2012 Midsize Car Buying Guide

Last Updated: Jun 29, 2011

The 2012 Midsize Car Buying Guide from iGuida.com focuses on America’s most popular new-vehicle segment. The midsize-car category is where practicality and value combine with elements of performance and luxury in a combination with broad-spectrum appeal. Roomy, comfortable cabins, increasingly fuel-efficient powertrains, and myriad features previously limited to costlier luxury cars are hallmarks of the best 2012 midsize cars.

Fuel economy in this segment tends to vary widely, depending on the model and particular engine/transmission combination. Average ratings are around 20 mpg in city driving and 31 mpg on the highway for midsize cars equipped with a four-cylinder engine and automatic transmission and around 17/27 with a V-6 and automatic.

Top fuel-economy ratings in the class go to the stylish Kia Optima at 24/34 mpg city/highway and 27 mpg combined city/highway. Optima’s corporate cousin, the Hyundai Sonata, is a close second at 22/35/26 mpg. Those ratings are with their four-cylinder gas engine and automatic transmission – by far the most popular powertrain configuration in the class. Both cars are among the 2012 midsize entries, along with the Toyota Camry and Ford Fusion, to also offer gas-electric hybrid models. These are even more fuel-efficient, and which we cover in our separate 2012 Hybrid and Electric Vehicle Buying Guide.

Optima and Sonata are in the vanguard of a trend toward four-cylinder-only engine lineups in midsize cars, eschewing V-6 options in the name of gas mileage to take advantage of advanced technology that allows four-cylinders to perform nearly on par with sixes. If you’re amenable to diesel power, you’ll like the fuel economy achieved by the only diesel model in the midsize class, the redesigned 2012 Volkswagen Passat TDI, which rates 31/43 mpg city/highway, 35 mpg combined. The midsize car with the lowest fuel economy is the V-6-powered all-wheel-drive (AWD) version of the Ford Fusion at 17/24/19 mpg.

The midsize-car class is loaded with admirable choices and our 2012 Midsize Car Buying Guide concentrates on the 19 most affordably priced models. Base price tend to start around $20,000. Higher trim levels fitted with more powerful engines and a long list of options can reach the mid-$30,000 range. Buyers with that kind of money to spend may instead wish to consider a midsize “entry level” luxury car. We cover those models in our 2012 Premium Car Buying Guide.

Though there’s wide variety in styling, today’s midsize market is made up almost entirely of four-door sedan body styles. Traditional midsize station wagons have morphed into midsize crossover SUVs. Indeed, vehicles like the Honda Accord-based Honda Accord Crosstour and the Toyota Camry-based Toyota Venza are covered separately in our 2012 Crossover SUV Buying Guide. The Accord and Nissan Altima are the sole midsize cars to also offer a two-door coupe body style, while the Volkswagen CC is a four-door fastback with premium-class aspirations. The only convertible in the class is the two-door version of the Chrysler 200, which comes with a soft top or optional retractable hardtop. 

On that note, be aware that some midsize cars form the basis for luxury models, their makers generally adding features, plusher interiors and slightly different styling but keeping the basic underskin engineering. Examples include the Lexus ES350 (based on the Toyota Camry) and Acura TL (derived from the Honda Accord). We treat these and other upscale midsize models from Asian and European luxury brands in our 2012 Premium Car Buying Guide. Straddling the line is the 2012 Nissan Maxima, which is based on the mainstream Altima but aims for a higher-income buyer.

Most 2012 midsize cars come standard with a four-cylinder engine of 175-200 horsepower. That’s sufficient oomph for most buyers, though many midsize cars also offer an engine upgrade to suit those who prefer more muscle. Traditionally this is a V-6 engine that’s either optional or included with higher trim levels in a given vehicle line. Faced, however, with the need to improve fuel economy because of market preference and federal mandate, some automakers are turning to turbocharged four-cylinders to take the place of V-6s. Examples include the 2012 Sonata and Optima, as well as the 2012 Buick Regal GS model.

Adding turbocharging, along with such advanced engine technology as direct fuel injection and variable valve timing, makes a four-cylinder engine accelerate like a V-6, but without exacting much of a penalty at the gas pump. For example, the Kia Optima’s standard 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine nets 200 horsepower and is rated 24/34 mpg city/highway, 27 mpg combined, with an automatic transmission. Optima’s turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder with automatic produces a stronger 274 horses but rates a near-equivalent 22/34/26-mpg rating.

Automatic transmission is the overwhelming favorite of midsize-car shoppers. Manual transmission is available the Fusion, Accord, Sonata, Optima, Mazda 6, Subaru Legacy, Suzuki Kizashi, Camry, and CC. Manuals typically are limited to a line’s entry-level trim line and are present in large measure so the carmaker can advertise a rock-bottom base price. Most buyers prefer automatic transmissions for the sake of convenience. These transmissions are generally five- or six-speed units, with the latter generally delivering smoother acceleration and modestly increased fuel economy.

