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(DETROIT FREE PRESS) - Today, Ford executives are fanned out across the country for the launch of the most important car in its lineup: the 2013 Ford Fusion, which goes on sale this fall.

The elegant design of the new model, new creature comforts and technology, along with five engine choices, have raised expectations that it can go tire-to-tire with the segment's perennial leaders, the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. The last time Ford had the best-selling car in the U.S. was 1996: the Taurus.

Whether Ford regains the sales crown or not, there are profits to be reaped. The car is expected to increase Ford's market share, said Mark Fields, Ford president of the Americas.

Americans buy more midsize cars than any other segment. In 2011 midsize cars accounted for almost 1 in 5 U.S. sales -- about 2.3 million -- and they are on pace to reach 2.5 million this year, according to data from Autodata and WardsAuto. Looking ahead, WardsAuto forecasts that 36% of sales from all new vehicles hitting the market this year will be midsize cars.

"There is no more important segment in the U.S. market," said Michael Robinet, managing director of IHS Automotive Consulting in Northville.

"To be successful, you have to have a strong midsize car or you can pack up your tent and go home," Robinet said. All major players have or soon will launch a credible entry. Honda's all-new Accord is coming to market at the same time as the Fusion. Chrysler will have a new 200 next year.

"This year, it's the hottest segment, with a lot of new product," said Haig Stoddard, product analyst with WardsAuto in Southfield. Toyota sold 280,536 Camrys through August. It is expected to end the year as the top seller for the 14th time in 15 years.

Nipping at Camry's heels is the Honda Accord, with 218,665 sold in the first eight months and an all-new model going on sale Wednesday.

The Nissan Altima is a serious contender with 209,592 sales through August, including the all-new model that went on sale in June. Last year, the Altima outsold the Accord, and Nissan has increased production capacity.

General Motors introduced the next-generation Chevrolet Malibu this summer, including the Eco mild hybrid model.

The Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima are hard-charging upstarts; Kia has doubled sales so far this year.

Into the fray comes Fusion with a fresh exterior look, three gas-engine options, a gas-electric hybrid and plug-in hybrid.

"Fusion is the styling leader and has a good assortment of powertrains, all four-cylinder," Robinet said. "In technology, the Fusion sets a new high bar for the segment."

The outgoing Fusion is the fourth-best-selling midsize car through August at 181,865. Ford is betting its $555 million investment in tooling the Flat Rock plant and preparing to add a second shift of 1,200 workers that demand will warrant the extra capacity. Flat Rock will augment three shifts of Fusion production in Hermosillo, Mexico.

To create buzz for the new model, Ford CEO Alan Mulally will be joined by celebrity Ryan Seacrest in New York's Times Square for an event today designed to generate Fusion buzz. Volunteers were sought to hold a large cardboard sign over their heads for the event.

Fields is in Los Angeles, where reporters will get their first test-drives of the Fusion.

Raj Nair, head of product development, is in Dearborn, where a huge banner will be unfurled on the headquarters building and employees will be treated to lunch.

Designer J Mays is in Miami, where he is leading a design panel. Paul Mascarenas, chief technical officer,
is on a panel in San Francisco.

"I can't underestimate how important the Fusion is to Ford," Fields told workers at Flat Rock last week, noting the segment is growing two times faster than the rest of the industry.

Neither Fields nor Mulally would comment on whether beating Camry is the measure of Fusion's success.

"The Camry is not infallible," Robinet said. "Both Ford and Nissan have added capacity to make more midsize cars so they would be capable of beating the Camry if the demand is there." But Robinet said he thinks Camry will stay on top for a few more years.

"This year, the Camry can't be unseated," said WardsAuto's Stoddard.

The segment will remain the largest for another decade, meaning huge volumes are up for grabs, Robinet said. With much more ambitious fuel economy standards in place, midsize cars' share of the total new vehicle market is expected only to grow.

Contact Alisa Priddle: 313-222-5394 or apriddle@freepress.com

More Details: Why Fusion launch is so important
• MIDSIZE SALES CRUCIAL: Almost 1 in 5 U.S. vehicle purchases is a midsize car, the largest segment of the industry. Competition in the segment has never been stronger.

• A BIG INVESTMENT: Ford is betting on the Fusion, adding 1,200 workers and spending $555 million at the Flat Rock plant to increase capacity.

• FUEL ECONOMY: Strong sales of the fuel-efficient Fusion will help Ford meet corporate fuel economy standards.

• GROWING THE COMPANY: Ford expects to increase market share with the new Fusion.

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