Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Comparison Test: 2008 Four-Cylinder Family Sedans

Comparison tests about family sedans usually make big assumptions about your personal wealth. We like to think that if you're buying a midsize car, you'll order up a powerful V6 engine, leather upholstery and a navigation system. Of course, grim reality says you'll probably drive away in a Honda Accord, Toyota Camry or Chevrolet Malibu with a four-cylinder engine, cloth seats and your trusty road atlas.
This brings us to the point of this test. In V6 form, we've already discovered the redesigned 2008 Chevrolet Malibu is quick, comfortable and good enough to compete with the import juggernauts. Keeping up with the volume-selling 2008 Honda Accord LX and 2008 Toyota Camry LE is actually a much bigger deal, however. These unassuming models help Honda and Toyota rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales each year.
If Chevrolet is serious about stealing market share from these guys, the four-cylinder 2008 Chevrolet Malibu needs to be more than a respectable rental car.
How Much Car Does $23,000 Buy?Since pricing will make or break the purchase of a four-cylinder midsize sedan, we set a modest $23,000 cap for our contestants. Also, most people don't want to fuss with a clutch in a family car, so we specified the optional automatic transmission on the Accord and Camry. An automatic is standard for the Malibu.
It turns out $23K (or $23,080 if slight fudging is permitted) will buy you a nicely appointed midsize Chevy. Our 2008 Chevrolet Malibu 2LT wore graphite-finish 17-inch wheels, and its light-tone interior had a business-casual vibe, thanks to leatherette-synthetic suede upholstery, turquoise ambient lighting, heated front seats, OnStar (one year of service) and satellite radio (a three-month subscription) — all stuff you wouldn't necessarily expect at this price.
This Malibu also included essentials like antilock disc brakes, side airbags, head curtain airbags, stability control, a tilt-telescoping steering wheel and an auxiliary audio input.
Our 2008 Honda Accord LX-P matched the Malibu in this respect, and its price came in at $22,795. The Accord is redesigned for '08, and LX-P is a new trim level, indicating features over and above the standard LX — among these, 16-inch alloy wheels, power windows, a power driver seat and an alarm system. Otherwise, this cloth-upholstered Honda didn't carry any options.
Surprisingly, the Toyota proved to be the price leader in this group. Lacking anything in the way of options, our 2007 Toyota Camry LE cost only $21,635. Its equipment level was on par with that of its companions, but our test car's plastic wheel covers and Eeyore-gray paint made it look dowdy. It was also the only sedan without stability control. Curiously, the addition of stability control ($650) and alloy wheels ($795) would have given it the same as-tested price as the Malibu. Had Toyota been able to provide us with a 2008 Camry LE, a $100 price increase would have represented the only difference.
We could have expanded the field to include worthy rivals such as the Ford Fusion, Hyundai Sonata or Nissan Altima, but we wanted to keep things simple. The Camry and Accord are the sedans to beat in this class, and the '08 Malibu is the brave new challenger.
It's no Vegas title fight, but if you want to know who builds the most acceptable four-cylinder commuter car, we've got the answer here.
3rd Place: 2007 Toyota Camry LEA front-wheel-drive midsize sedan with a four-cylinder engine is an inherently sensible form of transportation. But the Toyota Camry LE takes it to an extreme, asking its driver to forgo all involvement in the motoring experience in trade for a soft, isolated ride, carefully insulated from the travails of everyday life. Similarly, the car's gray-on-gray interior is spacious, ergonomically sound and loaded with storage slots, but nonessential styling touches are kept to a minimum. It led to sensory deprivation, we discovered, and it further detracted from a car that had some deficits in feature content and had been built with inconsistent levels of fit and finish.
Our misgivings about the Camry's dynamics extend beyond the test track, where it managed 0.79g around the skid pad and 62.0 mph through the slalom — slowest of the group. Even in normal traffic, the Toyota feels less in touch with the road than the others, and its steering, although reasonably precise, feels pretty vacant on- or off-center. Turn-in response is leisurely, and there's more body roll than in the others. Altogether, it compromises the driver's confidence.
Life in Camryland isn't all bad, though. It turns a tighter circle at 36.1 feet than either the Accord at 37.7 feet or Malibu at 40.4 feet, making it less stressful to maneuver in crowded areas. The Toyota also stopped the shortest from 60 mph at 122 feet.
And just like the V6 version, the four-cylinder Toyota Camry is quick relative to its competition. Our LE test car's 8.9-second 0-60-mph time is tops for this group, as is its 16.9-second quarter-mile at 82.3 mph (though the Accord, which has 19 more horsepower, nearly closed the gap).
