The Big Money’s Matthew DeBord wonders what happened to the family car:

To put it bluntly, even big sedans aren’t big enough to haul around the bevy of sports gear, pets, and offspring that now make up many American families. In the 1990s, families began replacing their Buicks and Ford Tauruses with SUVs, and now they’ve moved on to a combination of SUVs and so-called “crossover” vehicles, which are essentially five- and seven-passenger SUVs built not on truck, but on car platforms, for better handling and fuel-efficiency. They’re the modern-day station wagons.

The family sedan, meanwhile, has gone the way of the Dodo. But sedans are still in play. One of Ford’s most popular vehicles—one that sold like gangbusters during Cash for Clunkers—is the Focus. It’s a small sedan, however. So what does Ford do when it’s time to move that customer up to a larger car? {…}

Slip into a Ford Taurus today, however, and you can see my dad’s era rapidly receding. What you get instead is the latest iteration of the BMW experience. When BMW began bringing its “sport” sedans to the U.S. in the 1970s and ’80s, buyers immediately noticed that they were both more compact than American family sedans, and also more organized around the driving experience. (They were, after all “the ultimate driving machine.”) You sat in a snug cockpit, bolstered into your seat, with instruments arrayed around you as if you’d been dropped into a fighter plane.

Well, obviously, a Ford driver that wants to move into a large car gets either the mid-size Fusion or full-size Taurus. The problem for Ford is that neither of these cars stack up particularly well against their foreign counterparts, the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. Both of those cars, last I checked, were selling pretty well. And both are pretty big sedans and getting bigger with each remodel. So part of the problem is that sedans are something that Ford (and its American rivals) simply have not been doing a very good job of engineering, producing, and marketing their larger vehicles in comparison with its Japanese rivals.

DeBord comments that bringing back the Taurus name, but the real question is why they ever got rid of it. Ford fans were really displeased with that development and the answer to that question is a monumentally stupid one. Basically, they wanted all of their cars to start with the letter “F” the same way that their SUV series starts with the letter “E” (Explorer, Escape, Expedition, Edge, etc). So they dropped the Escort and the Taurus and replaced them with the Focus, the Fusion, and the Five Hundred. The Fusion was technically the replacement for the Taurus, though the Five Hundred was considered to be. Interestingly, now that the Taurus is coming back, it’s coming back as a full-size rather than mid-size Sedan. The Honda Accord made the leap last year. The Camry did a number of years back. I find this interesting because, despite what DeBord says, the auto-makers are making their marquee cars larger rather than smaller.

That’s not to say DeBord is wrong. In fact, I think it goes to show that he’s right. People are looking for more space. The engineers are doing a good job of cramming more space into a smaller-seeming car. My wife’s Camry has an astonishing amount of cargo space and until 2005 the full-size Toyota Avalon was not much larger. I used to drive a 1976 Chevy Caprice that I called The Trawler because it was like a boat on wheels. That’s what a full-size car used to be like and it’s no surprise that once other high-storage, roomy vehicles became available, that the full-size boat-car market cratered. If you’re going to drive something that large, why not drive a truck? The BMW model that DeBord cites sort of changed that as car designers have sought to make larger cars easier to handle (and not quite so large). There’s recently been a similar move on the compact and subcompact front, with cars like the Nissan Versa being both small and boasting some serious interior space. In other words, models are moving towards making smaller cars seem larger from the inside with more space for what matters (people and cargo).

But ultimately, I think that people like me are who DeBord is looking at when he says that people are less interested in full-size (or even mid-size) sedans. I look at a lot of those cars and I wonder “What’s really the point?” Clancy wants to replace her current Camry with another Camry and there’s no really good reason not to accommodate that unless we determine that we need all-wheel drive. But the cost of a Camry is not all that much less than that of a light-SUV (and the cost of an Avalon is more). There’s no AWD option (except on the super-expensive hybrid). No roof-rack. Lower safety scores. And yet it costs about the same as a Mitsubishi Outlander and only a couple thousand less than a Toyota RAV or Honda CR-V. The Camry in particular (in opposition to the Taurus and other full-size sedans) does boast phenomenal reliability ratings (one of the reasons that Clancy wants another Camry is that her mid-90’s model is running like a sprinting ninja), but the Accord’s ratings are similar to the Outlander’s (though the Accord’s safety ratings are comparable to the Outlander’s and better than the Camry’s).

