TCS Daily

Year of the Car?

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - January 7, 2004 12:00 AM

American automobile manufacturers have been talking about 2004 being the "year of the car," marking a change in focus from trucks and sport utility vehicles to the sedans and coupes that were once the unchallenged backbone of the business.

Virtually every car line of the Big Three is in the throes of a makeover. General Motors has earmarked more than two thirds of its capital investment over the next three years for passenger cars. Chevrolet has introduced its new Malibu and will soon replace the noisy little Cavalier with a new small car, the Cobalt. Chevy is also putting more promotion dollars behind its big sedan, the Impala, and particularly the performance oriented Impala SS.

Buick will introduce a new midsize sedan called LaCrosse as part of an effort to put a polished high quality stamp on the whole Buick line. Pontiac has reintroduced its legendary muscle car, the GTO, but it remains to be seen whether the new edition will be able to garner any of the street cachet of the fabled earlier "goats."

Ford is pinning a lot of hopes on its new Five Hundred sedan (with bloodlines from its Japanese affiliate, Mazda) and both Ford and Daimler Chrysler's Chrysler Group are introducing a brace of new car models in an effort to compete with a formidable phalanx of Japanese and German imports. Chrysler's new Crossfire coupe, which has been showing up on dealer lots the past few weeks, is one of the more interesting new offerings.

As the popularity of SUVs and pickup trucks has increased over the past decade, there has been a dramatic drop in the sales of American-made passenger cars. Toyota's world-conquering Camry and Honda's Accord sedans have been thumping Chevy and Ford's bread-and-butter cars, the Impala and Taurus. The Wall Street Journal recently published some figures showing how passenger car sales have gone south for various American makes. Between 1990 and 2002 Lincoln car sales dropped over 50 percent and Mercury 49 percent. Chevrolet car sales dropped 45 percent, Cadillac 42 percent, and Ford 35 percent. In 1990, the Big Three sold 65 percent of new passenger cars in America. Now they sell 45 percent. Phew!

The Family Car

Whether Detroit's new offerings will catch fire with the public remains to be seen. But an even bigger question is whether an emphasis on cars can have any real effect on market share. The undeniable fact is that the SUV and its "crossover" derivatives have emerged as the dominant phenomenon in the American market. Assorted lifestyle mavens and enviro-thumbsuckers continue to rail in the media about "gigantic," "aggressive" and "gas-guzzling" SUVs, but they just don't get it. These vehicles are overwhelmingly popular with all types of American drivers for very good reasons.

The original appeal of the SUV -- its utility combined with a rugged sporty flair and go anywhere (all-wheel drive, rugged suspension) qualities -- has proven to have extraordinary staying power. But there is another overwhelming reason for the popularity of these vehicles. Along with minivans, they now incorporate and indeed have improved upon those virtues that long characterized the "family car" in America -- the roomy, reliable sedan or station wagon that once sat in millions of driveways.

Anyone over 50 certainly remembers the "pile the kids in the car and come on down" era of automotive travel, when most Americans had only one car and it was a serviceable sedan. I still savor the memories of my first long auto trip, in the summer of 1947. We traveled from Rector, Pa., about 60 miles east of Pittsburgh, all the way to New York City, in my Uncle George's Chrysler Windsor, a robin's egg blue sedan. There was no interstate highway system then and only a portion of the Pennsylvania Turnpike had been built. We traveled on Route 30, the old Lincoln Highway, my uncle, my mother, my grandmother, my twin brother, my older brother and me. We got all the luggage in the trunk and, in those pre-seat belt days, we boys moved around from place to place in the car as the trip progressed. My favorite spot was in the middle of the front seat, between my uncle at the wheel and my grandmother.

Such trips are a staple of the American mid-century experience. My friend, Bill Stablein, remembers the trip he took from McKeesport, Pa., to Seattle, Wash., when he was six years old. "It was 1952 or '53 and I rode with my grandparents and my mother in a brand new green Lincoln sedan. It had leather seats. I still remember the distinctive smell of that leather."

For lots of people, those classic car trips were considerably more crowded and less luxurious. Walter Lasch, who now owns a small used car business near Meadville, Pa., remembers the summer of 1967, when his father and mother took him, his two brothers and two sisters to Yellowstone Park in a 1966 Buick Electra 225 sedan. "We ranged in age from four to thirteen and we were pretty cramped. We must have looked like sardines. I know we smelled like sardines."

