I know, I know. I've been a little hard on Ford lately. But they're doing this to themselves. I can't be held responsible for their actions. Plus, I really just used their logo in the cover image because they're the low hanging fruit. They're the only company to kill off all their cars in the American market in order to make a full pivot to SUVs, but in reality, every brand is chasing the SUV dragon again. Heck, it's widely assumed that former Cadillac CEO John de Nysschen was fired due in large part to his slowness in reacting to the SUV trend. SUVs are the thing to make; they're the thing to push on consumers under the auspices of the great American ideology of "Choice". "Choice", we're told, is what matters most, the customer's choice most specifically. Speaking of choice, I'm choosing to not play the game of nit-picking the difference between SUV/CUV/Crossover. I can't be bothered, and neither can any manufacturer, as they all tend to use the terms somewhat interchangeably. But anyways, today we're going to be talking all about choice, and whether or not it matters.
First, if we're going to talk choice, we have to talk about the primary mythology behind SUVs. After all, choice is king, right? Well, did you know that in an SUV, you don't HAVE to choose? You can have the fuel efficiency of a car and the utility of a truck! You can have the space of a minivan and retain your need for performative masculinity! You can re-landscape your backyard AND take the wife out for a nice dinner! You can choose not to check the weather, because you can do 80 on any road in any conditions! You can be safer in your vehicle, and become an absolute menace to other drivers! YES! YOU CAN HAVE IT ALL! Those myths have also become the sales pitch of the SUV. It's a car, but more. It's a truck, but more. It's a van, but more. The reality is, of course, that SUVs are all of those things, but less. They take a bit of the best traits in each segment and combine them into one melange, the signature sauce of the Fine. They are less fuel efficient than cars. They are less useful in work and off-road scenarios than trucks. They are less capable people movers than vans. But, to be fair, they can do all of those things with reasonable success all within the span of a few minutes, and without any additional cost to the owner, other than the extra running costs, of course. This same mythology of choice has followed SUVs from their truck chassis roots, through the "stretched car" Crossover evolutionary stage, and now to the "just a high-up car" CUV terminal stage we find ourselves in today. Yes, you can now have the convenience of a car footprint AND the space of an SUV! Never mind that problem had already been solved by hatchbacks and wagons. Never mind that many small SUVs actually are hatchbacks and wagons, and never mind some manufacturers just throw a little lift on a regular hatch and declare it a SUV in the USA because American consumers are only marginally more aware than the actual products they're buying. Hey! Don't read about the passenger space in the Mazda 6! Look at this CX-5! It's an SUV! The Buick Regal TourX isn't a wagon it's a Crossover NO DON'T LOOK AT THE EUROPEAN VERSION! Don't look at the cargo space in the Elantra GT, look at this Kona! See? It's bright green!
Now, here's another thing to stop and point out. The Kona is actually built on a smaller platform than the Elantra GT, the Elantra is a compact, and the Kona is a sub-compact. However, in terms of price-point, the two cars are direct competitors across the model range: The base Elantra GT is $19,350, the base Kona $19,500. The Elantra GT Sport starts at $23,250, and the Kona Limited starts at $24,700, both models featuring Hyundai's turbocharged 1.6L Gamma engine, and all the niceties of a top-trim car in 2018. Hyundai is far from alone in pitting their small car and small SUV segments against each other, but they are my example here, because I know the brand quite well. See, this practice positions the Kona, and other small SUVs like it, in a very significant place on dealer lots. When the two car-buying key demographics (baby boomers and millennials) come to the lot, no matter what car they come in to look at, there's always an SUV for just thismuch more. And then the SUV mythology/sale pitch kicks in on its own: "Well, I could buy the Elantra, but look at this Kona! Think of all the possibilities the SUV gives me! Look at all the space it has!" By the way, I wasn't joking around when I said the Kona has less cargo space than the Elantra GT. That's actually a fact. And I know the Kona is being sold as the roomier car because I heard that exact pitch made to my wife when we stopped at the local dealership to look at the two cars.
