When it comes to family cars, the show is run on a global scale by three Japanese heavyweights — the Toyota Camry, the Honda Accord and the Nissan Altima. Among them, they have a stranglehold of the global D segment saloon market. So the logical thing to do when one of these Japanese majors comes out with a new model-year is to get the other two together as well and throw all of them into the ring. But instead, when Nissan came out with its 2013 Altima, we decided to leave these eternal rivals alone and pick the newest of comparable models from other major carmakers that are all vying with each other for a bigger slice of the lucrative family saloon pie.
We have assembled an unconventional group of adversaries — a German, French and two Americans — to fight it out with the Japanese stalwart. The Peugeot 508 brings a 156bhp 1.6-litre turbo to the fight, the Chrysler 200 wields a 283bhp 3.6-litre V6 and the Chevrolet Malibu comes with a 260bhp 3.0-litre V6, while the lone German, the VW Passat flaunts an unusual five-cylinder lump that displaces 2.5 litres.
I was at the launch of the new Altima, which Nissan billed as ‘the automotive event of the year’. I have to say, I enjoyed the clever 3D projections and interactive displays but when the covers were pulled off the ‘game-changing’ all-new 2013 model, I was left a tad disappointed. And that’s because after the razzmatazz and carnival atmosphere, you’d be forgiven for thinking a Lamborghini Aventador and Ferrari F12 Berlinetta had mated and their gorgeous new-born lay under there. The whole thing was hyped up way too much and rather than pass any meaningful judgment other than the new Altima looked like a Maxima, I took a handful of h’orderves, made my excuses and left.
The next morning the Altima was delivered to wheels HQ and it looked far better than it did in the haze of smoke and epileptic fit-inducing strobe lights of the night before. With a bold front end, muscular rear and a swoopy roof, it certainly had been sharpened up over the outgoing model. It’d been thoroughly modernised and was, dare I say, rather stylish. But, and a big one at that, it still had a CVT. Would that get in the way of what looked like, for all intents and purposes, a thoroughly good car?
I hopped into the plush beige leather driver’s seat to find out. But before I pushed the start button, I jumped back out and tried the remote engine start feature. This sparked the 3.5-litre V6 into life and turned the AC on, meaning the cabin was nice and cool before I got back in again. A very clever trick. Then I was blown away by the interior. It looked bigger than my studio flat — the seats were far more comfortable than my sofa bed, while the 7.0in colour touch display, navigation and Bose sound system with nine speakers had me nodding in approval.
Not only was it very comfortable in there, it was exceptionally well built and had a premium quality about it. Packed with lots of goodies including Blind Spot Warning, Lane Departure Warning, a Moving Object Detection system and of course a rear view camera, I was beginning to think the Altima’s aim was to make me a lazy driver. So I switched all the gimmicks off, selected D, and nearly collided with a taxi in my left lane. Blind Spot Warning was reactivated.
I soon realised the CVT mated to the potent motor wasn’t that bad at all and the reason for that? The paddle shifters on the chunky steering. This may defy the point of a CVT since it doesn’t have gears in the traditional sense, so how can you select one? Who cares how, the fact that you can makes having a CVT bearable. The Altima always handled very well and still does, but now it accelerated stronger and stopped harder. The motor may be unchanged and means it still makes 270bhp from 6,000rpm and has 350Nm of torque at 4,400rpm but it’s a shade quicker from 0-100kph, taking a little over six seconds, thanks to a body that’s now 25kg lighter.
It’s more aerodynamic, too — the drag coefficient has been reduced by 5.0 per cent and all this means your wallet will be smiling because the new car is 18 per cent more fuel efficient than the outgoing model. On the road, the front wheel-drive saloon felt as smooth as silk, sturdy and cossetted me from wind or tyre noise even at higher speeds. All in all, I found it a thoroughly good revision of the people’s favourite.
