Ask Jack: My Name Is Camry McLeod, and I Cannot Die?

“The night of the fight, you may feel a slight sting. That’s pride f***ing with you. F*** pride. Pride only hurts. It never helps.” Recognize that quote? It’s from Pulp Fiction, of course. There’s only so much wisdom you can take out of any Quentin Tarantino movie, but if you’re looking for some, there it is.

Unfortunately for you earnest advice takers out there, the auto business runs on pride. From the websites to the styling studios, from the wash rack to the RenCen, you’ll find insecure, petty, miserable people who allow their perpetually wounded pride to make astoundingly indefensible business decisions on their behalf. Here’s an example: I once worked at a dealership that was pretty much run into the ground by a pair of incompetent, dishonest managers. The owner was despondent and he had pretty much decided to sell the franchise, but at the last moment he changed his mind, took some good advice, and brought in a fellow who was kind of a superstar but also kind of a loose cannon.

The dealership turned around in two quarters flat. Sales and CSI hadn’t been that high in years. There was just one problem. The owner was this prissy, cowardly dude who never felt sufficiently respected by his larger-than-life manager. So he canned said manager despite the results and put in a meek, perpetually confused dude who was universally despised by both the customers and the dealership employees. This mook had just one thing going for him: he did whatever he was told by the owner, no matter how stupid or humiliating the task was. Needless to say, the dealership tanked big-time and New Guy had to be sent packing. Did the owner swallow his pride and bring back that son-of-a-bitch who made fun of him to his face but also made the cash register ring? Or did he find another properly respectful nonentity to ride that bitch all the way into the ground, thus saving his pride at the cost of a multi-million-dollar enterprise?

I can’t remember what happened in that case, but I can tell you a very similar story with much larger implications. I think that a lot of crossover owners out there are growing tired of their C-RAV-4QUINOXes. They’re tired of the miserable fuel economy, the road noise, the wind noise, the head-toss, and the general fact that a four-cylinder crossover is absolutely the most pathetic way to spend $30,000 on an automobile. They’d like to go back to a proper sedan, but that slight sting of pride is messing with ’em. Which brings me to this week’s question.

Michael writes,

Hi Jack,

With family sedans going the way of manual transmissions and station wagons, which four-door will be the last car standing? I’m guessing the Camry, but maybe a luxury/sports sedan. I suppose since most sedans share platforms with their SUV overlords, auto companies will continue to produce a limited number every year in perpetuity. A penny for your thoughts … there can be only one.

Nobody loves a good Highlander quote as much as I do, so this question was absolutely guaranteed to get a public airing. It’s also remarkably insightful. We’ve seen this pattern happen again and again in the car biz: A popular body style or form factor becomes unpopular. Everybody abandons it, but the last man out the door gets a considerable bump by virtue of being the last remaining choice. Sometimes it’s even enough of a bump to keep the platform viable until that particular body style comes back into favor.

Examples that come to mind: For years, the R107 Mercedes SL and the Chrysler LeBaron were about the only comfortable convertibles money could buy. It was enough to make up for platforms that were Cretaceous in origin (Benz) or absolutely without merit above economy class (Chrysler).

The full-sized Jeep SUV was rendered unique by age and market movement around it, which is why solid Grand Wagoneers are still worth as much as a brand-new Tahoe.

When Chrysler and GM abandoned the full-sized RWD market, it gave the Panther platform twenty years’ worth of raison d’etre that it would not have had otherwise. The same might be true for the Chevrolet Express full-sized van; it’s 22 years old but it’s the last vehicle of its type.

It’s easy to assume the sedan as we know it is disappearing. After all, this very site is currently promoting a “Mid-Sized Sedan Deathwatch” series. It’s also very easy to assume that the last purveyor of mid-sized sedans to leave the building will get an extended, highly profitable run for that final product. It could well be the Camry, although I’d put my money on the Accord because Honda is inherently even more conservative than Toyota when it comes to core product. By the same token, I’d say Mercedes-Benz would be the last luxury automaker to walk away from the three-box body style because the S-Class sedan is still a sort of visual Esperanto for “I’m earning $350,000 a year.”

With all that said, I’m going to make a prediction. I think that the midsize sedan deathwatch will come to an unsatisfactory conclusion. I think that we are just one little fuel crisis away from a return to Accords, Camrys, and whatever product Nissan is currently fielding in this segment, if indeed they still are. (Yes, that’s sarcasm. sheesh.) I think that the tide is ready to turn and that we are ready for a resurgence in sensible-shoe sedans.

It’s possible that I am wrong. I’ve learned to my sorrow time and again that most people will choose pride over results. Given the choice between expensive misery in a cute-ute and an undignified retreat to a sane sedan, aren’t there a lot of people who will listen to their pride? Don’t we all fall in love with the choices we make in this world, even when those choices are wrong?

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