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Major automakers poised to do battle for midsize-sedan market

By Bob Cox, Fort Worth Star-Telegram –

FORT WORTH, Texas — Six big automakers are poised 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.

And these are not just your ordinary family sedans.

In a rare confluence of timing and investment, by year’s end dealers for five of the six major brands should be 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. Coming to market now and in coming months are new models of the Nissan Altima, Honda Accord, Chevrolet Malibu and Ford Fusion.

“These are all-new cars. They bring a lot to the table,” analyst Jeremy Acevedo said.

Another analyst, Aaron Bragman of IHS Automotive, said: “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 will be 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 15 percent of the U.S. auto market. Other models such as the Volkswagen Passat — also redesigned for 2012 — and 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, touch-screen and voice-controlled entertainment and navigation systems, and the packages will evoke luxury of more expensive brands.

Nissan Texas regional sales manager Mike Williams said the Altima’s good looks will attract customers.

“Once customers are attracted to the car on the styling and then we get them behind the wheel, the car will sell itself,” he said.

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 said. “This is a great opportunity for the domestics to gain sales and market share and build customer loyalty.”

The midsize sedan, formerly shunned by many families in favor of sport utility vehicles 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.

Indeed, fuel economy of the midsize models has risen to the point, Acevedo said, that they may pull buyers from the compact car segment.

“There’s a balance between function and miles per gallon,” he said. “You can do a lot of things with the midsize car. The new Camry gets better gas mileage than the Corolla,” Toyota’s smaller sedan.

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 early next year.

Neither Ford nor Chevrolet will even offer a 6-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.

Executives of the manufacturers are universally bullish about the sales prospects for their brand, even given the stiff competition.

“It’s a real dogfight in that segment, and we think we’ll do really well with the 2013 Malibu,” said Jon Hahn, Chevrolet’s marketing manager for the Malibu.

“Nobody has a design like this that is this popping, that is so striking it’s going to bring people to the brand,” Ford’s Dave Mondragon said of the Fusion. “We think this vehicle will have a high conquest rate,” bringing non-Ford buyers to the brand.

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