The all-new 2013 Malibu has one very specific objective: beat the living daylights out of the Altima. That’s the car that the folks from Chevy are targeting and this, the eighth-generation model, has turned up fully prepared for the fight. You couldn’t say that about the previous models. Despite a decent powertrain, the previous Malibu’s Achilles’ heel was its poor build quality and general feeling of neglect. Not anymore. The new model has improved significantly in every single department; from the powerful looking Camaro-inspired exterior to its punchy 3.0-litre direct injection V6 that produces 260bhp at 6,900rpm and 290Nm at 5,600rpm of torque, propelling it from 0-100kph in 8.1 seconds.
This peppy motor, which makes the handsome Chevy feel lively and dynamic, has been mated to a slick six-speed automatic that sends all the power to the front wheels. Mash the throttle with the traction control off (or on!) and the front rubbers begin to squeal. It has a little under steer, but you’ll only ever feel that when you’re really gunning around a corner. Throw in a fancy dual-port grille, projector HID headlights and 18in wheels and it’s quite clear the Malibu means business. That it also boasts a sublime interior and some terrific kit to boot, it makes its intentions quite clear; it’s to be taken very, very seriously.
Our top-of-the-range LTZ trim model also had the remote engine start feature like the Altima and a similarly sized, fabulous 7.0in sat-nav touchscreen display (which had a secret storage compartment built behind it, accessible at the push of a button) a properly good stereo (which was far more user friendly than that of the Nissan) and it was bathed in leather and aluminium trim almost everywhere. It’s at this five-car brawl oozing confidence and the reasons for that are many, but perhaps the most pertinent is its superb ride and crisp handling.
Chevy engineers worked overtime to ensure the Malibu remained composed and smooth even when the roads turned ugly; its MacPherson strut front and four-link rear suspension manages to dampen bumps with minimal effort while the driving experience is extremely satisfactory. The steering is nicely weighted and responsive and gives you good feedback, while the cabin is such a tranquil place to be. It’s serenity personified and that’s thanks to the acoustic laminated windshield and noise-absorption materials that improve the overall quality inside.
Boasting a best in class width of 1,855mm, the amount of room in the cabin is just astounding. Front seat passengers on the larger side will have no complaints about leg or headroom, and neither would those in the comfy back bench. However, they might bemoan the lack of climate control back there. With a total of six air bags (dual-stage driver and front passenger air bags, driver and front side-impact air bags, and roof rail air bags) rear park assist and a rear view camera, the Malibu proves it’s one of the safest and best-equipped vehicles available.
It’s no secret that Volkswagen is single-mindedly working its way towards being the world’s largest automaker. It’s also no secret that the bigger the share of the money-spinning D segment family car market you have, the more chances you have of making that dash to the summit faster. No wonder then Wolfsburg is playing around with its family saloon range, stripping the Passat saloon of its V6 powerhouse — at least in our market — and handing it over to its prettier sibling, the CC, while downgrading the former to the 2.5-litre five-cylinder engine that also powers the smaller Jetta.
While the sexy CC tackles competition in the bigger league, it’s the Passat that’s left to deal with the volume saloon market, which it’s better equipped to do now. The Passat comes to our shootout with an outright advantage; that of German engineering at a very un-German price. It’s the only German mid-size saloon to be priced in the same range as its American, Japanese or French counterparts.
Although the only defining feature of the Passat’s exterior is the crease that runs right along the car’s profile from headlight to taillight, it somehow manages to be the best-looking car of the lot. Its simple, understated elegance helps it stand out from the rest of the cars, which have more characteristic design elements than the Passat but somehow don’t manage to look as impressive.
However, VW took simplicity a bit too far in the cabin, which lacks any styling, but like all VW cars, when it comes to build quality and workmanship, the Passat trumps the rest hands down. The fit and finish is almost reminiscent of an Audi, which is something none of the other cars can even aspire to. The new Passat is bigger than the previous one, and most of that extra space has gone to the rear seat. Roomier than the CC, the Passat’s back seats provide enough legroom for a six-footer with another six footer comfortably seated in the front seat.
This effectively negates one advantage the Japanese and American rivals had till now. The 2.5-litre five-cylinder engine is not the quickest, but it sounds better than most of the other cars here, and thanks to some excellent damping and engine mounting work by VW, it’s a smooth and relatively quiet operator.
