FORT WORTH, Texas — Six big automakers are poised to slug it out over the next year or two in what is shaping up to be a heated competition for a prime slice of the American car market — the midsize family sedan.
And these are not just your ordinary family sedans.
In a rare confluence of timing and investment, dealers for five of the six major brands should be well-stocked by year's end with new models.
Toyota led the way in late 2011 with a new version of its venerable Camry, long the top-selling sedan in this country. Coming to market now and in coming months are new models of the Nissan Altima, Honda Accord, Chevrolet Malibu and Ford Fusion.
"We're seeing a lot of competition in this segment," said Aaron Bragman of IHS Automotive. "We're seeing a lot of new technology, especially from the American manufacturers.
"It's no longer a three-way race between the Japanese manufacturers."
Also in the race will be the still-fresh Hyundai Sonata, introduced as a 2011 model. The Sonata won critics' reviews for styling while providing lots of interior features at a modest price.
In all, these six models accounted for nearly 1.5 million sales in 2011, taking the lion's share of the midsize car segment, which accounts for 15 percent of the U.S. auto market. Other models such as the Volkswagen Passat — also redesigned for 2012 — and Mazda 6 trail far behind the leaders.
The new sedans almost universally have more striking exterior designs, something that should leap out at many consumers. Add pleasing interior features, high-definition sound systems, touch-screen and voice-controlled entertainment and navigation systems, and the packages will evoke the luxury of more expensive brands.
What's particularly notable about the new crop of sedans, analysts say, is that the Chevy and Ford entries should be much more formidable competitors than they have been since Camry seized the midsize-sedan sales crown from the Ford Taurus in the mid-1990s.
"Everybody has a horse in this one," said Edmunds.com analyst Jeremy Acevedo.
The midsize sedan, formerly shunned by many families in favor of sport utility vehicles and minivans, has seen a migration back in recent years as buyers seek better driving characteristics and fuel economy. The new models offer enhancements on both those counts.
Indeed, fuel economy of the midsize models has risen to the point, Acevedo said, that they might pull buyers from the compact car segment.
"You can do a lot of things with the midsize car," he said. "The new Camry gets better gas mileage than the Corolla," Toyota's smaller sedan.
The base four-cylinder models of the Big Six have EPA fuel efficiency ratings ranging from 22 to 27 miles per gallon in city driving and 34 to 38 mpg on the highway.
"It's a real dogfight in that segment," said Jon Hahn, Chevy's marketing manager for the Malibu.
Ford's Dave Mondragon said of the Fusion: "We think this vehicle will have a high conquest rate," bringing non-Ford buyers in.