At least three years and about $1 billion. That’s roughly what it takes to make a new vehicle, from drafting table to dealerships.
Car companies live and die by that long-range gamble — but every once in a while, the bet coincides with an economic disaster. The coronavirus pandemic and its attendant recession may be the worst time to launch a car since, well, since we’ve had cars. Selling a Model A was a tough task during the Great Depression, but at least dealerships were open and some assembly lines still humming.
The global auto industry of 2020 is witnessing an unprecedented, near-instantaneous drop in demand as potential customers steer clear of car lots, and dealers close up shop to comply with public health mandates. Volkswagen, Honda, Hyundai, and Mazda each reported a more than 40 percent decline in U.S. sales last month. For the year, S&P expects global auto sales to plummet almost 15 percent.
For sales of the most anticipated cars of 2020, the timing couldn’t be worse. In a normal economy, the first few months for any shiny new machine are relative magic. Overeager customers clamor for the fanciest, most profitable versions, and dealers seldom have to offer discounts or incentives. Now, every sale (done online or over the phone) will be considered a coup.
What’s more, the newest machines aren’t just grocery getters — they’re the result of product decisions made during one of the industry’s hottest streaks — the fruits of bull market research and development. Many are bold bids for incremental business, niche cars that might not have received a green light in a shakier economy. Among them are a few futuristic electric vehicles, which suddenly must contend with some of the lowest gas prices on record. Others are six-figure speed machines that were banking on Wall Street bonuses and swelling stock markets, neither of which seem likely in 2020.
What follows are some of most needle-moving whips rolled out in years — all for a pre-coronavirus world. With would-be buyers now focused on the grave crisis at hand, this is less a preview of automaker glory than a wistful look at what might have been.