Is a time coming when the only actual cars anyone buys will be sports cars and coupes? That may be a stretch – some people will always want a traditional sedan or hatchback. But still, Ralph Gilles, FCA's head of design, doesn't see any end to the massive shift from passenger cars to CUVs. He says it's here to stay.
"Consumer tastes are shifting," he said at the Toronto auto show. "Cherokee is our best-selling nameplate now, so it's resonating all over the world. That tells us we've scratched an itch that was there, and I think it's a permanent thing."
Gilles reels off the reasons: "People love the command of the road, the flexibility of the vehicle, the seating arrangements, the fact you can fold the seats down."
And customers are willing to pay a slight premium to get a whole lot of utility, he says. Likewise the greater thirst of these taller, heavier AWD vehicles. "Consumers find the benefits outweigh the fuel costs. A few hundred dollars a year is not going to stop them choosing the solution for their lives. Some families can actually replace two cars with one."
As for ever-tightening government fuel-economy standards, Gilles points out that in the United States and Canada there is a different scale for trucks, "so [the standards] are achievable. We're actually ahead of schedule, especially in the near-term."
As well, he says, the higher prices commanded by CUVs make it easier to swallow the cost of fuel-saving technologies. "If you think about the technologies that are required, you need the margins to pay for them, so to speak. There's a finite amount of money the consumer is willing to pay for a sedan, and they're typically willing to pay a little bit more for the utility of a crossover, so it gives us a little wiggle room to embed that technology."
The shift away from cars is so profound at FCA in particular that the auto maker is planning to phase out production of the Dodge Dart and Chrysler 200 sedans to free up capacity to build more Jeeps and Rams. Still, ceasing production of cars isn't the same as ceasing to sell them. Gilles cites FCA's collaboration with Mazda – to co-design the 124 Spider and MX-5 sports cars – as an example of "smarter ways to do passenger cars." We have partnerships all over the world. All the companies are looking to consolidate costs – it's nothing new to the industry. The customer ultimately doesn't care."
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