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Death of full-size cars greatly exaggerated

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Several years ago, I asked then-GM vice-president Bob Lutz what he thought the prospects were for full-size automobiles, which were once the heart and soul of the American market.

"The full-size car is dead," he said.

That was an amazing statement from a top executive at an American car company, one whose market share had been slashed through a combination of bad products, disregard for the customer and intense competition.

But he was wrong.

Despite two OPEC oil embargoes, rising oil prices and Americans' changing tastes, the large car survives -- no thanks to the companies that had once held them up as the ultimate expression of an American car. Sadly, in recent years, it seemed as if they held such cars in contempt.

Consider GM large cars of several years ago: the Chevrolet Impala, Buick Lucerne and Cadillac DTS. All were modern and up-to-date when introduced but, aside from styling updates, the company let them wither into automotive senility. It was as if there was an assumption buyers of full-size domestic cars were among the most loyal and would buy any big boat the domestics put out.

Certainly that was the case at Ford, where the Ford Crown Victoria, Mercury Grand Marquis and Lincoln Town Car soldiered on for decades without a total redesign. Their platforms dated to 1979, which means their engineering was first initiated in 1974. Yet these cars were still on sale in 2010.

Leave it to Chrysler to prove large cars could be relevant.

The Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger were, and continue to be, fashionable, full-size and fun to drive. They prove large cars can attract a crowd beyond the aging blue-hairs Detroit assumed were the only audience for its cars. Given the benign neglect GM and Ford paid to the full-size fleet, this attitude proved a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Foreign automakers had no such issue. The BMW 7 Series, Mercedes-Benz S-Class, Lexus LS and Audi A8 all continue to be extravagantly equipped, beautifully built and desired by buyers who can and can't afford them.

Lower in the market, the Toyota Avalon and Hyundai Azera are two artfully realized big boys that have captured the notice of traditional American car buyers. Meanwhile, the Chrysler and Dodge are still wonderful cars, with great handling, an easy-to-use infotainment system and distinctive styling.

Ford and GM have responded, with mixed results.

The Ford Taurus and Lincoln MKS are both large cars with large trunks, but suffer from surprisingly cramped interiors that don't feel as spacious as they should. GM's big cars, the Buick LaCrosse and Cadillac XTS, are mechanically similar. The XTS is the better car, with a beautiful interior and one of the most technically advanced instrument panels available on any car. The Buick is very nice, but outward visibility is severely restricted and, as with the Ford vehicles, the interior feels remarkably small.

Joining the fray is the 2014 Impala, an all-new version of the car that reclaims its place as the quintessential American full-size car, with handsome, sporty styling, a useful, roomy cabin and a price close to that of an upper-level mid-size car.

Welcome back, full-size domestic cars. We missed you.

-- The Virginian-Pilot


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 19, 2013 E5

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