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Midsize ‘Sport’ Sedans: Honda Accord, Mazda6, Toyota Camry

The mainstream midsize sedan is trying to shed its wholesome, suburban image. Against modern crossovers, what has traditionally been described as the family sedan is under siege as family transportation and searching for a new niche.

Nearly every midsize sedan now boasts a “sport” model, something implying that it’s skewing away from family comfort and toward the formula that has made sports sedans in the vein of the BMW 3 Series and Audi A4 so successful of late. Everything, from the Chrysler 200 to the Volkswagen Passat offers a variant, and in a number of cases, these sportier models are not just the ones used in all of the promo shots, they also make up a sizeable portion of sales.

Evidently, those of you buying midsize sedans want them a little hotter.

With that, here are two of the best-selling midsize sedans, and possibly the sportiest midsize sedan, in their sportiest guises. How do they fulfil this new mission?

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2016 Toyota Camry XSE

When anyone uses the word, “wholesome,” they really should hold up a photo of the Toyota Camry. Thirty years on, it is the traditional American sedan of our times. So it may come as a surprise that for 2015, nearly 50 percent of sales were for the “sporty” Camry SE and XSE models.

Here is the Toyota Camry XSE, the most ambitious attempt to shake the car’s Sunday school image makes a lot of overt moves to be taken seriously. Big wheels, blacked-out trim and a weird mesh grille add up to the equivalent of your grandmother’s church friends all gossiping over a Danielle Steel novel.

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2016 Toyota Camry XSE

Laugh, but the Camry is also church-mouse quiet. The engine sounds so unstrained that it took me two days to realize I was driving the 2.5-liter four-cylinder and not the 3.5-liter V6. At more than $30,000, this Camry was the most expensive car here, and it felt like it not because of the sunroof and navigation, but because of the isolation. You appreciate this when the Southern California pavement you frequent is rougher than a granola bar.

Yet the XSE faces some of the compromises Toyota made in order to execute this hotter vibe. You still get the floaty Camry ride, but it’s now countered with jiggly undertones from the firmed-up suspension. The steering is fine at highway speeds, but hopelessly light on back roads with crests and bends. It also doesn’t help that the leather-faux suede seats are just as flat as the ones on the boulevard cruiser models.

This has traditionally been the Camry’s failing, and the reason it’s been compared to a Buick Century of 1993. Especially when plotted against its arch rival: the Honda Accord.

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2016 Honda Accord Sport

The Honda Accord Sport is interestingly available only as a four-cylinder model, and it lacks the luxuries available on the Camry XSE such as navigation and a sunroof. Yet it offers one big advantage: a six-speed manual transmission.

In traditional, four-cylinder automatic guise, the Accord is a competent family sedan that ticks all of the necessary boxes. On the 19-inch wheels and firmed-up suspension of this 2016 Accord Sport, the prowess of its underpinnings come to life. A slick manual is able to tap the strength of the 2.4-liter four-cylinder, and it’s so effortless to drive, yet rewarding when you want it to be. The Accord Sport wants to convert you back to driving a stick.

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2016 Honda Accord Sport

You lose out on satellite radio and the Apple CarPlay/Android Auto of the Accord EX (also available in manual form), but the seats in the Accord hold you in place without reminding you where you’ve gotten wider over the years. Legroom, headroom and passenger space in general is impressive, as is the place to stash small items up front. At its core, the Accord is supremely practical. In spite of changes for 2016 to boost desirability, the Accord Sport screams sensible purchase. At least you’ll be inside having fun driving it.

Problematic for the Accord is the Mazda6. Of the three cars here, the Mazda is the one you want. A long hood, sweeping fenders and a low roof aren’t things normally associated with this pragmatic class of cars.

From the company that says “Driving Matters,” the base Mazda6 is known as the Sport trim. Yet there’s nothing cynical about this car’s sporting pretensions.

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2016 Mazda6 Touring

For less than $26,000, the midgrade Mazda6 Touring with the six-speed manual is the practical bargain of our times. Open the door, sit inside and it’s readily apparent it’s a knockoff of the BMW 3 Series. But start it and get up to about 40 mph and it’s obvious it’s a knockoff BMW in this department, too. From the movement of the gear lever to the responsive steering, the 6 is fun to drive, full stop.

The seats are great and the ride is the best of the three here, despite it also being on 19-inch wheels. The Accord Sport feels accomplished, but the Mazda wins in terms of being the most driver-oriented. It fits around the driver, most like a sports sedan. To do that, however, it does lose out on overall interior space and an airy feeling cabin to the Accord and Camry.

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2016 Mazda6 Touring

You’ll see the Germanic influences in the sterile interior. The dark interior lacks warmth and controls aren’t as straightforward as in the Honda and Toyota, but the materials are nicer. The Mazda ultimately feels the most upscale.

Here’s where the three stand in my book: the Mazda is the one I’d buy, but the Honda what I’d recommend. While the Mazda is definitely sharper to drive and offers more quality inside, the Accord isn’t far that far behind and offers a larger rear seat and better vision out of the windows.

The Toyota Camry XSE still lacks the emotion promised. But what Toyota has done is make a really good Camry. It’s a comfortable, quality piece that those shopping for a nice, quiet place to sit should place at the top of the list.

Hey, that works, too.

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