Industry Analysis: 2018 Was The Year Of The Crossover. 2019 Will Be The Year Of The Brand

The state of pop culture in the 21st century is one of endless prequels, sequels, reboots, and adaptations. Star Trek and Star Wars? They’ll exist in some form or another until the heat death of the universe, and probably afterwards too. Stephen King novels? Seems like they’ll be perpetually adapted and re-adapted for movie goers and television audiences well into the next century. And James Cameron will discover immortality so he can keep making Avatar sequels forever, despite the fact that everyone stopped caring about the first movie once the credits appeared.

Hollywood’s business practices appear to have rubbed off on the auto industry, as several automakers are poised to reintroduce nameplates from at least a decade ago. But what does it all mean?

Nameplate rebooting isn’t exactly a new practice among automakers. Vehicles like the Camaro, Challenger, and Charger, and Thunderbird relied on their older counterparts when they hit dealer showrooms. But there is one important distinction between the old revivals and the new ones: contemporary nameplate resurrection is heavily tilted towards utility vehicles.

The first modern model resuscitation that didn’t involve a sports car or sedan occurred several years ago when Chrysler decided to slap the Pacifica name on its replacement for the Town & Country. If you’re like me, you were baffled when FCA announced its plan to name its latest minivan after an awkward looking crossover from the mid 2000’s that barely registered with car buyers. In retrospect its not hard to understand why they did it.

Picture this: It’s the fall of 2005. Your first semester of college is next week. You’ve packed all of your stuff into that weird new SUV dad brought home last year. Fortunately, it was big enough to swallow all your stuff, including your Gamecube and your awesome 32 inch Sharp CRT TV.

Fast forward to 2017. You’ve been working as a UX designer at Morally Bankrupt Social Media Company for several years now. Your two year old somehow stuffed an entire pack of Gummy Bears into your old Nintendo but miraculously it still works. You wonder what your next child will be like when he or she is born in two months. It’s time to do the dishes, so you fire up Spotify and get to scrubbing. You tune out the Bluetooth speaker after “Vindicated” by Dashboard Confessional plays because you know some ads are incoming. Then it happens: you hear the words Chrysler Pacifica used in a sentence for an ad for some new minivan. Weird! Dad only got rid of his a couple of years ago. And although it was a bit trouble prone while he had it, that thing was pretty useful. Perhaps this new one is worth checking out.

FCA probably didn’t revive the Pacifica name to appeal to millennials who grew up with the OG model. The first generation wasn’t popular enough to warrant such a campaign. But that also meant the company could reintroduce the name without any controversy whatsoever. And its attachment to a modern crossover automatically made it less stodgy than something called the Town & Country. Customers willing to give a Chrysler minivan a chance weren’t going to be put off by a name change anyway, especially if the vehicle succeeded on the merits, which it did. As a result, FCA successfully held on as leaders of the minivan segment while simultaneously modernizing their newest model with an actual upgrade and a conspicuous rebranding effort.

In contrast to the Pacifica, it is abundantly clear that these recent nameplate revivals are counting on people to remember their predecessors. The Blazer? Definitely a vehicle that millennials are familiar with. And not because their parents owned one. Even lightly used examples of the S-10 Blazer were dirt cheap by 2005. Someone going to high school around that time likely shared their parking lot with students who owned examples from every generation. And if my particular high school was any example, absolutely no one considered the Blazer as a capable off road vehicle. Which is why General Motors is explicitly marketing the new version as a classy urban runabout. It would be dishonest to portray it as anything else.

Does the Passport exist on the complete opposite end of the spectrum as the Blazer? As the first utility vehicle in Honda’s American lineup, the original Passport probably looked a bit out of place to people who associated the brand with smaller cars. And it probably lacked the reliability of its stablemates due to its origin as an Isuzu. But no one could mistake it for anything other than an SUV. And Honda knew it.

Enter the new Passport. Is it any surprise Honda chose that off-road wonderland otherwise known as Moab for its press event? Arguably, the company had to make a concerted effort to separate the Passport from the Pilot, given how similar they look. But its clear they’re also capitalizing on the history of the Passport as an SUV as well.

Honda isn’t alone in using go-anywhere imagery to sell its products. Ford is staking its entire future in North America on it. And the Explorer represents one of the few non F Series products that the Blue Oval can draw upon that specifically evokes those feelings in people. Obviously the Explorer never went away. But it did require a revival for its fifth generation, a tale which is quite possibly the greatest comeback story in the history of the automobile.

Ford is going a step further with the sixth generation Explorer. It’s returning to a rear wheel drive platform, which will no doubt please the hardcore enthusiasts who lamented its switch to the D4 platform nearly ten years ago. And beyond that, it will share powertrains with the F-150 and the Ranger. The 2020 Explorer will also offer a dedicated hybrid and an explicit performance model. The only other vehicle in the Ford family that boasts such a diverse lineup is the Fusion, which is itself a vehicle that will be “revived” when it morphs into a Subaru Outback competitor two or three years from now. Clearly, the Explorer is being designed as a go anywhere vehicle for all automotive tastes. They’re probably going to practically fly off dealer lots. Just like they did in the 90’s.

There are vehicles that have ended production returning in one form or another. And there are continually produced nameplates undergoing substantial enhancements to hit the broadest demographics possible. But what about the cancelled models that never really left the public consciousness? The American market Ford Ranger didn’t receive a substantial update for years yet it is still beloved by many. And despite the new model being substantially larger in size than the 2011 Ranger, its been selling so well that Ford is adding more shifts to meet demand. In fact, Ford estimates they could sell about 300,000 Ranger units in 2019, which would be a remarkable feat since Toyota’s Tacoma, the current segment leader, managed to sell about 245,000 examples in 2018.

It’s been even longer since a new Toyota Supra was available for purchase at your local Toyota dealer. After a long hiatus, the car that makes Japanese sports car fans cream their pants is returning. The Supra obviously won’t be as common as the other vehicles mentioned in this article, but it does represent an interesting milestone: the coupe is the first mass market sports car to be revived that appeals to something other than the Baby Boomers.

In Hollywood, the four quadrant movie is a film that appeals to men and women regardless of their age. Pretty much any modern tent pole movie is shaped by the four quadrants, and those that do well almost inevitably spawn sequels. Over time these movies end up resonating with audiences to a degree that studios cannot ignore. With the revival of familiar names from the 90’s, it appears the auto industry is headed towards its own form of the four quadrant system, where customers from different generations will discover that the vehicles they or their parents owned are now available in modern form.

Perhaps more significant is the explicit branding of these individual nameplates. In a world where Jeep and Subaru thrive on the brand they’ve created for their respective lineups, their competitors are now developing their own form of brand identity, except they’re doing so at the level of the individual model. And they’re doing so with the full understanding of how people perceived those vehicles back in their heyday. With the American market projected to permanently contract and alternative mobility options to increase, this shift was inevitable. The intersection of revived nameplates and the shift to the automobile as a lifestyle choice rather than a commodity are two developments that are bound to permanently alter the American automotive landscape. And in twenty five years, when people remember this period of automotive history on their way to see Mission Impossible: Xenu’s Revenge, I’m confident they’ll say it first became apparent in 2019. They may even do so while being driven to the theater by a Honda Passport or Chevrolet Blazer. In fact, I’d count on it.