Car Rankings

4 Family Sedans Get an Update

The Malibu LT grabs first place among the 2013 redesigns. It also gets our "Most Improved" award.

Starting with the breath-of-fresh-air redesign of the Hyundai Sonata two years ago, midsize cars began making a U-turn from snooze-inducing to pulse-provoking. Staid, ho-hum design is out; bold exterior styling and classy, high-grade interiors are in. Add improved driving dynamics and safety and you get family cars that resemble sports models.

These four midsize sedans, redesigned for 2013, have stepped up their game so much that it’s hard to pick a favorite. So we’ll let the numbers do the talking. We picked mid-level, automatic transmission–equipped, four-cylinder models, priced at about $25,000, and ranked them on performance, fuel efficiency, spaciousness and safety. (Look for our complete 2013 rankings in the March issue.)

Chevrolet Malibu. The Malibu LT ($24,765) grabs first place among the 2013 re­designs—finishing just a bumper behind the Toyota Camry, which was upgraded last year. We're also giving the Malibu our "Most Improved" award. Outside, it bears a slight resemblance to the previous-generation Lexus ES. Inside, the Malibu has soft-touch materials and a graceful center stack—with a 7-inch touch screen that flips up to reveal secret storage. A new 2.5-liter engine puts out 197 horsepower and is the most powerful of the four sedans reviewed here. That'll earn it points with those who love to drive, but its so-so fuel economy (22 miles per gallon in the city, 34 mpg on the highway) won't impress hypermilers. The Malibu also has the biggest trunk of the bunch (16.3 cubic feet) and ten standard airbags—more than any other newbie in this group.

Nissan Altima.The new Altima has brains and brawn and earns second place among the redesigns. The SV trim ($25,190) comes with a standard rearview camera, a remote-start system, Pandora Internet radio and hands-free text messaging. The Altima also features the brilliant "easy fill" tire alert, which displays which tire is low and honks the horn to let you know when the tire is fully inflated. With a 2.5-liter, 182-hp engine, the Altima gets 27 mpg city and 38 mpg highway, thanks to reduced weight and improved aerodynamics; the transmission is a redesigned CVT. Taking styling cues from its upscale cousin, the Infiniti G37, the Altima also channels Infiniti's sporty driving dynamics. But it loses points for safety, offering only six standard airbags.

Honda Accord.The Accord's new design has been compared with the BMW 3 series, and fuel economy is up 11%, to 27 mpg city, 36 mpg highway. It still feels planted on the road in a way that other family sedans are hard-pressed to match, and the Accord's new 2.4-liter direct-injection engine puts out 185 horses. Despite downsizing nearly 4 inches in length, the new Accord has added rear legroom for a comfy second row and increased cargo space. The interior remains a bit bland, but the Sport trim ($24,980) features a standard rearview camera, Pandora, text messaging and 18-inch alloy wheels. It also loses points in our rankings because it offers only six airbags.

Ford Fusion. The Fusion SE ($24,495) shines in drivability and design, which is by far the most daring since the Sonata. The Fusion also features generous interior and cargo space, as well as standard safety features such as knee airbags for the driver and front passenger. But the Fusion SE's mediocre power (175 horses) and fuel efficiency (22 mpg city, 34 mpg highway) push it to the back of the pack. For an extra $1,000, you can get the 2.0-liter EcoBoost engine, with 240 hp and slightly worse fuel economy. For an extra $795, the 1.6-liter EcoBoost gets 23 mpg city, 36 mpg highway and puts out 178 horses. All models come with Ford's SYNC, which lets you control infotainment with voice commands, so skip the $1,000 MyFord Touch and spend the money on an engine upgrade.

Follow Jessica on Twitter and Facebook.

This article first appeared in Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine. For more help with your personal finances and investments, please subscribe to the magazine. It might be the best investment you ever make.

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