Earlier this year, Mazda Motor Corp. detailed much of its near-term future product plan. I asked a senior Mazda official about the prospects for replacing the Millenia sedan, since it was absent from any mention.

His reply — I'll paraphase — was something on the order of, “What's the point?” He asserted that the 4-door sedan is a dying breed, and that the bulk of any automaker's resources should be devoted to anything but development of a sedan, since nobody's much interested anymore.

In 2000, there were 3,394,000 midsize-sedan deliveries, which would seem to indicate more than 3 million buyers care each year.

But the larger meaning may be valid. Depending on who's counting, pickup trucks and sport/utility vehicles (SUVs) currently account for half of total U.S. light-vehicle sales. Just a decade ago, it was barely 30%. With so many options out there — many not so surreptitiously offering the notion of greater utility — why choose the limitations inherent in a midsize sedan?

It appears more customers are asking that same question, as the midsize sedan segment has been in almost perpetual decline for at least as long as anyone in the auto business cares to remember.

Yet there are signs of life — if a 3-million-plus segment really requires resuscitation. The DRI-WEFA forecast places the segment on a marginal 0.7% uptick this year, and it may get better, thanks to automakers who refuse to throw in the towel to make only trucks and SUVs (although some argue General Motors Corp. and DaimlerChrysler AG might as well).

The segment will absorb the impact of two significant efforts for 2002: Toyota Motor Corp.'s all-new Camry and Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.'s fully remade Altima.

The Camry, of course, continues as the barometer for this segment. It's everyone's refinement target, yet in terms of styling and fun-to-drive factor, it's everyone's “We don't want to be the Camry,” lament.

For 2002, Toyota seeks to silence the lament, claiming one of the all-new Camry's development priorities was to make the car more emotional — both to see and to drive.

Competitors and customers alike will know immediately that Toyota means business with this fifth-generation Camry: it enjoys its first all-new platform in a decade, along with less-drowsy styling, a markedly superior 4-cyl. engine (now 2.4L rather than 2.2L), more silkiness for its 3L V-6 and a paranormal degree of refinement and NVH abatement. Toyota expects good things, and buyers are likely to respond by making it the U.S.'s best-selling car for the fifth consecutive year.

Nissan knows it can't match that, but with the 2002 Altima it plans to call Toyota's hand on that emotion business. By most accounts, the Altima looks better, drives better and offers more power than Camry, up, down and across the lineup. The company believes the Altima is critical in cementing the major facets of its bold new brand character and overall corporate revival.

The '02 Altima also has an all-new platform and enjoys the fitment of the segment's most powerful engines: an impudent 2.5L, 175-hp variable valve-timed DOHC I-4 and a storming 3.5L DOHC V-6 that's the largest-displacement expression to date of the company's acclaimed VQ engine family.

The Altima's interior is huge and handsome, and any of the three available trim levels is sportier than Camry or Honda Motor Co. Ltd.'s Accord, the Altima's secondary target. Accord, by the way, is due for a complete redesign next year, and the rumor mill says the new Altima's specification sent worried Honda engineers back to their CRT screens.

Watch also for the impact from a tweaked Volkswagen Passat (coming later this year with a unique W-configured 8-cyl. engine, of all things), the continuing climb of Korean entrants and even Ford's attempts to send the Taurus/Sable into battle with more content and safety features.