DETROIT — Honda unveiled its new 2018 Accord sedan in here Friday, perfectly timed to challenge the new 2018 Toyota Camry for supremacy in midsize sedan sales.
If that excites you about as much as a pair of 1970s arena-rock bands announcing their eighth farewell tour, congratulations: You’re not a baby boomer.
For a generation, this would have been a battle of Titans: America’s two favorite family vehicles facing off with sales leadership, bragging rights and boatloads of cash at stake. But instead, In mid-2017, it begins to feel like a curiosity, a “Jurassic Park” matchup of dinosaurs fighting to stave off extinction.
Midsize sedans’ share of the total U.S. car market has tanked from 16.6% in 2009 to just 12% in 2016 and a paltry 10.7% so far this year, according to Kelley Blue Book. Once a cash cow that generated healthy profits and filled massive assembly plants, the segment shows no sign of recovering from the tailspin.
That’s a big deal for every mainstream automaker, but a huge challenge for Toyota and Honda, whose biggest plants make midsize sedans. The Georgetown, Ky., plant that builds Camrys for America is the largest Toyota plant in the world. Honda’s sprawling complex west of Columbus, Ohio was the automaker’s first U.S. assembly plant. Honda has sold more than 13 million Accords since the car debuted in 1976.
Not even the most optimistic executive believes the new cars will maintain sales, much less recover to their historical levels. Victory for the Accord and Camry consists of managing the decline, surviving as other competitors drop out. Last man standing wins.
Honda foresaw trouble for sedans years ago. It responded by beefing up its truck lineup, adding the subcompact HR-V SUV and a new version of its Ridgeline pickup to catch the rising tide.
The 2018 Accord’s eye-catching new shape is another aspect of Honda’s strategy to deal with cratering car sales.
“We wanted to elevate it beyond affordable midsize sedans,” American Honda car boss Jeff Conrad said. “We still believe in sedans. We believe we can bring style and performance to sedans” in the same way the original 1976 Accord convinced a generation of Americans to try a smaller, lighter, more-efficient family sedan. It established Honda as a go-to brand for a generation.
The Honda Civic exemplifies the modest aspirations that pass for success among sedans in 2017. Its sales are down, but its key competitors are down more. It’s the healthiest patient in intensive care, but it will survive. That’s more than some can say.
“It’s supporting the segment,” Conrad said. “We believe the Accord can do the same thing.”
Honda believes — or hopes — the market shift from cars to SUVs will plateau soon.
“The market has changed, but there are still a significant number of buyers who want a sedan,” IHS Markit senior analyst Stephanie Brinley said. “Honda and Toyota will be challenged, but the smaller players are more at risk.”
That’s why Chrysler abandoned the midsize car market earlier this year. No other automaker has dropped out yet, but you can bet finance departments around the world are taking a hard look at the future of cars like the Kia Optima and Cadenza, Chevrolet Impala, Ford Taurus, Hyundai Sonata, Nissan Maxima, Toyota Avalon and VW Passat.
As the herd thins, the Accord and Camry will fight to pick up the pieces. Their goal: Maintain or even increase their share of midsize sales while the segment shrinks.
Honda and Toyota need the new models to succeed to keep massive assembly plants humming and to encourage buyers who abandon their sedans to stay within the brand when they buy an SUV or truck.
Midsize sedans may not rule the road any more, but the Accord and Camry still matter. But don’t ask me to bet that will still be true five years from now.
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