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2013 Ford Fusion (Ford)
2013 Ford Fusion (Ford)

Brand Strategy

Mid-size sedans still make sense. Why aren’t we buying them? Add to ...

Their names are as familiar as Snow White’s vertically challenged chorus, and perhaps even your kids: Camry, Fusion, Accord, Sonata, Malibu, Altima, Passat, Avenger (and its twin, 200), Mazda6, Legacy, Optima. … More numerous than Disney characters and arguably more reliable than your kids in the worst of their teenage years. Not a Grumpy or Sneezy or Dopey among this lot of mid-size, mainstream sedans.

Yet the love affair with affordable four-door is waning. Once a staple of the new-car market, mid-sizers remain important, though not so much as was the case a decade or more ago. The middle-class buyers who, for years and years, would automatically just punch their ticket for a new version of the old model, are now thinking twice. That second thought frequently sends them elsewhere – usually into the arms of an SUV or crossover wagon.

Here’s the sad part: intermediate cars really and truly have never been better. Yet so far this year, sales are down 5.5 per cent, continuing a trend that’s been accelerating since Jean Chretien was prime minister. Indeed, only two mid-size sedans have cracked the top 10 best-selling cars in Canada – the Fusion and the Accord – and it’s a long way to the end of the year. Who knows if even one mid-sizer can stay among the pack leaders?

Perhaps these two will. Both the Fusion and Accord are standouts in a crop of re-minted sedans in the less-than-$40,000 crowd. Lord knows how they’d fare if they were old, tired designs, with ancient technology, so-so fuel economy and dull-as-a-Vancouver-January styling. But they’re not.

Honestly, it’s impossible to find a truly homely mid-size sedan today, though some are prettier than others. It’s also impossible to find an unsafe one, or a disappointingly unreliable one, or a single fuel hog, either. Consider the facts:

The Fusion and Accord were among a big batch of modestly priced family cars to be named best-possible Top Safety Pick +. That happened last December and buyers and the industry both take notice of these results from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). The IIHS praised family sedans as a group, though it singled out Toyota’s Camry and Prius v models for “poor” ratings in what’s called “the small-overlap frontal crash test.” It focuses collision forces on parts of a vehicle that tend to be relatively weak.

Fuel economy? When it arrived last summer, the remodelled 2013 Altima was Nissan Canada’s most fuel-efficient automobile, save the all-electric Leaf. Since then, Automotive News has reported that new mid-sized cars like the Altima, and also including the redesigned Ford Fusion and Honda Accord, are offering shoppers the option of a bigger car with the fuel economy of a smaller one.

“Today’s mid-sized sedans get the same or better gas mileage as the compact sedans five years ago,” TrueCar.com analyst Jesse Toprak recently told the publication.

In fairness, however, some critics say certain of the new crop have gone a little too far making fuel economy claims. Consumer Reports is among them. For instance, CR recently said the Fusion’s real-world hybrid fuel economy falls well short of the posted numbers.

In making that tough call, however, CR went on to praise the Fusion for being a car that “clings to corners, with quick, decisive turn-in response and well-controlled body lean.” The steering has “reassuring” road feel and is “ideally weighted,” while overall the Fusion, regardless of powertrain, “proved enjoyable, balanced, and predictable at their handling limits.” I’d agree on all points.

“All versions of the Fusion provide a composed, civilized ride that’s as good as that of some cars costing twice as much. We wish the Fusion’s EcoBoost engines better complemented its dynamic abilities,” said Jake Fisher, head of CR’s automotive testing, who also singled out the MyFord Touch infotainment system for being “needlessly complicated and finicky to use.” On that last point, I disagree. Any eight-year-old with a little patience and grade-level reading abilities can manage MyFord Touch handily.

Another winning remix of an old standard is the Honda Accord. As I’ve written myself, the CR gang praises the 2013 Accord’s roomy cabin, entertaining road manners and frugal fuel economy. It delivers a good combination of features and price, which is perhaps why Accord sales are up 172 per cent this year.

“Honda missed the mark with other redesigned models in recent years, but it nailed this one,” said Fisher, adding that the four-cylinder Accord is now at the head of its class, with the V-6 “challenging the Camry Hybrid and V-6 Camry for the top spot in Consumer Reports ratings.” CR also praises the Chevrolet Malibu with the 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine – the ride is plush, the cabin quiet – and the updated 2013 Subaru Legacy is well received for its new engine, spacious cabin, standard all-wheel drive and crisp handling.

Not to be outclassed by bigger car companies, Mazda has come to the competition with a handsome all-new Mazda6. Mazda touts the car’s sleek design and good fuel economy, and then ups the ante by arguing that certain versions loaded with i-Activsense technologies stack up well against premium players such as the Acura TL, Acura TSX, Audi A4 and, most important of all, the BMW 3-Series.

This brings us to the made-in-the-U.S. duo from the South Korean Hyundai Motor Group, the Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima. Both rattled a staid segment several years ago with curvy looks and highly advanced powertrains, including elegant hybrid-electric versions. But compared to most rivals, these two are getting old and in need of a serious update.

That’s not to say they aren’t good cars. Like the mid-size sedans from Detroit, especially the Fusion and Malibu, the Sonata and Optima have emerged as serious challengers to the established big guns from Japan, in particular the Accord and the Camry. The quality gap has closed markedly. Moreover, Kia and Hyundai are offering attractive sales sweeteners. It’s a similar story at Chrysler, where the Dodge Avenger and Chrysler 200 claim to be the least-expensive cars in this class. And it’s true.

A surprise move in this class came from Volkswagen. Its Passat is now built in the U.S. south and designed for plump North Americans. Thus, it’s bigger than any European Passat and priced for people who include Wal-Mart on their list of preferred stores.

Ah, but VW has an advantage. The Passat stands out as the one mainstream mid-sizer available with a direct injection, turbocharged diesel engine. But not for too much longer. Before this year is out, the Mazda6 will also be offered with a diesel.

All this means that in 2013, buyers are facing a roster of affordable sedans with the features, design and powertrains sold only in luxury cars 10-15 years ago. Every car company has an offering that’s worthy for one reason or another, which means the segment is no longer dominated by the Accord and the Camry. In fact, to keep pace, both Honda and Toyota have begun to play the incentive game, and that is a surprising development.

You know their names, for sure, but there’s nothing dopey about today’s mid-size cars. They’re all properly priced, pretty to look at, stuffed with features and many are highly entertaining to drive. In other words, as a group they are nothing to sneeze at.

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