When I was a kid, the term “the Big Three” was synonymous with General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler. To be accurate, I’m old enough to remember the Big Four, but let’s not go there. If one says the phrase “the Big Three” these days, they might very well be talking about the three best-selling vehicles in America: the Ford F-Series, Chevrolet Silverado, and Ram 1500. As for cars, the time when the Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, and Toyota Camry were the three best-selling cars in America is long gone. These days, SUVs have taken over, and only Toyota’s Camry remains as a top 10 best–seller. Still, the Honda, Toyota, and Nissan midsize sedans remain hugely important (both the Accord and Altima are among the top-selling 25 vehicles in America).
The Mightiest Midsizer: Accord, Altima, or Camry?
I’m thinking first we should start with similarities because in many ways these three family sedans are quite similar. Size is one area. The wheelbases are within 0.2 inch of each other, with the Nissan and Toyota each having a 111.2-inch span between the wheels, whereas the Honda’s is 111.4. The cars’ tracks, length, height, and width are also nearly identical. An argument can be made for midsize family sedans being the most mature and competitive segment in the business. Outside of trucks, that’s probably true. The point being, these carmakers watch each other like hawks. If one makes a move, the others quickly follow.
Which Is Most Powerful: Camry, Accord, or Altima?
The layouts of these sedans are quite similar, though the powertrains do differ. The Honda and the Nissan use a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT), whereas the Toyota goes for an eight-speed automatic transmission. The suspension choices are literally identical. I copied this next part out of the Accord’s spec box: “Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar.” Or was that the Camry’s? You get the idea. Same-same, as my 4-year-old loves saying.
The engines are all fairly different from each other. Toyota keeps things simple in the Camry, with a naturally aspirated 2.5-liter I-4 pumping out 203 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque. This Accord sports a turbocharged 1.5-liter I-4 that’s good for 192 hp and 192 lb-ft of torque. The Nissan shows up with the most complicated—if not the most sophisticated—engine of the bunch: an (optional) variable displacement turbo 2.0-liter I-4 that produces 236 hp and an impressive 267 lb-ft of torque. As you might expect, the Nissan absolutely smokes the other two in terms of performance, hitting 60 mph in 5.8 seconds whereas the Accord and Camry need 7.2 and 7.5 seconds, respectively. The quarter mile shows essentially the same results with the cars finishing in the same order, with times of 14.3, 15.5, and 15.8 seconds. Winner: Nissan. Kinda.
See, the Accord is available with a 252-hp, 273-lb-ft turbo 2.0-liter four-pot and a 10-speed automatic gearbox. That variant can hustle to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds and run the quarter mile in 14.3, though it’s a $4,530 step up. The Altima comes standard with a 188-hp, 180-lb-ft 2.5-liter I-4. Somehow Nissan gets its VC Turbo engine into an Altima for as low as $31,575, or $32,905 as tested. That price is extremely competitive with our Accord EX-L’s $32,285 starting/as-tested price. The Camry? This SE’s base price is pretty darn low at $27,480, with an as-tested price of $29,217 and there’s no turbo option, though an XSE V-6 is available for $3,935 more. Honda and Toyota both offer gasoline-electric hybrid versions of the Accord and Camry, but that’s a different article.
One last objective thing to note before we get to the subjective evaluations: The Honda is much lighter than the other two. At just 3,206 pounds, it is nearly 200 pounds lighter than the Camry (3,373 pounds) and Altima (3,416 pounds). This, plus the dramatically downsized engine, helps the Accord achieve the highest combined fuel economy of the group: 33 mpg, compared to 32 mpg combined for the Camry and just 29 mpg combined for the Altima.
Which Family Sedan Is Best to Drive?
Buy the Honda. I know, I know. You probably want to hear some reasons and rationale behind such a declaration. However, if time is money, you can save yourself some much-needed (let’s assume) money and time by just buying the Honda Accord. Are the other cars horrible? No, though I personally don’t like the Nissan very much. Nevertheless, both the Nissan and Toyota have the right to exist. It’s just that you, the informed, intelligent, and dare I say, sexy MotorTrend reader need not wade into the finer points of what, why, how, and where. You can just trust me when I say that if you’re shopping for a midsize family sedan, the best one is the Honda Accord. You trust me, don’t you? Just to bolster my case, here are some thoughts from my colleagues.
