Avoidable Contact #127: In which an old man complains about full-sized sedans

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Jack Baruth

Let me tell you why you’re here. You’re here because you know something. What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me. Do you know what I’m talking about?

I’m talking about full-sized sedans, obviously. But before I do, I’d like to take a moment to thank my younger readers for their service, so to speak. All you millennials and Zoomers or whatever. Like your 50-year-old, Gen-X author, you were sold a future that turned out to be imaginary, only in your case the gap between expectation and reality has been far wider. So as you read what follows this, don’t think I’m forgetting you, or that I do not know how much worse it is for you, alright?

As a child of the American Seventies, I grew up surrounded by the full-sized sedan. While most of the historical sales charts out there don’t make this clear, the Chevrolet Impala/Caprice family was the best-selling car in America for several years between 1965 and 1979. Most charts split the two nameplates and give the win to the Cutlass, the same way the Corsica and Beretta were counted separately in some years when the Taurus “won” the race, but that’s a very fine distinction. The other B-and-C-body GM cars were usually fairly high up in the order as well, so in any given year the GM Full-Sizer, as a whole, was far and away the most common silhouette to leave showrooms. Ford, as well, usually managed to place the LTD in a top-five slot.

The official judgment of history, particularly Internet Car Expertise history, is that people abandoned barges like the 1976 Chevrolet Caprice with its staggering and wasteful 222.9-inch length, 121-inch wheelbase, 79.5-inch width, and 4,314 pounds, so they could eventually drive stuff like today’s best-selling passenger vehicle, the Ford F-150 (231.7 inches long, 145.4-inch wheelbase, 79.9 inches wide, 4,598 pounds). There’s a missing link in that sarcastic statement, of course: President Carter’s “wear a sweater” years where the Chevette and Escort reigned supreme as people dealt with milquetoast leadership, out-of-control inflation, rising fuel prices, overseas military disasters, and a hollowing-out of America’s manufacturing base.

Thank heaven those days are gone.

Anyway.

The trucks-replaced-full-sizers mantra has one significant hole in it: it’s not particularly true. Consider 1978, the year that the full-sized Chevy did well over 600,000 annual units and the Cutlass did over 500,000. In that same year, both Ford and Chevy sold slightly over one million light-duty pickups. Not together. Separately. In 2019, Ford sold just under a million pickups. So … if Ford could sell a million trucks in a year when the country’s population was 222 million people, and can’t quite sell a million trucks in a year when the country’s population is 329 million … Don’t you hate it when the hard data stomps all over your cherished theories? I know I do.

Here’s a theory of mine I emphatically do not cherish but suspect is true: The perception we have that pickup trucks are replacing cars outside of rural areas is correct, but it’s due to a process of economic collapse where rural people are less and less able to afford trucks, while suburban people are more and more likely to be interested in a truck. My unscientific take on the rural Midwest, based on 35 years’ observation, is that the fleet out there is much older today than it was in 1980, and made up of cars that were cheaper to begin with. Furthermore, the compact trucks that accounted for a lot of rural volume are rarer, and more expensive, than they used to be.

All of above aside … Fuel prices killed the full-sized car, but the government kept it dead through a series of moronic regulations that made it extremely difficult to build and sell a popular-priced traditional sedan even as they subsidized and encouraged the purchase of truck-based SUVs for personal use. It’s been a decade since we’ve had a true full-sized car without a luxury badge on the nose; the Crown Victoria line was stopped about this time in 2011. What was the last all-new popular-priced full-sizer? I’m going to say it was the 1979 Ford LTD. The last one before that? Well, the 1979 Chrysler R-body was based on that firm’s intermediate B-body, and the magnificent 1977 GM B/C owed a wheelbase and suspension configuration to the mid-Seventies A-body intermediate, so … You get the idea. The last time you had a choice of newly-developed full-sized cars at a reasonable price, Joni Mitchell hadn’t yet run into Jaco Pastorius.

The reader can decide for himself whether the various approxmately-200-inch front-drivers, from the 1984 Olds 98 to the present-day Impala and Avalon, deserve to be called full-sizers. One can argue that “full-size” is a relative idea; the downsized Cutlass of 1978 was 200 inches against the 215 of the Eighty-Eight, but two years before that you had a 209-inch Cutlass and a 221-inch Eighty-Eight. Today, a Malibu is 194 inches and an Impala is 201. Ergo the Impala is full-sized, and so is the Avalon, and so was the outgoing Maxima, and so was the Hyundai Azera.

Against that, I’ll say that full-sized is a state of mind, rather than a measurement. You don’t have a full-sized sedan unless it more or less matches the top luxury sedans of the day for size and weight. Right now a long-wheelbase Benz S-Class is the alpha-dog luxury sedan. It’s 202.6 inches long as an SWB and 208.5 as an LWB. It’s wider and heavier than an Impala by a long shot. I suppose Chevrolet could build a variant of the outgoing Cadillac CT6 and that would qualify. Barely.