It's no wonder the Camry produces such numbers, as our California car with its PZEV-rated 2.4-liter inline-4 produces 155 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 158 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm. (The non-PZEV engine delivers 158 hp and 161 lb-ft of torque.) It felt more responsive in city traffic than the inline-4s of the Chevy and Honda. Power delivery is about as smooth as it gets with four cylinders.
Upshifts from the Camry's five-speed automatic are buttery under full throttle, but downshifts come late in part-throttle situations. When the transmission finally drops a gear, it shifts up again at the earliest opportunity. While this behavior infuriates people like us, the justification is obvious, since the Camry returned the highest fuel economy during this test at 24 mpg.
Although you get a full set of power driver-seat adjustments in a Toyota Camry LE, the shape of the seat and the steering wheel's limited telescoping range make it hard to get comfortable. In addition, the Camry offers the least front headroom and legroom, even though it has the second-most passenger volume.
Evidently, those extra inches went to the backseat, as the Camry has the most rear legroom. Thanks to careful exhaust packaging, the Toyota also has a hump-free rear floor, making it easier to stuff three co-workers in back on carpool days.
Useful and wholesome, the 2007 Toyota Camry LE is a safe choice for a midsize sedan. But the Accord and Malibu prove that modern family cars needn't play it this straight.
2nd Place: 2008 Chevrolet Malibu 2LTAs extroverted as the Camry is demure, the 2008 Chevrolet Malibu flashes a proud bowtie smile each time you walk up to it. There's good reason to smile back.
In this test, the Chevy offered the best balance between ride comfort and agility. Our 2LT test car also earned high marks for cabin design while offering some desirable amenities that weren't even available as options on the other cars. Although it lost points for its uninspiring acceleration and braking performance, the '08 Malibu is long on personality for a four-cylinder midsize sedan.
Instrumented testing is rarely kind to non-sporting cars, and here the Malibu was exposed as a nose-led front-driver with pedestrian, electrically assisted power steering. It was, however, quicker than the Camry through the slalom at 62.9 mph, and thanks to meatier P225/50R17 tires (versus P215/60R16s on the others) it managed the highest grip on the skid pad at 0.84g.
On public roads, the Chevy's appeal came into sharper focus. The Malibu isn't as firmly suspended as the Accord, but its additional compliance doesn't detract significantly from its cornering ability. Pinpoint accuracy continues to elude GM's electric steering, but this setup with decently weighted levels of effort represents a vast improvement over the previous-generation Malibu.
Braking hardware is identical across the 2008 Chevrolet Malibu line, and after measuring a 123-foot 60-0 stop from the V6 version, we expected the lighter four-cylinder car to perform similarly. Instead, our 2LT tester used up 140 feet of tarmac and went from 1st to worst in this category.
Since the brakes weren't malfunctioning, our guess is the slow-cycling antilock brake system was optimized for the V6 model, which has more weight over its nose and wears P225/50R18 Goodyear Eagle LS rubber. Although the four-cylinder car's 17-inch Hankook Optimo H725A tires delivered decent lateral grip, their straight-line stick was no better than a declawed cat's.
A 9.5-second effort to 60 mph and a 17.8-second quarter-mile run at 80.9 mph landed the Malibu in 3rd place for acceleration, but its 2.4-liter engine deserves credit as the most refined four-cylinder available in a domestic-brand midsize car. The Honda and Toyota fours are still smoother and sound better, but Chevrolet has done a commendable job of suppressing the amount of racket that penetrates the firewall. And with 169 hp at 6,400 rpm and 160 lb-ft of torque at 4,500 rpm, the Malibu's motor gives up nothing on paper when it comes to power, either.
Unfortunately, it's paired with an outdated four-speed automatic transmission. Downshifts arrive more quickly than in the Camry, but the engine falls out of its power band with each upshift. Chevrolet will offer a new six-speed automatic with the 2.4-liter in the spring of 2008, though only on the more expensive LTZ trim level. The company says LT models will get the six-speed for '09.
No slack needs to be cut for the '08 Chevrolet Malibu's cabin. Gauges in individual binnacles and a unifying character line on the dash and door panels provide eye candy for dazed commuters, yet the control layout is just as straightforward as in the imports. The quality of the materials is a couple steps below that of the Accord, but if you can ignore the few chintzy plastics, you'll be fine.
The front seats are well shaped, but a small range of steering wheel adjustment along with offset brake and gas pedals makes the driving position awkward. In addition, the Malibu is a couple inches narrower than the others, and this directly impacts hip- and shoulder room. If defensive linemen will be riding in your family sedan, you'll do better with the fat-boy Accord.
