SUVs tightened their grip on drivers’ fancy in 2020, but the year only its mother could love also saw the arrival of some great new sedans.
The best are refreshingly affordable, making them particularly attractive as the average transaction price of a vehicle car climbs inexorably toward a record $40,000, according to TrueCar.
That’s counter to a cranky, but common, view that sedans are as dead as a New Year’s resolution on Jan. 2.
In fact, SUVs’ sales ascendancy may free — or force, depending on your degree of cynicism — automakers to make better cars.
“Fewer competitors can mean higher profitability for the cars that are left. That allows for more emotional design and profitability,” IHS senior analyst Stephanie Brinley said. In short, compact and midsize cars long derided as appliances and commodities may evolve into statements of personal style.
According to Cox Automotive, traditional cars — sedans, coupes, hatchbacks, and station wagons — held a paltry 24.2% of the market in the third quarter of 2020.
That’s chicken feed compared with historical levels over 50%, but up a tick from a COVID-19-battered nadir of 23.4% in the second quarter of 2020, when it seemed the only people who could afford a new vehicle wanted pickups and SUVs for a post-apocalyptic flight from population centers.
Reality check: Coronavirus is everywhere, some people still want cars and a few automakers are building ones that are better than ever.
Automakers responded to surging SUV sales by shifting investment from cars to SUVs that sell in greater numbers at higher prices.
That’s Econ 101, but you know that some buyers take it as an assault on their personal liberty to drive whatever the heck they want, even if the manufacturer goes out of business making it for them.
They think Big Auto conspired to take their nice, little cars away and force them to buy Chevy Suburbans. Or maybe it was 5G. I can’t keep up.
There’s a big difference between “fewer’ and ‘none.”
When vehicles like the Ford Fiesta, Buick Regal, and Dodge Avenger stop cluttering dealer’ showrooms, some buyers will shift to the sedans other automakers still build.
“There’s a market for passenger cars. Some people prefer them ” Brinley said. “There’s more design freedom styling a car than an SUV, and sedans generally have better handling characteristics” because they’re lower to the road and lighter.
“Some people just don’t need or enjoy an SUV.”
Outstanding and affordable new cars introduced in 2020 include:
The Hyundai Elantra
The Elantra looks, feels, and protects its occupants like a bigger and more expensive car. Prices for the compact sedan start at just $19,650. You can pay more for the N Line performance model or upcoming hybrid, but the base model delivers beaucoup safety features, a gauge display good enough to grace a Bentley, and wireless Apple CarPlay.
The 2021 Elantra is a finalist for Free Press Car of the Year and a finalist for North American Car of the Year.
“There are more than 4 million sedans sold in the U.S. each year,” said Olabisi Boyle, Hyundai North American vice president of Product Planning and Mobility Strategy. “Many drivers still desire a car that represents safety, good fuel economy, and great design. The all-new Elantra certainly delivers on those attributes and more.”
The Kia K5
Kia pulled out all the stops for this replacement for its long-running Optima midsize sedan, adding performance and optional all-wheel drive. The Optima was a bellwether of Kia’s steady march from econo-brand to a design and value leader. The K5 continues that, generating interest in the sedan as SUVs surged to 65% of Kia’s total sales. K5 prices start at $23,495.
“Beyond the simple truth that fewer competitors in the sedan market mean more opportunity, Kia is turbocharging the segment with a compelling combination of unforgettable design, unexpected athleticism, and innovative technology,” Kia of America Executive Vice President and COO William Pfeffer said.
The early results are promising, Pfeffer said.
“Sales of the K5 have increased since launch this summer and were up 13% year-over-year in November compared to 2019.”
The Nissan Sentra
The Sentra’s metamorphosis transformed a compact that met the lowest expectations in its class into a mini-Maxima loaded with charm and advanced safety features. Prices start at $19,410. All prices exclude destination charges.
The Sentra is a finalist for Free Press Car of the Year and a finalist for North American Car of the Year.
“Nissan has had incredible success with sedans,” company Senior Vice President for Sales and Marketing Michael Colleran said. “Our studies indicate that millennials and other younger future car buyers appreciate sedans, indicating that the segments will stabilize and likely rebound.
“The all-new Sentra will continue to win new buyers for Nissan, bringing more style, refinement, connectivity, performance, and value to our bestselling vehicle of all time.”
Some carryover cars got impressive updates, too:
The Mazda 3
The Mazda 3 added a powerful turbocharged engine that lets the compact take full advantage of its optional all-wheel drive and strong dynamics.
The VW Passat
The VW Passat’s makeover included new sheet metal and lower prices, transforming an asterisk on the sales charts into a midsize sedan to be reckoned with.
The new cars’ affordability is particularly welcome because automakers migrated to SUVs largely because they can charge more for them. The Sentra, K5, and Elantra make advanced safety and convenience features available to buyers who can’t afford a similarly equipped SUV.
Coming soon: A new Honda Civic
The coming year promises at least one more outstanding and affordable new car: The 2022 Honda Civic.
Honda acknowledged falling car sales by dropping some slow-selling Civic variants and boosting its SUV lineup, but the latest version of the small car that spearheaded the brand’s U.S. growth nearly 50 years ago should raise the bar for the whole segment.
“Our passenger cars play a key role in bringing younger and first-time buyers to the Honda brand and Civic leads the industry in both categories,” American Honda Executive Vice President and General Manager Dave Gardner said. “Even as we work to grow light truck sales, we will continue to advance our passenger car leadership with an all-new Honda Civic coming in 2021.”