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The end of sedans as we know it? Not so much

Chicago Tribune

The rise of the crossover has equaled the death of the midsize sedan as America’s car of choice, according to many headlines. But that’s not quite the truth.

The midsize car segment is still the third largest, behind pickup trucks and crossovers in 2017, according to year-end data from The Wall Street Journal. In fact, the midsize sedan segment accounted for 16.2 percent of new car sales in 2017, pickups were 16.4 percent and crossovers 31 percent of the 17.2 million vehicles sold.

Sedans have their advantages, and automakers are exploiting them with a new crop of models that should make most shoppers look twice before settling on that crossover.

“Automakers are definitely trying to make sedans more exciting,” said Jessica Caldwell, executive director of analysis at Edmunds. “Advantages for sedans are better handling because they’re lower to the ground and they can take on more of a sport iteration. Although Honda and Toyota are making their sedans more emotional, a Camry can’t be an SUV — just not what it is.”

One of the biggest factors dragging down the segment is age. While Camry and Accord are new, the current Nissan Altima and Ford Fusion are 5 years old. Even the Hyundai Sonata and Chevy Malibu are over 3 years old. That opens opportunities to distinguish a new generation of sedans.

Accord and Camry comprise about 25 percent of the midsize sedan segment — a segment that declined 16 percent from 2016, according to The Wall Street Journal.

“Accord and Camry have years and years and years of research in understanding what consumers want,” Caldwell said. “In a dwindling market, they’re doing well because people go to names they recognize.”

But until recently the Accord sedan, which was launched here in 1978, and Camry, which was launched here in 1983, have been recognized for everything but expressive styling. That changed for 2018.

A finalist for the esteemed North American Car of the Year Award, to be announced at the Detroit auto show in mid-January, the 2018 Honda Accord features a wide stance with fastback proportions. The interior leans to luxury with an available head-up display, wireless phone charging, and 4G Wi-Fi. While the V-6 engine has been discontinued, Honda does more with less in 192 horsepower or 252 horsepower turbo-four cylinder engines plus a 50-mpg hybrid.

“Honda believes the midsize sedan segment is alive and well,” said Jessica Pawl, spokesperson for Honda. . “Whether consumers are seeking a sporty sedan or a utility vehicle for hauling cargo, we recognize individual car buyers have unique vehicle needs and are committed to offering both sedans and crossovers.”

For the first time in a long time, the 2018 Toyota Camry embraces its wild side with the XSE’s aggressive nose, black roof, available bright red leather seats, swooping glossy dashboard, and head-up display. Three powertrains include a 3.5-liter V-6, 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine with eight-speed transmission, and hybrid delivering 51 mpg city, 53 mpg highway. A full suite of collision avoidance systems are standard on America’s best-selling midsize sedan.

“The evocative styling, premium interior, intuitive technology, enhanced driving dynamics and mpg will distinguish the Camry from its competitors,” said Rick LoFaso, spokesperson for Toyota. “Segment performance is, among other things, led by product investments, and this year, ourselves and Honda are launching all-new models that will have consumers reconsidering the category.”

Buick may be the surprise usurper with the all-new Regal that eschews a traditional body altogether, relying instead on a five-door Sportback. The performance-oriented Regal GS employs a 310 horsepower turbo-four.

“A few things make the Regal stand on its own,” said Chris Hay, director of Buick Product and Pricing. “We have a 250-horsepower engine starting at $26,000. Second is all-wheel-drive. Third is our sportback opening; we offer more cargo space than some crossovers, all packaged under a coupelike roofline.”

Other midsize offerings play to their strengths. Nissan’s Altima, the third best-selling sedan, offers roomy interiors and a smooth ride while the updated Mazda6 delivers crisp lines and handling. Ford offers a plug-in version of the Fusion; Subaru makes all-wheel-drive standard on the Legacy.

The Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima offer value pricing and Germanesque styling, dictated by former Audi designer Peter Schreyer. Sculpted fastback sheet metal differentiates the Chevy Malibu. Volkswagen focuses on large-in-charge presence for the Passat.

It’s notable that neither Fiat Chrysler Automobiles nor Mitsubishi offer midsize sedans. Both converted their plants to crossover production. They may be denying customers certain advantages, including fuel economy.

Midsize sedans are lighter and more aerodynamic, averaging about 4 mpg better on the highway than their crossover counterparts.

Efficiency only tells part of the story. Stylists embrace sedans because they can stretch a low sleek body over a long wheelbase for eye-catching designs and enhanced handling.

There’s another reason to keep sedans: Brand prestige.

“Cars are inherently more fun, from both a design and a performance standpoint,” Hay said. “People need an emotional connection with a brand and cars still do that the best.”

Despite inherent advantages, every automaker is likely determining the viability of midsize sedans. Toyota and Honda doubled down, but reports from Automotive News have Ford possibly discontinuing the Fusion. General Motors is considering discontinuing its full-size and compact sedans. What would keep sedans exciting?

“A sedan that delivers on performance and safety/technology features that resonate on an emotional level,” LoFaso said. “The popularity of sportier-themed midsize models have found favor with buyers across the segment.”

Then why not a production version of the Subaru WRX-inspired Viziv concept shown last fall in Tokyo? Imagine it with an air suspension that can raise for off-roading. Or maybe automakers deliver ultimate fuel economy, as with the sleek GM Ultralite concept that starred in “Demolition Man.”

More realistically, how does the sedan segment look going forward?

“A bit dim, because compact crossovers do a good job of providing a smooth ride, capacity, and ride height,” Caldwell said. “Automakers are doing the right thing, but once customers go to crossovers, they don’t come back. Even fuel efficiency for crossovers is getting better.”

Automakers mostly agree.

“We think crossovers are here to stay, but the car market is still quite large,” Hay said. “This is an exciting time for the segment. Doing more of the same isn’t right for today’s customers and those who push the segment into the future are going to be rewarded.”

Casey Williams is a freelance writer.

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