With crossovers so popular, will the sedan go the way of the station wagon, marginalized into a niche appreciated by some but bought by few?
Not quite, but there’s no questioning that crossovers are here to stay.
In December and January, the CR-V was Honda’s best-selling model, and the RAV4 was Toyota’s; Toyota expects the RAV4 to be its most popular vehicle in 2017.
The Rogue compact crossover outsold the Altima midsize sedan for the first time last year, to become Nissan’s best-selling model.
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At Porsche, best known for sports cars, nearly two-thirds of its U.S. sales last year were crossovers.
GM announced at the end of 2016 that it will eliminate shifts at three U.S. plants that build passenger cars because of low demand and lay off more than 3,000 workers.
Crossovers drove new vehicle sales to a record 17.5 million last year, and in the process bumped aside the midsize sedan as the family vehicle of choice.
Sales of crossovers — SUVs built on car platforms instead of truck platforms, so nearly all but full-size SUVs are crossovers — rose 8 percent to 6 million last year, more than one-third of the total. SUVs are classified as light trucks, which accounted for nearly 61 percent of new vehicle sales in 2016, a marked change from 2013, when the market was evenly split between cars and trucks.
Midsize car sales fell 12 percent, and compact cars fell 5 percent, and their combined total of 4.2 million was less than 25 percent of the market. Five years ago, midsize cars alone accounted for about 25 percent of new vehicle sales.
“We see the trend continuing, and what’s really driving it is that people find that utility vehicles fit well in their lifestyles and the fuel economy penalty is just not as great as it used to be,” said Stephanie Brinley, senior analyst for IHS Automotive.
Compact crossovers, a category that includes popular models such as the Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, Nissan Rogue and Toyota RAV4, displaced midsize cars as the largest vehicle segment last year. Brinley said that illustrates where buyers are migrating.
“The midsize sedan traditionally had been the family car, and that is a natural market for utility vehicles. A (compact) SUV can give you almost as much utility and space as a (midsize) car. It’s just taller space,” she said.
Buyers detoured from crossovers during the recession, but that changed as the economy became stronger and gas prices got lower.
“Consumers are fairly confident now, and that means they’re more willing to take that risk that fuel prices will go up. It means that they’re willing to spend a little bit more both in purchasing and in keeping the vehicle on the road that suits their lifestyle. There’s little incentive to sacrifice in that way now,” Brinley said.
IHS says passenger cars (sedans, coupes, hatchbacks and convertibles) were 36 percent of the market in 2016 (sports cars were another 3 percent). Crossovers and truck-based SUVs grabbed a 40 percent share. IHS forecasts that, by 2021, passenger cars will fall to 33 percent and SUVs will grow to nearly 43 percent.
Among full-line vehicle manufacturers, the shift away from cars has been most pronounced at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. FCA sold 2.26 million vehicles in the United States last year, and 343,527 were cars, just 15 percent of the total. Car sales at FCA are likely to be even lower this year, because it ended production of the Dodge Dart compact sedan in September and the Chrysler 200 midsize sedan in December.
FCA hasn’t announced replacements for the Dart or 200, so it won’t have entries in the two most popular car segments for at least a while, if ever.
Ralph Gilles, FCA’s global director of vehicle design, said the company is putting its money where the market is going, to utility vehicles. The shift to SUVs is a global phenomenon, he said, not just in the United States. SUVs are now 42 percent of U.S. sales and 29 percent globally.
“It looks like it’s going to keep going,” Gilles said in February. “The unprofitable part of the market, the compact (car segment), the lower end is really something that’s difficult, and if you look at customer choice, we’re well-positioned with crossovers. Our Jeep brand is perfect for that, so we’re investing in that area. We also have an Alfa Romeo crossover. That’s what people like, and that’s where the market is going.”