I'm not mad about that factual error. I don't blame the salesperson at all. I don't even think that she was being intentionally deceptive about the Kona. I just think she thought it was a bigger car because it's an SUV. It is impossible that pitch is an isolated incident, and it's impossible that Hyundai dealerships are the only place where things like this are happening, because this is the reality of the current car market. It's move SUVs or risk dying out. Thus the myth continues to build. Shit, I never even looked into the space claim the salesperson made until I went to write this article. Because that's the power of the mythology behind the SUV. It affects every single person who has shopped for a car in the last fifteen years, even us. To blow up his spot a little bit, when Tristan bought his new car, he got an Outback. Since the purchase date, he has stridently been declaring the advantages of the modern SUV: How well they do in the winter, how much space they have on the inside, the freedom of choice he kept by not going back to a sedan or a wagon, all that stuff. We even got into a fight about it at Road America last year, simply because I kept saying that I didn't think it really was an SUV. I thought it was more of a wagon with a lift. But very specifically, Tristan was focused on how the Outback must be a SUV because it has more ground clearance than the Jeep Grand Cherokee, per Subaru's sales pitch. However, there's a problem with this line of thought. The Subaru Outback is not a SUV.
No, honestly, it's the absolute truth. The Subaru Outback is not a SUV. That's the pitch, that's the marketing campaign, but the IIHS has Subaru classifying the Outback as a 5-door hatchback. While that may seem to be an arbitrary distinction, remember that the IIHS absolutely must know the manufacturer-determined class of the vehicle in order to properly assign safety ratings to the car, because every vehicle class uses different metrics to determine the safety score. The same holds true in the European NCAP ratings, where the Outback is classified as a large family car. Ditto the JNCAP ratings in Subaru's homeland of Japan, which has the vehicle classified as a station wagon. All of those safety evaluators have at least 2 SUV classes, and Subaru doesn't actually put the Outback in any of them, in any market. Maybe it sounds a little bit like I'm trying to dunk on Tristan here, but I'm not. I was shocked when he told me that the IIHS had the Outback rated as a hatchback, because it's never, ever sold that way. Hell, Subaru barely even deigns to sell the Outback as a wagon in the US, they just sell it as a straight-up SUV. After all, it has more ground clearance than a Jeep Grand Cherokee, haven't you heard? Think of the choices that gives you!
By any stretch of the imagination, then, the Subaru Outback cannot be an SUV...yet it remains one. By any measurable standard, the Kona does not have more "ulility" than an Elantra GT...yet it is sold that way. I mean, hell, you can't even put a trailer hitch on the Kona. But you can put one on the Elantra GT. Yet still, always that same refrain returns, always that same idea that if you choose a SUV, you've chosen not to ever have to choose again, because you chose the most choices and that's what matters. But is it really consumer choice that matters in the SUV market? I think not.
Now, we addressed this a little bit in the Ford Emergency Brake. Ford's execs have been shockingly transparent about their pivot to SUVs, specifically saying that this switch is aimed to please the shareholders. By definition, this is greed: Money is driving the direction of the business, not consumer choice, not consumer desires, not even the long-term health of the business itself, just earnings, and earnings right now. While Ford loudly and continually speaks on the death of their cars and pumps up their all-SUV future, it has to be remembered that this transition is exclusively about getting the most money imaginable from each consumer, to the exclusion of all else. I even have receipts. We've already talked about how far down Ford's car sales are, 15% down in April of this year alone. SUV deliveries were actually down almost 5% in April as well, but there's a golden egg in that shit goose: Ford reported that in April 2018, their average transaction prices rose $26,300 PER VEHICLE over 2017 levels.
Yeah, you read that right. As SUV sales rise, so does profit per vehicle, as highlighted by the Kona/Elantra GT comparison from earlier, and triple underlined with nine exclamation points by Ford in that last statistic. That's the real truth behind the pivot to SUVs. It doesn't have anything to do with choice. What the consumer wants doesn't matter to Ford at all, all they're looking at is the bottom line. No, the line below that bottom line. Ford wants to ensure that they can take every single person who walks onto their lot for as much money as possible, regardless of what that consumer's actual want and/or need is. If you want a small, affordable car, you get a small, less affordable SUV. If you want a midsize family car, you either get a compact SUV or spend out for the midsize SUV. If you want a big, luxurious car, you get a big, luxurious SUV. And everything in between. With help from Edmunds, here are the per-vehicle transactional price differences between cars and SUVs by segment as of January of 2018. In all segments, SUVs are the more expensive option, and it must be remembered that nearly all of the class-sharing vehicles also share a chassis and/or platform: Subcompact, $8,242. Compact, $8,005. Midsize, $12,288. Full-size, $28,465. Luxury (entry-level luxury sedan vs. midsize luxury SUV), $41,043. Ford's report of a $26,300 transactional increase doesn't seem so insane now, does it? This also explains why subcompact SUVs compete with compact cars: Even though they're a class down, they cost half again as much as their subcompact car platform siblings, so they can't be sold as competitors with the vehicles that share their platform. It's madness, frankly, because does anybody really believe they're getting a third more vehicle when they buy an SUV?
