Carmakers amp up passenger cars to compete with SUVs

David Shepardson and Melissa Burden
The Detroit News

New York – — Automakers are rolling out larger, more aggressive-looking cars at the New York International Auto Show as they face growing competition from crossovers and SUVs.

With more buyers opting for pricier crossovers built on car platforms, automakers are raising the bar by making their sometimes boring small and midsize cars more attractive. They are touting "premium" features like 7-inch infotainment screens and upgraded interiors, in cars as low as $16,000.

"Automakers are trying to push envelope to make more fun, more interesting, less family-hauler type of vehicles," senior analyst Jessica Caldwell said. Styling has been amped up in the midsize segment, she said, with looks that are "less pragmatic and more emotional."

At the show, automakers are rolling out new versions of cars like the Honda Civic, Chevrolet Malibu, Kia Optima, Nissan Maxima and Chevrolet Spark to compete with the flurry of new SUVs being introduced, including the Mercedes-Benz GLE, Lexus RX, Toyota RAV4 and Infiniti QX50.

Honda Motor Co. unveiled a dramatic, larger Civic — a car that's always been aimed at value-oriented buyers looking for reliable but modest transportation.

The 10th-generation Civic that goes on sale this fall will get a turbo-charged engine, 20-inch wheels and more aggressive styling with a longer wheelbase, longer hood and wider "more muscular" stance. Honda will even release a performance R version.

"This is a car that punches well above its weight," said Guy Melville-Brown, chief exterior designer of the Civic concept, adding it has a "character not unlike that of a streetfighter."

It's a tough time to sell passenger cars. With sharply lower oil prices, car sales fell 4.3 percent in March, while sales of light trucks — SUVs, pickups, minivans and crossovers — were up 5.3 percent. It's the third straight month that car have trailed trucks.

Dave Sullivan, manager of product analysis for AutoPacific, said automakers are offering a broader selection of powertrains, more trim levels and customization to sell cars. "They're going to pretty much offer a flavor for everyone," he said.

Sullivan pointed to the Civic as an example. Honda has shortened the time between new vehicles and is bringing out several different models for customers to choose from.

In general, automakers are going big in styling changes.

Kia Motors America unveiled its larger, more "luxurious" and more aggressive-looking Optima midsize car that will go on sale by the end of the year.

Nissan Motor CEO Carlos Ghosn will unveil Thursday a more dramatic Maxima intended to compete with luxury BMW and Acura models.

Sedans have one big advantage over crossovers: They are cheaper. "Just like real estate: If you want to sit up higher it's going to cost more," says Orth Hedrick, vice president of product planning at Kia Motors America. The automaker says the Optima looks more closely like Kia's luxury K900 model.

Al Gardner, Chrysler brand chief at Fiat Chrysler, said the car market has become hyper-competitive. "It's a fight," he said, fueled by cheap gas but also a broader "shift going on the marketplace between cars to small utility vehicles."

General Motors Co. officially took the wraps off its 2016 Chevrolet Malibu, a larger and more powerful car that analysts say should catch the eyes of buyers who want more sophisticated and sportier wheels.

"This car has to win, and it will win," Mark Reuss, GM's product chief said Wednesday.

Toyota Motor Corp.'s Scion unit unveiled a sporty iA sedan that will retail for around $16,000. The iM hatchback will cost more — closer to $20,000.

Despite the low prices, Toyota is billing the brand as a strong value with fancy touches. The iA will have premium chrome accents and soft-touch trim and surfaces. Both come standard with Bluetooth and a 7-inch infotainment display.