Six big automakers are ready to slug it out over the next year or two in what is shaping up to be a heated competition for a prime slice of the American car market — the midsize family sedan.
In a rare confluence of timing and investment, dealers for five of the six major brands are already well-stocked with new models featuring attractive designs and interior trims, enhanced safety features and innovative technology.
Toyota led the way in late 2011 with a new version of its venerable Camry, long the top-selling sedan in this country. New models in the market include the Nissan Altima, Honda Accord, Chevrolet Malibu and Ford Fusion.
The Big Six
- Chevrolet Malibu
- Ford Fusion
- Honda Accord
- Hyundai Sonata
- Nissan Altima
- Toyota Camry
"These are all-new cars. They bring a lot to the table," says analyst Jeremy Acevedo of Edmunds.com.
Another analyst, Aaron Bragman of IHS Automotive, says, "We're seeing a lot of competition in this segment. We're seeing a lot of new technology, especially from the American manufacturers. It's no longer a three-way race between the Japanese manufacturers."
Also in the race is the still-fresh Hyundai Sonata, introduced as a 2011 model. The Sonata won critics' reviews for styling while providing lots of interior features at a modest price.
In all, these six models accounted for nearly 1.5 million sales in 2011, taking the lion's share of the midsize car segment, which accounts for 15 percent of the U.S. auto market. Other models — including the Volkswagen Passat, also redesigned for 2012, and the Mazda 6 — trail far behind the leaders.
The new sedans almost universally have more striking exterior designs, something that should leap out at many consumers. Add pleasing interior features, high-definition sound systems, and touch-screen and voice-controlled entertainment and navigation systems, and the packages will evoke the luxury of more expensive brands.
What's particularly notable about the new crop of sedans, analysts say, is that the Chevy and Ford entries should be much more formidable competitors than they have been since Camry seized the midsize-sedan sales crown from the Ford Taurus in the mid-1990s.
"Everybody has a horse in this one," Acevedo says. "This is a great opportunity for the domestics to gain sales and market share and to build customer loyalty."
Better fuel economy
The midsize sedan, formerly shunned by many families in favor of SUVs and minivans, has seen a migration back from those vehicles in recent years as buyers seek better driving characteristics and fuel economy. The new models offer enhancements on both those counts.
The base four-cylinder models of the Big Six have EPA fuel-efficiency ratings ranging from 22 to 27 miles per gallon in city driving and 34 to 38 mpg on the highway. Several offer some type of hybrid drivetrain for even better fuel economy, with Ford bringing a plug-in hybrid Fusion to market this year.
Neither Ford nor Chevrolet will even offer a six-cylinder engine in its midsize lineup, turning instead to high-tech, turbocharged four-cylinder power plants for fuel economy and extra pep when the driver steps on the accelerator.