Mid-sized design battle: Safe vs. jazzy
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DETROIT -- A few years ago, the recipe for success in the mid-sized sedan segment was a spacious interior and trunk, decent fuel economy, rock-solid reliability and strong resale value, no matter how ho-hum the package. Not anymore.
Ford Motor Co.'s unveiling of its next-generation Fusion at the Detroit auto show this week will underscore how bold design is injecting some pizzazz into the once-staid market for mid-sized cars. Reviewers given a sneak peek of the redesigned Fusion have used words such as "stunning," "game changer" and "polarizing" to describe its exterior styling.
Across the exhibit hall, Honda Motor Co. will unwrap a coupe concept that will strongly hint at the styling for the next Accord, due out later this year. Will Honda play it safe, as Toyota Motor Corp. did with its recently redesigned Camry, or jazz up the design?
Stiffening competition is prompting Ford, Hyundai and other automakers to gamble on sleek, sporty designs, transforming a segment once seen as the domain of appliance buyers who wanted simple, reliable transportation.
"It comes down to which players are going to stand out," says Mike O'Brien, vice president of product and corporate planning for Hyundai Motor America, which has seen Sonata sales nearly double since the spring 2010 launch of the sleek, swoopy sedan.
Other companies, such as Toyota and Volkswagen AG, seem more content to rely on their reputations for reliability or craftsmanship, describing their designs as "elegant" or "calm."
"When it comes to this super sporty look with a lot of lines and ornamentation, the question becomes: How sustainable is the styling?" says Rainer Michel, vice president of product marketing and strategy at Volkswagen of America. "Most of the time, that's not very long lasting."
Rainer Michel: Will "super sporty" hold its appeal?
Whether understated or in your face, fresh offerings from just about every major automaker will arrive in the mid-sized sedan segment by the end of this year. It's a fiercely competitive and critical market: Mid-sized sedans accounted for 52 percent of passenger-car sales in 2011, by far the largest segment in the U.S. car market.
"This segment will be hot this year, and design and fuel economy will separate the competitors," predicts Dave Sullivan, a product analyst at AutoPacific Inc.
General Motors moved up the launch of its redesigned Chevrolet Malibu to the first quarter to take advantage of a brief opening before key rivals reach the market. GM gave the current Malibu's elegant design a more muscular look.
Photo credit: GM
GM wants to extend the success of the current Malibu, which debuted in late 2007 and finally offered a real challenge to the Accord and Camry after years of lackluster GM mid-sized sedans. In 2011, Chevy sold 204,808 Malibus, up 3 percent from 2010 and up 60 percent from 2007.
"Over the last five years it has gone from a couple dominant players to a dogfight among six or seven brands," says Russ Clark, Chevrolet's marketing director for mid-sized cars.
Also expected to hit showrooms in 2012: redesigned versions of the Accord, Fusion, Nissan Altima and Mazda6.
This year's entries will come on the heels of the latest iterations of the market-leading Camry, as well as the Kia Optima and Volkswagen Passat, which all went on sale last year.
Designs get bolder
Many industry watchers attribute the growing design emphasis to the success of the Sonata, which roared to fifth place in the mid-sized car market last year. Sales reached 225,961 units, up 15 percent from 2010 and up 88 percent from 2009, the last full sales year before its redesign.
Sonata buyers overwhelmingly cite styling and fuel economy as the main reasons for their purchase, O'Brien says. The car's styling attracted buyers who had never considered a mid-sized sedan, he says.
"They'd never seen that kind of quality design in a mid-sized car," O'Brien says. "They want a good-looking car, and they're prioritizing design."
They're willing to pay for it, too. The average transaction price for the Sonata has jumped 27 percent from 2009, to $23,315 last year, according to TrueCar.com.
Ford is betting big on style, too. The Fusion has sweeping lines and a restyled front end that some reviewers have compared to that of an Aston Martin. It will be the next Ford Mondeo in Europe.
"They're going all the way to the extreme to be different than everybody else," Sullivan says.
Ford also is trying to lead on fuel efficiency, another attribute that is key to winning buyers. Three gasoline engines plus two hybrid options will provide the broadest choice of drivetrains among mid-sized cars, Ford says.
Ford predicts the 1.6-liter EcoBoost engine, which is expected to be the volume leader, will get a segment-best 26 mpg in city driving and 37 on the highway. The Camry's base 2.5-liter engine gets 25/35. The Sonata's 2.4-liter base engine gets 24/35. Honda hasn't said what the coming Accord will get.
Even with the growing focus on design, the mid-sized market is mainstream for a reason. Many buyers value the same slow-and-steady attributes that have made the Camry and Accord the market leaders.
Says Al Castignetti, vice president of sales and marketing at Nissan Division: "I think you need to have something that's eye-catching without being polarizing."
You can reach Mike Colias at email@example.com.