While not the core focus of this website, we’ve often chronicled Harley-Davidson’s missteps as a way of predicting issues that might crop up for manufacturers specializing in four-wheeled transportation.
You see, the iconically American motorcycle brand has painted itself into a corner. By leveraging its established fan base, sales swelled through the 1990s. Unfortunately, the United States’ interest in motorcycles plummeted once the Great Recession hit. H-D was not exempt, enduring the worst of it as its stock price declined 42 percent over the last five years.
As the recessional dust cleared, rival manufactures panicked and shifted away from larger bikes aimed at experienced riders with more money to spend. Japanese companies began furnishing smaller, inexpensive models they hoped would encourage new riders. Harley Davidson waited longer to do this, launching two competitively priced, entry-level models that were still larger than seemed prudent.
Despite the industry seeing slightly improved volumes in the years following 2010, the last two have seen negative growth and annual sales totalling less than half of their pre-recession peak. Hoping to find new riders somewhere, H-D again shifted tactics by building child-sized scooters and the all-electric LiveWire.
For the past two years, we’ve reported that the post-recession upswing in new car buying in North America seems to have plateaued. Environmental factors have led to Millennials buying fewer cars than their parents’ generation, and wealthy folk have proven unable to pick up the slack — as no amount of money allows you to drive several cars at the same time.
Most major carmakers posted declining U.S. deliveries in July, and August’s data proved a mixed bag. However, America isn’t the only big market that’s taking a beating. The First World seems to have collectively surpassed peak growth and now has to ride out an extended period where volume dwindles until some other nation can afford to import container ships full of sparkly new automobiles.
There’s a growing assumption that automobiles have become so universally satisfactory, there’s nothing to gripe about anymore. We’re inclined to disagree. There will always be models that fail to meet our expectations and industry trends we’re not particularly fond of. However, we will happily acknowledge that low-tier automobiles have become decidedly less terrible when thrown together into a pool.
A weird side effect of this has been mainstream brands moving upmarket and offering a bevy of luxury options while extravagant nameplates do the inverse. For example, the Kia Cadenza can easily be outfitted to surpass the base Cadillac ATS in terms of luxury features and overall price. It doesn’t have the prestige, but you’re still buying a larger automobile with a focus on lavishness that can deliver on an exceptionally quiet and comfortable ride.
On the flip side of things, Cadillac is busy prepping its new small crossover for the general market. Priced for a mainstream budget, the XT4 should be a win for General Motors. But it further showcases the amount of overlap happening within the industry right now. Value manufacturers are becoming increasingly willing to move upmarket while luxury brands are trying to burn the money candle at both ends.
Ford’s announcement that it will eventually eliminate every sedan from its domestic lineup has forced the automotive media to consider which automaker will be next to cart theirs off to the guillotine. Due to the growing popularity of crossovers and their inherent profitability, it’s probably just a matter of time until another manufacturer tosses all of its sedans in a burlap sack and drowns them in the proverbial river.
General Motors seems ready to abandon the Chevrolet Impala and Sonic, and Cadillac’s ATS, CTS, and XTS will soon be replaced by two unnamed sedans. Buick’s Lacrosse also looks to be a likely candidate for execution, and rumors exist that Caddy’s CT6 may also be destined for death. However, while rumors swell that American automakers are just years away from from killing the four-door car, Subaru says sedans remain totally relevant.
As a smaller but rapidly growing manufacturer (domestic sales have tripled since 2010), it’s dangerous for the brand to become too reliant on a single segment. If the market suddenly shifts, Subaru knows it’s better not to get caught with its pants down. In fact, it’s almost as if the company’s national manager of product communications, Dominick Infante, is counting on that.
While automotive trade shows are likely to persist as a way of showing off major manufacturers’ freshest fleets, they’re losing relevance. Automakers continue to option smaller, less trade-focused events, while the big shows are giving ground to the likes of CES. The most recent example involves nine brands that have decided to forego next month’s International Motor Show in Frankfurt, Germany.
Alfa Romeo, Fiat, Nissan, Infiniti, Jeep, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Peugeot, DS, and Volvo, have all decided not to attend the IAA for 2017. Ian Fletcher, principal analyst for IHS Markit, claims automakers feel it’s becoming increasingly difficult to justify spending the colossal fees associated with taking part in a major auto show when they measure that investment against the perceived effect on sales.
“I would question what the translation rate is between attendance on public days to transactions,” he said. “I bet most customers now are happier to do research online.”
Subaru is an automaker known for offering a highly specific brand identity and a quality product, but compelling styling has always been low on its list of priorities. While acknowledging the retro charm of its earliest Japanese models, it can be said that the company has never produced a particularly handsome automobile. The SVX was futuristic and interesting, but it wasn’t overtly sexy. And the visual appeal of the old bug-eye WRX or BRAT hinges entirely upon how oddball they were.
After 63 years in the business, Subaru finally wants to change that and place a stronger emphasis on design. However, despite having the least visually stimulating lineup in recent memory, the company could probably stay the course and still be fine. Subaru has done incredibly well in the United States. Annual U.S. deliveries hovered around 187,000 vehicles from 2002 to 2008 but grew fiercely in the following years. Subaru had a record-breaking 615,132 sales in 2016 and looks prepared to break that record this year.
So, why even bother changing anything when the current recipe works so well?
Convertible sales have slid steadily for a while now and “everyday” droptops like the difficult to praise Chrysler Sebring have vanished from the automotive market. With the exception of a few premium options from Germany, fun in the sun doesn’t seem to coincide with daily driving anymore.
With their sales volume now trumped even by impractical, short-ranged electric vehicles, lidless cars are less popular than ever. In fact, America’s most popular convertible isn’t even a car (Jeep Wangler), and today’s remaining open-air options are either performance focused, comically small, or extremely expensive European luxury items. That’s likely to remain the case for some time, considering it took us over a decade to get here.
Mercedes-Benz CEO Dietmar Exler thinks that the biggest problem autonomous vehicles will have to face is human drivers being dicks to them. We anticipate other unforeseen problems, but Exler’s prediction of automotive bullying seems like a safe bet.
There’s a number of ways to kick sand in a self-driving car’s face.
Baby Boomers are getting too old for traditional sports cars. Their purchasing power may have ushered in the initial success of the muscle car (as well as its resurrection), but no 70-plus-year-old wants to obliterate their pelvis crawling into a low-slung coupe or have its rock-hard suspension rattle the dentures out of their mouth.
That leaves the younger generations to champion the sports car going forward, and — I am very sad to say — they will not be up to the task.