On the road, the Passat felt composed and responsive, offering solid yet agile driving dynamics that are unmistakably German. Around tight corners, it offers reasonably good grip, decent body control, and a comfortable and reasonably quiet ride on highway cruises. Overall, the Passat has a feel of solidity and an inimitable German-ness about it that the rest of the competition can only dream of.
It’s like coming to a gun fight armed with some chopsticks. The Peugeot 508 in its top-spec Allure trim only has a 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine. Everything else here is busy standing around, flexing its V6 muscles while the Peugeot cowers in the corner. It needn’t. The engine is turbocharged to deliver 156bhp and 240Nm of torque from just 1,400rpm, and although that sounds like nothing, there is honestly hardly a situation which calls for more power in the Peugeot.
Well, except the situation the 508 found itself in during a long drive to the East Coast, which challenged it with a series of uphill climbs that were tackled with all the zeal of an asthmatic presented with 30 flights of stairs. Other than that, the 508 is brisk enough to get up to speed taking just over nine seconds to reach 100kph, and topping out at almost 220kph. Peugeot tends to make its front-wheel drive hatchbacks and saloons feel sprightly in the corners, and the 508 is no different feeding back useful intentions of the driven axle. The speed-sensitive steering is power assisted but it’s not one of those removed electrical jobs, so what you feel is what you get.
Electronic mapping with the six-speed automatic tiptronic — it’s more of an automated manual than an true auto — makes it a bit hesitant to shift up and dampens acceleration slightly, but it makes the 508 the most economical car here averaging 6.0 litres-per-100km on the cruise and just slightly more on a combined front. The interior is the 508’s strong point, with good appointments and premium materials used everywhere.
The steering wheel is cluttered with controls, some of which are included on a dedicated stalk just behind three o’clock. Peugeot peeked into an Audi brochure to get inspiration for the tunnel console and the knob controller for the display and infotainment system, which is no bad thing. It’s intuitive and simple to use, completely contrasting with the typical French fare we’ve all come to expect and hate.
There’s even a head-up display, sort of, as instead of projection information into your field of view by magic, the 508 uses a panel above the instruments for vital info such as speed and cruise control. Neat. There’s lots of kit, six airbags, leather, side and rear shades, parking sensors, one-touch windows, LEDs, sunroof, and four-zone automatic AC. At Dh105,900 for the top-spec 508 Allure, this is a great buy (the line starts with the 508 Access from Dh89,900).
Here comes the dreaded ‘however’. The 120kph bong isn’t just a bong. It’s an incessant ringing resonating around the cabin like one of those old-fashioned telephones. You can turn the radio up as much as you like, but you’re just adding an extra band member who plays completely out of tune and rhythm. This single infuriating feature would turn me right away from the Peugeot 508. Shame. I really thought it could pull some mad moves with those chopsticks.
This was supposed to blow us away. Chrysler’s recent resurgence, especially with the Dodge Charger, Chrysler 300 and excellent Jeep Grand Cherokee are proof that the Pentastar is back with a vengeance. The upcoming Dodge Dart seems like it will turn the compact saloon segment on its head too. But for now the 200 is the latest arrival in Chrysler’s Middle East showrooms. This is replacing the old Sebring, which was always the black sheep in Chrysler’s portfolio. Smartly the company ditched the somewhat ridiculed nametag and went numerical. Un-smartly, they left too many memories of the Sebring intact in the 200.
Firstly, this is not an all-new car. The 200 lives on the JS platform, which also underpinned the Sebring, and still survives at least partly in such stalwarts as the Mitsubishi Outlander and Lancer. It’s not an antique, but then again this platform was developed during Daimler-Chrysler days. So many memories are best forgotten… Chrysler’s engineers tried hard, though, bless ’em. The 200 gets a new suspension design and new engines, while the designers did the best they could do.
Unfortunately their best is pretty average. The 200 is a 2013 model that looks already in need of a facelift. There are too many remnants of the Sebring in the styling, and the C-pillar required a cheap plastic blacking-off to save grace. The chrome 18in wheels are nice though, and they fill up the arches snuggly for an acceptable stance on the road, while the front and rear headlights add a bit of character to an otherwise generic whole.
