Call them tall wagons, cross-utility vehicles, segment busters, sports tourers, sport wagons, crossovers, cross-trainers, or just plain station wagons. Whatever they're named, they were the most obvious new design trend at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
Although today's “crossover” vehicles like the Toyota Highlander, BMW X5 or Buick Rendezvous straddle the line between car and SUV, the new breed are more a mix of car and minivan: very roomy, three rows of seats, taller than a conventional sedan but lower and less burly than an SUV. A spacious second row of seats also seems to be a distinguishing characteristic, as well as all-wheel-drive.
DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Pacifica, which goes into production in early 2003, (minus the glass roof seen on the concept) is arguably the first of this new order, and it was a show-stealer last month in Detroit. But the Audi AG Avantissimo (introduced last September at the Frankfurt Motor Show), Mercedes-Benz GST, Volkswagen Magellan and Volvo XC 90, also were among the most eye-catching vehicles displayed.
Unlike the station wagons of old, the Pacifica has a wide, powerful stance, is a full 3 in. (7.6 cm) wider than a minivan, and it has huge 19-in. satin finish aluminum wheels. Step-in height is much lower than an SUV, making it very easy to enter and exit. The vehicle actually is an evolution of the luxurious 4-seat “Citadel” concept wagon dating to 1999. Codenamed CS, it will be assembled at the Chrysler Group's minivan plant in Windsor, Ont., and was originally slated to launch in mid-2002, but was held back for further refinements.
Station wagons of old were stodgy and shunned by Baby Boomers, but the Pacifica is designed to ooze luxury and power. The rear seat features seating for only two, and resembles business-class seating in an airliner. A continuous, full-length console with dual cup holders, storage area and adjustable air outlets runs through the center of the front and middle seats. All seating is trimmed in leather.
“Regardless of whether you're in the front- or second-row seats, you will have the feeling that you're sitting in something special. Our objective was to give first and second-row occupants the feeling of traveling first class,” says Trevor M. Creed, senior vice president-design, Chrysler Group.
“Chrysler Pacifica is a new interpretation of a premium 6-passenger vehicle,” says Tom Marinelli, vice president-Chrysler/Jeep Global Brand Center. “In addition to the breakthrough design, Chrysler Pacifica is uniquely packaged to offer three rows of seats on a wide track with a low center of gravity to give it car-like handling.”
The Mercedes GST concept also features seating for six in three rows and is even more lavish with 22-ins. wheels and a 360-hp AMG V-8 engine. The Audi, based on the auto maker's top-line A8 sedan, is more powerful and sumptuous still, with a 430-hp V-8 and a suede interior. Each car makes its point admirably: These are vehicles to lust after, not settle for.
And even if they didn't show a concept in Detroit, just about every major auto maker in Europe, Asia and the U.S. seems to have these car-like vans in their pipelines. Even Italian sports-car maker Maserati is showing one off. Most of the concepts in Detroit were from the U.S. or Europe, but Michael Robinet, director of forecast services for CSM worldwide says the major Japanese producers — masters at spinning off a wide variety of vehicles from one platform — soon will be offering their own versions as well.
“Tall wagons might be the savior of the sedan,” he says. Or, more precisely, the savior of sedan production capacity that is sitting idle because everybody is buying body-on-frame pickups and SUVs — or your competitors' mass-market sedans.
A good example of that is Ford Motor Co. It has a “sport wagon,” code-named D219, which is expected to debut in 2004. It will be built in Ford's Chicago assembly plant, which currently builds the Taurus sedan. The Taurus, once the perennial best-selling car in America, now is a distant third to Honda Motor Co. Ltd.'s Accord and Toyota Motor Corp.'s Camry.
Might a husky new people-mover generate a few more sales on the car side of Ford's product portfolio? Officially Ford is saying little, but Ed Golden, Ford Motor Co. executive director North American Ford brand design, says: “I think it's an opportunity for us to put a product there and call it a ‘tough car.’ It's for those people that we define as fence sitters. It's an exciting opportunity.” He admits that it is a “bit of a roll of the dice to find out if we can lure those people. Is it really that big of a segment? That's the question.”
General Motors Corp.'s Cadillac Div. has one coming, too — the 7-seat Cadillac SRX — even though Bob Lutz, vice chairman of new product development, says he's not convinced their wagons are the foundation of a major new segment.
