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Are crossovers the norm, and cars the oddity?

by David Zatz on

Increasingly, crossovers are dominating sales of all brands, from the traditional compact/midsize car makers at Toyota and Honda to the high-end companies known for their low-slung performance coupes, such as Jaguar and Porsche.

Could it be that we’re just going “back to the future?”

Walter P Chrysler & First Car

The first mass-produced cars ran off the Oldsmobile assembly line over a century ago, and for many years, most cars were tall and boxy — more along the lines of a Jeep Patriot than a Dodge Dart. The first Chrysler, issued in 1924, is a tall, upright car which looks more like a hatchback or SUV than a sleek sedan.

Even going into World War II, cars were high off the ground, and the trunk was usually barely visible. No, the 1946 Plymouth shown below (whose body is similar to pre-war models) is not a modern crossover or wagon, but it’s also not quite today’s sedan or coupe.

A few years after World War II, cars started to get “lower and longer,” emphasizing their length with long, low trunks. Wagons and utilities of some sort were produced in small numbers through the decades, but they weren’t top sellers, whether sold by Willys, Dodge, or Chevrolet.

Chrysler didn’t really get the memo until 1953, when they started making cars that looked like, well, cars. From there, they kept getting longer and lower, until the fuel crises of the 1970s shocked Americans into thinking about alternatives.

SIMCA had, some time ago, created a revolutionary small front wheel drive hatchback; and   Volkswagen’s copy of it made it to American shores in a big way, providing the template of small cars for years to come, including the Plymouth Horizon and Dodge Omni (which were based on the original SIMCA, and were not copies of the “Rabbit”).  These cars maximized storage space with a surprisingly large cargo area, easily accessible under moving rear glass — for more useful in many cases than the “compact” trunks of the Valiant and Dart.

While many Americans returned to “regular cars,” traditional SUVs started to gain ground rapidly, with manufacturers finding that the more money they put into the interior, the higher sales went. The first of the modern SUVs was likely the Jeep Cherokee, with its unibody construction; it could run with CJs on rough, broken ground or hard trails, but most buyers just liked the interior space, cargo space, and flexibility. At the same time, the Plymouth Reliant-based Chrysler minivans came out — Plymouth Voyager and Dodge Caravan — a bit awkward with their three-speed automatics (sticks were optional) and underpowered engines, but still highly flexible and big sellers.

Today, buyers are slowly emigrating from Corollas to CR-Vs, Civics to RAV4s, 200s to Cherokees.  Every year, sales of SUVs and crossovers gain over traditional passenger cars. Perhaps it’s a return to the way cars used to be — with a high seating position and a tall cargo area, without a visible trunk sticking out of the back.

As more people move to pickups and crossovers and SUVs and minivans, it gets harder for traditional sedan buyers to see around the deep-tinted windows of the other vehicles, accelerating the trend. No wonder that the Maserati Levante is here, to meet its Porsche and Jaguar mates, or that Alfa Romeo’s second new vehicle (not counting the 4C) is a crossover.

maserati-levante

Is this a long-term trend? Are we moving back to the days when everyone sat upright in their tall cars? Sedans and coupes are inevitably going to continue, likely in ever smaller numbers, until fashions change again. Would you gamble on large sedans continuing to sell well enough to invest in a completely new generation (or two), if you were Sergio Marchionne? Would you spend much of your time trying to get an American version of the Mexican Dodge Dart (Fiat Tipo) or a contract developer-manufacturer for the Chrysler 200?  Would you even let Dodge make their own version of the Giulia, or make the smallest possible changes and build one in Italy?

I’d have to make those decisions, because Dodge is a strong brand right now — on the basis of its Charger and Challenger. Can you count on those to stay strong? Is the move to the wagon form permanent or a temporary fashion — and where does the trend end?

Let me know what you would do, and whether you think this is all nonsense or if we have indeed returned to the past tastes — interpreted in a modern way. Disqus awaits, below.

The writer owns three traditional passenger sedans… one with vestigial fins.

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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