Choice is not something Australian car buyers are lacking. In some showrooms you can find hatchback, sedan, coupe, convertible, small MPV, small SUV, medium SUV, SUV ‘coupe’ and liftback bodystyles all within a $15,000 shopping window. We’re looking directly at you, BMW.
The thing is, at the lower end of the market the traditional medium-sized sedan struggles to fit in.
The genre - big enough, but a 'size down' - has been around since the Holden Torana and Ford Cortina, before giving away to a newer breed like the front-wheel drive Camira and Toyota Camry.
Of course the stalwart Toyota Camry is the only one that still exists in the class today. And both remain and conquer it does, last year claiming a 46.2 percent share in a medium car class that now appeals to just 4.2 percent of all new-car shoppers.
This was intended to be a GT comparison of sedans from Japan and Korea – the current benchmark Mazda6 GT versus newly released Kia Optima GT.
However the Kia is only available in 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol guise. Matching it meant choosing the best engine from the Mazda range; and that’s the optional 2.2-litre turbo-diesel, not the standard 2.5-litre non-turbo petrol.
In other words, petrol versus diesel (and do buyers really care about fuel type these days?)
To make it a three-cornered competition, we put those two up against the sales winner of the segment, the petrol/electric hybrid-powered Camry. Recently facelifted, the 'Grand Touring'-style Atara SL sells for similar money to the Mazda/Kia GTs, so the Toyota is also in.
So, similarly priced, but now the choice widens to petrol, diesel or hybrid? More to the point, should you give a fully equipped medium sedan another look if you've got a family to move and $41,000 to $46,000 dollars to spend?
There are so many questions to answer, so let’s crack on with the testing.
Kia Optima GT ($43,990)
180kW/350Nm 2.0-litre turbo 4cyl | 6-speed automatic
Fuel use claimed: 8.5l/100km | tested: 10.6l/100km
Mazda6 GT Diesel ($45,540)
129kW/420Nm 2.2-litre turbo-diesel 4cyl | 6-speed automatic
Fuel use claimed: 5.4l/100km | tested: 6.1l/100km
Toyota Camry Atara SL Hybrid ($40,440)
151kW/270Nm 2.5-litre 4cyl + electric motor | continuously variable transmission (CVT)
Fuel use claimed: 5.2l/100km | tested: 6.0l/100km
The hybrid-powered Camry Atara SL is the most affordable vehicle here, priced from $40,440 plus on-road costs. Incidentally you could save another $3000 and ditch the hybrid drivetrain for a standard 2.5-litre petrol-only four-cylinder.
Our tested Atara SL however came with a $1950-optional sunroof which the others already include as standard, taking its total to $42,390 (plus orc).
That brings the Toyota closer to the Kia Optima GT that is priced from $43,990 (plus orc). It’s a no-options proposition except for $595 metallic paint.
The Mazda6 GT starts at $42,690 (plus orc) for its petrol version, but, as mentioned, we’re testing the diesel that begins to look expensive at $45,540 (plus orc). Note that the turbo petrol Optima GT sits smack-bang in between the two 6 GT engine choices, so we could have gone either way. Mazda throws in free metallic paint.
Each contender provides similar, but not identical, levels of equipment for the money.
Common features include full leather trim with electric front-seat adjustment and heating, keyless auto-entry, auto-dimming rear-view mirror, satellite navigation with premium audio and reverse-view camera to complement front and rear parking sensors.
The Camry only offers 17-inch alloy wheels and halogen headlights, compared to the better on-paper spec of the others.
The Mazda6 scores 19-inch wheels and LED headlights, while the Optima gets 18s and bi-xenon lights, each of the swivelling variety that point light into corners as you’re turning.
At least the Toyota singularly scores a digital radio, and it further hits back with automatic high-beam, lane departure warning and active cruise control, the trio of which are standard in the Kia but absent on the Mazda.
Not to be outdone, the Mazda6 GT returns serve with autonomous automatic braking when in reverse, internet apps connectivity for its infotainment system and a head-up display with digital speedometer.
Like a parliamentary debate, this seemingly never ends, because the Optima GT wants to have the final word by exclusively adding ventilated front seats, heated steering wheel, a panoramic (rather than standard-sized) sunroof and 8.0-inch colour screen (versus 7.0 inch for the others).
