“Wouldn’t you really rather have a Buick?” and “Have you driven a Ford lately?” These are advertising slogans from the days when Detroit brands dominated the market for four-door sedans that were the industry’s mainstay for decades.
But in the last few years Detroit’s automakers haven’t placed a strong emphasis on the basic midsize passenger car, preferring instead to focus on building more profitable trucks and sports utility vehicles. They paid the price as gasoline prices soared and car buyers turned to popular and dependable names like the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry.
Now Detroit is mounting a strong comeback. Both Ford and Buick are introducing new sedans at this year’s Detroit auto show that they hope will carry those companies back to the future, with cars that could again serve as the foundations of the industry rather than the mainstays of the Enterprise rental car lot.
“The domestics are going to make more of a play here because this is still the highest-volume automotive segment,” remarked Jim Hall, managing director of automotive research company 2953 Analytics. “The midsized segment is going to be a bloody battleground.”
While no one expects drivers to return en masse to the classic Roadmasters of the 1940s and 1950s, or even to the one-in-every-suburban-driveway jellybean Taurus of the 1980s, a combination of a desire for reasonable fuel economy and SUV fatigue could set the stage for Buick’s LaCrosse and for Ford’s redesigned Taurus, both of which are making their debut in Detroit this year.
The oft-overlooked market for midsize and large sedans still represents 22 percent of the overall vehicle market, and those cars account for 43 percent of all U.S. car sales, according to Russ Clark, executive director of product marketing for Buick.
And while Toyota’s Camry and Honda’s Accord have topped the sales charts in recent years, they’re only topping sales charts for individual nameplates, Hall noted. In aggregate, domestic automakers, with their greater number of brands and models, have sold more sedans in the midsize and large segments, but those sales have been divided among numerous nameplates, he explained.
“On a cross-name basis, the domestics outsold Camry and Accord,” Hall said.
Just as in the days when drivers wore fedoras and clenched pipes in their teeth, Ford and Buick aim to impress with an array of gadgets meant to make both cars feel more personal to the driver.
Back in the 1950s, Detroit’s heyday, new car buyers were wowed with air conditioning, power windows and automatic transmissions. Now manufacturers hope that a new array of goodies will be the new must-haves: Ford’s Sync iPod integration system, adaptive cruise control, cross traffic alert, GM’s remote starter, heated steering wheels and heated windshield washer fluid (for defrosting wintry windshields).
“This particular buyer is tech-savvy and interested in using the technology,” explained Mike Crowley, North American car and crossover marketing manager for Ford. “We think Taurus is going to be a beacon for change for Ford. You have to have a flagship sedan to signal that.”
Buick points to the runaway success of its Enclave crossover model, launched in May 2007, as evidence that the Buick brand, which has lost some of its luster in recent years, can still attract customers when the product is appealing.
“A big part of the Enclave’s success was (interest) from ‘conquest buyers,’” said Clark. “Its design, level of premium-ness and its execution of details attracted them. All of those same themes are how we chose to execute the LaCrosse.”
So, even if the Buick name conjures images in some drivers’ minds of grandma’s car or or generic rental wheels on their last business trip, head-turning style still draws them into showrooms.
“It is a difficult name to get over,” observed Rebecca Lindland, director of industry relations for consultancy IHS Global Insight, adding that Buick could attract buyers in the Generation Y demographic — a famously fickle generation of about 75 million people loosely defined as those born between 1978 and 1994.
“If they continue with this product theme, there is potential.” she predicted. “But it’s the one part of their life their Baby Boomer parents won’t ever copy.”
Both the Taurus and the LaCrosse boast eye-catching style, which is in stark contrast to these models’ predecessors.
Expressive exterior styling is critical to drawing customers back into their showrooms, but both Ford and Buick say they see lavish interior appointments as crucial to sealing the deal once those shoppers open the door.
So the new Buick LaCrosse boasts French-stitched leather upholstery and cool blue ambient lighting to create an atmosphere of sophistication that has been notably absent from domestic sedans in recent years.
Ford turned to a new supplier for the leather used in the new Taurus, and it makes a noticeable difference, according to Lindland. In recent years, the treatments applied to make leather surfaces more durable have also made them feel more synthetic, and have snuffed out the opulent leather smell that is much of that material’s appeal. The leather in the Taurus returns much of the ambiance expected of leather, Lindland said.
Taurus also features multi-contour seats that are not only vastly adjustable, but they can automatically shift some of the support positions to provide a mild massage that helps prevent back pain on long drives. Worry not, the effect is not distracting.
“The key is their subtlety,” said Steve Mitchell, product design engineer for Ford. The so-called “Active Motion” technology, which individually inflates and deflates an array of four air bladders within the seat pan, is enough to help relieve fatigue but not enough to be distracting to the driver, he added.
The LaCrosse’s available head-up display projects the car’s speed onto the windshield, helping drivers stay under the speed limit, while high-intensity discharge headlights put more light on the road ahead at night and the optional adaptive lighting system can bend those beams toward corners to follow steering input.
These upgrades are important, because while four-door sedans have traditionally been primarily family cars and business transportation, auto manufacturers see these contemporarily styled and lavishly outfitted sedans also targeting the customer who used to buy personal luxury coupes such as the Ford Thunderbird and Chevrolet Monte Carlo. Twenty-five years ago one such car, the Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, was the best-selling car in the country.
Today’s buyers still want style and comfort, but they also want a useable back seat in their personal luxury sedan. Back-seaters in the Buick LaCrosse can enjoy not only a power rear window sun shade, but also a DVD entertainment system with dual displays integrated into the backs of the front seats.
Naturally, both the Lacrosse and the Taurus offer a raft of safety features such as electronic stability control, air bags and high-strength steel impact protection. They also reflect concern about the instability of gas prices, with efficient powertrains, with both cars employing fuel-saving six-speed automatic transmissions.
The LaCrosse has two available V-6 engines, with the more efficient 255-horsepower unit rated at 27 MPG highway and even the brawnier 280-horsepower version scoring 26 MPG on the highway. Fuel economy ratings for the Taurus’s 263-horsepower V-6 were not yet available, but the company announced that it has plans to add to the car its EcoBoost line of efficient turbocharged engines.
This combination of style, comfort and efficiency could surprise customers who had forgotten about domestic brands until the recent congressional hearings. An appropriate old commercial, repurposed for the Taurus and LaCrosse could be the coffee commercial where diners’ preferred coffee was replaced with another brand, to their surprise.