Though our 2008 Chevrolet Malibu 2LT tester had some ragged edges, its 2nd-place finish demands a moment's pause. After all, this is a four-cylinder, front-wheel-drive sedan from General Motors, and we like it more than the best-selling car in the United States.
1st Place: 2008 Honda Accord LX-PAlongside the Malibu's staggering climb to legitimacy, the eighth-generation Honda Accord has quietly become the best family sedan ever.
Even in everyman's LX-P grade, the level of substance and attention to detail in this car is beyond anything else in this price range. With a bit more low-end engine torque and a couple choice additions to the standard equipment list, the Accord's 5.5-point victory would have been a double-digit margin.
Seating yourself in the Honda provides an immediate sense of well-being. It has the most passenger volume of the group, yet doesn't feel monstrous in its dimensions. In Honda tradition, the cowl is low and the pillars are slender. The driving position is close to perfect, with ample adjustment range for both the seat and the steering wheel, and visibility is the best of the three.
Honda has taken flak for using hard plastic on the top of the 2008 Accord's dash, but in reality, these cabin furnishings are best in class. The button-cluttered center stack looks overwhelming compared to the more calming layouts in the Camry and Malibu, but large buttons and logical organization keep it from being annoying to use. The stereo's aux jack is tidily secreted away under the center armrest.
Our 2008 Honda Accord LX-P proved to be the crispest handling car of the group by far. Its steering is precise and communicative, and body control is excellent even through tighter turns. Firm, linear brake pedal action added to the Honda's secure feel.
Not only did the Accord record the highest average speed through the slalom at 63.3 mph, it was the only one of the sedans with a cornering attitude that proved responsive to throttle control. Its 0.81g performance was 2nd to the Malibu, but the Honda's modest P215/60R16 Dunlop SP Sport 7000 A/S tires were the limiting factor. The Accord was 2nd to the Camry in braking with a respectable 126-foot stop from 60 mph.
The downside to the '08 Accord's athleticism is that some of you may find its ride quality too firm compared to the Malibu. In addition, this new Accord had a little more road noise than we'd like, just like every other Accord before it. Highway-speed readings of ambient noise were similar for all three sedans, however.
Low-end torque is not a strong suit of the Accord's 2.4-liter engine, which is rated at 177 hp at 6,500 rpm and 161 lb-ft at 4,300 rpm. In typical Honda fashion, though, power builds as you move up the tach, with the most dramatic change coming at 5,000 rpm when the variable valve timing switches over to more aggressive camshaft profiles.
This was evident during acceleration testing, where the Accord ran to 60 mph in 9.3 seconds, yet nearly caught up with the Camry in the quarter-mile traps with a run of 17.1 seconds at 81.9 mph. Keep in mind it's possible to buy a faster four-cylinder Accord, as the EX trim level ($24,495 with an automatic) gets a 190-hp version of the 2.4-liter engine.
Either way, Honda's five-speed automatic transmission is geared to take advantage of the engine's unique power band. It's also quicker with shifts than the other automatics, which made our Accord LX-P test car feel sharper in freeway traffic.
Perhaps as a consequence of this responsiveness, the Honda averaged only 20 mpg — lowest of the group. Better fuel economy should be possible, though, as its EPA rating of 21 city/31 highway is identical to the Camry's.
The 2008 Honda Accord LX-P's victory here wasn't due to dominance in any one particular category. Instead, it won by performing well in all categories. It had the largest and most comfortable interior and the highest overall level of refinement, and it was the most engaging and satisfying car to drive.
So It's the Accord Then?Anyone seriously shopping for a four-cylinder family sedan will find it interesting to read Edmunds.com's Consumer Comparison Test: 2008 Family Sedans as a companion piece to this test.
Penned by six readers, the consumer test involved the same three cars. Half the guest reviewers selected the Accord as the winner. The others picked the Chevy Malibu. While they evaluated the cars under different conditions than we did, the outcome reflects favorably on Chevrolet's efforts to create a personable family sedan that a reasonable person might choose over the import standbys.
None of us wasted love on the Toyota Camry, but in truth there's nothing drastically wrong with this car, and for those concerned about fuel economy, the Toyota is likely to be most frugal in real-world driving.
Not surprisingly, the guest reviewers liked the Accord for all the reasons we did. Even the Malibu supporters conceded the Honda was the roomiest and most practical car of the bunch.
But we'd go further than that.
The 2008 Honda Accord LX-P delivers on all the necessities of family car ownership without forcing you to give up the details that make driving pleasurable. This is a midsize sedan engineered by people who appreciate good steering feel and positive upshifts. Even with a four-cylinder engine, this Honda will make you happy.

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