From gangster getaway cars and the Batmobile to the humble family sedan, the basic three-box configuration of a passenger car—low engine compartment, higher cabin, low trunk in the rear—has endured for decades as the standard shape of the automobile.
Until now. Sedans, long a symbol of the American open road, are fading in the rearview mirror. In an industry-altering shift, millions of drivers have made what seems to be a complete embrace of sport-utility vehicles.
The speed of consumers’ change in taste has caught auto makers off guard, and they are racing to rework their lineups. Less than five years ago, U.S. new-vehicle sales were split equally between passenger cars and light trucks, a category that includes SUVs, pickups and vans. Today the share of cars has slipped below a third, according to Wards Intelligence, and analysts expect it to shrink to a quarter of the market in coming years.
One factor: Over the past decade, car makers have figured out how to offer the best attributes of an SUV—more cargo room, higher seating with better visibility and improved bad-weather handling—in smaller, carlike packages that use far less fuel than their predecessors. Many of the small models add just $ 20 or $ 30 more a month to a traditional car payment. That also helps auto makers, which earn higher profits on these vehicles.
At heart, however, the travails of the car stem from the shifting relationship between people and their automobiles. Owners are less concerned with the shape of the sheet metal or what’s under the hood than they are with how many people their vehicles can transport, or how much sports gear or home-remodeling supplies they can put into the rear hatch.
“It’s all about activity today, rather than elegance or performance,” said John Wolkonowicz, an automotive historian in Boston. SUVs “are made for dogs and kids and activities and taking care of the house. It’s the tool that does the job.”
In the age of the SUV, the humble sedan is getting kicked to the curb. Want to share memories of your favorite cars through the years? Email a photo of you and your trustiest ride to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Before a recent camping trip, Eric Moe, a 31-year-old manager at a manufacturing plant near Madison, Wis., stuffed his small Honda SUV with four coolers, three tents, four chairs, 17 gallons of water and loads of camping gear. On the road, his SUV got better gas mileage than any of the three cars he had previously owned.
“I’ll probably never go back to a sedan,” said Mr. Moe, who traded in his Ford Fusion for the Honda HR-V two years ago.
Buyers are getting hooked young, too, partly because parents are putting new drivers in SUVs for safety reasons. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has said that “bigger, heavier vehicles are safer” because they “protect better in a crash.” In recent years, the nonprofit group has advised parents against putting their teens in small cars, long the predominant first set of wheels for young drivers.
Gordie Stewart, a Toyota dealer near Birmingham, Ala., said customers often cite the safety factor when choosing SUVs. Mr. Stewart is a believer himself.
In the fall of 2015, his teenage son texted a picture of himself standing roadside next to his crumpled Toyota 4Runner SUV, which had just been totaled in a crash. His son walked away unhurt. Mr. Stewart has since replaced the SUV with another 4Runner and now three of his son’s friends drive the same model.
“If everyone else out there is driving black SUVs like the CIA and you get in an accident in your small car, you’re gonna lose,” Mr. Stewart said.
Passenger cars aren’t dead. Americans purchased more than 6 million of them last year. Most auto makers say they are committed to keeping their staple car models in showrooms, even though they are quickly ripping up manufacturing schedules for cars that were once mainstays of their lineups.
Seven Decades of Family Cars
From lengthy sedans to station wagons to today’s SUVs.
General Motors Co. executives have said they would keep selling their most popular passenger-car models, though people familiar with the plans say the company will eventually chop several models, including the Chevy Impala, a name that dates back to the 1950s. A GM spokesman declined to comment.
Auto makers are adding a vehicle type called a crossover SUV, which combines the sport-utility body style with the frame of a passenger car. Crossover SUVs also generally provide a smoother, quieter ride with better fuel efficiency than truck-based SUVs, an innovation partly forced by stricter emissions regulations set by President Obama’s administration.
For the 2017 model year, crossover SUVs averaged 26 miles per gallon versus 30 mpg for cars, according to an estimate from the Environmental Protection Agency. Fifteen years ago, the truck-based SUVs that dominated the sport-utility market returned 16 mpg, versus 23 mpg for cars.
In 2012, executives for GM’s Buick brand introduced the Encore. It was tiny, built on the same basic frame as GM’s smallest cars, and 3 feet shorter than a Buick Park Avenue sedan from the mid-1990s. Its rounded, blunt shape took some getting used to; one critic called it a “chrome potato.”
The Encore soon became Buick’s top seller in the U.S. There are now a dozen petite SUVs on sale in the U.S., including the Honda HR-V, the Mazda CX-3 and the Jeep Renegade. The so-called subcompact SUV category was the fastest-growing major vehicle segment in the U.S. for the first six months of 2018, according to trade publication Automotive News. Most of them start around $ 20,000, a price point that for years only got buyers a small car.
Americans also are buying more pickup trucks in recent years amid an improving economy, but SUVs remain the fastest-growing truck category. Pickup trucks accounted for about 16% of overall U.S. vehicle sales in 2017, versus 14% in 2010. The share of SUVs rose to 42%, from 30%.
