Are We Approaching the Death of Cars?
In 2016, the production of the Ford Focus ceased in Wayne, Michigan. Thereafter, Ford has imported all Focus models from overseas. But that news pales to the more recent revelation that Ford will discontinue the Focus, along with the Fiesta, Fusion, and Taurus. You might not notice the absence of the Taurus – Ford hasn’t very many of the brutish family sedan in years. But the Fusion and Focus were big sellers at the start of their latest generations, and the Fiesta ST model was a real cost-effective joy. As for the Focus, Ford will continue selling a lifted version called the Focus Active, but that’s it. Ford will also continue to offer the Mustang. After all, it’s the best-selling sports car in the world. It’s history is inextricable from the history of Ford generally. If Ford discontinued the Mustang, it would be a bitter pill to swallow. If Ford’s decisions aren’t inspired by a baseless antipathy for the car, what’s going on?
Death of Cars
It’s telling that Ford displaced the Focus from Michigan to accommodate the Bronco off-road SUV and Ranger on its production line. This is a direct response to the massive consumer demand for SUVs and trucks. Per Good Car, Bad Car, Canadians bought 95,582 midsize cars in 2016. That’s a 10.7% decrease from the preceding year and a 27.16% decrease from the five-year high of 131,222 in 2013. This is not a consequence of economic forces.
As car sales have plummeted, we’ve seen a commensurate rise in the sale of SUVs. In 2013, Canadian purchased 305,396 small crossovers. In 2016, that number jumped to 365,119, an increase of 16.37% (roughly the same increase as pickup trucks over the same period). Pickups and SUVs are arguably more suited to Canadian conditions than cars. At the very least, they resonate with buyers who have been emboldened by the low gas prices.
In 2012, instability in the Ukraine and supply problems in the Middle East resulted unexpectedly high gasoline prices here in Canada. What followed was fuel economy hysteria, and the peak of car sales highlighted above. People assumed the high prices would continue, especially in a society with growing concern for the environment. However, after the summer of that year, gas began to steadily drop in price. In 2016, fuel hit a decade low around $0.85/litre. This instilled consumers with confidence to keep buying larger and larger vehicles.
Now, in response to the change in demand, automakers are adjusting their supply. As mentioned, Ford is pushing the Fiesta and Taurus into an early retirement. But they’re not alone. GM is killing the Sonic, Impala, CTS, and XTS. And FCA already ditched the Dodge Dart and Chrysler 200. Automakers are replacing all these vehicles with trucks, SUVs, crossovers, and subcompact crossovers. But, what happens if the price of gas skyrockets again?
Renaissance du Car?
In the past, automakers have been criticised for following short-term buying trends too closely. If gas prices go up, and drivers want to abandon their gas-guzzling trucks, will they have too few options? Will Ford fight to revive the Fiesta? In short, no. That’s not going to be a problem, at least for Ford customers, because of the huge investment made in hybrid technology.
When you think about it, supplementing traditional gas engines with electric motors compensates for volatile gas prices, allows drivers to stay in the SUVs they love, and circumvents the problem of charging infrastructure. Buying a hybrid imposes no new constraints on drivers. You treat them exactly the same as gasoline-only vehicles. And with improvement in battery technology, electric and hybrid powertrains are becoming fun to drive. Ford recognises this, and wants to help people crossover to purely electric vehicles.
Beginning soon, Ford’s mainstream, high-volume crossovers like the Escape and Explorer will all be offered with hybrid powertrains starting in 2020. But that’s just the start. Ford is also planning hybrid setups for performance vehicles like the Bronco off-road SUV and the Mustang. Even the F-150 will have a hybrid powertrain with a battery pack doubling as a portable generator. Finally Ford will be releasing electric-only vehicles like the Mach 1 performance SUV which is supposedly inspired by the Mustang.
As you can see, as Ford prioritises SUVs, drivers will still have tons of choice to keep things interesting. Plus, the Focus and Mustang will still remain vitally important to the brand over the next few years.