When two competing cars are both excellent, it’s easy to think of them as interchangeable.
However, look carefully enough and you’ll often find that each one is most outstanding in its own particular niche.
Such is the case in the midsize sedan class. We’ve visited this class’ best-selling Honda Accord and Toyota Camry several times over the past year, as both have been fully redesigned for the 2018 model year. And at last, we’ve gotten to spend a full week in top-of-the-line versions of each best-seller.
This extra time revealed that even as both the Camry and the Accord have gotten sportier and more luxurious, it’s the Honda that has gone above and beyond in those areas. The Toyota, meanwhile, also delivers impressive performance and luxury, yet it does so while remaining a little more conservatively styled and function-oriented.
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While both the Accord and Camry were thoroughly redesigned for 2018, you could be forgiven for missing the changes to the Camry. Attentive car enthusiasts will instantly note the more-aggressive triangular front end, particularly on the sport-oriented SE and XSE trims. But others will likely see the gently rounded body with big windows that has defined the Camry silhouette for years.
The Accord, though, shares no visual similarity to its elegantly staid predecessor. It instead looks like a longer version of the Honda Civic — a longer, lower silhouette that aggressively hugs the ground. Its sloping roof recalls the “four-door coupe” trend of sleek luxury cars. Inside, the Accord adopts another trendy design cue: a low dashboard with an infotainment screen perched on the top.
It’s also impressively fun to drive, particularly in the tested $36,690 Touring trim. (The base model costs $24,460.) Equipped with a 252-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder engine, it feels like an Audi on the road: firm and composed, and unexpectedly lively when you start pushing it harder. The selectable “sport” mode is particularly delightful on a winding road, and the Accord isn’t so powerful that your driver’s license is in danger if you open it up.
The sporty vibe continues in the seating position. You sit low in the Accord, with your legs stretched out in front of you. If you hate the trend toward tall, bulky crossovers, the Accord is your antidote. And, like the driving experience, the well-finished cabin and some particularly expensive-feeling buttons evoke a luxury car.
Meanwhile, the Camry’s redesigned dashboard adopts a curvy verve, but some of its plastics feel downscale of the Accord’s. This is a very nice sedan but not a true luxury car, even at $38,355 as tested. (Here, too, there’s an affordable base model: $24,380.)
On the other hand, the Camry’s conventional control layout will feel more comfortable to some buyers than the more daring Accord’s. There’s a traditional gear selector, compared to a push-button system in high-end Accord trims like the tested Touring. The seats are higher, and, unlike in the Honda, the front-passenger seat also adjusts for height. The Accord’s gauges feature electronic customization, which sounds cool but, in practice, forces the driver to cycle through different data — the tachometer or a fuel-economy tracker, for example, but not both at the same time.
On the road, the Camry features a more-traditional set of powertrains than the Accord. Instead of turbocharging, Toyota uses old-school displacement: a 2.5-liter four-cylinder and a 3.5-liter V6, compared to 1.5-liter and 2.0-liter Accord engines. The V6 is a particular powerhouse, making a class-trouncing 301 horsepower.
While Toyota has offered powerful Camrys for years, the redesigned 2018 model also boasts respectable suspension composure. It’s smooth and stable on the highway, yet capable around curves, with responsive, well-weighted steering.
Even so, while the Camry is more capable than ever, the Accord is even more fun. Yet, while both are among the most-functional sedans in their function-first class, the Camry wins with simplicity and straightforwardness. You’ll want to try both and choose accordingly.
The Camry and Accord are a few thousand dollars more expensive than a number of appealing competitors, though they retain some value points, with strong resale value and excellent gas mileage.
For functional value, the recently tested Hyundai Sonata continues to impress. It’s spacious and affordable, it rides and handles decently, and it comes with a long warranty. Following a 2018 update, it also looks classy for its price point. The base model is particularly impressive. That said, even the tested Sport model isn’t especially sporty, and even the top-of-the-line Limited isn’t especially luxurious.
If you want to minimize what you spend for a roomy midsize sedan — or, if you’d rather have up-to-date premium features than the most-polished driving experience or most -avishly finished cabin — the Sonata could be a good fit.
Also keep in mind that another best-selling midsize sedan is being redesigned: the Nissan Altima, which will be all new this year as a 2019 model. The outgoing Altima is affordable, but it’s noisy and has a dated cabin. The new model promises to address those flaws, making it a more formidable force in this market segment.
Brady Holt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association.