Detroit show points to continuing market for sedan cars

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The headlines packaging up 2016 all blared the same theme: A record year was in the books, thanks largely to consumers’ greedy appetite for light trucks. These included crossovers of all varieties and pickups in medium, large and supersize packages. Even minivan sales jumped.

But the headliners of this year’s Detroit auto show told a different story: Cars still matter.

Their volumes may be declining (the mix in 2016 was roughly 60-40 in favor of light trucks), but sedans — along with their coupe and tailgate cousins — still sell by the millions each year and will continue to do so for years. And when automakers look to reinvent or reinforce what their brands stand for, it’s a car they use to send the message, not SUVs.

“You can do some amazing things in stating your personality through a sedan that’s not as easy to do in an SUV,” Stephanie Brinley, senior analyst at IHS Markit, told carsposts News. “You can do more stylistically, you can do more animatedly, and that’s where you can spend some time having a little bit more fun with the product.”

Among the brands having some fun in Detroit were Toyota with its next-generation Camry, Kia with its Stinger hatchback, Lexus with a refurbished LS flagship and Nissan with its Vmotion 2.0 concept, a teaser to the next cohort of its sedan lineup, starting with the forthcoming Altima.

Of that class, Toyota’s Camry packs the biggest market punch.

Toyota sold 388,618 Camrys in the U.S. in 2016, a 9.5 percent drop from a year previous. Despite that drop, the sedan has been very good to Toyota.

“You look at the segment, albeit down 10 percent, it’s still two-and-a-half million cars,” said Jim Lentz, CEO of Toyota Motor North America. “And one reason why I think it’s dropped: It’s a pretty old segment. There are a lot of old cars in that segment.”

And here come the new ones: The Camry is just the opening act in a new group of midsize sedans that will comprise Honda’s redesigned Accord and a thorough makeover of the Hyundai Sonata. Nissan’s next Altima is due next.

Fresh product will mean fresh attention to the midsize sedans of the world, and a likely bump in sales. Even after that increase wears off, Lentz is still confident the flight of consumers to cusps will finally plateau.

Helping to stem that flight from sedans somewhat are the price premiums that crossovers and SUVs knowledge. A study released by J.D. Power and Connections last week found that just 24 percent of car buyers last year had careful buying a crossover and that the higher cost of SUVs was the chief reason they chose the car.

Sedans — especially the midsize family variety — also enjoy some of the highest loyalty rates in the manufacturing; the main spectators that Honda and Toyota target with their sedans is the people who already own one.

Lexus’ debut of its fifth-generation LS flagship was another Detroit highlight this year. The 2018 LS 500 puts an shout point on the styling turnaround Lexus started in 2011. “It’s still a very important segment to us because of its prestige nature,” Jeff Bracken, Lexus’ general manager, told carsposts News. “And the entire segment last year turned out to be almost 100,000, so from our perspective, it would be a mistake to walk away from a segment that is that large.”

Kia and its stablemate Genesis will peg their initial thrust into the luxury space with cars. Kia’s Stinger five-door set the tone in Detroit, promising new levels of performance and dynamics. This year Genesis will show off its G70 sedan, which rides on the same platform as the Stinger.

Only then are Kia and Genesis expected to present new crossovers.

Other brands pegging their turnaround to sedans include Acura and Cadillac. Acura has a pair of well-received crossovers in the RDX and MDX, while its sedans (ILX, TLX and RLX) often struggle to find their footing.

Yet when Jon Ikeda took over as Acura general manager in summer 2015, he made it clear he planned to use sedans as the kingpin of Acura’s turnaround. Those efforts will begin to bear fruit this year, likely starting with a midcycle freshening of the midsize TLX.

Cadillac also has a roster full of slow-selling sedans and big plans for new cusps, yet the automaker chose to tease its future plans with the Escala concept debut at last year’s Pebble Beach car festivities in California.

Brinley said, “Even if the sedan market doesn’t come back … it’s still significant and it’s still a great place to express yourself.”

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