Auto makers expect the popularity of SUVs to more than offset declines in sedan sales. While it costs an extra $ 1,000 or so to produce a compact SUV instead of a car built on the same basic frame, buyers are willing to pay $ 3,000 to $ 4,000 more for the SUV, said Bob Lutz, a retired executive who ran product development for GM, Chrysler and BMW .
“The more the industry shifts” to SUVs, he said, “the more money everybody makes.”
Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi forged their identities on sporty sedans but now are stuffing their showrooms with SUVs. Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. , which built their reputations on reliable family sedans with ironclad resale values, at times have seen Camrys and Accords pile up on dealer lots.
Both are scrambling to make more crossover SUVs. In 2017, passenger-car sales for Toyota, Honda, Nissan Motor Co. , Hyundai Motor Co. , Kia Motors Corp. and other Asian auto makers collectively slid nearly 9%, while their truck and SUV sales rose 8%, according to researcher Autodata Corp.
When Stephen Ho went to replace a 1995 Toyota Camry sedan in December, a priority was a vehicle with a more commanding view of the road. He bought a new Toyota C-HR small SUV, which is several inches higher off the ground than his hand-me-down Camry.
“I was tired of being blinded by everyone,” said Mr. Ho, a 28-year-old engineer in Merced, Calif. “Now I’m only blinded by half of everyone.”
In the early days of the automobile, cars more closely resembled SUVs than sedans. Cars like Ford’s Model T had a large, boxy passenger compartment raised off the ground, with a high roofline. Sedans came to the fore in the 1920s and ’30s, as car makers rolled out lower-profile styles and introduced more steel in the design of door panels, pillars and roof to protect occupants, said John Heitmann, a historian at the University of Dayton in Ohio.
Sedans cemented their popularity in the 1940s and ’50s, partly due to the influence of Harley Earl, GM’s head designer when the Detroit auto maker dominated the U.S. market. With creations like the Cadillac Series 61 in the 1940s and the Chevy Bel Air in the ’50s, Mr. Earl’s preference for lower, longer designs permeated the U.S. market.
“My sense of proportion tells me that oblongs are more attractive than squares, just as…a greyhound is more graceful than an English bulldog,” Mr. Earl wrote in a 1954 essay in the Saturday Evening Post.
In later decades, station wagons, followed by minivans, sought to challenge the sedan’s status as the family hauler. SUVs surged in popularity in the 1990s with rugged models like the Ford Explorer and Nissan Pathfinder, bouncy trucks that delivered poor gas mileage. A gas-price spike in 2008 hurt sales and SUVs were vilified as symbols of excess, leading to the demise of GM’s gas-guzzling Hummer brand in 2010.
Auto industry executives don’t expect sedans to roar back even if gas prices rise, largely because the newest breeds of sport utilities don’t require buyers to sacrifice as much on gas mileage.
For GM and Ford, the sedan fade comes not long after both redoubled their efforts to take on Toyota and Honda in the market for midsize sedans, long the industry’s biggest category and one dominated by the Japanese companies.
When Ford rolled out a redesigned Fusion at the Detroit auto show in 2012, the family sedan generated the sort of buzz typically reserved for exotic sports cars. Some auto critics compared its styling to an Aston Martin. Sales surged for a few years before beginning a steep decline in 2016.
Last summer, Ford executives under new CEO Jim Hackett took a hard look at the traditional sedan market and where buyers were going, Ford Global Markets Chief Jim Farley said in an interview. The data pointed toward a continued rush to SUVs by both baby boomers and younger buyers, he said.
“It became very clear to us, we’re going to have to offer more choice and reinvent our lineup,” Mr. Farley said. “We are redefining what our vehicles look like. You’re going to see a different type of silhouette.”
The pivot to SUVs crimped GM’s plans to revitalize the Chevy Malibu, introduced in the late 1970s but long a laggard in the family sedan market. When GM showed a redone Malibu at the New York Auto Show in 2015, GM product chief Mark Reuss said it would serve as the “heart of what people think” about Chevy.
By early 2017, GM executives were busy slashing the budget of the next generation of the Malibu and the smaller Chevy Cruze sedan, people familiar with the matter said. Chevy executives pleaded with GM’s product planners to accelerate the timetable for new SUV models instead, the people said.
Mr. Reuss declined to discuss the fate of specific models but said GM is “not giving up on a bunch of sedans on a strategy basis” in the U.S., partly because they’re still needed in overseas markets.
Some 200 miles from GM’s Detroit headquarters, about 4,000 employees had been working around the clock for several years assembling the Cruze in Lordstown, Ohio. The factory had become a symbol of GM’s comeback after its 2009 federal bailout, when Detroit auto makers were out to prove they could make quality small cars. In the past 18 months, GM has laid off more than 2,000 workers in Lordstown.
Glenn Johnson, a former United Auto Workers official who has worked at Lordstown nearly 40 years, has seen mass layoffs only once before, around the time of GM’s 2009 bankruptcy. Then, the cause was the financial downturn and GM’s own mismanagement.
“There is nobody to blame in this situation,” Mr. Johnson said of the latest layoffs. “The problem is with sedans across the industry, small, medium and large. This consumer shift has happened so fast.”
Write to Mike Colias at Mike.Colias@wsj.com