The Return of the Aeroback Sedan

More of today's sedans are adopting the fastback profile last seen in the automotive dark days of the late 1970s. Does that mean a true liftback revolution could follow?

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GM

So there I was, driving my Accord Coupe down the street . . . wait, you didn’t know that I have an Accord Coupe? Well, I do. The A-Coupe, particularly in six-speed V6 form, is a car so nice I bought it twice. Still, the ninth-gen coupe is not my favorite family-focused body style and it never was. That honor would be reserved for the third-generation liftback, particularly in injected LX-i form. If you’ve never seen one—a possibility that increases in depressing fashion every year, particularly in the salt states—it’s best to think of it as a longer, lower, wider variant of the original Integra.

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The liftback Accord offered a nearly perfect combination of style and function; it didn’t have quite the interior spaciousness of a three-door Saab 900 but it wasn’t far off and it cost much less while delivering much more in terms of economy, reliability, and features. There was just one little problem: Then as now, Honda was not exactly a leader in NVH reduction. So the liftback Accords were, quite literally, boom boxes in which every noise from the under-insulated cargo area was amplified and bounced around the driver’s head. At the time, there was a very real difference in the driving experience of the Liftback and Coupe body styles—a difference that was further amplified by the wet-noodle chassis rigidity of the time.

In the end, however, it was fashion, not function, that put an end to the era of mid-sized family hatchbacks. The Japanese automakers belatedly realized what GM had figured out way back in 1979, when it gave X-body hatchbacks to Chevy and Pontiac and saved the sedans for Buick and Oldsmobile: the mainstream buyer saw the rear liftgate as a poverty signifier, a reminder of the Bad Old Days when gas was rationed and President Carter told us all to put on a sweater.

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1989 Honda Accord LX-i liftback
Honda
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How did GM learn that lesson faster than Honda and Toyota? We will get to that it in a moment. For now, it’s enough to note that Camry, Accord, and Stanza/Altima all eventually evolved from three- and five-door body styles to mandatory sedans. Even the coupes are gone now, casualties of an aging buyer demographic with increasingly conservative tastes. There was once a golden age when the Accord was available in liftback, coupe, sedan, and wagon body styles. Today it’s just a sedan—unless you count the Pilot, Odyssey and Ridgeline as Accord variants. Which is fair, but not completely, since those vehicles differ from the Accord (and from each other) in ways that no third-generation Honda mid-sizer differed from any other. And yet there’s a glimmer of hope on the horizon for those of us who refuse to join the crossover crowd, because the tenth-gen Accord isn’t a sedan at all. It’s a fastback.

Four-door fastbacks have a long and distinguished history, with the late Sixties and early Seventies being particularly kind to the genre. It’s always about style, since the be-trunked fastback is a sort of anti-hatchback, offering less utility than the equivalent sedan. The airy volume behind the rear passengers’ heads is essentially wasted space. It adds weight in the form of unnecessary glass and steel. It makes the trunk opening considerably less practical than in the equivalent sedan. Earlier this year I drove the new Accord back-to-back with my 2014 EX-L and realized that even my compromised coupe had a more usable trunk opening than the new car. When you look at then in profile, it’s obvious why.

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The nadir of the four-door fastback body style was probably the 1978 General Motors “Aeroback” midsizer. It looked like a hatchback, but it wasn’t. The slope-tailed style was an awkward match with the squared-off nose; the “bustle-back” 1980 Cadillac Seville looked positively harmonious by contrast. A Ford representative on GM's new front-drive push called the Aeroback design an "ugly duckling," and noted its slow sales.

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The 1979 Buick Century lineup: coupe, wagon and Aeroback.
GM

The Aeroback was born out of GM’s marketing department not truly understanding its customers. They knew that Buick and Oldsmobile buyers were defecting to Saab and Honda, but somehow the message they took from that was “Our sedans need to look like hatchbacks, without actually being hatchbacks.” So when the mid-sizers were revamped in 1978, Chevy and Pontiac got traditional sedans while Buick and Oldsmobile got Aerobacks.

The 1977 Cutlass Supreme was America’s best-selling car; by 1979, it was in an Aeroback tailspin. GM performed two nimble reversals as a consequence. The first was the reintroduction of conventional trunky-cars for the upscale brands. The second was a flip-flop of body-style assignment for the new X-car compacts. Chevy and Pontiac got the fastbacks, this time with a proper hatch. Buick and Oldsmobile had trunks on their products. A year later, when the J-car subcompacts arrived, GM did the sensible thing and offered the trunk on all five brands. By 1988, when the “J” got a major refresh, there was no hatchback in the brochures. A year later, Honda killed off the liftback Accord, and that was just about the end of the mass-market story for that body style. Henceforth, a trunk would be mandatory in all segments except sub-subcompact. Even Saab would eventually come around to the idea.

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Until recently, of course. Audi’s A7 showed that people would buy a fastback with a trunk, as long as you called it a "coupe." The Chevrolet Malibu and Hyundai Sonata then followed Audi off the deep end. Honda is almost always the last arrival to any style party, so the existence of a fastback Accord means that it’s now officially in the mainstream.

All of these cars would be manifestly improved if they had a bike-swallowing hatch instead of a mail-slot trunk. There’s no longer any reason for this to not be the case. Today’s mid-sizers have rigidity and insulation to spare, which is only reasonable since they weigh as much as a ‘77 Impala. If there’s a little bit of hatchback-boom from the long rear door, well, that’s what Active Noise Cancellation is for. Its also worth noting that most of us have unconsciously relaxed our standards for interior resonance thanks to the crossover phenomenon. Any time one of my passengers comments on how quiet my Accord is inside—it’s not—I know their daily driver is a CR-V, Santa Fe, or, as they say in the rental biz, similar.

The Germans are already on the case. The 4-Series “Gran Coupe” is a hatchback, as is the new-to-the-States Audi A5 Sportback. So far customer response has been a bit muted, but if the demographics for these upscale hatches start to look promising we can be assured that Mercedes-Benz, at least, will follow suit. I can’t see the Koreans doing a hatch, because their domestic market would treat it like it was dipped in Ebola, but there’s some room for Lexus or Acura to come up with a five-door entry-luxury car.

At the end of this tortured possibility path, of course, is a reanimated Accord Liftback. Honda already has a Civic Hatchback sitting next to the fastbacks in showrooms. Why not an Accord? More specifically, why not a three-door Accord Liftback? Shorten the wheelbase a bit, the way it was done with the coupe. Keep the current bluff nose; it would match the Kamm-tail of a liftback perfectly. The V6 isn’t coming back, no matter how many letters I write, so I’ll reluctantly accept the 2.0 turbo coupled to a six-speed manual.

No, it wouldn’t be a volume leader. But the Germans have learned a lesson that Honda seems determined to ignore: niche cars can, and do, lead to increased overall volume. As previously discussed in these columns, a strategy like this also amounts to a sophisticated area-denial campaign against the competition. In my case, it would be an effective incentive for me to buy a new Accord now, rather than when my current car wears out.

The frustrating thing is that Honda came close to this idea a few years ago, with the Crosstour. They just did it wrong. Wrong ride height, wrong interior aesthetic, wrong powertrains. There’s a lesson there, one taught by both the wildly popular A7 and the unwanted Crosstour. Fastback buyers are fussy. Do it right, and you conquer the world. Do it wrong, and your Aeroback won’t even get a hollaback.

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