[Quick disclaimer: it has been a while since the last post but school is a harsh mistress! Before resuming our usual programming with coverage of the release of the all-new MKX, new rumours on incoming models and news on the Black Label program among other things, here are some musings of mine on recent trends.]
Back in the day, from the 1950s on really, the four door sedan reigned supreme in the automotive world : station wagons were in a class of their own, and hatchbacks had not yet taken the lower end of the market by storm. More than that, the classic Detroit sedan knew a multitude of shapes and sizes, from pillared to hardtop bodystyles, from relatively utilitarian family cars in manufacturers’ standard lines to ultra luxurious land yachts. Even after sometimes painful episodes of downsizing, the sedan kept its dignity – indeed, the Lincoln Continental and its Town Car derivatives are arguably one of the most recognizable classic shapes ever in the US auto industry.
1970 Lincoln Continental, as full-size of a sedan as you could get back then.
During the eighties, as fuel economy concerns became more and more pressing, hatchbacks became the « in » thing and represented modernity, practicality and youthfulness. Every manufacturer tried to come up with one, including Lincoln-Mercury which fielded the Bobcat and then the Lynx… with moderate success among its traditional demographic. In movies and TV shows, young professionals and up-and-coming modern couples were more and more frequently zipping around in Civics and other imported hatchbacks, while their businessmen fathers’ sedans were often 1980+ Town Cars, which symbolized the « Old order ». When you think about it, we still look chuckingly at Chrysler Corp’s efforts to wrap a formal four-door profile on its diminutive K-car platform to try and reconcile both worlds.
1980 Lincoln Continental. Downsizing gave the traditional luxury sedan a new lease on life.
But as times to a turn for the better, all the way during the 1990s and early 2000s, the traditional four-door body style seemed to make a come-back as the perfect economical choice for American families : it was roomy, affordable, stately enough and adequately conveyed the status level of middle-class families able to purchase a brand new car. The Ford Taurus and Toyota Camry were the best-selling vehicles in North America, General Motors was shipping W-bodies by the boatload, and cars who enjoyed a worldwide release sprouted a trunk for the North American market (we are looking at you, Ford Focus, who achieved tremendous success as a hatchback in Europe and was arguably not initially designed as a sedan). This wave also reached the luxury market : while General Motors revived a fully full-sized model at Chevrolet, Buick and Cadillac, and as Lexus introduced itself to the world with a four-door sedan, Lincoln came up with the 1990-1997 Town Car, one of its best ever.
1991 Lincoln Town Car. Full-size was in again, but this turned out to be a most appreciated swan song.
And then another shift happened, the one we are still very much familiar with : the so-called « SUV craze » of the late 1990s. History works in cycles, and the surge of youthfulness, individualism and change that took place in the snazzy 1980s surely just came back, carried by the anticipation of a new millenium. Except this time, instead of going for diminutive hatchbacks that were probably still associated with necessity rather than envy, prospects gradually turned to sport utility vehicles. While these were at first bona fide off-roaders, sometimes even lacking all creature comforts, vehicles like the Ford Explorer were smoothed out to be at ease on paved roads as well. Every manufacturer once again came up with their own soft-roader, tapping into the market of people looking for freedom, practicality, personality. It was dad’s hunting rig. It was the week-end’s grocery getter. It was mom’s people mover. They may have not replaced ultra economical cars for the thrifty-minded, but it did become the car people wanted to upgrade to. Then came leather interiors, two-tone paints, alloy wheels and electronic wizardry, and the SUV craze reached a new generation of luxury buyers who were not so interested in traditional American luxury and who were not quite ready to splurge on a German import. There it was, the revolution : the 1998 Lincoln Navigator, soon followed by his younger brother Aviator. Then came the others.
1998 Lincoln Navigator. From full-size sedan to full-size SUV, luxury for a new affluent generation.
Interestingly enough, the introduction of the Lincoln Navigator marked a paradigm shift for the brand and the segment at large : it was as stately as the outgoing Town Car and its nameplate became as important as the Continental’s, while these two sedans headed for retirement. The Navigator, and by association the Aviator, quickly became symbols of success like the four-door sedans were in their day. They took their place in popular culture, music and movies, and even took over the identity of the brand. The recipe was so well crafted that they survived several tries at a « conquest » sedan (2000 LS and 2005 Zephyr) and while the Aviator found a new life as the MKX, the Navigator is the only nameplate to have survived the change in naming convention operated in 2006.
2011 Lincoln MKX, or how downsizing did not spare luxury SUVs any more than it did sedans.
Today, SUVs are well established in our urban landscape. They come in all sizes, all prices, and range from essentially elevated cars all the way to capable off-roaders. They are sure best-sellers, too. True, the term « SUV » got a somewhat bad reputation after such unfortunate episodes as the Hummer brand, but requalification as a « crossover » is all it takes to get around it. Actually, the word « crossover » probably means more to manufacturers on an engineering standpoint than it does to customers : while it means that the SUV/CUV rides on a platform originally developped for a conventional car, buyers would probably have a hard time telling the difference given how the engineering of both types of platform serves the same purpose. This new buzzword also has another advantage for manufacturers : it allows them to easily double their line-up by developping one product and releasing it as both a car and an SUV. You had a Chevrolet Sonic, now you have the Trax or even Buick Encore. You had a Subaru Impreza, now you have an XV Crosstrek. You had a Mercedes-Benz CLA, now you have a GLA.
2015 Buick Encore. A compact, luxury crossover from Buick… who would have thought?
So, once again, people may still be buying four-door sedans for their roominess and the comfort of going for a recipe that is now familiar and very much refined, but they probably aspire to upgrade to SUVs and CUVs more than they do to a higher-grade four-door sedan. In the luxury market, this is true as well : our article on the new Lincoln MKC’s competition touched on that, and some companies use an SUV to replace altogether their top-of-the-line product (like Buick which canceled the Lucerne and stuck with the Enclave) or to develop a full line of SUVs almost parallel to their cars in terms of reputation and product hierarchy (see Infiniti or Mercedes-Benz). That brought commentators to predict the end of the four-door sedan and go as far as predict the end of traditional luxury manufacturers such as Cadillac or Lincoln, saying their image was too associated with the four-door shape and what it represented back then.
So, what does the future hold? Will the SUV remain king or will it fall out of favour? Can a luxury brand succeed without a full-line of soft-roaders? We will cover that in the second part of this blog.