high-line EX test vehicle, and they didn't look half bad, especially considering the car's low price tag. Closer examination of the headliner and visors returned an impression of substance and quality.

Unfortunately, not all of the materials gave us such a good feeling about the Verona. The leather on the seats matched the grain of the upper dash but had a rough, dry feel. The plastic used on the lower dash and console also picked up the correct grain pattern but had a glossy, cheap feel. In addition, as in the Sonata, the control stalks felt lower in quality than those of the other import-branded sedans. Many of the plastics had rough, unfinished edges, but other than that, build quality was tight inside and out. Or at least it was on the first Verona we examined. A second test car had a seriously misaligned trunk lid but was otherwise well constructed. We didn't notice a single rattle in either of the cars.

The Verona's front seats provided passable comfort for a couple hours of driving, but they're not especially supportive or well shaped. The back cushion does offer better-than-average lateral bolstering to hold you during cornering, and the nicely padded center armrest invites you to rest an elbow. The steering wheel tilts but does not telescope.

The rear-seat accommodations are a bit better, as a properly positioned bench assures good thigh support for adults, while a full set of head restraints gives everyone a place for his noggin. Back support is decent but not exceptional, and legroom is a bit tight for adults. There is, however, room to slide your feet under the front seats. The fold-down center armrest is a comfy respite, but the door panel armrests could stand to be wider.

Only half of the 12 features we consider most important in a family sedan are available on the Verona. Although you can talk yourself out of amenities like an in-dash CD changer and a grocery net in the trunk rather easily, the fact that you can't get key safety items like seat-mounted side airbags and full-length head curtain airbags is disappointing. The Suzuki hasn't been crash tested yet, so it's hard to speculate how helpful these airbags might be. But if you're like us, you want all the protection you can get when loved ones are in the car.

Most of the Verona's controls are easy to use, particularly the automatic climate control, which employs a large temperature dial and pictograph display to help drivers find their preferred settings. The stereo head unit has more buttons than we would like, but their relatively large size makes them mostly painless to navigate, provided you stay away from the assortment of tonal and equalizer settings. Satellite controls on the steering wheel cover seek and volume functions. Other highlights include window buttons that are illuminated on all doors, and a dial-button combo for mirror adjustment that is particularly user-friendly.

In-cabin storage space is about average for this group. A spacious felt-lined compartment in the rear fold-down center armrest is a nice touch, but up front you're limited to a small center console container, average-size door bins and glovebox, and a felt-lined coin drawer and sunglasses holder. Cupholders are small and best suited for 12-ounce soda cans. Trunk capacity is on the low side at 13.4 cubic feet, but if you can work around the intrusive metal hinges, you'll find the opening quite wide. The lid is fully lined in felt to help minimize cabin noise.

The driving experience is easily the least enjoyable aspect of the Verona. The trouble begins under the hood where you'll find one of the weakest six-cylinder engines currently on the market. Rated at just 155 horsepower, the Verona's 2.5-liter inline six feels slow down low, in the middle and up high. Using passing lanes on two-lane roads was a dicey proposition, as the car took what seemed like an eternity to build up enough speed to overtake trucks. The power delivery is smooth, but since the engine has to work so hard most of the time, the sound of its labors gets old quickly. The standard four-speed automatic transmission makes the best of the situation by generally picking the right gear at the right time, but most of the time, acceleration is barely adequate.

Instrumented testing supported these impressions, as the Suzuki Verona took 11.8 seconds to reach 60 mph — almost three seconds longer that the next slowest car. This might not sound so bad to the casual observer, but consider that the Suzuki would also have been the slowest car in the 2003 Economy Sedan Comparison Test we recently conducted. If you're thinking of buying a Verona because of its six-cylinder engine, we'd recommend a reality check before you go through with it: Most four-cylinder-equipped midsize sedans offer better acceleration for about the same price.

Ultrasoft suspension tuning yields a cushy highway ride that any grizzled commuter will appreciate, but the trade-off is a sedan that's weak-kneed around twists and turns. If you're willing to trust the car, the body does settle eventually, but until that happens, it's easy to feel like you're on the edge of losing control. The steering is no help in these situations, as it's as light and feels as disconnected from the road as the Hyundai's setup. The brake pedal also feels a bit soft, but the brakes perform capably, particularly in emergency situations — the Verona needed just 122 feet to stop from 60 mph. We had no complaints about the car's 16-inch Hankook tires, which proved both quiet and capable in turns. Although road noise was largely absent from the cabin, we did notice considerable wind noise — apparently caused by poor sealing around the windshield and sunroof.

In a segment populated by heavy hitters from Japan and Germany, it isn't enough to meet them on their terms in a few areas while falling behind in important areas like performance and safety. In its current form, the Verona faces a serious struggle. While bargain hunters may find its package of amenities enticing, we think they'd be better off with a four-cylinder sedan from one of the other manufacturers. That is, until Suzuki gives its midsize sedan some much needed retrofits.

Second Opinions:

Photography Editor Scott Jacobs says:
The Suzuki Verona is kind of a dark horse with a checkered past. It was brought to light for me by a fellow automotive journalist. OK, so it's sold as a Suzuki that's really manufactured by Daewoo, which is owned by GM, which partners with Suzuki, so it's brought to the U.S. as a Suzuki but sold as a Daewoo in Canada. It's confusing, but that's the truth.

I drove our test vehicle around and was surprised by how much I liked it. Though it's marred by bland exterior styling reminiscent of the forgettable Taurus, it's a pretty well-rounded car packed with tons of features. The interior is reasonably aesthetically pleasing with extremely comfortable seats. Moving the seats along is an adequate inline 6 and it all rides on a pretty soft suspension. It's definitely comfortable and enjoyable, just not very sporty or inspiring.

To most people, the Verona will seem like a nice car, but that probably isn't enough of a reason to run out and get one. Well, when I consider the substantial 7-year/100,000-mile transferable warranty with roadside assistance to go along with the multitudes of creature comforts, the Verona gets a whole lot more attractive for its relatively low price point. It's a car that people should really consider, even if its background is a little blurry.

Road Test Coordinator Kelly Stennick says:
The Suzuki Verona was nearly left out of our comparison test. While it's already on sale in other parts of the world, it's a newcomer to the United States this year, and therefore, almost slipped below our radar.

Our local Suzuki PR rep worked hard to accommodate our last-minute request, and for that we're grateful. After staging it with the rest of our test cars for the group photo shoot, I found myself admitting that it wasn't bad. It has some idiosyncrasies that I could do without, such as its quirky shifter, but for the first midsize Suzuki sedan for the United States, I'd like to see it sell.

Stereo Evaluation: 2004 Suzuki Verona

System Score: 6.0

Ranking in test: Tied for seventh

Components: Like the Sonata, the Verona offers a decent listening experience given its low price of admission and limited speaker array. The speaker placement is a bit unusual in a car with just six of them. For starters, there's a tweeter tucked into each corner of the dash. This is a desirable arrangement that allows the diminutive speaker to fire sound up into the windshield glass, which then reflects it into the cabin — usually creating a nice soundstage. The other four speakers are 6.5-inch drivers mounted in each of the four doors. There are no speakers in the back deck.

The head unit is positioned in the middle of the center stack, underneath the climate controls — this isn't usually an advantageous setup, but it presents no real problems in the Verona. The unit itself is a little overloaded with features, but decent-size buttons, relatively wide spacing and a logical layout make it easy to figure out the basics. Secondary controls for volume and seek are mounted on the steering wheel. In addition to the expected bass, treble, balance and fade adjustments, the Verona offers a handful of auto equalizer settings ("jazz," "rock," "voice," "classic" and "pop"), as well as a "bass +" button that can either trump up the bass or kill it completely. We could take or leave this stuff, as neither the equalizer presets nor the "bass +" substantially improve the listening experience. Both a single CD player and a cassette deck are included as standard items, but there is no option to add a CD changer.

Performance: Despite the absence of rear deck speakers, this system turns in an acceptable performance. It plays surprisingly loud, and bass is well defined. Separation is decent, too, and most types of music sound fine in the Verona. Listen to it back-to-back with the top finishers in this test, and the Suzuki's sound reproduction is sure to seem a bit flat. But considering the car's budget status, it's not bad.

Best Feature: Tweeters mounted on dash.

Worst Feature: No speakers in rear deck.

Conclusion: A respectable system in a car that's all about value. Just keep in mind that these days even an everyman's car like the Honda Accord LX offers great sound.

Ninth Place: 2004 Chrysler Sebring

The leaders of the family sedan segment are bigger, faster and more luxurious than ever before, and with all of them gathered for this comparison test, there was little room for weakness in the rest of the pack. Introduced for 2001 as a successor to the Cirrus, the Chrysler Sebring and its corporate twin, the Dodge Stratus, have always come across as slightly-above-average family sedans that are sold at sensible prices. Not the best, but still solid buys if you're on a budget. In this test, though, it was obvious to us that these cars have aged rapidly in the last three years and will need an overhaul if Chrysler intends to keep them from slipping off the buying public's radar.

Most of the Sebring's failings are in the cabin, where you'll find a drab overall design that gives the car a distinct rental car feel. A classy set of gauges with blue-green backlighting lets you know you're not in a Dodge, but corporate-issue switchgear and black plastic panels (that clash with the two-tone taupe color scheme) assure you that this car is nothing special. Low-grade materials and slipshod build quality bolster that impression. The suede/leather seat upholstery wasn't bad, but the cheap adjustable vents, rough-edged plastics, mismatched grain patterns and misaligned (and in some cases, loose) panels didn't sit well with us. What's more, panel misfits were also noticeable on the exterior of the car

On a practical level, the Chrysler Sebring had the least comfortable backseat of the group. Legroom is adequate, but there's no room to slide your feet under the front chairs and a low bench forces adults to adopt a splayed-leg seating position. Back support is marginal, and designers made absolutely no provision for head rests as the back cushion is straight across the top.

Meanwhile, storage space in the cabin is almost nonexistent — small door bins, small center console container, small glovebox and just one rear map pocket. Cupholders are small and ill-prepared for anything larger than a 12-ounce soda can; the pair in front is crammed under the center stack. Details are important in today's family sedans, and now that Honda has installed bottle holders in the doors and Toyota has created the perfect receptacle for kids' juice boxes, this lack of attention to families' needs can't be overlooked.

The rest of the interior is average. The cockpit isn't overly spacious, but the wide front seats are nicely contoured and offer decent cushioning. The steering wheel tilts but does not telescope. The manual climate controls aren't much to look at, but they're simple to use. There's no separate function for recirculated air, though, so you've got to switch to "max A/C" when you pull up behind a diesel truck. The stereo head unit doesn't offer the best ergonomics, but a full-featured auxiliary set of controls mounted on the back of the steering wheel spokes makes it easy to go from your favorite CD to the latest news report without taking your hands off the wheel.

Trunk capacity is second only to the Camry at 16 cubic feet and the lid is suspended by externally mounted gas struts. This is a nice feature, but the struts, along with the car's smartly creased tail design, make for a small trunk opening with a high lift-over height. Underneath the cargo floor you'll find a full-size spare tire.

Our well-optioned LXi test vehicle included eight of the 12 features we consider most important for a family sedan as either standard or optional equipment. Of course, Chrysler no longer offers the Sebring in LXi trim (our test car was a very early 2004 model), but you can get an almost identically equipped car by going with a Touring Platinum or Limited model. The Touring Platinum, in particular, runs up a bill of just $23,700 when optioned up to the level of our LXi — a much more realistic price than our test car's $26,375 sticker.

It doesn't cost much to add front and rear side curtain airbags to the Sebring (conventional seat-mounted side airbags aren't available), and given that the car earned a mediocre three stars out of five for side-impact protection, they're a worthwhile addition. The car earned a perfect five stars in government frontal impact testing along with a somewhat less impressive "Acceptable" rating (second-best on a scale of four) in IIHS frontal offset crash testing.

Driving the Sebring revealed a lightweight, nimble family sedan with unusually strong brakes, an unrefined engine and a noisy ride. Small in displacement for this class, the Chrysler's 2.7-liter V6 is rated for 200 horsepower and 190 pound-feet of torque, but out on the road it feels like much less than that, even with only one person in the car. Low-end response is weak, though the V6 livens up when revved, giving the Sebring respectable passing power. Trouble is, the standard four-speed automatic transmission is slow to downshift, and the driver must ultimately plan ahead for lane changes with the same care he would in a four-cylinder sedan. Throughout the experience, the engine serenades the driver with a loud whine that grated on the nerves of all who drove the Sebring.

Ride quality is smooth enough for most everyday driving, but it isn't as comfortable or refined as that of most of the other sedans in the group. "The suspension crashed pretty hard over a big bump, sending a loud shudder through the cabin," one editor wrote in his evaluation. Additionally, the Sebring was susceptible to higher levels of wind and road noise compared with its peers. Handling was one of the more enjoyable aspects of the car. Body roll was evident around corners, but the suspension held on with unexpected tenacity, giving the car a predictable, responsive feel. The steering aided in the sensation of mild sportiness — despite its lack of quickness and road feel, it was nicely weighted.

Braking proved to be one of the Sebring's greatest strengths. You wouldn't necessarily know that from the car's braking performance in everyday situations, as the brake pedal is soft and lacking in progression. Editors called their performance "adequate" but didn't think the brakes had an overly confident feel. Instrumented testing told a somewhat different story, as our test car recorded the shortest stop from 60 mph of all the cars in the test, coming in at just under 118 feet.

Even with its few advantages in braking and handling, the Sebring is destined for the shadows of the family sedan segment unless Chrysler takes action. The very fact that there are 10 cars in this comparison test is proof that buyers have plenty to choose from in 2004. That being the case, we don't see any reason to settle for one with a lackluster interior and an ill-tempered drivetrain.

Second Opinions:

Senior Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says:
Chrysler may have recently updated this sedan, but it's going to take more than just a few minor updates to keep it competitive with the front-runners in this category. I've always thought the overall exterior design was a good mix of old and new, but these days it's starting to look just plain old. The interior is especially antiquated with its very average-looking plastics and low-quality leather, although I did find the gauges uniquely attractive.

From a driving dynamics standpoint, it's a solid sedan with predictable handling, a smooth ride and excellent brakes. Compared to the big-bore V6s of the import cars, the Sebring's smallish six feels anemic if not exceedingly smooth. The transmission lags behind your foot more often than not and the Autostick is of limited value, but for the most part the drivetrain is capable but uninspiring. Such traits used to be par for the course in this category, but now they land you in the back half of the pack. If you're looking for a bargain and not much more, the Chrysler Sebring won't disappoint, but up against the front-runners it just feels like it needs another refresh.

Road Test Coordinator Kelly Stennick says:
The exterior styling of the Chrysler Sebring makes me want to like this car. Our test car was a deep midnight blue, and coupled with the shiny chrome wide-winged Chrysler badge, the exterior offered classy good looks.

After climbing into the cabin, I was still hopeful, wanting to think the best about Chrysler's midsize sedan offering. The seats were comfortable enough, but the interior materials weren't equal to those of other cars in the test, especially the Japanese competitors, and the controls seemed somewhat antiquated alongside some of the recently redesigned sedans. The plastic wood trim gave the interior some color, but too many hard plastic surfaces didn't offer the comforting feel one hopes to find on a long commute home. To the Sebring's credit, both front and rear seats were spacious, although the rear-seat passengers suffered from no headrests and a wimpy center armrest.

After taking the Sebring out for spin on both canyon roads and freeway stretches, I just couldn't find anything positive to report. The brakes seemed to fade quickly, not inspiring much confidence in reducing speed before going into a tight corner, and the transmission's upshifts seemed noisy and jerky when accelerating at the exit of the turn. The engine also emitted a low whine that went undiagnosed.

While I strongly believe that Chrysler is turning out some of the most attractive vehicles in the market, I can't help but wish that their beauty was more than skin deep.

Stereo Evaluation: 2004 Chrysler Sebring

System Score: 5.0

Ranking in test: Tenth

Components: Our LXi sedan would ordinarily have come with just four speakers and a single CD player, but adding the Luxury Group supplied two additional speakers, a 120-watt amplifier, an in-dash six-disc CD changer and a cassette deck. The "in-dash" aspect of the changer is debatable, as it's recessed underneath the center stack and is not within easy reach from the driver seat. Also, said one editor, "Every time the stereo turns on, the CD changer makes an annoying clicking noise — even if the stereo's in FM mode."

The head unit is the standard Chrysler-issue variety, and that means small buttons, simple slide controls for bass and treble adjustment and a two-step presetting procedure for radio stations that never fails to irritate the radio diehards on staff. We have found, though, that these controls become familiar over time. We were fortunate in that our Sebring had Chrysler's industry-leading satellite stereo controls: Adjustments for volume, seek and mode are on the back of the steering wheel, which might not seem like the best place for them. However, they're ultimately very easy to navigate by memory and touch, and the best part is that you don't have to remove your hands from the wheel to use them.

The speaker array includes a pair of tweeters mounted on the dash (allowing their sonic output to reflect off the glass), a pair of 6.5-inch drivers in the front doors and a pair of 6-by-9s in the rear deck. Incidentally, the rearmost speakers weren't covered in the usual speaker cloth and instead had been carpeted over with the rest of the bulkhead — this can't be good for sound quality.

Performance: The listening experience is mediocre at best. Although bass response and separation are respectable at lower volumes, the system quickly loses its composure as the volume increases and distortion sets in. Beyond that, this stereo lacks the overall crispness and warmth of the higher-finishing stereos in this test.

Best Feature: Auxiliary stereo controls mounted on back of steering wheel spokes.

Worst Feature: Mediocre sound quality.

Conclusion: Other Chrysler vehicles give buyers the option of getting an Infinity audio system on the higher trims. Too bad the company hasn't seen fit to offer such a system for the Sebring sedan. As it is, we know plenty of Dodge Grand Caravans that rock harder than this family sedan.

Eighth Place: 2003 Hyundai Sonata

Most of the sedans in this test priced out around $26,000; the Hyundai Sonata costs less than $19,000. This fact alone should tell you that Hyundai is after a different sort of buyer — the buyer who wants to put a cap on spending without giving up a V6 engine or basic comfort and safety features. This is much of the same territory that Hyundai's value-packed Elantra attempts to cover among economy sedans, but as we found in this test, the Sonata doesn't have quite the same success at it in the family sedan segment.

Since the Sonata was the least expensive car in the test, it immediately earned a perfect score of 1012 features we consider most important in a family sedan; and three others were available as options. Getting a high-line LX model in place of our midgrade GLS tester wouldn't have helped much, either, as it would have gained only a few additional points for its power driver seat on our list. Meanwhile, the Sonata's performance in instrumented testing was mediocre, and it wasn't a car editors were eager to put in their own driveways or recommend to a friend.

Doesn't sound very promising, does it? Well, in the days of big horsepower and near-luxury interiors in family sedans, the Hyundai Sonata is indeed outmatched. But it does have a few advantages, namely a refined engine, a soft ride, well-designed storage areas in the cabin and Hyundai's generous warranty coverage. Together these won't be enough to dissuade you from buying a Honda Accord, or any of the other cars that finished in the top half, but they may take some of the sting out of settling for a less expensive car.

Like the Malibu, the Sonata makes do with a bland interior populated with anonymous-looking gauges and controls. "It seems like a much older vehicle than it really is," one editor said. Generous use of fabric inserts on the door panels and felt liners in storage areas at least give it a cozy atmosphere. Materials quality is somewhat below average. Grain patterns clash in several areas, and soft-touch surfaces are hard to come by — even the upper dash is hard plastic. Compared to the other imports, the controls have a slightly brittle, flimsy feel. On the plus side, the headliner feels sturdy, and the smattering of fake wood is reasonably attractive. Build quality wasn't too bad, either, as a handful of misaligned interior panels were the only blemishes on an otherwise solidly constructed car.

Up front, the Sonata's flat driver seat offers passable comfort for short trips but lacks the cushioning and support found in the top finishers in this test — and would likely be less comfortable on long trips. Seat controls are all manual in the GLS model, but two-way tilt for the seat bottom ensures adequate thigh support.

