Monday, September 07, 2009

Identify, automobiles, and the wagon

The connection between people's identities and their automobiles in America is both fascinating and disturbing. There is simply no other object that shouts so strongly who one is or what one wants to be. A house certainly counts but not as many people see it. It can be hidden away, address undisclosed. Clothes matter more in Europe than in the U.S. One's car however is a public object that provides identify and also to which we imbue such a high degree of affection that the mechanical object because almost an animal (and of course literally named so in some cases). I'm certainly guilty of this to a greater extent than most. I often remember someone's car before I remember their name.

These thoughts rose to the surface recently as controversy and questions appeared in the last few weeks around the launch of Honda's Accord Crosstour vehicle on Facebook. (Warning: here's where this conversation becomes very niche.) The vehicle is a hatchback version of the four door Accord and the photos on the Facebook site have elicited some very negative comments. Things got so bad that Honda posted a note to the fan page saying, effectively (1) the photos didn't do it justice, so here's some more that you can also hate on (2) it's not a wagon nor designed for wagon buyers so if you want the Euro Accord wagon, that's a different topic and (3) the styling isn't for everyone but it works well for people who want a crossover, so if you don't like it don't buy it.

This "crossover" category has been done before in various cars but epitomized by the Lexus RX series. That's not the Crossroad. No, what the Crossroad and it's ilk are really is a redo of the large five door hatch. Why Honda et al think they can do better than the Mazda 6, for example, which had such a variant a few years ago I don't know. But several vehicles emerging at the higher end of the automotive spectrum with the Porsche Panamera, BMW 5 Series GT (Edmunds LINK) and Audi A5 Sportback (Edmunds LINK), all similar to the Crosstour in utility. Toyota has already launched its version, the Venza, for which the Crosstour is the sole U.S. direct competitor. The automakers' gamble is that people want something that (a) doesn't spell "SUV" (b) is or appears to be stylish and luxurious (c) is more utilitarian than a sedan but (d) doesn't spell "wagon".

(Until these cars came onto the scene, the Toyota Prius was the only above-subcompact 5 door hatch on the U.S. scene. Does that car spell a, b, c and d above? Totally aside from its fuel economy, it's a car with almost magical space utilization, something that might have sold well aside from its hybrid engine not just because of it.)

This "doesn't spell wagon" thing is an anathema to a niche group of people. They (we) see wagons as the epitome of automotive design: efficient, sleek, utilitarian, stylish. Many on the Facebook site had hoped for the svelte and beautiful wagon version of the European Accord (which in the U.S., in sedan form, is sold as the Acura TSX). Many of us, I bet, covet the BMW 5 Series wagon (which barely makes sales of 1000 per year and is in danger of disappearing in the U.S.). What we got instead is a car that appears to be some amalgamation of bulbous shapes from the successful Nissan Murano merged with the more classical proportions of the very nicely designed U.S. Accord. The Crosstour targets a different audience than the wagon crowd. What Honda is playing to with the Crosstour is a mainstream group that isn't so obsessed with cars (and also, perhaps, doesn't have the time) to become fans on a Facebook page of a CAR. What Honda got on its Facebook page was, in part, people like me for whom Soichiro Honda is a god and a legend and for whom Honda is a company that is almost morally superior because it focuses on efficient and perfectly engineered vehicles like the Civic or the Cub (and doesn't make a V8).

It's reminiscent of the controversy when Porsche launched its Cayenne SUV and Porsche-philes were up in arms. That vehicle saved Porsche and enabled it to get the money to continue its 911 and Boxster magic (and also enabled it to immolate itself in a fantasy of automotive dominance over VW and the world, but that's an unrelated story). Hopefully cars like the Crosstour will sell tremendously well and allow Honda to stay true to its roots as a company that cares about engines, engineering, excellence and independence.

Being in the same category as the Porsche Panamera can't be all bad, can it? So Honda, rack up sales of the Crosstour and then throw us an Acura TSX wagon née Euro Accord Tourer (third photo at right). Please also drop us a Civic 5 door hatch with push button start, six speed standard, and diesel (fourth photo at right).

Crosstour on Facebook
Autoblog: Official Honda Crosstour Facebook page all lit up with early negativity
CNET: Bloggers Bad-mouth Honda's new hatchback
TTAC: wagon comparison review

(REVISED) For those who care, here are the real wagons plus the variants on the U.S. market. I am quite sure nothing has been missed: Mazda is definitely out of the running with the redesign of their "6" and Mercedes as of this writing has no United States wagon offerings aside from the R Class mentioned below, though it's expected the true wagon version of the E class will return. I haven't included small hatches like the VW Rabbit, Honda Fit and Insight, Subaru Impreza, Kia Rio, Mazda 3, Suzuki whatever. And of course I haven't included all the crossovers like the Nissan Murano, Ford Edge, Mazda CX7 and CX9 etc etc etc etc.

UPDATED TRUE Wagons (typically squared off variants of sedans, but also other squared back offerings)
Acura TSX (2009-10-28 just announced for late 2010! LINK)
Audi A3, A4, A6
BMW 3 Series, 5 Series (5 Series wagon dead for the 2011 model year)
Cadillac CTS Sportswagon
Chevrolet HHR (not sure if this is being killed off)
Chrysler PT Cruiser (I think this is being killed off)
Hyundai Elantra Touring
Lincoln MKT
Mini Cooper Clubman
Saab 9-3 and 9-5 SportCombis
Scion xB (no sedan variant but this is definitely a wagon)
Subaru Outback (the Impreza is a hatchback)
Toyota Venza
Volvo V50, V70, XC70
VW Jetta, Passat

Small wagons that due to their height are slightly more van-like
Kia Rondo
Mazda 5

Some people think these are wagons but they're more like small hatchbacks (angled backs)
Dodge Caliber
Toyota Matrix (used to be more of a wagon in an older iteration)

Larger hatchbacks
Aston Martin Rapide (just announced)
Bugatti 16C Galibier (just announced)
BMW 5 Series GT
Honda Accord Crosstour
Honda Insight
Porsche Panamera
Toyota Prius

Looks like a large hatchback but isn't
Lexus GS

BIG Country Squire-type wagons
Audi Q7 (this thing is massive--it just goes on and on and on)
Ford Flex (don't tell me it's a crossover)
Mercedes R Class (same kinda BIG wagon as the Ford Flex)

Example wagons that blur the line but shouldn't confuse people into thinking they're SUVs
Honda CRV
Mitsubishi Outlander
Subaru Forester
Toyota RAV4

Japanese cubes
Honda Element
Kia Soul
Nissan Cube

Recently "dead" wagons
Chrysler Pacifica (still listed on their website)
Dodge Magnum
Ford Taurus X
Pontiac Vibe (same as Toyota Matrix but more squared in back)
and perhaps my favorite of all, the 2001-2005 Lexus IS Sportcross. Now THAT's a nice looking 5 door hatch variant of a sedan!
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