Call the bugle player, a 21-gun salute and that guy who does those slow-mo, rain-soaked funeral scenes for action movies. The V6-powered midsize family sedan is dead. Well, okay that’s not entirely accurate – yet – but all of our highly-evolved Darwinian senses say extinction of the six-cylinder mainstream four-door is inevitable.
You see, a superior species has emerged: the turbocharged four-cylinder sedan. Thanks to advances in turbo-tech, the advent of direct injection and brainier car computers, these engines now offer V6 performance (or better…), less weight and noticeably improved fuel efficiency. That’s automotive amore, friends!
We recently roped together three of the most-talked about specimens from this emerging species to compare them back-to-back: the so-hot-right now Hyundai Sonata 2.0T, the bred-in-Europe Buick Regal CXL Turbo and one of the all-star originators of the turbo-four mentality, the Volkswagen Passat CC 2.0 TSI.
Note that all our lucky contestants are powered by a 2.0-litre turbocharged and directly injected engine, all are front-wheel drive, all have fully-independent suspension and all start in and around the $30,000 mark. Let the games begin.
An oldie, but a goodie – Passat CC 2.0 TSI
Back in 2008, the Passat CC debuted and set the automotive world on its ears. No sir, this was no traditional two-box sedan, but a sexy mainstream machine with coupe-like curves. What’s more, zee Germans lead the way in technology with the new car too, installing the same turbo four-cylinder from the legend… wait for it… dary GTI as the standard powerplant.
Making 200 horsepower and 207 lb-ft of torque, the CC is the least-powerful car in our comparo, but also the lightest at 1,510 kg (3,328 lbs.). Fuel economy’s mid-pack at 9.6 L/100 km city and 6.6 highway.
Kudos to Veedub in the gearbox department: a six-speed manual is standard, great for keeping that turbo spooled up, and the CC is only sedan here offering a fuel-saving, performance-boosting and paddle-shifted double-clutch gearbox (DSG in Volkswagen-speak) as an option. The VW is also the only car in this comparo to offer a V6 engine on its top-line model. Making 280 hp, we’d only go there if its exclusive 4Motion all-wheel drive system were a must-have on your list.
What impressed us most here was the premium German car construction this CC exudes despite its price. The high-grade materials all around and the polished ride make us think Audi engineers were moonlighting on the project after hours.
The $33,375 CC’s exclusive standard equipment trumps its rivals too, with heatable windshield washer nozzles, rain sensing wipers and an electronic parking brake to name a few.
So why the third-place finish for the Volkswagen, then? Well, compared to its rivals, power delivery is not nearly as smooth and the CC’s electrically-assisted steering lacks feel. Also, the German sedan’s sexy roofline restricts visibility and makes climbing into the rear seat more difficult. Once back there you’ll only find two seats anyway – this is a four-person only car.
On the cargo front, at least the svelte lines don’t cut into trunk volume too much. The Passat’s cargo cave measures the same as the Buick’s, at 402 litres (14.2 cu-ft). As you can see, our issues with the VW are minimal. Based on style and its premium materials and equipment, this would not be a poor choice.
The landed immigrant – Buick Regal CXL Turbo
So how exactly does the Buick better the Volkswagen? First of all, it drives better. Wait, what? An American car drives better than a German one? Someone notify Peter Mansbridge… Ah, but that’s where the Buick has you fooled. See, the Regal started life as a German-engineered Opel Insignia sedan before bolting on a tri-shield badge and crossing the pond incognito.
Unlike past imported efforts from domestic automakers, the Regal very much keeps its European-minded handling intact. For a front-wheel drive sedan this is a planted, spirited machine with great steering feel. Its ‘Ecotec’ turbo 2.0-litre delivers a stout and progressive 220 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. Our tester wore a smooth six-speed automatic transmission with Driver Shift Control, but do note that a six-speed manual gearbox is joining the Regal’s equipment list this spring – nice!