In back, the quarters are a bit tight for adults. Limited legroom and foot room are the main problems, as our tallest editor said he had enough headroom. The cushioning is surprisingly soft and Camry-like back there, and the bench is deep enough and high enough to support passengers' thighs. Adjustable head restraints are provided in the outboard positions.

The Sonata protects its front occupants with standard seat-mounted side airbags, but full-length head curtain airbags are not available. The Hyundai earned four out of five stars in all government front- and side-impact crash tests, along with an "Acceptable" rating (the second highest on a scale of four) in IIHS frontal offset crash testing.

The controls were a mixed batch. No one complained about the manual climate controls, but the stereo head unit presented us with a collection of small buttons, while offering neither a two-way seek button nor a tuning knob. Everything else was simple enough, though a few editors noted the inconvenient placement of the power switch for the cruise control on the left side of the dash.

Despite its low-buck status, the Hyundai Sonata offers plenty of compartments for family members to stow their personal effects. The list includes a two-tier center console container; a large, fully lined glovebox; a handy rubber-lined well under the center stack; a change drawer with a neat gradual release mechanism; and a nifty ticket holder on the driver sun visor. Rear passengers aren't left out, as the fold-down armrest offers a spacious home for itinerant action figures. Unfortunately, the cupholder situation isn't as good, as the two in front max out with regular-size drinks. Trunk capacity isn't impressive, either, but the lid is held up by external gas struts and the cargo hold includes a power point and a nicely finished trunk mat.

The Hyundai offers a mostly tepid driving experience. Its 2.7-liter V6 is rated for 170 horsepower and 181 pound-feet of torque, and it was about as fast as the Passat in instrumented acceleration testing. Out on public roads, though, the Sonata felt slower, as its engine had little to work with until it had revved to about 3,500 rpm. After that point, the lethargy ceased and the Hyundai offered ample highway passing power. The engine was quiet at cruise, and drivers preferred it to the slightly faster Sebring's due to its greater refinement.

Our test vehicle came with a four-speed automatic transmission (your only choice for 2004) with an automanual mode. The transmission shifted smoothly but was slow on the draw with downshifts. This hesitation was particularly noticeable when a quick burst of speed was needed to catch an opening in traffic.

Ride quality is soft and perfectly acceptable for commuting. Ruts and metal plates tended to upset the chassis a little more than in most of the other cars. When we took a short detour on a two-lane road, the suspension gave up plenty of body roll as the car rounded turns, and the light steering offered little precision or feedback from the road. This is definitely not a car you'll wish to drive aggressively, though it did feel more confident and responsive than the Verona. Brake feel wasn't bad, and stopping distances were decent in everyday driving. In instrumented testing, the Sonata's shortest stop from 60 mph was 132 feet, which is acceptable but ultimately below average in this field.

There's no denying that cars are expensive these days, and if you have to put a $20,000 limit on your next new car purchase, there are certainly worse choices than the Sonata, which covers all the basics. If you can spend a bit more, though, check out some of the higher finishers in this test. You'll be glad you did.

Second Opinions:

Photo Editor Scott Jacobs says:
I think that the Sonata is the culmination of efforts by Hyundai to beat the bad rap some of the Korean car manufacturers left here on American shores in recent memory. The ill-fated efforts of contemporaries like Daewoo and Hyundai's previous shaky track record soured consumers on Korean cars with suspect construction and questionable reliability.

To wipe that history slate clean, our Sonata carried an impressively comprehensive and lengthy warranty, which is an important selling point that overshadows every other aspect of this vehicle. Shoppers who make the most of their vehicles should definitely stand up and take notice. No other manufacturer comes close to matching it. It says to me that Hyundai is serious about its cars, its customers and its place in the American market.

I found the styling and driving characteristics to be middle-of-the-road. The Sonata is packed with plenty of plastic, OK aesthetics and a numb driving experience overall. It does just about everything well, but falls short of impressive. But when I took its very low price point into consideration, I really started to gain a new perspective and liked what the Sonata had to offer.

Every shopper has to weigh the pros and cons of their options. Though the family sedan circus is a crowded affair dominated by some heavy hitters in the center ring, people on a tight budget should really look to the Sonata for its immense value.

Road Test Coordinator Kelly Stennick says:
Korean cars are certainly taking leaps and bounds toward a finish line called respect, but they aren't exactly into the home stretch. Hyundai's current lineup is working on its image problem, but improvement is still necessary in regards to design — both inside and out. The Hyundai Sonata looks like a car that was penned 10 years ago. Nice, but not exactly stirring drivers' imaginations. If it was a domestic car, it'd be a Buick.

Its technology seems equally out-of-date, an example being the annoying chime that signals that a door is ajar. All of the necessary features are present, but none of them are tuned to impress. The stereo reminded me of an old aftermarket setup. The steering seemed light, and while I felt safe cruising around town, it certainly wouldn't be the first car I'd choose for a challenging drive. The engine also seemed loud and slow to deliver power, and the noticeable road noise became an irritant.

Does the mere fact that it's Korean make a difference to me? Would I feel differently about the Sonata if I was blindfolded before climbing inside? Maybe. But as I can tell German interiors from Asian ergonomics, I believe that running a hand over the dash, old-fashioned controls and economical materials would give the Hyundai away.

Stereo Evaluation: 2003 Hyundai Sonata

System Score: 6.0

Ranking in Test: Tied for seventh

Components: Much like the Malibu, the Sonata offers a basic system that performs acceptably and should not disappoint the typical buyer — all the more true in this car, which is priced less than $19,000.

The head unit isn't much to look at, and although it's placed high in the dash, an excessive number of buttons makes it harder to use than necessary. The addition of a tuning knob and double-sided seek button (rather than two separate buttons) would be a big improvement, and it would free up space for a larger display. Besides bass and treble adjustments, the head unit has preset equalizer curves for "jazz," "classic" and "rock."

Both a single-disc CD player and a cassette deck are included here as standard equipment. A CD changer is not on the factory options list, but the head unit is obviously set up to accommodate a trunk-mounted changer that your dealer would install. Radio listeners get the usual 18 presets.

Speakers consist of a pair of 6-by-9s in the rear deck, a pair 6.5-inch drivers mounted in the front doors and a tweeter tucked behind each A-pillar.

Performance: Considering the price of the car, performance is quite satisfactory. The system plays loud and bass is strong if a bit sludgy at higher volumes. Separation is surprisingly good, as instrumental and vocal components are transmitted as distinct elements. Vocals and strings sound nice enough, but they seem a bit hollow when compared to the output of the elite stereos in this test.

Best Feature: Balanced sound quality for the price paid.

Worst Feature: Excess buttons on head unit.

Conclusion: The Sonata's stereo was no match for the more powerful sound systems in this test, but given the car's comparatively low price, we think most buyers will be satisfied with its performance in their everyday travels. That said, serious audiophiles should look elsewhere.

Seventh Place: 2004 Chevrolet Malibu

Like its predecessor, the redesigned 2004 Chevrolet Malibu is the best car General Motors makes in this price range. It's roomy and comfortable on the inside, pleasant to drive by most accounts and more powerful than its relatively modest 200-horsepower rating would suggest. Furthermore, most of the surfaces human hands are likely to contact in the cabin are soft to the touch, and the doors open and close with a sturdiness typically associated with its foreign-brand competitors. In short, this is the closest Chevrolet and GM have ever come to building a family sedan that Accord and Camry buyers might actually be willing to test-drive.

But as the Malibu's seventh-place finish makes clear, there's still work to be done before buyers can drive home in a Chevy without feeling that they've made some compromises. The biggest issues facing the Malibu are its uninspired cabin furnishings and Chevrolet's continued lack of success in hiding cost-cutting measures.

Editors found the Chevrolet Malibu's interior design functional, but certainly not upscale like the interiors of the Accord, Camry and Passat or even trendy like the Mazda 6's or Galant's. Instead, there were comments about the Chevrolet's "rental car look and feel." Taupe and beige tones dominate the cabin, and a few subtle curves in the dash and some faux aluminum trim are the only breaks in the monotony. The steering wheel invites the driver to take hold of its thick grip, but once seated you find yourself staring into perhaps the smallest, most generic set of gauges this side of $20,000.

If you can get past the styling, you'll see that Chevrolet's designers did at least have a handle on the basics — the Malibu has great seats. Head-, shoulder and hiproom are plentiful in both the front and rear, and all outboard positions have adjustable head restraints. There's even a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel for the driver and adjustable pedals. Legroom in the backseat was ample for our six-foot-plus editor, but cars like the Altima and Camry offer a bit more room to stretch out. In exchange for the slightly cozier feel, the Malibu's rear passengers will enjoy a deeply dished bench that provides excellent thigh support, as well as an abundance of foot room under the front chairs.

Cushioning is soft throughout the car, and most editors found the seats very comfortable. One driver did report, however, that the flat driver seat bottom was the cause of a sore tailbone. Also of note is the lack of a fold-down center armrest in the backseat. Even though they might not have a place to rest an arm, passengers will be well protected as the LT model comes standard with front and rear head curtain airbags (optional on lower trims). Oddly, though, GM chose not to include the more common seat-mounted side airbags that provide torso protection for front occupants.

The control layout in the Malibu is generally straightforward, though there are too many small buttons — particularly on the stereo head unit — to provide the instant familiarity that you get in a Honda or Toyota. Secondary stereo controls on the steering wheel helped simplify things a bit, though, and we were pleased to find the cruise control buttons here as well (along with separate control stalks for the wipers and turn signals). Our LT model came standard with Chevrolet's new remote start feature, and we can report that it works as advertised: Press a button on the keyless remote while standing at a distance (GM claims the maximum range is 200 feet) and the engine comes to life, allowing you to get a head start on warming up the car on cold mornings.

Materials quality was about average for this class and no real step down from what you'll find in either the Altima or the Galant. Editors liked the leather and faux suede seat upholstery as well as the leatherlike grain pattern of the soft-touch material on the upper dash. Elsewhere, we found low-grade vinyl and plastic that did not contribute to a sense of quality craftsmanship. Also disappointing was the rubber used on the center armrest and door grips, which caught and pulled on the hairs of one editor's arm.

Although our test vehicle had a generally solid feel, closer examination revealed that it did in fact have a few build quality issues — some misaligned interior panels, rough edges on plastics and an unfinished headliner that was frayed at the edges. The flimsy sunroof cover and sun visor extenders moved in a jerky fashion, suggesting themselves as imminent additions to the casualty list. Drivers also noted an annoying rattle from the passenger side of the car. On the outside, though, the body panels fit together tightly, and the only lapse we noted was a slightly misaligned rear bumper.

In-cabin storage space is decent, as the Malibu offers the essential receptacles — average-size door bins, a large single-tier console container, a small glovebox and rear map pockets. A larger storage area under the center stack and a pair of rear door bins would be welcome additions, as would a larger set of cupholders. When it's time to haul larger cargo, the Malibu is one of the most capable cars in its class, as it offers a spacious trunk and both a split-folding rear seat and a folding front-passenger seat. Our only complaint here involves the trunk lid's exposed metal hinges, which take up valuable luggage space.

Driving the Chevy Malibu was more enjoyable than most of us expected, thanks mainly to the car's well-tuned suspension and 3.5-liter V6 engine that overcomes its unimpressive horsepower output and low-tech design. The Chevy couldn't hang with the leaders during instrumented acceleration testing, but in real-world driving, it easily had enough low- and midrange torque to satisfy editors and proved quite capable of catching the openings in heavy freeway traffic. Refinement wasn't a strong point compared to the import V6s, but the engine settled down nicely at highway cruising speeds — and with ample insulation from wind and road noise, this made for a quiet cabin.

An astute four-speed automatic transmission makes the most of the available power, and should you wish to take matters into your own hands, there's an "L" mode that allows the driver to toggle manually between the first three gears via a rocker-style button on the gear selector. The Malibu has the highest EPA mileage estimates of any car in this test with its 23 city/32 highway rating.

Ride quality is soft and comfortable for the benefit of commutes, but take the car around a few corners and you'll find that the suspension holds on nicely — inspiring confidence in the driver. The Malibu is no sport sedan, but should you veer onto a winding back road, you might actually enjoy yourself. Unfortunately, the car's electronically controlled steering rack diminishes the entertainment potential by providing too much power assist most of the time, making the Malibu feel a bit clumsy.

The weakest link in the package is surely the brakes. The Malibu was the only car in this comparison test with rear drum brakes, and it needed over 140 feet to stop from 60 mph during instrumented testing. This put it in last place in this category — a significant feat when you consider that the Altima turned into a shorter stop without the benefit of ABS. Most editors were content with the braking performance in everyday driving, but one driver felt that the pedal was unnecessarily stiff and tricky to modulate. Chevrolet has since made four-wheel disc brakes standard on LT models, which should improve stopping distances (other Malibus retain the front disc/rear drum setup).

It's not exactly encouraging when a freshly redesigned car finishes seventh of 10, but the generally capable Chevrolet Malibu is proof that GM is beginning to understand what resolute import buyers want in a family sedan. Until the company gets serious about offering high-quality interiors, though, Honda and Toyota have nothing to fear.

Second Opinions:

Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says:
Like the Mitsubishi Galant, the Chevrolet Malibu caught much of the staff off guard. Yeah, sure, it was a complete redesign. And the various GM factions were touting the car as a symbol of the "new GM" that will produce world-class vehicles to compete with the best from Europe and Japan. But we've heard all this before, so why should this vehicle be any different?

Happily, the Malibu is different. It rides on the same Epsilon platform that underpins the new Saab 9-3, and while it isn't as nimble as its Swedish cousin, it does offer a level of driving dynamics not previously seen in a mainstream Chevrolet sedan. The steering feel is reassuringly hefty without being unnecessarily heavy, and body motions are well controlled despite the car's considerable weight. It's no Mazda 6 or (new) Mitsubishi Galant, but taking the Malibu on a drive down a tight canyon road can be entertaining, if not downright thrilling. The V6 engine is similarly more appealing than its spec numbers would indicate. In today's world of 245-horsepower family sedans, the Malibu's 200 hp sounds barely adequate, but in reality this car launches from a dead stop with authority (and tire spin if you aren't careful).

Despite the Malibu's unexpected performance in terms of acceleration and handling, it was the car's overall build quality that had me checking the emblem in the grille. As soon as I pulled on the exterior door handle I knew something was up. I've always admired how Honda can transmit a sense of quality through the simple act of opening a door. When I first opened the Malibu's door, I was struck (actually, dumbstruck) by that same feeling. But not everything about the Malibu is as refined and polished as Honda's Accord. The exterior mirrors, for instance, still shudder as they power into position (the Accord's are smooth as silk) and some of the interior surfaces made me think of our long-term Saturn Vue (never a good thing). But this is the first non-Corvette Chevrolet car I've driven that made me think, "Yeah, I could own one of these and have few, if any, regrets."

Senior Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says:
There's no doubt that GM stepped it up a notch with this new Malibu. The interior build quality is far superior to anything else to come out of Chevrolet in a long time and the level of chassis refinement has been noticeably upgraded over previous Malibus. The engine noise is less intrusive, the seats are more comfortable and even the size is just about right. So why am I not impressed?

The interior is still a major letdown. They figured out how to bolt it all together correctly but they're still using too many drab plastic parts and an uninspired design. The gauges hardly look different from the previous model and the center stack still fails to look like that of anything more than just an average family sedan. This wouldn't be much of a problem, but when some of its competitors look like near-luxury sedans for the same price, the Malibu looks just plain old in comparison.

Then there's the ride and handling which, for the most part, is well suited to typical driving. But compared to some of the other cars in this test, the Malibu felt considerably bigger and heavier despite the fact that it is most often neither one of the two. The electric steering system never seems to get the level of assistance just right, and the brakes don't feel as if they have much in reserve.

The Malibu is a mostly competent sedan with a solid drivetrain and plenty of room throughout. But when you can get all that and an interior that makes you feel like you paid a few thousand more, the Chevrolet Malibu loses much of its luster.

Stereo Evaluation: 2004 Chevrolet Malibu

System Score: 6.0

Ranking in Test: Tied for seventh

Components: Considering that it's fully redesigned for 2004, the Malibu has a pretty basic sound system. LS and LT models come standard with a six-speaker stereo with no option to add more speakers or a more powerful amplifier. That being the case, this is still an acceptable stereo for this class, and value-minded buyers should be happy with it.

The head unit is well-organized, but it's cluttered with numerous small buttons that are somewhat off-putting alongside the large, simple controls in cars like the Accord and Galant. The display employs a basic blue, dot-matrix-type font that isn't particularly modern or legible in appearance. Steering wheel controls are provided for volume and seek functions, and they're simple to use.

Our LT test vehicle was equipped with the optional in-dash six-disc CD changer as well as XM Satellite Radio. Loading CDs into the changer was no more difficult than in other cars, but this one made an inordinate amount of noise when loading or unloading CDs. We've never experienced anything like this in other GM vehicles with CD changers, so we're not sure what the problem was. In any case, this changer gave us the impression that durability would not be its strong suit. A cassette player is not available on any Malibu. Eighteen presets are provided for radio listeners. Auto sound leveling and Radio Data System (RDS) technology are also included.

The speaker array includes a pair of 6-by-9s in the rear deck, 6.5-inch drivers in the front doors and a 1-inch tweeter mounted just behind each A-pillar.

Performance: There's nothing thrilling about this system compared to the higher-finishing stereos in this test, but it gets the job done. Bass response is strong, though it gets a bit sludgy at higher volumes. Separation is decent, too, as highs, lows and mids are distinct. Just don't expect the warmth and accuracy of a Bose, Infinity or Monsoon system.

Best Feature: Strong bass.

Worst Feature: Busy head unit, unrefined CD changer operation.

Conclusion: GM loves to play up the fact that its full-size pickups and SUVs were the first in their segments to offer Bose stereos. Given that the Malibu is supposed to be the car that changes the company's fortunes in the family sedan segment, it's puzzling that GM isn't offering an optional Bose system that would allow it to go toe-to-toe with the imports.

Sixth Place: 2004 Mitsubishi Galant

Ever test-driven a Mitsubishi Galant when shopping for a family sedan? We suspect that most of you have not. But for 2004, Mitsubishi has given the Accord-Camry crowd reason to take this small-time player seriously. Much like Nissan's Altima, the formerly undersized and underpowered Galant has grown into one of the roomiest and most powerful cars in its class.

Alas, the Galant's midpack finish tells you this still isn't the perfect family sedan. Most notably, our loaded GTS test vehicle was missing several key features — you won't find full-length side curtain airbags, a folding rear seat, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel or a grocery net for the trunk anywhere on the window sticker. In addition, the quality of some of the interior materials is mediocre. And although the Galant's cabin is spacious, other sedans offer more comfortable rear-seat accommodations and better storage provisions. These issues, along with middle-of-the-road personal and recommended ratings from editors, were enough to drop the Mitsubishi to sixth place.

Without question, the driving experience is the best thing about the Galant. For starters, there's the large displacement 3.8-liter V6 that produces enough torque off the line to push you back into the driver seat. Rated for 230 horsepower and a class-leading 250 pound-feet of torque, the engine is easily a match for the Altima's 3.5-liter; the two sedans turned in almost identical acceleration times during instrumented testing. If the Galant dropped a few pounds (it weighed 400 pounds more than the Altima and was the heaviest car in the test), there's little doubt that it would have had broken away from its rival. A slimmer Galant would also be likely to return better gas mileage numbers; the car's 18 mpg city estimate was the lowest of the group.

On public roads, the Mitsubishi accelerates with ease at any speed and is right at home in cutthroat freeway environments. The engine can't match the quiet, refined demeanor of a Honda or Toyota V6. It also has a huskier tone than the Altima's and tends to drone a bit on the highway. It's all a matter of what you like, really — if you're looking for performance, this one won't disappoint.

