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msnbc.com
updated 1/9/2007 3:16:52 PM ET 2007-01-09T20:16:52

As automakers roll out futuristic concept cars and dazzling new vehicles at the Detroit auto show this week, one dominant theme is emerging — the sedan is back, and it’s bolder and better than ever.

For years, U.S. automakers haven’t placed a strong emphasis on the basic midsize passenger car, preferring instead to focus on building pickup trucks and sports utility vehicles that tend to be more profitable.

They have paid the price. As gas prices soared to record levels last year, sedans gained market share led by popular and dependable Honda Accord and Toyota Camry.

Now as automakers take a back-to-basics approach, the Camry — the best-selling sedan in the United States for eight of the past nine years — is a major target.

Many passenger vehicles unveiled at this year's North American International Auto Show  demonstrate a desire to refocus on the competitive midsize car segment, and automakers are taking direct aim at the Camry with more stylish, sporty models.

“It’s the resurgence of the passenger car, and it’s exciting,” said Rebecca Lindland, an automotive analyst at consulting company Global Insight. “The nice thing about the car for an automaker is you can really show more style and emphasize design, which is hard to do when you are designing a pickup truck.”

On Tuesday, GM unveiled its latest weapon against the Camry: The drastically restyled 2008 Chevrolet Malibu, featuring sweeping lines, a bold front grille and a wider stance atop a more powerful engine. Consumers often associate quality, fuel economy and safety with Asian manufacturers, but the Malibu can be equal or better in those categories, GM says.

The new Malibu will also try to make an emotional connection with consumers looking for an eye-catching midsize car while also offering practicality: GM’s five-year, 100,000-mile powertrain warranty. Pricing will start at $20,000 and a fuel-efficient gas-electric hybrid version is planned.

“Make no mistake — GM is back in the car game,” said Troy Clarke, president of GM’s North America operations. “Trucks have done well for us, but the mid-size car segment is large and it has been overlooked and our position in it has slipped for various reasons,” he added. “We are underdeveloped in this market and [the Malibu] is going to change that.”

GM is hardly alone in its assault on the Camry. On Monday, Honda showcased a concept coupe design for its top-selling Accord.

The car’s bold, youthful styling is almost exactly how the Japanese automaker’s 2008 model will look when it arrives in showrooms this fall and gives a sense of how Honda will restyle future Accords, said Dave Marek, Honda’s chief automobile designer.

“The Accord has grown up, so the styling had to grow up too,” Marek said. “This is more muscular: The buyer is more sophisticated, and so they expect more from the car.”

The sedan is enjoying a resurgence, Marek notes. He pointed to other passenger cars on display at the auto show, including Lincoln’s entry-level, midsize MKZ sedan and the Cadillac's four-door CTS sport luxury sedan.

“I think people have always liked the feeling of a sedan because it’s an icon of success, and now that they are becoming more luxurious, driving a truck just doesn’t seem as sexy,” said Marek. “You can have a family car now and still be cool.”

The success of the boldly styled Chrysler 300 sedan, first shown as a concept at the 2003 New York Auto Show, has shown carmakers they can build stylish sedans that sell, he added. And automakers need to bring a more youthful feel to the sedan market to capture younger car buyers.

“The sedans we are seeing here in Detroit, they are all dramatic,” Marek said. “And I think in the future they are going to be bolder and more charismatic. People had sort of forgotten about the sedan before the Chrysler 300 came out, but that sold well, and people took notice and said people will buy that. That gives you the opportunity to do something.”

Dave Conant, president of the Newport Beach, Calif.-based CAR Group, which sells Hondas and Toyotas, said automakers are realizing that to keep sedan sales alive they need to produce more exciting vehicles.

“It can’t just be a good workhorse anymore,” he said. “There has to be more appeal.”

Analysts say the Camry brand could be vulnerable because the average owner’s age is in the mid-50s and the midsize segment has been moving in a bolder direction.

Erich Merkle, director of forecasting for the auto consulting company IRN Inc. in Grand Rapids, Mich., said U.S. brands can beat their Asian rivals by taking risks with uniquely American designs like Chrysler’s popular 300.

“I think the Japanese are incredibly vulnerable in terms of design. Toyota, they’re Maytag,” Merkle said. “They can be beat on designs, but the American automakers have to take risks themselves.”

But others note that the Camry has held a nearly perfect streak since dethroning Ford’s Taurus as the nation’s best-selling car. Any challenge — especially from GM — will not be easy to pull off.

“The worst possible scenario for Detroit is if the Japanese started designing expressive vehicles — getting some emotion into their designs,” said Rebecca Lindland at Global Insight. “We see the trend in Japanese vehicles toward more expressive design — that in fact could make them that much stronger.”

However, Global Insight research also shows the average age of the Camry buyer increases by one year every year that passes, and so the brand is in danger of becoming old-fashioned, said Lindland.

Since the 1990s, the Camry has transitioned from its boxy, dependable start to a more athletic exterior, while retaining a reputation for reliability, affordability and good fuel economy.

Toyota sold 450,000 Camrys in 2006, up nearly 4 percent from 2005, according to Autodata, and well ahead of the No. 2 Accord with 354,000 units, down about 4.

Others in the segment are competing for increased market share including the Nissan Altima, the Ford Fusion, the Chrysler Sebring and the Hyundai Sonata.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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