By on July 12, 2011

Joana writes:

I am sure you get this all of the time…my apologies in advance. I am replacing my VW Passat 2003 GLS. It was fun to drive, but had its issues as we all know. No sludge thank goodness. Several leaks! I would like a car that is comparable in drivability, (I have a manual but will buy an auto this time), but better in reliability, and perhaps greener. Tell me what to buy please! I have read the reviews, but they are all over the place….I wish you had a favorites list! Thank you.

Sajeev answers:

Telling you what to buy is never a good idea, recommendations followed by ample amounts of test driving is the only way to go. Any of the following cars will be more durable/reliable and cheaper to fix than your current ride, so no worries there. And probably my favorite “sleeper” for a displaced Passat nut is the Toyota Camry SE, it’s quite a well sorted sedan in a place you’d never expect. Obviously the V6 is the best for acceleration but not for fuel economy, and no love for the LE or XLE’s suspension tuning.

The Mazda 6 is another perennial favorite ’round these parts, and its not impossible to have fun in a Ford Fusion “Sport” or maybe even the Nissan Altima. But, at the end of the day, the first car I’d drive for a Passat replacement would be a Sonata: SE Turbo, in this case. Aside from the sweet performance, stellar warranty and decent price, the Turbo SE Sonata has something very VW about it: arguably the best interior appointments in its class and maybe the most impressive style for any family sedan. And it could be Fahrvergnügen incarnate!

Steve answers:

Sajeev pretty much nailed it.

I will add that a well chosen set of tires can go a long way towards making this ride a keeper. I’ve had some plebian rides in my younger days (1990 Geo Prizm anyone?) that all of a sudden felt that much more crisp and sporty thanks to investing in top of the line tires. Most tires from the factory wear out in about 20k to 30k. So you may want to keep an eye out for what other owners of your model do to make their ride more of a driver’s car.

The Hyundai SE Turbo is a top consideration. I’m not much for the Mercedes-esque cocoon like design. But it is definitely a strong value in the midsized market. The Camry SE is a bit too large and stale for my tastes. The Mazda 6 is kinda caught in your cross hairs and the Subaru Legacy is another entry that fits the bill of a ‘sporty’ midsized vehicle. We can throw in the Fusion SE into this mix as well. All of these vehicles will make you happy.

You’re pretty much buying an ‘interior’ and ‘driving feel’ in this segment. The best? More than likely it’s the Sonata Turbo. Good luck!

Need help with a car buying conundrum? Email your particulars to sajeev@thetruthaboutcars.com , and let TTAC’s collective wisdom make the decision easier… or possibly much, much harder.

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43 Comments on “New or Used: Fahrvergnügen Incarnate?...”


  • avatar
    Ubermensch

    So is the Accord no longer one of the better driving cars in this class? If I were in the sedan market I know it would be high on my list to test drive. I wouldn’t even test drive a Camry SE since I loathe it’s looks so much.

    • 0 avatar
      cackalacka

      The Camry SE is 0-60 is under 6, though. Sleeper, indeed. You’d probably have to go for a Charger if you wanted an affordable sedan with more muscle.

      • 0 avatar
        George B

        I took a used rental Camry SE out for a test drive. OK suspension tuning, especially compared to floaty LE. 4 cylinder engine was a little weak, but not a deal breaker. Was told that the dealer could install aftermarket leather on the seats. Good car for the money if you don’t mind the Impala size.

        The Fusion Sport missed out on the trend toward supersizing midsize sedans. Good or bad depending on your needs. Seats are more narrow.

        I liked driving the Sonata LE. Not bad acceleration even without the turbo. I would prefer more reserved styling.

    • 0 avatar
      CJinSD

      Accord is the drivers’ car in this class.

      • 0 avatar
        NulloModo

        The Accord used to be the driver’s car in the class. Since the supersized current generation came out, while it still holds an edge over most Camrys (I can’t think if I’ve ever driven a Camry SE) the Mazda6, Maxima, Fusion Sport (or SE with Sport Package), and probably even the Koreans have a slight edge.

        For someone who is looking for a modern day Passat replacement though, the Camry, Accord, Fusion, and Altima might all be too common. It seems like a desire to have something different from everyone else is part of what drives VW sales.

      • 0 avatar
        psarhjinian

        The Altima, Camry SE, Mazda6 and Fusion are probably better drivers’ cars than the Accord. That said, it’s not a huge difference and really down to each marque’s choice of tires.

        Only Toyota (!!!) offers a significant sports suspension and chassis package in this class, which is why the CE/LE/XLE are very different than the SE Camry.

