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The sedan fights back as more consumers pick SUVs

The sedan used to be king of the road, but not any more.

Why settle for four doors and a trunk when an SUV gives you more cargo area for luggage, or the dog? Why sit low on the road for better handling when you can sit tall in a crossover and see farther in traffic? Why tell the world you're boring and practical with four doors when a two-door coupe is sleeker and younger at heart?

Most manufacturers now sell more crossovers and SUVs than sedans and coupes, but the recent Detroit auto show showed there's still plenty of life in those four-doors-and-a-trunk. "Why should SUVs get all the glory?" asked Toyota's president Akio Toyoda, introducing the 2018 Camry, America's best-selling light vehicle for the last 15 years. "After all, this segment is still one of the largest in the industry."

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The Camry is built on Toyota's new Global Architecture platform, which means passengers sit a little lower to the ground and the bodywork is stiffer, for improved handling. This is the overall advantage of sedans and coupes over crossovers and SUVs, which sit taller on the road and so don't drive around corners quite so flatly and naturally.

"I understand people like SUVs, and the market has spoken on that," says Stephen Beatty, corporate vice-president for Toyota Canada. "People like the higher driving position and they like the ability to throw a bunch of stuff in the back.

"But the reality is that if you really love driving, the choice has got to be a car. And we want to make sure Toyota is putting its very best foot forward in that space."

Canada's best-selling Toyota is now the built-in-Ontario RAV4 SUV, after years of dominance by the compact Corolla sedan. Other car makers also have SUVs as their top sellers, though the biggest seller, the Honda Civic, still outsells the Honda CR-V – just. It's accepted that every maker should have a utility vehicle in its lineup if it's to stay competitive, regardless of its actual utility.

However, don't write the sedan off just yet.

"There's been no shortage of challenge for the sedan market, but this is still the third-largest segment in Canada," says Stephen Lester, managing director of Infiniti Canada. "It appeals to consumers who still enjoy driving, consumers who don't necessarily have the chore of lugging equipment and gear up to the cottage, or don't have three-plus kids in the household."

Infiniti's parent company, Nissan, debuted its V-Motion 2.0 concept sedan at the Detroit auto show this year. Its wrap-around glass and floating C-pillar almost makes it look like a flattened crossover. There's plenty of high-tech space in the cabin and it's intended as a vehicle to demonstrate Nissan's future designs.

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Also at the show, BMW introduced its latest generation of the 5 Series sedan. There's an SUV equivalent in the X5 and even a sports-oriented SUV in the X6, but the mid-sized car is still popular with buyers. Last year, BMW introduced the compact M2 sports sedan, and the year before, its full-size 7 Series sedan.

"We just closed our 26th consecutive year of growth, and much of that success can be contributed to our sedans," says Marc Belcourt, BMW Group Canada's director of corporate communications. "Our flagship BMW 7 Series saw a sales increase of 75 per cent over the previous year, and the BMW 2 Series and BMW 5 Series also saw sales increases."

Both BMW and Mercedes offer "four-door coupes" that are actually sedans with a coupe-style fastback sloping roof. This makes them look sleek and sporty while staying practical for access to the rear seat. Kia also just introduced a similar style of sedan with its performance-oriented Stinger GT.

It's not just about the sport, though. Beatty says that sedans and coupes are lighter and often more aerodynamic, which have much-needed benefits for gas consumption and tailpipe emissions.

"Let's be clear about this – an SUV is just a station wagon on steroids," he says. "The station wagon became a minivan, the minivan became a crossover/SUV, and it will mutate again. But with the direction of emissions and fuel economy and so forth, you have to continue lightweighting vehicles. My sense of it is you'll find those vehicles becoming more car-like."

This is one reason why Toyota invested so heavily in the Camry, with its three all-new engines.

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"One thing about the auto industry and consumer tastes is that everything goes around in a big circle, and that circle will return to cars some day," says Beatty. "When it does, you want to make sure you've got the right product positioned well for consumers, and the reputation of building not only a quality product, but a fun one."

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