Here we look at five of the best – the Volkswagen Passat, Ford Mondeo, Holden Commodore, Mazda 6, and Subaru Liberty.
1. VOLKSWAGEN PASSAT
Completely redesigned last year; adopting advanced driver-assist technologies to help avoid accidents, the eighth-generation Passat brings a level of premium sophistication to the segment that the others cannot match.
While servicing costs may be a little higher overall than the others, the Volkswagen strikes back with lightweight engineering that helps deliver – by some margin – the best petrol economy, as well as sparkling – even stirring – performance from a slick 1.8-litre four-cylinder turbo. Combined with smooth steering, surefooted handling and unflappable roadholding, the 132TSI simply drives like a much more expensive car.
The luxury experience spills into the Passat’s exquisitely presented cabin, which consists of quality materials, excellent ergonomics, and – in the Comfortline variant upwards – an overall ambience that’s not far from Audi-like.
We’d be wary of choosing the larger-wheeled models as they do result in a slightly unsettled ride over bumpier roads, but other than that, the latest Volkswagen midsizer is a class act.
Our pick: 132TSI Wagon – all the car a family will ever need.
2. FORD MONDEO
Though it wears a humble Ford badge, the German-built Mondeo has been engineered to handle like a BMW and ride better than a Mercedes-Benz, making it a car for drivers and passengers alike. No other midsizer delivers this much fun and refinement in one.
If you’re after power the Mondeo also obliges, thanks to a rorty 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol (or optional diesel) engine that can really hustle. Note, however, that at roughly 1700kg the Ford is no lightweight, so drinks more fuel than, say, the Passat.
Superb seats, acres of space front and rear, a massive cargo area (whether it’s the five-door hatch or handsome wagon), and lots of standard features for the money are further highlights. However build quality isn’t brilliant and the fussy dash can be a little intimidating to the uninitiated.
But this car is definitely worth considering. Quiet, refined, rapid, and a hoot through corners, the Mondeo deserves to be on everybody’s shortlist.
Our pick: Trend EcoBoost wagon – fun, sophisticated, family-friendly value.
3. HOLDEN CALAIS
Handsome, spacious, and strong, the rear-drive Commodore feels and drives like what it is – a car designed specifically for Australia.
Don’t be put off by the brawny V6 – for its size and muscular pulling power, it is actually quite efficient. Meanwhile the V8 of course offers towering performance. The steering is responsive, the handling commanding, and the ride (sporty SV6 aside) outstandingly supple. On a dirt road or for towing, no midsizer comes close.
The Commodore was designed and engineered for families, and no where is that more obvious than inside where it is spacious and sumptuous. The dash is a pleasure to use, the driving position thoughtful and refinement levels exceptional. The only sour notes are inconsistent quality, no fold-flat rear-seat backrests in the sedan and no AEB availability.
Strong, safe and engaging, the Holden Commodore is the last of a dying breed. Best be quick if you want one because after late 2017 they won’t make them like this anymore.
Our pick: Calais – quintessential Australiana… do it while you still can.
4. MAZDA 6
It's a bit of a mystery why the Mazda 6 isn’t a bigger seller – it looks stunning, drives beautifully, and offers plenty of choice.
Strikingly designed, the Japanese carmaker set out to build a value-focused Audi A4 alternative and has succeeded on a number of fronts – check out the classy dash, exceptional build quality, smart switchgear placement and spacious surroundings.
Whether you choose the willing 2.5-litre petrol or frugal 2.2-litre turbo-diesel, the Mazda’s punchy yet efficient powertrains also score highly, fitting in well with the sporty and involving dynamics that the series is well-known for. Safety, too, is a strong suit, thanks to available driver-assist technologies that minimise the chances of accidents.
However, there is quite a lot of road noise intrusion inside, the suspension is too firm on the optional 19-inch wheels and rear-seat headroom is limited.
Still, the Mazda 6 has been created to appeal to driving enthusiasts and pragmatists alike and so ought to be more popular than what it currently is.
Our pick: Touring wagon – Spirited, stylish, and downright dependable.
5. SUBARU LIBERTY
Subaru's long-lived Liberty line has made a name as a quality and at-times quirky no-nonsense alternative to some pretty vanilla opposition.
Sadly no longer offered as a wagon, the sedan range still comes with the trademark horizontally-opposed engine choices – in 2.5-litre four-cylinder or 3.6-litre six-cylinder iterations, with the former prioritising frugality and the latter outright power.
The Subaru Liberty is also alone with standard all-wheel drive, adding another layer of traction, handling poise and security on top of the EyeSight collision avoidance systems fitted to all models. For value and features, few rivals can touch it.
On the flipside, some of that premium cabin ambience that helped make the Subaru seem so special a decade ago has vanished; the steering feels dull and the ride can be irritatingly busy. The old refinement and isolation qualities that meshed so well with an endearingly sporty and cheeky nature are no longer there.
Never mind. The Liberty now stands for head-over-heart sensibility, making it a considered - if unexciting - family midsizer.
Our pick: 3.6R Premium – AWD rocket with exceptionally low pricing.
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