      • 0 avatar
        CJinSD

        Joana should drive the cars herself. I’ve driven practically everything mentioned but the Maxima, and I couldn’t disagree much more strongly about the rankings people are assigning. My views on what constitutes good damper settings and steering feel have been shaped by 20 years of driving German cars, so maybe someone coming out of a Passat will appreciate the chassis tuning and steering of the Accord over whatever it is that people like about the sales-proof Mazda 6, K-car update Fusion, and finesse-free zone that is the Sonata.

      • 0 avatar
        bd2

        Long-time Accord drivers don’t even say that (well, not about the current one). lol

        Forget about the Sonata Turbo, the Camry SE, etc. and get the Optima SX.

        Better handling and looks Teutonic to boot.

        Only sedan in its segment that is more fun to drive is the Mazda6.

      • 0 avatar
        golden2husky

        Accord WAS the driver’s car in this class. It still is the leader over the cars mentioned in other catagories like quality, reliability, etc. But since the focus here is on driving quality, I’d strongly recommend the Mazda6 or the Nissan Altima. The CVT is not sporting but handling is really good – my friend’s two door Nissan is quite a bit sharper than my hybrid Altima; no slouch in the corner carving itself. I’ve never driven a Camry SE so I can’t vouch for that model. Fusion, well does the MKZ count as a stand-in? If so, the Altima offers a “more of a piece” feel to it based on my experience, but still would be a consideration.

      • 0 avatar
        Sam P

        CJ – in 2002 the Honda Accord was the driver’s car in the class. The current one is a boat. My father in law owns an ’09 EX-L that I’ve had the chance to drive a couple times. Not impressed at all – a Pontiac G6 GT rental car drives better.

        And if you’re looking for Euro car cred, I learned to drive on a W126 S-Class, my first car was a Saab 900, and my current car is a 330i. I know what a good European car drives like, and the current Accord doesn’t drive like a good European car.

    • 0 avatar

      The new Accord gets little love around here because many feel it has strayed too far towards the big and heavy side.

      I like my ’08 sedan much more after installing a beefy rear sway bar. The 3.5 engine has great power (and sounds great) at high revs, but you are at the mercy of an automatic transmission that never wants to be in the “fun” gear, hyperactive traction control, and IMHO wimpy factory tires (225/50/17).

      Today, Sonata turbo would be my first choice in this class.

  • avatar
    autobahner44

    Try a CPO 2009 VW CC. You’ll be glad you did. It’s the car the Sonata wishes it was…

    • 0 avatar
      vbofw

      CC isn’t a bad recommendation. The Sonata wins on interior quality, value, practicality [5 seats vs. 4], and fuel efficiency, but the CC is what the Sonata wishes it looked like.

    • 0 avatar
      FromaBuick6

      I’ll second that. Or what about the new Passat? Even with the 2.5, it’s bound to be one of the better “driver’s cars” in the class.

      And both the Passat and CC can’t not be a step up in reliability from the old B5 Passat.

      • 0 avatar
        NulloModo

        I think it was either Michael Karesh or Jack Baruth who mentioned that the VW 2.5 liter 5 cylinder is a wondrous engine in that it manages to combine the fuel economy of a V6 with the power of a 4 cylinder and the aural qualities of a chainsaw.

        Apparently VW only offers the 2.5 with a manual, to get an auto you need to go to the TDI or the V6. Also, the stalwart 2.0T is nowhere to be found on the Passat page, which is a shame, that’s a great little engine.

      • 0 avatar
        th009

        @Nullo, almost, but not quite: a manual gearbox is only available with the smaller engines, not with the V6. VW does offer automatics (or DSG) with every model they sell bar the Golf R.

        Anyway, I think 170 hp is pretty reasonable from a non-sporting 2.5L engine, regardless of the number of cylinders. The Fusion’s 2.5L produces 175 hp, the Camry version does 169 hp.

      • 0 avatar
        srogers

        The VW 2.5 is rated BETTER than the Fusion and Mazda 2.5s and the Kia 2.4 for fuel economy. I think that the “bad economy” reputation comes from comparing it to cars with less HP and torque.

        It is rated worse than the new Sonata 2.4, but then so is everything else comparable.

      • 0 avatar
        NulloModo

        th009 –

        Interesting. When you go to vw.com and try to build your own Passat they only list the manual transmission as an option with the 2.5 liter, although if you click on the ‘compare trims’ tab they do list auto/manual as the transmission options on the 2.5L, they just don’t let you ‘build your own’ that way. Maybe the automatic with the 2.5 is coming later, or maybe their web app is just broken. Edmunds seems to agree you can get the 2.5 with an auto…

        srogers –

        The Passat 2.5 is rated 22/31, the 2.5 in the Fusion is rated 23/33. It does get closer than I thought it would, but it still isn’t better.

