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Looking at our roads, it would be tempting to think executive sedans are heading the way of the dinosaurs and that the SUV shall inherent the Earth. Don’t believe it.
The smart thinkers in the automobile world have not given up on the four-door passenger car. There are good reasons why the three-box formula (engine, passenger cell, cargo) dominated sales for decades, and they’re no less relevant today.
BMW has just fired new life into its heartland 3 Series range, Mercedes-Benz has unveiled its all-new A-Class sedan and coupe, Genesis launched in Australia with a pair of sedans, and now Jaguar has revitalised its XE sedan by culling all but two sharply focused models.
Commitment to class
Jaguar wants the world to know, through a mild tizzy on one of the best-looking compact sedans in the world, that it is committed to ‘conventional’ cars, despite landing the 2020 XE at the same time as pulling the wraps off an F-Pace with a supercharged V8 engine and an SV-R badge. The SUV has muscle and makes a fantastic sound; but it’s the old-school XE that adds extra sweetness to a class that has been the starting point for luxury motoring for decades.
All of the new sedans – and especially the 3 Series and XE – are selling well and stirring interest in showrooms, as proof that prestige buyers still want something more than a big box to fill with a family.
Further into the future, the arrival of electric cars could give a surprising boost to old-style motoring.
The bigger question
SUVs are big and practical, but they are chunky monkeys that weight a lot and punch a big hole in the air. When battery cars are being designed and tweaked for minimal weight and drag, SUVs are going to take a significant hit that will swing the focus back to sedan shapes.
Jaguar is so convinced about the electrification of cars that it has even applied to the online edition of the Oxford English Dictionary to change its official definition of the word ‘car’. It currently says a car is 'A road vehicle, typically with four wheels, powered by an internal combustion engine and able to carry a small number of people’.
But it’s not asking for any concession on SUVs, even if their ’sports utility vehicle’ definition has been challenged almost since the first of the breed began escaping outside the United States.
Not dead yet
Some of the world’s leading car crafters, including GM’s global design boss Mike Simcoe – an expatriate Aussie who made big waves for Holden with his born-again Monaro coupe – and recently-retired Jaguar style master Ian Callum, believe there is plenty of life left in old-style four-door sedans.
As Jaguar re-focuses its efforts on the XE in Australia with a single four-cylinder turbocharged engine and just two trim levels, it has given up on diesel power and anything moving it away from the basics.
Those basics, even for a company which is increasingly relying on its SUVs and has banked plenty of sales and success with the battery-electric I-Pace that is the reigning World Car of the Year, are good looks and a rewarding drive. Everything else falls away for the brand with the leaping cat, which has just committed to a total renewal of its four-door XJ limousine flagship – even if it will be fully electric.
Sweet and lowdown
Punting the updated XE, delighting in the grip, balance, comfort and classy cabin, Callum’s words came back to me. “Lower cars will always be seen as more exotic and more stylish. The very nature of their proportions tells you that. They will also always be better and more fun to drive,” he told me recently.
Look at the latest 3 Series from BMW, and you see the same picture. It is easily the best Three in more than 15 years, as BMW has realised that all of its fragmentation into SUV and crossover and front-wheel drive niches has taken the shine off its name and reputation.
The car is crisper to drive, looks good, and the value has been tweaked with a sharp starting price and fewer high-priced options.
GM’s Mike Simcoe, who now lives in SUV heartland in Detroit, still sees the value in sedans. “I don’t think the profile is dead,” he says. “It’s about creating a sexy profile. There are no rules.”
Status and success
The historic rules are more applicable in the prestige and luxury sectors, where a car is more than just a mechanised horse. It’s a reflection of status and success, as well as a reward.
Sitting comfortably in a modern, full-loaded prestige sedan – a BMW, a Mercedes-Benz C-Class, or even a Lexus – is still a great way to commute.
An SUV can be tweaked to compete with a sedan, usually with a thumping V8 engine and giant wheels, but it’s trying to force a square peg into a round hole.
And if you apply the same upgrading to a sedan, or even a spin-off coupe like the BMW 4 Series or Benz’s AMG-mobiles, you get a car that is really very special.
The enduring appeal of a classy four-door sedan is not lost on Tesla’s Elon Musk, the man who flicked the switch on the electric car revolution.
Musk is the most radical thinker in the car world since a man named Preston Tucker created a car called the Torpedo in the 1940s with a helicopter engine and three headlights. Musk has created an SUV called the Model X, and is working on a battery-electric truck.
But he sees the real volume in the Tesla range in the Model 3, which is an old-school four-door sedan. It’s already a boom car in Australia, thanks partly to a value starting price but also because it tugs the right strings with the youthful winners who would otherwise be looking at a BMW 3, a Mercedes C, or a G70 from Genesis.
Those uptown girls and guys are definitely not rushing into an SUV to drive through their twenties. Adds Callum: “It is in human nature to like beautiful things, and to have them part of their lives.”