I don’t have time to go through every model and do a comparison, and I know at least some mid-size and full-size sedans (Subaru Impreza, Mercury Milan) do offer AWD, though I should note that they only do so at the highest trims. The SUVs, except Subarus, will charge you more, but they won’t reserve AWD for the trims where you also have to get Bluetooth and GPS standard.

Ultimately, of course, it comes down to personal preference. Clancy doesn’t understand how a big guy like me can prefer tiny little cars over full-size sedans (or crossover SUVs), but for the me answer is improved mileage (though that’s less of an issue when I’m not commuting 60-110 miles a day) and mostly improved maneuverability. When I drive the Camry, I feel like “Gosh, I might as well be driving a low-riding SUV.” But obviously cars like the Camry do have something going for them because they remain prevalent. That’s changing somewhat, though I really don’t expect the larger family cars to go anywhere. They’re no longer really good family cars, though they’re still fine for secondary family vehicles that want two cars that can fit in car seats and the like. And as childless people that move around a lot, the Camry has proven to be much more helpful than the Escort has been or its successor the Focus would be.

Category: Road

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7 Responses to Whither Full-Size Sedan?

  1. Linus says:

    Interesting points – it hadn’t occurred to me that crossovers would be so competitive with full-sized sedans. The main difference you don’t mention is that full-sized sedans tend to have a lot more power for their weight, since they’re marketed towards more upscale buyers. With similar power-to-weight, I think full-sized sedans would get significantly better mpg because they’re shorter and generally lower-weight.

    My biggest beef with sedans is the completely separate trunk – hatchbacks, crossovers, wagons, SUVs, and even minivans make much better use of space. If we had to buy two new cars today, we’d probably get a Honda Fit (flexible but still good mpg) and a Toyota Matrix/Pontiac Vibe (not quite the mpg but a little bigger).

  2. trumwill says:

    I think full-sized sedans would get significantly better mpg because they’re shorter and generally lower-weight.

    I’m not entirely sure I understand what you’re saying here. Are you saying that the sedans have more powerful engines and that if they had the less powerful engines than the crossovers (or weighed more?) they would get more comparable fuel economy?

    On a sidenote, oddly while the sedans are lighter, they’re actually not shorter. The Rav4 is about 180″ long, the Camry 190″, and the Avalon close to 200″. The Honda Accord is 194″ and the CR-V is 177″.

    The Matrix looks like a pretty sweet little guy. It gets 27 MPG, which beats the pants off the mid-size and full-size sedans. If it had more cargo space and were easier to get in AWD, I’d be looking closer at one. I’m totally with you on the set-up, though. Except for Clancy’s potential future Camry, I’m never getting a car that isn’t a hatchback again if I can avoid it.

  3. Peter says:

    All Subaru models come with AWD, regardless of trim level.

  4. trumwill says:

    True. Subaru is an outlier in that regard. The Subaru Legacy is one of the few mid-size sedans you can get with AWD standard. And as far as I know the Impreza is the only compact that offers AWD at all.

  5. trumwill says:

    Linus, you meant that the lower-mileage of sedans is due primarily to more expensive engines put in there because they serve an upscale market and that if the sedans had engines more like the low-end SUVs they would get better mileage because of their lighter weight, right? Sorry, I think I was a big groggy this morning.

    That’s probably right. It certainly would make sense. Sporty engines tend to get poor mileage. On the other hand, the government does not see fit to distinguish on the mileage between the turbo engines and the cheaper ones. Not sure why that is.

  6. Linus says:

    Will, that’s exactly what I meant.

    Interesting (but not surprising) that the sedans are a bit longer – that would certainly affect the parking maneuverability.

    Are you looking for more cargo space than a Matrix for when you move? I’ve only come across a handful of situations when we really needed more space than our older Accords have and could rent a small pickup with the money we save on gas. And when we moved, we had a rental truck full of stuff anyway. I wouldn’t be surprised if you & Clancy don’t have much stuff there in Soundview, but surely you’ll be accumulating a lot more after your next move (or two).

  7. trumwill says:

    Actually, the main concern with cargo is for future kids and/or dogs. In most hatchbacks there is plenty of room when you can put the back seat down, but I want room in the backseat for children and/or pets as well as cargo space for whatever else we might need to bring along. It’s possible that we’re ultimately going to need something larger than a Forester or Rav4 down the line, though I want to work my way up to what we need rather than purchase something larger than we end up needing.

    Most of our stuff from the move will go into a partial-load moving fan (I endorse ABF U-Pack-It). The extra space will be nice for the stuff that we don’t want knocked around and burning up in an unairconditioned truck.

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