When will the bleeding stop?
For 2019, the midsize sedan segment will be one of the freshest in the market—and that includes its heaviest hitters. Customers are spoiled for choice as drivetrains span from cheap, entry-level four pots to full-on PHEVs. Yet it seems nothing can save the humble family sedan—a fact not lost on Kia Motors America VP of Product and Strategy, Orth Hendrick, who doesn't expect the situation to change anytime soon. Standing beside the company's newly refreshed 2019 Optima, the Kia executive voiced his concerns: “It’s a bloodbath to be honest.”
Decipher that how you will, but Optima is a wholly competent sedan with no less than five powertrain options and more kit than you could find in a luxury sedan from a decade ago. None of that matters to customers, though, as the Optima's shape will define its success—and that of every other midsize sedan on the market. “What surprised us was when the brand-new Camry came out and within a few months Toyota was financing them at 0% for 72 months. I mean, that just shows how far down Toyota had to go to keep their car going—a brand-new car,” explained Hedrick. The Accord has also suffered a similar fate since it debuted last year.
With a North American Car of the Year trophy in one hand, the company had to slow down production of the Accord with the other. Dealers, as they sat on 100 days' worth of inventory, blamed the Accord's slow sales pace on a lack of lease deals for the new sedan. Honda decided to adjust production to rein in inventory levels by idling its Marysville, Ohio plant for a total of 11 days through July. March sales figures tell a terrifying story for midsize sedans. As the overall market grew 6.4% for the month, the Accord is down 11.8% so far this year compared to the same three months last year. Honda blamed the slide on “a declining segment dominated by heavy incentives.”
Toyota Camry was able to eke out a gain for the first quarter of 8.8% based on those incentives. Buick Regal also saw a gain of 12.1% with a new car, but experienced a decline of 38.4% in March versus the same month last year. Ford Fusion was down 15.0%, Chevrolet Malibu declined 2.4%, Subaru Legacy was less 11.5%, Mazda6 dropped 31.4%, Nissan Altima slid 14.3%, and the Korean twins—Kia Optima and Hyundai Sonata—fell through the floor with 27.2% and 37.0% drops year-to-date versus 2017. Surprisingly, they weren't even the worst performers. The Volkswagen Passat plummeted 46.6% on 9,762 total sales so far this year. When will the bleeding stop?
“Who can predict the future? But we think at some point it’s going to level off,” said Hedrick. “Very similar to minivans where it was kind of a generational, needs-based thing.” There are still minivans today; the segment is just a lot less crowded than it used to be. Many believe the midsize sedan segment is in for a similar fate, but automakers—including Kia—are still committed to the segment. “A lot of millennials are coming in looking for sedans and I think it's because sedans are cheaper than CUVs. You know, I think a lot of people forget when you move to a crossover, there’s still a premium,” Hedrick said.