DETROIT (Reuters) -- The recovery of Detroit's automakers is about to face its stiffest challenge yet on an unlikely battlefield: The sizzling market for mid-sized family sedans, as General Motors and Ford square off against Japanese, Korean and German rivals.
This fall, consumers have the chance to kick the tires on the redesigned 2013 Ford Fusion and GM's Chevrolet Malibu.
But the two vehicles face an uphill fight against the three market leaders - the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Nissan Altima -- all of which are new or recently redesigned. Add in the latest offerings of the Hyundai Sonata, Volkswagen Passat and Chrysler's existing 200 and Dodge Avenger cars, and the market is as crowded as it has ever been.
The U.S. automakers have consistently fallen short in this sector for nearly two decades, trailing Toyota and Honda since the mid-1990s, but it is now essential that they recover some of that lost share as the segment is becoming more important.
Sales of mid-sized family cars are up 23 percent through August this year versus 15 percent for the whole industry -- partly a reflection of newer, edgier designs with better fuel economy, more premium features and fresh technology.
A lot is at stake. Detroit's Big Three may have recovered since the financial crisis thanks to government bailouts and generous loans, but they are still struggling to find a path to sustainable growth.
"Now it's absolutely critical" for Detroit to be successful in the midsize segment, says Patrick Archambault, auto analyst with Goldman Sachs. "If you don't have a viable product in that segment, you're screwed in the longer term."
Their recent record has been mixed. GM and Chrysler have returned from near-death to profitability, and Ford has resumed paying dividends. But GM's stock continues to languish -- it closed at $24.42 on Thursday, down 26 percent from its 2010 IPO price of $33, while Ford is down 37 percent in the same period.