I thought of my VW Phaetons as being honorary full-sizers, since they were as big as an S-Class with the same zero-prestige badge found on a Jetta, but given their pricing and equipment they were really Left-Field Luxury Sedans, like today’s Genesis G90 and Kia K900. For the record, I’m very fond of those two as well. The beauty of a Left-Field Luxury Sedan is that you get all the happiness of driving a properly-sized car without any of the social baggage.

True story: Back when I ran my own tech services firm, I used my Phaetons to call on clients. Nobody ever said a word about it. One Saturday I made an emergency visit to a customer office using my no-sunroof, no-turbo 1984 Porsche 944. The company president met me in the parking lot. “You’re driving a Porsh?” he said, rather incredulously. “What are we paying you?”

“Enough,” I replied cautiously, “that I could pay a full $6500 for a 20-year-old Porsh.” That was the value of the Phaetons: that I could pamper myself in plain sight without raising any man’s envy. No doubt a lot of Caprice Classic Broughams and fully-loaded Crown Victorias were sold for similar reasons.

Today, of course, that same purpose is served by the Silverado LTZ and F-150 Lariat, which are basically the don’t-look-at-me comfy prolewagons of 2021. They just don’t do it nearly as well, and they cost considerably more than their sedan predecessors ever did. For that reason and many others, I can’t help but think that the termination of the popular-priced full-sizer is just another aspect of our rather horrifying slide towards a two-tier society with no functional middle class.

There was an odd sort of social compact between the fellow in the positively nautical 1976 Caprice Brougham and the fellow in the equivalent 1976 Cadillac Fleetwood Talisman, and it went something like the Charter of 1814 that put a Bourbon back on the French throne: We, the Caprice drivers, who are just as good as you, the Cadillac drivers, agree to show the appropriate amount of deference to you in valet lines and suchlike. In exchange, you, the Cadillac drivers, who are no better than we, the Caprice drivers, are—well, you’ll keep Accenture and McKinsey from terminating our jobs with extreme prejudice, right?

In today’s world, of course, this uneasy detente has yielded to a “devil take the hindmost” philosophy in which the definition of “hindmost” continues to evolve upwards. The core purpose of a full-sized sedan—namely, to get a 9-to-5 breadwinner to and from his job with the least amount of stress possible—no longer seems to apply very well in a world where the Illuminati “do email” sixteen hours a day while wearing polyester athleisure, the middle class must perpetually show a cravenly deferential smile to their betters via Zoom calls from home, and everyone else is sitting jobless in quarantine. Additionally, even those of us who still get to commute would rather see the freeway from the elevated perspective of an F-150 than sit in a conventional sedan surrounded by walls of Styleside steel.

This doesn’t mean there’s not room for at least one proper mass-market full-sizer. Not two, but one. The same way we have room for one Miata and one Corvette. Full-sized sedans are now an enthusiast rarity and therefore can be treated the same way. Is there a roadmap with any automaker for a $34,999 four-door with the same footprint as an Audi A8? Preferably rear-wheel-drive, quiet as the grave, and devoid of upscale pretensions?

It’s too late (probably) for Chevrolet to do a CT6 variant. Ford could expand the Mustang into a sort of four-door Thunderbird big box, but it won’t because it would rather waste money building lumpy Tesla competitors in Mexico. Chrysler is awfully close with the 300 and Charger but they’re just a bit too small all the way around, too obviously E-Class-ish in proportion if not actual derivation.

Which leaves two vaguely possible candidates. The first one: Toyota could build a low-buck take on the Celsior aka Lexus LS 500. Naturally aspirated V-6, fewer features, Camry XLE-style cloth seats. Call it the Cressida, of course, because Avalon is something else entirely. I don’t think this is impossible, but I also know that Toyota won’t do this because it would cut the legs out of the highly profitable Lexus ES sedan.

No, I think the better bet is Hyundai/Kia. What we need here is a de-rated variant of the G80/G90 platform. Plain V-6 if we can, turbo four if we must. Rear-wheel drive. About 4100 pounds. Trim it inside and out like a Sonata. Sixteen inch wheels on modest brakes. Spec it like the $26,000 Sonata SEL and charge another nine grand for the privilege of a longitudinal powertrain.

With the four-banger, it might actually work in Hyundai’s favor, CAFE-wise. You’ll have a lot of interest in it. From older folks like me. It would be, ahem, the car we always promised ourselves. A working middle-class sedan for the few working middle-class people left. I think it would do better than Miata volumes. It would certainly outsell junk like the Bolt and other compliance cars.

Just one question left: What should it be called? Hyundai’s called its full-sized sedan the “Grandeur” before, and also the “XG”, but those were different kinds of products. I think Hyundai should call it the Biscayne, and dare GM to take them to court. Let a jury of our peers decide the merit of the General’s case. Think of it as an unwritten part of our social contract with America’s automakers: If you won’t do your job, someone else will. Forget the Snowdens of yesteryear; where are the Biscaynes of today?

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