“The whole sport wagon segment at this juncture is an unproven quantity in the United States in terms of a volume proposition,” he says. “It doesn't mean it can't very quickly emerge. But at this point, it's totally unproven, and it's a low-volume segment (here).”
Nevertheless, Lutz's cautious attitude may put him in the minority at this initial euphoric stage of the tall wagon's development.
Chris Cedergren, an analyst at NextTrend in Thousand Oaks, CA, says this segment, including small, less-luxurious 2-wheel-drive tall wagons such as the Toyota Matrix, Pontiac Vibe and Chrysler PT Cruiser could hit 1 million units annually by 2010.
“We're pretty bullish on the segment,” he says. “They will be able to provide the benefits of a sedan — comfort, performance, drivability — with the interior space and cargo flexibility of a van. And they're going to look cool.”
A dedicated sedan buyer who doesn't care much for SUVs, Cedergren says he actually would consider buying some of these new tall wagons.
However, he says they will likely pull sales from older-style body-on-frame SUVs whose popularity with consumers has peaked.
The auto industry is becoming much more fashion-driven, he says, so tall wagons are likely to be a hit with many car buyers simply because they are the latest, hippest thing.
But it's Chrysler, which has saved itself with so-called segment busters in the past, which seems most eager to define an all-new segment for these cars, which it dubs “sports tourers.”
“Chrysler Pacifica will join the ranks of Chrysler's 1983 minivan and 2001 PT Cruiser as yet another segment buster from the company that has reshaped the automotive landscape time and time again,” gushes a Chrysler news release.
“Chrysler Pacifica will be to the $25,000-plus market what PT Cruiser is to the $25,000-minus market,” the company says.
Although that may sound like bragging, most auto makers would like to see an all-new segment of “must-have” vehicles develop in North America. After all, the popularity of minivans in the mid-'80s and SUVs in the mid-'90s caused millions of car buyers to dump their old, conventional sedans and buy the new offerings. That helped pull U.S. auto makers out of two major sales slumps.
But can a subgroup of crossover cars that are designed to combine the attributes of not two, but three types of vehicles — car, SUV and minivan — actually stir the souls of consumers and win their hearts, minds — and pocketbooks? And even if they do, won't these new vehicles just steal sales from existing minivan and SUV product lines? Those are questions GM's Lutz is asking.
Lutz, a former Chrysler president, believes sport wagons merely are a combination of station wagons and minivans — not a unique new market segment that fills a gap in the marketplace and gives automakers conquest sales. “I don't see anything in the U.S. that would lead us to believe that that type of vehicle is going to suddenly have the impact that the arrival of sport/utilities did or the arrival of minivans did,” he says.
As an example, he questions what benefit Pacifica will provide to the Chrysler Group. “The question I'd ask if I were still with Chrysler is: ‘There's no question you're going to sell a bunch of these, but show me how much is incremental as opposed to substituting for minivans?’”
“What we don't want is to have them go into somebody else's Pacifica,” counters Chrysler design chief Creed. “We don't mind if we keep our customers and they come out of our Durangos and our Jeeps and our minivans.”
The marketing strategy behind the Pacifica, Creed says, is to pick up what he calls “the lease-car waverers.”
“There are people that have Grand Cherokees year after year after year, lease plan or buying. There are people that get into a Durango and love it and they're going to be hooked on a Durango forever. But the people that waver, that are looking for a fresh experience, want something different. We want to keep them in the Chrysler stable.”
J Mays, Ford Motor Co.'s chief of design, sees the new tall wagons this way: “It's kind of adventurous. It says “I've got a life beyond taking my kids to school.”
Lutz is unconvinced: “Why does Audi, BMW, Mercedes and Saab have one? Because they're big in Europe, and they've built them anyway. So they might as well send some to the U.S.”
That's not entirely correct, because Mercedes' entry, for instance will be built here in the U.S. in its expanded M-Class SUV plant in Alabama. But clearly in Europe, where fuel costs three times as much as in the U.S., tall wagons have an edge over gas-guzzling SUVs.
Interestingly, virtually no one seems concerned that potential buyers might be turned off by the idea that these vehicles closely resemble station wagons, once the ultimate symbol of a dreary suburban lifestyle to young baby boomers.
That's partly because these products have been carefully designed and positioned as “sports sedans” with powerful engines and good suspensions, but also because of changing cultural attitudes in the U.S.: The minivans that so successfully displaced station wagons in the '80s and '90s also inherited their unwanted image of being boring conveyances for complacent middle-aged suburbanites.