A few midsize models, such as the Kizashi and 2012 Nissan Altima, offer a different type of automatic called a CVT (for continuously variable transmission). Instead of the usual sets of gears and clutches, a CVT utilizes a belt and pulleys to deliver what amounts to a variable power ratio that delivers seamless acceleration without the need to pause slightly for shift points. While it helps make a given car quick and fuel efficient, some drivers find the continuous rush of power to be disconcerting, and CVTs tend to make a small engine seem loud or harsh under heavy throttle. 

Most cars in this class feature a front-wheel-drive configuration in which the engine and transmission are mounted over the front wheels. This helps maximize interior volume and puts a greater amount of weight over the tires that drive the car than does a typical rear-wheel-drive layout. That weight balance promotes predictable handling and additional traction on wet or snowy roads. A few 2012 midsize cars offer all-wheel-drive for added roadholding when the weather turns inclement. AWD is standard on the 2012 Subaru Legacy and is optional on the Fusion, Kizashi, and CC.

Most midsize cars favor ride comfort over sheer handling. The emphasis is on easygoing steering and soaking up bumps and broken pavement with minimal harshness. The 2012 Mazda 6 and Volkswagen CC are examples of cars that handle better than most in this class. But true driving enthusiasts will likely seek out midsize models that offer a sport-tuned suspension and tire setup designed to hug the curves. The trade-off comes in a rougher ride than many buyers would otherwise expect. The ride-handling tradeoff tends to vary from model to model, so always test drive the exact model you’re considering to determine whether a particular car or suspension setup is to your liking.

Five-passenger seating is the rule among midsize cars. A center console between the front bucket seats typically holds the transmission gearshift and some storage space and beverage holders. A rear bench seat is also the rule. It can typically seat two adults comfortably, with a third able to shoehorn in for shorter trips. The stylish Volkswagen CC swaps a rear bench for a set of buckets and a center console for four-passenger seating.  

The range of standard amenities can differ from manufacturer to manufacturer, but there’s really no longer such thing as a “stripped down” midsize car. Even the lowest priced models come with a fine array of features. These typically include air conditioning, and power locks, mirrors and windows. Bluetooth hands-free mobile-phone connectivity and audio systems with auxiliary-plug inputs or USB interface for iPods and other devices also are increasingly standard. Included in higher trim levels or available as options are features that can turn many of these models into virtual luxury cars. Top-shelf perks include leather upholstery heated front (and in some cases, rear) seats, GPS navigation systems, rear back-up cameras, parking proximity alert systems, and power sunroofs. Models like the Ford Fusion and Buick LaCrosse offer blind-spot detection that can alter the driver to the presence of unseen vehicles in adjacent lanes.

Midsize cars don’t skimp on safety features. All include front, front-side, and head-protecting side-curtain airbags as standard. Also standard on every 2012 midsize car are antilock brakes to aid control in emergency stops and antiskid stability control to help stay on course in extreme or emergency handling situations.

Here is our 2012 Midsize Car Buying Guide:

2012 Buick Regal
Euro-influenced sporty sedan gains turbocharged and electric-assist eAssist models

2012 Chevrolet Malibu
A solid entry, it’s due to for a spring redesign as a 2013 model based on the Buick Regal

2012 Chrysler 200 sedan
Styling overhaul and new V-6 for 2011 didn’t elevate this Eminem favorite much above average

2012 Chrysler 200 convertible
Likewise marginally improved last year it’s the rare affordable convertible with room for four adults

2012 Dodge Avenger
A Chrysler 200 cousin in sportier clothing; similarly updated for 2011, but wants for more

2012 Ford Fusion
Roomy and comfortable, though a bit stodgy, it performs admirably and offers high-tech options

2012 Honda Accord
Still leader of the pack for driving dynamics and comfort as it awaits a model-year 2013 redesign

2012 Hyundai Azera
Conservatively styled, it’s lost in Hyundai’s lineup; perhaps a redesign in spring 2012 will help

2012 Hyundai Sonata
A revolutionary model-year 2011 redesign put rivals on notice and sparked conquest sales

2012 Kia Optima
A slightly sportier cousin to the Sonata with equivalent powertrains, pricing, and features

2012 Mazda 6
Sportier-than-average sedan remains roomy and comfortable; it’s due for a 2013 redesign

2012 Mitsubishi Galant
Slow-selling and uninspiring sedan may be dropped after the 2012 model year

2012 Nissan Altima
Nissan ditches the hybrid model for 2012, but keeps the other versions’ playful nature intact

2012 Nissan Maxima
Upscale version of the Altima is modestly freshened for 2012; 290-horse V-6 remains standard

2012 Subaru Legacy
Standard AWD helps Snow Belt sales, but it’s just as capable on dry pavement

2012 Suzuki Kizashi
A “compact” midsizer with attractive styling, value pricing, and available AWD

2012 Toyota Camry
Full redesigned coming for model-year 2012, but expect continued mainstream focus

2012 Volkswagen CC
This is a sleeker, more luxurious and costlier four-seat alternative to the Passat

2012 Volkswagen Passat
Redesigned for 2012 as a far larger, less-expensive and blander Euro-flavored sedan