The battle for buyers of family sedans — already the most competitive U.S. auto segment — will heat up this fall when Toyota and Hyundai launch dramatically restyled versions of their respective offerings, the Camry and the Sonata.
A decade ago, the default choices in this biggest slice of the auto market were the Camry and Honda's Accord, but the competition has grown fierce in the past five years.
Automakers can't afford a misstep with a new model, and they can't fall behind with a dated modwel.
That's why Toyota and Hyundai debuted redesigns of their flagship sedans at the New York International Auto Show recently — even though the current version of the Camry is just 2 years old and the current Sonata launched as a 2011 model. Car companies typically wait five years between redesigns.
"The market is evolving faster, and consumer patience for vehicles that have not changed is dropping," says Karl Brauer, an analyst with auto-information company Kelley Blue Book.
Although Toyota sold more than 400,000 Camrys last year — about 16 percent of the midsize sedan market — consumers have requested improvements, says Bill Fay, general manager of Toyota's U.S. sales division.
"They wanted a more emotional styling and a better interior," Fay says.
The automaker's designers and engineers re-imagined nearly every exterior surface of the redesigned Camry, Fay says.
"Only the roof remains unchanged," he says.
With its new look, Toyota's designers worked to make the previously pedestrian Camry far more muscular.
"You expect to have some sort of minor freshening at the three-year mark, where the Camry is now, but I was surprised to see such a substantial change. That has not been in the playbook for Toyota," says Jake Fisher, automotive director of Consumer Reports. "They are feeling the competition."
Because Toyota has led this segment for so long, other automakers "know they have to beat Camry at its own game" if they want to make inroads, says Tom Libby, an IHS Automotive analyst. "That drives incredible product redesigns and is great for the consumer."
That's exactly what Hyundai is doing with the redesign of its Sonata sedan.
"It feels more substantial and more luxurious," says Brauer of Kelley Blue Book. "The look of the interior components is great. The car is really well done."
The new version continues Hyundai's value strategy of packing the vehicle with features and pricing it below major competitors.
Although Hyundai studied the ride and steering of Volkswagen's Passat sedan, its benchmark for this segment is the Accord.
The Honda "has set the segment ablaze and is leading in retail sales," says John Shon, manager of product planning for the Sonata.
Designers wanted to give the car a premium ride quality with improved steering response and reduced cabin noise, he says.
The Hyundai sedan follows the same "Fluidic Sculpture" design language that the South Korean automaker introduced with the outgoing Sonata five years ago. But the new version has a more refined, gentler look that gives the Sonata a statelier stance. Hyundai is clearly leaning toward luxury over sport with the new look.
Toyota and Hyundai expect their sedans will be their best-selling vehicles this year.
"Toyota will remain under pressure to keep that car at the top of the sales chart," Brauer says.
Other automakers won't sit still, says Shon, the Sonata product planner. "Everyone brings their A game into this segment."