||Japanese Auto Makers Lose Their Midsize Edge
Ford Fusion, Hyundai Sonata, VW Passat, Others Pose Real Challenge After Closing Quality Gap
For Charley Smith, buying an affordable family sedan used to be a no-brainer. He mainly bought vehicles from Nissan Motor Co., believing Japanese autos cars stood out for their quality, reliability and resale value.
But when looking for a new vehicle a few months ago, the 63-year-old Templeton, Calif., sales manager broadened his search, checking out models from Volkswagen AG, Hyundai Motor Co. and the Detroit auto makers. He wound up buying a Fusion Hybrid, from Ford Motor Co., his first domestic-brand car in years.
Mr. Smith said he felt "an emotional connection" to the $27,200 Fusion's curvaceous creases and edgy design. Ford's gains in reliability and fuel economy were a selling point, too. "The Fusion just won in every category," he said.
His purchase reflects a fundamental shift in the large and influential midsize sedan market. Competition is greater and consumer deals are rising. Nissan last week cut the list price of its redesigned Altima by 2.7%, or $580, and General Motors Co. in February dropped its Malibu sticker by up to $770 and is offering rebates.
A weaker yen may give other Japanese makers room to lower prices as well.
A few years ago, Toyota Motor Corp.'s Camry and Honda Motor Co.'s Accord were top sellers by a wide margin. Their share fell to 28% in the first quarter, from 37% of the U.S. midsize sedan market in 2008, according to Edmunds.
Now, it is a wide-open market. Ford and GM have turned their midsize sedans into real challengers and closed the quality gap with Japan; meanwhile, the Japanese were knocked off stride by recall troubles that hurt Toyota in 2010 and production disruptions in Japan that resulted from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
The rising challengers include Ford's Fusion, with a 11.9% share of U.S. sales through April, up from 6.8% for all of 2008, Kia Motors Corp.'s Optima at 6%, up 3.9 percentage points, and Volkswagen AG's Passat at 3.9%, up 2.5 percentage points, according to auto website Edmunds.com.
"We've never had anything like this," said Michael J. Jackson, chief executive of AutoNation Inc., the large chain of new-car dealerships. "If you look at the quality, innovation and distinctive design of these midsize vehicles, this is what luxury cars used to be 10, 15 years ago."
Winning over midsize car buyers is crucial for auto makers. In 2012, 3.5 million midsize cars were sold in the U.S. -- a quarter of the entire light-vehicle market. At an average price of $25,000, that is a $90 billion business.
Toyota and Honda's grip on the segment started to loosen in 2011, following the arrival of a boldly designed Hyundai Sonata and cheaper VW Passat. New versions of the Nissan Altima, Ford Fusion and Chevrolet Malibu arrived in showrooms last year.
Chrysler, on the other hand, is still struggling with aging midsize cars that won't be replaced for at least another year.
Both the Camry and Accord were recently redesigned, too. But they are no longer head and shoulders above the pack. "People buy them because they're reliable but they've started to fall into the appliance category," said Mr. Smith, the Fusion buyer. Last month, sales of the sedan jumped 28% over the year-earlier month.
The Ford Fusion is rated to go 36 highway miles on a gallon of gas, matching the Accord's rating, and the Nissan Altima has a 38 highway miles rating, three more than the Camry.
Further intensifying the competition is the fact that the midsize-car market is no longer growing as fast as it did last year, putting more pressure on auto makers to steal buyers from rival brands to boost sales.
"The Camry is under intense pressure," said Tom Libby, an auto analyst for research firm, R.L. Polk. "It is not just one model anymore. For the buyer who wants a midsize family car, it is a perfect time because of the competition."
The new competition has forced the Japanese to do something unexpected: Raise their discounts and other sales incentives. Toyota recently began offering zero-percent financing on its 2013 Camry, hoping to spur sales after a sluggish start to the year.
While still the market's top-seller, Camry sales were down 7% through April this year. The average net price on a Camry last month was about $21,336, down about $2,700 from March 2012, according to Edmunds.com.
The Accord, while still the second-best selling car in the U.S., is falling short of Honda's internal goals, said John Mendel, the company's vice president for sales. In April, Honda's sales fell 5% from the same month a year ago. Honda now has among the lowest incentives in the market for its midsize sedan.
GM, Ford, and others are also nudging up incentives. GM is now offering up to $2,000 in cash rebates on the Malibu on top of its price drop. Ford is offering $1,500 in rebates on the Fusion. Most manufacturers are offering dealers discounts that they can pass on to consumers to close sales, too.
"It will probably get crazy before the year is over," said Mike Shaw, who owns dealerships in Texas, Colorado and Louisiana with Toyota, Honda, Chevrolet, GMC and Ford franchises. "There are great deals out there already, but I think it is going to get better as the year goes on."
(Source: The Wall Street Journal, 05/06/13)