A slew of new crossovers, SUVs and hatchbacks -- in other words, passenger vehicles that aren't sedans or coupes -- were prominent among the new-model introductions at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, whose media preview started Monday.
U.S. consumers increasingly are purchasing new vehicles that offer more space and utility than standard sedans, along with comparable fuel efficiency, a trend that was evident throughout 2015. The shift appears headed for continuation, as reflected by new models from Buick, Chrysler and Volkswagen (VLKAY) .
General Motors' (GM) - Get ReportBuick division is importing a China-built Envision crossover to the U.S., a move that has provoked remarkably little trade tension between the two countries. GM, which sold 140,000 units of the model last year in China, exhibited the vehicle Sunday evening in Detroit.
Autodata, an independent provider of automotive sales data, said sales of what it calls sport wagons and crossovers in the U.S. grew 18.5% in 2015 to 4,551,632, while sales of midsize sedans and coupes fell 2% to 3,515,757.
Karl Brauer, an analyst for Kbb.com, explained that SUVs used to suffer from a series of issues when compared to cars. They had stiff ride quality, tippy handling, poor fuel efficiency and minimal feature content. But "over the past 20 years each of these issues has been addressed by advances in engineering and technology. Now SUVs offer car-like ride, handling and fuel efficiency while still offering increased cargo capacity, elevated seat height and a rugged image -- the three initial factors that made them appealing."
The compact crossover and SUV segment has been one of the hottest, increasing 20% last year to more than 2.4 million units.
But even the highest-cost luxury brands are stretching long-held images and concepts to create new offerings. This year, Volkswagen's Bentley brand, long a sedan preferred by royals and potentates, is introducing the Bentayga, an opulent model that can cost $300,000 and more, depending on options.
VW's mass-market Volkswagen brand is introducing a new Tiguan. The second-generation crossover is slated to come to market in 2017, so VW is showing an electric concept that features that same general look and layout. VW has said the current generation Tiguan is too small and expensive for the U.S.
Fiat Chrysler's (FCAU) - Get Report Chrysler division will show a new minivan, a multi-purpose vehicle that appeared first in the early 1980s and has been a mainstay of the brand since then. Chrysler is among the last big players, including Honda (HMC) - Get Report and Toyota (TM) - Get Report , that haven't dropped out of the minivan category as crossovers and SUVs have soaked up demand for vehicles with more utility than sedans.
Auto executives were quick to reassure that sedans aren't endangered as a vehicle category entirely, but as crossover and SUV models proliferate some individual sedans could be discontinued.
Doron Levin is the host of "In the Driver Seat," broadcast on SiriusXM Insight 121, Saturday at noon, encore Sunday at 9 a.m.
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.