2011 Midsize Car Buying Guide

Last Updated: May 4, 2010

Our 2011 Midsize Car Buying guide focuses on America’s top-selling vehicle segment, one in which attributes of value and utility balance deftly with those of performance and luxury.

As a group, midsize cars outsell all other types of vehicles because they deliver what’s important to the broadest spectrum of buyers. They might not be the fastest or flashiest rides on the road, but they make most buyers’ short lists by delivering roomy and comfortable interiors, capable powertrains, and a growing assortment of safety and convenience features that only a few years ago would have been limited to costlier luxury cars.

The midsize-car class is loaded with worthy choices. The 24 models we feature in the 2011 Midsize Car Buying Guide tend to be priced at the sweet spot of the market, with many starting at around $20,000. Top-trim-line models fitted with a plethora of gadgetry can reach well into the $30,000 range. At that level, bona fide luxury cars might be worth a look as alternatives. For similar money, a luxury car might have posher accommodations, entitle you to the higher level of customer service associated with a premium brand, and may have stronger resale value.

Today’s midsize market consists almost exclusively of sedans, with a few two-doors (like the Honda Accord coupe) and station wagons (Volkswagen Passat) thrown in for good measure. Styling tends to be on the conservative side, though some models, such as the redesigned Hyundai Sonata and coupe-like Volkswagen CC, are the result of extra attention to automotive fashion.

For the most part, what at one time would have been treated as a wagon or a hatchback version of a given midsize sedan is now being sold under a separate nameplate and usually as a crossover model. Recently introduced examples are the Honda Crosstour (Accord) and Toyota Venza (Camry), both of which we cover in our 2011 Crossover SUV Buying Guide. Likewise, upscale midsize models from the European and Asian brands can be found in our 2011 Luxury Car Buying Guide. Finally, we aggregate gas/electric-powered offshoots of models like the Toyota Camry and Nissan Altima along with other hybrids in our 2011 Hybrid and Electric Vehicle Buying Guide.

Tradition in this class holds that a four-cylinder engine is the base powerplant with a V-6 optional or available in higher trim levels. That’s begun to change as automakers prepare to meet stricter fuel-consumption standards that begin phasing in next year. The recently introduced Suzuki Kizashi, for example, comes only with a four-cylinder engine (a 185-horsepower 2.4-liter that delivers acceptable acceleration). What’s more, the new-for-2011 Buick Regal and redesigned Hyundai Sonata are four-cylinder only and both eschew V-6 upgrades for optional fuel-efficient turbocharged four-cylinders

Most midsize models are sold with automatic transmission; buyers in this segment tend to favor convenience over driving dynamics. These transmissions are generally five- or six-speed units, latter preferred for smoother acceleration and incrementally better fuel economy. Some midsize cars offer five- or six-speed manual transmissions, usually only in base models or with four-cylinder engines for those on a budget or who aren’t averse to working a clutch. These include the 2011 Ford Fusion, 2011 Honda Accord, 2011 Hyundai Sonata, 2011 Kia Optima, 2011 Mazda 6, 2011 Subaru Legacy, 2011 Suzuki Kizashi, 2011 Toyota Camry, and 2011 Volkswagen CC.

A few midsize models, such as the Kizashi and 2011 Nissan Altima, offer a continuously variable transmission, or CVT. This is in effect an automatic transmission that combines the performance and fuel economy of a manual with the convenience of an automatic. CVTs have a rheostat-like power delivery because they use a belt-pulley system instead of a set number of fixed gear ratios.  Some drivers find the continuous onslaught of acceleration without shift points to be disconcerting, and CVTs tend to make a small engine seem loud or harsh during rapid acceleration.

The default drivetrain layout among midsize cars is front-wheel drive. This concentrates the engine, transmission, and dive axles over the front tires, which frees up the rest of the car for passenger and cargo space. It also puts the most weight over the tires that propel the car, an advantage over rear-wheel drive on slippery pavement conditions. Front-wheel drive delivers predictable handling, and most midsize cars have a reasonably pliant suspension to soak up bumps and broken pavement without undue jostling. The emphasis on ride softness can create a certain disconnect between the driver and the road; some enthusiastic motorists will find this annoying. They might consider a model that comes with or offers an optional sport-tuned suspension. This should afford more precise handling, albeit with a slightly rougher ride as a trade-off. The 2011 Mazda 6 is a good example of a midsize sedan that handles better than the norm.

All-wheel-drive for improved traction on wet or snowy roads is standard on the 2011 Subaru Legacy sedan and related 2011 Subaru Outback wagon, and is optional on the 2011 Buick LaCrosse, 2011 Fusion, 2011 Chrysler Sebring, 2011 Dodge Avenger, 2011 Mercury Milan, 2011 Kizashi, and 2011 Volkswagen CC.

Five-passenger seating is the norm in this class. The two front bucket seats are divided by a center console that typically holds the transmission gearshift. The rear bench seat has three safety belts, but few of these cars have an interior wide enough to really accommodate three adults in the rear without everyone sitting tightly shoulder-to-shoulder. Among cars in our buying guide, only the Chevrolet Malibu offers a front bench seat for six-passenger accommodations, though the Kia Rondo wagon seats up to seven thanks to a small third-row seat. The stylish Volkswagen CC seats four because its rear-seat is fashioned as a pair of buckets.  

Even the lowest priced midsize cars come standard with a nice assortment of convenience features. These typically include air conditioning, power windows, locks, and mirrors, and CD audio systems with auxiliary-plug iPod inputs. Add extra-cost options or spring for higher trim levels within a given line and you can create a junior luxury car. Heated leather seats, GPS navigation systems, rear back-up cameras, parking proximity alert systems, sunroofs, and Bluetooth wireless connectivity are just some of the available amenities. Note that the automakers themselves sometimes fashion premium-brand models on the structures of their mainstream midsize cars, changing trim and styling elements to justify the jump in price. For example, the Lincoln MKZ is basically a dressed-up Ford Fusion/Mercury Milan, the Acura TL has roots in the Honda Accord, and the Lexus ES350 is a gilded top-of-the-line Toyota Camry. Within Nissan’s own line, the Altima is reskinned and fortified for duty as the upscale Maxima.  

One area in which midsize cars don’t skim is safety features. Most models come standard with front, front-side, and head-protecting side-curtain airbags, as well as antilock brakes. All have antiskid stability control as standard or optional equipment to help prevent spinouts in extreme or emergency handling situations. Some, like the Ford Fusion and Buick LaCrosse offer advanced blind-spot detection systems that can detect the presence of a vehicle positioned just to the side and rear and issue a warning if the driver is about to change lanes.

Most models in this class fare well in government crash tests, with many earning perfect five-star scores for occupant protection in frontal and/or side-impact collisions. An emphasis on safety-oriented engineering and a mature, relatively conservative owner base combine to register the lowest fatality rates of all car classes in government-compiled statistics.

While they’re not the fastest or flashiest cars to put tires to pavement, today’s midsize cars offer lots of value and variety and have given greater depth-of-meaning to the term “basic transportation.”