Sedans still have a future, but here's how they need to evolve
Johannesburg - When it comes to automotive bodystyles, the sedan is looking like an endangered species right now. Ford and Chevrolet have almost given up on them completely, focusing their resources on more profitable SUVs and bakkies, while the premium carmakers are having conversations about the future of the four-door.
In days gone by, the traditional saloon with the separate luggage area was the default body style for just about anyone buying a car, while those with more extreme luggage and versatility needs opted for a station wagon, and by the time the seventies came around, buyers were also turning to hatchbacks, which offered some of the utility advantages of a wagon, but in a more compact and cost-effective format.
These days all three body styles are being marginalised by the rise of the SUV, and this snowball has been gathering pace since the 1990s as buyers struggle to resist the allure of sitting higher than everyone else in traffic - although ironically the proliferation of SUVs is slowly eroding that perk.
However, to those that enjoy driving, and particularly the sensation of going around corners, traditional sedans, hatches and wagons are still the bodystyle of choice because their lower centres of gravity make them significantly more agile and stable through the bends. But while wagons and hatches still have a utility argument to make, do sedans really have a reason to exist?
If we’re talking about practicality then I’d have to say no. Sedans have a much smaller loading aperture than other body styles with tailgates, and that makes the loading of bulky items anything from difficult to impossible. So you might be getting all your new furniture purchases delivered anyway, but given the amount of people who cycle these days, it’s hard to argue in favour of small boot apertures. Even golf clubs and luggage bags are more difficult to load into a sedan.
What's good about sedans then?
But sedans, along with traditional two-door coupes, do have a certain something that sets them apart from their ‘two-box’ counterparts, and that lies in what you might call the third ‘box’ - that boot section that sticks out from the rest of the car because like the bonnet, it’s lower than the roof. In my humble opinion, there is a certain balance of proportions in a three-box design that you simply can’t achieve with a two-box layout. Why do you think most sports cars follow this formula? I suspect that to most eyes, a three-box design just looks better.
But what if there was a way of combining the best of both worlds? Err, actually there is and it has existed since the Renault 16 of the early 1960s. It’s called the three-box hatchback.
This format still lives on in a few cars today, and the cars that best embody it in my opinion are the Audi A5 Sportback and Opel Insignia Gran Sport. There are other examples too, like the A7, Porsche’s Panamera, BMW’s 4 Series Gran Coupe and the Skoda Octavia.
Sedans have already been sporting more stylish and coupe-like shapes in recent times, and perhaps the next step (especially given that sedan boot lids are being increasingly swallowed by swooping C-pillars) is to replace them with three-box hatchbacks.
That’s all good and well, but there’s also the possibility that a 'hatch-dan' of sorts could backfire in certain markets where saloons with separate boots are considered a status symbol. But there are possibly ways to work around that one too. Skoda’s patented Twindoor system, introduced on its 2009 Superb, has locking central hinge that allows the boot to open like a traditional sedan or hatchback, depending on which button is pushed.
Sedans will evolve, carmakers insist
It remains to be seen whether the three-box hatchback will ever take the place of the less sensible saloons currently on offer, but however the cookie crumbles, there still appears to be a future for sedans, although carmakers are now admitting that they need to evolve.
In an interview with MotorTrend, Jaguar Land Rover’s North American boss Joe Eberhardt said that while the future of sedans was a challenge for the entire industry, Jaguar would not be walking away from that body style, but added that they might look slightly different.
In a similar discussion, BMW’s design chief Domagoj Dukec recently told Autoblog that there has to be a certain modernisation, or evolution of the body style.
“It can't just be the classic three-box [silhouette],” Duke said. “We see that, in China, they're asking for more elegance, maybe something like a two-and-a-half-box. This is something we are looking at".
But let's not pretend that two-and-a-half boxes are a future revolution in the making - this shape is something we already see on the Sportbacks, Panameras and BMW’s own Gran Coupes. But the question is, how many of these ‘new age’ sedans of the future will have boots that open properly?