Automakers are introducing new large cars with a healthy dose of styling pizazz, but it seems doubtful that will be enough to significantly revive sales in the slumping segment.
At the recent New York auto show, General Motors introduced a freshened Buick LaCrosse. Hyundai, which last year went to market with a new Azera, unveiled a freshened Equus, its first luxury offering launched at the same show a couple of years ago. A year ago at the New York show, Toyota unveiled the vastly redesigned Toyota Avalon, on sale since December 2012, and GM took the wraps off the also substantially restyled Chevrolet Impala, going on sale soon. In January at the Detroit auto show, Chrysler displayed special editions of its Chrysler 300.
All of the new vehicle activity suggests growth and potential in the large car segment, but such is not the case. Sales of large cars have been on a continuous slide since 2002 when they stood at 1.42 million vehicles for 8.4 percent of the total market. As some key players, including the Ford Crown Victoria abandoned the market and consumers downsized to more fuel-efficient models, large car sales slumped to an all-time low in 2012, totaling 492,831 sales for a scant 3.4 percent of the market — about the size of the electric/hybrid vehicle market. In contrast, the midsize car segment — now the industry's largest segment — combined with small cars and small utilities have grown.
February saw an uptick in large car market share to 3.9 percent on the strength of the redesigned Toyota Avalon, which saw a February-to-February sales increase of 63 percent for its best month since November 2007. The relatively new Azera kicked in nearly 800 units of incremental sales (795 vs 13 units), and the Dodge Charger posted a year-over-year sales hike of 41 percent. All other cars in the segment reported sales declines from a year ago.
As is generally true in any vehicle segment, the newest offerings win and can raise sales and share for the segment. In the large car segment specifically, hefty fleet orders also buoy sales. However, it appears the glory days for large cars are history.
Still, in spite of dim prospects overall, new large cars, many with snazzy styling and much improved fuel economy, abound. Here's a rundown and assessment some of the newest models:
2014 Buick LaCrosse: Unveiled at the 2013 New York auto show, the 2014 Buick LaCrosse is targeted at markets in China and the U.S., where it goes on sale this summer. Its freshening includes some exterior — front and rear styling — and interior improvements, including new seats, upgraded materials and a revamped center stack and console for what Buick says is "greater simplicity."
Buick may be able to stem the LaCrosse's lengthy sales slump somewhat but huge gains are unlikely. Any gains will come from traditional (older) Buick drivers, in contrast to the younger buyers the brand is targeting with the Buick Encore and Buick Verano.
Hyundai Equus: The 2014 Hyundai Equus gets just an exterior refresh with no big style changes or under-the-skin changes. Similarly, the interior has been freshened with a larger navigation screen, optional tan leather with dark piping and the dual monitors for the passengers in back. Most significant is that almost all of the features in the Equus now come standard. The only option now is whether to upgrade to the Ultimate package, which adds the dual monitors, cooled seats with adjustable lumbar support and a few other features.
Hyundai made a big splay at the New York auto show a couple of years ago when it introduced the new flagship Equus. Gaining much attention was the iPad that came with it. While Hyundai puts a positive spin on the Equus tale, it has hardly been a runaway success. In good months it sells under 400 units and often with huge incentives. At times, the Equus has had a very high days-to-turn (the time from a vehicle arriving at a dealership until it is sold). It is unlikely an almost imperceptible refresh is going to move the needle for the Equus.
Toyota Avalon: The 2013 Toyota Avalon is a stark departure from the past. It is the first car that received the personal touch of Akio Toyoda, Toyota president and CEO as well as grandson of the company's founder. Toyoda has vowed to infuse Toyotas with more style and personality. The Avalon is the first for infusion and it has won praise for succeeding in meeting Toyoda's goal. In addition to the dynamic new look, the cabin has a more luxury, higher quality feel. Room for passengers and cargo is spacious. The ride is firmer and the handling more responsive. The Avalon also added a hybrid version. Toyota also is billing it as a very American car. It was designed in California, engineered in Michigan and 90 percent of its parts come from North America.
The Avalon is off to a great start, with February sales up 63 percent from a year ago for its best month since November 2007.
Chevrolet Impala: GM adopted a similar mantra as Toyota did with the Avalon when it revamped the Impala. The 2014 Impala "has moved into the 21st century" with its contemporary exterior styling, features a "genuinely nice interior," and "drives like a modern car," as Edmunds.com reviewers noted with some hint of surprise. The car has tremendous cabin and cargo room. It comes with a V6 engine; a four-cylinder comes later in its life.
Chevy sells north of 15,000 copies of the Impala every month. The challenge will be to find new buyers, namely retail ones. About 70 percent or more of Impalas of late have gone to rental fleets.
The Chrysler 300 was mildly freshened in the last couple of years and, to continue having something to focus on in advertising and with customers, the automaker has been rolling out special editions of the 300. The most recent is the Chrysler 300 Motown. Unveiled at the Detroit auto show in January, the Chrysler 300 Motown includes 100 tracks from original Motown recording artists loaded on the Uconnect 8.4's SD card reader. Its debut is timed with the spring launch of the debut of Motown: The Musical on Broadway. Motown's Berry Gordy stars in car's ads. The Chrysler 300 Glacier edition can be ordered with an unusual option, a $1,500 black painted roof. The Chrysler 300C John Varvatos Limited Edition is intended be more refined than other 300s. Varvatos, the Detroit-born men's clothing designer, added his touch and stars in the ads, along with rock star Iggy Pop. Chrysler says to look for more special edition models that emphasize the company's Detroit roots.
Chrysler, starved of new product for years by its series of owners, has done a stunning job under Fiat leadership of putting lipstick — well, we won't say pigs — but of doing the best it can freshening its existing line with minimal resources as it awaits development of replacement. The vehicles — and their accompanying advertisements — have struck a chord with buyers.