Ford Motor Co. calls it "The Year of the Car." General Motors Corp. says it's "an American revolution." The Chrysler Group of DaimlerChrysler AG sums it up with a word and a number -- "Hemi" and "300."
It all means that American automakers -- and in Chrysler's case, an American division of a German car company -- have rediscovered the mid-size car.
After years of neglecting family sedans in favor of pickup trucks and sport-utility vehicles, the Americans finally are taking on the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, which are the best-selling family sedans in the United States.
Ford last tried to compete against those Japanese cars with the 1986 launch of its Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable sedans. The styling of those models, then fresh, caught the public's attention and lifted Ford's fortunes for a moment.
But the Taurus and Sable eventually lost out to the Camry and Accord in quality and reliability ratings. An unfortunate styling change in the mid-1990s alienated more customers. Today, the Taurus and Sable are no longer in production. But the Camry and Accord are still here -- and getting better, as evidenced by buyer ratings in Consumer Reports and on www.edmunds.com, where the 2005 Camry, for example, scored 9.2 of 10 points in ratings provided by readers.
The American automakers are responding with a huge 2005 rollout of family sedans and derivatives, partly represented by this week's On Wheels test car, GM's Pontiac G6 sedan [see Page G1].
High quality and reliability for all of the new American sedans are givens. It is the price of admission in a super-competitive car industry where even once-lowly, laughable cars from South Korea's Hyundai Motor Co. and Kia Motors are now getting top quality marks.
That means quality and reliability are no longer key differentiators in the U.S. automotive market, especially in the hotly contested segment for mid-size family sedans.
And that means the Americans, now better known for their trucks than for their cars, have got to do something more difficult to win buyers. They must capture the public's imagination with a tricky mix of sex, utility and affordability.
So far, the Chrysler Group appears to have come up with the best strategy -- represented by the clear success of its new 300 Series sedans (the Chrysler 300, 300C and upcoming 300C SRT8).
Chrysler deliberately went the radical route with its 300 cars -- choosing bold, potentially polarizing styling (massive grille, wide waist) over a blander design meant to please everyone. The intention is to generate raw passion among a core group of buyers who would become disciples, and it has worked.
Even the base 190-horsepower and 250-horsepower, rear-wheel-drive 300 models are selling well. The Hemi-powered 300C -- equipped with a 5.7-liter, 340-horsepower engine with hemispheric combustion chambers -- is moving swiftly off dealer lots, even at premium prices. Coming soon is an all-wheel-drive version of that model, the 300C SRT8, with a 6.1-liter, 425-horsepower V-8. The 300 Series is getting a score of 9.5 on the Edmunds.com consumer rating scale.
GM's approach to family sedans is to try to cover the market -- slotting its completely revised Chevrolet Malibu and new Malibu Maxx wagon as "good value" cars for price-conscious families, for example. Pontiac has been assigned to go after the "sport sedan" market with its G6 series. Buick is replacing its venerable Regal with a new, smartly styled LaCrosse sedan in pursuit of more affluent buyers. And Cadillac is wooing the rich with an all-new Cadillac STS sedan, available with rear-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive, and with a 255-horsepower V-6 or a 320-horsepower V-8 engine.
Ford is taking the conservative route, as evidenced by the sedate styling of its new Five Hundred sedan, which is also available with rear-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive. The intention here seems like an effort to be passionately inoffensive, to offer a decent, solid car with relatively modest horsepower (203-horsepower V-6) aimed at what Ford deems to be mainstream America. Ford's Mercury division will offer a comparable Montego model. The Five Hundred and Montego, soon to be reviewed in On Wheels, will replace the Taurus and Sable.