Why the New Ford Fusion Is the Most Important Car, Like, Ever

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Courtesy Ford Motor Company

The interior of the 2013 Ford Fusion

The 2013 Ford Fusion is just a car. It’s got four doors, four wheels, seating capacity for five, and a starting price of $21,700. There are lots of cars like this on the road. So why is everyone saying the new Fusion is much more important than other vehicles?

The Detroit Free Press declared that the redesigned 2013 Fusion, which goes on sale this fall, is “the most important car in [Ford's] lineup.” Mark Fields, Ford president of the Americas, recently told the company’s workers, “I can’t underestimate how important the Fusion is to Ford.”

Auto industry players quoted at MLive.com agree:

“It’s hugely important for Ford,” said Karl Brauer, editor in chief and CEO ofTotal Car Score. “They’ve put a lot of energy into the car. They put a lot of energy into the launch preparation.

“And right now, this is it. This is the moment that’s really going to be important.”

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An Associated Press story plays up the fact that the automaker is holding media events around the country and employing high-profile “American Idol” host Ryan Seacrest to introduce the new car, and that “the publicity blitz underscores the importance of the Fusion to Ford.”

If you’re not getting the point, it’s this: The consensus is that this car is really important.

Why is it more important than all of the other cars designed and built by Ford? First and foremost because so many sales are at stake. The practical midsize category always attracts a substantial number of drivers, and the numbers are growing, as data from the Detroit News attests:

Ford said that while overall U.S. auto sales are up 15 percent in 2012, midsize car sales have ballooned 26 percent. Data from Edmunds.com shows midsize sedans currently make up 18.4 percent of U.S. auto sales through August, up from 16.3 percent for all of 2011, and up from 14.5 percent in 2007.

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WardsAuto forecasts that more than one-third of purchases of vehicles new to the market this year will be midsize cars such as the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Chevy Malibu, Nissan Altima, and, of course, Ford Fusion. This may quite literally be a middle-of-the-road category, but it’s crowded, fiercely competitive one. “There is no more important segment in the U.S. market,” Michael Robinet, of IHS Automotive Consulting, told the Detroit Free Press.

In such a vehicle category, it’s difficult to break away from the pack—especially not perennial industry leaders Camry and Accord. But that’s what Ford hopes to do with the new Fusion. Through August, the (older) Fusion is the fourth-best-selling midsize car in America, with Camry in first (as is usually the case), followed by Accord and Altima. The Hyundai Sonata and Chevy Malibu have also posted strong sales.

Ford is trying to take pole position with a redesign that includes a sleeker, “aggressive” exterior look, thinner seats that grant more rear-legroom, and some high-tech options that Camry and Accord don’t offer, such as automatic parallel parking. Ford might have kept things simple with just a couple of engine choices for the Fusion, but instead it offers customers four possibilities, including a hybrid that gets a best-in-its-class 47 mpg in both the city and on the highway.

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Toyota may be the undisputed champ of the hybrid market with its Prius, but its other hybrid models haven’t been big hits. The Camry Hybrid, which gets 43 mpg in the city and 39 mpg on the highway, will probably sell about 45,000 units this year in the U.S., while Toyota should sell well over 150,000 Priuses.

By beating out the the Camry Hybrid with better fuel economy, the Fusion Hybrid helps Ford make the case that it’s got a “Camry killer,” in the words of the AP, on its hands. Interestingly enough, it’s also been said that Ford may have a “Corolla killer” in the Ford Focus, and that the new C-Max is a “Prius fighter,” if not a “Prius killer,” available in hybrid and plug-in models.

In any event, it’s not like other automakers have been sitting around doing nothing while Ford has been designing and rolling out its oh-so-important new Fusion. Toyota, Nissan, and Honda’s best-selling midsize vehicles have all gotten recent redesigns.

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And guess what? People are saying that each of these automaker’s midsize contenders is, well, it’s really you know what. “No question in my mind it remains the most important vehicle in Honda’s stable,” one automotive analyst, discussing the new Accord, told USA Today.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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