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Buying a Midsize Sedan: Which Engine Should You Choose?

If you’re interested in buying a new midsize sedan, you’ve probably discovered that virtually every model comes with at least two powertrain choices and some offer up to four or five. How do you choose which one is right for you? Unless you’re a car expert, it’s a tough question, but we’re here to provide a little guidance toward choosing the right engine when you buy your next family sedan.

Base Engines: Good Enough for Most

Don’t be intimidated by the vast array of engine choices in the midsize sedan world. The simple truth is that the base-level powerplant, the one coming standard on the midsize sedan you’re interested in, is good enough for the vast majority of drivers. Although midsize sedans in past years suffered from lethargic, loud and unrefined base engines, that isn’t true anymore, which means most drivers would do well to just pick the standard engine and go with it.

Want More Power? Pay Up

Of course, there’s a small sliver of midsize sedan buyers who want more verve than you can get with the base-level engine, and for them, midsize sedans typically offer a powertrain upgrade with more muscle for better acceleration. In the Toyota Camry, for example, the base-level engine is a 178-horsepower 2.5-liter 4-cylinder that sends the car to 60 miles per hour in around 8 seconds, but for drivers who want more power, there’s also an available 270-hp V6 that can help the sedan reach 60 mph in around 6 seconds.

Although that quick 0-to-60 run might sound appealing, you should remember two things about upgrade powertrains. Number one, they can cost thousands of dollars more than the standard engine, so unless you’ll frequently use all that power, you shouldn’t spend the extra cash. Number two, there’s almost always a fuel economy penalty. Taking those 2 seconds off the Camry’s 0-to-60 time results in a decrease of about 4 miles per gallon in the city and on the highway.

Hybrids and Other Fuel-Efficient Options

Another midsize sedan engine option that’s increasing in popularity is the fuel-efficient choice, usually a hybrid, a plug-in hybrid or a 4-cylinder turbo. The Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima and Ford Fusion each offer the 4-cylinder turbo option, while each of those sedans, plus the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, boasts a hybrid engine choice. Only the Accord currently offers a plug-in hybrid variant, though other automakers will likely roll out competitors soon.

Are there any drawbacks to increasing your gas mileage? We can only think of one: Just like when you opt for a more powerful engine, opting for a more economical powertrain comes at a price premium, a premium that can sometimes be $2,000 (or more) above the cost of a base-level powertrain. That price premium can take a long time to make up with improved fuel economy alone, but if you’re okay with that, these engines will certainly save you money at the pump.

Our Take

In general, the typical midsize sedan that offers all three of the discussed powertrains records about two-thirds of its sales with the base engine, with the remaining one-third split between the more powerful option and the more efficient choice. We typically recommend just going with the base engine, but we understand some drivers want extra power or extra fuel economy. That’s okay, just make sure you’re all right with paying the premium for those engines before you sign the papers.

Doug Demuro
Doug DeMuro writes articles and makes videos, mainly about cars. Doug was born in Denver, Colorado, and received an economics degree from Emory University in Atlanta. After graduation, Doug spent three years working for Porsche Cars North America. Eventually, he quit his job to become a writer, largely because it meant that he no longer had to wear pants. Doug’s work has been featured in a... Read More

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