Sedans that are poorly executed are dead

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We’re going on five years of proclamations regarding the demise of the frumpy family four-door sedan—flattened by the sport-utility vehicle.

And although SUVs have indeed become the popular transport of choice, let’s not chime the death knell for the three-box car just yet. Don’t miss our comprehensive 2019 New Car Ultimate Buyer’s Guide (SUVs and trucks come next month) if you’re still interested in those old-school rides.

Sure, there are plenty of signs of sedans losing their sting. Crossovers and SUVs are now outselling sedans handily. A long-in-the-tooth RAV4 supplanted the Camry’s 15-year run as Toyota’s (and America’s) best-selling vehicle that’s not a truck. Just behind it came the Rogue crossover, which outsold Nissan’s traditional stalwarts Altima and Sentra. And the Honda CR-V beat the Accord and Civic—the long-standing one-two punch becoming a left-right-left to the jaw of the competition.

These sorts of trend lines have Ford running for the passenger car exits, leaving only the Mustang as its remaining traditional car. As for legendary nameplates like Taurus, Fusion, and Fiesta, yep, they’re going away.

But was it a wise move for Ford or a merely reactionary one? Consider that Civic, Accord, Camry, Corolla, and Altima each still sell hundreds of thousands of units every year. GM and even little Mazda are standing firm with their sedan development cycles. Eight of the top 20 best-selling vehicles in America remain sedans—the same representation percentage as crossovers and SUVs (the remainder are full-size trucks). And although sedan sales have declined as a percentage of total light vehicle sales, data giant IHS Markit predicts a flattening of the decline—meaning those players that remain in the market can still make hay from sedans.

People trace the trend to FCA boss Sergio Marchionne, who killed the Chrysler 200 and Dodge Dart to free up more capacity for crossovers. But it had less to do with a lack of demand for sedans in general than shoppers discovering the FCA products to be poor imitations of the segment leaders. I would be curious to know how many Chrysler 200 shoppers bought a Jeep Cherokee or instead migrated to a Nissan Altima or Toyota Camry.

Hence the corollary: It’s not that sedans are dead. Sedans that are poorly executed are dead.

Still, the numbers don’t lie. Are we seeing a genuine psychographic shift or just a temporary anomaly? Family sedans are currently seen as dowdy dad cars, while SUVs give marketers a chance to position buyers as adventurers and survivalists (from the original Nissan Xterra “Fly Away” and “Voodoo Child” ads to the current VW Tiguan “Meteor” spot). But let’s be clear: The modern, car-based SUV is merely a butch minivan. It has more to do with calming fears than emboldening drivers. One of the top likes for SUV buyers is the high hip-point, which addresses the ability to see over other vehicles in our traffic-choked cities. But when everyone is up high, then what? Also, high seating addresses our aging society, wherein Baby Boomers are no longer graceful sliding into a low-slung sedan—flopping sideways onto the E-Z chair of a high-seated Highlander is a much easier task (while still not requiring the capitulation of a minivan).

Last year, a long-in-the-tooth RAV4 (a 2017 model is pictured) supplanted the Camry’s 15-year run as Toyota’s (and America’s) best-selling vehicle that’s not a truck.

Although SUV fuel economy has improved, their added weight and lumpier coefficients of drag means SUV efficiency will always trail that of a like-minded sedan. And cheap gas is a transitory thing—it had surpassed $4 a gallon in L.A. well before the traditional Memorial Day spike. If gas prices continue to rise (and they will), expect people to once again embrace Priuses and Accords.

Lastly, there’s the idea that SUVs could become too popular, that the love for these Hannibalesque haulers will follow the bell curve of station wagons and minivans. We may see an SUV softening, as buyers flock from no-longer-trendy crossovers to the next big thing. Hatchbacks, perhaps? Meanwhile, the sedan—logical, practical, efficient, nimble—will remain, always ready to welcome us back into the fold.

More by Mark Rechtin:

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