“From a driver’s perspective, Honda has probably hit the perfect balance between engagement and comfort,” features editor Christian Seabaugh said.
“It just does so much so well.” MotorTrend en Español managing editor Miguel Cortina said. “Jonny is right. If Porsche had to engineer a mainstream sedan, the Accord would be it,” he added. Hey, I like how this guy thinks! Please continue, kind sir. “Whether it’s design, engineering, technology, interior space—the Accord aces the segment.” Indeed.
“Overall, this is the Platonic Ideal of the midsize gas-powered sedan for 2021,” staff editor Conner Golden said. “If you’re in the market for this segment and you actively care about what you drive, the Accord should be your number one pick.” Do you believe me now?
Second place goes to the Toyota Camry. There’s nothing particularly wrong with Toyota’s bread-and-butter sedan, but there’s nothing particularly right with it, either. To summarize, the Camry looks OK, its interior feels OK, and its handling is OK. Plus, it’s fairly comfortable. Cortina summed up the experience pretty well: “This is honestly better than what I was expecting. Driving it back to back with the Accord shows a lot of misses for the Camry, but it’s not that bad at all.” See? The Camry’s OK.
Now it’s true, some people liked the Camry more than others. Golden faintly praised the Toyota, saying, “I, for one, like the Camry, even if I don’t consider it higher than mid-pack in this comparison.” Bold, eh? Executive editor Mac Morrison said what most of us were thinking vis-à-vis the Toyota: “I don’t notice anything. There’s just nothing that jumps out at you about this car, particularly good, I’d say, or interesting, but there certainly isn’t anything that jumps out to me as bad. It’s just an appliance.”
At the end of the test, the brightest spot for the Camry was its low price. As Cortina said, “What we have here is a lot of value.” Though, as features editor Scott Evans pointed out, “Single-zone climate control is disappointing, and I think this is the only one to not have seat heaters. Seems like a bunch of features are missing.” Of course, closing the price gap with a fancier trim level or more options also closes the features gap.
Last place goes to the Nissan Altima. Let me preface this by saying that recent Nissans have exceeded my expectations. Not only my own, actually, but MotorTrend‘s as a whole. This is why the Nissan Rogue was a 2021 SUV of the Year finalist and the Nissan Sentra was a 2021 Car of the Year finalist. This company can make great cars. The Altima? Not one of them. Yes, as we saw, it’s quick, but no quicker than an equally spec’d Accord. Everything else, well, I’m not a fan. Nor are my colleagues. Cortina said, “I’m trying to figure out any good points, but I’m having trouble finding something that’s better than the engine, which isn’t even that great.” Youch!
What, specifically, is so wrong? “The steering doesn’t feel balanced, the suspension has the car bouncing all over the place, and the CVT is pretty loud,” Cortina said. I think he means that the CVT forces the engine to rev way more than is expected. The Honda manages to mask this loud feeling. “Even the seats feel like they don’t have any thigh support,” Evans said. “Every bump in the road makes its way into the driver seat at least a little bit. It should be able to filter a lot more of these out. The body control isn’t as good as other cars, either,” he added.
It is quite stark going from the Honda to the Nissan. The drop-off in, well, everything is staggering. The powertrain feels thrashier, there are more rattles, the steering is comparatively awful, the driving position is worse, the materials feel cheaper, the ride quality is harsher, and the … well, on it goes. I almost feel bad for the Nissan. Again, almost, because Nissan has shown with the Rogue and Sentra that its engineers could have made the Altima as good as the Accord is. They just didn’t.
