CHICAGO - When Bill Walsh Jr.’s father began selling vehicles in the 1960s, customers visiting his Ottawa, Illinois, dealership preferred four-door sedans by the “big three” U.S. automakers — Ford, General Motors and Chrysler.
“Those vehicles were really what everyone talked about,” Walsh said. “They were the main pivot point for the big three, because that’s who made cars.”
But today, customers aren’t just walking into showrooms. First, they search the internet to select and compare vehicles. And Walsh says that when they’re ready to come in to purchase something, most of his customers aren’t driving off the lot in new sedans.
“Right now, we’re looking at about 25 to 26 percent of our inventory, new and used, as being sedans. And that has dropped,” he told VOA. “The highest percentage of our sales therefore are over 50 percent being SUVs and crossovers.”
In 2019, seven of the 10 top-selling vehicles in the United States were trucks and sport utility vehicles, or SUVs. In the same year, American car sales accounted for 4.7 million units sold out of about 17 million overall — a 10 percent decline in car sales since 2018, and a statistic not seen since the 1950s.
It represents a dramatic shift in the U.S. automotive industry, and why manufacturers are abandoning names like the Volkswagen Beetle, Ford Focus and the hybrid electric Chevrolet Volt. They are all models you won’t see at the 2020 Chicago Auto Show, which is billed as the nation’s largest — and now one of the nation’s first — showcase events for the automotive manufacturers from around the world.
SUVs, crossovers, vans and trucks were a part of nearly every major media preview event in the days before the show at McCormick Place Convention Center opened to the public, while the show itself reflects new offerings that represent the dramatically changing tastes of the American motorist.
“Before, sport utilities were body-on-frame, truck-based utilities, poor fuel efficiency, rougher riding — that’s not the case anymore,” says marketing director Steve Majoros, who represents General Motors' Chevrolet brand at the Chicago Auto Show. Majoros says SUVs now compete with smaller-sized options in fuel efficiency, one big reason consumers avoided them when gas prices surged.
“They want the ultimate utility,” Majoros said. “They want safety, they want performance, they want room, they want step-in height. They want any number of things. You can get those things in a package that is smooth driving, offers great fuel efficiency and at price points you probably couldn’t get before.”
Perhaps more than any other preference, customers say they also want technology upgrades in their vehicles and connectivity to mobile devices and cellular networks.
“If we look back at 2019 for Ford, every 2020 model vehicle that we sold was 100 percent connected,” said Bill Gubing, an Enterprise Product Line manager for Ford, which manufactures the Explorer, a large SUV.
“We just sold our 8 millionth unit, and it is now the best-selling full-size SUV in America. That is something we’re really proud of, and I think that really highlights the continued shift to SUVs,” Gubing told VOA. “I think we are permanently in a versatile vehicle era.”
Even so, Ford still offers several sedan options. So does General Motors.
Majoros said GM’s Chevrolet brand is also experiencing a surge of interest in its compact Bolt electric vehicle.
“Actually had our best month ever in January of this year,” Majoros told VOA, while standing in front of the Bolt EV display and demonstration area at the Chicago Auto Show. “So it says that there is demand for electrification.”
While brand names like Tesla are also popular options for customers seeking electric vehicles, Walsh says the demand is hard to see on his lot, and in his region. He sold fewer than a dozen of the Bolt EVs in the last year.
“You still have that range anxiety with electric vehicles,” he said. “I have it. People who commute have it.”
While Walsh watched the big three U.S. automakers shift away from gasoline-powered sedans in recent years, today he oversees an expanded group of 27 franchises that include foreign brands like Toyota and Kia, which fill a recently created void in the U.S. market.
“Everyone has a world-class car, so now it’s what vehicle is connected, and what vehicle fits my lifestyle,” he says. “There’s still a market for those cars. I don’t see them adding anything to the lineup, but I think those committed to the sedan part of their business model will continue to have sedan offerings.”
But Walsh believes those offerings will continue to be overshadowed by sales of trucks and SUVs on his lots in the years to come, even as economists predict a continuing slowdown in 2020 of the overall number of vehicles sold in the United States.