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Crossovers killed the passenger car [Op-Ed]

by Byron Hurd

Our belief in the superiority of the sedan is antiquated.

In my mind and in my car, we can't rewind we've gone too far.

If you've been paying attention to the news this week, you're aware that Ford has confirmed a multi-year strategy to extract itself from what we've taken to calling the "car" market. After 2020 or so, only the Mustang and a new, not-quite-crossover model from the European Focus lineup will remain. Everything else Ford sells will be a CUV, SUV or good, old-fashioned truck.

That means no more sedans, no more hatchbacks, and no more wagons. Fiesta, Focus, Fusion and Taurus will all be phased out. Fiesta is already dead-car-rolling; Focus production will end next month and Taurus will follow it next year; Fusion will live out the remainder of its product cycle and simply not be replaced.

The announcement prompted more than its fair share of surprise, scorn and incredulity. More than that, though, it seems to have prompted quite a bit of exaggerated outrage. Journalists and civilians alike have flocked to the Internet to express their anger at Ford for simply abandoning the four- and five-door passenger segments rather than putting effort into making its products better.

That's the core argument I've seen from most of the social media pundits: People would buy Ford's cars if Ford's cars were better cars.

To buy that argument, we have to accept two key premises. The first is that Ford's cars are bad, and that's why its car lines aren't better revenue generators. The second, and most important, is that consumers want to purchase new cars in the first place. Let's start there.

The rise of the machines
Make a case, right now, for a sedan over its equivalent crossover--one that isn't built on subjective qualities like styling or tradition. I'll save you some time. With the exception of rare cases where a given crossover is much older than the car on which it is based, you simply can't. The fact of that matter is that where it really counts, crossovers make better cars than cars do.

This flies in the face of something many of us have held to be gospel since cute 'utes started to creep into the marketplace: Cars are much better at car things and trucks are much better at truck things, so crossovers are inherently pointless.

We've long been content to tag crossovers with all the negatives attributable to their in-between nature, but we refuse to grant them credit for the benefits. In the intervening years, Crossovers have gotten really, really good. They handle nearly as well as cars, they hold people more comfortably, they have more versatile cargo space and they have seating positions that actually allow drivers to see more than the tailgate of whatever pickup has stuffed itself in front of them.

Almost everything that can be done by a sedan can be done just as well or better, objectively, by a crossover. Grudgingly, we're obligated to allow that the same is true for hatchbacks and wagons--and the difference between a hatchback and a small crossover continues to shrink as the latter expands downward through the market.

"People track and autocross their wagons!" Yeah. I've autocrossed a Mazda CX-5 and a Honda Crosstour. Not at some company-sponsored dynamic demonstrations, either. I'm talkin' numbers-on-the-sides, cone-shagging, fingers-crossed-it-doesn't-rain-because-we-can't-have-umbrellas-on-course autocrosses. And neither of those "inferior" sheeple-movers finished DFL.

The only thing stopping a lot of crossovers from being just as fun to drive is a lack of customer demand for bigger engines, and even that is changing. What does that leave traditional cars? Nothing, really. Outside of a few corner cases, they've simply been obsoleted.

And customers have noticed. Almost every traditional car is under-performing in the marketplace. That addresses our first premise. The answer is that generally, fewer and fewer people want to buy cars at all.

The best of the rest

If we're tossing that premise, the argument that Ford would have been better served by investing in the quality of its cars rather than discontinuing them is already effectively toast, but let's go ahead and explore the second one just for giggles.

For the sake of this discussion, we'll single out the Fusion. It's one of the older cars in the segment (having debuted in 2012 for the 2013 model year), which alone lends credence to the fact that it would be a good candidate for some improvements.

But there are two problems with that argument. First, it's not the only old car in the segment. Second, the newest (and best example of a car being the beneficiary of heavy investment) is struggling. The Honda Accord, whose redesign was heralded with essentially universal acclaim last year, was recently the victim of a production hiatus.

Accord sales aren't slow because it's bad. They're not slow because it's ugly. They're not slow because Honda hasn't fully ramped-up production. They're slow because the segment is just soft.

The kicker
Grab a chaser; this one's going to burn going down. Chances are, you're not only part of the problem, but it's probably already too late to do anything about it.

Presumably, you're reading this site because you want your information from an enthusiast perspective. Great. You're in like-minded company. Now, since we're all friends here, I'm going to share with you a healthy dose of reality: being an enthusiast doesn't really mean squat.

"But I buy cars," you might say, and I'm in no position to refute you. But I have to ask, do your purchases actually matter?

The buyer fallacy
It's simple. If you buy your cars used, your chads are hanging. That is to say, your outrage over the state of the new-car market simply doesn't matter. Be as angry as you want, but you're not a customer. There's a very simple hierarchy. If you buy new, you're a customer. If you buy CPO, you get partial credit. If you buy used, in the context of this discussion, your opinion is functionally irrelevant.

If you're buying used, you've made a choice to have your options limited by the desires of people whose money actually drives the market. You've opted out of the system for the sake of saving money. And if we vote with our wallets, you've effectively chosen to abstain.

Abstinence-only enthusiasm
There is nothing inherently wrong with being a used-car buyer. I own a 28-year-old Miata and a four-year-old Challenger. Buying older cars (and they don't even have to be "classics" by the commonly accepted definition of the term) is a perfectly valid expression of automotive enthusiasm, and one in which I often partake.

If you want to drive old cars, by all means, drive old cars. Go forth and hoard all of the Saab 900s you can get your hands on. You have my blessing and my Instagram likes. Just don't expect my support when you start openly criticizing automakers for neglecting your desires. I ain't hearing it.

Why? I've purchased four brand-new cars in the past decade--all of them enthusiast-oriented, and yes, all of them with a manual transmission--and spent enough doing so that, had I put that money aside instead, I could be rolling in a brand-new S-Class or Model S.

In short, I showed up. I've earned the right to bitch. Have you?

Capitalism is a two-way street. The "demand" side of things requires more than just expressing overblown outrage on social media. Temporary Facebook profile pictures emblazoned with "Save the manuals!" do nothing to actually influence decision-makers. "Put your money where your mouth is" is a challenge that entered the vernacular long before the Internet was a glint in Al Gore's eye, but it's more appropriate now than it has ever been.

All this time you've been buying stickers and t-shirts, you should have been buying cars instead--new cars. But you weren't, and here we are, mired in impotent rage amplified by the Internet echo-chamber.

And whose fault is that?