The Nissan Altima and Ford Fusion have entered the thick of the mid-sized sedan sales chase -- long a battle mainly between the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord -- leaving the rest of the pack a few laps behind.
The also-rans include the Chevrolet Malibu and Hyundai Sonata. A lackluster design has hampered sales of the Malibu, and short supplies have held back the Sonata.
Meanwhile, the Altima and Fusion have become legitimate threats to end the Camry's reign as the top-selling U.S. car. In the first quarter, the Camry, Accord, Altima and Fusion each posted sales of more than 80,000 units, enough to make them the top four cars overall.
Their next-closest mid-sized contender is the Malibu, whose three-month total of 49,179 puts it a distant 11th among all cars.
In March, each of the top four surpassed 30,000 sales, at least 60 percent more than every other mid-sized car. In other words, there is a clear distinction between the mid-sized haves and the have-nots.
"We now have a vehicle that can compete head-to-head with Camry and Accord," says Victor Benitez, general manager of Gus Machado Ford, which has two dealerships in the Miami area. "It's a good-looking car."
Benitez said each of his dealerships typically sells about five to eight Fusions a month, but in March one store sold 15 and the other sold 25. Fusion sales in his region rose 46 percent year-over-year, compared with a nationwide gain for the Fusion of 6 percent.
Overall, U.S. light-vehicle sales in March increased 3 percent from a year ago, to 1.45 million units. The seasonally adjusted annualized selling rate climbed to 15.3 million, from 14.1 million in March 2012. It was the fifth straight month above 15 million.
"The housing market continues to recover, business spending has picked up, and pent-up demand for vehicles is offsetting any drag from tax or federal spending issues," Kurt McNeil, General Motors' vice president of U.S. sales operations, said during a conference call.
In March, sales in the biggest and most closely watched segment of the car market, mid-sized cars, declined 3 percent. The Altima logged a rare victory over the Camry, which has been the top-selling car for 11 consecutive years, by a slim margin, 37,763 to 37,663.
Although the Accord finished third in March with sales of 36,504 units, Honda said it was the best-selling car on a retail basis, excluding fleets.
In a sign of how intense the competition has become, the Camry, which was redesigned in late 2011, already is the oldest of the four top contenders.
At this month's New York auto show, Jim Lentz, CEO of Toyota's North America Region, said he is "not sure we can do much more than 400 [thousand] Camrys" this year, acknowledging that the nameplate will likely lose market share as a result.
"We feel really good about our position following a late build-out of the '12 model," Bob Carter, Toyota Motor Sales' senior vice president of automotive operations, said during a conference call last week. "We are absolutely confident we will be the No. 1 [car] in the market in 2013."
Rebecca Lindland, an industry consultant with Rebel Three Media in Greenwich, Conn., said: "Toyota has demonstrated its willingness to spend some money on the hood. They would like to avoid that 'Toyota Camry usurped' headline, not necessarily at all costs, but certainly from a strategic standpoint."
One competitor that Toyota need not worry about this year is the Malibu, which was redesigned for the 2013 model year. Malibu sales were down 22 percent in March and 16 percent in the first quarter.
GM is rushing a refreshed version to the market this year in an effort to reverse that trend. The company also tried to juice sales by cutting as much as $770 off the car's price, and GM has idled the plant that builds the Malibu twice in recent months to reduce inventories.
Lindland said the Malibu ended up being overshadowed by the Fusion's "jaw-dropping" new look. Ford "raised the bar so much higher than people expected," she said.
GM officials noted that Malibu sales rose 25 percent from February -- total industry sales rose 22 percent month-over-month -- and that March was the car's best month since all trim levels except the Eco launched in August. They said Malibu sales in March 2012 were aided by discounts on the outgoing model.
"Clearly it's a very competitive segment, but it's really that month-over-month trend that we like right now," said Don Johnson, Chevrolet's vice president of sales and service.
The Sonata, which had about the same industry share as the Fusion in 2012, is down 14 percent this year, dropping it below the Malibu.
"Our dealers remain constrained on Sonata, which continues as one of the fastest-turning mid-sized cars in the industry," Hyundai Motor America CEO John Krafcik said in a statement.
Supply issues also could trip up the Fusion this year, although Ford plans to begin assembling the car at a second plant this fall. The Fusion is built in Hermosillo, Mexico.
"Record customer sales and particularly strong demand in California and Florida will begin to place some constraints on supply starting in the coming months, which is why we are adding Fusion capacity" at Flat Rock, Mich., Ken Czubay, Ford's vice president of U.S. marketing, sales and service, said during a conference call last week.
"Our fastest-turning area in the country for Fusion continues to be California, with Fusion spending just 14 days on dealer lots."