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2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco vs. 2012 Honda Accord EX-L, 2012 Hyundai Sonata SE, 2012 Kia Optima EX, 2012 Toyota Camry SE, 2012 Volkswagen Passat 2.5 SE

While driving toward our southern-Ohio handling loop, we stopped at a familiar haunt: the Toy Barn, in Dublin, Ohio. Justin Hinderer s barn, erected in 1972, still houses horses and bulls, but nowadays they re prancing and raging Ferraris and Lamborghinis, with the odd Ford GT and Audi R8 thrown in for philosophical contemplation. If we wanted to photograph our mainstream sedans inside Hinderer s barn, well, we d first have to help him empty the place of roughly $900,000 in pre-owned exotica. On a frigid February day, it really clears the sinuses to light off a chrome-yellow Mallett Corvette.

The 4000-square-foot Toy Barn is even adorned with original CHEW MAIL POUCH TOBACCO signage, personally autographed by Harley Warrick, the late Ohioan who spent 55 years decorating more than 20,000 such barns. The first 1000 were a little rough, he said. After that, you get the hang of it. Warrick could sometimes knock out six barns a day.

We sure can t knock out six family-sedan tests a day. Not even close. For one thing, the cars have become spectacularly good and a lot alike. In this mainstream category, the sales and profits boil in a perpetually red-hot stew of cutthroat competition. Engineers will tell you that creating a 500-hp $100,000 supercar is child s play compared with creating a family sedan. For one thing, the average base price must nowadays hover around $25,000. The car must graduate from the EPA with something close to a 24/35-mpg diploma. It must offer a borderline-luxurious cockpit, an absorbent ride, some measure of handling, a trunk with about 15 cubic feet of storage, and a back seat that absolutely will accommodate three adults. At C/D. we ask for two further perks: some semblance of driving gratification and a sense of character.

In this competition, we ve included the Chevrolet Malibu and the Toyota Camry because they re brand-new. We felt compelled to include a five-cylinder Volkswagen because the Passat has already won a comparo in V-6 guise [October 2011]. The Hyundai Sonata was included for its victory in our Practically Chic shootout [May 2010]. Since 2007, we ve failed to include its sister ship, the Kia Optima, in any m nage six-pack, so why not now? And the Honda Accord tagged along like the little brother that it is, this time by dint of its 10Best laurels. Notice, however, that the Accord is long in the tooth, with the ninth generation slated to roll out this fall.

Let us now speak of the cars that were excluded. A Chrysler 200 was rejected as not yet rising to status sufficient to distinguish itself in this fierce category. The Mazda 6 is so at the end of its rope that, out of fairness, it was banished. A Subaru Legacy eliminated itself by finishing third against the Accord and Sonata in our Practically Chic trio. And a Suzuki Kizashi is a few cubits too wee for mid-size consideration.

We definitely would have included a Ford Fusion but prefer to wait for the spectacularly restyled version arriving at the end of the year. Likewise arriving shortly is a new Nissan Altima. Rest assured that all of these combatants will cycle through similar upcoming competitions in what has become our own recurring Groundhog Day.

As we visited the Toy Barn, a civilian approached and said of our Malibu, I m glad you ve got at least one American car in the mix. Fun fact: Every car in this comparo is built in America.

Even funner fact: While Harley Warrick was painting a barn in Indiana, high winds tore the roof clean off. His assistant inquired whether they should flee. Hell, no, said Warrick. This side is still standing.

Here are the six hottest family sedans still standing.

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