In light of these numbers, I'd like to revisit the question of whether or now Ford is evil for fully cloaking themselves in the SUV hype in order to make more money per customer. I think the answer has to be maybe. They're definitely greedy. They're definitely intentionally creating a market scarcity while trading on their own brand loyalty to force people into paying more money for a car they might not have otherwise chosen, if they still had a choice to make. Meaning, there are still car brand loyalists out there, a lot of them. Ford is intentionally abusing the loyalty of those people, and daring them to either change brands or buy something they might not truly want. That, at the very least, is an extremely shitty thing to do. It's the very antithesis of choice, shielded in the illusion that Ford wants to give all consumers more choice by, uh, I guess, removing the buyer's agency to choose at all. Is it evil for Hyundai (and indeed every other brand) to upsell subcompact and compact SUVs against cars a class above, even though they are often smaller and less "useful"? Maybe. Again, it is a deeply shitty thing to do, as most people still don't do much research before going to buy a car. It's certainly deceitful, at least to my eyes, because all of these brands understand that by merely calling something a SUV, CUV, or Crossover, they sell more, regardless of the reality of the vehicle.
To conclude, I still believe that choice matters in a way that Ford has quickly abandoned. I believe that cars should not just be for the rich, and I believe that if you have money, you should be able to choose to spend some of that money on a car. I believe that it's important to have a whole range of vehicles for people to choose from, including SUVs, no kink shaming and all of that. Most of all, I believe in choosing to stay informed. This blog isn't about getting people "woke" or any of that shit. This is just something I've been ruminating over after reading these facts on Automotive News, Edmunds, and some other sources. By now, everybody needs to understand to their core that companies are in business solely to make money, and they will allow their customers to do anything they like, especially things like going broke or into massive debt, in order to make the most money from every person who walks in their doors. I'm not asking for the death of the SUV, nor a major shift in the current car market. If you want an SUV, go get it. But don't choose one because of what you've heard, don't choose one because of what you saw on TV, don't choose one because of what the sales representative told you. Most of that is lies, and all of it is marketing. Choose your car because you like it. Choose it because it makes you feel something. Hell, choose it because it's all you could afford at the time, but choose it for a real reason, a real reason that's all your own. That's the choice that matters, no matter what any company wants you to believe.
UPDATE: This blog was originally written May 9th, and on May 10th, Bill Ford jumped into the fray with some absolutely wack nonsense that I'd like to directly address. According to Automotive News, during a shareholder's meeting, Ford CEO Jim Hackett and Ford Ford-Person Bill Ford were asked quite a few questions about their decision to kill off Ford's cars in the US. Which, NO SHIT. Hackett and Ford apparently took exception to this, starting with Hackett lowkey denying that anybody could possibly see a problem with not having the choice to buy a small Ford car in America: "This doesn't mean we intend to lose those customers, we want to give them what they're telling us they really want." He went on to say that Ford is "reinventing the American car." The second part, obviously, is a blatant lie in that Ford isn't reinventing any kind of car at all. Explicitly. Per their own press releases. And to the first part I respond "We'll see." I believe that this very obvious backlash that Ford is already experiencing, and the savaging they're getting in the press, clearly demonstrates that actually, nobody wants this change. Fortunately, Bill Ford is here to check in with how he thinks this plan is being received: "I wish the coverage had been a little different." (Oh, he's one of THOSE guys...) "If you got beyond the headline, you'll see we're adding to our product lineup and by 2020 we'll have the freshest showroom in the industry. The headlines look like Ford's retreating. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth."
Bill Ford. You are retreating. Categorically. You are categorically retreating from categories. You are intentionally depriving loyal Ford customers of a whole slew of vehicle segments that they care about. The same car segments that saved your sorry ass from actual bankruptcy just ten very short years ago. But Jim Hackett doesn't care about any of that history, and neither does Bill Ford. They don't care about their loyal fans and customers either. They barely care about how the brand is received in the public eye, in that they only care enough to blame "the media" for reporting on the bad stuff they're doing, a diseased Trumpian maneuver designed to play on whatever sympathy might remain inside the loping husks of their brand zealots, so that they can be manipulated even more grotesquely. Never, ever forget: All of this is targeted towards getting Ford's stock price to go up, right this second. That's the only end game these guys have in mind. I think it's completely pathetic. But you know what? If this works, then nobody will even remember that it was an issue. In ten years, they might be making a statue of Bill Ford and Jim Hackett giving the whole world the middle finger. And I'd go see it. Probably even rent a Ford SUV to make the trip.It's a good choice I hear.