First, They Came For The Station Wagons…

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First they came for the station wagons… .Caprice ad

Well, what actually happened was they became uncool – and then people stopped buying them. This kind of thing happens regularly in the car business. People’s tastes – as much as their needs – change.

Minivans were the next to be yesterday’s rides.

They replaced station wagons as the familymobile of choice. Became huge moneymakers – first for Chrysler, which was first to market with them. Then for the imitators – which included pretty much everyone.

Remember?

Then – like guests who stay too long – minivans began to make people… uncomfortable. Sales declined. Major players like Ford and GM abandoned them altogether.

Guess who’s next on the Endangered Species list?caravan ad

Sedans.

The segment – which includes the long-time best-selling Toyota Camry and its close-second rival, the Honda Accord – is crashing. Accord sales were off 16 percent for the first half of 2015. This is – obviously – ominous. Well, for sedans like the Accord – because otherwise, the new car market is doing very well right now. Automotive News reported overall new car sales are up 3.4 percent – gangbusters in this gimpy economy.

But fleets of sedans – including the Camry and Accord – are gathering dust on dealership lots. And “Fall clearance” season is just a few weeks away. These not-selling 2015 model sedans will become steals-on-wheels as their past-due date gets closer.

If anyone’s interested in them, that is.

So – what happened?

Crossovers.

People really – really – like them.

And they are buying them over sedans – often, in place of a sedan. The profit margin on them is (cue Paris Hilton voice) huge. More than twice what it is on a sedan. About $3,000 vs. about $1,200. Not surprisingly, over the past five years, the various car companies have trotted out something like 20 different brand-new crossovers – while at the same time retiring about the same number of traditional sedans.

And why is this shift happening?unsold sedans

Because tall is in.

Sedans are low to the ground, have low rooflines. With so many SUVs – and now, crossovers – out there, sitting low in a sedan makes it hard to see. And it is unsettling to see a big SUV looming large in the rearview. The sedan’s low roofline (and conventional trunk) also limit what the thing can tote. A Camry’s trunk, for example, is 15.4 cubic feet – which is large (for a sedan). But check the Toyota RAV4 – a crossover that’s also mid-sized, like the Camry. It has 38.4 cubic feet of “trunk” space behind its last row of seats. That’s more than twice the volume, vs. the Camry.

But wait – there’s more.

Literally.'15 Camry trunk

Being a crossover, you can fold the RAV4’s seats flat – and when you do, total cargo capacity expands to 73.4 cubic feet. That’s nearly five times the cargo capacity vs. the Camry.

And the RAV’s higher roofline and rear liftgate (vs. the sedan’s trunk lid) make it feasible to cart large, unwieldy objects such as refrigerators home. Basically, you get the utility of an SUV – but without the liabilities (including poor gas mileage) of an SUV.

That is the subtle genius of the crossover.

It looks like an SUV. But it’s still basically a car.RAV4 trunk

This includes fuel economy – which now approaches that of an otherwise comparable (i.e., about the same size) sedan. The RAV4, for example, rates 22 city, 29 highway – vs. 25 city, 35 highway for the Camry. The Camry has an advantage, but it’s not huge. Meanwhile, the RAV’s ability carry cargo is.

Crossovers are also very much minivan-like (they are also based on cars) but – critical point – do not look like minivans. The “baby on board” stigma has wilted the vitality of minivans – which otherwise have all the ingredients that have made crossovers so successful (e.g., lots of useable interior space; “up high” driving position) but have become undesirable for image reasons.

Crossovers split the difference – and that’s why they are today’s hottest commodity.renegade pic

Even Jeep has jumped – with both feet – on the bandwagon. Their latest – and most successful – models are all crossovers. The new Renegade, for instance (reviewed here). It looks like a traditional Jeep. That is, it looks like an SUV. But it is based on a car “platform” (car industry jargon for the underlying chassis and suspension design) with a more rugged-looking body bolted onto it.

The key point being, it doesn’t look like a minivan.

And, of course, that it’s not a sedan.

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16 COMMENTS

  1. Soooo…….. Except for having AWD as an option, my favorite car, the PT Cruiser, is a kinda/sorta crossover. Ain’t it? High roof, high front seating, converts to a Sedan Delivery with the rear seats out, etc.

    • Hi John,

      Functionally, the Aztek wasn’t a bad vehicle at all. Even its looks weren’t the chief problem with it, arguably. The main problem with it was it was very cheaply made – and obviously so. Plus, Pontiac at that time was already in its death throes – and even if the Aztek had looked good and been well-made, I think it would have been a tough sell.

  2. And, this is why I drive a pickup truck. Not one of those four-door models or crew cab models. An honest-to-goodness pickup truck, ’05 Chevy 2500 with two doors AND roll-up windows. How’s that for old school? Plus, it pulls my house quite nicely.