    • 0 avatar
      bd2

      @autobahner44

      You mean the Mercedes CLS…

  • avatar
    NulloModo

    It’s a bit of a left-field rec, but you might want to check out the Suzuki Kizashi. The new Sport trim supposedly drives very well, has a very nice interior, and the car looks great in person. You also get a long warranty.

    The Fusion Sport is worthwhile to take a look at, but the interior trends more towards ‘daily driver with a hint of boy racer’ than the Passat’s understated German elegance. The Duratec 3.5 liter V6 is a great engine, plenty of power, great reliability, and a nice growl when you accelerate hard, so if you want that combined with a platform that handles well but with upscale interior appointments check out a used 2010+ Lincoln MKZ. You should be able to find one with under 30K miles for the mid 20s, and get luxury features and interior quality you won’t find anywhere else for the price, plus some nice driving dynamics.

    If you don’t mind going a bit (and it really is only a bit) smaller, a new 2012 Focus Titanium with the Titanium Handling Package could be right up your ally. Top notch interior, tons of luxury and technology options, sport driving dynamics, and great fuel economy on top of it all.

    Another thought if you are willing to go Pre-owned would be an Acura TSX. The four cylinder has plenty of pep, but you can get the V6 if you want to go automatic, and finding one pre-owned but still under warranty in the mid $20s may be possible.

  • avatar
    SunnyvaleCA

    Isn’t the Camry quite a bit bigger than the ’03 Passat? Maybe that’s a good thing? Anyway, I wouldn’t be too keen on giving up the manual transmission. Unfortunately, finding a manual sedan is getting harder and harder.

  • avatar
    david42

    Kia Optima turbo! The exterior isn’t to everyone’s liking (though I love it), while the interior is undeniably more interesting than the Sonata. Same warranty, mechanicals, etc. as the Sonata.

  • avatar
    HoldenSSVSE

    I think we’re in a golden age in the C-Segment and D-Segment cars in the United States right now. Ten years ago an answer to this questions would be Camry/Accord and sheeze, why are you asking?!?

    In both the C and D segment there is very little a person could buy today and not have a good experience. I really think it comes down to your own preference.

    The only caution I would make on the Camry is a new one is right around the corner, but I have always preferred to have the lastest thing on the block, not the end of the skin/model run. So that is more of a personal preference. Altima, CC, Camry SE, Fusion, Mazda6, Optima, Sonata, Accord, etc…you really can’t go wrong. I’ll add the RWD Charger and Chrysler 300 to the list given their improved interiors.

    I say drive them all and figure out what characteristics, price points, features and options are important to you.

    You may like the handling for the Mazda6, but find the engine more refined in the Camry. You may not like the softer feel of the Camry (even in SE trim) but find the Accord too big. If you really think about it; what a great set of problems to have. Instead of worrying about, will it last 150K miles you can focus on, which one do I really like and meets my specific needs, practically and emotionally. It is a golden age for American sedan buyers right now.

  • avatar
    ajla

    The Regal is extremely Germanic in how it goes about things, fit and finish is superb, and it’s arguably the best FWD chassis you can buy right now. On the con side, the pricing is optimistic, it isn’t very fast, and fuel economy could be better.

    I really liked the Kizashi. It’s somewhere between the Regal and A5 Jetta in initial quality and dynamics, but it also comes at a very reasonable price. On the negative side, Suzuki dealers and the brand in general are on major life support right now in the US. The CVT might not be to your liking (I didn’t mind it), and I don’t think Suzuki is known for their high reliability marks.

    The Sonata is quick and returns great fuel economy, but it was also not a car that I’d ever fall in love with. If that isn’t a concern for you, then definitely check it out.

    The TSX is a great choice if you don’t mind going used (or spending a bit more new), and don’t mind really putting your foot down when accelerating.

    If you’re on a tighter budget and don’t live where they salt the roads go with the Mazda6.

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      Point about the 6: it, the Tribute and the B-Series are the only North American-made Mazdas. Consequently, they don’t tend to rust.

      Japanese Mazdas might not rust, either, but you need to take care of them. I took my Protege5 to Krown yearly and it was fine when I sold it, as is a friend’s 5.

  • avatar
    OmarCCXR

    I second the Suzuki Kizashi, Kia Optima and the Hyundai Sonata. Because let’s be honest, in cars like the Mazda 6 and Camry you have to step up to the V6 option to get the grunt and that’s not a good choice if you want a frugal car. The Sonata and the Kia Optima are right in between.

