The auto industry has always had a knack for rolling out new models at just the wrong time. Some fear that’s about to happen again.
When gas prices spiked past $4 a gallon in 2008, automakers realized they lacked smaller, more efficient cars like hybrids that embraced gas-saving technologies. In the past few years, automakers bet that midsize and compact sedans would reign supreme only to discover that buyers really wanted big SUVs again as gas prices fell.
This week, a bevy of these fuel-thirsty, big-ticket vehicles will roll into the New York Auto Show along with a few hot performance cars. (The show’s media days are April 12-13, and it opens to the public April 14.)
Models will include a new, full-size Lincoln Navigator, a new version of the Range Rover and a 707-horsepower version of the Jeep Grand Cherokee.
“The country has gone SUV crazy,” says Ian Beavis, chief strategy officer for auto industry consulting firm AMCI. “You’ve gone from the sublime to the ridiculous.”
But the sport utilities appear as the industry enters a crossroads after a year of record sales. On one hand, there are plenty of good signs for automakers: The economy continues to grow, consumer confidence is high, unemployment is low, the stock market has reached record levels and credit — auto loans in particular — is still easy to come by.
On the other, some concerns are emerging. The number of unsold new cars is building to worrisome levels. Edmunds.com says last month’s backlog hit its highest level since 2004.
With big dominating the market now, the plug-in, hybrid and very small cars that have held the spotlight at the auto show over much of the past decade are being pushed aside. Factors like a car’s styling and expected reliability are now tops among buyers, pushing aside fuel economy, says Dave Sargent, vice president of global automotive for consultants J.D. Power.
Many of the models being shown this week in New York will fall at the high end of the price spectrum, exactly the kind of cars that buyers may shun if the economy takes a dive.
“Clearly the automakers feel like there is going to be a market for these over-the-top cars,” says Karl Brauer, executive publisher at Cox Automotive. “There is more potential for downside than upside in the auto market right now.”
Here are some of the models and trends to watch at the show:
The ultimate muscle car
Most people associate muscle cars with the Pontiac GTOs, Plymouth Hemi Cudas and Ford Mustang Boss 302s of the 1960s and early 1970s.
But some of the biggest increases in horsepower have come over the past two decades, the result of evolving engine technology. Fiat Chrysler is taking it to new heights.
The automaker shook up the industry with its 707-horsepower Hellcat V-8 for Dodge Challenger and Charger. Now comes a new, more powerful engine that will go in a Challenger. It becomes the Dodge Challenger Demon.
Just how powerful this monster will be, we’ll need to wait to find out.The horsepower rating of this new monster engine is yet to be announced.
SUVs get more deluxe
Land Rover continues to build on its Range Rover line of plush, go-anywhere SUVs by introducing a smaller version it calls the Velar.
Having had its global debut in Geneva, the Velar now comes to New York. The name derives from the Latin word “velare,” which means “to veil or cover.”
Not to be outdone, Lincoln will show the Navigator — a massive luxury SUV that’s likely to see a new wave of interest after a surge of sales among the largest family haulers. Sales of luxury SUVs were up 5.6% in the first three months of the year, while overall vehicle sales were down 1.5%, Autodata reports.
Volvo is trying to build on the success of its full-size vehicles with the new version of the smaller XC60 SUV.
General Motors’ Buick is trying to cash in as well by introducing a fancier version of its Enclave SUV, called the Avenir, which adds even more features and luxury touches.
Sedans — remember those?
Automakers have been spending so much time focusing on SUVs that the once-dominant midsize sedan is no longer getting as much attention. SUVs and crossovers overtook cars as the most popular vehicles in the U.S. in 2014, IHS Markit reported.
Yet Hyundai will introduce an important one, the redo of its midsize Sonata. Mercedes-Benz will show a concept sedan from its AMG performance unit. And going into the show, Buick has revealed two variants of its Regal sedan — a fastback and a wagon.
Performance cars get hotter
As a counterpoint to the raw power of the Demon, Honda will show its new, hot pocket rocket: the Civic Type R. The Type R has been sold in Europe, but it has never made its way to American shores.
Porsche has a bunch of hot performance cars coming as well.
“Green” cars pushed to the background
In recent years, automakers fell over themselves touting their growing portfolios of alternatively powered cars. Now they can’t seem to run far enough away from them.
In New York, Honda will show the plug-in hybrid and battery electric versions of its Clarity, a five-seat sedan that is currently only available for lease as a hydrogen fuel-cell car in California.
“We still have low gas prices and expect those to continue for the next three to five years,” says Patrick Min, senior analyst for ALG. “That makes it a tough environment.”