The past few months have seen the market debut of two crucial new cars in the mid-sized cars segment, Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. The new models come with the usual language about “reinventing the segment” (don’t they all?), but in this case the rhetoric is at least partially correct, in that both carmakers seem to have pulled out all the stops in making their new models appeal to as broad of an audience as possible. But will they succeed in bringing back customers who got tired of the segment and have been jumping ship to crossovers in recent years?
Segment in decline
A lot of ink has been spilled about the fall from grace of the mid-sized cars segment in recent years, but even still it is hard to underestimate just how severe the decline has been. The headline figure does not fully convey the problem, as the segment is on course to sell over 2 million cars yet again in 2017. Instead, consider the segment’s share of the market as a whole, which has fallen from 17.4% in 2012 to 11.6% in 2017, a decline of more than a percentage point per year. By comparison, the compact SUV segment that customers are flocking to instead, has seen its market share rise from 12.8% to 18.2% over this time period. The gloom has impacted the development decisions made by carmakers: first, smaller brands like Mitsubishi and Suzuki abandoned the segment when they discontinued the Galant and Kizashi models, then came FCA’s decision not to replace the Dodge Avenger and instead focus on the Chrysler 200, which itself was recently discontinued. With VW taking its sweet time to replace the aging Passat and Mazda wondering whether it can ever make its Mazda6 sell in decent numbers, the arrival of the reenergized Camry and Accord marks out rare good news for the segment.
Nice, but are they enough?
The new Camry and Accord are a breath of fresh air at the top of the mid-sized segment, adopting styling that even a few years would have been considered risqué for the top brands. The Camry is trying to pull off a similar trick that it managed with the Camry two generations back, when it managed to give the model exterior and interior styling much like that of its Lexus premium brand, and the new model looks like a blend between the (good-looking) Toyota Avalon and Lexus ES, but with additional funkiness thanks to a heavily-stylized front bumper and unusual surfacing around the rear window. The Accord instead is going down the same path successfully trodden by its smaller Civic sister, going for a swoopy shape and a prominent front chrome brow to give the model “character” to compensate for lack of crossover-like road presence. The step-change is particularly pronounced for the Camry, whose previous generation was especially dreary, particularly in its pre-facelift form.
Early data and predictions for 2018
The Camry is off to a very good start, with sales in November up 24% on what they were this time last year. The next few months will tell whether this kind of growth can be sustained, at least for a while, into 2018, but the early signs are good. By comparison, sales of the new Accord haven’t really taken off yet, with November sales being 15% lower than this time last year. As a result, it’s hard to gauge how the market will react to the new Accord.
At the end of the day, though, the question remains: are the new Camry and Accord enough of a leap forward to rekindle customers’ love with the segment? The answer to that, I feel, is “no, not really”. Yes, their styling is more adventurous than ever, but that’s not really saying much given how both models have always been very conservative. And as a value proposition to buyers they remain pretty much as they ever were – large and practical, but not very exciting. Honda once experimented with a new form factor in the segment, introducing the 5-door Crosstour, but that model failed miserably due, in large part, to its ungainly looks. It may be that the Camry and Accord are successful in clawing back some of the market share they lost in recent years to the likes of Nissan Altima or Ford Fusion, but they will probably not be able to drag the segment back up, as consumers will continue to flock to compact crossovers which are by now as spacious for a family, shorter in length, more practical due to their 5-door bodies, and for the most part similarly priced to the mid-sized sedans.
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