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American Love For The Family Sedan Fades As Sales Fall


2016 was another record year for the auto industry. Notice I said auto, not car. Because while sales of trucks, crossovers and SUVs are in the stratosphere, sales of cars - sedans to be exact - are not, they're falling. Only about a third of new vehicles sold are cars, as NPR's Sonari Glinton reports.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: OK, folks, I'm here at the Chicago Auto Show. And I'm on the hunt for the endangered American sedan. Let's go for a look. Ah, I found an analyst. Introduce yourself for me.

JACK NERAD: How are you? I'm Jack Nerad. I'm executive editorial director at Kelley Blue Book.

GLINTON: I asked him what the most important or the massive car hit was here at the Chicago Auto Show.

NERAD: The new massive car, the new, you know, go-to car is a crossover vehicle, a taller vehicle, an easier to get into vehicle, based on the same architecture generally. But that's where the market is going.

GLINTON: Now, the market has been headed in the direction of more SUVs and trucks for about a decade, but really kicked up about two years ago when SUVs and trucks made up the majority of the market. That has hurt some of the biggest car makers such as Honda and Toyota.

NERAD: Well, the market wants something different than what they can supply basically because you can't - as a car company you can't change on a dime what you're building. You can't go from building sedans to building crossovers overnight.

GLINTON: OK, up next folks, we have the maker of sedans - Toyota.

JACK HOLLIS: Sonari, how are you doing man?

GLINTON: I'm doing fine.


GLINTON: And you run marketing for Toyota?


GLINTON: That's Jack Hollis. Fun fact - he used to play for the Cincinnati Reds. But right now, he's a man selling cars in an increasingly SUV world.

HOLLIS: Oh, that's interesting. I'm the man who sells cars, SUVs and trucks in a great industry. It just happens to be that the SUV world is the one that's probably the kind of the most popular.

GLINTON: Toyota is more dependent on sedans in part because, well, they're so popular. The Camry has been the best-selling car for most of the last decade.

HOLLIS: We've had times where a car market has been 67 percent to 35 percent, you know, two-thirds, one-third car to truck. It's reversed now. Our job as manufacturers is always to be able to match that consumers, you know, keep moving with the consumer in the economy, right?

GLINTON: Toyota's profits fell in part because of currency fluctuations, but also because Toyota has been spending a boatload of money adjusting, making more SUVs. Up next is Joe Wiesenfelder with cars.com He says it's really about gas prices because, you know, when the price of gas goes up...

JOE WIESENFELDER: people just flee pickups and SUV like you can't believe. And searches on the site go skyrocketing for hybrids comically fast. I mean, it's like every time it happens we think don't people - why does this happen? Don't people learn?

GLINTON: Wiesenfelder says we'll see many poor performing cars eliminated. Think some of them not so great cars at the rental counter and many of the large sedans. Wiesenfelder says one of the biggest things hurting the sedan - kids, especially the small ones.

WIESENFELDER: Because small children are not big. Those seats are enormous. I mean, so it becomes a question of can I fit two of these into the backseat of my car with a grandmother or with the baby bag? And kids are in these seats longer than ever. They're in booster seats until they're - what? - like 16 and a half years old or something?

GLINTON: But in defense of the sedan, Jack Hollis from Toyota says you'd be surprised how much a good car can excite the public. Honda, Toyota and Hyundai will have new sedans coming out soon.

HOLLIS: You're going to have three new vehicles in the midsize segment. They're all going to come out and in a six month window. Sometimes it's the vehicles that drive the industry, not just the industry driving the vehicles. So we'll see what happens, but I'm not so sure you're not going to see - start seeing some people going - taking a look at some new products again because when it's all brand new, it gets a lot of attention.

GLINTON: Oh, an executive can hope. Sonari Glinton, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sonari Glinton is a NPR Business Desk Correspondent based at our NPR West bureau. He covers the auto industry, consumer goods, and consumer behavior, as well as marketing and advertising for NPR and Planet Money.
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