Mid-size sedans scrapping vanilla in favor of sport

January 31, 2017

The family sedan is in the midst of a quiet revolution. What was once indisputably the type of car most likely to be found in the average American garage has been displaced by crossovers and SUVs that channel a little Marlboro Man with room for the kids and their gear (plus maybe the neighbors' kids).

Mid-size sedans like the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, and Ford Fusion remain popular today, but they're not the same breed they were a decade ago. The growth now is in "sporty" mid-sizers, sedans that offer more practicality, efficiency, and comfort than ever before, but with an added dose of performance. It's a sub-breed of family sedan and, if the best-selling car in America is anything to go by, it's a trend that's here to stay. 

They're not going to unseat genuine sporty four-doors like the Cadillac ATS or Lexus IS, but these offerings offer a lot of bang for the buck. 

CHECK OUT: Is the third row in a crossover worth it?

2004 Toyota Camry SE

2004 Toyota Camry SE

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The sporting genesis

The idea of a family sedan that might please those looking for a little corner carving isn't necessarily new, but nearly every automaker we surveyed indicated that it's what their customer base is requesting in increasingly large numbers. A decade ago, only Toyota and Nissan really played in this arena with versions of their Camry and Altima sedans that had their own suspension settings—the Camry SE and Altima 3.5SE.

Although they were a little more dynamically impressive than their more mainstream siblings, these variants didn't offer an especially compelling package for someone looking to step out of a BMW or Infiniti into something less pricey.

However, the global recession hit around 2009 and automakers began looking at ways to woo those who might have been willing to spend more money a few years later. Enter the modern mid-size sports sedan, which is now a part of nearly every mainstream brand's lineup.

READ: Ford F-250 scores up to 5 stars in crash test

The ingredients are simple—and almost universal—to create a sporty trim level:

  • Unique suspension settings made possible via unique spring rates, struts, and bushings. 
  • Larger diameter wheels on lower profile tires.
  • A slightly sportier tire compound, but rarely dedicated summer rubber.
  • Unique styling generally limited to different front and rear bumpers and rocker panel covers (which don't require extensive safety testing like steel panels do).
  • Different upholstery and trim appliqués inside.
  • Special badging, although SE doesn't always denote sporty. 

What might have felt like a marketing exercise a few years ago is translating into big numbers for most automakers. Here's a quick look at the approximate sales share for several sporty models within each automaker's entire trim level lineup:

  • Ford Fusion Sport — 30 percent 
  • Honda Accord Sport — 25 percent
  • Nissan Altima SR — 30 percent
  • Subaru Legacy Sport — 15 percent
  • Toyota Camry SE/XSE — 45 percent
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