A four-speed automatic transmission is standard on all Galants, and our test car's tranny could always be counted upon to execute sharp, well-timed shifts. Mitsubishi has included an automanual gate, and the driver has full control over shift points in this mode (save for the delays between gear selection and actual engagement). The one thing Mitsubishi doesn't offer is a manual transmission option — not a big deal if you're an Accord or Camry buyer, but it's something you can get on sporting peers like the Altima and Mazda 6.

Expert suspension tuning makes the Mitsubishi Galant everybody's friend: The car rides softly enough to coddle weekday commuters yet is able to maintain a tight level of composure when the road turns twisty. Only the sedan's large size and weight keep it from feeling as nimble as a Mazda 6, and as one editor wrote, "It feels big until you start throwing it around, then it gets small in a hurry."

The steering doesn't communicate with the driver in the same way that the Mazda's does, but the Galant's rack is nonetheless well weighted and quick to respond to input. The brake pedal operates in a progressive manner, and there's ample power to bring this heavyweight to a quick stop.

Inside, Mitsubishi has attempted to set the Galant apart from the crowd through liberal use of faux aluminum trim and large white-faced analog gauges that, along with the other controls, light up in the brightest of blue hues at night. While not everyone on our staff was wild about the results, the ensemble does give the Mitsu a distinct flavor far preferable to the comparatively bland cabin of the Malibu. Moreover, our test car's black interior was a much better complement for the "cool metals" look than the blond interior of the Galant we tested previously.

As in the Altima, materials quality is hit or miss. The soft-touch upper dash and leather upholstery have a quality look and feel, but the thin plastics on the lower dash, console and door panels need work. Our early preproduction tester also had some build issues, including a disintegrating front-passenger door and some misaligned panels. Two other '04 Galants we've examined had no such problems, though, so we'll cautiously write this off as an isolated case.

The front seats are broad and extremely well cushioned, so much so that "it's like sitting on a good couch," one editor said. Although some people might prefer more in the way of firm bolstering, our drivers found these to be some of the more comfortable seats in the test. Complaints include the absence of padding on the center armrest and the lack of telescopic adjustment for the steering wheel.

In back, the accommodations are as roomy as those of the Accord, Altima and Camry, and indeed, our tallest editor reported that he had adequate headroom and legroom. As in the front, the cushioning is quite soft, and optimal bench height and depth assure excellent thigh support. Unfortunately, Mitsubishi didn't see through all the details; there's no place to rest an elbow on the hard plastic door panels, nor are there adjustable head restraints to keep taller passengers comfortable on long trips. Beyond that, the entry process can be a little more difficult in the Galant than in some other sedans — the rear doors don't open wide enough, one editor reported, after twisting and turning her daughter's car seat to get it into the backseat. We were also puzzled by the lack of grab handles (the Galant was the only car in the test that didn't have them).

We found most of the Galant's controls easy to use, thanks to the designers' preference for large dials, knobs and buttons. As in the Mazda 6, the stereo and climate controls appear as one unit, but subtly different dial designs and color coding for temperature adjustment help prevent confusion between the two. Additionally, there's an intuitive set of auxiliary stereo controls on the back of the steering wheel spokes. What we're not sure about is the separate multipurpose display positioned at the top of the dash. The idea is that it puts all of the relevant information at eye level, but in practice the Accord's larger, center stack-mounted display seems easier to read at a glance.

Storage space is limited for a family sedan, with little else in the front besides average-size door bins, an average-size console container and a large glovebox. In the rear, provisions are limited to a single map pocket. Trunk capacity is just 13.3 cubic feet (the smallest of the group); this is offset somewhat by a large opening that allows you to get the most out of the available space.

Despite its sixth-place finish, the Galant's problems would be easy to fix. Replace a few of the questionable materials, add a few choice items to the features list and create a few more storage areas, and this car would be a serious challenger to the class leadership. In its current form, however, the Mitsu must settle for being a performance-oriented alternative (with comfy seats and a superb stereo) to the top-rated family sedans.

Second Opinions:

Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says:
It would appear that Mitsubishi has looked at its crosstown rival, Nissan, and concluded, "If you can't beat 'em, join em." Like the 2002 Altima, the 2004 Galant is better than the previous version in every way. It's larger (and heavier), it's more powerful, and its outer shell displays far more attitude than the outgoing model. Certainly I expected an improvement for the '04 model year — it was a complete redesign after all. But I didn't expect it to be this good (if these sentiments sound familiar, it's because we felt the exact same way about the 2002 Altima).

The new Galant's biggest advantage comes from its 3.8-liter V6 engine. This is the largest engine in the class, and not surprisingly, it was also the quickest in our acceleration tests; and it feels as torquey as the strong power plants in the Accord, Altima and Camry. The motor isn't quite as refined as a Honda or Toyota V6, but the underhood roar is more appealing than annoying (like in the Altima). Even more unexpected was the Galant's nimble demeanor when driven rapidly on a twisty road or through our slalom. Though heavier than Mazda's sporty 6, the Galant felt just as buttoned down and offered superb steering feedback. In this aspect, it beats the Nissan.

So it's got Altima-like horsepower and 6-like handling. Sounds like a segment leader, right? Not exactly. The interior materials still fall short in various areas (like, ummm…the Altima) and our preproduction model had major build-quality issues, though we'd like to think these will be addressed in final production versions. Some of the controls are a bit confusing as well, and not everyone is going to like the neon-blue instrument lighting (though most of our staff did). Still, this car offers a compelling combination of performance, style and all-around attitude. For those looking to break out of the Accord-Camry doldrums, you now have something else to test-drive…in addition to the Altima.

Senior Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says:
I liked this car the first time I drove it a few months ago, but in the end the interior just didn't do it for me. After driving it back-to-back with its competition, however, the Galant's abilities and style have grown on me. Taking it through the cones on the test track revealed a chassis that's as solid as any other sedan in the test, and its torque-rich power plant never fails to deliver a strong punch in the back when it's needed. Such traits make it a competent around-town errand runner and a comfortable long-distance touring sedan.

As far as the interior goes, there's still plenty of room for improvement. The materials are a step below Honda and Toyota and the overall look is more trendy than classy. There's plenty of room, easy-to-use controls and solid visibility, but overall I never warmed up to the Galant's cabin the same way I did with the Accord and Camry. Then again, I didn't have as much fun driving the Honda and Toyota as I did the Galant, so choosing one or the other might come down to priorities. If you're looking for a family sedan with more personality than refinement, the Mitsubishi Galant would make a fine choice, but more sensible minds are apt to prefer its more mainstream competitors.

Stereo Evaluation: 2004 Mitsubishi Galant

System Score: 10.0

Ranking in Test: First

Components: Aware of the new standard set in the family sedan class by the excellent Bose sound system in the Nissan Altima, Mitsubishi took pains to upgrade the Galant's premium stereo offering in the 2004 model. The result of the company's efforts is more than a match for the strong bass attack of the Altima's Bose, and we now consider it the stereo to beat in the family sedan segment.

This Infinity-branded setup came standard in our GTS test car, and it's optional on lower-line ES and LS models. A 270-watt amplifier feeds power to eight speakers, among them a pair of 6-by-9 full-range speakers in the rear deck, 6.3-inch full-range speakers in all four doors and 2.6-inch tweeters mounted at each corner of the dash firing upward into the glass. You'll find a six-disc CD changer in the dash, 12 FM radio presets and six AM presets, but no cassette player.

The head unit features large, easy-to-reach controls, including oversize volume and tuning knobs and a double-sided seek button. Additionally, thanks to Mitsubishi's relationship with Chrysler, you'll find the industry's best satellite audio controls mounted on the back of the steering wheel — you can't see them, but they sure are easy to use. Alongside the simple control layout, drivers must acclimate to a small display mounted at the top of the dash. The display is at least at eye level, and drivers can choose from four screens to organize the information (the display covers audio, climate, compass and clock functions). Still, we think a larger display would work better here.

Performance: This system is extremely well suited to this midsize sedan's cabin. Try as we might, we couldn't find a type of music that wasn't enjoyable to listen to on this stereo. The system plays loud, and bass tones are strong and crisp with no distortion. Highs are clean and refreshingly devoid of the trumped-up artificial sound present in some of today's systems. Even with the system's reliance on do-it-all full-range speakers, the separation is excellent — strings are distinct and warm whether you're listening to an orchestral score or hard rock.

Best Feature: Rich, crisp sound.

Worst Feature: Small all-in-one display at the top of the dash.

Conclusion: An excellent stereo that prioritizes refined sound quality over bludgeoning the occupants with bass.

Fifth Place: 2004 Volkswagen Passat

No family of cars has won more Edmunds.com comparison tests than the Volkswagen Passat (it's tied with the BMW 3 Series) — the V6 sedan has two wins under its belt, while the wagon and the entry-luxury W8 sedan have a win apiece. But the winning streak came to an end this time around, as the VW was unable to fend off a redesigned Accord, an all-new Mazda 6, a more powerful Camry and an ever fast and roomy Altima.

It made us a little sad to see the beloved car fall to fifth, even as it was the unanimous number-one pick for editors' personal driveways and a solid number two on our list of cars we would recommend to others. But when we looked at the high price of our GLX test vehicle ($31,540) alongside its modest engine performance, small backseat and minimal storage space, the result wasn't so surprising.

Even with its midpack finish, the Volkswagen Passat has many likable qualities that continue to make it a solid buy in this segment. One of these is a long list of standard features, as our test car came standard with 10 of the 12 features we consider most important in a family sedan — while offering bonuses like stability control and real wood trim.

Another is the VW's classy interior, which is still the most upscale of any family sedan on the market, and in the words of one editor, "a segment higher than the car really is." Our test vehicle wore a monochromatic black ensemble accented by chrome and walnut trim. The white-on-black gauges can be a little hard to read in daylight, but we love Volkswagen's signature blue and red nighttime illumination.

The materials used to construct the cabin have a premium feel that Honda and Toyota can't quite duplicate. The beautifully textured, soft-touch dash is complemented by matte-finish plastics and durable leather upholstery that exactly match its grain pattern. Leather inserts on the console, shifter and door panels are accompanied by neat stitching, giving them a finished appearance rather than a slapped-on look. As in the Accord and Camry, build quality was excellent, as everything inside the car felt perfectly solid. A slightly misaligned front bumper was the only build issue we noted.

Editors generally liked the Passat's front seats, which offer a generous amount of firm support to keep occupants comfortable on long trips, as well as 50,000 miles down the road in the ownership experience. You can thank VW for the Euro-style seats in the Mazda 6 and for inspiring Honda to improve the seats in the Accord. Also note that the Passat was the first family sedan to offer telescoping steering wheel adjustment, which you'll now find in the 6, Accord and Malibu. Another plus is the Passat's height-adjustable center armrest, which ratchets to the desired height. Nevertheless, there were a few complaints: One editor wrote that VW could stand to improve the shaping of its seats, while another reported that she wasn't able to adjust the articulating front head restraints to a comfortable position — always making her feel as if her head was being tipped forward.

Volkswagen is the master of nighttime illumination, as virtually every button in the car lights up in the dark. That, along with the Passat's high-quality switchgear and one-touch up-and-down front windows, adds to the luxury ambience. Unfortunately, VW designers have yet to work out all the ergonomics, as the single-zone automatic climate control system still had us fumbling around with its small buttons (and there's still no easy way to turn it off, either). Recent years have seen the company adopt a larger, double-DIN stereo head unit, and although there are still a lot of small, flat buttons, it's much easier to use than the previous undersized unit.

The Passat had one of the smaller backseats in our field of competitors. Volkswagen makes the most of the space by providing passengers seated back there with supportive, properly angled cushions, but the short seat bottoms and restricted toe room under the front chairs are immediately noticeable if you've just come from the Accord, Altima or Camry. Headroom and legroom are adequate, however, and the Passat offers adjustable headrests in all three positions and nicely padded door panels. Along with a full menu of airbags, this VW has a good reputation for occupant protection — a perfect five stars in frontal impact tests, four stars in side-impact tests and a top "Good" rating from the IIHS for its frontal offset crash test.

Trivial as they might seem, storage and cupholders are important in a family vehicle, and the Passat needs more of both. The car's major storage spaces — center console compartment, front door bins and glovebox — are nicely lined but not large enough to accommodate all the odds and ends that most people carry. A storage area of some kind in the dash would be a great help here. The front cupholders are conveniently located in the console but their usefulness is limited by their average size and shallow depth. The cupholders in the rear fold-down armrest are even less accommodating. In spite of the Passat's small overall size, its trunk capacity is average for this group at 15 cubic feet, and the fully lined lid is suspended by aluminum-finish external struts.

Out on the road, it's evident that the Passat's 190-horsepower, 2.8-liter V6 is now outgunned by most of the Japanese six-cylinders. The engine is as smooth-running as ever, but its modest amounts of low-end torque and high-end horsepower are all the more noticeable when the price tag exceeds $30,000. As on the Mazda 6 and Altima, buyers have the option of getting a manual transmission with the V6. Our test vehicle had the more popular five-speed automatic (with an automanual gate). Its smooth upshifts satisfied most editors, but one driver marked it down after noting a few not-so-smooth downshifts.

Where ride quality and handling are concerned, the Passat still has a great deal of poise. It rides comfortably enough to tame the longest commutes (aside from occasional suspension thwack over large ruts) while still feeling responsive and entertaining on curvy roads. Body roll is more pronounced than with cars like the Altima, Galant and Mazda 6, but the Passat is more forgiving than either the 6 or Altima and feels a bit smaller and nimbler than the Galant. The VW's steering is precise, perfectly weighted and surprisingly communicative for a family sedan — no car in this test did it better, except maybe the Mazda.

As a total package, though, the Volkswagen Passat is no longer the one to beat in the family sedan segment. Volkswagen has a redesign in the works, but the current Passat will suit those willing to give up some power, space, practicality and value to get a sedan that looks and feels like a luxury car.

Second Opinions:

Photography Editor Scott Jacobs says:
I don't think it's unfair to say the Volkswagen Passat is pretty much a staff favorite. It's a defending comparison test champ for good reason. It rolled over the competition with its combination of a refined interior, beautiful German styling and an all-around fun-to-drive personality. With it being relatively unchanged for this year, it seemed to be an automotive force to be reckoned with.

That was until most of its major competitors got complete revamps, including the Honda Accord which is the de facto king of the segment since it's universally looked to as the benchmark for family sedans. After driving the Passat back-to-back with the Accord and Toyota Camry, it doesn't seem to have the advantages it so clearly had for me in our last comparison. The Camry's V6 has way more oomph, and the Honda's interior has grown by leaps and bounds in terms of style, class and interior materials quality. The once-superior Volkswagen interiors (which to me are huge selling points for this segment) have met their match in terms of aesthetics and feel. OK, so the Accord isn't as fun to drive and the Toyota isn't as pretty, but I think the margins of pros and cons have become very narrow.

When I sit back and think about which car offers what, I don't feel the Passat is the clear-cut winner anymore. The Toyota offers a spunky engine and an excellent track record of reliability, and the Honda offers an all-around excellent package along with the availability of a sporty coupe, while the Passat offers great looks and sporty handling. Furthermore, the Passat is easily the most expensive of the bunch (by a four-grand margin). When I look at all these factors, I think I'd prefer to save myself some cash, go with a company with a great track record for reliability and get the Accord for its overall package. Once people learn what you're about, good looks will only get you so far.

Stereo Evaluation: 2004 Volkswagen Passat

System Score: 8.0

Ranking in Test: Tied for third

Components: Volkswagen was one of the first manufacturers to put a high-quality sound system in its family car, and this Monsoon stereo has served the Passat well. Even in the days of thundering bass in family sedans, it remains one of the better stereos in this class.

Volkswagen has tinkered with the ergonomics over the years, finally settling on our test car's double-DIN head unit. The various buttons and knobs still aren't very large, and there could certainly be more spacing between some of them. Yet, editors found them easy to use due to their straightforward layout. An in-dash CD changer has yet to find its way into the Passat, so owners must make do with a single-disc player and then decide whether they want to pay for the trunk-mounted changer installed by VW dealers. A cassette player is standard in every Passat. For radio listeners, there are 18 FM presets and 6 AM presets.

The speaker offerings are a little different than what you'll find in the other cars. Instead of the usual 6-by-9s in the rear deck, Volkswagen installs 6.5-inch midbass drivers in all four doors. Additionally, mounted in the upper part of each of the doors is a tweeter. That's it — eight speakers in all. A 200-watt amplifier feeds sound to the speakers.

Performance: Due to the lack of rear-deck speakers, this system can't match the deep bass response of cars like the Accord, Altima and Galant. In trade, the VW's small speakers produce some of the warmest, most accurate sound you'll find in this price range. In this regard, only the Galant matches the Passat's lifelike reproduction. Unless you're hungry for serious bass, you'll love the way this Monsoon makes your music sound.

Best Feature: Refined sound quality.

Worst Feature: Lack of in-dash CD changer.

Conclusion: Although more bass would be nice in a $31K car, most people will be perfectly satisfied with the highly refined stereo in this family sedan.

Fourth Place: 2003 Nissan Altima

Ah, the Nissan Altima. Introduced in the fall of 2001, it immediately became a star by virtue of the fact that it's fast, fun to drive, roomy and comfortable, despite some obvious cost-cutting in the cabin. Now two years later, it's still a desirable car, but the competition is catching up. Both the Accord and Camry are packing serious horsepower of their own these days, while an out-and-out sport sedan called the Mazda 6 arrived on the scene last year. In this field of 10, the Nissan had to fight its way into fourth place. Its superb engine, spacious interior and rapport with editors ultimately allowed it to slip past the Galant and Passat.

Although 11 of the 12 features we consider most important in a family sedan are either standard or optional on the Altima, our oddly equipped 3.5 SE test car didn't do itself any favors in this department. It came with cool extras like xenon headlights and a powerful Bose stereo but lacked must-have items like ABS, traction control and side and head curtain airbags — all optional on the Altima. Most of the cars in this test came standard with antilock brakes, and during a rainstorm, it was plain to us that a car with 246 pound-feet of torque flowing to its front tires ought to come standard with traction control as well.

Of course, when the roads were dry, no one complained about the power coming from the Nissan Altima's 245-horsepower, 3.5-liter V6, which remains the sweetest engine of the family sedan class. Acceleration is excellent in just about any situation, and our test car's four-speed automatic transmission made the most of the motor's attributes by coming up with quick, smooth shifts. The transmission's gear selector was the source of a couple complaints, as it didn't move all that smoothly through its staggered gate when drivers wanted to choose their own gears.

In instrumented testing, the Nissan Altima tied with the Galant for the quickest 0-to-60-mph run with a time of 7.3 seconds, while the Mitsubishi held a slim, four-hundredths-of-a-second edge for the quarter-mile. Although the two cars were basically identical in straight-line performance, the Nissan earned slightly higher scores in the drivetrain categories on editors' 23-point evaluations. The difference seemed to come down to the Altima's entertaining engine soundtrack and its ultraresponsive transmission.

The Altima still offers one of the better compromises between ride quality and handling in the family sedan segment, but next to some of the other cars in this test, the compromise part of the deal is more noticeable than it once was. The 3.5 SE model has firmer suspension settings than lower-line Altimas, and this along with an accurate, well-weighted steering rack, gives the car a tight, responsive feel when taking corners. The ride is still smooth and for the most part comfortable, but depending on the condition of the pavement, it can be a bit jarring. Additionally, there's a moderate amount of road noise compared to a quiet car like the Camry. Finally, the Altima is prone to minor torque steer under hard acceleration. Most editors liked the Nissan's total package, but if you're looking for the best overall balance, you may prefer the Galant — it stretches further to the extremes, offering both a more refined ride and a tighter, flatter cornering attitude. And if you're looking for the best handler, the Mazda 6 is the one for you.

