You can sense the panic in the air. Full size sedan sales have dropped 18 percent this year, and currently capture just 2.3 percent of the entire market. The LA Times says the sedan is “head[ing] toward irrelevance.”
The story quoted an analyst that wagers sedans are on the way out. “Like many other analysts, she predicts that automakers will continue to trim back sedan production, which could well affect overall auto industry employment.”
Forgive us for our lack of concern. We’ve just heard it all before, in almost every vehicle segment ever created.
Prognosticators, industry analysts, product planners and marketing executives will all suggest that entire swaths of the automotive landscape are as barren as Death Valley when they decide to kill off a model. Then, two years later, when another manufacturer figures out how to sell a better one, they leap back in with renewed vigor.
Over the last thirty years, the following vehicle segments have been declared dead:
“The Honda Accord Coupe is dead,” reads the headline in a CNET story from June of 2017, “and a whole segment goes with it.” Now, where have I read that before? Ah, yes, in 2002, when Chevrolet killed off the Camaro.
“GM blamed the demise of the Camaro and Firebird on a 53 percent decline in the sports car market since 1990,” reads a story in the Arizona Free Republic from 2001. “Even the muscle cars were not strong enough to beat back the growth in popularity of” — our favorite automotive bogeyman — “sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks.”
GM is full of smart, capable people with MBAs from quality universities. Their collective wisdom brought us a replacement for the Camaro. “The new Chevrolet SSR, available next year, is expected to attract some Camaro and Firebird buyers,” according to the writer. “The vehicle is a cross between a roadster and the now extinct cult favorite El Camino.”
If there was every a vehicle segment that was truly dead, it was the cross between a roadster and an El Camino.
“Ford has conducted research that shows that the majority of Ranger buyers don’t purchase the vehicle because it’s a pickup,” said Derrick Kuzak, Ford’s Vice President of Global Product Development, in an interview with Autoblog in 2011, when Ford decided that the Ranger — a vehicle that had essentially been unimproved from 1993 to 2012 — was no longer capable of finding an audience.
“Instead, they come into the showroom looking for the least expensive, most economical Ford available, said Kuzak, suggesting that shoppers could find the cheap transportation they were looking for in Ford showrooms in the form of the Ford Fiesta and the Ford Transit Connect.
What happened instead was that customers abandoned Ford, and bought the least expensive, most economical pickup that they could find at a Nissan dealer instead. In 2010, when Ranger sales were still humming along, Nissan struggled to sell 4,000 Frontiers a month. In 2016, when the Ranger had been gone for four years and Chevy/GMC were just getting back into the market, Nissan was easily selling an average of 7,200 trucks a month.
The Frontier got lousy reviews from the media, mostly because the truck hadn’t been revised at all since 2004. Nissan still has no plans to update the truck to reflect the changes that it made for the global version of the truck in 2015, yet it still continues to bring customers into Nissan showrooms at a steady pace, because it offers them a truck in a size, and with a price that meets their needs.
Suddenly, Ford wants back in, and the compact pickup segment isn’t quite so dead anymore. It signaled a new Ranger was on the horizon at the 2017 North American International Auto Show. Chevrolet and GMC introduced all-new Colorado and Canyon models in 2015, and the Toyota Tacoma got a significant update in 2016.
Predicting the demise of the convertible has been a cottage industry since 1976. In the face of proposed NHTSA rules that would require stringent roof crush standards, American manufacturers collectively abandoned the drop-top. Cadillac went as far as convincing its customers that the 1976 Eldorado was “the last of a magnificent breed,” and sold them as collector’s editions at a massive premium.
Sadly for Cadillac, and happily for the convertible-buying public, the convertible’s demise was greatly exaggerated and by 1979, when those NHTSA standards were never finalized, Chrysler was cashing in on its downsized LeBaron ragtop. Ford quickly followed with a Mustang convertible in 1983.
Over the years since, convertibles have been pronounced dead only to miraculously recover time and time again. The Mazda Miata’s introduction for the 1990 model year sparked sudden interest in building roadsters again, with Toyota, BMW and Mercedes-Benz quickly following suit.
It’s true that once again, we’re in a fallow period for convertibles, with only about 30 convertibles left for less than $85,000 MSRP. But all it takes is one hot model and a demographic change to get people interested again.
Everybody — even our pals at Car Talk — has pronounced the station wagon dead at one point or another. True, the fake-wood-sided, full-size station wagon has been gone from America’s highways since GM ceased production of the B-Body Buick Roadmaster in 1996. But if you think the station wagon has gone away, you haven’t been paying attention.
Whatever Subaru wants to call it, the Outback is a station wagon, and it always has been. It’s a set of tires and some body cladding away from being exactly the same car as the Legacy wagon. When the Outback was introduced as a trim level in the Legacy line in 1994, it was a hedge against the increasing popularity of cars like the Honda CR-V and the Toyota RAV4, both of which carved out a niche that seems to keep growing every passing year.
Wagons from Audi, VW, Volvo and Mercedes-Benz have remained popular since the 1990s, and for 2018, the old wagonmaster itself — Buick — is set to introduce the Regal TourX, a station wagon variant of its midsize sedan.
Those who claim to like the utility of a crossover will appreciate the Regal TourX’s 73.5 cubic feet of space behind the second row of seats, which puts it in the league of the ginormous Subaru Forester, while retaining the driving dynamics of a sporty sedan.
Fortune claimed the minivan was dead in 2013. Time magazine agreed in 2012. The Wall Street Journal predicted the same in 2007. The only problem was that manufacturers kept building them, and people with more than a couple of kids who had no interest in full-size SUVs kept buying them.
Four years after Fortune said it was all over but the shouting, not only does Chrysler have an all-new, well-regarded Pacifica minivan, it’s going to continue producing the Dodge Caravan, the crusty old minivan of the Mesozoic era, at least through 2017 because you people can’t stop buying them.
Here’s the thing about minvians: Nobody really wants one, but when you have kids and all the stuff they accumulate, you kind of need one. There are a finite number of minivan buyers every year. Look at Toyota Sienna sales since the early 2000s, compiled by the great folks at Good Car Bad Car:
The pattern for the Honda Odyssey is almost exactly the same: Good sales in the early 2000s, a dip during the Economic Downturn, a return to good sales following, though not quite to pre-Recession levels. Of course, since the downturn, Kia’s entered the market with a strong contender, but the fact is we’re not making more people with the need and the means to purchase a brand new minivan.
What’s the future for sedans? We’re not going out on a limb to make any wild prediction, but we do know this: the most vulnerable sedans are full-size, American sedans. Neither of those models — like the Ford Taurus and the Chevrolet Impala — are the same vehicles they were when they launched.
The Impala started life as a full-size rear-drive car in 1958, but its modern iteration arrived in 2000 as the midsize replacement for the Lumina. The current version is significantly larger than that car, making it full-size and significantly more luxurious and expensive.
Over at Ford, the Taurus experienced the same kind of upsizing. When the Taurus launched in 1986, it was as an affordable midsize. In later years, it competed head to head with the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord as the number one sales leater.
Park next to a modern Taurus, though, and you realize just how enormous it is. Driving one, you’ll make no mistake that it’s a full-size car. As its size increased, its price tag bloated, and its sales plummeted. It never recovered after the beating it took during the Recession.
Meanwhile, over at Dodge, the Charger sells just under 100,000 units every year, respectably and consistently, year after year, despite being on an aging platform and the only rear-drive sedan available in the mainstream, midsize market.
Maybe it’s not sedans that are in danger of disappearing; maybe ginormous cars with price tags to match are truly out of fashion in the modern world.