    • I don’t have a problem w/minivans. I’ve bought 2 of them, though the wife put most of the mileage on them.
      But I have always had a thing for station wagons, dating back to the 56 Ranch Wagon my Dad got when I was 7 or 8. Came with the T-bird V8, the only car he ever owned that could get out of its own way. But he didn’t like the mileage. If I’d known then what I know now, I could have told him to keep his foot out of the 4-barrel. But that probably would have had me eating and sleeping standing up for a while.

    • “I always preferred the old station wagons”

      So did I, Bevin. In the late 60s, a hand painted station wagon, sedan delivery or even a hearse was the thing among the dropouts like me. We didn’t have to go fast, and the big interior was great for going to outdoor concerts. You could sleep (and screw) in the back of the wagon.

      • I started liking station wagons in the late 60’s and then converted to them in the 70’s although I never owned one but used some. I loved the Old with the upper window. They’d go just about anywhere and pulled nearly anything at triple digits. Hunting, fishing, moving, hauling things I won’t say, hanging out at the drive-in and hauling dogs and people. Plush amenities with a party going on. And back in the 70’s when, for some reason, the state used Fury’s and some Ford’s(he he he), just tromp on that 455 HD and leave them in the dust. Chevy’s were fine too, just not the luxury and heavy suspension of the Olds

  3. Well, CUVs do offer a quantum of utility.

    But the vast majority of them are boring as hell to drive.

    And I’d rather be seen in a minivan.

  4. I always liked the looks of the “sport wagons,” especially the Cadillac CTS wagon. Although they are a little like a mullet…

  5. However, these crossovers flip over so easily. I see many car crash compilations on youtube from different countries and I am amazed at how easily these SUVs flip and roll when involved in even minor accidents. They have no maneuverability to make sudden and violent turns that can be made in ordinary cars. Not to mention a lot of buffeting in crosswinds for the suvs. And then you need a ladder to peek into the engine bay to do maintenance. And when the seats are all the way back, there is very little usable room between the seatback and tailgate to put much in the way of luggage. Also suv drivers are far more timid and afraid of their vehicle than a sedan driver and I can see why. And no drivers with these suvs go offroad because they are so “afraid” of paved roads. What would they do on a road with no surface or boundaries or speed limits, or white or yellow lines? They would be paralyzed with fright. And the high maintenance costs are such a put-off for sane people. As cc said they will be gone in a few years when the car companies have to meet cafe limits.

    • Hi To,

      Yes, that’s true. But they are much better now than they once were. Both suspension and center of gravity wise as well as reactive safety-feature-wise (i.e., stability control). Ten years ago, it was pretty easy to get one on two wheels in a curve. It’s harder to get them there now.

      The main appeal is the versatility and cargo capacity. I can vouch for this myself, having driven pretty much all the current models – and using them to haul (for example) six 2x4x8s home, along with bags of cement. Or even sheets of drywall. Which can be done in one. Well, some. But impossible to do with a sedan – unless you carry them on the roof!

      • I had similar loads of lumber, building materials and debris in Corolla hatchbacks. Even ventured off road with such loads across the yard and around back. But whole sheets of drywall and plywood are best suited for full size trucks, Suburbans and Country Squires; that infamously overloaded jetta at home depot is why HD rents trucks.

      • eric, those things like Tahoes are a good example of what can be done with sway bars. Most of them were two wheel drive so having a rear sway bar was a great help and some had them and some didn’t, an option thing I’m sure. A friend had one without one so I ordered a big, aftermarket bar, much larger than stock. Since it was two wheel drive it was all for the good and that big bar made all the difference in that Tahoe. It drove more like a car after that. My buddy told me a couple years later it saved his life when an idiot pulled out in front of him on a two lane road with some wicked barditches(tx. hill country). He swerved into the barditch and brought it back on the road at speed. He said it would never have done that before.

        I have always wondered why every damned car out there didn’t have a big sway bar. They don’t affect the ride that I can tell but the handling is so much better. Of course it might have added $10 in cost to the factory installing it.

  6. A few years ago, before the AGW crowd made SUVs un-PC, they took up the majority of the parking lot at the biotech company where my wife worked. When she showed up with her minvan, they tended to turn up their noses. To which she would just say, “How many llamas have you had in your SUV?”

  7. Minivans, SUVs, crossovers, or whatever these modern haulers get called are still Country Squires by and and large. The difference is the upright seating position (requiring a taller body) and extra ground clearance that offers up lousy highway economy, burning 20% more than a sedan is significant when most drivers seldom haul anywhere near the capacity or “off road” as much as most people claim they do. Tall bodies diminish overall performance with increased wind resistance and higher center of gravity. When the gas price jumps up again these vehicles will languish as sedans regain popularity. History repeats.

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