Not everyone lives and dies by the rule that you have three choices in the family sedan segment and they are Accord, Camry or Altima. Really, you rent an Altima you don’t buy one for your family. That car could use a mid-life refresh as badly as if it was one of Bravo’s “Real Housewives” who routinely plump, alter and tinker with their looks. You see, there are cool family sedan options and here are three of the best—the 2015 Volkswagen Passat TDI SEL, 2016 Mazda 6 Touring and the 2015 Chrysler 200C AWD.
The latest Mazda6 has always visually tickled us in all the right spots and is more dynamic looking than Accord or the latest Camry. We’d say it’s downright handsome but once the 200C AWD walks in the door you understand the difference between that and sexy. And the Passat, well, its lines have aged very well and in burgundy it looks like a million bucks. If you want your car to look German, that is your family sedan. Still, we can’t believe Chrysler of all brands managed to bring “Sexyback” to family sedans. (1st Place: 2015 Chrysler 200C AWD 2nd Place: 2016 Mazda6, 3rd Place: 2015 VW Passat TDI)
Interior Layout, Comfort and Materials Quality
Whereas the Passat admittedly is the king and champion when it comes to rear seat roominess (it really the only one suitable to carry five adults) and simply enormous trunk space, sometimes its generosity bordered on overkill. If your groceries rolled all the way forward in the trunk you practically have to climb in just to retrieve them from this VW’s Grand Canyon of cargo capacity. It’s perfect if you are a hoarder. We just wish the interior felt a bit less Spartan and featureless. And the cheap plastic clock on the dash has to go.
Here is where the 2015 Chrysler 200C’s interior shows up the competition and that is in the high quality feel of the leather, plastics and carpets as well as “wow your friends” features like a transmission gear selection knob that looks quite a lot like the one you find exclusively in Jaguars and Range Rovers. A stylish dual pane panoramic sunroof much like the one that really is the cherry on top of the equally sexy Kia Optima also featured in our Chrysler 200 tester and helped it to inch past the Passat and stylishly sporty feeling interior of the 2016 Mazda6 with its new and much improved infotainment system for the win. (1st Place: 2015 Chrysler 200C AWD, 2nd Place: 2016 Mazda6 Touring, 3rd Place: 2015 VW Passat TDI)
Well first off let’s just say the 2015 VW Passat TDI simply walked away with the fuel economy win being that we put 680 miles on the odometer and never had to fill the tank once. And yes, we returned it with just under a quarter tank left. The 2016 Mazda6 with its SkyActiv technology, however, also impressed us for its efficiency given that it has an EPA estimate of 28 city/40 highway and we averaged 38.9 miles per gallon over the course of a week.
Our 200C may have recorded the lowest fuel economy numbers here but it is also the only one equipped with all-wheel drive (the other two don’t offer it) and a far more powerful 3.6 liter 295 horsepower V6 which thankfully does run on regular unleaded. Over the course of a week the 18 city/29 highway rated 200C averaged nearly 22 miles per gallon. Do note there is a more fuel efficient (36 highway) 2.4 liter 184 horsepower 4-cylinder engine available. But what is the fun in that? (1st Place: 2015 VW Passat TDI, 2nd Place: 2016 Mazda6, 3rd Place: 2015 Chrysler 200C AWD)
Value for Money, Features and Pricing
All three sedans here have starting prices in the low $20,000 range but their as tested prices varied wildly based on how lavishly equipped they were with the latest gadgets and gizmos. But keep in mind our 2016 Mazda6 Touring stickered for just over $23,000 yet still featured dual zone climate control, 19-inch alloys, blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert, keyless go and push button start as well as very convincing faux cowhide seat upholstery. The 2015 Volkswagen Passat SEL Premium TDI was priced just over $34,000 and given its higher feature count the 2015 Chrysler 200C AWD rang up to just over $37,000 once the Chrysler Group LLC had finished lavishing every possible option imaginable onto our test vehicle. Yes, we see that’s a big gap.
If you can live with some of the more over the top features like, oh, say the Chrysler Parallell and Perpendicular Park Assist system which can automatically parallel park and guide you into a regular parking spot for you as well should you one day be rendered utterly incompetent. It’s too bad that feature is lumped into a package with very helpful safety advances like collision advance brake assist, lane departure warning, blind spot monitoring, adaptive cruise control and automatic high beam headlights. In fact, only the Volkswagen lacked adaptive cruise control which can automatically maintain a set speed for you on the freeway regardless of traffic. It just slows you down then speeds you up again. That used to be the preserve of Lexus models but now even family sedans boast the latest gadgetry. (1st Place: 2016 Mazda6, 2nd Place: 2015 Volkswagen Passat TDI, 3rd Place: 2015 Chrysler 200)
Do any of these Sedans Stir the Senses? (Fun to Drive)
First to go down in this fight is a car that boasts impeccable road manners and noise suppression all while managing to always feel like the faster you drive it the more nailed down you are to the road. This car is, of course, the German Engineered and Tennessee built 2015 Volkswagen Passat TDI. This frugal family sedan is a pleasure at a relaxed cruise and can also manage to capably tackle windier roads if the need arises.
The only problem is that the 2016 Mazda6 Touring has the cheetah-like ability the more comfort oriented VW lacks thanks to the most buttoned down suspension tuning of any car in this test and steering that is not only communicative but never feels overly heavy during tight cornering maneuvers. The 2015 Chrysler 200C AWD’s steering felt lighter and somewhat more detached but the car made up for it with the tenacious grip during even the most insanely tight freeway onramp cornering maneuvers. Not that we would test a car in such a way but Southern California where we are based has little need for all-weather traction as a rule but the 200’s system manages to aid grip even in the dry.
As you would imagine, the Chrysler’s 3.6 liter 295 horsepower V6 offered up the most thrilling straight line experience but a funny thing happened on the way to the forum when the roads got twisty and the 200C’s weight problem compared to the Mazda6 became easier to notice. So despite only packing a 2.5 liter 185 horsepower Sky-Activ 4-cylinder, the 6 always felt like a feisty performer thanks to its enthusiastically growling engine note and the slick shift action of the six-speed manual gearbox.. And never once did we wish the Mazda had more horsepower when we took it for some blasts on our favorite back roads. Face it, Mazda knows how to make even a family sedan go “Zoom-Zoom.”
And while we are always enthusiastic about Volkswagen’s 2.0 liter 140 horsepower/236 lb. feet of torque TDI diesel motor, we always feel that particular engine makes for a more engaging drive hen equipped with the manual gearbox. Really the only car priced like the 2016 Mazda6 that will soon have an infotainment system possibly as good as the one in the Mazda will be the soon to be released 2016 Honda Accord Sport four door which should come in at around $23,000 and feel just as rewarding to drive. (1st Place: 2015 Mazda6, 2nd Place: 2015 Chrysler 200C AWD, 3rd Place: 2015 Volkswagen Passat TDI)
And the Winner is…the 2016 Mazda Touring!
Affordable, well equipped, handsomely styled and with one of the easiest to use infotainment systems in the business, the 2016 Mazda6 Touring is a steal at just over $23,000. But will its victory be short lived what with Honda’s 2016 Accord Sport on the horizon and with it the promise of the first family sedan with Apple’s CarPlay Infotainment system. It too stickers for just over $23,000 and is a hoot to drive especially with the Sport’s six-speed manual gearbox. Trust us, this 2016 Honda Accord and Mazda6 match-up will be something you want to come back to see.
(Note: All three vehicles in this piece were provided for testing to the author for a period of seven days.)