The Yank Tank’s drivability is not all rosy, however. First of all, this one’s a heifer, at 1,655 kg (3,648 lbs.). That’s 300 lbs. heavier than the next-closest Sonata. Perhaps the tonnage is why the Buick’s fuel economy is the worst of this trio at 11.5 L/100 km city and 7.0 hwy. What’s more, the Regal’s available Interactive Drive Control System genuinely puzzles us. At the push of a button it’s supposed to “automatically tune the suspension, steering, throttle and stability control systems to match your driving style.” The thing is, whether we pressed Normal, Tour or Sport mode, the sedan seemed to drive basically the same way. A lot of pomp for no circumstance, it would seem.
Back on the plus side, both the understated exterior and interior of the Buick are made of materials nearly on par with the benchmark Volkswagen (Side note: our Regal tester was built in Rüsselsheim, Germany at Opel’s factory. Production of the car for North America is supposed to move to Ontario’s Oshawa Assembly Plant any day now, so it will be interesting to see if the truly rock-solid build quality of the sedan changes). The Buick’s cabin feels a tad smaller than the Veedub’s, but that could be a result of its black-on-black theme, versus the lighter coloured environment of our CC tester. Either way, a comfortable driving position is easily sussed-out and three abreast in back is a possible with adequate knee room.
So what relegated the Regal to second best? The curb weight and placebo-like Interactive Drive Control aside, the sedan’s onboard radio and climate controls can be tough to sort-out even after a solid week of driving and it lacks many of the premium features of its competition, like a backup camera and a panoramic sunroof. All the latter can be forgiven easily, but don’t forget that the Buick only starts at $34,990 – nearly the same price as the loaded-to-the-gills Hyundai.
The Korean conqueror – Hyundai Sonata 2.0T
So then out of the gate, the Hyundai claims top spot via its old stalwart, value. Plop down $28,999 – undercutting both rivals – and you get a family sedan with standard 18-inch wheels, a sunroof, dual exhausts, steering wheel audio controls, iPod integration, Bluetooth and heated seats.
This time around though, the bang-for-your-buck factor was only a small part of the Sonata’s win. Big, fat checkmarks went to the sedan’s powertrain. This Hyundai’s a bit of a hot rod, motivated by its Gasoline Direct Injection (GDI) turbo-four, making a group-best 274 horsepower and 269 lb-ft of torque. Aggressive low gears in the standard six-speed automatic (with paddle shifters) means surprisingly hard launches and on the highway, extra-legal speeds are no sweat. All this is done with noticeably quiet, polite road manners. All that and a best-in-test fuel rating of 9.3 L/100 km city and 6.0 highway.
The aesthetics of the Sonata, both inside and out got our staffers talking. The so-called “Fluidic Sculpture” design language is the anti-Camry and – at least according to some editors – is an improvement even on the four-door coupe look that the Passat CC pioneered. Bonus: those sexy lines don’t hinder trunk capacity either. The Sonata offers a comparo-best 464L (16.4 cu-ft).
The Hyundai’s cabin meanwhile, is wide, open and airy, with noticeably good rear seat knee room. Loaded up, this sedan still only hits $33,499 with features like a backup camera, heated rear seats, touchscreen navigation and push button start.
We do have to say though, that the Hyundai is not perfect. Its interior design may be handsome and uber-functional, but some of the materials inside trail the Buick and Volkswagen in terms of quality of finish. Same goes for the trunk, which is cheaply-lined and wears bargain-basement lid arms that will crush taller luggage. Also, that turbo engine under hood feels like too much motor for this car at times. Power on midway through a corner and the suspension phones in sick. We have a feeling in a full-steam, coiled back road race, the Hyundai would lose to the Buick, but really who the heck does that with these cars anyway?
In the end, the Hyundai wins because of the clever way it mixes a dash of the VW’s styling and quality with the Buick drivability, all at a great price. The midsize sedan has evolved and for now, the Hyundai Sonata 2.0T is the alpha male.
**Editor’s Note: the Passat CC pictured is a 3.6-litre V6 model with 4Motion all-wheel drive. It was used for photography only. We tested the 2.0T Passat CC the week prior to this comparison test.