Inside, the Altima feels as roomy as an Accord, Camry or Galant. It might not lead the class in published dimensions, but in practice there's plenty of head-, shoulder, hip- and legroom in both the front and rear. The Altima was one of the few cars in this test that didn't have a leather interior, but the cloth-upholstered seats proved to be both soft and nicely contoured. A tilt/telescoping steering wheel is provided for the driver, and the pop-up center armrest once coated in rubber now has a padded cloth cover. The only improvement we might ask for up front is additional lateral bolstering to hold occupants in during spirited cornering. In the back, the otherwise comfortable accommodations are marred by the lack of adjustable headrests.

So it's not too hard to get comfortable in the Altima, but scrutinize your surroundings and you might not like what you see. Editors described the cabin as "functional," and as most of the controls are large and easy to reach, it's certainly that. And Nissan is the only manufacturer besides VW to offer one-touch control for both front windows, and all window buttons are illuminated on all doors. But even with sporty touches like individual gauge pods and faux aluminum trim on the center stack, no one would go so far as to call the cabin stylish. The main problem is Nissan's widespread use of hard plastic — it's all over the dash, console and door panels, and in cars with a charcoal interior, it's all the same dark color. Two years ago this was annoying, but now that a car like the once plastic-laden Malibu has a soft, textured dash, it's simply unacceptable. The switchgear and controls, at least, feel high in quality, and the steering wheel is attractive with a comfortable grip. But no one was enamored with the yellow-orange illumination for the gauges and controls, which can be hard to read.

Build quality was merely OK, as editors noted rough edges on some plastics, as well as a panel on the back of the center console that seemed all too easy for little hands (or big auto journalist hands) to pull off. Exterior panel fits were tight and precise, except for a slightly misaligned trunk lid.

Storage provisions are above-average by family sedan standards, but not as good as the Accord's or Camry's. Highlights include a two-tier center console, a deep cubby under the center stack and a pair of large cupholders up front. Trunk space is generous and there's a pair of grocery nets to corral your bags. Unfortunately, the trunk lid's metal hinges are not sheathed as in the Camry, and the lid has neither a liner nor an interior grab handle (it does, however, spring open when "popped").

Crash test results were mostly favorable, as an Altima without side or head curtain airbags earned four out of five stars in all front- and side-impact categories in government testing. The car earned the top rating of "Good" in the frontal offset crash test conducted by the IIHS.

With a large field of competitors in this test, we noticed the Altima's weaknesses more than ever, and Nissan would do well to address the car's cut-rate interior as soon as possible. The fact that the Altima finished as high as fourth confirms that it's still one of the better family sedans on the market and a fine choice for anyone who craves serious amounts of power and comfort.

Second Opinions:

Senior Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says:
When the latest Nissan Altima burst onto the scene in 2002, its overwhelming horsepower and appreciable style made it one of my favorites. A couple years on and I still find it one of the most entertaining cars in this class, but next to some of its newer competitors, there's no doubt it feels a little rougher around the edges than the first time around. The sheer force of its high-power V6 still makes you want to nail it at every turn and the tight suspension yields plenty of road feel, but when you're not playing sports car, the ride is less refined than either the Mazda's or the Mitsubishi's, both of which return equivalent levels of performance.

From the inside, the Altima is still its plain old self, with a modern and functional setup that offers up little in the way of style. Maybe it's my natural aversion to orange or the acres of average-looking plastic, but there's not much to get excited about in this cabin other than the tilt gauges and surprisingly comfortable cloth seats. If you're big, there's plenty of room to stretch out, and if you like your music loud, the stereo seems to have some serious punch, but I was a little bit surprised at how old the whole setup looked after just a couple of years. If ever there was a sign that competition makes the customer king, the once-dominant Altima is exhibit number one.

Road Test Coordinator Kelly Stennick says:
Having never been a fan of the previous-generation Altima, I was very excited when I first experienced the 2002 redesign. I was so pleased with its new power and good looks that I recommended it time and again to friends and family shopping the latest in midsize sedan offerings. It didn't hurt that the current Altima arrived on the scene around the same time that people were starting to get excited about Nissan again. There was much talk about new designs and new models in the works, several of which have launched in the past two years.

But now, as good a car as the Altima still is, there's plenty of new competition with other powerful V6s in the Honda Accord, Mazda 6 and Mitsubishi Galant. Alongside the new sedans, the Altima is already beginning to look dated, both inside and out. It's still roomy and predictable, but it doesn't do much to evoke driving excitement. Several of our staffers have remarked about the bland interior, which seemed fine just a short while ago. Now, behind the even more refined ergonomics of the Accord, and sporty looks of the Galant and 6, it seems the Nissan Altima is ready to take its place in the manufacturer's long line of impressive makeovers, even at just two years old.

Stereo Evaluation: 2003 Nissan Altima

System Score: 9.0

Ranking in Test: Tied for second

Components: Ever since the Altima's epic redesign for the 2002 model year, we've regarded its Bose stereo as the standard for sound quality in the family sedan segment. Optional on 2.5 S and 3.5 SE models (like our test vehicle) and standard in 2.5 SL trim, the system is known for its ability to deliver loud, almost overpowering bass response while putting out a balanced overall sound. But the competition has been studying up, and in this test, it was obvious to us that Mitsubishi's team at Infinity has come up with a system for the '04 Galant that surpasses the Altima's Bose by virtue of its superb separation and clarity. The fact that the Altima didn't take the crown in the stereo competition needn't dampen your enthusiasm — this is still a very enjoyable sound system, especially if you're a bass junkie.

The well-designed head unit features large controls and a user-friendly layout. Drawbacks include a display with yellow-orange illumination that washes out in sunlight and the absence of a tuning knob. Auxiliary controls on the steering wheel offer volume, seek and mode adjustment; while easy to use during the day, their similar shapes and sizes and lack of illumination make them tough to navigate in the dark. Bose-equipped Altimas come with an in-dash six-disc CD changer but no cassette player. Listeners have 18 radio presets at their disposal and can select any combination of AM and FM stations. Extras include speed-sensitive volume control and the Radio Data System (RDS).

Speakers include a pair of 6-by-9s in the rear deck that operate in the bass mode only (and essentially function as dual subwoofers), a pair of 6.5-inch full-range drivers in the rear doors, a pair of 6.5-inch midbass drivers in the front doors and 1-inch tweeters mounted on each A-pillar.

Performance: There's no question that the Altima has the most powerful bass response in the family sedan segment — something that anyone who listens to hip hop, metal or techno will immediately appreciate. While overall sound quality and separation still rank near the top in this class, this Bose must step aside for the Galant's Infinity, which transmits all types of music with greater accuracy and warmth. If symphonies or classic jazz are regularly on your playlist, we'll wager that you'll prefer the Mitsubishi's mastery of all frequencies. That said, the Altima's cockpit remains one of the most enjoyable places in this segment to load up a few CDs and kick back. If you like the rest of the car, the stereo will not disappoint.

Best Feature: Powerful bass attack.

Worst Feature: Display washes out in sunlight.

Conclusion: The Altima's Bose is still one of the top two stereos in the family sedan segment. Bass lovers will not want to miss this one.

Third Place: 2004 Toyota Camry

Drive a Camry back-to-back with the competition and it's obvious that few manufacturers understand what goes into a good family sedan as well as Toyota. The Camry is roomy, quiet, refined and capable in every way that counts in day-to-day driving. It's certainly not an exciting car like the Mazda 6, nor does it put all the desirable features together as well as the Accord. But for the most part, it satisfies — especially with the availability of a new 225-horsepower engine in the SE V6 model for 2004. It came as little surprise then that the Toyota quietly slipped into third place.

Even though the Toyota Camry isn't necessarily a car we'd buy for ourselves (it was, however, number two out of 10 on one editor's personal picks list), it's definitely one that we feel good about recommending to others. In addition, our SE V6 test car earned the second-highest score on editors' comprehensive 23-point evaluations, while posting solid numbers in all performance tests. It also had 10 of the 12 features we consider most important in a family sedan as either standard or optional. Other than its non-sporting personality, the Camry's only real weakness was price — when sensibly optioned, it cost more than every other sedan in the test, except the Passat.

Stepping inside the Camry, we were greeted by a simple dash ensemble with tried-and-true orange backlighting and large controls. It's not as distinctive as either the Accord's or the Passat's cabin, but it looks and feels equally high in quality. This being the SE model, Toyota has attempted to hip it up a bit with metallic accents. These didn't do much for us, but the small, thick-rimmed steering wheel that looks like it was pulled from a Celica was appreciated by all. Although we noted a few instances of discordant grain patterns, interior finishes are generally beyond reproach with soft-touch materials and sturdy, low-gloss plastics everywhere you look. Build quality was impeccable, as not one editor came across a misaligned panel inside or out.

The front seats are broad, flat and well cushioned. Although they're not the most supportive seats in this class, they're well suited for larger occupants. There's plenty of shoulder and hiproom, and a spacious driver footwell assures that long-legged drivers won't feel kinked up on road trips. We do wish that Toyota would consider adding a telescope adjustment feature for the steering wheel.

In terms of backseat comfort, the Camry unofficially leads the class along with the Accord and Altima (if you regularly transport tall passengers in back, all three cars are worth a try). Back cushion rake and bench height are just about ideal. The seat bottom is a tad short, but an abundance of soft padding makes the seat comfortable for most adults. What's more, our tallest editor said that he had ample headroom, legroom and foot room (under the front chairs).

The Toyota Camry also does a good job of protecting its passengers, provided you equip it with the optional front side-impact airbags and full-length head curtain airbags. In government crash tests, it earned a perfect five stars for the driver in the frontal impact category and four stars for the front passenger. In side-impact tests, a Camry without the optional airbags earned three stars for front-occupant protection and five stars for the rear. The Toyota received the top rating of "Good" in IIHS frontal offset crash testing.

It's hard to imagine a car with a simpler control layout than the Camry. Certainly, one could argue that a $27,000 car ought to have automatic climate control, but editors reveled in the no-look adjustment made possible by our test car's three manual dials. The stereo controls are similarly large and easy to adjust, which largely offsets the lack of secondary steering wheel controls. Other than that, it's just the usual high-quality, straightforward stalk set. One improvement we wouldn't mind seeing in the second-most expensive car in the test is one-touch up-and-down adjustment for at least the driver's window.

In terms of storage, the Camry is just about as good as the Accord — maybe better, depending on your preferences. Key receptacles include handy lined storage wells under the center stack and a large, lined, two-tier center console container. The cupholders in front will hold 1.5-liter water bottles, and in addition to the small center armrest cupholders in back, each rear door has slots perfectly sized for juice boxes. The Toyota leads the class in trunk space with its 16.7-cubic-foot hold. Sheathed metal hinges create a large opening without endangering fragile cargo, and a 60/40-split rear seat opens up additional space when necessary.

Start up the SE V6 model and you'll enjoy the services of a new 3.3-liter V6 good for 225 hp and 240 pound-feet of torque (V6-equipped LE and XLE sedans get a 210-hp, 3.0-liter engine). The engine can't match the off-the-line thrust of the Altima's 3.5 or the Galant's 3.8, but acceleration comes easily at any speed. Meanwhile, power delivery is extraordinarily smooth — in fact, there isn't a quieter, more refined engine in the family sedan segment. A five-speed automatic transmission is standard and, like the engine, it strives to operate in an unobtrusive manner. Editors found it a little slow to come up with downshifts at times, but for the average driver, it's just fine.

Ride quality is another of the Camry's positive attributes, as even the SE model (which has slightly firmer suspension settings than other Camry models) absorbs most of the ruts and grooves in its path, sparing passengers from the impacts. As such, this Toyota remains an excellent choice for long-distance commuters. Despite the SE nomenclature, the Camry still doesn't feel particularly sporty — there's plenty of body roll around corners and the steering offers minimal road feedback. Nevertheless, anyone so inclined to push the limits will find a reassuring level of grip and balance beneath the surface. Not a fun car, the Camry, but certainly a predictable one. Besides that, the brakes are some of the strongest you'll find on a family sedan. The car's short braking distances are complemented by a progressive pedal that's extremely easy to modulate.

There's no doubt that the Toyota Camry is one of the most capable family sedans on the market, and there's no going wrong if you decide to buy one. From our staff's point of view, though, the Toyota was a little too expensive for what you get (compared to the Accord) and a little too bland (even for a family sedan), and had to settle for the bronze medal in this test.

Second Opinions:

Senior Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says:
The Toyota Camry may be the epitome of bland sedans, but if this is what it means to drive a boring family car, then sign me up. Not that I think the Camry is some hidden gem of a sports car or anything like that, but the way it handles itself in day-to-day driving makes me wish I had one sitting around for those rare times when I just want to get from Point A to Point B and nothing more. It's ridiculously quiet, more powerful than you would expect and always comfortable regardless of the road surface. In other words, it's perfectly suited to the kind of driving most people do most often.

Look around the cabin and everywhere you look there are high-quality materials from top to bottom. Everything is exactly where you would expect it and even the design looks more upscale than your average sedan. Toyota's attempt to jazz up the SE with metal accents in hopes of pumping up its sporty demeanor fails miserably, but it's not so offensive that it looks tacky. The seats are comfortable both front and rear, there's plenty of storage space and the trunk is huge. It's by no means perfect, but it's easy to see why so many drivers find it pretty damn close.

Road Test Coordinator Kelly Stennick says:
Sure, it's easy to appreciate a Toyota Camry. It's easy on the eyes, features undisputable quality and is spacious enough to accommodate a family of five and their everyday equipment. It doesn't evoke any serious longing to climb behind the wheel, but then, it doesn't wallow through daily driving tasks like a Chrysler Sebring.

But it also doesn't earn my vote in the family sedan group. I don't dig the Hyundai Sonata, but at least it's inexpensive. I also don't long for the styling of the Mitsubishi Galant, but I appreciate its handling characteristics and pseudo-sporty interior. When it comes to the Toyota Camry, I just can't get excited about anything. I'd heartily recommend it to my family, but I wouldn't buy one. I know all about its strong reliability history, but I still wouldn't want to drive one everyday.

Stereo Evaluation: 2004 Toyota Camry

System Score: 7.0

Ranking in Test: Sixth

Components: A six-speaker JBL sound system comes standard on all LE and SE models in the Camry line. An additional pair of speakers comes standard on XLE models; they're optional on other trims. As our SE V6 test vehicle had the Premium Package, it had the full set of speakers, as well as an in-dash six-disc CD changer.

Accordingly, there were 6.5-inch speakers installed in each of the doors, a pair of 6-by-9s in the rear bulkhead, and at each corner of the dash, a midtweeter that fires upward into the windshield glass — a quick recipe for a good soundstage. A 200-watt amplifier routes power to the speakers.

The head unit is Toyota's corporate design, and that means a well-organized array of large buttons and knobs. The tuning knob doubles as tonal adjustment, and with a large, legible display, it's relatively easy to tweak the bass and treble levels from the driver seat. We say relatively because the head unit is positioned very high in the dash and is not canted toward the driver — in the past, editors have commented that this makes it hard to use, as the typical driver must stretch to reach it. Few editors complained this time around, but there's no doubt the Accord's stereo controls fall closer to hand. Besides that, Toyota still hasn't gotten around to putting secondary volume, seek and mode controls on the steering wheel — the Sonata was the only other car in the group that didn't offer them. A cassette player is included in this setup, along with the usual 18 presets. Radio Data System (RDS) technology is also included.

Performance: With so many excellent stereos in this group, the Camry's JBL got lost in the crowd, even with the extra pair of speakers. There's nothing displeasing about it: It plays loud, and offers crisp bass and decent separation. Compared to the higher-ranking systems, though, it wasn't remarkable for its warmth or depth, nor could it match the low-end kick of the Altima's Bose. Certainly, it's a fine stereo for the average driver; it's just not the sort that will stir the emotions of an audiophile.

Best Feature: Dash-mounted tweeters that set up a pleasant soundstage.

Worst Feature: No auxiliary stereo controls on the steering wheel.

Conclusion: Not the greatest stereo of the family sedan segment in terms of sound or ergonomics, but most Camry buyers will have few, if any, complaints.

Second Place: 2003 Mazda 6

Life is short. Your kids will only be young once. But do you want to spend the next 18 years driving them around in a capable but soulless midsize sedan? Of all the family sedans in this test, only the Mazda 6 breaks free of its "family" identity when the driver finds himself alone on the open road.

Second only to the Passat on editors' personal pick lists, the Mazda 6 was warmly regarded as "one of the few cars in this class that you would actually take out just to go for a drive," in the words of our senior road test editor. The car also finished second to the Galant in the performance category after turning in the fastest speed through the 600-foot slalom and posting solid numbers in the acceleration and braking tests. It's worth noting, however, that Mazda was unable to supply us with an automatic transmission-equipped test vehicle for this comparison. As such, we were forced to use our manual-shift long-term 6 in the test. Without this advantage in acceleration and price (getting the automatic adds $900), the 6 might very well have found itself in third or fourth place overall.

Of course, if you like to drive and you like to shift your own gears, this disclaimer won't matter to you once you're behind the wheel of the 6. The shifter moves smoothly between the gears, slotting firmly into each gate. If not for the clutch pedal's long travel and elusive engagement point, this would be one of the best manual transmissions in any midsize sedan. Even so, the Mazda 6 is a pleasure to shift at most speeds — a good thing because the 220-horsepower, 3.0-liter V6 under the hood of the "s" model is deficient in low-end torque but loves to rev. Power delivery is smooth across the tach but sweetest above 4,000 rpm. The average driver would likely prefer the more balanced outlay of power available in the Honda, Mitsubishi, Nissan and Toyota, but enthusiasts will find plenty to like about this engine.

The Mazda's ride and handling characteristics are more universally pleasing. The suspension delivers a ride quality that's as smooth and comfortable as that of most peers, while giving the 6 a level of balance and grip that makes it a sheer pleasure to drive on twisty two-lane roads — regardless of whether those roads lead to Grandma's house. Further, the suspension and steering do such a good job of transmitting road information to the driver seat and steering wheel that the driver is never in doubt about the goings-on of the optional 17-inch Michelin Pilot performance tires. Minor drawbacks include occasional ride harshness over choppy pavement and excessive ABS noise and vibration during maximum braking — otherwise, the brakes are strong and operate in a progressive manner.

Solid scores on editors' comprehensive 23-point evaluations and a strong showing in the features category (the 6 offered 10 of the 12 features we considered most important as either standard or optional) suggest that the 6 should meet the average family's expectations in most areas. Nevertheless, a few notable lapses in materials quality and smaller interior dimensions may not make it a good fit for everyone.

Opting for the Sport Package outfits the 6 with large electroluminescent gauges and faux titanium center stack controls and trim. Editors loved the gauges but were divided on the issue of whether the fake metal was attractive. Several questioned the long-term durability of this trim, and as the metallic accent piece on the shift knob has all but worn off with 13,000 miles on the odometer, it seems we may have our answer. The optional leather upholstery looks and feels good, as does the sturdy headliner and the texturized, soft-touch material on the upper dash. Unfortunately, hard door tops, brittle plastic compartment lids and cheap floor mats ultimately put the 6 several levels below the Accord, Camry and Passat in overall quality. Fit and finish was tight, however; a slightly misaligned rear bumper was one of a handful of issues here.

Editors generally gave the 6 high marks for seat comfort in front, as the European-style seats offer an optimum blend of cushioning and support, along with a wide range of adjustment and a telescoping steering wheel. The only improvements we would like to see here are additional side bolstering for the more aggressive driving owners of this car are likely to be doing, and a more effective set of seat heaters.

One important thing to keep in mind when considering the Mazda is that it's a world car sized to fit European and Japanese markets. As a result, it's considerably smaller than America-only cars like the Accord, Altima, Camry and Galant. Although most buyers should find it roomy enough in front, the reduced shoulder and legroom is more obvious in the backseat. Nevertheless, the seat's supportive, properly angled cushions and generous foot room under the front chairs ensure that most adults will be able to get comfortable in back. On the other hand, the lack of rear head restraints is a major oversight.

