Back before notions like “breathable air quality” and “liveable planet” sucked all the fun out of everything, Detroit had a great idea: stuff the biggest engine on the shelf into a lightweight midsize car. The end result? Fun. Pure, unregulated, tire-smoking fun.
That great idea still holds water today, and is made even better by massive increases in horsepower per liter, chassis and suspension improvements, and the traction prowess of all-wheel drive.
We took all the non-luxury midsize models and identified their most powerful variants. Here’s how they stack up.
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Starting MSRP: $25,295
The Volkswagen Passat loses the 280-horsepower V6 option for 2019 and comes with one engine only: a high-compression 2.0-liter turbo, offering 174 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque from 1,500 rpm. While power is sadly down, economy is good at 25 mpg city/36 highway.
Base models now come equipped with a 6.3-inch touchscreen display connected to Bluetooth audio streaming and a rearview camera. Dual-zone climate control, alloy wheels, forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, blind spot/rear traffic alert, automatic headlights, and a transferrable six-year/72,000-mile warranty are standard.
Kia Optima SX 2.0T
Starting MSRP: $31,900
The top engine in the Kia Optima is found in the sporting SX 2.0T variant, a 245-horse 2.0-liter turbo powering out 260 lb-ft of torque.
The premium get oodles of trim and tech amenities to go with the power. On the outside, 18-inch alloy wheels complement glossy black side sills and grille, dual exhaust, and projection beam fog lamps. Inside, the model gets two tone leather sport seats, Harman Kardon premium audio, and navigation.
Advanced safety features have been upgraded for the new model year, and now include forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, driver attention warning, lane departure warning, smart cruise control, and blind spot monitoring.
Hyundai Sonata Limited 2.0T
Starting MSRP: $31,900
Stepping up to the 2.0-liter turbo in the top-of-the-line Sonata Limited adds some serious punch to the value-minded model. Horsepower climbs to 245 from the 185 found in non-turbo models, and torque jumps to 260 lb-ft at 1,350 rpm compared to 178 at 4,000—a significant improvement. Even with the added go, the bigger engine still manages 26 mpg in the combined cycle.
Last year’s update improved handling with new steering calibration for a better feel on-center; stiffer torsion bars, thicker rear trailing arms, and new bushings that allows the suspension to manage loads better. Paired with the powerful engine, the Sonata Limited 2.0T feels lively and responsive.
Nissan Altima SR VC-T
Starting MSRP: $29,150
The big story for the 2019 Altima is the appearance of a trick new variable-compression 2.0-liter turbo. A multi-link setup raises or lowers the pistons’ reach, varying between an high-efficiency 14:1 and a high-performance 8:1. The new engine delivers 248 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque.
The 2.0 replaces last year’s 3.5-liter V6. Power is on par, but economy has been improved 15 percent to 29 mpg combined. The engine can be had in upper SR, Platinum, and limited Edition One models.
Now in its sixth generation, the all-new Altima benefits from the first model application of monotube rear shocks, steering geometry that improves feedback, and suspension reinforcements that enhances vehicle response.
Chevrolet Malibu Premier
Starting MSRP: $31,670
The latest generation of Chevrolet Malibu has been refreshed for 2019 with new styling front and rear. The powerful 2.0-liter turbo in the top Premier model remains, with 250 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque paired with a nine-speed automatic and front wheel drive.
More than just a bigger engine, the Premier now comes with 8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment featuring Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and 8.0-inch reconfigurable color driver information center, heated rear seats, and available advanced safety features.
Starting MSRP: $29,200
In Grand Touring trim and above, the Mazda Mazda6 comes equipped with a turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder offering 250 horsepower and 310 lb-ft. The unit comes paired with a six-speed automatic that features manual shifting and a sport mode designed to improve acceleration and throttle response.
The larger engine allows drivers to explore more of the 6’s sublime chassis setup. The suspension is firm but never fussy, and the steering is crisp and provides excellent feel. Torque vectoring (“G-vectoring Control” in Mazda-speak) seamlessly adjusts power to the wheels to shift the load forward during turns, improving bite and control.
Honda Accord Sport 2.0T
Starting MSRP: $30,710
Honda brings a welcome boost of power to the Accord with a 2.0-liter turbo, available in the spirited Sport model, the loaded EX-L, and top-of-the-line Touring.
The engine uses a single-scroll turbo to spin out 252 horsepower and a beefy 273 lb-ft of torque from 1,500 rpm. The Sport has the the option of a six-speed manual or a 10-speed automatic paired with paddle shifters, the only option in the other two models.
All get a bit of fun on the inside, too, with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, but upper models get a standard 450-watt, 10-speaker audio system.
Subaru Legacy 3.6R Limited
Starting MSRP: $31,545
Subaru’s popular Legacy was updated for 2019 and now features advanced tech, safety, and driver assists across the range. Two boxer engines are available: a 175-horsepower 2.5-liter four and, our focus here, a 256-horsepower 3.6-liter six with 247 lb-ft of torque.
Both engines are paired to a newly reprogrammed continuously-variable transmission that accentuates smooth and responsive acceleration. And of course, Subaru’s trademark all-wheel drive with active torque vectoring is standard.
The suspension was improved last year and increased attention paid to driving dynamics. The ride is smoother overall, with noticeably improved agility.
Toyota Camry V6
Starting MSRP: $34,050
The Camry was all-new for 2018 and brought with it a powerful new option under the hood: a 3.5-liter V6 with 301 horsepower and 257 lb-ft of torque on tap. All that zip is delivered to the front wheels through an eight-speed automatic gearbox with a sequential shift mode.
The engine first appears in the XLE model ($34,050). Stepping up to the XSE (34,600) adds go-fast goodies like stiffer stabilizer bars, 19-inch alloy wheels, and four chromed exhaust tips.
Ford Fusion V6 Sport
Starting MSRP: $40,015
Having debuted in 2006, the Ford Fusion is now in its last generation and will be discontinued after 2020 (along with most of Ford’s North American passenger car lineup).
Perhaps as a swan song, the Sport rockets ahead in the horsepower wars with a 2.7-liter twin-turbocharged V6. There is a dizzying 325 horsepower and a right stonking 380 lb-ft of torque on tap, sent to all four wheels.
The Sport includes all the amenities Ford can throw at it, such as heated and cooled front seats, 12-speaker Sony audio, and 19-inch painted aluminum wheels.
While the Fusion V6 is the most expensive of the hi-po variants on this list, it has been upgraded to include automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, automatic high beams, lane keeping assist,and a rear backup camera.
Kia Stinger GT1
Starting MSRP: $39,100
The sporty Kia Stinger GT line sports a muscular 3.3-liter twin-turbo V6 under the hood. 365 horsepower and 376 lb-ft of torque is sent to either the rear or all four wheels through an eight-speed automatic transmission.
The all-wheel system uses an electronically controlled transfer case to optimize front-to-rear power ratios, and dynamic torque vectoring for precision cornering.
With 18-inch wheels specified, top speed is 130 mph. Moving up to the 19-inchers boosts that up to a whopping 167, sprightly for any car but especially impressive in a Kia.
The 3.3-liter is available in GT, GT1, and GT2 models