You can have the 200 with a new 2.4-litre four-cylinder engine, but our tester came with a 3.6-litre V6 that’s as smooth as they come. Both motors are available with six-speed automatics, and our car’s gearbox made itself thoughtfully imperceptible. Just the way a mid-size saloons drivetrain should be. The power is more than adequate, with the capable V6 delivering 283bhp to the front wheels and a massive 353Nm of torque. The 200’s nature is to potter along silently keeping the revs low at 120kph, but should you kick down a couple of times in the transmission, you’re looking at R/T (if not quite SRT) levels of performance. You’re also looking at 0-100kph in well below seven seconds.
Chrysler Middle East also specs the cars somewhat competitively, adding dual-zone AC, leather, electric seats, sunroof, and it’s quite excellent UConnect touchscreen infotainment system, even if it’s set in a slightly dated display. There is also visibly more space in the 200 than in some of its snug rivals. And while the interior did take a step forward from the plastic-fantastic Sebring, it’s only a baby step. There is still cost-cutting evident inside the 200, with cheap trim invading too much of the driver’s field of view.
Apart from a token bit of piano-black trim and a white-faced oval clock, the dash lacks design panache and the flair of some of the latest competitors in this hard-fought segment. They’ve even seamed the handbrake lever right in the middle, so you can feel the rough plastic mold every time you lift the parking brake. Stepping into this from either the Passat, the Altima, or the Malibu feels like you’ve stepped into a car priced an entire class below. To be fair the 200 four-cylinder starts from around Dh70K and the V6 goes up to Dh92,900, and at that price it’s the cheapest V6-engined saloon you can buy. And rightly so.
If you thought this was going to be a walk in the park for the new Altima, then you’re in for a surprise. Granted, it has all the attributes to maintain its place as the best family saloon money can buy (even though we don’t think too much of the CVT) it isn’t the outright winner. And that is because of the vastly improved Malibu.
The Chevy has it all; a great interior, a raspy motor and classy looks, which means it jumps from obscurity to share top spot with the Nissan. But there’s a third car in joint first and that’s the Passat. You can’t argue with that smooth ride while the interior boasts exemplary fit and finishing. Even though the five-pot isn’t the hottest motor in town, the VW has a lot else going for it.
That leaves two cars fighting for second place — the Peugeot 508 and Chrysler 200. We were a little disappointed with the 200 considering how well Chrysler has been doing of late. It’s in a tough crowd here and it falls a little short in terms of quality, and that is mostly down to the interior.
No complaints with the V6 and because it’s the cheapest in this group, it might just be enough for some to splash the cash. But it’s edged for second place by the turbo-charged 508. It’s the most fuel efficient car here and boasts decent looks inside and out. The motor is a little wheezy but it handles great, particularly in the corners. So, five cars but just three positions filled. Hmm, perhaps we needed the Camry and Accord after all…
Specs and ratings
Model: Altima SL
Engine: 3.5-litre V6
Transmission: CVT, FWD
Max power: 270bhp @ 6,000rpm
Max torque: 350Nm @ 4,400rpm
Top speed: NA
Price: Dh114,000 (as tested)
Model: Malibu LTZ
Engine: 3.0-litre V6
Transmission: Six-speed auto, FWD
Max power: 260bhp @ 6,900rpm
Max torque: 290Nm @ 5,600rpm
Top speed: NA
Price: Dh99,000 (as tested)
Engine: 2.5-litre five-cyl
Transmission: Six-speed auto, FWD
Max power: 170bhp @ NA
Max torque: 240Nm @ 5,700rpm
Top speed: 190kph
Price: Dh118,500 (as tested)
Model: 508 THP 156
Engine: 1.6-litre four-cyl turbo
Transmission: Six-speed auto, FWD
Max power: 154bhp @ 6,000rpm
Max torque: 240Nm @ 4,250rpm
Top speed: 217kph
Price: Dh105,900 (as tested)
Engine: 3.6-litre V6
Transmission: Six-speed auto, FWD
Max power: 283bhp @ 6,400rpm
Max torque: 353Nm @ 4,400rpm
Top speed: 235kph
Price: Dh92,900 (as tested)