As a daily follower of the auto industry for many years, it has been interesting to watch America transition away from midsize cars and into crossover SUVs. By its simplest explanation, a crossover is an SUV that is based on the chassis of a car. It was not too many years ago that just about all SUVs were truck-based. These were larger, rode rougher, and generally got pretty lousy fuel economy. This was at a time when gas was cheaper, and Americans had a “bigger is better” mentality when it came to vehicles.
You also don’t have to think back far to remember when midsize sedans dominated. The Camry, Accord, Fusion, Malibu, and Altima stayed at the top of the sales charts, just behind full-sized pickups. So why the move to crossover SUVs?
As an automotive talk radio host, I speak with a ton of people who are changing their mode of transportation to SUVs. This year alone, midsize sedan sales are off 3 ½ percent, while crossovers are up more than 4%. This is a huge swing when you are talking about an auto industry that will sell more than 17 million vehicles in 2015.
Listeners often cite the switch to a crossover, due in part, to visibility. They often say they like sitting up higher to see down the road farther, which can help avoid accidents. The ride of crossover SUVs is very good these days as well; you do not get the bouncy ride the older SUVs had.
Another thing people tell me is the ease of entry and exit. As we age, it gets harder and harder to get into and out of a car that sits low to the ground. You almost find yourself falling into a sedan, but you can slide right into and out of an SUV. The same is true of the cargo area of SUVs. It is much easier to slide things into an SUV cargo area, than having to bend over to lower something into the trunk of a car, then having to lift to retrieve your objects.
After $4 and $5 gasoline a few years ago, people flocked to small and midsize cars, but in recent times, automakers have found more and more ways to make crossover SUVs more fuel-efficient through technology. In fact, the latest numbers show that there is now only a 2-mile per gallon advantage to have a midsize car, over a crossover SUV. For the average 15,000-mile per year driver, at $3 per gallon for gas, you save $10 per month by driving a midsize sedan. So for most people, there is no longer a huge advantage to driving a car.
There are also many more choices today in crossovers. Entry-level luxury crossovers are hot right now with entries from Mercedes, Lexus, Lincoln, and Audi to name a few. People have figured out they can drive a crossover without giving up the luxury they are used to. Great options are available, such as blind spot monitoring, adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, crash avoidance, and power lift gates. All these features make your crossover driving experience much more pleasant.
This rather sudden shift in buying habits is causing havoc for automakers, however. They cannot keep up with demand on many crossovers, and have to heavily incentivize cars. This shift has affected used car prices too, with sedan prices falling, and crossover prices rising.
This may be a temporary shift in the buying choices of Americans, nobody knows for sure. Vehicle styles come and go like bell-bottoms. After all, some of us remember you were cool if you had a station wagon.