Is the Sedan a Dying Breed?

Wander the floor of the North American International Auto Show and you might get the sense something is missing – and for good reason. Amidst all the new SUVs, crossovers and pickups crowding the floor at Cobo Center you’ll have to look hard to find any sedans, coupes or sports cars.

True, there are a handful, like the new Toyota Avalon and Audi A7. And Infiniti is showing off the Q Inspiration, a concept version of what a new flagship sedan might look like. But they’re few and far between. And that’s no surprise considering what’s happening in the marketplace.

Light trucks in general captured nearly two-thirds of all new vehicle sales in the U.S. last year, and “utes” alone generated half of all sales, noted Karl Brauer, the executive editor of KelleyBlueBook, adding that, “The real story in 2017 was the near wholesale death of the car.”

Nowhere is that more apparent than at the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles display. Gone are models like the Dodge Dart and Chrysler 200. In fact, FCA doesn’t build a single passenger car model in the U.S anymore, converting the Dart and 200 plants to build more of the Ram pickups and Jeep SUVs that are buoying the automaker’s bottom line.

“We made the right call three years ago by trying to disentangle ourselves from the passenger car market,” said FCA Chief Executive Officer Sergio Marchionne, during a media roundtable at the NAIAS.

FCA hasn’t walked away entirely from the passenger car segment. It still builds a handful of models in Canada like the Dodge Challenger and Dart muscle cars. But they target a small but loyal niche of buyers willing to pay hefty premiums for products like the 840 horsepower Challenger SRT Demon.

Visit Ford’s stand and you’ll find the new Mustang Bullitt, its tribute to the legendary Steve McQueen adventure featuring one of the most iconic chase scenes in movie history. But Ford has also advised suppliers it likely won’t go through with the planned makeover of the midsize Fusion sedan in 2020. And it is moving the smaller Focus model out of its Wayne assembly plant, consolidating production into a Chinese factory. That will free up space for it to produce the reborn Bronco SUV and the new Ranger pickup that is also making its debut at the NAIAS.

CEO Jim Hackett gave a clear indication of his company’s new strategy during a speech Tuesday night, revealing Ford will “shift toward a lower volume passenger car lineup in North America and Europe.” That translates into a 10 percent cut in Ford’s passenger car portfolio, while it will increase its light truck line-up an equal amount, Hackett explained.

Tellingly, after Ford announced plans to launch an all-electric supercar during an NAIAS preview, several senior officials confided in Detroitisit that the new model will use a ute-like design, rather than opting for a Mustang-like coupe body.

For its part, General Motors is expected to make similar cuts. It reportedly may drop as many as six current sedan models, including both the Chevrolet Impala and Cadillac’s slow-selling flagship, the CT6. Like Ford, GM is expected to opt for more ute-like designs when it rolls out two new battery-electric vehicles, or BEVs, of its own by mid-2019.

Audi’s first long-range BEV will be a crossover-utility vehicle about the same size as its current Q5 ute, and Jaguar’s own all-electric e-Pace, due to market in mid-2018, will be a crossover as well.

While Infiniti may be considering ways to put the Q Inspiration sedan into production, rival Lexus opted for a crossover design for its own luxury concept model, the LF-1 Limitless. It’s likely to go into production around the 2020 model-year, DII has learned, and will effectively supplant the new LS sedan that has rapidly lost sales momentum over the last couple years.

In fact, pretty much all luxury brands now expect to rely on CUVs as their flagships, supplementing and even replacing such familiar nameplates as the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, Audi A8 and BMW 7-Series. The Bavarian maker showed off its X7 concept at the L.A. Auto Show last November and will have it in showrooms later this year.

Sedans and coupes aren’t vanishing entirely. Ford’s Hackett said he had “tears in my eyes” when the new, high-performance Mustang Bullitt was introduced at a splashy auto show preview. But while his eyes might be wet, money to build sedans and coupes is rapidly drying up, and only the strongest models are likely to survive.

Some skeptics question whether the surge in SUV and truck sales might come to a screeching halt if gas prices shoot up again. But most planners and analysts downplay that possibility, noting the big improvements manufacturers have made in light truck fuel economy. The new F-150 Diesel model Ford debuted in Detroit can hit 30 mpg. Audi is set to launch a new all-electric SUV with over 200 miles range.

As Mark Twain might have said were he writing about today’s auto industry, reports of the death of the passenger car have been greatly exaggerated. But sedans and coupes are set to become the exception, rather than the rule in the years ahead.

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