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Do cars still matter?

Yesterday, I conducted an informal survey, noting the vehicles that were passing through my residential neighborhood for about 20 minutes.  The traffic consisted of fathers, mothers and others who were picking up picking up kids from school.

Maybe the survey results are skewed with this “kid-taxi” group, but out of nearly 50 vehicles that drove by, only two were cars; the rest were pickups, SUVs, vans and crossovers.

What happened to the venerable automobile as a usable mode of transportation?

According to sales figures, the popularity of the plain old “car” is on a steady downturn.  2016 provided automakers with a record sales volume — a record that was essentially attained via consumers’ seemingly insatiable appetite for light trucks. Once again, Ford’s F150 pickup was the leader of all vehicle sales, as it has been for decades.

F150 sales success was accompanied by increased buyer affinity for crossover vehicles, small, medium, large and super-sized pickups, and even minivans.

So do cars still matter?  Some of the “stars” of the recent Detroit Auto Show, where manufacturers show off their newest stuff, would indicate that cars are indeed still relevant.

While sales volumes of cars (coupes, convertibles, sedans and hatchbacks) are declining to a smaller share of the product mix, they still sell in the millions, making up a worthy portion of the 17 million annual U.S. sales. They will continue to contribute a substantial part of the sold vehicle total for years, and for the period that gasoline prices remain relatively low, buyers’ choices will reflect a desire for full-sized as opposed to downsized automobiles.

In fact, at the Detroit show, it was evident that when manufacturers wish to make a statement or create a renewed identity for their brand, they do it through cars, not SUVs.  According to Stephanie Brinely, a senior analyst at HIS Markit, “You can do more stylistically, you can do more dynamically, and that’s where you can spend some time having a little bit more fun with the product.”  She added, “You can do some amazing things in expressing your personality through a sedan that’s not as easy to do in an SUV.”

In other words, cars have more potential for “fun” or “sexy” allure through styling cues.

Some brands having fun at the show were Toyota with its next generation Camry, Kia with its Stinger fastback, Lexus with a reworked flagship LS, and Nissan with its Vmotion 2.0 concept.

The Camry holds the biggest slice of the sedan sales pie, although 2016 sales of that model were down 10 percent.  But Toyota won’t give up on the Camry, since even at a ten percent reduction, sales are significant. Toyota may be thinking that the decrease in sales is due to a “boredom” setting in with an outdated design, driving the total 2018 revamp. Yep, it’s a 2017 auto show, but the new Camry featured is a 2018 model, which will go on sale the second half of this year sporting its new look.

Remember when new models for the upcoming year were not introduced until fall, remaining secretly under wraps until the big day of unveiling? Well, that’s changed — but I digress.

If you want to blend in with the crowd, buy a truck or SUV.  However, if you seek some of the latest and greatest styling statements, consider checking out the cars.

Readers may contact Bill Love via e-mail at precisiondriving@spokesman.com.

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