Given the Kia also shares some technology not featured in the Mazda, all with a cheaper pricetag, we’d have to give round one honours to the Optima GT.
The Optima GT also boasts the roomiest interior here and the plushest seats front and rear. Measuring 4855mm in body length, it is actually 10mm shorter than the 6 GT and 5mm longer than a Camry Atara SL.
We’d be tempted to call this the best interior Kia has produced, however after sampling the superb Sorento, some of the Optima’s trim finishes and plastics aren’t as detailed. Big nod to the mousefur-like trim on the rooflining that has been poached directly from Lexus, though.
The Mazda6 doesn’t have nearly as much rear legroom as its South Korean rival.
Up front, however, its narrower seats are just as supportive if not quite as luxurious. The Mazda also challenges the Optima GT for plastics and trim quality, the softly padded leather that runs down the sides of the console beaing a particular highlight.
The Mazda then beats its rivals for tactility of controls – such as the knurled silver climate knobs – and wins soundly with its infotainment system.
The Mazda MZD-Connect system is delightfully intuitive to use, either via the scroll wheel beside the transmission lever or the touchscreen when at idle. Syncing the Pandora music streaming app with your smartphone through Bluetooth is a masterstroke and the 11-speaker Bose audio system is the strongest here.
The Kia may boast a larger display, but its infotainment system is more finicky to use (operated via touchscreen only) and the sat-nav is less intuitive. The 10-speaker Harman Kardon audio is crisp without being as thunderous as its Japanese rival.
The Toyota meanwhile has a sorely dated infotainment system that ‘lags’ between functions. Its graphics are grainy and even the reverse camera is slow to engage.
Its 10-speaker JBL unit however is about on par with the Kia’s, as is the size if not amenity of the cabin in general.
In the US, the facelifted Camry scored a revised interior, but Australia only took up the outside styling changes. It hurts the medium Toyota’s chances in this company, because, even in Atara SL trim, this sedan feels like a base model tarted up with leather trim.
That leather also feels vinyl-like, and, although the Camry has space to rival the Optima and the most storage space here – big bottle holders in the doors, large glovebox – its rear bench is flat and slippery; the least comfortable by some margin.
Adding batteries to power the electric motor also reduces boot space to 421 litres, down from the petrol Toyota’s 515 litres. It also means forgoing the 60:40 split-fold backrest practicality delivered by the Mazda and its 506 litre luggage area, and the Kia with its 510 litre cavity.
Given the Optima GT mixes Atara SL space with 6 GT class, it wins both equipment and cabin rounds.
ON THE ROAD
To our minds a Grand Touring vehicle should be both supremely comfortable and subtly sporting.
Medium sedans cop enough flack for being bland machines, so paying extra for a luxury model should provide extra verve beyond extra bling.
Around town the Mazda6 GT takes an early, commanding lead.
Despite similar exterior dimensions, it feels so much more nimble and easy to drive than the other sedans here. Although diesel engines are typically known for delivering slower throttle response, the 2.2-litre actually is the most spritely and responsive off the line. It can be a bit growly and clattery, but smooths out as revs rise.
The 6 GT has low-profile 19-inch wheels that might usually affect ride comfort, but over urban bumps and thumps the Mazda is surprisingly settled and sorted. This is a medium sedan that feels like a small sedan when in the urban jungle.
The same cannot be said for the Optima GT. It feels more boat-like to navigate through city streets thanks primarily to thicker pillars and a broader dashboard ahead of the driver.
Its 2.0-litre petrol suffers some initial turbo ‘lag’ before coming on boost and surging forward, while its six-speed automatic can sometimes fall out of the right gear. Meanwhile the Mazda’s automatic is uncanny in its intuition – just like its infotainment system.
Ride quality in the Kia is similar, and pleasingly supple, but its steering is overly-sharp for a medium sedan and it can require small corrections on-centre to keep it in the lane of a typical urban arterial road. It just isn’t as relaxing to drive as the 6 GT.
The Camry Atara SL looks less sporting than the two GT cars. That’s fine, because in Toyota fashion it should be the ultra-comfortable choice here.
The trouble is, even with the thick sidewalls of its smaller 17-inch tyres, it doesn’t ride well around town. It should be plush, but it isn’t, and the steering is more like spinning the tiller of a yacht than guiding a car around.