The cabin is well insulated from wind and road noise, and the availability of both side and head curtain airbags means that occupants will be well protected in crashes as well. The 6 earned a perfect five stars in the frontal impact category during government crash testing; its side-impact scores were less impressive (three stars for the front, four for the rear), but the car tested was not equipped with the optional airbags. The IIHS awarded its top rating of "Good" for the Mazda's performance in its frontal offset crash test.

The 6 offers single-zone automatic climate control; and although the system uses large dials (the easiest setup in our view), the fact that these dials are in close proximity to similarly sized stereo controls makes them tricky to navigate initially. With practice, using them becomes second nature, but larger markings and color coding for temperature adjustment would help. Most of the switchgear is high in quality, and the cruise and stereo buttons on the steering wheel are very easy to use.

Storage provisions are slightly above average, as Mazda supplements the usual door bins, center console container and rear map pockets with a lined dash-top compartment and a driver-side change drawer. Cupholders are average in size and well placed for access. The trunk is respectably sized (15.2 cubic feet), but the small opening and awkwardly shaped lid can be a hassle when loading bulky items. A 60/40-split rear seat provides flexibility for larger hauling jobs.

The 6 was not the most practical family sedan in this test, but its ability to do most of the things cars in this class are supposed to do while functioning as a sport sedan won over our staff. If you can give up some of the room and kid-friendly features available in other sedans, the Mazda 6 could be the sedan that speaks to you, too.

Second Opinions:

Senior Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says:
Hard to believe that Mazda managed to make a family sedan so fun to drive. Whether you're just darting around town or out on the open road, the 6 is always ready to play. Granted, the manual transmission on our test car gave it an unfair advantage against its competition, but there was more to it than just being able to row through the gears. The suspension transmits liveliness through the wheel that no other car in the class can match. It's only slightly lighter than the other cars but it feels as though it weighs several hundred pounds less. If you like to play when you get the chance, this is the only family sedan that will satisfy your urges.

Apart from the ride and handling, the 6 is only average compared to the competition. The interior materials aren't top-notch, the controls could use some straightening out and even the Bose stereo is far from impressive. I've done long stints behind the wheel and never found it uncomfortable, but I wasn't sitting in the backseat, either. None of those gripes would be enough to deter me from buying the car, but if you're looking for something that's upscale and middle-of-the-road, the Mazda isn't it. For those who are looking for a family sedan that's anything but middle-of-the-road, the Mazda 6 is an alternative trip worth taking.

Road Test Coordinator Kelly Stennick says:
The Mazda 6 has been part of our long-term fleet for nearly eight months, and is admittedly one of my favorites. The smooth, precise shifter and the subsequent surge of power have a lot to do with it, but that's not the entire story.

Compared to other family sedans, the interior is sporty and uncomplicated. The leather seats and various accents of chrome and metal are attractive, and it's easy to climb in and work the controls at first glance, as they are very clearly labeled. My only control complaint is the location of the switches to turn on the seat heaters, as they're hidden down low in front of the center console. Nothing inside seems exactly state-of-the-art, but the handling characteristics make up for any minor shortcomings in the cabin.

I especially like the fact that the 6 has the exterior sleekness of a coupe, but the added convenience of four doors. Many sedans, like the Hyundai Sonata, sacrifice sporty looks in their sedan roles, but not the Mazda 6. The seating position seems lower than the other sedans, too, which adds to the sporty feel, and its nicely tuned exhaust note gives the sports car enthusiast a blast of positive reinforcement as the Mazda 6 winds up to take on road.

Stereo Evaluation: 2003 Mazda 6

System Score: 8.0

Ranking in Test: Tied for third

Components: Thanks largely to the Altima, the Bose name now carries plenty of weight with consumers shopping for a high-quality factory audio system, so it's no surprise that Mazda decided to offer its own version in the 6. This Bose system is an option for both four-cylinder and V6 models.

The trendy-looking head unit offers a widely spaced collection of oversized dials and buttons that are easy to get your fingers on while driving. The one drawback to the arrangement is that climate control dials of similar size and shape occupy this space as well, which can lead to confusion the first few times you drive the car. Moreover, the audio and climate control systems share a single display. Fortunately, Mazda also provides a nifty set of audio controls on the steering wheel, with subtle use of texturing to help the driver distinguish between the volume and seek buttons on the basis of touch alone. An in-dash six-disc CD changer is included with the Bose audio package. Alternatively, buyers can opt for an MP3 player as a dealer-installed accessory in this slot. In addition, the blank slot in the center of our test car's center stack (covered by a plastic trim piece) can house either a cassette deck or a MiniDisc player, both of which are available as accessories. For radio listeners, there are the usual 12 FM presets and six AM presets. Speed-sensitive volume and Radio Data System (RDS) features are included.

Speakers include a 10-inch subwoofer on the back deck, plus 5-by-7 full-range drivers in all four doors. Separate tweeters occupy their own enclosures beside the A-pillars. The amplifier feeds these speakers a total of 200 watts.

Performance: Even with a subwoofer in residence on the rear deck, this Bose doesn't have the overwhelming bass response of the Altima's Bose, nor does it have the overall vigor of the Galant's Infinity. Nevertheless, crisp highs and lows, along with excellent separation, make for an enjoyable listening experience overall. This stereo will appeal to those looking for quality sound with moderate levels of bass.

Best Feature: Balanced sound quality, availability of MP3 and MiniDisc players.

Worst Feature: Similar audio and climate controls can be confusing.

Conclusion: While audiophiles will prefer the more powerful systems available in the Galant and Altima, the Mazda's Bose is an enjoyable system in its own right — and only heightens the entertainment value of the fun-loving 6.

First Place: 2004 Honda Accord

The last time a Honda Accord participated in one of our comparison tests was way back in the spring of 2000. That Accord, too, was an upscale EX V6 model, and it lost by the narrowest of margins to a beautifully finished Volkswagen Passat. The 2000 Accord was a well-rounded family sedan, editors thought at the time, but it wasn't much fun to drive. And its interior offered neither distinctive styling nor exceptional seat comfort. Such small deficiencies certainly didn't threaten the Honda's best-seller status, but our staff has long favored the VW's rich blend of performance, luxury and refinement.

Now almost four years later, this freshly redesigned Accord finds itself comfortably in first place with more than a three-point lead over the second-place Mazda 6 (the VW, meanwhile, has fallen to fifth). This car has all the virtues of its predecessor, along with just enough performance, style and comfort to keep buyers enthused about putting their money on the Honda in this increasingly competitive segment.

Judging by the numbers, it's readily apparent that the Honda Accord had few weaknesses. It earned the top score on editors' 23-point evaluations, and our test car came standard with nine of the 12 features that we consider most important in a family sedan. It didn't fare too badly in instrumented testing, either, as its smooth and potent V6 engine earned it the second-fastest 0-to-60-mph (7.5 seconds) and quarter-mile (15.7 seconds) acceleration times. Its braking performance was much less impressive, however, and we'd like to see Honda fit its sedan with a more powerful set of brakes. Price accounted for 20 percent of each vehicle's score in the comparison test, and although the Accord was one of the more expensive cars, it was still a few hundred bucks cheaper than the Camry and almost five grand less than the Passat.

Step inside any Accord, whether it's the popular four-cylinder LX or a leather-lined EX V6 like our test car, and you'll like what you find. Honda designers have borrowed some of the personality and premium ambience that drew buyers to the Passat while preserving the company's traditional emphasis on driver-friendly ergonomics. The result is an attractive two-tone ensemble with upscale Euro-style textures; large, distinctive electroluminescent gauges; and oversized, easy-to-reach controls that operate with extreme refinement.

Editors gave the Accord high marks for its interior materials quality, though a couple felt the Passat and Camry had a slight edge in this area. Every panel inside the car fit together tightly, and there were no build quality issues to speak of, save for a slightly misaligned trunk lid.

Our test vehicle's leather seats incorporated some extra padding not found in cloth-upholstered Accords, and as a result, the front seats earned unanimous praise from editors, who described them as "supportive" and "nicely contoured all around." A standard tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel makes it easy for drivers of all sizes to find a good driving position. Crash protection is excellent as well, as the Accord picked up a full five stars in government frontal crash tests (the NHTSA has yet to report side-impact scores) and a top rating of "Good" in IIHS frontal offset crash testing.

In back, the accommodations are similarly comfortable. Although the seat bottom is a tad short and low, the back and bottom cushions still manage to offer plenty of support. Moreover, even our tallest editor reported that he had ample head- and legroom and could slide his feet underneath the front chairs. Broad, padded door panel armrests invite passengers to rest an elbow and make the backseat feel more spacious than the interior specs suggest. Wide door openings make it easy to get in and out.

The Accord was the only sedan in the group that offered dual-zone climate control for the driver and front passenger. This automatic system isn't quite as easy to use as Honda's manual setups, but dual temperature dials help a lot. The stereo could use a tuning knob, but with its large and bright display, a well-designed set of steering wheel controls and a huge volume knob in the middle of the stack, it's an ergonomic masterpiece in every other respect. The cruise control buttons are also on the wheel, and they're a cinch to use.

As in the Camry, there are plenty of storage areas to stow the odds and ends of everyday life, including spacious door bins in all four doors and an invaluable cubby under the center stack that's large enough to hold an assortment of CDs, snacks and cell phone paraphernalia. Each door bin includes a bottle holder, and either of the two center console cupholders can hold a 1.5-liter water bottle securely.

Overall trunk capacity is on the small side (14 cubic feet), and exposed metal hinges further reduce the load space. On the plus side, the opening is wide and the lid is easy to open and close. Our test vehicle's lid also had a felt liner — a thoughtful feature that our four-cylinder EX long-term vehicle does not have. When additional space is required, the rear seat folds but does not offer a 60/40-split arrangement as in most competitors.

Although the Accord still can't be counted among the athletes in its class, most buyers won't be disappointed with the car's driving dynamics. The Honda's 3.0-liter V6 engine generates 240 horsepower and 212 pound-feet of torque. It doesn't have the low-end kick of sedans like the Altima or Galant, but highway passing maneuvers are effortless and the engine is exceptionally smooth and refined. A five-speed automatic transmission is standard with this engine, and it comes through with crisp shifts, though one editor found it a little slow to downshift at times. Another minor complaint is the inability to select fourth gear manually when you want a little engine braking on downhill grades.

The ride quality is smooth and mostly comfortable without feeling plush like a Camry. This is balanced against handling that is fully competent without feeling sporty. "This is the setup I would prefer most for everyday driving," one editor said. The sedan's steering is a particular bright spot, as the wheel is nicely weighted at any speed and has a slick, precise feel. Road noise at highway speeds is minimal, but there is a moderate amount of wind noise.

Even though many of us still don't like its exterior styling, as an overall package, the seventh-generation Accord is the best one Honda has ever offered. And it's the one that three out of four Edmunds.com editors would recommend first to the average family sedan shopper. "Even though I'm not crazy about how it looks, I can't help but like the way it feels," our senior road test editor said.

Second Opinions:

Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says:
The Honda Accord is to the midsize family sedan category what the BMW 3 Series is to the entry-level luxury sedan category. Even the manufacturers that don't blatantly copy it still use it as a reference point when designing their own midsize offering. While the variety in this segment continues to expand as more and more competitors jump in, I find myself unable to ignore the Accord's fundamental principles that make it such a desirable vehicle. For instance, it has, by far, the best steering in the segment. Some models offer more heft, some offer a faster ratio and some even come close to offering as much feedback from the front tires, but none of them so perfectly melds these elements together to create a vehicle that manages to be both easy and confident to drive (sort of like a BMW).

Then there are the front seats, which are probably the most comfortable seats in the segment. Our EX-V6 model had the leather interior that further ups the Accord's premium demeanor. Then there's the electroluminescent gauge cluster and high-quality interior materials that seem more Acura-esque than Honda. After driving all of these cars back-to-back, it became clear to me that if you're looking for a luxury car, but don't care about a luxury nameplate, this is the only model to consider. The Camry may have a slightly quieter cabin at highway speeds, but the seats aren't as comfortable and the gauge cluster doesn't "talk" to you like the Accord's (plus it doesn't have that magic steering).

I'm not thrilled with the Honda's exterior styling, and I wish the sedan offered a sport package with larger wheels and stiffer suspension settings. But this vehicle is so good at just being a superbly comfortable, high-quality luxury sedan that complaining about its lack of sportiness seems akin to the wealthy complaining about taxes. The nation's rich people and Honda Accord drivers share a common trait: they're both in a very good place. My advice: stop complaining and just enjoy the ride.

Senior Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says:
I still don't like the styling much, and the power of the 240-horsepower V6 doesn't make the car jump like the Altima, but after a few stints behind the wheel it was hard not to be impressed with the Accord. Whether you're looking for refinement, interior space or a comfortable ride, this car rarely fails to impress. The interior design isn't the most dynamic setup I've seen, but the crystal clear gauges and the high-quality feel of all the controls give it an upscale ambience that few of its competitors can match. The seats are some of the most comfortable in the business and there's more than enough room in every direction to feel comfortable.

What really makes this car stand out, however, is the refinement of both the drivetrain and the suspension. The engine's power delivery is as smooth as any luxury sedan and although it doesn't have the snap of some of the other V6s, you often find yourself going faster than you thought because of its quiet demeanor. Its ride quality only enhances that feeling, as the suspension smothers potholes and other road hazards without missing a beat. If you're looking for something sporty, this isn't the car, but if you're like most people and you just want something smooth and quiet, it doesn't get much better than this.

Stereo Evaluation: 2004 Honda Accord

System Score: 8.0

Ranking in Test: Tied for third

Components: Honda has never been known for putting high-quality stereos in its cars, but that changed when the current Accord arrived on the scene last year. Save for the stripped-down DX model, all Accords come with the same six-speaker stereo. Even though it's rated at only 120 watts, sound quality rivals that of the Mazda's Bose and the Passat's Monsoon (both of which are rated at 200 watts).

As in the Mazda 6, stereo controls are placed within close proximity of the climate controls; however, Honda's designers had more success in differentiating the two. The result is that the Accord's audio controls are familiar and easy to use the first time you drive the car. A large volume knob occupies the center of the stack, and not only is it attractive with it faux aluminum trim, it's perfectly sized for fingertip control. The rest of the controls are medium-size buttons logically arranged around a large clear display. Additionally, Honda has taken the extra step of designing the perfect set of steering wheel controls. Although they're not illuminated at night as the Passat's are, designers paid attention to their texture and shape, making them easy to use by touch. An in-dash six-disc CD changer is standard on all six-cylinder Accords and the four-cylinder EX. A cassette player is not available. XM Satellite Radio is a new feature this year; it's standard on EX V6 models and all leather-equipped four-cylinder EX models. For traditional radio stations, there are 12 FM presets and 6 AM presets.

The speaker array includes a pair of 6-by-9s in the rear deck and a pair of 6.5-inch full-range drivers in the front doors. The tweeters are mounted in the corners of the dash, an advantageous location that allows them to fire upward into the windshield glass and reflect sound into the cabin. If Honda had seen fit to include a pair of rear-door speakers as well, this system would likely be a match for the stereos in the Altima and Galant. Oh well.

Performance: Although unable to produce the powerful, full-bodied sound of the Galant's Infinity or the Altima's Bose, the Honda's stereo comes through with strong, crisp bass output, along with warm, natural-sounding strings and vocals. You're unlikely to have a cathartic listening experience in the Accord, but just about any type of music sounds great.

Best Feature: Excellent ergonomics, pleasant sound quality.

Worst Feature: No speakers in rear doors.

Conclusion: A surprisingly enjoyable stereo where you least expect to find one — a sensible family sedan.

Conclusion

After spending time with the 10 cars in this test, it was evident to us that a great many modern-day family sedans aspire to do more than merely get you where you want to go in reasonable comfort and safety. Some of them want to be luxury sedans. Others see themselves as sport sedans. And quite a number of them offer comforts and conveniences that make them downright pleasurable to drive.

The Accord won by virtue of the fact that it's strong in all areas: Its interior is attractive, roomy, high in quality, loaded with features and as ergonomically friendly as you're going to get and, out on the road, it handles capably and goes fast. And the Honda puts together all of these attributes for a price that undercuts comparably equipped cars.

The Mazda 6 finished less than four points back from the Accord, a significant feat because the smaller 6 is biased more toward sport than practicality. To have it finish this high suggests that it's more qualified for family duty than we previously thought, thanks to the availability of important safety and convenience features and its unexpectedly smooth, quiet ride.

The Camry was the second most expensive car in this test, not to mention a little bland, but its roomy, user-friendly cabin; quiet ride; powerful new 3.3-liter V6 engine; and extreme level of refinement helped it overcome those obstacles. If price is not your number-one concern in buying a family sedan, the Toyota could be a great fit for you.

Although the Altima's interior design and materials still need work, this car was a favorite with editors. Two years after the introduction of the current generation, this is still one of the fastest, roomiest, most comfortable and most fun-to-drive cars in this price range. Credit goes to Nissan for pushing the issue of performance to the forefront of the family sedan segment.

Despite the fact that the Volkswagen Passat costs a lot and is no longer one of the most spacious or powerful cars in the segment, this is the one car in the group that looks, feels and drives like an entry-level luxury sedan. When asked to rank the cars in order of personal preference, every editor who participated in this test picked the VW first.

Inspired by the Altima's sales success, the 2004 Mitsubishi Galant has arrived on the scene with an equally potent V6 engine and even greater back-roads handling potential. It also has a spacious, comfortable interior. Although mediocre interior materials and some key omissions on the equipment list kept it from finishing higher than sixth in this test, those who can overlook its rough edges will like the sport sedan underneath.

The redesigned Chevrolet Malibu is a promising sign of things to come at General Motors. Its roomy, comfortable cabin is filled with thoughtful conveniences, while an unexpectedly potent V6 engine and a well-tuned suspension make for a pleasant driving experience. Unfortunately, a bland approach to interior design, along with build and materials quality problems, will keep it on the fringes of a segment dominated by polished imports.

The Hyundai Sonata and Chrysler Sebring found themselves in the eighth and ninth spots. Although the Hyundai, in particular, could have appeal for bargain hunters, neither car presents the quality interior furnishings or refined driving demeanor offered by the higher finishers in this test.

Suzuki's Verona brought up the rear of this 10-car comparison test. Despite its handsome styling and reasonably well-appointed interior, it desperately needs a more vigorous engine, more composed handling and a set of side airbags. Until Suzuki gives it a few upgrades, this car is for undemanding value seekers only.