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      In the case of the Optima or Sonata, you need to step up to the Turbo, just as you would a V6 in the Camry, 6 or Accord. Hyundai uses the turbo four the same way the others use their sixes, both in terms of performance and price.

      The turbo does return better highway mileage, but around-town I can’t see it doing much better than a six. Maintenance is a question, but perhaps not much of one versus a transverse six.

  • avatar
    Trend-Shifter

    It would have been better if we knew your family size and lifestyle to refine the choices.
    However, I offer this wildcard…

    Buy a NEW Mustang V6 automatic with the handling package. Really!

    As Sajeeve said ” Telling you what to buy is never a good idea, recommendations followed by ample amounts of test driving is the only way to go.”

    Test drive this model Mustang and you will have a smile on your face. It is easy on the pocketbook too. Great gas mileage and low purchase price. Buy new, all the bugs are worked out.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    How much do you value rear-seat space?

    Because if the answer is “not much at all” you might be better served by a compact: anything from a new Mazda3 or Focus to a CPO Lexus IS. You’ll spend less, get greener and have more fun in the process.

  • avatar
    Conslaw

    I also had a 2003 Passat. Mine was a T1.8 with a stick. I testdrove a 2011 Hyundai Sonata with an automatic transmission and a non-turbo 2011 Sonata with a stickshift, and the non-turbo Sonata with the stick performed the most like my old Passat. If my memory serves, it stickered under 21,000 with pretty decent equipment.

  • avatar
    SV

    The Kizashi strikes me as perhaps the best Passat replacement of the current midsize pack. It’s similar in size, rather Germanic both in interior styling and handling dynamics, and quite rare.

    • 0 avatar
      FromaBuick6

      And no one should touch it with a ten foot pole. That car is salesproof, and unless you can persuade 50,000 people to buy one, it’s best to stay away. The clock’s ticking on Suzuki.

      • 0 avatar
        NulloModo

        While there is a (slim) chance Suzuki may stop selling cars in the US, as a company it isn’t going away, so the warranty would still be honored and parts would still be available. After Isuzu left the US car market they still honored the warranties for existing customers.

        Resale value could take a hit, but if she is planning on another 8 year trade cycle (assuming the ’03 Passat was bought new) the effects would be pretty minimal.

  • avatar
    devilsadvocate

    I hope you’re not recommending that people overlook the Kizashi just because it’s not a top seller. Just because a car is a big seller doesn’t necessarily (or even probably) mean it’s any good (new Jetta, any Camry from the last decade for example). As an enthusiastic Kizashi owner, I’d proudly recommend it to anyone looking for a high-quality, fun-to-drive car. It has, by far, been my favorite car out of the 11 I’ve owned and has performed flawlessly for 19000 miles. It doesn’t sell in big numbers for 2 main reasons IMHO…it doesn’t fit neatly into a category size-wise, and Suzuki just isn’t on buyers radars. When people hear Suzuki they think cheap small car (or motorcycle), but based on my experience Suzuki is capable of building a great car. And don’t sound the death knell yet for Suzuki…sales are up almost 20% since over the last year, which is even more impressive when you realize they stopped selling their top-sellers (Forenza and Reno).

  • avatar
    tekdemon

    Well I’d say that you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t wait to see how the 2012 Camry SE is, word is that the trims are more differentiated this time around with a genuinely fun to drive suspension on the SE, and interior quality is up on all the trims which is something a Passat drive would enjoy.
    Really, any new car you buy will likely be more reliable so I’d wait for the 2012 Camry then test drive all the cars in the class.

  • avatar
    JMII

    No love for the Volvo S40?

    If you’ve got a turbo Passat (like I do) then lack of the torque on the (4 cylinder) TSX will be a disappointment. The Mazda 6 I drove had the right feel, but mileage was less then stellar. The Volvo’s interior is in the same league as the Passats. My parent just grabbed a Sonata Turbo, so I’ll have a chance to give it a spin soon as a comparo – but on paper its engine is awesome… just curious to see if the interior is really as good as the picture above indicates.

    • 0 avatar
      NulloModo

      I just don’t see the major ‘wow’ factor in the new Hyundai Sonata interior. It looks pretty nice, and I haven’t sat in a limited model yet, but we’ve had a couple of the new Sonatas traded in that I’ve had some seat time in and they aren’t blowing me away.

      I’d still rank the Mazda6, Maxima, VW CC, and even the Kia Optima over the new Sonata.

  • avatar
    Sam P

    Total dark horse, but a Mazda6 with the V6 engine.

    Alternatively, get a new Passat VR6. $29.8k MSRP.


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