The American Sedan: From Fleet-Filler to Fully Competitive
While station wagons and minivans offer more practical uses for space and sports, cars offer better handling, and there’s something quintessentially American about the sedan. As a result, cars like the Chevrolet Bel Air and Hudson Hornet are just as collectible as classic Ford Mustangs and Chevrolet Corvettes. With its lightweight and powerful engine, the Oldsmobile Rocket 88 was a precursor to the muscle car, but it also inspired what is widely considered the first rock ‘n’ roll song. Even today, sedans like the Chevrolet Malibu and Chrysler 300 have names that date back more than 50 years.
Unfortunately, between the oil embargo in the 1970s and the introduction of new sedans from Japan, American manufacturers began to lose their grip on the sedan market. Through the 1980s and into the 1990s, the problem wasn’t just that sales were slipping. For the most part, American sedans simply weren’t as weren’t as good as their foreign competitors. Heading into the 2000s, buying an American sedan was usually reserved for people trying to support American manufacturing jobs and people who wanted to save money. The Honda Accord and Toyota Camry were just better cars than their American competitors.
Not every American car made after 1980 was terrible or unable to compete, though. The Ford Taurus, for example, received plenty of praise and was a great success for Ford. With a design that was ahead of its time, the 1986 Ford Taurus made a huge impact in the car market, even being named to Car and Driver’s 10 Best list that year. The Dodge Neon also made a strong case for itself when it was introduced in 1994, with Car and Driver saying: “The lesson of the Neon is that common sense makes a really nifty car. Which is bad news for Saturn and other small cars that have relied on low prices. They simply can’t measure up for roominess and performance.”
Unfortunately, while those cars were competitive, desirable, and American, they ended up getting less competitive and less desirable over the years. By the mid-2000s, two of the cars that had once been examples of how America hadn’t lost its mojo turned into perfect examples of just how much mojo America had lost. They were both entirely outclassed by their competition, and while they were inexpensive, other companies offered significantly more content for the money.
For a lot of Americans who had already moved on to driving Hondas, Nissans, Toyotas, and Volkswagens, their only experience with American blandness came from either renting cars or driving ones provided by their companies. American car companies have traditionally provided large incentives for fleet sales, and rental car companies have especially taken advantage of those deals.
While the financial crisis devastated America’s automotive industry, the companies that made it through are back stronger than ever. Even better, the shock of the “carpocalypse” has apparently shocked the Big Three into building high-quality cars that are meant to seriously compete. Outselling the competition from Japan and now South Korea will always be a challenge, but for the first time in a long time, most American sedans are shockingly good.
In the midsize segment, there hasn’t been an American car worth buying in a while. Now, not only are American cars like the Ford Fusion and Chrysler 200 quite attractive, they’re also worth serious consideration anytime someone is looking to buy a car in the segment. General Motors still hasn’t really caught up with its Malibu, but there’s a redesigned one coming, and it’s sure to make a strong case for itself, especially in its hybrid form.
The full-size segment is where American sedans are truly shining. The least competitive American car in this segment is the Ford Taurus, but even so, it’s still pretty good, and a redesigned version is coming soon. Then there is the Dodge Charger and Chrysler 300. Whether you want muscle car-inspired looks and performance or class and near-luxury, one of the two is sure to fit your needs. The Chrysler 300 was named one of Wards Auto’s 10 best interiors for 2015, while the Dodge Charger can be had in 707-horsepower Hellcat trim.
Finally, the Chevrolet Impala came out of nowhere when it was redesigned for the 2014 model year. For 15 years or so, the Impala had been one of the least interesting cars on the road, but somehow Chevrolet got nearly everything right with the 2014 Impala. It’s large, comfortable, powerful, and offers tons of features, making it tempting even for people who might otherwise be interested in a luxury sedan. It might not be rear-wheel-drive like Impalas have historically been, but it received a nearly perfect score during Consumer Reports’ testing.
There are certainly more ways to measure a car than how Consumer Reports does it, but doing well in its tests requires a car to be well-rounded and multitalented. The fact that the Chevrolet Impala did so well is incredibly impressive, and it’s a true testament to how well the company did designing it. One of the only sedans that’s ever scored higher is the Tesla Model S, which is, of course, an American sedan.
Whether it’s all-electric sports sedans, near-luxury cruisers, tire-melting muscle sedans, or plain family sedans, American car companies have done an amazing job of reviving a segment that at one point looked like it would die out completely. In the same way that Ford and Chevrolet conceded the minivan market to foreign competition, American car companies could have conceded the sedan market to the competition, but they didn’t, and the results have been fantastic. For the first time in quite a while, drivers can be proud of driving an American sedan again.