South Africa was once a premier market for the large, humble family sedan. Those with a little more mileage on the bodily odometer might recall nameplates such as the Chrysler Valiant, Ford Granada, Datsun Laurel, Chevrolet Commodore and Toyota Cressida. We had the Opel Rekord, Nissan Skyline and Mazda 626. The Peugeot 405, Renault Laguna and Citroën C5 proffered Gallic charm to shoppers in the segment.
As the noughties edged along, the popularity of the genre began to dwindle. The uprising of the SUV and Crossover (which you are probably tired of hearing about by now) is partly to blame. Perhaps the local penchant for prestige brands is also something to consider. It seems that we South Africans feel that large saloon ownership is only worthwhile if an Audi, BMW or Mercedes-Benz badge is on it.
While all of the monikers mentioned at the top are now defunct, there are still a handful of offerings in this ambit. They occupy a slight grey area. The executive sedans gracing this space are not entry-level enough to be classed as such, nor premium enough to roll with the German Three. Save for the Volvo S60 perhaps. Which is an interesting place to start.
In terms of size, it appears to straddle between the dimensions of a BMW 3-Series and 5-Series. With prices starting at R378 00, the Volvo offers cushy seats, a well-hewn cabin with classy fixtures and a soothing driving character. Donning optional R-Design regalia, it was deemed by our staffers as the sexiest of the bunch. Considering their aggregate age is 30, that speaks volumes about Volvo’s success in pandering to a more youthful set.
If sex appeal is what you seek, best steer away from the Honda Accord. Previous generations of the model were of European specification. The current version is larger, softer and reflects the tastes of the American market. For those in want of ample space and comfortable straight-line cruising abilities, this is a good thing. Testers praised the note of the V6 in the top-tier model. Prices range between R434 600 and R613 300, making it the costliest of this bunch.
Ringing in at R559 000, the Subaru Legacy also demands a substantial outlay. There is one derivative; the 3.6 R-S and it serves meaty performance thanks its six-cylinder engine. The Lineartronic CVT is possibly the best of its kind, but we cannot help but think that the Legacy could be swifter, with a conventional automatic. And like the Honda, it too has morphed in a bid to pander to the American market. That said, it is a sturdy thing on the road – and the all-wheel traction enables some serious liberties in the corners.
Mazda is enjoying great success since the divorce from Ford. New models like the 2, 3 and MX-5 gained rampant praise from the public and press. And the 6 (from R342 000) was no different. A revised version is expected in the fourth quarter of 2016, which will hopefully address the shortcomings of the current version. Not that there are many. Actually, the biggest criticism we leveled at the striking sedan was its lazy automatic transmission. Aside from this, build quality is pretty much perfect and it boasts Teutonic levels of refinement. The Mazda exudes a sense that it would easily last two decades of use and abuse. It would have probably won this comparison too, had it not been for a certain competitor from Wolfsburg. More on that later.
The Ford Fusion (from R367 900) had us a little ambivalent. In the right specification, it certainly looks the part. But in entry-level guise it fades into the periphery, like a nondescript rental car. Apart from that aspirational Aston Martin visage, the most standout feature on our tester was its Car of the Year Finalist livery. Gripes included a brittle ride quality on the poorer surfaces of our route and an annoying cabin rattle. But praise was heaped upon its 1.5-litre EcoBoost engine, which is both punchy and frugal.
Lastly, we have the Passat (from R390 200). And maybe it is fitting that the oldest nameplate here would take victory in this comparison. Pity the model is destined to account for a tiny portion of Volkswagen sales, as it is a thoroughly remarkable vehicle. The new model is underpinned by the group’s lauded MQB platform, an architecture beyond reproach. It just goes about its business with impeccable decorum, unfussed by road surface challenges. And in the corners? Well, allow us to steal Sarel van der Merwe’s description from the ‘80s commercial for the Passat CLi: it sticks like boerewors to a braai grid.
The price palatable too, for a Volkswagen. And as you would expect, the interior feels bulletproof and the conservative styling approach will undoubtedly stand the test of time. On the whole, these are competent cars indeed – each brings a different flavour to the genre, with virtual parity among them. But the Passat feels just a little more equal, outshining its peers in all measures. Objectively speaking, it is the unequivocal victor. But of course, the mere fact that these products continue to persist in a market where the popularity of traditional body formats is declining, makes them all winners in our book.
-Words by Brenwin Naidu, Francois Oosthuizen, Ryan de Smidt, Kieran Rennie and John Whittle
-Pictures by Waldo Swiegers
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