Oh, the how times have changed. Family-sedan shoppers' best choices used to be either the Toyota Camry or Honda Accord. Now, shopping lists should contain the Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima, Ford Fusion, Chevrolet Malibu, Subaru Legacy, and Mazda 6, for a full slate of contenders, all with slightly different personalities.
A pair of mid-size sedans, the Nissan Altima and Volkswagen Passat, have placed big bets on excellent fuel economy as a selling point, along with completely revamped style and features.
So, how do they stack up?
(Please note: we've changed the way in which we rate cars.)
The answer is that it's a close race, and depending on how highly you value miles per gallon and spare design, it could go the other way. By our numeric ratings, it's close at 6.8 out of 10 for the VW and 7.2 for the Altima, but although these two are built not far from one another in Tennessee, they have decidedly different flavors.
The Altima's sleek looks mimic those of the more expensive Infiniti range, and the interior's never looked so refined, or been so quiet. The Passat? It's very spare and neatly organized, if a little plain to some. It promises a timeless appeal, and it leaves unnecessary detail off its fenders and its dash to that end.
Nissan's 4-cylinder engine is smooth and powerful enough in the current Altima, and though the continuously variable transmission isn't a favorite, it was thoroughly re-engineered in 2013 for better performance. It doesn't seem sluggish to respond any more, and that helps the base Altima deliver an EPA-rated 39 mpg highway with reasonably spirited performance.
The Passat's standard turbocharged 4-cylinder engine is a lovely boost over the former 5-cylinder. With the Passat's TDI sitting out for the model year due to the company's emissions scandal, it's a closer call than it would be otherwise, but we'd still give the nod to the Passat's 1.8-liter turbocharged inline-4 and responsive 6-speed automatic transmission for its energetic feel. Both the Altima and Passat offer an optional V-6 that many mainstream shoppers will pass on, since the high-economy models are so efficient and so effective.
Both the Altima and Passat have good handling for the class. The Passat's much more firm in steering feel and ride damping; the Altima's softened up a lot with this redesign, but it's still one of the more precise-handling sedans in the segment. A new SR model goes a long way to addressing the handling differences, but it's an optional model; the base Altima's a much more traditional-handling car, while the Passat is still very much in European tune.
Comfort and quality in either four-door are excellent. The Passat's firm seats come in synthetic leather or cloth, and interior room is vast, in front or back, with or without the available sunroof. The Altima's a bit smaller but still quite spacious; its front seats are the best we've tried in family cars, and the rear bench has good support, too. The Altima gets our nod over the nicely fitted Passat, primarily because the extra sound damping in the Nissan makes it quieter at speed.
Thanks to additional active-safety options this year, the Altima and Passat are now on par with class leaders. Both earn IIHS Top Safety Pick+ status. The 2017 Passat earns five stars overall from the NHTSA; the Altima earned that rating for 2016.
The Altima outranks the Passat for convenience and luxury features, but only slightly. The Passat has caught up this year, with all models now including USB ports and upgraded infotainment. You can even get features like heated rear seats in the VW now.
The bottom line? Both the Altima and Passat are solid alternatives to our favorite family sedans—the Legacy, the Fusion, and the Accord. These challengers promise huge driving distances on a single tank of fuel, with handsome styling, above-average handling and exceptional room. With either the Altima or the Passat, you'll find yourself behind the wheel of a capable four-door without many obvious weaknesses.