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Could Nissan Altima Beat Toyota Camry in Annual Sales Contest?

9 April 2013 - Wall Street Journal

Could Nissan Altima Beat Toyota Camry in Annual Sales Contest?

While some car makers unveil exotic sports cars, $100,000 coupes and retro-inspired muscle cars with 500-horsepower engines, industry watchers know the real action is in the midsize-sedan segment, where models like the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Ford Fusion and Chevy Malibu fight for market share and the title of best-selling car.

This year there are signs the Nissan Altima could shake up the segment’s usual finishing order. That could give the traditionally boring car category a rare shot of excitement. Stiffer competition could also lead to better deals for prospective buyers.

By the end of each year the battle typically comes down to the Camry and Accord. The Altima made a respectable run at Toyota last year but never really threatened the company whose Camry has been the most popular basic family sedan for most of the last decade and a half.

So far this year looks like it has the makings of a horse race. Camry is ahead as usual with 100,830 cars sold through the end of March. Accord trails with 88,427 and Nissan has 86,952. But Nissan won the battle last month, selling 37,763 Altimas compared with 37,663 Camrys and 36,504 Accords. Ford Motor Co.’s redesigned Fusion is within striking distance with 30,284 sales in March and 80,558 for the first three months of 2013.

Nissan and Honda have the potential advantage of more recently redesigned models that many agree are more stylish and fun to look at than the Camry, which was redone for 2012 but still looks dowdy. Ford is also betting on the attractive design of its Fusion to pull customers away from rival brands.

Still, demand for midsize family cars has long been driven by practical considerations like price and reliability, not styling and fun-to-drive performance. After seemingly test-driving every midsize sedan on the market my mother recently wound up in a Camry because it was less expensive than the others and had the features she wanted. Her experience was typical of U.S. car shoppers. The midsize sedan is largely a rolling appliance and in the end, cheaper is better for many drivers.

Toyota also sells a lot of Camrys to rental fleets. Honda says it avoids fleet sales because they cheapen its brand. But numbers don’t discriminate, and Toyota’s fleet customers have helped it win the sales war year after year.

The same thing may happen this year, but I sense a gradual loss of momentum for the Camry while other models like the Altima, Accord and Fusion, plus the Volkswagen Passat and Chevrolet Malibu, are looking better and benefiting from more aggressive marketing.

Look for a closer, more exciting sales race as 2013 continues. By next fall the competition could get downright exciting, especially if you’re shopping for a car.

 

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