Today I am driving a terrific sedan, the 2018 Mazda6. It’s a handsome car, with sensual lines, nice proportions, little details in the sheetmetal that entertain the eye and it’s very amusing to drive. By any standard, it’s an excellent car.

And if you’re like almost every other car buyer in North America, you couldn’t care less – in not about the Mazda6, or the upcoming 2019 Nissan Altima, a sedan Nissan swears will bring excitement back to midsize sedans. Fat chance. Sedans, especially midsize ones, are just so…so 1990s.

Nissan hopes the reinvented 2019 Altima reinvigorates this sedan, but that’s not likely — not as sedans become increasingly irrelevant.

Today’s typical buyer has zero interest in a midsize sedan, and, in fact, passenger cars in the traditional sense are struggling for relevance, too. What’s happened? Why, as Bloomberg recently asked, is the American sedan dying? Why, as the Los Angeles times notes, is the sedan heading – no stampeding – towards irrelevance?

The simple answer can be summed up in three letters: SUV. But there is more to the story than the convenience delivered by a tall station wagon, which is precisely what today’s SUV is.

Start with the cost of a fill-up. Pump prices have been stable for years, so the fuel economy advantage of a car over an SUV or pickup has ceased to be a deal-breaker in strong economic times. Indeed, various reports show that fuel in the U.S. is now about a third less than it was in 2000.

Is it any wonder that sedan sales began their slide sometime after 2000? From 2000 to 2010, the market share of sedans halved, from 19.6% to 9.6%. And in the past seven years, notes DesRosiers Automotive Consultants, the market share of sedans halved again – down to 5.0 per cent at the end of 2017. Fuel affordability – or at least stable fuel prices – has been a big factor in the increasing irrelevance of cars.

Meanwhile, compact SUV (sport-utility vehicle) sales quadrupled as a share of the Canadian market, from 4.0% to 16% from 2000-2010. And from 2010 to 2017, compact SUV sales jumped again to 20.8% from 16%. Midsize SUVs have been on the rise, too – making up 8.8% of the market last year, up from 5.2% in 2000.

For Canadians, little SUVs like Toyota’s RAV4, Honda’s CR-V and Ford’s Escape have found the sweet spot with buyers in general and family buyers in particular. I mean, minivans – the ride of choice for families in the 1990s — accounted for just 4.3 per cent of the market in Canada last year, way down from 15.8 per cent in 2000.

This brings us back to fuel efficiency. SUVs and trucks are now often equipped with powerful but smaller V-6 and four-cylinder engines. The V-8 of lore is slowly being phased out, or at least minimized as an engine of choice.

Car companies have also worked introduced more streamlined designs and upped the use of lighter weight materials to improve fuel economy in light trucks. On top of that, any SUV or pickup you buy today is loaded up with comfort and convenience features that were once only sold in cars.

The obvious question here is why do carmakers keep making cars when buyers want SUVs and, more broadly, trucks? Because the bean counters say they must.

“Assembly plants also require very large levels of capital expenditures and they need to be amortized over the life of the vehicle in order to make any profit. Thus there is a natural tendency to keep a vehicle around longer than perhaps it should in order to cover the cost of developing the vehicle and the capital to build the plant,” notes Dennis DesRosiers of DesRosiers Automotive Consultants, in a note to clients.

Let me translate. DesRosiers has a terrific brain and he’s been around the Canadian auto scene seemingly forever. But he’s an economist by training. What he’s saying is that car companies have invested millions in plants and processes designed to produce cars, not trucks and SUVs.

So they’ll keep making cars, even though fewer and fewer people want them, in order to keep their accounting straight. They’ll do this even though the only way to move unloved metal is to slap thousands and thousands of dollars of incentive money on the cars you see in showrooms today.

It’s possible that cars – actual cars – will make a comeback. Consumers might wake up to the reality that buying a small SUV costs thousands more than purchasing a small car that does almost all the same things. Small cars are cheaper to operate, too. A jump in pump prices and an economic downturn would surely have a negative impact on SUV and pickup sales, boosting to cars. We saw this happen last in the mid-2000s, when fuel prices spiked.

For now, here’s what I know: if I were shopping for one of these very nice 2018 or 2019 cars, I’d insist on some very fat cash giveaways or zero financing or both.



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