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You can forget about electric vehicles, hybrids or mega-horsepower supercars -- the hottest, most competitive new vehicle segment right now is the mid-sized family-sedan market.
It started with the latest versions of the Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima, followed by all-new models of the Toyota Camry, Chevrolet Malibu, Nissan Altima, Ford Fusion and our two combatants: the Honda Accord and Mazda6.
And although few family-sedan buyers give a hoot, some family-sedan makers have been promoting the fun-to-drive natures of their four-doors. For instance, both the Accord (new for 2013) and Mazda6 (even newer for 2014) have been trimmed and kitted-out to entice buyers who aren't afraid of the occasional on-ramp.
But which of this pair of family four-doors would make the best substitute for a real sports sedan?
2014 Mazda6 GS
If you're going to drive the sportiest family sedan you can find, you might as well get one that looks the part. Thankfully, the sharply styled, front-wheel drive, five-passenger Mazda6 does. Compared to the roomier Honda, the tightly wrapped Mazda four-door's exterior design is more cohesive and daring.
As the second model (after the new-last-year CX-5 compact crossover) to offer a complete application of Mazda's so-called SkyActiv technology, the Mazda6 professes to balance fuel and performance with a host of engineering efficiencies designed throughout the car. But, in reality, the Mazda's fuel economy is on par with the less-expensive Honda, and it's slower in a straight line. (A new turbocharged diesel may address both those two issues, but at an even higher cost, of course.)
Don't be fooled by the numbers alone, though. Once on the move, the 2014 Mazda6 reciprocates with subtleties that driving enthusiasts will appreciate.
First off, the Mazda's bolstered front seats offer more support than the comfort-oriented Honda, a big part of what is also an excellent driving position. And although the new Accord's ergonomics are an improvement over its predecessor, the Mazda6's controls are more intuitive, as is the driving experience.
While Mazda considered a CVT and a dual-clutch type, it settled for a smooth-shifting conventional automatic. (Like the Honda, a six-speed manual is available.) The Mazda6's electric steering gives a bit more feel than the Honda, as does a tauter suspension, which transmits a lot of information about what is going on with the four-door's tires. When inevitable understeer happens, you can lift off the throttle to tuck the sedan's rear back into line.
The downside to the Mazda6's always-on-call nature is a ride that's less compliant than the more luxurious Accord. Road and engine noise are also more intrusive in the Mazda. Small sacrifices, we think, for a sports sedan hiding in the family-sedan segment.
2013 Honda Accord CVT Sport
In response to its Americanized (larger, softer, less-agile) predecessor, Honda wanted to make its latest front-wheel drive five-passenger Accord sedan leaner and meaner. As a result, the all-new 2013 version has a shorter wheelbase, is shorter overall and lighter on the scales.
Honda also kept the Accord's price to a minimum. Base four-cylinder Accords with a six-speed manual transmission start at $25,630 (all prices include destination and pre-delivery inspection). My mid-level Sport version (with a $1,200 continuously variable automatic transmission) cost $28,415 -- a good value compared to a comparably equipped $30,090 Mazda6 GS.
In a measure of how competitive this segment is, the Accord is powered by a 2.4-litre four-cylinder that makes 185 horsepower and 181 pound-feet of torque, while the Mazda's four offers just 0.1 L more displacement, one less horsepower yet four more lb-ft of torque. Fuel-economy differences are equally inconsequential. The Accord rates 7.8 litres per 100 kilometres in the city and 5.7 on the highway, while the Mazda's estimates are 7.6 and 5.1, respectively.
Mazda is making a big deal about how light its new Mazda6 is, but the Accord weighs less than 25 kilograms more and is about half-a-second quicker (7.5 versus 8.0) from zero to 100 km/h. And while the Accord's conservative styling may not catch your eye as much as the more stylish Mazda6, the Honda has a much roomier interior and more rear trunk space.
Its extra roominess, however, does not mean the Accord Sport drives like a boat. The Honda's steering and suspension make a great team. The sedan is agile and crisp in turns without being too soft.
Nor should the CVT scare off enthusiasts -- there's little of the typical "rubber band" effect, and up- and downshifts happen promptly enough. But you can always opt for the standard six-speed manual.
So, bottom-line? If sheer fun behind the wheel is not your priority, get the Honda. Its overall refinement, lower price and extra roominess make it a fantastic compromise in a competitive segment.
But if you're wear string-back driving gloves to pick up the kids from daycare, the Mazda6 is where it's at.
-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2013