Ferrari may get all the fan mail and sell countless bedroom wall posters, but in the 66 years since its founding, the Italian automaker has sold just 130,000 cars. Total. Worldwide. Ever. Toyota, in comparison, sells roughly that many Camrys in the U.S. every five months. Honda's Accord and Nissan's Altima are close behind.
Make no mistake: The humble sedans you see here may have to endure morning gridlock, Labrador fur, and the occasional wayward French fry, but they're the power players of America's auto landscape. Indeed, data sifter Experian Automotive says this mid-range class accounted for a whopping 27.4 percent of the U.S. auto market in the first half of 2012. (Crossovers were a distant second, at just over 19 percent.) While the spotlight-hungry 458 Italia is out there screaming and preening and generally looking as restless as Honey Boo Boo in a library, these four-doors are stoically squaring away the driving chores and eking maximum miles from every precious gallon of gas. Average Joes? Nah. They're heroes.
But which of these best-sellers is numero uno? The latest editions of the Toyota Camry and the Volkswagen Passat -- our 2012 Car of the Year winner -- should look familiar, as they've been on sale about a year now. The remaining members of our sedan six-pack, though, are transformed for 2013. They include the new, smaller Chevy Malibu; the dramatically restyled Ford Fusion; the bold Nissan Altima; and the all-new and bigger Honda Accord.
To sample life at the class' entry level, we ordered base powerplants in each of our testers: four 2.5-liter engines, one 2.4, and a 1.6-liter turbo. Plus three six-speed automatics, one six-speed manual, and two CVTs. Hardly the stuff of performance dreams, true, but as enthusiasts we unabashedly favor the car -- even an economy model -- that delivers the most gifts to the driver's seat. With that in mind, here's how they finished.
6TH PLACE: Chevrolet Malibu LTZ
Tight with room -- not with fuel
Talk about a comedown. What had previously been a sedan we'd regularly praised -- and GM's best-selling car -- finished dead last. How could the likable Malibu have fallen so far? Mostly this: a retrograde interior, a nearly useless rear seat, and the thirstiest powertrain in our group.
"The back seat is too small for passengers with legs," logs associate online editor Christian Seabaugh. Says associate online editor Nate Martinez, "At 5 foot 9, I had about an inch of clearance for my knees if I sat up like a crash dummy." Such is the penalty served by Chevy slicing 4.5 inches out of the new Malibu's wheelbase. (The roomy sedan in the lineup will be the 2014 Impala.) Also drawing jabs was the general look of the interior, a curious, quasi-steampunk mix of football pigskin leather, cheesy faux wood, and glitzy chrome accents. "Getting into the driver's seat felt like stepping into a 19th century study," notes associate online editor Benson Kong. Associate editor Mike Febbo adds, "Already looks dated -- and this is a brand-new car." The LTZ's standard leather seats also took a beating for being "rock hard" and "flat"--with "no support at all." Most of our team praised the MyLink touch screen, however, noting its ease of use and general cool factor.
Gone is the previous six-cylinder option -- the Malibu is now a four-cylinder only. The Ecotec 2.5-liter delivers a healthy 197 hp and mates only with a six-speed automatic. It's not a stellar mill. "Good power, but gets thrashy at high rpm" (associate editor Scott Evans); "Sounds like a box of bees" (Seabaugh). The transmission tends to shift up at the earliest opportunity (i.e., fifth gear at 30 mph) to maximize economy, but in the real world such behavior actually works against maximum mpg. Notes Seabaugh, "You have to be heavy on the throttle to get anywhere." Indeed, given the Malibu's lazy-horse character, all of us found ourselves constantly spurring the right pedal. The result: Though the Malibu boasts respectable EPA numbers of 22/34 city/highway mpg, during our back-to-back comparo driving we averaged just 21.3 mpg -- worst of the group by far.
The chassis rides well, but after that the praise ends. Steering feel is simply lousy -- zero feedback, and you'll find yourself working the wheel even on arrow-straight highways. The soft suspension, writes Evans, means "seesaw action over bumps." Febbo is less charitable: "No confidence in the chassis." The new Malibu offers nothing to the enthusiastic driver.
It's a shame, because this remains a clean-looking, competitively priced machine (base price for the well-outfitted LTZ is $28,590). But its limited room and poor real-world efficiency doom it in this capable field. Seabaugh sums it up bluntly: "Unusable at its most basic function -- family sedan."