Craig and Tiffany Sollman are the kind of car buyers America’s sedan makers once owned: He’s 41, she’s 33 and their baby boy, Micah, just turned three months old. The Sollmans, though, never really gave much thought to a sedan before plunking down $24,000 for a tan Toyota RAV4 sport utility vehicle.
“The ride is great, it gets good gas mileage and there’s enough room in the back for baby accessories,” Craig said in an e-mail because he and his wife are too busy with Micah to chat on the phone. “My wife’s best friend delivered a daughter within a month of us, and they also went out and got a Toyota RAV4.”
The family sedan’s decades of dominance -- starting with the Chevy Bel Air in the 1950s through the Toyota Camry of today -- are coming to an end. Compact SUVs including the RAV4, Honda CR-V and Ford Escape are the new family car of choice. Small sport-utes started outselling the Camry, Honda Accord and other midsized sedans last summer; this year, they will overtake traditional cars to command the largest share of the U.S. auto market for the first time, according to researcher LMC Automotive.
“Sedans used to be the bread-and-butter segment, but now compact SUVs have become the go-to vehicle,” said Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of forecasting at LMC in Troy, Michigan. “There’s really been a shift in taste across the board.”
Driving this dramatic departure is a society that likes to ride high and live large. The modern SUVs bear little resemblance to the rugged roustabouts of yore. They don’t guzzle: A CR-V gets 33 miles per gallon on the highway. They don’t rattle your bones: Many are built on smooth-riding car chassis. They’re affordable: The average price is $26,400, just $700 more than a midsize car, according to Edmunds.com.
They’re also more broadly appealing than the small SUVs Toyota and Honda introduced in the late 1990s. Back then, they were disparaged as “cute-utes,” lacking the power and prestige of the big Hummers and Navigators Detroit was churning out.
Today, those cute-utes have morphed -- much like flip phones begat smart phones -- into stylish models packed with the latest safety and infotainment technology.