2012 In Review: Six Takeaways from the Mid-Size Melee

The humble mid-size sedan doesn't have a lot of thrills going for it--most are powered by four-cylinder engines and engineered for maximum comfort for mom or dad as they commute. Behind the scenes, however, the battle for four-door hegemony is fierce as manufacturers use every advantage to bring in new customers.

With 2011's mid-size market tainted by two major natural disasters in Japan, it's arguable that those numbers were a little skewed. This year there weren't any production-disrupting tsunamis or earthquakes, and the market saw four of 12 competitors wearing new sheetmetal and sporting new features. After crunching the numbers, we found six takeaways (one obvious, five a bit less so). Here they are:

The Toyota Camry continues to be the one to beat

If you've been reading our monthly mid-size roundups, this shouldn't surprise you at all: the Camry won the first eleven months of 2012 by margins small (705 units in June) and large (5938 in January). All told the Camry sold 373,478 units through the end of November and is poised to make 2012 a 400,000 unit year. To put the Camry's win in perspective, it sold more units in April 2012 than the wilting Mazda 6 sold through November (35,385 to 32,372). However, Honda's Accord is back in full swing, and regularly rings in just a couple thousand units shy of the Toyota--perhaps the Camry's stranglehold on the gold medal won't be for long.

March was a really good month

The top 12 mid-size sedans sold some 243,821 units in March 2012, the best showing all year. On top of that, seven of the 12 had their best sales months of the year in March, including Altima, Camry, Fusion, Legacy, 6, Optima, and Sonata. Two more models (Chrysler 200/Dodge Avenger, and VW Passat) came very close to their 2012 highs in March. Why the boost? It's anyone's guess--the boost could have been spurred by spring sales, the end of winter, anything.

"The Flatliners" continue to flatline

Of the 12 major mid-size sedans on the market, five of them are what we like to call "flatliners:" unlike the big dogs--sedans with huge manufacturing back bones, cars whose sales fluctuate wildly from month to month--the flatliners' sales appear to be limited by relatively small manufacturing plants. We saw this last year with the Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima, but add the Subaru Legacy, Mazda6, and Volkswagen Passat to that list. In the case of Hyundai, the Sonata's performance peaked at 23,281 in March but now hovers between 15,000 and 20,000 units a month. The VW Passat is in the same situation: sales hit the 10,000 unit/month plateau early this year and stuck to it. With a third shift starting at the Passat's Tennessee assembly plant, sales numbers are inching up further. Sales of the Mazda 6 have slowed to a trickle, in the meantime: while we'd usually say it's because a new 6 is coming, the trend has continued for months, likely because domestic 6 production ended earlier this year. The Legacy had a great year, and sales are hitting the wall as Subaru's Lafayette, Indiana plant struggles to keep up with demand.

Remember the Chevrolet Malibu?

The Malibu had a great late spring/early summer: it came in third in May (behind the Accord by less than 200 units) and second in June (behind the Camry by just 705 cars), as Chevrolet boosted incentives before the release of its new model. One month later, in July, the Malibu sold 12,345 units, coming in 8th (the Malibu's high-volume 2.5-liter I-4 trim level debuted in July and August, following the hybrid Eco by a few months) as of December 1st, Chevrolet has a 153-day supply of the car. Some point to the Malibu's small stature (it trails cars like the Passat in crucial interior measurements), or GM's incongruous launch schedule, which debuted the 2013 Malibu Eco months before the Malibu 2.5 and Turbo. No matter the cause, the Malibu now trails all of its American competitors, the Ford Fusion and Chrysler 200/Dodge Avenger.

The Honda Accord is back!

The Honda Accord had a difficult 2011, as its supply chain crumbled with a Japanese tsunami and floods in Thailand. The Accord started 2012 in fifth place, and the big question coming into the first quarter was whether the car could return to its former glory. The Accord is still behind the Camry--down 2517 units during the month of November--but it's back to selling more than 25,000 units a month, and the new-for-2013 model is catching on as well. If 2013 sees a new number one, in all likelihood it will be this one.

The easiest way to take a sales hit is…to launch a new model

Want to know the easiest way to temporarily sell many fewer models than usual? Simple: roll out a new car. While it doesn't make much sense in terms of product, it make sense in terms of supply chains: automakers frequently put big incentives on last-generation cars to clear them off dealer lots, and then ship as many new ones as possible. That process is easier said than done, and it frequently takes a couple of months for supplies and demand to equalize; it could take even longer when consumer demand for certain trim levels or features doesn't match the manufacturer's initial product mix (we saw this with the Dodge Dart earlier this year). To watch the new model sales dip in action, look at the Nissan Altima: sales of the old car went from over 41,050 in March to just 16,239 in April as inventory plummeted. It took until July for sales to return to their usual, 25,000-30,000 mark.

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