|POWERTRAIN/CHASSIS||2021 Honda Accord (EX-L)||2021 Nissan Altima SR VC-Turbo||2021 Toyota Camry SE|
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT||Front-engine, FWD||Front-engine, FWD||Front-engine, FWD|
|ENGINE TYPE||Turbocharged I-4, alum block/head||Turbocharged I-4, alum block/head||I-4, alum block/head|
|VALVETRAIN||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl|
|DISPLACEMENT||91.4 cu in/1,498 cc||120.2-121.9 cu in/1,970-1,997 cc||151.9 cu in/2,487 cc|
|POWER (SAE NET)||192 hp @ 5,500 rpm||236 hp @ 5,600 rpm*||203 hp @ 6,600 rpm|
|TORQUE (SAE NET)||192 lb-ft @ 1,600 rpm||267 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm*||184 lb-ft @ 5,000 rpm|
|REDLINE||6,600 rpm||6,000 rpm||6,750 rpm|
|WEIGHT TO POWER||16.7 lb/hp||14.5 lb/hp||16.6 lb/hp|
|TRANSMISSION||Cont variable auto||Cont variable auto||8-speed automatic|
|SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar|
|BRAKES, F; R||11.5-in vented disc; 11.1-in disc, ABS||11.7-in vented disc; 11.5-in disc, ABS||12.0-in vented disc; 11.1-in disc, ABS|
|WHEELS||7.5 x 17-in cast aluminum||8.0 x 19-in cast aluminum||8.0 x 18-in cast aluminum|
|TIRES||225/50R17 94V Michelin Energy Saver A/S (M+S)||235/40R19 92V Hankook Kinergy GT (M+S)||235/45R18 94V Bridgestone Turnaza EL440 (M+S)|
|WHEELBASE||111.4 in||111.2 in||111.2 in|
|TRACK, F/R||63.0/63.4 in||62.8/62.8 in||62.2/62.6 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||192.2 x 73.3 x 57.1 in||192.9 x 72.9 x 56.8 in||192.7 x 72.4 x 56.9 in|
|TURNING CIRCLE||38.3 ft||37.4 ft||38.0 ft|
|CURB WEIGHT||3,206 lb||3,416 lb||3,373 lb|
|WEIGHT DIST, F/R||60/40%||61/39%||60/40%|
|HEADROOM, F/R||37.5/37.2 in||38.0/36.7 in||38.3/38.0 in|
|LEGROOM, F/R||42.3/40.4 in||43.8/35.2 in||42.1/38.0 in|
|SHOULDER ROOM, F/R||58.3/56.5 in||58.2/57.1 in||57.7/55.7 in|
|CARGO VOLUME||16.7 cu ft||15.4 cu ft||15.1 cu ft|
|ACCELERATION TO MPH|
|0-30||2.8 sec||2.3 sec||2.7 sec|
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH||3.7||2.8||3.9|
|QUARTER MILE||15.5 sec @ 92.0 mph||14.3 sec @ 99.0 mph||15.8 sec @ 90.4 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||129 ft||115 ft||122 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.82 g (avg)||0.90 g (avg)||0.85 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||27.1 sec @ 0.63 g (avg)||26.5 sec @ 0.67 g (avg)||27.4 sec @ 0.62 g (avg)|
|TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH||1,700 rpm||1,800 rpm||1,500 rpm|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$32,285||$32,905||$29,217|
|AIRBAGS||8: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain, front knee||10: Dual front, f/r side, f/r curtain, front knee||10: Dual front, f/r side, f/r curtain, front knee|
|BASIC WARRANTY||3 yrs/36,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles|
|POWERTRAIN WARRANTY||5 yrs/60,000 miles||5 yrs/60,000 miles||5 yrs/60,000 miles|
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE||3 yrs/36,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles||2 yrs/unlimited miles|
|FUEL CAPACITY||14.8 gal||16.2 gal||15.8 gal|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB ECON||30/38/33 mpg||25/34/29 mpg||28/39/32 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||112/89 kWh/100 miles||135/99 kWh/100 miles||120/86 kWh/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.59 lb/mile||0.68 lb/mile||0.60 lb/mile|
|RECOMMENDED FUEL||Unleaded regular||Unleaded regular||Unleaded regular|
|*Regular fuel ratings; 93 octane raises the Nissan to 248 hp @ 5,600 rpm and 273 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm|