The Long, Slow Death of the Sedan Continues

Source: Toyota

Americans used to love the sedan. To a degree, they still do. Toyota has sold almost 300,000 Camrys, Honda has sold more than 230,000 Accords, and Nissan has sold at least 238,000 Altimas this year. Clearly there are still lots of people out there buying new sedans.

It’s a great time to buy new vehicles, and Americans are buying lots of them. In fact, the auto industry is expected to sell more cars this year than is has since 2005. That’s great for automakers, and it’s also a great sign that the economy is recovering enough that Americans are willing to buy new cars instead of holding onto their old ones or only buying used.

What they’re not doing, though, is buying as many sedans as they used to. In August, for example, the Toyota Camry sold 37,592 units. That looks impressive until you compare it to the number of units Toyota sold last year. In August 2014, Toyota moved 44,043 Camrys – a slide of just under 15%.

The Camry isn’t the only sedan seeing sales go down. The Honda Accord actually beat the Camry in August, selling 40,931 units. Compared to the 51,075 it sold last year, though, sales of the Accord are down nearly 20%. The Nissan Altima is the only one of the top three that held steady, gaining just 0.5% this month over August 2014.

These lower numbers aren’t an anomaly, either. For the year, sales of the Accord are down nearly 15%, sales of the Camry are down nearly 5%, and sales of the Altima are up just over 1%.

In fact, if you look at the top 20 cars on the market, only a small handful of them posted anything close to a meaningful sales gain this last month. The Subaru Impreza and Chrysler 200 did exceptionally well in August, each boasting huge gains, and the Chevrolet Malibu somehow managed a 7.4% increase, but that’s about it. The Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Ford Focus, Chevrolet Cruze, and Volkswagen Jetta all saw significant declines.

For 2015, the picture looks the same. The Toyota Corolla is up 5.8% for the year, the Hyundai Elantra is up 10% for the year, and the Chrysler 200 has more than doubled its sales volume, but nearly every other car is losing sales.

If this is projected to be the best year for car sales in the last ten years, where are all these sales coming from?

Honda CR-V
Source: Honda

It isn’t hard to track those missing sales down. They’re all going to trucks and SUVs. The Ford F-Series is up nearly 5%, the Chevrolet Silverado is up nearly 12%, and the Toyota Tacoma is up a little over 13% for August. As far as SUV sales go for the month of August, the Nissan Rogue is up just over 29%, the Ford Explorer is up more than 22%, the Toyota Highlander is up 16%, and the Ford Edge is up nearly 36%.

For 2015, the only trucks that are significantly behind on sales are the aging Nissan Frontier and Titan. With SUVs, the list is limited to the Ford Escape and the Lexus RX.

It appears, then, that America’s love affair with the sedan is over. It will take years to see sales truly taper off, but in 10 years, it’s unlikely that the list of the five best-selling vehicles in the U.S. will include any sedans. The Honda Accord and Toyota Camry may manage to stay on the list for a few years, but eventually, SUVs like the Toyota Rav4, Honda CR-V, and Ford Escape will push them out.

On the one hand, that prediction sounds a little alarmist, but at the same time, trucks and SUVs have advanced to the point that buying a sedan doesn’t exactly come with a long list of advantages.

The diesel version of the Chevrolet Colorado is expected to be the first truck to achieve 30 miles per gallon on the highway, and several different trucks now get more than 25 miles per gallon. Most crossover SUVs, meanwhile, achieve fuel economy that’s on par with the sedans they’re based on. When they factor in low gas prices, most buyers realize they won’t save a significant amount of money buying a sedan.

Trucks and SUVs also offer just as many features and all the current technology that’s available on in sedans, and improvements to ride and handling have also eroded the superior driveability that sedans used to offer. If you don’t believe me, go take a GMC Sierra Denali for a test drive and tell me it doesn’t drive better than half the cars you’ve ever owned.

Without sedans having those advantages anymore, the higher driving position and added utility of trucks and SUVs makes it hard to justify buying a sedan at a similar price. You might come out ahead of you buy a hatchback, but as crossover SUVs get smaller, the line between what’s and SUV and what’s a station wagon or hatchback gets even blurrier. To most people, the BMW X1 xDrive35i is a quick, luxurious, small SUV. If you take a step back, though, you realize it has “300-horsepower rally wagon” written all over it.

It’s easy to get it wrong when predicting the future, especially in the automotive industry, but unless something changes significantly in the near future, it looks like the sedan in America is on officially on a long, slow death march.

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