April 1, 2013

Competition shakes up car market

Automakers offering sleek designs and luxury features have cut into the sales of the Camry and Accord.

The Associated Press

DETROIT — For nearly two decades, the Toyota Camry and the Honda Accord have ruled the midsized car market.

click image to enlarge

A Hyundai Sonata is seen outside a Hyundai car dealership last October in Des Plaines, Ill. For nearly two decades, the Toyota Camry and the Honda Accord have ruled the midsized car market. But now the dominance is starting to slip.

The Associated Press

Nobody accused them of being stylish or fast. But the cars rarely broke down, and they held their value better than competitors. For drivers who wanted a family car, Camry and Accord got the job done and were good enough to become two of the best-selling cars of all time.

But now the dominance is starting to slip. Cars like the Hyundai Sonata, Ford Fusion, Nissan Altima and Kia Optima have cut into sales of the Camry and Accord by offering combinations of sleeker designs, luxury-car features and better gas mileage.

The competition has shaken up the biggest segment of the U.S. auto market. The completely redesigned vehicles have made midsize cars appealing to a broader audience, from young families to downsizing baby boomers to people who want the look and feel of luxury but don't want the cost. Midsize cars accounted for almost 25 percent of the total industry in February, up from 22 percent at the end of 2007. Automakers report March sales on Tuesday.

Differences in quality and reliability in midsize cars have all but been erased, so buyers now look at styling and performance, industry analysts say. That puts added pressure on Toyota and Honda to stay ahead, but also on the other automakers, because brand loyalty isn't what it used to be. Every time a new, sleeker car comes out, many buyers flock to it. As a result, automakers are redesigning midsize cars in about half the usual time.

"Your latest and greatest are the ones that are selling the most," said Glenn Mears, owner of Chrysler, Ford, Honda and Nissan dealerships in the Dover, Ohio, area south of Cleveland.

Sales figures show how tough the competition has gotten for Camry and Accord, still the two top-selling cars in the U.S.

The Camry's annual sales have fallen by more than 68,000 since 2007, while Accord sales have dropped by more than 60,000. Five years ago, Camry and Accord combined sold 865,339 cars, accounting for almost a quarter of the midsize segment. But last year they slipped to just over 20 percent on sales of 736,758, according to Autodata Corp.

The Camry, last redesigned in 2011, has all the newest bells and whistles inside, such as a touch-screen and voice command system, but isn't as sleek-looking on the outside as its rivals. Still, Toyota doesn't plan any major styling changes to the Camry because there's no sense messing with the success of a car with sales over 400,000 per year, said Jim Lentz, Toyota's North American chief executive.

Lentz said that because other automakers improved their cars, Camry sales won't grow much in the near term, even though the market for midsize cars is getting bigger.

"So the pie is getting larger. Because of the increase in competition, our share of that pie is getting smaller," he said.

Honda came out with a well-received redesign of the Accord last year, and it's gaining ground on the midsize leader. While Camry outsold Accord by 70,000 last year, the Accord's percentage gain was bigger, 40 percent to 31 percent for the Camry. The large gains reflect the automakers' recovery from the earthquake in Japan in 2011.

Sales of the Camry fell in February, the second decline in three months. Accord sales rose 35 percent in February and trailed Camry by just 3,271.

Ford's Fusion has moved into third place. The fully revamped car hit showrooms in September, with a European design that looks like an Aston-Martin.

That style led Susie Gates of suburban Dallas to lease a Fusion in February because it stood out from the Sonata and Camry, she said.

(Continued on page 2)

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