Shoppers looking for family passenger cars could be winners of a war breaking out in the auto industry.
Over the next year, rival automakers are planning to roll out at least four revamped mid-size sedans packed with new features and boasting better fuel economy.
The cars - the Ford Fusion, Chevrolet Malibu, Honda Accord and Nissan Altima - already represent some of the bestselling vehicles of any type in the industry. Analysts say each will intensify the already tough competition in the family car segment.
Car shoppers for once "will have it all - great design, great fuel economy and products with innovation. And if you are an automaker that can't deliver, you will lose," said Mike Jackson, chief executive of AutoNation Inc., the nation's largest car dealer group.
The first wave, including the new Fusion and one version of the Accord, were unveiled this week at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Both will offer features such as a warning when the car wanders from its lane or when the vehicle is at risk of a front-end collision. The Fusion also comes with a parallel-parking system that calculates the trajectory and steers the car into a parking spot while the driver operates the gas and brake pedals.
These models are reaching the market just after the introduction of redesigns for two other key cars in the category: the Toyota Camry - the bestselling passenger car in the industry - and the Volkswagen Passat.
"There has never been a time in the industry with this type of competition," said Mark Reuss, president of GM North America.
The vehicles will sell in the mid-$20,000 range, depending on options and engine configurations.
Mid-size family sedans account for about 16 percent of U.S. auto sales, the auto industry's largest single segment.
"This is the real bread and- butter segment for most of the manufacturers," said Brian Carolin, Nissan North America's senior vice president for sales and marketing. "For a lot of shoppers, this segment is the entry point for the brand."
Nissan's Altima accounted for more than a quarter of the brand's U.S. sales last year. Carolin called it the company's "backbone." He said the new-generation Altima arriving this summer would have the "styling and technology" required to maintain its position.
It didn't used to be this way.
The Camry and Accord long dominated the category thanks to their reputations for reliability, which for nearly two decades cemented their places as the default choices for family sedan buyers.
But in early 2010, Hyundai launched a remake of its mid-size Sonata. The new version got rave reviews from the automotive press, and sales took off. Hyundai sold 226,000 of them last year and probably could have sold more if it had more U.S. manufacturing capability.
At the same time, Toyota was stumbling through a series of massive recalls that tarnished its image and seemed to break the Japanese lock on the segment it shared with Honda, according to industry analysts. Both companies were rocked again last year by the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, which disrupted their global production and created a shortage of cars.