New Sedans Aim to Break Out of the Pack

In a Category Known for Stodginess, Brands Seek to Differentiate New Models With Revised Styling and Gadgets

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Craved the sports car. Coveted the convertible. Considered the SUV. Bought the sedan.

Historically, the fat part of the American automobile-market curve is made up of four-door sedans, making the segment fertile ground for marketing dollars. About 250,000 midsize cars are sold each month at prices ranging from about $20,000 to more than $40,000. Sales of midsize cars -- mainly sedans -- account for about 25% of the automotive and light-truck market, according to Automotive News.

At least six new meat-and-potatoes models have entered or are soon to enter dealer stores, and the timing may be propitious: January sales of light-vehicles rose 11% from the previous year, yielding a seasonally adjusted annual sales rate of 14.2 million, according to data from Automotive News. Indications are that a highly competitive sales season approaches.

"This is the year of the midsize car, and automakers are going to have to be clever about breaking through the traffic congestion out there," said Michelle Krebs, a senior industry analyst at "One thing that does happen in times like this is that if you get a really strong new entry in a segment, all ships rise."

Consider the choices for consumers as the year unfolds: The new-from-the-ground-up VW Passat and the redesigned Toyota Camry are rolling into showrooms now. The Chevrolet Malibu and Ford Fusion wait in the wings. The striking new Honda Accord and the gussied-up Nissan Altima will arrive in the fall.

Marketing for the brands may well have a twist this year. Styling is generally down on the priority list in sedan-purchase considerations, but the success of the swoopy Hyundai Sonata, with its so-called fluidic architecture could change that .

"Will people pay for a sexier design rather than play it safe?" asked Ms. Krebs. "You can see that Toyota is playing it safe. Honda is playing it safe."

Another differentiator in this segment, where models' similarities outnumber their differences, is the emphasis on gadgets.

For example, at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, automakers including Subaru, General Motors and Kia displayed technologies incorporating cloud storage, where data is kept remotely rather than in the car, phone or music player, and is retrieved wirelessly. Mercedes-Benz showed an updated version of its "mbrace" system, which employs a 3G network running on iPhone or Androids to give owners access to 60 features, from Facebook and Google to vehicle diagnostics.

Here's a capsule look at some of the sedans marketers will be focusing on in upcoming months.

2013 Honda Accord Coupe
2013 Honda Accord Coupe
2011 total sales in the U.S.: 235,625
2011 U.S. measured-media spending: $185 million for the first 11 months
Slightly shorter and somewhat sexier, this Accord is rebooted. Honda was roundly criticized last year for its bland restyling of the Civic, but the company has launched a $50 million pan-European effort for the Civic. "The Great Unknown" campaign has creative from Wieden & Kennedy, the same agency that developed the Clint Eastwood "Halftime in America" Super Bowl ad for Chrysler.
Marketing: The ninth-generation Accord is key to Honda's lineup. Look for traditional advertising to emphasize 30 years of Accord production in the U.S. -- it was the first Japanese-nameplate automobile made in this country. Its U.S. agency is RPA .

2013 Ford Fusion
2013 Ford Fusion

2011 unit sales: 248,067
2011 U.S. measured-media spending: $149 million for the first 11 months
"The time is right for a highly stylized vehicle in this segment, one that checks all the boxes, including fuel economy," said Amy Marentic, group marketing manager for Ford cars. The new Fusion, with a front end mimicking the classic look of an Aston Martin, checks the efficiency box. It will be available as a conventional and a plug-in hybrid. It will also come with Ford's Sync as standard equipment, and the company promises to simplify what has been a frustrating technology for some drivers.
Marketing: Ms. Marentic said social will figure into Ford's media approach, "although the percentages on how we break that up are different for each line, and we're still working through that on Fusion." The agency is Team Detroit.

2013 Chevrolet Malibu
2013 Chevrolet Malibu
2011 total U.S. sales: 204,808
2011 U.S. measured-media spending: $94 million for the first 11 months
Chevy has been on a roll for the past year, with hot compact Cruze and the bite-sized Sonic. Family sedan Malibu is due in the spring. It will be available in a hybrid "Eco" version, which employs a battery pack and a motor that GM claims will significantly boost gas mileage. Front and rear legroom are defining numbers for midsize sedans, and the Malibu -- which could claim one of the most-comfortable rear seats in its previous model -- now has less rear-seat space than the Nissan Altima or Ford Fusion.
Marketing: Chevy's keeping details close to the vest, but the agency is Goodby Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco.

Volkswagen Passat
Volkswagen Passat
U.S. sales: 2011 U.S. measured-media spending: $89 million for the first 11 months

For its entry into American sedan sweeps, Volkswagen tailored a car not only to take on the likes of the Accord and Malibu but to cash in on its origins. The Passat is built at VW's new factory in Tennessee. The base-model price is $7,000 less than the previous-generation Passat. That's for one with a stick shift -- an automatic is an extra $1,000. One critic noted that "most Americans are as likely to get a manual transmission as they are a recreational root canal."
Marketing: VW won't say, but expect size to matter in the message. "We knew we were going head-to-head with the big guys," said Justin Osborne, the brand's general manager for marketing strategy. "We needed to appear to be a lot bigger than we actually were." The agency is Deutsch , Los Angeles.

2013 Nissan Altima
2013 Nissan Altima
2011 U.S. unit sales: 268,981
2011 U.S. measured-media spending: $111 million for the first 11 months
Nissan's challenge for the next model year is to develop a more cohesive design statement for its models. Based on early reports, the Altima has received a more curvaceous form as well as an all-new, in-house hybrid system. Altima's hybrid uniquely incorporates a supercharger to give it more than 250 horsepower. That's BMW territory.
The Altima's performance was especially strong last month, considering it's in the final months of its model cycle. Nissan delivered 22 ,357 Altimas in January, up 36 % from January 2011. But as Honda and Toyota recover from disaster-related production problems, the competition will reheat.
Marketing: Not disclosed yet, but performance should play a role. Its agency is TBWA /Chiat/Day.

Sources: Sales, Automotive News; media spending, Kantar

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