When the Lasches took their five kids on the next trip out west it was in a big 1968 Chevrolet Biscayne station wagon. "That was really great," Walt recalls, "because three of us could sit on the floor in the back with the luggage and play games there."

A Lot of People and Their Stuff

Station wagons became very popular beginning in the 1950s as large (eight- or nine-passenger) sedans disappeared, leaving expensive limousines (built by Cadillac, Chrysler and Lincoln) as the only large cars. The true eight-passenger sedan is now long forgotten. Up until 1954 Chrysler offered moderately priced eight and nine passenger sedans that were built on the limousine chassis. The DeSoto Suburban was one of the nicest. Their long wheelbase allowed for a huge amount of room in the back with "jump seats" located right behind the front seat.

But even regular wheelbase sedans had lots of backseat room in those days. In my uncle's Chrysler -- a middle of the line six-cylinder Windsor - you opened the back door, walked in and sat down on a plush couch upholstered in navy blue broadcloth. The floor was almost flat (this was before car bodies began to be lowered down over the driveshaft) and there was plenty of legroom.

When my son George took his wife and three kids for a Christmas visit to his sister, this past holiday season, he made the trip from Boynton Beach, Fla., to Lexington, Ky., in the family's Dodge minivan. Like those big eight-passenger Chrysler products of the '40s and "50s, it's not much on glamour but it sure holds a lot of people and their stuff.

Most modern sedans are essentially four passenger cars. Front bench seats are rare and the middle passenger in a rear seat really feels like the car designers don't want him or her to be there. Exceptions in the moderately priced field are Ford's big Crown Vics and Mercury Marquis, which can be considered five passenger sedans. If American automakers want to get serious about regaining overall market share they should concentrate their attention on how SUVs and minivans are winning over consumers.

SUVs and "UVs"

Until a few years ago these two categories of vehicles were distinctly separate. SUVs were useful, yes, but they had an added "sport" dimension that millions of enthusiastic drivers find appealing. Minivans were more purely utility vehicles (maybe we should have called them "UVs"). People bought them, not always with enthusiasm, but because their proven roominess and usefulness outweighed their lack of "glamour" or "excitement." For many families, a minivan was a necessity.

When Chrysler introduced the "T-115 minivan" in November 1983 it sparked a revolution. There was, it turned out, a huge pent up demand for a vehicle that offered lots of room but could be driven like a car rather than a truck or bus. Chrysler's people-haulers took over the open road and sparked a host of imitators. Minivans quickly evolved into bigger, more powerful and vastly more sophisticated vehicles. And now minivan makers are trying to break these big vehicles out of the "soccer mom" stereotype that plagues them. They are trying, and to some extent succeeding, to make minivans hip. And hip, to a great extent, means more like an SUV.

In recent years we have seen SUVs move closer to UV/minivans in their roominess and overall utility (more cabin space, imaginative seating arrangements, more drink holders, cargo nets etc.) And now we are seeing minivans move closer to SUVs, not only with options like four-wheel or all-wheel drive, but also with a little more of the excitement factor -- plusher, more interesting interiors, much better styling.

Two recent cases in point are the sleek Nissan Quest, one of the first minivans to have a real head-turning quotient, and the new Toyota Sienna. Toyota really went to school on the Sienna. It may not have the edgy look of the Quest (Nissan's "Coke bottling" of the side panels is brilliant) but it has everything else. It's powerful, quiet, smooth, roomy, sophisticated inside and out (you can't even see the sliding door track on the side). The Sienna has knocked Honda's Odyssey off its perch as the quality minivan, but a new Odyssey is on the way in 2004.

Ford has already responded with its new Freestar, which, I think, still looks too much like a minivan. Chrysler plans new iterations of its standard-setting vans early in the coming year and General Motors will be introducing four new "sport" vans next fall. If you were to take a picture of one of the big Chrysler sedans of the late '40s or, say, a 1938 Buick eight-passenger sedan in profile, then place the profile of a new Sienna, or a Chrysler Town & Country, or a Ford Expedition over it, you would see that in both SUVs and minivans form has followed function. Americans still want and need those big capacious vehicles of the past.


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