Has America’s Love Affair With the Family Car Gone Cold?

If the recent sales numbers are any indication, it seems that America’s love affair with the family car is in trouble. Despite fielding some of the most impressive offerings ever by the nation’s automakers, customers are giving the sedan a cold shoulder, choosing upscale SUVs, pickup trucks and crossovers.

Buoyed by low gasoline prices, better fuel economy and expanded product variety, trucks and SUVs have certainly caught public’s fancy when it comes to what America chooses to drive when considering a new vehicle. The crossovers, SUVs and even pickup trucks that are currently available for sale to American motorists offer drivers higher ride height with more flexible storage space. Efforts to improve fuel economy (i.e. Ford’s switch to lighter aluminum components for its segment leading F-150 pickup truck) has gone a long way to narrow the fuel economy gap with smaller cars in recent years.

A few examples of the flagging interest in sedans: the redesigned 2015 Chrysler 200 sedan. I fell in love with it when I first saw it, driving it only cemented the deal. While it is far and away the BEST small sedan that the automaker has fielded – EVER – they can’t seem to give it away. Sales of the redesigned Chrysler sedan actually fell by 63 percent year-to-date back in March when compared to a year ago. As a result, the automaker is going to stop making the car in the next year or so to make way for – wait for it – more Jeeps and RAM trucks!. The same goes for its Dodge Dart sedan – also completely redesigned and reintroduced back in 2013. If they can find another automaker to build the cars on contract, we might see these vehicles again in the near future. Too bad. I hear Mitsubishi has an unused plant in Normal, Illinois.. HINT HINT.

Another example is the sophisticated Mazda6 sedan. Sleek and modern, the Mazda6 in recent years has seemed almost invisible despite rave reviews from the automotive press. Mazda6 sedan saw sales drop by about 37 percent year-to-date comparison in March with last year. Even the sporty Kia Optima sedan isn’t immune. Over the same period, sales of the American made Optima dropped by 18 percent.

Overall, the midsize car segment has experienced a fall in market share from 16 percent of industry sales in 2012 to roughly 13 percent this year. By the same token, the share of small SUV sales has risen from 10 percent in 2012 to 14 percent this year.

There is an irony to this shift however. Back in 2012, some 90 percent of the nation’s automakers made an agreement with the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) to raise the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFÉ) standards for the vehicles they sell as a group from the current 25.2 miles per gallon to 54.5 miles per gallon by the 2025 model year. This is NOT a standard that they will be able to reach in a just a few years. It will require both modest and major changes to the vehicles they currently offer to the American public – which will include hybrids, pure electrics and other alternative fueling options. This will most likely be combined with smaller and lighter vehicles as well. Given the size and weight of many SUVs and light trucks currently in the marketplace (and included as part of the fleet CAFÉ total automakers have to meet), automakers who choose to abandon cars mostly or completely (like FiatChrysler) may find themselves having to make some very expensive and perhaps unpopular choices in the next few years regarding future product development plans.

Ken Chester, Jr. is President & CEO of Motor News Media Corporation – an automotive news service founded in 1989 as The AutoBuyer Plus Corporation. Featured on numerous television and radio programs, viewers, listeners and readers alike relate to Ken's friendly manner and wealth of information about the many vehicles currently for sale in today's complex automotive marketplace.

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