The hybrid drivetrain is superb, though, being ultra quiet and responsive, teamed with economy that the diesel Mazda6 could only match on a long freeway and country drive.
If you spend most of your days around town, the Toyota will be as unmatched for efficiency as it is for servicing costs. Speaking about ‘off road’ matters for a moment, annual or 15,000km services in the Camry will cost you just $140 each – or just $560 for four years/75,000km.
The others are problematic in this area. Mazda demands servicing annually or 10,000km at a cost of $1387 for four years/40,000km, or $2385 if 70,000km comes up ahead of the time requirement.
Even more staggering is Kia’s requirement of six-month or 7500km servicing for the turbo Optima, at a cost of $1330 over 2.5 years/37,500km, $2712 over four years/60,000km, or $3570 if 75,000km comes up first.
In the debate about value, the Kia really does have to cling to the benefits of its seven-year, unlimited kilometre warranty (versus three years for the others) especially as it also can’t match the others for economy.
The Optima GT is a thirsty car. Around town it drinks hard, but even on the open road it consumed regular unleaded at a rate of 10.6 litres per 100 kilometres, or 50 percent more than the evenly-tied diesel 6 GT and hybrid Camry Atara SL at 6.0-6.1l/100km.
Perhaps, in a straight line, it feels nominally faster than the others, but not to the point where it should chew through so much extra fuel.
But don't discount the Kia just yet. The single biggest surprise of the test was how the Optima GT gels with Australian conditions beyond the suburbs. Quite simply, out back beyond city streets it is almost flawless as a touring (and subtly sporting) car.
The Kia is deathly quiet whether on smooth roads or coarse-chip bitumen, to the point where you feel like you’re riding in a Lexus for more reasons than just similar headlining material.
The turbo engine, as thirsty as it is, is silken and cultured to the ear. The rougher the roads get, the better the suspension deals with imperfections. Armed with superb Michelin Pilot Sport 3 rubber, whether on freeway or secondary road, the Kia is 'pointy', grippy, controlled and comfortable all in one.
Swap to the Mazda and its steering is immediately less alert, there’s more bodyroll, it’s noisier and has less grip from its Bridgestone Turanza tyres. And its suspension can be clunky over chopped-up country roads.
Just as it does in town, however, the Mazda6 GT shrinks around its driver. It feels nimble, beautifully balanced and playful, like a bit of MX-5 roadster engineering has escaped and hidden within the big sedan.
There is a big, big step down to the Camry Atara SL. It doesn’t ride very well in the country, its handling is soggy and its hybrid drivetrain doesn’t have an ounce of flair.
Interestingly, you can option sports suspension and 18-inch wheels on the Atara SL for $2950 extra, but only with the petrol powered $37,440 (plus orc) model. Experience with that Camry indicates that it doesn’t ride much worse, but handles a lot better.
Choosing the petrol over hybrid Toyota also means you’ll be able to tow. Come to think of it, we’d actually pick the $40,990 (plus orc) Aurion Sportivo with sports suspension and its lovely 3.5-litre petrol V6, although it’d probably drink as hard as the Optima GT.
The point is, then, that finding the right ‘sweet spot’ in the Camry/Aurion range is perhaps a little elusive.
TMR VERDICT | Mazda6 for the win
The Toyota Camry Atara SL may have popularity, pricing, petrol usage and servicing costs on its side, but its barren cabin, compromised boot and mediocre suspension means it struggles to offer real value.
Best to choose the hybrid Altise for $30,490 (plus orc) if you want big, cheap, simple family motoring.
The contest between the two GT cars is much tougher - these are closely-matched contenders - and much harder to split.
Our 'take' on things is this: if you want a lush luxury car and don’t mind spending big on fuel and servicing, the Optima GT boasts the plushest interior, the best country touring abilities and a benchmark warranty.
However, it’s the Mazda6 GT that wins, just, and ultimately gets our nod of approval. It may have less rear legroom and is noisier and bumpier on a country road, but it has superior infotainment, a better automatic, more fluent engine and sharper throttle response.
It also feels the more nimble and boasts sweeter steering around town. For all that, it uses 50 percent less fuel and is (marginally) cheaper to service.
It is the finesse in the details that elevates the Mazda onto the top spot on the podium as much as detail inconsistencies force the Optima GT down to the second step.
Photography by Alex Bryden.