Category Busters

As a new year begins, and the automotive press works through its “best of” lists to close out 2013, I can’t help but wonder about the year that wasn’t.  We don’t have an affordable electric vehicle that will travel more than 200km on a single charge.  We don’t have a charging system that will top up that battery in the same time as it takes to fill up an internal combustion engine powered vehicle.

We do have a great selection of vehicles from which to choose.  Various acronyms and abbreviations have given us SUV (Sport Utility Vehicle) , CUV (Cross-over Utility Vehicle), Sport Ute, Sport Cute, 4DSC (four-door sports car), SAV (Sport Activity Vehicle), to describe parts of our automotive smorgasbord.

It’s time for someone to conjure up a new category buster.  Something that sets the industry on its ear, and has the public clamouring for it. A vehicle that satisfies a niche, but has mainstream appeal.  What might that be?  Let’s look at a few vehicles from the past that fit this definition.

The Ford Model T was the first successfully mass-produced car.  You could have it in any colour, as long as it was black.  The Ford Model T is a category buster because it was affordable.  After a few years in production, Mr. Ford simultaneously cut the price of the car, and increased his worker’s pay.  When asked why he did this, he replied that the cars cost too much and the workers weren’t paid enough.  Imagine a car executive taking that stance today.

The Chevrolet Nomad, produced in the late 1950’s, took a conventional Chevrolet full-size body and combined it with a wagon back-end in a two-door configuration.  Sedan, coupe and wagon came together in a very popular package for growing post-war families.

The Swingin’ Sixties was personified by the Ford Mustang.  A two-door, 2+2 coupe, it featured the classic sports car proportions of a long nose and a short rear deck.  Ford could barely keep up with demand in the first few years after the Mustang’s debut.

As Baby-Boomers married and continued their exodus to the suburbs, the minivan found a receptive audience.  As conceived by Chrysler, it was based on the K-car compact (for its day) platform to keep costs down, and built in a basic two-box design.  It had a sliding side door making it easy to get in and out in shopping mall parking lots, and could carry up to seven passengers.

As boomers matured and the ‘soccer mom’ image became a negative stereotype, consumers looked for alternatives that would provide the flexibility of a minivan but in a less utilitarian package.

The rise of the Sport Utility Vehicle found its hero model in the Ford Explorer, coming to the market in the early 1990s.  It had all the comforts of a large sedan, the carrying ability of a minivan (somewhat compromised by its large solid rear axle), and four conventional doors that eliminated the stigma of the workaday minivan.

Where does that leave us? We’ve had some interesting vehicles since the Explorer.  BMW’s rejuvenation of the Mini, the Mazda Miata (it will never be an MX-5 to me) and the superb Tesla S EV.  But these vehicles don’t sell in the quantities that define a category buster.  The best-selling car in Canada is not a car, but a pickup truck, the Ford F-150.  Ford sells thousands of F-150’s, so it has the volume to qualify.

If we look back on the category busting features of the vehicles to date, we find they are:

  • Affordable
  • Offer utility
  • Have a “sporting” look
  • Can carry at least four people

This would lead to the following definition of a new category buster, based on past attributes: A sub-$30,000 vehicle that can hold four to six people with a long nose, short rear deck, conventional doors, and, dare I say it, should come from Ford?

Then again, a true category buster will break entirely new ground, finding a formula for success where others have feared to tread. A modern Sony Walkman.  The automotive equivalent of the iPod.

I’d welcome your nominations for what you view as a category buster.

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