Coupes are sexier than most sedans, and yet they don’t get as much love from American car buyers.
More than 26,000 Mercedes-Benz S-Class sedans were sold in the U.S. last year, according to CNW Marketing Research in Bandon, Ore., but only 3,672 people bought its striking two-door equivalent, the CL-Class.
Don’t get the wrong idea — the Mercedes-Benz CL-Class is not a bad car. It’s just less convenient for drivers who sometimes need to take along more than one passenger.
“Coupes in general have a limited appeal, and it’s usually restricted to sporty car buyers,” says Lonnie Miller, director of industry analysis for R.L. Polk & Co. in Southfield, Mich. “They tend to be hard to deal with, especially for those with a family or those who have multiple needs.”
That helps explain why buyers of lower-cost coupes are often younger drivers who have yet to start a family, while costlier models tend to appeal to recent empty-nesters who are drawn to something with more vehicular va-va-voom than what they drove when their kids were still living at home. According to Honda, only 12 percent of Accord sedan buyers are under 30 years old, while 39 percent of Accord coupe buyers are under 30.
A few coupes do well in the U.S., but for the most part sales of many longstanding two-doors are declining, as four-door variants grow in popularity. Last year sales of BMW’s 6 Series coupe fell 3.1 percent from the previous year; Ford Mustang sales dropped 19.2 percent; the Mitsubishi Eclipse posted a 23.6 percent sales decline; and the two-seat Cadillac XLR's sales plummeted by 45.4 percent, according to data from CNW.
Fifteen years ago, 78 separate car lines were sold either exclusively or optionally as coupes, according to the Consumers Digest Car and Truck Buyer’s Guide. By comparison, J.D. Power and Associates counts just 31 coupes being sold in the U.S. for 2008. Both figures include sports cars like the Chevrolet Corvette and Dodge Viper, but exclude those from low-selling exotic brands like Ferrari and Lamborghini.
Coupes’ status may be shrinking, but don’t count them out just yet. At least two new models — the Dodge Challenger and Smart ForTwo — have created such buzz that thousands of eager buyers put down deposits before even seeing the final product.
“A coupe can be a great addition to an automaker’s line, especially if it’s something that’s more than just a two-door version of a sedan,” says Francois Gravigny, an advisor with R.L. Polk. “If it’s done well, it can help an automaker sell other vehicles.”
Two such vehicles debuting soon are the Dodge Challenger, coming later this year, and its archrival, the Chevrolet Camaro, which reincarnates as a 2010 model. Both have retro styling that channels the look of classic muscle cars from the 1960s.
“Everybody’s been talking about the Challenger for the last two or three years,” Gravigny says. “It’s finally here, the return of an American icon. It’s a great American style, big engine, and is fairly affordable.”
The first Dodge Challenger variant to debut will be the Challenger SRT8 with a potent V8 engine. The Chevrolet Camaro will answer in kind with its own V8. Both models will also offer less-powerful V6 engines.
Analysts expect the Camaro and Challenger will attract a mature, affluent, and enthusiastic audience. Chrysler, which owns Dodge, says 4,300 people put down a deposit on the Challenger the first day orders were taken. Only 6,400 Challenger SRT8s are slated for sale in 2008.
“The audience for these cars is nostalgic for the vehicles that were around when they were young,” Miller says. “It’s Baby Boomers who are coming into their peak earning years, and people with disposable income who are looking for the pure emotion a vehicle like this provides.”
One of the most significant new coupes is neither nostalgic nor all that sporty — it’s actually the exact opposite of burly, in-your-face American muscle cars. After going on sale about a decade ago in Europe, the tiny Smart ForTwo finally makes it to the U.S. for 2008. Roughly half the length of a standard car, the two-seat ForTwo is actually roomier than it looks. Its small engine generates only 70 horsepower, so the ForTwo is hardly quick, but it can keep up with traffic and cruise without fuss at highway speeds.
More than 30,000 people put down a $99 deposit online to get on a waiting list for the 2008 Smart ForTwo — the company says that’s more than it has slated for sale in the U.S. “This car not only hits an obvious market need for fuel-efficient vehicles, but it breaks new ground in a mass-produced commuter vehicle,” says David Wurster, president of the Bloomfield Hills, Mich.-based market research firm Vincentric. “It does all this with a lot of style and ‘cool factor.’”
While the ForTwo looks like no other car on American roads, its futuristic egg-shaped styling is reminiscent of what was likely the coupe that most Generation X and Y motorists first piloted as toddlers — the Little Tykes Cozy Coupe. Perhaps this may explain some of its intrinsic appeal. The Little Tykes Cozy Coupe has sold more than 20 million units over the last three decades and shows no signs of slowing down.
To see a full list of all-new or significantly redesigned premium two-door vehicles for 2008, click on the “slide show” link above.