The segment is dominated by German cars including the BMW 3-Series, Mercedes C-Class and Audi A4, Barra acknowledged, but: "We've developed a compelling and convincing new challenger."

Sales of Toyota's ( TM) luxury Lexus GS are also slated to begin early in 2012. "The Lexus GS is coming at a time that is very critical to Lexus, which has been accused of losing its way and making boring cars aiming at the suburbs," Loh says. Toyota President Akio Toyoda "has said 'We need to make more exciting cars,'" Loh notes.

>>Warren Buffett, Volkswagen: Hot Trends

In the midsized category, sales of the 2013 Malibu will begin in the first quarter, while Ford will unveil its 2013 Fusion in Detroit. "The new Fusion will be big news," Loh says. "There's a lot of competition in the midsized market. Ford will take on Camry and Accord and also there is worry about the Sonata." The new Fusion will likely come to market late in 2012, he says.

GM has intros in several sectors. The new Silverado is expected later this year, while the subcompact Sonic was introduced during the current quarter. "GM has its hopes riding on the Sonic," Toprak says. "The car is not a cash machine at the price point, but it will bring in people who would not give Chevy a chance before."

Those new buyers reflect not only improvement in GM's small cars, but also the problems facing Toyota, which suffered from quality issues in 2010 and from production shortages this year following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in March.

"Toyota will slowly come back in 2012," Toprak says. "But the fear for Toyota is that the competition is so much better now. Five years ago, they would have emerged and claimed back all of the share they lost, because what could you have bought instead besides Honda ( HMC)?

"Now, you might check out Ford, GM and Hyundai," he says. "Now, you are receptive to all of them."

-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Ted Reed

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