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Crossovers replacing sedans: Back to the past

by David Zatz on

Sergio Marchionne’s comment that the Dodge Dart and Chrysler 200 would be allowed to “run their course” and then be replaced by cars from a “potential partner” caused a range of emotional reactions.

This is not the first time for such thoughts. In the late 1980s, GM, Ford, and Chrysler all lost money on each compact car. Chrysler changed that with the Neon and Cirrus/Stratus, which made hefty profits even while GM and Ford kept losing money.  This time, though, insiders claim the company does not have the facilities nor the experienced engineers to make it happen; and even Ford now wants a partner for its sedans.

The earliest mass-produced cars included sedans, but many were the equivalent, in size and shape, of today’s crossovers — the area where Sergio Marchionne wants FCA to focus, at least in North America.  Long, low, and sleek appeared as “the look to have” a few years after World War II, for 20-30 years; then the hatchback came into style.

Chrysler sparked a resurgence in the large sedan market in the early 1990s, then helped to rejuvenate midsize and small cars. The moribund large sedan market revived, and sedans in general gained a new lease on life.

Still, the popularity of the low sedan is recent and may be at an end. Ordinary sedans have been getting taller, with the 300 just two inches from the Nissan Juke and six from the Compass and 500L. The 1946 Plymouth was taller than any of them — and the Jeep Cherokee: 68 inches. 

So why do many of us, including me, prefer sedans? Is it because they are lower to the ground and handle better? I don’t think so, given how most people drive, and the competent handling of most new crossovers (not to mention the popularity of BMW and Porsche’s crossovers).

Even gas mileage is not really penalized much now, with their larger frontal area countered by aerodynamic design, valve timing, and wide-range transmissions. They also have more space for the large batteries and other gear needed for light and full hybrid systems.

I have had numerous sedans in my life, no SUVs, and just two minivans; my only crossover was a PT Cruiser GT.  Still, I can see the attraction of the crossover, especially now that everyone has minivans, SUVs, pickups, and crossovers, which makes visibility rather hard from a low-slung car.

Jim Morrison and Jeep Cherokees

I think the sedan will become more and more specialized over time. Two-door cars (including sedans) used to be extremely common, but they rapidly declined from the 1970s on, and now FCA US only makes the Dodge Challenger, Dodge Viper, Jeep Wrangler, Rams, and Fiat 500 in that form; and even in pickups and Wranglers, the two-door form is less and less popular.

I don’t think this presages the death of Chrysler or Dodge. The 200 and Dart (and Fiat 500) need high incentives to sell. Is replacing them worth delaying rear wheel drive cars for Dodge or large cars and crossovers for Chrysler and Dodge? Mr. Marchionne has a finite number of engineers at hand, and only so many factories. Paying off $5 billion in debt will earn the company more cash than building a new plant.

(I am very, very disappointed that Mr. Marchionne’s pledge that Chrysler would “lead” the engineering of future compact and midsize and large cars has been completely ignored and reneged upon.)

citrus-dart

Limited resources, limited time, and a class of car that appears to be disappearing, selling only with large incentives … I can’t say I’d have been able to do anything different.

Or… it’s another trial balloon or an attempt to mis-lead competitors. We are talking about Sergio Marchionne, after all; and his announcements tend not to be set in stone.

Update: When buyers choose sedans, they almost invariably choose imports. Of the top ten 2015 best sellers in the US, there were no American sedans — Camry, Corolla, Accord, Civic and Altima accompanied two imported crossovers (CR-V and RAV4) and the three American pickups. The best selling cars (Camry and Corolla) combined barely outsold Ford’s pickups.  In Europe, Fiat’s Panda has grown to challenge its best-seller, the 500; while the 500X, in its first year, nearly matched the declining Punto (both were beaten by the 500L). Fiat’s sales in Europe, 500 aside, are heavily biased in favor of crossovers, vans, and utilities. The same is not true for everyone — over half of Ford’s sales are the Fiesta and Focus. 

David Zatz founded Allpar in 1998 (based on a site he had begun in 1993-94), after years of writing reviews for retail trades. He has been quoted by the New York Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Detroit News, and USA Today. Before making Allpar a full-time career, he was a consultant in organizational psychology. You can reach him by using our contact form (much preferred) or by calling (313) 766-2304


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