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Toyota Camry (Toyota)
Toyota Camry (Toyota)

Car Wars

The mid-size car market melee Add to ...

This is shaping up to be a doozy, this Battle of the Mid-size Cars. If you have a mind to buy a family four-door priced to start in the low-$20,000s, you are in the cross-hairs of car companies from Toyota to Volkswagen, and from Chevrolet to Ford to Honda, to Hyundai to Kia.

To recap: Last fall, Toyota and VW exploded on the scene with all-new versions of the Camry and Passat. Both had a massive impact on buyers. Camry sales were up more than 127 per cent through the end of May. The Passat? Up some 300-plus per cent. And neither is moving with big discounts, proving once again – as if we needed more proof – that buyers can be won over with new products and they don’t need to be bribed to do so.

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Meanwhile, rival auto companies began the tease in January at the Detroit auto show and it continued through the spring. Ford showed the 2013 Fusion, a car many are calling the best-looking Ford four-door in decades. We’ve also been given glimpses of the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu, the 2013 Honda Accord and what began as a spring preview of the 2013 Nissan Altima at the New York show soon turned in a real and fuel-efficient showroom sedan. It should be rolling into dealerships now or very soon.

None of this has been lost on car companies forced to struggle on with models that will not be reinvented in the 12 months dating back to last fall. We’ll call this the defensive phase, and it’s marked by the expected hold-the-line tactics of car companies without something all-new in the arsenal.

Take Hyundai. For its part, the company has slapped a $4,000 incentive on the Sonata. The Sonata is a solid, stylish and fuel-efficient car and, in North America, its sales have nearly doubled since the spring launch in 2010. But therein lies the challenge for Hyundai. The current version has been around for a couple of years without significant changes and the competition hasn’t been standing still. Thus, the money in the trunk.

Or what of Chrysler. Canada’s No. 2 auto maker. The Dodge Avenger and Chrysler 200 both are being pushed with at least $3,600 in sales sweeteners, and that on sedans that start at less than $20,000 already. Savvy shoppers will find more of the same elsewhere. Indeed, if past is prologue, the deal-making will intensify in the coming months among car companies intent on holding their ground in the face of this mid-size assault.

For the buyer who does not need the newest of the new, consider another wrinkle in this saga. There are good offers to be had on outgoing versions of Altimas, Fusions and the like – as manufacturers and dealers race to clear out old 2012s before the slick new 2013s arrive. This is the way of the car business and, for the customer who is perfectly happy with an older design at a lower price, the buying opportunities will be rich for months to come.

Many, of course, have taken notice.

“Intermediate passenger cars are having their best year in some time,” says auto analyst Dennis DesRosiers, of DesRosiers Automotive Consultants, in his latest Observations, noting that with year-to-date sales up 17.6 per cent, buyers are jumping in with “uncommon zeal.”

DesRosiers also suggests that mid-size sedans are the “beating heart” of the daily rental fleet and the sales revival of intermediate cars is partially explained by an uptick in fleet sales designed to upgrade an aging rental fleet. That’s a double-edge sword for car companies, though. On the one hand, fleet sales are real and they can be profitable and, by putting a good number of various new models out there in rental fleets, the marketplace gets a good look – a first-hand, on-the-road look – at what’s new and interesting. On the other hand, no car maker wants its flagship mid-sizer to be known as a “rental car” – that’s an image-buster, worse than damning with faint praise.

And so the roster of cars in this segment is anything but boring and technologically backward. Again, it seems fair to say Hyundai with the Sonata and Kia with its corporate cousin, the Optima, have been blazing the trail here. Both were launched only with modern four-cylinder engines that delivered a powerful combination of fuel efficiency and performance. Both are also striking designs and the list of gizmos in each case is long and impressive.

That means the newcomers have seen the need to break new ground. Volkswagen, for its part, has delivered a Passat priced to start at less than $24,000. The new Passat is bigger than ever and it’s the only car in this segment with a strong and efficient diesel engine. The Camry, meantime, has a new design, excellent fuel economy, a proven quality track record and the hybrid version is as “green” as green gets here. (Ford, Kia, Hyundai all sell hybrid versions of their mid-sizers, but none moves in numbers as large as the Camry.)

If there is a takeaway message in all this, it’s that the days of the mid-size “driving appliance” are gone. The newest players come to the struggle boasting sleek and sporty designs wrapped around comfortable packaging for five. Power is coming from responsive and fuel-efficient engines tied to six-speed or more automatic transmissions that together send each car maker on the road to meeting tougher 2016 fleet-wide fuel economy rules. Reliability, of course, really is a given here right across the board, therefore most believe the big differentiators are design and technology.

“It comes down to which players are going to stand out,” Mike O'Brien, vice-president of product and corporate planning for Hyundai Motor America told Automotive News.

And while I agree, there are dissenters. VW, for instance, has gone with a fairly mainstream look for its new Passat. There’s a reason why.

“When it comes to this super sporty look with a lot of lines and ornamentation, the question becomes: How sustainable is the styling? Most of the time, that’s not very long-lasting," Rainer Michel, VW of America product marketing and strategy vice-president, told the industry publication.

Who’s right? Most people seem inclined to take the prettier car when all else is close to equal – the one that’s eye-catching without being polarizing. The trick for car companies is to be stylish and innovative without going into Bizarro Land – and while making certain all the new technology is both bullet-proof and user-friendly. That’s a tall order. The biggest winners will be those who can fill it best.

jcato@globeandmail.com

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