Few pieces of news have generated as much surprise and debate in the automotive industry this year as Ford’s announcement that within two years it will discontinue all but two of its car models. Seemingly out of nowhere, Ford has decided to put household nameplates like the Focus and the Fusion on the chopping block, and this ambitious move is making waves as industry watchers speculate about what this will mean for the automotive industry moving forward.
For decades, sedan style cars were synonymous with affluence, prosperity, and independence, and the boom in car manufacturing in the post-war era had a far-reaching impact on everything from city design to conceptions of the nuclear family. The minivan and the pickup truck had their own devoted audiences, but the sedan was, in many ways, considered the default vehicle: economical, spacious but not too bulky, stylish without being showy, the sedan was everything an automobile was supposed to be.
By the end of the 20th century, however, things were starting to change. As gas prices dipped in the 1990s, the market for larger, sportier vehicles rose, and breakout hits like the Ford Explorer and Lincoln Navigator made the SUV as much a symbol of the prosperous 90s as the Mustang or Town Car had been of the 60s. When gas prices went up in the 2000s, this only drove automotive designers to get more creative: full-size SUVs gave way to an exploding array of crossover and compact models, and it was telling that even when the Great Recession punched a serious hole in the finances of many North American families, the SUV continued outselling the sedan.
It is not hard to see why. SUVs are not only more multi-purpose vehicles, with more storage space and a more rugged profile, they are also capable of delivering a degree of performance that many sedans simply cannot compete with. An SUV is as at home on the highways and streets of large cities as it is bouncing down rough country roads, which makes it a perfect choice for drivers who travel widely in a variety of different conditions. In large markets around the Greater Toronto Area, for example, flagship dealerships like Colony Ford Lincoln can confidently bill an SUV like the Ford Escape as an all-weather friend that can handle the worst winter has to throw at it. As green technologies improve fuel economy across the board, and hybrid and fully electric options become more and more mainstream, the one competitive advantage the sedan has over the SUV — fuel economy — is disappearing.
Ford is clearly betting that the future of the family car is in automobiles like its new subcompact EcoSport, a vehicle that blends the smaller, more agile size of a sedan with the profile and energy of a crossover SUV: the EcoSport uses Ford’s popular EcoBoost engine, and delivers competitive fuel economy. Whether or not subcompacts like the EcoSport will become the new family sedan is anyone’s guess, but if Ford is right about the direction of the automotive market, this is a gamble that could end up winning big.