Less than a million mid-size choices

2006, Subaru, Legacy 2.5i

A friend of mine called last week. Well, I'd better clarify that. He e-mailed me; but reading his note felt like taking his phone call, because I know this guy well enough to sense in his writing the nuances of intonation in his words as if I'd been listening to instead of reading them. From the standpoint of emotional truth, it's fair enough to say I had the impression of talking on the phone with my friend when really all I did was read his damn note. Fair enough?

This is the gist of what he said, or rather wrote: The wife's got an Acura MDX sport/utility vehicle that's she's enjoyed driving for a few years. But lately it feels bulky ("beefy and hard-to-park," to be exact if it's okay to quote him according to the principles of "fair-use" enshrined in copyright law). Now she "wants a sedan." There followed a bit of "howya doin'?" and "how's the family?" and "let's do lunch sometime"; then the kicker: "Your thoughts?" About what kind of sedan the wife ought to consider, that is. (To be precise, he actually wrote "Your thoughts." with a period instead of a question mark; but I took it as a question. Anybody would.)

Yeah, I got thoughts. Lots o' thoughts; and I told him so or rather, wrote him so. In the first place, I said that anyone driving an SUV who doesn't need an SUV ought to be congratulated for wanting to dump the SUV in favor of one of the many, several and various outstanding sedans on the market today.

I then went on to suggest a baker's half-dozen sedan models, recommended in light of what I think I know of this couple's tastes and interests and, dare I presume, "price tolerance." I might have suggested nine models, but I was partially preempted by my friend's own note. He wasn't eager to buy another Acura for now, even though the wife "enjoyed driving the Acura TL (loaner during a repair)." He added, moreover, "I think the Passat is overpriced (you tell me)[,] and the Lexus line has never wowed me."

That was all I needed to hear or to read. It was certainly more than any palmist or Tarot card reader discovers before consigning a client to his or her fate. As it happens, I would gladly have recommended Acura's TL sedan as an admirable combination of performance and value; but if my friend wants a vacation from Acura in order to play the field, by all means he should take this opportunity to do so. I concurred, as well, that Lexus models on the whole suffer from a strange personality-deficit disorder.

While I conceded that Volkswagen's Passat might be construed a bit pricey, particularly in light of its close kinship with competing Audi models, my first recommendation was to step back a notch and test-drive the new-for-2006 VW Jetta TDI. This is the diesel-powered version of VW's Gen-X cult car that costs about $22,000 (base price), delivers 36 mpg/city and 41 mpg/highway, and sports European-flavored road manners.

The Subaru Legacy sedan also merits a look. Featuring legendary all-wheel-drive as standard equipment, and boasting a 2.5-liter "boxer" or opposed-cylinder H4 powerplant, Subaru's standard, Special and Limited Edition models all make 175 hp and range in price from $21,695 to $25,295. These sedans, in contrast to their station-wagon siblings, are elegantly styled to within a smidgen of the BMW 3-Series' status-appeal; and their mechanicals, derived from rally racers, establish a paradigm for the mid-size category.

Also from Japan is the Mazda6/Mazdaspeed6 duo of sport sedans, the latter of which appeared here last week. Alas, the cost of Mazdaspeed6's sporty turbo making 274 hp represents a performance tax to the tune of $33,325. But the standard Mazda6 is itself no slouch. Two motors are available: a 2.3-liter four-cylinder making 160 hp and a 3.0-liter V6 worth 215 hp, for prices ranging from $19,110 to $27,260. Mazda6's entire premise rests upon nimble, sporty handling, if perhaps at the expense of interior space.

Volvo's elegant S60 grand touring sedan jumps into the next higher price category with its sticker range of $30,270 to $32,045. Nevertheless, its combination of refinement, styling, safety and performance make this a compelling contender. Standard power is 208 hp from a turbocharged 2.5-liter inline-five; a T5 model produces 257 hp with a smaller but more highly pressurized turbo 2.3-liter. The all-wheel-drive 2.5T version would be my choice.

Within this same price category dwell the kissin' cousins known as Nissan Maxima and Infiniti G35 sedan. The latter's price ranges from about $31,000 to $34,000, whereas the Maxima hovers between $28,000 and $30,000. Their masterful V6 powerplants are identical in basic design, although Infiniti tunes its version to 280 hp and Nissan settles for 260 hp. Both are roomy and powerful sedans, if not particularly noted for sporty handling. The Infiniti wears the bolder styling; the Nissan makes a virtue of being staid.

The dark horse stalking this collection is Hyundai's new Azera. Content is king with this ambitious newcomer, and pricing from $24,000 to $27,000 scarcely suggests how much standard equipment is available in addition to the 3.8-liter V6 making 263 hp. Alas, neither handling nor fuel economy are strong points; yet Azera certainly raises Hyundai's reputation by a peg or two.

What my friend and his wife will ultimately purchase remains, for now, a mystery. Nevertheless their shopping exercise represents a declaration of war of sorts upon the SUV status quo, destined to disintegrate, I predict, into a million little pieces.

5-pass., 4-door; AWD; 2.5-liter SOHC H4 w/ vvt, 5-sp. manual or 4-sp. "shiftable" auto; 175 hp/169 ft.-lbs.; 22-23 mpg/city, 29-30 mpg/hwy., w/ regular; trunk: 11.4 cu. ft.; base price range: $21,995-$25,295 (GT model

5-pass., 4-door; FWD; 1.9-liter SOHC "turbo direct-injection" inline-4, 5-sp. manual or 6-sp. "DSG" auto; 100 hp/177 ft.-lbs.; 36 mpg/city, 41 mpg/hwy., w/ diesel; trunk: 16 cu. ft.; base price range: $21,605-$22,680

5-pass., 4-door; FWD & AWD; 2.5-liter DOHC turbocharged inline-5, 5-sp. "shiftable" auto; 208 hp/236 ft.-lbs.; 20 mpg/city, 28 mpg/hwy., w/ premium; trunk: 14 cu. ft.; base price range: $30,270-$32,045

By Marc Stengel

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