Editors' Evaluations

Drive
Ride
Design
Cargo/Passenger Space

Drive

Engine Performance
Vehicle Score Rank
Nissan Altima 9.7 1
Honda Accord 9.0 2 (t)
Mitsubishi Galant 9.0 2 (t)
Toyota Camry 9.0 2 (t)
Volkswagen Passat 8.0 5
Mazda 6 7.5 6
Chevrolet Malibu 7.3 7
Hyundai Sonata 6.0 8
Chrysler Sebring 5.0 9
Suzuki Verona 2.0 10
Transmission
Vehicle Score Rank
Nissan Altima 9.0 1
Chevrolet Malibu 8.3 2 (t)
Honda Accord 8.3 2 (t)
Mitsubishi Galant 8.3 2 (t)
Volkswagen Passat 8.3 2 (t)
Toyota Camry 8.0 6
Mazda 6 7.0 7 (t)
Suzuki Verona 7.0 7 (t)
Hyundai Sonata 6.7 9
Chrysler Sebring 5.7 10
Braking
Vehicle Score Rank
Toyota Camry 9.7 1
Volkswagen Passat 9.0 2
Nissan Altima 8.3 3
Mazda 6 8.0 4 (t)
Mitsubishi Galant 8.0 4 (t)
Honda Accord 7.7 6 (t)
Hyundai Sonata 7.7 6 (t)
Chevrolet Malibu 6.0 8 (t)
Chrysler Sebring 6.0 8 (t)
Suzuki Verona 6.0 8 (t)
Suspension
Vehicle Score Rank
Mazda 6 9.5 1
Volkswagen Passat 9.3 2
Mitsubishi Galant 9.0 3
Nissan Altima 8.7 4
Honda Accord 8.3 5
Toyota Camry 8.0 6
Chevrolet Malibu 7.7 7
Chrysler Sebring 6.7 8
Hyundai Sonata 6.0 9
Suzuki Verona 4.0 10
Tires
Vehicle Score Rank
Mazda 6 9.0 1
Mitsubishi Galant 8.7 2
Honda Accord 8.3 3 (t)
Nissan Altima 8.3 3 (t)
Toyota Camry 8.3 3 (t)
Volkswagen Passat 8.0 6
Chevrolet Malibu 7.7 7 (t)
Chrysler Sebring 7.7 7 (t)
Hyundai Sonata 7.7 7 (t)
Suzuki Verona 7.0 10
Steering
Vehicle Score Rank
Mazda 6 9.5 1
Volkswagen Passat 9.3 2
Honda Accord 8.3 3
Nissan Altima 8.0 4
Mitsubishi Galant 7.7 5 (t)
Toyota Camry 7.7 5 (t)
Chrysler Sebring 7.0 7
Chevrolet Malibu 6.3 8
Hyundai Sonata 5.3 9
Suzuki Verona 4.0 10
Visibility
Vehicle Score Rank
Suzuki Verona 10.0 1
Honda Accord 8.0 2
Nissan Altima 7.7 3 (t)
Toyota Camry 7.7 3 (t)
Chevrolet Malibu 7.3 5 (t)
Hyundai Sonata 7.3 5 (t)
Chrysler Sebring 7.0 7 (t)
Mazda 6 7.0 7 (t)
Mitsubishi Galant 6.7 9
Volkswagen Passat 6.3 10
Fun to Drive
Vehicle Score Rank
Mazda 6 9.0 1
Mitsubishi Galant 8.3 2 (t)
Volkswagen Passat 8.3 2 (t)
Nissan Altima 7.7 4
Honda Accord 7.0 5
Chevrolet Malibu 6.7 6
Toyota Camry 6.3 7
Chrysler Sebring 6.0 8
Hyundai Sonata 4.7 9
Suzuki Verona 3.0 10

Ride

Seat Comfort Front
Vehicle Score Rank
Honda Accord 9.0 1
Mazda 6 8.5 2
Mitsubishi Galant 8.3 3 (t)
Volkswagen Passat 8.3 3 (t)
Nissan Altima 8.0 5 (t)
Toyota Camry 8.0 5 (t)
Chevrolet Malibu 7.3 7
Chrysler Sebring 6.3 8 (t)
Hyundai Sonata 6.3 8 (t)
Suzuki Verona 5.0 10
Seat Comfort Rear
Vehicle Score Rank
Honda Accord 9.0 1 (t)
Toyota Camry 9.0 1 (t)
Nissan Altima 8.3 3
Chevrolet Malibu 8.0 4
Mitsubishi Galant 7.7 5 (t)
Volkswagen Passat 7.7 5 (t)
Suzuki Verona 7.0 7
Mazda 6 6.5 8
Hyundai Sonata 6.0 9
Chrysler Sebring 5.3 10
Wind & Road Noise
Vehicle Score Rank
Toyota Camry 9.0 1 (t)
Volkswagen Passat 9.0 1 (t)
Honda Accord 8.7 3
Mazda 6 8.5 4
Chevrolet Malibu 7.7 5 (t)
Mitsubishi Galant 7.7 5 (t)
Nissan Altima 7.3 7
Hyundai Sonata 7.0 8
Chrysler Sebring 6.0 9
Suzuki Verona 4.0 10
Rattles & Squeaks
Vehicle Score Rank
Honda Accord 10.0 1 (t)
Suzuki Verona 10.0 1 (t)
Volkswagen Passat 10.0 1 (t)
Nissan Altima 9.7 4 (t)
Toyota Camry 9.7 4 (t)
Hyundai Sonata 8.7 6 (t)
Mitsubishi Galant 8.7 6 (t)
Mazda 6 8.5 8
Chevrolet Malibu 7.3 9 (t)
Chrysler Sebring 7.3 9 (t)

Design

Interior Design
Vehicle Score Rank
Honda Accord 9.7 1 (t)
Volkswagen Passat 9.7 1 (t)
Mitsubishi Galant 8.0 3 (t)
Toyota Camry 8.0 3 (t)
Mazda 6 7.5 5
Nissan Altima 7.3 6
Chevrolet Malibu 6.0 7 (t)
Suzuki Verona 6.0 7 (t)
Hyundai Sonata 5.7 9
Chrysler Sebring 5.0 10
Interior Material
Vehicle Score Rank
Volkswagen Passat 9.3 1
Honda Accord 8.7 2
Toyota Camry 8.3 3
Mitsubishi Galant 7.0 4
Mazda 6 6.5 5
Chevrolet Malibu 6.0 6 (t)
Nissan Altima 6.0 6 (t)
Suzuki Verona 6.0 6 (t)
Chrysler Sebring 5.3 9
Hyundai Sonata 5.0 10
Climate Control Design/Operation
Vehicle Score Rank
Honda Accord 9.0 1
Nissan Altima 8.3 2 (t)
Toyota Camry 8.3 2 (t)
Suzuki Verona 8.0 4
Chevrolet Malibu 7.7 5 (t)
Mitsubishi Galant 7.7 5 (t)
Mazda 6 7.5 7
Chrysler Sebring 7.3 8 (t)
Hyundai Sonata 7.3 8 (t)
Volkswagen Passat 7.0 10
Audio System Design/Operation
Vehicle Score Rank
Mitsubishi Galant 9.0 1
Mazda 6 8.5 2
Honda Accord 8.3 3 (t)
Volkswagen Passat 8.3 3 (t)
Toyota Camry 8.0 5
Nissan Altima 7.7 6
Chevrolet Malibu 7.0 7
Chrysler Sebring 6.0 8 (t)
Hyundai Sonata 6.0 8 (t)
Suzuki Verona 6.0 8 (t)
Secondary Control Design/Operation
Vehicle Score Rank
Volkswagen Passat 9.3 1
Honda Accord 8.7 2 (t)
Toyota Camry 8.7 2 (t)
Chevrolet Malibu 8.0 4 (t)
Mazda 6 8.0 4 (t)
Nissan Altima 8.0 4 (t)
Suzuki Verona 8.0 4 (t)
Hyundai Sonata 7.0 8 (t)
Mitsubishi Galant 7.0 8 (t)
Chrysler Sebring 6.7 10
Exterior Design
Vehicle Score Rank
Volkswagen Passat 9.7 1
Mazda 6 9.5 2
Nissan Altima 8.0 3
Chrysler Sebring 7.3 4 (t)
Honda Accord 7.3 4 (t)
Toyota Camry 7.3 4 (t)
Mitsubishi Galant 7.0 7
Hyundai Sonata 6.7 8
Suzuki Verona 6.0 9
Chevrolet Malibu 5.7 10
Overall Build Quality
Vehicle Score Rank
Toyota Camry 10.0 1
Honda Accord 9.7 2 (t)
Volkswagen Passat 9.7 2 (t)
Suzuki Verona 9.0 4
Mazda 6 8.5 5
Nissan Altima 7.7 6
Hyundai Sonata 7.3 7
Mitsubishi Galant 7.0 8
Chevrolet Malibu 6.3 9
Chrysler Sebring 6.0 10

Cargo/Passenger Space

Entry/Exit
Vehicle Score Rank
Honda Accord 8.0 1 (t)
Nissan Altima 8.0 1 (t)
Suzuki Verona 8.0 1 (t)
Toyota Camry 8.0 1 (t)
Chevrolet Malibu 7.7 5
Volkswagen Passat 7.3 6
Chrysler Sebring 6.7 7 (t)
Hyundai Sonata 6.7 7 (t)
Mitsubishi Galant 6.7 7 (t)
Mazda 6 6.5 10
Expanding/Loading Cargo
Vehicle Score Rank
Toyota Camry 9.7 1
Honda Accord 8.7 2 (t)
Nissan Altima 8.7 2 (t)
Chevrolet Malibu 8.3 4 (t)
Volkswagen Passat 8.3 4 (t)
Hyundai Sonata 8.0 6
Chrysler Sebring 7.7 7
Mazda 6 7.0 8 (t)
Mitsubishi Galant 7.0 8 (t)
Suzuki Verona 7.0 8 (t)
Storage Space
Vehicle Score Rank
Honda Accord 9.3 1 (t)
Toyota Camry 9.3 1 (t)
Hyundai Sonata 8.3 3 (t)
Nissan Altima 8.3 3 (t)
Mazda 6 7.0 5
Mitsubishi Galant 6.7 6
Chevrolet Malibu 6.3 7
Suzuki Verona 6.0 8 (t)
Volkswagen Passat 6.0 8 (t)
Chrysler Sebring 5.7 10
Cupholders
Vehicle Score Rank
Honda Accord 9.0 1
Toyota Camry 8.7 2
Nissan Altima 8.0 3
Mitsubishi Galant 7.7 4
Mazda 6 7.0 5
Chevrolet Malibu 6.3 6 (t)
Volkswagen Passat 6.3 6 (t)
Hyundai Sonata 6.0 8
Chrysler Sebring 5.7 9
Suzuki Verona 4.0 10

Data and Charts

Dimensions
Engine & Transmission Specifications
Performance
Warranty Information

Dimensions

Exterior Dimensions & Capacities
  Chevrolet Malibu Chrysler Sebring Honda Accord Hyundai Sonata Mazda 6
Length, in. 188.3 190.7 189.5 186.9 186.8
Width, in. 69.9 70.6 71.5 71.7 70.1
Height, in. 57.5 54.9 57.1 56.0 56.7
Wheelbase, in. 106.3 108.0 107.9 106.3 105.3
Curb weight, lbs. 3,315 3,228 3,384 3,212 3,243
Turning circle, ft. 38.0 36.8 36.1 34.4 38.7
 
  Mitsubishi Galant Nissan Altima Suzuki Verona Toyota Camry VW Passat
Length, in. 190.6 191.5 187.8 189.2 185.2
Width, in. 72.4 70.4 71.5 70.7 68.7
Height, in. 57.9 57.9 57.1 58.3 57.6
Wheelbase, in. 108.3 110.2 106.3 107.1 106.4
Curb weight, lbs. 3,649 3,246 3,380 3,351 3,536
Turning circle, ft. 40.0 38.7 N/A 36.7 37.4
Interior Dimension
  Chevrolet Malibu Chrysler Sebring Honda Accord Hyundai Sonata Mazda 6
Front headroom, in. 39.6 37.6 38.3* 39.3 38.0*
Front shoulder room, in. 56.7 55.2 56.9 56.9 56.1
Front hip room, in. 53.2 52.5 54.6 55.8 54.7
Front legroom, in. 41.9 42.3 42.6 43.3 42.3
Rear headroom, in. 37.6 35.8 36.8 37.6 37.1
Rear shoulder room, in. 56.1 54.7 56.1 55.7 54.9
Rear hip room, in. 52.4 53.1 53.5 54.4 54.1
Rear legroom, in. 38.5 38.1 36.8 36.2 36.5
Trunk volume, cubic ft. 15.4 16.0 14.0 14.1 15.2
 
  Mitsubishi Galant Nissan Altima Suzuki Verona Toyota Camry VW Passat
Front headroom, in. 37.7* 40.8 39.1 39.2 37.8
Front shoulder room, in. 57.3 56.7 57.3 57.5 55.8
Front hip room, in. 54.4 53.0 54.8 54.4 N/A
Front legroom, in. 42.6 43.9 42.2 41.6 41.5
Rear headroom, in. 37.0 37.6 37.3 38.3 37.3
Rear shoulder room, in. 57.1 56.1 57.0 56.7 54.6
Rear hip room, in. 52.9 52.7 56.8 54.1 N/A
Rear legroom, in. 37.0 36.4 37.8 37.8 35.3
Trunk volume, cubic ft. 13.3 15.6 13.4 16.7 15.0
*Measurement takes into account sunroof in test vehicle.

Engine & Transmission Specifications

Engine & Transmission
  Chevrolet Malibu Chrysler Sebring Honda Accord Hyundai Sonata Mazda 6
Engine Type 12-valve OHV V6 24-valve DOHC V6 24-valve SOHC V6 24-valve DOHC V6 24-valve DOHC V6
Displacement, liters 3.5 2.7 3.0 2.7 3.0
Horsepower (SAE) @ rpm 200 @ 5,400 200 @ 5,800 rpm 240 @ 6,250 170 @ 6,000 220 @ 6,300
Max. Torque (lb-ft) @ rpm 220 @ 3,200 190 @ 4,850 212 @ 5,000 181 @ 4,000 192 @ 5,000
Transmission 4-speed auto. 4-speed auto. 5-speed auto. 4-speed auto. 5-speed manual
EPA Fuel Economy City/Hwy, mpg 23/32 21/28 21/30 19/27 20/27
 
  Mitsubishi Galant Nissan Altima Suzuki Verona Toyota Camry VW Passat
Engine Type 24-valve SOHC V6 24-valve DOHC V6 24-valve DOHC inline six 24-valve DOHC V6 30-valve DOHC V6
Displacement, liters 3.8 3.5 2.5 3.3 2.8
Horsepower (SAE) @ rpm 230 @ 5,250 245 @ 5,800 155 @ 5,800 225 @ 5,600 190 @ 6,000
Max. Torque (lb-ft) @ rpm 250 @ 4,000 246 @ 4,400 177 @ 4,000 240 @ 3,600 206 @ 3,200
Transmission 4-speed auto. 4-speed auto. 4-speed auto. 5-speed auto. 5-speed auto.
EPA Fuel Economy City/Hwy, mpg 18/26 19/26 20/28 20/29 19/27

Performance

Performance
  Chevrolet Malibu Chrysler Sebring Honda Accord Hyundai Sonata Mazda 6
Zero-to-60-mph acceleration, sec. 8.3 8.7 7.5 9.1 7.8
Quarter-mile acceleration, sec. 16.2 16.6 15.7 16.8 16.1
Quarter-mile speed, mph 87.4 84.0 90.6 83.2 90.0
60-to-0-mph braking, feet 140.4 117.8 133.4 132.0 123.5
600-ft slalom, mph 59.2 62.8 60.2 60.0 64.9
 
  Mitsubishi Galant Nissan Altima Suzuki Verona Toyota Camry VW Passat
Zero-to-60-mph acceleration, sec. 7.3 7.3 11.8 7.6 9.0
Quarter-mile acceleration, sec. 15.6 15.6 18.6 15.8 16.9
Quarter-mile speed, mph 90.4 90.8 76.0 89.8 85.1
60-to-0-mph braking, feet 125.5 137.3* 121.7 121.8 126.5
600-ft slalom, mph 63.4 61.0 61.0 61.8 61.3

Warranty Information

Warranty Information
  Chevrolet Malibu Chrysler Sebring Honda Accord Hyundai Sonata Mazda 6
Basic Warranty 3 yrs/ 36,000 mi 3 yrs/ 36,000 mi 3 yrs/ 36,000 mi 5 yrs/ 60,000 mi 4 yrs/ 50,000 mi
Powertrain 3 yrs/ 36,000 mi 7 yrs/ 70,000 mi 3 yrs/ 36,000 mi 10 yrs/ 100,000 mi 4 yrs/ 50,000 mi
Roadside Assistance 3 yrs/ 36,000 mi 3 yrs/ 36,000 mi Not available 5 yrs/ unlimited 4 yrs/ 50,000 mi
Corrosion Protection 6 yrs/ 100,000 mi 5 yrs/ 100,000 mi 5 yrs/ unlimited 5 yrs/ 100,000 mi 5 yrs/ unlimited
 
  Mitsubishi Galant Nissan Altima Suzuki Verona Toyota Camry VW Passat
Basic Warranty 3 yrs/ 36,000 mi 3 yrs/ 36,000 mi 3 yrs/ 36,000 mi 3 yrs/ 36,000 mi 4 yrs/ 50,000 mi
Powertrain 5 yrs/ 60,000 mi 5 yrs/ 60,000 mi 7 yrs/ 100,000 mi 5 yrs/ 60,000 mi 5 yrs/ 60,000 mi
Roadside Assistance 3 yrs/ 36,000 mi 3 yrs/ 36,000 mi 3 yrs/ 36,000 mi Not available 4 yrs/ 50,000 mi
Corrosion Protection 7 yrs/ 100,000 mi 5 yrs/ unlimited 3 yrs/ unlimited 5 yrs/ unlimited 12 yrs/ unlimited

Top 12 Features List

Top 12 Features

Top 12 Features
  Chevrolet Malibu Chrysler Sebring Honda Accord Hyundai Sonata Mazda 6
4-wheel disc brakes N/A S S S S
Antilock brakes S O S O S
Folding rear seat S S S S S
Full-length head curtain airbags S O S N/A O
Full-size spare tire N/A O N/A N/A N/A
Grocery net in trunk S N/A N/A O O
In-dash CD changer O O S N/A O
One-touch up/down front windows N/A N/A N/A** N/A N/A
Power driver seat S* S S N/A S
Seat-mounted side airbags N/A N/A S S O
Tilt/telescoping steering wheel S N/A S N/A S
Traction control S O S O S
 
  Mitsubishi Galant Nissan Altima Suzuki Verona Toyota Camry VW Passat
4-wheel disc brakes S S S S S
Antilock brakes S O S S S
Folding rear seat N/A S S S S
Full-length head curtain airbags N/A O N/A O S
Full-size spare tire N/A N/A S S S
Grocery net in trunk N/A S N/A O N/A
In-dash CD changer S O N/A O N/A
One-touch up/down front windows N/A S N/A N/A S
Power driver seat S S S S S
Seat-mounted side airbags S O N/A O S
Tilt/telescoping steering wheel N/A S N/A N/A S
Traction control S O O O S

* Our early production test vehicle was equipped with rear drum brakes, rather than discs, resulting in longer stopping distances. Also, note that the Malibu's power driver seat has manual seat back recline.
** The Accord has standard one-touch control for the driver window (but not the front-passenger window) and thus earned partial credit.

Key:
S: Standard
O: Optional
N/A: Not Available

4-wheel disc brakes: A full set of disc brakes is now the standard among V6-equipped family sedans, as they require additional braking force to skim off speed compared to their four-cylinder counterparts. Although modern-day drum brakes are far more effective than decades past, the design of disc brakes leads to shorter stopping distances and reduced fade. Only the Malibu wore a set of rear drums in this group.

Antilock brakes: Otherwise known as ABS, this feature prevents the brakes from locking up when the driver applies the pedal with full force. Benefits include shorter stopping distances and increased steering control.

Folding rear seat: Even sedan drivers need to haul the occasional bulky item. A folding rear seat could be the difference between fitting that item in the car and having to make a visit to the U-Haul lot.

Full-length head curtain airbags: This passive safety feature gives you the peace of mind of knowing that the heads of both front and rear outboard occupants will be protected in the event of a side-impact collision.

Full-size spare tire: When a tire goes flat, a full-size spare allows you to change the tire and be on your way, instead of having to put on a temporary spare and keep your speed limited to 55 mph while proceeding to the nearest tire store.

Grocery net in trunk: A grocery net keeps purchases secure and upright in the trunk so that you never have to mop up spilled milk or chase down liberated oranges.

In-dash CD changer: Over the course of a long commute or road trip, you're likely to go through more than one CD. An in-dash changer allows you to load several at a time without having to get out of the car.

One-touch up/down front windows: Life always seems a little easier when you only need to tap the front window buttons once to get them to go up or down. Only the Altima and Passat offered this feature.

Power driver seat: It's quicker and easier to find your preferred driving position when you can make all the adjustments by pressing a button or two. A power driver seat is particularly useful when more than one person will regularly be driving the car.

Seat-mounted side airbags: Mounted in the front seats only, these airbags provide additional torso protection for the front occupants in the event of a side-impact collision.

Tilt/telescoping steering wheel: Fore-aft steering wheel adjustment enables you to find a safer, more comfortable driving position — once you have the driver seat exactly where you want it, you can put the steering wheel exactly where you want it.

