Buckle your seat belts: A battle is shaping up in the family car market as the 2013 model year gets under way.
Carmakers and dealers, hoping to accelerate their slow recovery from the recession, are fielding an array of midsize sedans in coming months. These vehicles, on Long Island, accounted for more than half a million of the 2.6 million cars and trucks on the road in the latest registrations data available.
Among the most important in terms of potential sales in Nassau and Suffolk counties is a redesigned Honda Accord, arriving in dealerships this month. It's the latest iteration of the vehicle that, as of April last year, was the Island's most popular model, with 99,000 on the road, according to auto data company R.L. Polk. The Accord will compete for Island buyers with, among others, newly redesigned versions of the Chevrolet Malibu, Ford Fusion and Hyundai Sonata.
The midsize sedan is "the fastest-growing segment in the industry," said Ford Motor Co. U.S. sales analyst Erich Merkle, "and, quite honestly, it's just getting warmed up."
Expected sales increase
Hot sales of sedans would help the auto industry and dealers, who are still trying to rebound from the recession and, for Japanese makes, last year's earthquake and tsunami.
Nationally, industry analysts expect sales of all vehicles to increase modestly next year to about 15 million from a forecast 14.3 million this year. Experts say easier credit is helping boost sales. "Banks are chasing after auto loans because of low repossession rates and a minimum of late payers," auto industry analyst Art Spinella of Oregon-based CNW Research told clients in a report issued Aug. 21.
Despite those gains, national sales remain well below the nearly 17 million new vehicles bought in 2005 -- the most recent peak year.
Economist Pearl Kamer of the Long Island Association, the Island's largest business group, says sales postponed during the recession have led to growing numbers of aging vehicles on local roads that will have to be replaced. Aging cars bode well for vehicle sales on Long Island this model year. "If you need a car to get to work and your car is getting very old, you'll buy one," she said.
Another positive factor: The housing slump, by most accounts, appears close to bottoming out on Long Island.
But consumers are worried, said Kamer, which could keep them driving old cars even longer. The Island's unemployment rate is still high: 8 percent in July. Gasoline prices have been rising again since the beginning of July, heating oil is likely to be expensive again this winter and food prices are likely to rise significantly because of this summer's drought in the West. That confluence of factors, Kamer said, "has to affect consumer sentiment."
Other models compete
It's not just redesigned sedans that will vie for attention next season. Other significant new models that the industry hopes will entice consumers run the gamut and include small cars, like the subcompact Chevrolet Spark that went on sale in August, the 2013 Ford C-Max compact minivan due this fall, the 2014 Kia Forte compact sedan due in January and the 2013 Volkswagen Beetle TDI diesel that went on sale last month. New electrics include the 2013 Fiat 500 due this winter. There are large cars, too, including the redesigned 2014 Chevrolet Impala due next spring. And there are new sport utility vehicles, including the redesigned 2013 Nissan Pathfinder due in November and the redesigned 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe going on sale this month.
But the battle among the midsize sedans will be particularly intense because most entries in the field are relatively new or will be brand new.
The Toyota Camry, almost as popular here as the Accord, with more than 98,000 on the road, was redesigned for the 2012 model year and went on sale last October.
The redesigned 2013 Chevrolet Malibu arrived in showrooms earlier this year, as did the Chrysler 200, which replaced the Sebring sedan. The Dodge Charger, Hyundai Sonata and Volkswagen Passat were redone for the 2011 model year.
A redesigned Ford Fusion also goes on sale this fall. And redesigned versions of the Mazda 6 and Nissan Altima are due at dealerships early next year and in June, respectively.
Manufacturers say the new models offer improved fuel economy, often through new engines and transmissions, as well as increased safety features and electronic conveniences such as cellular telephone interfaces.
Honda says the new Accord, for example, will get up to 36 miles per gallon with a new four-cylinder engine paired with a new "continuously-variable" or stepless automatic transmission -- up from 34 mpg for the comparable 2012 Accord. Ford goes it 1 mpg better, claiming that its 2013 Fusion with a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine will deliver 37 mpg on the highway. The Fusion is to be available also in more-efficient hybrid and plug-in hybrid variants.
Ford and Honda are offering "blind spot" systems to warn drivers of the presence of other vehicles along their rear flanks. Both also are offering "lane departure warning" for the driver veering off course, while the Honda is offering a new collision warning system.
LI dealers optimistic
Through June -- the last month for which figures are available -- Long Islanders bought about 3 percent more new cars and trucks than a year earlier, based on registrations data from Polk. That comes on top of a 4 percent improvement for all of last year over 2010. In both cases, the gains lagged the nation, but local dealers say their sales didn't drop as much during the recession as sales did nationally.
Local dealers sold 184,385 vehicles last year, up 4.3 percent from 176,701 in 2010. Dealers are wary of economic hurdles, but optimistic.
Lee Certilman, owner of Nardy Honda in St. James, said he is worried about the poor economy because a car is "the second most expensive item most consumers are going to buy." Still, he said he hopes the new Accord will boost his sales.
Co-owner Scott Brown of Robert Chevrolet in Hicksville said he hopes the new Malibu and a redesigned Impala large sedan due in the spring will help spur sales. "There's a lot of uncertainty out there, and that is affecting sales," he said. "But the good thing is, even with all of that, there is pent-up demand."