Last chance saloon? Iconic US sedans overtaken by SUVs
Once the subject of many a pop song, the sedan is falling out of fashion to more practical rivals
Whisper it quietly, but the traditional saloon car is dying a slow death in the US.
The monsters that were half a block long are long gone and now many of the more modest sedans — as they are called in the US — are said to be on death row.
Question marks have been raised over the long-term future of the Chevrolet Impala and Ford Taurus. Many experts believe they will follow the Chrysler 200 and Dodge Dart into the motoring history books.
It is as if the US is turning the page on its motoring past, rejecting cars that have been serenaded for decades in popular culture. Countless songs have been written about what are now considered “classic cars” — from Prince’s Little Red Corvette to Chuck Berry’s Maybellene, an ode not only to the V8 Ford but also to the Cadillac Coupe de Ville carrying his cheating girlfriend.The figures tell a stark story. Sales of conventional saloon cars, which accounted for 35.6% of the market in 2007, have dropped to 27.7%, according to the latest figures covering the first 11 months of 2017. Mainstream mid-size models, such as the Toyota Camry and the Honda Accord, have seen market share fall from 16.8% of sales in 2012 to 10.7% last year. Compacts — such as the Honda Civic and the Toyota Corolla — have seen their slice of the market drop from 16% to 12.9% in the same period.
During the heyday of the US sedan, cars were seen as things of beauty, boasting massive fins and spectacular designs. Much of the marketing was aspirational, appealing to buyers’ desire for status.
Now, cars are largely sold on their practicality and safety, even though there is the odd screeching tyre commercial for the enthusiastic petrol head. It is this that has fuelled the inexorable rise of the SUV — or sports utility vehicle — and the “crossover”.Technically, an SUV is a car such as the Chevrolet Tahoe or the GMC Yukon, where the body is bolted to a stronger frame. Models such as the Ford Escape and the Jeep Cherokee, where the body and frame are built as one unit, are regarded as crossovers. There are 78 different crossovers on the market in the US, and Bank of America Merrill Lynch predicts this will rise to more than 110 by 2021.
In reality, for consumers at least, the distinction between SUVs and crossovers is fairly blurred. They now account for 42.2% of sales, compared with 28% a decade ago.
“There has been a snowball effect. There used to be more sedan offerings, but that is now changing,” says Tom Libby, an automotive analyst with IHS Markit. “Manufacturers are offering a very wide range of crossovers, from sub-compact to full-sized SUVs. They offer something to the consumer that ordinary sedans don’t, such as the higher driving position, the ability to tow and to go off-road.”Even prestige manufacturers such as Audi, BMW, Mercedes and Volvo are seeing a fall in sedan sales, which took 5.1% of the US market five years ago. In the first 11 months of last year, the slice had shrunk to 3.7%.
Porsche entered the SUV market in 2003 with the Cayenne. By last year, utility vehicles accounted for 63% of the company’s sales in the US.
The market is getting crowded and Bank of America Merrill Lynch believes there could be a glut, which would be good news for motorists as prices fall, but not for manufacturers’ profitability.
John Quelch, the dean of the Miami Business School, believes the trend reflects changes in US society.
“The sedan’s interior design reflects the structure of the traditional American family — two married parents plus two children — an ideal that now accounts for barely 5% of US households,” he says.
“The SUV offers the illusion of height-advantaged superiority and family-friendly versatility.”
Initially, the rise of the SUV and the crossover came at the expense of the small van, whose sales have slumped.
At the turn of the millennium, vans accounted for 8% of the market, but now their share has halved as “soccer moms” opt for more comfortable, larger SUVs and crossovers.
But a variety of factors have fuelled their appeal, says Jeff Schuster, an analyst with LMC.
“They don’t have the image that you have just given up and resigned yourself to being a family person. The styling has been aggressive and they appeal to all age groups at different stages of their lives. They are seen as rugged, which helps their appeal.”Cadillac is just one of the manufacturers having a careful look at its strategy as customers demand changes. “We are adjusting our portfolio,” explains a Cadillac spokesman.
It will cut the number of sedans from four to three. “We are realigning our range to meet the change in consumer demand.”
The decision to kill off the Dodge Dart and the Chrysler 200 was taken by Sergio Marchionne, Fiat Chrysler’s chief executive. “The Chrysler 200 and the Dodge Dart, great products as they were, were the least financially rewarding enterprises we’ve carried out in the last eight years,” he said as he explained the move.
Plants that had been churning out the axed models were converted to produce more Jeeps and pickup trucks. This makes sound sense. Demand for pickup trucks has also risen spectacularly. According to statistics compiled by LMC Automotive, Americans bought 244,800 mid-size pickups in 2013. Last year, sales surged to 253,800.
“The pickup was a basic work vehicle,” says Matt DeLorenzo, the managing editor of Kelley Blue Book.
“Now it is becoming a family vehicle with extra load-carrying ability, especially the four-door version. There are now also high-end luxury pickups costing around $70,000. They are becoming vehicles that are acceptable for work, the family and the country club.”Their popularity has been helped by stable fuel prices and greater engine efficiency, which have slashed running costs.
Kristin Dziczek, of the Michigan-based Centre for Automotive Research, says the station wagon — or estate car — has been another victim of the rise of utility vehicles. “It lost the market appeal, had some of the same uncoolness factors that minivans faced, she says. “Then there was the rise in fuel prices, which pushed people into sedans.
“Utility vehicles were seen as cooler. Nobody wanted to spend $30,000 on a car that was seen as being frumpy. If it was a minivan you were seen as a soccer mum. Station wagons just went away, very few are being built anymore.”
Another key factor in the rise of utility vehicles and trucks has been their affordability, according to Nathan Shipley, an automotive analyst at the NPD consultancy.
“When fuel prices were high, people were moving away from gas guzzlers. But now they are stable they are moving back into larger cars.
“Interest rates have been low which makes them affordable. Manufacturers have seen this change in the marketplace and have ramped up production. But if fuel prices go up again, they will be very worried.”
— © The Sunday Telegraph