I got into an argument with a friend a few weeks ago about whether or not Ford still made the Flex. I won. They do.
Rather, they did. Last week, Ford announced that sometime at the end of this month, the last Flex will leave the Oakville, Ontario, assembly plant. Some of you will swear you’re going to miss it, but my bet is that more people, like my friend, didn’t even realize it was still in production. That’s because the Ford Flex was a zombie.
There are plenty of automotive zombies, those vehicles that are still made but that no one really cares about anymore. It’s hard to believe anyone goes out looking to buy one, and they likely end up shoved into the back of dealer lots. Only occasionally, one of the sales staff will remember that they’re in stock and sell one cheap enough that some bank will write a sub-prime loan to get it off the lot. They are cars, trucks, and SUVs that have passed out of the zeitgeist. They’re dead, but their manufacturers haven’t bothered to stop making them.
Let’s start with the Dodge Journey. It’s C/D’s least favorite crossover, with anonymous styling, a standard 173-hp 2.4-liter four, front-wheel drive, and one of the few four-speed automatic transmissions still offered in any new vehicle. It’s been in production since 2008, hasn’t changed much since then, and Dodge sold 94,096 of them in 2018. And yet, none of us has ever met anyone who bought one.
No one thinks about the Dodge Journey. No one cares about the Dodge Journey. And yet it’s still around, looking for fresh brains to eat. My guess is that most of the Journeys wind up at Hertz or Avis in Florida where they’re rented out to families needing nothing more than seatbelts for bouncing between Disney World, Universal Orlando, and that place in Fort Myers where you can get alligator-meat burgers. (Tastes like crocodile.)
Or what about the Chevrolet Sonic and Spark? Chevy only sold 20,613 and 23,602, respectively, last year. We assume a similar fate for many of them as for the Journey, although they do seem somewhat more likely to have been bought by actual human beings. In its favor, the Spark is the base vehicle for the Domino’s DXP pizza delivery vehicle. And that’s kind of living-dead adorable.
But it’s not just bottom feeders that fall into obscurity. Has anyone given even a passing thought to the Alfa Romeo 4C Spider lately? It’s a blast to drive, but no one buys it. In 2018, Alfa sold just 238 in the United States. Looking at current sales, Alfa will be lucky to crack the 200 barrier this year. Holding the 4C back may be that most Americans have thighs too big to fit under the steering wheel, and that the carbon-fiber tub is upholstered like an Italian sarcophagus.
Kia Cadenza. Yes, there was a 2019 model year for this not-bad sedan. Buried under the popularity of its newer brother the Stinger and somehow difficult to distinguish from the less-lavish Optima, only 4507 were sold in 2018, and this year it won’t sell half that many. Even Kia dealers would be surprised to know that they sell the Cadenza. A redesign for 2020 may resurrect the Cadenza corpse. Or not.
The Mitsubishi Mirage G4, Lexus GS, Lincoln MKZ, and BMW i3 are similarly out of the buying public’s collective consciousness. But zombie status need not be a permanent condition.
Toyota’s 4Runner has been around since 1984. And it was a solid seller for most of the last 35 years. But in the Great Recession, demand for the 4Runner shriveled up and disappeared. Toyota only sold 19,675 4Runners in 2009. For Toyota, 19,675 units of practically any other product is a rounding error. But with the introduction of the fifth-generation 4Runner (N280 in Toyota code) for 2010, sales started a miraculous turnaround. In 2010, the big T sold 46,531. Then another 44,316 in 2011. Around 2012, buyers looking for true off-road ability began noticing how the rugged 4Runner stood out in a sea of car-like crossovers, and sales rose to 48,753. By 2014 sales were at 76,906, and in 2016 the 4Runner shattered the 100,000 barrier. In 2018, Toyota sold an astonishing 139,694—a record for the model.
The 4Runner was no longer buried with the damned. It was in the forefront of the common cerebellum once more: relevant, wanted, and attractive. It had been reanimated in a way even Mary Shelley couldn’t have imagined. The 4Runner is the zombie that arose from the grave to find itself once more among the living. So maybe death isn’t a permanent condition. At least, not if you’re a truck-based SUV.