Detroit auto show consumer guide: Sedans

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Sedans have taken a backseat to SUVs in U.S. market share. The iconic BMW 3-series, for example, is now outsold by the boxier X3 sport ute. The Honda Accord and Toyota Camry have gotten sexier remakes in recent years to emphasize the inherent beauty of the low sedan shape, but even they are outsold by SUVs in the lineup.

Detroit brands are leaving the U.S. sedan market, but Asian and European automakers see an opportunity with sedans to bring in new customers.

Toyota Prius AWD-e

Toyota Prius AWD-e

What it is: The Prius family gets its first all-wheel drive for northern climates like Michigan. The feat is accomplished by changing from lithium-ion batteries to nickel metal-hydride (better for cold weather) and adding an electric motor to the rear (look ma, no prop shaft to the rear to save interior space). Mileage suffers a bit compared to front-wheel drive, but it still hits the magic 50 mpg number. Other upgrades include refreshed styling for a less-angry face and black console to replace that blinding white-porcelain sink look.

Payne’s take: Rejoice, northern tree-huggers, the all-wheel drive Prius has arrived! Don’t expect Jeep Wrangler off-road capability, though. For a $1,400 premium over a standard $25,000 Prius, the all-wheel drive system is designed to optimize grip on snowy roads, not traverse the Yukon. The all-wheel drive system reverts to front-wheel drive (unless necessary for added grip) over 6 miles per hour, and ceases working altogether over 43 miles per hour. With Prius, fuel economy is always the priority.

The 2020 Volkswagen Passat

Volkswagen Passat

What it is: The roomy Passat gets styling and interior upgrades for 2020, though it maintains the car’s aging, eight-year-old NMB architecture rather than shifting to VW’s modern MQB chassis that undergird its Golf and Jetta brethren. Premium styling updates include a new fascia and “Passat” letters across the trunk lid. A big, standard eight-inch screen dominates a redesigned upscale dash. Power comes from the good ol’ 174-horse turbo-4 mated to a 6-speed tranny. Alas, the optional 280-horse V-6 has been put out to pasture.

Payne’s take: Detroit automakers are shelving their sedan lineups, the Japanese are all in with all-new cars ... and, well, VW is somewhere in between. The Passat is a half-hearted upgrade as VW won’t retool its Tennessee plant for production on the brand’s sensational MQB chassis. Clearly, VW doesn’t see the payback in the U.S. market on the investment. I drove the MQB-based version of Passat in Europe a few years back and it was sensational — an Audi in V-dub clothing with nimble handling and digital instrumentation. The new Passat will soldier on in the U.S. market, but it’s not the best VW can do.

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Lincoln Continental

Lincoln Continental Coach Door Edition

What it is: For Lincoln’s 80th anniversary (the nameplate got its start as an exclusive car made for Edsel Ford in 1939), the Continental will produce a special edition on 80 cars with rear coach doors — popularly known as suicide doors — which are hinged toward the back. The car will be fully loaded to Black Label specs, including 30-way front seats, acres of white leather and a 400-horse, twin-turbo V-6. Price: north of $100,000.

Payne’s take: Lincoln’s got its groove back with the sexy Navigator and Aviator SUVs, and the flagship Continental is getting in on the action. The sedan joins the Rolls-Royce family (which debuted its suicide door-equipped Cullinan SUV at the exclusive Gallery showing ahead of the auto show) as the only vehicle in production equipped with suicide doors. To prevent the doors from dangerously swinging open at speed, they won’t operate over 2 miles per hour.