Traction control: This computer-controlled feature makes low-speed maneuvers easier and safer on slippery roads. When the tires begin to spin and lose traction, the system intervenes by applying the brakes and/or reducing engine power.

Consumer Commentary

2004 Chevrolet Malibu

"I've owned the 2004 Chevy Malibu LT for 10 days now and I'm getting very good gas mileage. On the highway, I've hit a high of 33.8 and around town I'm getting 23 or so. Most of my driving is around town and the suburbs and I'm averaging about 25 mpg overall. I'm really quite pleased with this car and have been enjoying the remote start option on these last two snowy days in Pennsylvania." — tucquan, Town Hall, Dec. 7, 2003

"I've owned a 2004 Malibu LS (V6) for about 3 weeks now, and the info readout shows about 28 mpg, but that's mainly stop-and-go driving. I don't know how accurate that thing is either…. I know some critics are really bashing the electric steering, but I gotta say I wish all my vehicles had it! I've been driving the Malibu for a week straight. When I went to back our 2001 Sierra out of the garage, I thought, 'Am I out of PS fluid?' Nope. I had gotten so used to the electric steering, [that] it felt strenuous just trying to maneuver the pickup out of the driveway! I'm not sure of the correct terminology, but you can feel the electric steering 'stiffen' up when you increase speed, but the steering is really agile in the parking lot. So far, I haven't had any problems with the car." — triedntru, Town Hall, Dec. 4, 2003

2004 Chrysler Sebring

"The car is fun to drive, gets excellent gas mileage and rides very comfortably. It has plenty of power and handles well. The interior is very roomy and seats four comfortably. Trunk space is a bit limited, but fold-down rear seats reduce that problem. Favorite features: Cruise control maintains speed very accurately. Six-CD sound system has excellent sound quality and full features. Seating is roomy. Steering is very responsive. All controls are conveniently located and simple to use. Climate control heats and cools quickly. Suggested improvements: Slightly larger trunk would be nice. Two-tone horn would be nice. One-tone horn sounds 'cheap.'" — Mr. C, July 12, 2003

"At 10,000 mi., good mileage, handling and no rattles. Poor storage space and road noise could be less. Favorite features: handling. Suggested improvements: bigger center console." — KL9, March 2, 2003

"I am very pleased with my new purchase of this vehicle. Has the creature comforts of my Buick (if you get it loaded). Suspension is fairly tight, could be described as 'touring.' Engine acceleration/power is good off of the start and excellent in rolling acceleration… if you floor it at 20-50 you know it… and might be exceeding the highway speed limit before you look down. The 'enthusiast package' is a must… better steering response, and autostick is fun. My average gas mileage sits at about 25. Favorite features: Creature comforts. Price/value/performance…try finding another car with all the bells and whistles in the $18K range. And decent gas mileage to boot. Suggested improvements: A supercharged or turbocharged version of the 2.7 V6 would put it off the map for performance-value. Dodge has an R/T version of the Stratus in 4DR… but it doesn't have the comfort feel of the Chrysler LXi and the engine is the same." — KMO, May 28, 2003

2004 Honda Accord

"I do believe this car to be an excellent buy. Good all-around grocery getter. It can sure get up and go! Zero to 80 in nothing flat. Just hope there are no corners! Car does not handle well if you push it in corners, very unpredictable. The front end likes to dive hard when braking and cornering, then it seems to not know where to go when you back out of the gas. This is where this car NEEDS SOMETHING. I know this is just a family sedan but it has the potential to be up there with the BMWs and other heavyweights. Maybe a wider tire and wheel? I do like the car and would recommend it. Favorite features: Will damn sure get you out on the freeway. Get up and go! Suggested improvements: Do something about the handling, cornering. Wider wheel and tire? Weight distribution?" — Jimbo986, Sept. 21, 2003

"When I test-drove my car, my only thought was 'this is so much fun' I haven't enjoyed driving a car this much in almost 20 years. This was my first 'foreign' car. My service rep assured me that more parts for this car were made in the USA than my Ford. I love everything about this car. I smile when I see it in the parking lot after work. My husband said, 'No one needs this much power in a car this size.' I disagree. Favorite features: POWER for its size, comfortable interior…especially for someone short or tall, dual temp controls, steering wheel audio controls, and I'm sure I will love the heated seats when it gets cold. Suggested improvements: When you put the windows down a little, it is noisy and water or rain comes in…I am a fresh air person." — Elaine, Sept. 4, 2003

"We bought a 2003 V6 nav. to be our 'work horse.' We take one-way 600-mile trips. The car performs very well, even over the CA 'Grapevine.' We drive in the fast lane and still get 26.0-27.5 mpg. Only problem, the hook for the driver sun visor broke. We love the car. We added a wide angle rearview mirror that helps for blind spots and a full front mask to prevent stone chips. The leather seems to suck up conditioner and dulls quickly. Favorite features: Great power with the 240 horses under the hood. Also, good visibility. Seats a little uncomfortable for a 600-mile trip, but then any car might be! Solid braking. Love the nav system. Suggested improvements: Higher or adjustable height center armrest. Different design for the side mirror adjustment knob. Larger rearview mirror. Different setup for opening two-level center console…it never seems to work the way I want. Sound system seems tinny except on CD." — Bob Malcolm, Aug. 19, 2003

2003 Hyundai Sonata

"This is a great car for the price I paid. On the same day I purchased this Sonata GLS-V6 with ABS option, my buddy purchased an Accord EX 4 Cyl…for about $4,500 more. We had almost identical (if not more) features. I love the roomy interior and lots of extra features. Can't beat this car for the price. Favorite features: Roomy interior, lots of options for the price, 4-wheel disc brakes with ABS, 4-wheel independent suspension, auto cut-off lights (for forgetful guys like me)… and much more. Suggested improvements: I know Acuras and Hondas also use same tires (Michelin Energy Plus), but these tires can be replaced with Bridgestone Turanza or something else. Just by doing that, it could improve noise level and the cornering… and most importantly, wet and snow traction." — Charlie C., Aug. 29, 2003

"As a 17-year-old, I'm very happy that I was able to purchase a Sonata. I love the fact that people think the car is a Jaguar, and that I can beat all those Cavaliers racing between stoplights. And the best thing about the car is that I can still make my monthly payments and have a great car. Favorite features: I love the styling, which is reminiscent of an S-Type, X-Type and C-Class. The price/features ratio is excellent, as is the powertrain and stereo system. Suggested improvements: The only things I could think of are better cupholders and maybe some better interior materials. The cabin is a bit dark in the models equipped with the gray interior, so some brighter accents would be nice, too. Other than that, this is a great car." — Alvy, Aug. 1, 2003

"The V6 engine is great and has wonderful acceleration. It's smooth and quiet. The front and rear seats are very comfortable for long and short trips. This Hyundai is very beautiful. I always get comments and questions like: 'Is that a Mercedes?' or 'That car must have cost you an arm and a leg.' If you can find a car at this price with these features, buy it! Favorite features: V6 engine, wood grain trim, smooth ride, warranty, excellent stereo and speakers, great price! Suggested improvements: At least 200 ponies under the hood, retained accessory power." — KPlove, July 16, 2003

2003 Mazda 6

"Had the car for a month now, and love it! Handles beautifully, holds five adults and their luggage, gets up and goes when you need it to. Love the looks — this car turns heads! I wanted a sport sedan for less than the $35K I'd have had to spend for the BMW 3 Series, and Mazda provided one. As my husband and I are planning a family in the next year, we needed a safe car that can hold a stroller and all the other kid paraphernalia, but I refused to settle for a boring car. This car covers both the mommy aspect of my future and the 'heck, yes, I love driving' aspect! Favorite features: Handling is superb. Drives like a sports car. Squats in corners. Seats five adults very comfortably. Huge trunk. Looks really sporty. Going to get my first ever speeding ticket in this thing — you're driving 85 before you know it! Suggested improvements: Fuel efficiency is rough, but no worse than other V6s in its class. Could use a tad more off-the-line oomph. Turn the A/C on and off by pressing, rather than rotating, the dial." — JKP, Sept. 29, 2003

"I bought a Steel Gray Metallic beauty in June 2003. This car is very eye-catching and you don't see one at every single stoplight like Camry and Accord, so it's unique! My automatic 6 has a horrible throttle delay. I contacted my dealer and Mazda USA and both say that it's operating as designed. Fix the throttle lag and it will be perfect! Be sure to note the takeoffs from a dead stop when you test-drive an automatic! Favorite features: Steering wheel radio controls. No exterior antennae! Suggested improvements: Three problems — 1) Bad sulfur exhaust fumes, 2) Very bad front wheel brake dust, 3) Throttle lag with the automatic. I noticed a bad trend reading through other reviews. Everyone is complaining about meager low-end torque and throttle delays." — mazda6s_in_ky, Sept. 30, 2003

"What a great car! In 21 years I've only owned Nissans (my last, a '99 Altima GXE). I decided to try something new with the Mazda 6 (loaded V6 with sport package) after reading so many rave reviews about it. I travel 35 min. each way to work and actually look forward to getting in my car and driving. It's a nice-looking, zippy, nimble car. I only have 3,500 miles on it, but so far I would recommend the car to someone who is looking for a fun, quick vehicle that is roomy enough for a couple of kids (mine are 10 and 14 and no complaints about lack of space). I'm hoping I get the same reliability of my former Nissans. I'm also very curious to see how it handles in the snow. Favorite features: Very tight steering (I dealt with a lot of torque steer with my Nissans), Bose stereo, sleek exterior, dash setup, stereo controls on the steering column (very convenient), sunroof, quickness and agility! Suggested improvements: Improved climate control (front windows seem to fog a lot), softer leather (looks a little like vinyl), smoother gearshift (it makes these clicking sounds each time you shift), option for a smaller rear spoiler when you purchase the sport package." — Former Nissan Owner, Sept. 3, 2003

2004 Mitsubishi Galant

(None available)

2003 Nissan Altima

"I used to have to shut off the A/C on my 2001 Altima to accelerate onto I-4. Now I have to hold on tight, what smooth power! Doing 80 and getting 30 mpg is outrageous! What a car! Favorite features: The sound system is tight, the engine is tremendous!" — D. W., Oct. 1, 2003

"Beautiful vehicle. I purchased the Sheer Silver with every option except for the wood grain. The few things that I have added are a color-keyed grille and chroming of the original rims. In doing so, that made the vehicle for me! It rides semi smooth for the most part, but when the road gets bumpy, you'll know it. Fantastic handling and mileage! Interior quality is maybe just average. An annoying thump in the right front shock has been a problem though. Everything else has been great! Really will surprise you on how quick it is. Older MUSTANG 5.0s BEWARE! Favorite features: Overall performance is great for a family mobile. Fabulous Bose system! Surprising mileage. Lots of room and zoom! Just a darn good-looking car and for a good price. Suggested improvements: Vehicle seems to flex going up curbs on an angle suggesting that the car really isn't that solid. Add an auto opening moonroof, better interior materials, location for the heated seat switch, paint chips WAY too easily! 5-speed automatic! Turn signals in the side mirrors." — Batesville CSC 8078, May 18, 2003

"This is the first car that I have owned that I absolutely love!! My previous car was a Honda Civic and the Altima is a far superior car to the Civic. I commute in my car about one hour everyday. The seats are very comfortable and the controls on the steering wheel are a wonderful feature. It has a lot of headroom, my husband is 6'5" and he has more than enough room to sit comfortably in the car. I recommend the Altima to everyone I know. Favorite features: roominess of the cabin, steering wheel controls. Suggested improvements: None." — OURTOYS, July 2, 2003

2004 Suzuki Verona

"We have about 5,000 miles on the odo in town and highway, this car really comes into its own driving in town with the sunroof open and classic rock jamming on the CD player. Don't get me wrong, it is a good highway ride as well, but the smoothness and the ride give you a true big car feel in town. I have heard complaints about the horsepower and the softer ride of the Verona from some reviews that I have read. These are my thoughts after driving the car about the two issues: One, Suzuki has spread a small displacement engine over two more cyls in an I6, with the result of a wider torque curve. The wider torque curve and the I6 produce a smoother, less laboring feel to the powertrain. The ride is softer than Accord or Camry, but these cars are family cars not sport sedans, so if you want to rattle your families' teeth then by all means buy a stiff suspension. Anyway, this car feels solid and comfy, as close as you can get to the large American family car feel." — lil2032000, Nov. 22, 2003

"We have put 1,000 miles on this car city and highway. This car has a high-quality feel to it, the seating is comfortable and the ride is solid, soft but not too floaty. The interior is roomy and offers a classy look. My mother came over to visit us and drove the car for the first time last week. She and Dad bought a Town Car last year and found that the Verona had less suspension noise when driving over road bumps. The fit and finish on the interior is first rate and full of attention to detail. Favorite features: wood grain accents, driving lights, minor detail touches such as hooks on the floor to keep the floor mats from bunching under the brake and gas pedals, and overall quality feel. Suggested improvements: More aggresive advertising and ship more into the dealerships. Note: The reason for the lower reliability score is because there is no history on this car yet." — Chip D., Sept. 25, 2003

"I believe my wife and I have bought the first Verona in Indiana, and maybe in the United States. This car is freakin' awesome. We did compare it to several models elsewhere. This car is a shoe-in for the Nissan Altima look-alike, and for us, it was $5,000 less than the Altima with the same options. The look has a lot of style and luxury and was very impressive. It handles very nice, and even with only 155 hp, we found it to be plenty. This car has class and I'm very surprised it's not selling for upwards of $25-30,000. Good job, Suzuki!! Favorite features: Tucked leather heated seats, wood grain interior trim, alloy rims, our color of car 'Sapphire Grey,' and the nose of this car reminds me of a Lexus. Suggested improvements: Maybe just a little more horsepower. And for advertising; use a rock and roll song (like Chevrolet does)." — dave steele, Sept. 9, 2003

2004 Toyota Camry

"This car is charming. Every feature it has is perfect for a family sedan. The price to own one, with the quietness and power it has, leans over all competitors. Favorite features: The new 3.3-liter V6 engine is the same as that in the Lexus RX 330 and ES 330. Great engine, so powerful that zapping between traffic is easier. 0-60 is under 8 seconds. Suggested improvements: Better stereo, climate controls, windows auto up (only down) in SE V6. HID. Better seating (even the leather in SE is not as good as in XLE)." — Ohno Yuji, Sept. 30, 2003

"This vehicle replaced a 1992 Olds Cutlass, which was like going from a Volkswagen Beetle (older type) to a Porsche 911. The performance of this vehicle has been surprising considering its size and weight. As for fun-to-drive, the car will get you into trouble with law enforcement very quickly, so pay attention to the speedometer, as 100-plus mph is no strain at all for this car. The ride quality is as good as your living room couch…functional, yet it's responsive when needed. Long trips are easily handled with little or no fatigue. Favorite features: The drivetrain has to be one of the most enjoyable things about this vehicle. The V6 and 5-speed automatic are very responsive to driver input, and make the car feel sportier than it is. Suggested improvements: The only major issue so far has been the transmission's tendency to 'hunt and peck' during gear changes under moderate cornering loads. This is only a minor issue, and since we only have 3,700 miles on the odometer, we are still learning the car's 'habits.'" — neonman12, Aug. 27, 2003

2004 Volkswagen Passat

"After doing a ton of research, I decided on the Passat, both for value and for style. This car is extremely fun to drive. The blue anthracite with black leather is a great color combo. This is my first new car and I couldn't be happier. I feel like I'm driving a much more expensive car. It's so quiet inside with all the windows shut and the climate control running. The Passat is simply an awesome car. I highly recommend it. Favorite features: blue and red lights at night, climate control, auto-dimming mirror, radio controls on steering wheel, smooth acceleration, trip computer. Suggested improvements: fuel economy could be better, especially considering it's eating premium gas; not enough storage space inside for CDs and other goodies." — gadgetgirl, Aug. 23, 2003

"I have had the GLX for 5 months now; it is the best car out there for the money. I look forward to getting into it each morning; the design and performance are what would be expected in a $50,000 German sedan. All of the 'extra' features that are uncovered in the first few weeks make this car truly special. Favorite features: The design and interior layout/quality. It is as good as a 5 Series. Suggested improvements: A little bigger would be better — and faster too. (You can probably say that about most cars.) In its current state it truly is a great car." — whcatto, Aug. 30, 2003

"I have driven Hondas, Toyotas and a slew of different U.S. cars over the last few years without really having a 'favorite' that stuck out from the rest. I first test-drove a Passat because my son was working for the local VW shop and I felt compelled to support who was supporting him. I have never been more impressed with a car. Don't buy a sedan without checking out the Passat, you'll be sorry you did! I recommend test-driving a Passat right after driving another vehicle you're interested in so you can have them both fresh in your mind. The handling and steering alone will have you sold! VW does it right. Favorite features: By far what sets this vehicle apart from the competition is that every feature is well thought out and executed. I never find myself wishing for features, and I've been really surprised at the thoughtful goodies that are designed into this car that I would never have noticed on a test-drive. Suggested improvements: Better ads! I didn't even know they existed…. One thing I would suggest would be more options to choose from. I had to move up a trim level just for power seating (glad I did though!)." — macaddiict, March 29, 2003

Final Rankings and Scoring Evaluations

Final Rankings

Final Rankings
  Chevrolet Malibu Chrysler Sebring Honda Accord Hyundai Sonata Mazda 6
Personal Rating (10% of score) 43.3 20.0 76.7 26.7 83.3
Recommended Rating (10% of score) 56.7 16.7 96.7 30.0 53.3
Evaluation Score (20% of score) 70.9 63.2 85.8 66.7 79.1
Feature Content (20% of score) 63.9 52.8 77.8 38.9 69.4
Performance (20% of score) 63.3 69.6 82.0 52.9 89.5
Price (20% of score) 64.5 61.0 58.3 100.0 65.9
           
Total Score 62.5 53.0 78.1 57.3 74.4
Final Ranking 7 9 1 8 2
 
  Mitsubishi Galant Nissan Altima Suzuki Verona Toyota Camry VW Passat
Personal Rating (10% of score) 53.3 73.3 13.3 60.0 100.0
Recommended Rating (10% of score) 53.3 63.3 13.3 76.7 90.0
Evaluation Score (20% of score) 77.7 81.2 62.2 84.6 83.8
Feature Content (20% of score) 50.0 66.7 47.2 69.4 83.3
Performance (20% of score) 93.6 84.2 40.9 87.8 61.0
Price (20% of score) 61.5 61.1 92.0 53.7 33.6
           
Total Score 67.2 72.3 51.1 72.8 71.3
Final Ranking 6 4 10 3 5

Scoring Explanation

Personal Rating: Purely subjective. After the test, each participating editor was asked to rank the sedans in order of preference based on which he or she would buy if money were no object.

Recommended Rating: After the test, each participating editor was asked to rank the sedans in order of preference based on which he or she thought would be best for the average consumer shopping in this segment.

23-Point Evaluation: Each participating editor ranked every family sedan based on a comprehensive 23-point evaluation. The evaluation covered everything from exterior design to cupholders. Scoring was calculated on a point system, and the scores listed are averages based on all test participants' evaluations.

Feature Content: Editors picked the 12 features they thought would be most beneficial to a consumer shopping in the family sedan segment. For each test vehicle, the score was based on the actual features it had versus the total possible (12). Standard and optional equipment were taken into consideration.

Performance Testing: Each sedan was subjected to a set of performance tests that measure acceleration, braking and speed through a 600-foot slalom course. Scores were calculated by giving the best sedan in each category 100 percent. Subsequent vehicles were awarded points based on how close they came to the best performing sedan's score.

Price: The numbers listed were the result of a simple percentage calculation based on the least expensive sedan in this comparison test. Using the "as tested" prices of the actual evaluation vehicles, the least expensive vehicle received a score of 100, with the remaining vehicles receiving lesser scores based on how much each one cost.

Stereo Evaluations

2004 Mitsubishi Galant
2003 Nissan Altima
2003 Mazda 6
2004 Honda Accord
2004 Volkswagen Passat
2004 Toyota Camry
2004 Suzuki Verona
2003 Hyundai Sonata
2004 Chevrolet Malibu
2004 Chrysler Sebring


2004 Mitsubishi Galant

System Score: 10.0

Ranking in Test: First

Components: Aware of the new standard set in the family sedan class by the excellent Bose sound system in the Nissan Altima, Mitsubishi took pains to upgrade the Galant's premium stereo offering in the 2004 model. The result of the company's efforts is more than a match for the strong bass attack of the Altima's Bose, and we now consider it the stereo to beat in the family sedan segment.

This Infinity-branded setup came standard in our GTS test car, and it's optional on lower-line ES and LS models. A 270-watt amplifier feeds power to eight speakers, among them a pair of 6-by-9 full-range speakers in the rear deck, 6.3-inch full-range speakers in all four doors and 2.6-inch tweeters mounted at each corner of the dash firing upward into the glass. You'll find a six-disc CD changer in the dash, 12 FM radio presets and six AM presets, but no cassette player.

The head unit features large, easy-to-reach controls, including oversize volume and tuning knobs and a double-sided seek button. Additionally, thanks to Mitsubishi's relationship with Chrysler, you'll find the industry's best satellite audio controls mounted on the back of the steering wheel — you can't see them, but they sure are easy to use. Alongside the simple control layout, drivers must acclimate to a small display mounted at the top of the dash. The display is at least at eye level, and drivers can choose from four screens to organize the information (the display covers audio, climate, compass and clock functions). Still, we think a larger display would work better here.

Performance: This system is extremely well suited to this midsize sedan's cabin. Try as we might, we couldn't find a type of music that wasn't enjoyable to listen to on this stereo. The system plays loud, and bass tones are strong and crisp with no distortion. Highs are clean and refreshingly devoid of the trumped-up artificial sound present in some of today's systems. Even with the system's reliance on do-it-all full-range speakers, the separation is excellent — strings are distinct and warm whether you're listening to an orchestral score or hard rock.

Best Feature: Rich, crisp sound.

Worst Feature: Small all-in-one display at the top of the dash.

Conclusion: An excellent stereo that prioritizes refined sound quality over bludgeoning the occupants with bass.

2003 Nissan Altima

System Score: 9.0

Ranking in Test: Second

Components: Ever since the Altima's epic redesign for the 2002 model year, we've regarded its Bose stereo as the standard for sound quality in the family sedan segment. Optional on 2.5 S and 3.5 SE models (like our test vehicle) and standard in 2.5 SL trim, the system is known for its ability to deliver loud, almost overpowering bass response while putting out a balanced overall sound. But the competition has been studying up, and in this test, it was obvious to us that Mitsubishi's team at Infinity has come up with a system for the '04 Galant that surpasses the Altima's Bose by virtue of its superb separation and clarity. The fact that the Altima didn't take the crown in the stereo competition needn't dampen your enthusiasm — this is still a very enjoyable sound system, especially if you're a bass junkie.

The well-designed head unit features large controls and a user-friendly layout. Drawbacks include a display with yellow-orange illumination that washes out in sunlight and the absence of a tuning knob. Auxiliary controls on the steering wheel offer volume, seek and mode adjustment; while easy to use during the day, their similar shapes and sizes and lack of illumination make them tough to navigate in the dark. Bose-equipped Altimas come with an in-dash six-disc CD changer but no cassette player. Listeners have 18 radio presets at their disposal and can select any combination of AM and FM stations. Extras include speed-sensitive volume control and the Radio Data System (RDS).

Speakers include a pair of 6-by-9s in the rear deck that operate in the bass mode only (and essentially function as dual subwoofers), a pair of 6.5-inch full-range drivers in the rear doors, a pair of 6.5-inch midbass drivers in the front doors and 1-inch tweeters mounted on each A-pillar.

Performance: There's no question that the Altima has the most powerful bass response in the family sedan segment — something that anyone who listens to hip hop, metal or techno will immediately appreciate. While overall sound quality and separation still rank near the top in this class, this Bose must step aside for the Galant's Infinity, which transmits all types of music with greater accuracy and warmth. If symphonies or classic jazz are regularly on your playlist, we'll wager that you'll prefer the Mitsubishi's mastery of all frequencies. That said, the Altima's cockpit remains one of the most enjoyable places in this segment to load up a few CDs and kick back. If you like the rest of the car, the stereo will not disappoint.

Best Feature: Powerful bass attack.

Worst Feature: Display washes out in sunlight.

Conclusion: The Altima's Bose is still one of the top two stereos in the family sedan segment. Bass lovers will not want to miss this one.

2003 Mazda 6

System Score: 8.0

Ranking in Test: Tied for third

Components: Thanks largely to the Altima, the Bose name now carries plenty of weight with consumers shopping for a high-quality factory audio system, so it's no surprise that Mazda decided to offer its own version in the 6. This Bose system is an option for both four-cylinder and V6 models.

The trendy-looking head unit offers a widely spaced collection of oversized dials and buttons that are easy to get your fingers on while driving. The one drawback to the arrangement is that climate control dials of similar size and shape occupy this space as well, which can lead to confusion the first few times you drive the car. Moreover, the audio and climate control systems share a single display. Fortunately, Mazda also provides a nifty set of audio controls on the steering wheel, with subtle use of texturing to help the driver distinguish between the volume and seek buttons on the basis of touch alone. An in-dash six-disc CD changer is included with the Bose audio package. Alternatively, buyers can opt for an MP3 player as a dealer-installed accessory in this slot. In addition, the blank slot in the center of our test car's center stack (covered by a plastic trim piece) can house either a cassette deck or a MiniDisc player, both of which are available as accessories. For radio listeners, there are the usual 12 FM presets and six AM presets. Speed-sensitive volume and Radio Data System (RDS) features are included.

Speakers include a 10-inch subwoofer on the back deck, plus 5-by-7 full-range drivers in all four doors. Separate tweeters occupy their own enclosures beside the A-pillars. The amplifier feeds these speakers a total of 200 watts.

Performance: Even with a subwoofer in residence on the rear deck, this Bose doesn't have the overwhelming bass response of the Altima's Bose, nor does it have the overall vigor of the Galant's Infinity. Nevertheless, crisp highs and lows, along with excellent separation, make for an enjoyable listening experience overall. This stereo will appeal to those looking for quality sound with moderate levels of bass.

Best Feature: Balanced sound quality, availability of MP3 and MiniDisc players.

Worst Feature: Similar audio and climate controls can be confusing.

Conclusion: While audiophiles will prefer the more powerful systems available in the Galant and Altima, the Mazda's Bose is an enjoyable system in its own right — and only heightens the entertainment value of the fun-loving 6.

2004 Honda Accord

System Score: 8.0

Ranking in Test: Tied for third

Components: Honda has never been known for putting high-quality stereos in its cars, but that changed when the current Accord arrived on the scene last year. Save for the stripped-down DX model, all Accords come with the same six-speaker stereo. Even though it's rated at only 120 watts, sound quality rivals that of the Mazda's Bose and the Passat's Monsoon (both of which are rated at 200 watts).

As in the Mazda 6, stereo controls are placed within close proximity of the climate controls; however, Honda's designers had more success in differentiating the two. The result is that the Accord's audio controls are familiar and easy to use the first time you drive the car. A large volume knob occupies the center of the stack, and not only is it attractive with it faux aluminum trim, it's perfectly sized for fingertip control. The rest of the controls are medium-size buttons logically arranged around a large clear display. Additionally, Honda has taken the extra step of designing the perfect set of steering wheel controls. Although they're not illuminated at night as the Passat's are, designers paid attention to their texture and shape, making them easy to use by touch. An in-dash six-disc CD changer is standard on all six-cylinder Accords and the four-cylinder EX. A cassette player is not available. XM Satellite Radio is a new feature this year; it's standard on EX V6 models and all leather-equipped four-cylinder EX models. For traditional radio stations, there are 12 FM presets and 6 AM presets.

The speaker array includes a pair of 6-by-9s in the rear deck and a pair of 6.5-inch full-range drivers in the front doors. The tweeters are mounted in the corners of the dash, an advantageous location that allows them to fire upward into the windshield glass and reflect sound into the cabin. If Honda had seen fit to include a pair of rear-door speakers as well, this system would likely be a match for the stereos in the Altima and Galant. Oh well.

Performance: Although unable to produce the powerful, full-bodied sound of the Galant's Infinity or the Altima's Bose, the Honda's stereo comes through with strong, crisp bass output, along with warm, natural-sounding strings and vocals. You're unlikely to have a cathartic listening experience in the Accord, but just about any type of music sounds great.

Best Feature: Excellent ergonomics, pleasant sound quality.

Worst Feature: No speakers in rear doors.

Conclusion: A surprisingly enjoyable stereo where you least expect to find one — a sensible family sedan.

2004 Volkswagen Passat

System Score: 8.0

Ranking in Test: Tied for third

Components: Volkswagen was one of the first manufacturers to put a high-quality sound system in its family car, and this Monsoon stereo has served the Passat well. Even in the days of thundering bass in family sedans, it remains one of the better stereos in this class.

Volkswagen has tinkered with the ergonomics over the years, finally settling on our test car's double-DIN head unit. The various buttons and knobs still aren't very large, and there could certainly be more spacing between some of them. Yet, editors found them easy to use due to their straightforward layout. An in-dash CD changer has yet to find its way into the Passat, so owners must make do with a single-disc player and then decide whether they want to pay for the trunk-mounted changer installed by VW dealers. A cassette player is standard in every Passat. For radio listeners, there are 18 FM presets and 6 AM presets.

The speaker offerings are a little different than what you'll find in the other cars. Instead of the usual 6-by-9s in the rear deck, Volkswagen installs 6.5-inch midbass drivers in all four doors. Additionally, mounted in the upper part of each of the doors is a tweeter. That's it — eight speakers in all. A 200-watt amplifier feeds sound to the speakers.

Performance: Due to the lack of rear-deck speakers, this system can't match the deep bass response of cars like the Accord, Altima and Galant. In trade, the VW's small speakers produce some of the warmest, most accurate sound you'll find in this price range. In this regard, only the Galant matches the Passat's lifelike reproduction. Unless you're hungry for serious bass, you'll love the way this Monsoon makes your music sound.

Best Feature: Refined sound quality.

Worst Feature: Lack of in-dash CD changer.

Conclusion: Although more bass would be nice in a $31K car, most people will be perfectly satisfied with the highly refined stereo in this family sedan.

2004 Toyota Camry

System Score: 7.0

Ranking in Test: Sixth

Components: A six-speaker JBL sound system comes standard on all LE and SE models in the Camry line. An additional pair of speakers comes standard on XLE models; they're optional on other trims. As our SE V6 test vehicle had the Premium Package, it had the full set of speakers, as well as an in-dash six-disc CD changer.

Accordingly, there were 6.5-inch speakers installed in each of the doors, a pair of 6-by-9s in the rear bulkhead, and at each corner of the dash, a midtweeter that fires upward into the windshield glass — a quick recipe for a good soundstage. A 200-watt amplifier routes power to the speakers.

The head unit is Toyota's corporate design, and that means a well-organized array of large buttons and knobs. The tuning knob doubles as tonal adjustment, and with a large, legible display, it's relatively easy to tweak the bass and treble levels from the driver seat. We say relatively because the head unit is positioned very high in the dash and is not canted toward the driver — in the past, editors have commented that this makes it hard to use, as the typical driver must stretch to reach it. Few editors complained this time around, but there's no doubt the Accord's stereo controls fall closer to hand. Besides that, Toyota still hasn't gotten around to putting secondary volume, seek and mode controls on the steering wheel — the Sonata was the only other car in the group that didn't offer them. A cassette player is included in this setup, along with the usual 18 presets. Radio Data System (RDS) technology is also included.

Performance: With so many excellent stereos in this group, the Camry's JBL got lost in the crowd, even with the extra pair of speakers. There's nothing displeasing about it: It plays loud, and offers crisp bass and decent separation. Compared to the higher-ranking systems, though, it wasn't remarkable for its warmth or depth, nor could it match the low-end kick of the Altima's Bose. Certainly, it's a fine stereo for the average driver; it's just not the sort that will stir the emotions of an audiophile.

Best Feature: Dash-mounted tweeters that set up a pleasant soundstage.

Worst Feature: No auxiliary stereo controls on the steering wheel.

Conclusion: Not the greatest stereo of the family sedan segment in terms of sound or ergonomics, but most Camry buyers will have few, if any, complaints.

2004 Suzuki Verona

System Score: 6.0

Ranking in test: Tied for seventh

Components: Like the Sonata, the Verona offers a decent listening experience given its low price of admission and limited speaker array. The speaker placement is a bit unusual in a car with just six of them. For starters, there's a tweeter tucked into each corner of the dash. This is a desirable arrangement that allows the diminutive speaker to fire sound up into the windshield glass, which then reflects it into the cabin — usually creating a nice soundstage. The other four speakers are 6.5-inch drivers mounted in each of the four doors. There are no speakers in the back deck.

The head unit is positioned in the middle of the center stack, underneath the climate controls — this isn't usually an advantageous setup, but it presents no real problems in the Verona. The unit itself is a little overloaded with features, but decent-size buttons, relatively wide spacing and a logical layout make it easy to figure out the basics. Secondary controls for volume and seek are mounted on the steering wheel. In addition to the expected bass, treble, balance and fade adjustments, the Verona offers a handful of auto equalizer settings ("jazz," "rock," "voice," "classic" and "pop"), as well as a "bass +" button that can either trump up the bass or kill it completely. We could take or leave this stuff, as neither the equalizer presets nor the "bass +" substantially improve the listening experience. Both a single CD player and a cassette deck are included as standard items, but there is no option to add a CD changer.

Performance: Despite the absence of rear deck speakers, this system turns in an acceptable performance. It plays surprisingly loud, and bass is well defined. Separation is decent, too, and most types of music sound fine in the Verona. Listen to it back-to-back with the top finishers in this test, and the Suzuki's sound reproduction is sure to seem a bit flat. But considering the car's budget status, it's not bad.

Best Feature: Tweeters mounted on dash.

Worst Feature: No speakers in rear deck.

Conclusion: A respectable system in a car that's all about value. Just keep in mind that these days even an everyman's car like the Honda Accord LX offers great sound.

2003 Hyundai Sonata

System Score: 6.0

Ranking in Test: Tied for seventh

Components: Much like the Malibu, the Sonata offers a basic system that performs acceptably and should not disappoint the typical buyer — all the more true in this car, which is priced less than $19,000.

The head unit isn't much to look at, and although it's placed high in the dash, an excessive number of buttons makes it harder to use than necessary. The addition of a tuning knob and double-sided seek button (rather than two separate buttons) would be a big improvement, and it would free up space for a larger display. Besides bass and treble adjustments, the head unit has preset equalizer curves for "jazz," "classic" and "rock."

Both a single-disc CD player and a cassette deck are included here as standard equipment. A CD changer is not on the factory options list, but the head unit is obviously set up to accommodate a trunk-mounted changer that your dealer would install. Radio listeners get the usual 18 presets.

Speakers consist of a pair of 6-by-9s in the rear deck, a pair 6.5-inch drivers mounted in the front doors and a tweeter tucked behind each A-pillar.

Performance: Considering the price of the car, performance is quite satisfactory. The system plays loud and bass is strong if a bit sludgy at higher volumes. Separation is surprisingly good, as instrumental and vocal components are transmitted as distinct elements. Vocals and strings sound nice enough, but they seem a bit hollow when compared to the output of the elite stereos in this test.

Best Feature: Balanced sound quality for the price paid.

Worst Feature: Excess buttons on head unit.

Conclusion: The Sonata's stereo was no match for the more powerful sound systems in this test, but given the car's comparatively low price, we think most buyers will be satisfied with its performance in their everyday travels. That said, serious audiophiles should look elsewhere.

2004 Chevrolet Malibu

System Score: 6.0

Ranking in Test: Tied for seventh

Components: Considering that it's fully redesigned for 2004, the Malibu has a pretty basic sound system. LS and LT models come standard with a six-speaker stereo with no option to add more speakers or a more powerful amplifier. That being the case, this is still an acceptable stereo for this class, and value-minded buyers should be happy with it.

The head unit is well-organized, but it's cluttered with numerous small buttons that are somewhat off-putting alongside the large, simple controls in cars like the Accord and Galant. The display employs a basic blue, dot-matrix-type font that isn't particularly modern or legible in appearance. Steering wheel controls are provided for volume and seek functions, and they're simple to use.

Our LT test vehicle was equipped with the optional in-dash six-disc CD changer as well as XM Satellite Radio. Loading CDs into the changer was no more difficult than in other cars, but this one made an inordinate amount of noise when loading or unloading CDs. We've never experienced anything like this in other GM vehicles with CD changers, so we're not sure what the problem was. In any case, this changer gave us the impression that durability would not be its strong suit. A cassette player is not available on any Malibu. Eighteen presets are provided for radio listeners. Auto sound leveling and Radio Data System (RDS) technology are also included.

The speaker array includes a pair of 6-by-9s in the rear deck, 6.5-inch drivers in the front doors and a 1-inch tweeter mounted just behind each A-pillar.

Performance: There's nothing thrilling about this system compared to the higher-finishing stereos in this test, but it gets the job done. Bass response is strong, though it gets a bit sludgy at higher volumes. Separation is decent, too, as highs, lows and mids are distinct. Just don't expect the warmth and accuracy of a Bose, Infinity or Monsoon system.

Best Feature: Strong bass.

Worst Feature: Busy head unit, unrefined CD changer operation.

Conclusion: GM loves to play up the fact that its full-size pickups and SUVs were the first in their segments to offer Bose stereos. Given that the Malibu is supposed to be the car that changes the company's fortunes in the family sedan segment, it's puzzling that GM isn't offering an optional Bose system that would allow it to go toe-to-toe with the imports.

2004 Chrysler Sebring

System Score: 5.0

Ranking in test: Tenth

Components: Our LXi sedan would ordinarily have come with just four speakers and a single CD player, but adding the Luxury Group supplied two additional speakers, a 120-watt amplifier, an in-dash six-disc CD changer and a cassette deck. The "in-dash" aspect of the changer is debatable, as it's recessed underneath the center stack and is not within easy reach from the driver seat. Also, said one editor, "Every time the stereo turns on, the CD changer makes an annoying clicking noise — even if the stereo's in FM mode."

The head unit is the standard Chrysler-issue variety, and that means small buttons, simple slide controls for bass and treble adjustment and a two-step presetting procedure for radio stations that never fails to irritate the radio diehards on staff. We have found, though, that these controls become familiar over time. We were fortunate in that our Sebring had Chrysler's industry-leading satellite stereo controls: Adjustments for volume, seek and mode are on the back of the steering wheel, which might not seem like the best place for them. However, they're ultimately very easy to navigate by memory and touch, and the best part is that you don't have to remove your hands from the wheel to use them.

The speaker array includes a pair of tweeters mounted on the dash (allowing their sonic output to reflect off the glass), a pair of 6.5-inch drivers in the front doors and a pair of 6-by-9s in the rear deck. Incidentally, the rearmost speakers weren't covered in the usual speaker cloth and instead had been carpeted over with the rest of the bulkhead — this can't be good for sound quality.

Performance: The listening experience is mediocre at best. Although bass response and separation are respectable at lower volumes, the system quickly loses its composure as the volume increases and distortion sets in. Beyond that, this stereo lacks the overall crispness and warmth of the higher-finishing stereos in this test.

Best Feature: Auxiliary stereo controls mounted on back of steering wheel spokes.

Worst Feature: Mediocre sound quality.

Conclusion: Other Chrysler vehicles give buyers the option of getting an Infinity audio system on the higher trims. Too bad the company hasn't seen fit to offer such a system for the Sebring sedan. As it is, we know plenty of Dodge Grand Caravans that rock harder than this family sedan.

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