By on July 12, 2010

The best-selling nameplates in America may still be pickup trucks, but for the first time in nearly a decade, cars and car-based crossovers are outselling the body-on-frame competition. The shift occurred in the second half of 2007, as gas prices built to their Summer 2008 peak, and despite more reasonable energy prices, consumers do not appear to be going back to large trucks and SUVs en masse. And, as Automotive News [sub] reports, the downsizing of America’s buying tastes is doing more than just putting a fork in the SUV fad.

It should come as no surprise that car-based crossovers are the leading cause of this decline in SUV sales… we don’t call them “the methadone of SUV addiction” for nothing. According to AN [sub], car-based vehicles (including CUVs) make up a full 77 percent of the market, as trucks and SUVs fell from 31 percent of the U.S. market in the first half of 2007 to about 23 percent this year. In that same time period, truck-based SUVs have fallen from about 13 percent to about eight percent.

Meanwhile, small cars nearly closed the gap with midsize cars during the height of gas prices in 2008, and the two segments are still closer in volume than they’ve been in decades. Furthermore, AN [sub] points out that, even within a given segment, buyers are downsizing. Large luxury cars like the Mercedes S Class are losing out, as smaller luxury sedans like those in the BMW 3-Series segment improve their performances. Sporty car segments are being dominated by cheaper options like the Mustang and Camaro, and the large-car segment is not recovering as well as the midsize segment, suggesting that buyers are generally looking for smaller, less ostentatious options. As one Lexus dealer puts it

We’ve got people trading Lexuses for Camrys

But here’s the real kicker: though Americans appear to be slowly trading down vehicles, transaction prices are actually rising. That’s because the uptick in compact car sales is largely driven by consumers who are willing to downsize, but refuse to give up the features and options they once enjoyed. With more and more technology and options available in the compact segment, Americans can buy less car with more features… and they are.

The lesson then, is a strange one. With sales holding steady at relatively low levels, it’s clear that poor economic conditions are keeping buyers out of the market. But the buyers that are in the market aren’t spending less per se… they’re simply trending towards smaller, less flashy vehicles. Are these buyers consciously trying to project a more austere image? Do they think they’re getting more car by buying less space and more features? Or are we simply returning to some semblance of normalcy after a long sojourn in the time of giant SUVs and showy luxury cars? Whatever the reason, analysts figure the downisizing trend is here to stay. Given the looming CAFE standard increase, the fact that Americans are buying smaller but paying more is some of the best news the industry has had for quite a while.

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54 Comments on “Chart Of The Day: The Great American Downsizing...”

  • avatar

    Good News! Americans are getting poorer! Becoming like Europe! Next “popular” vehicle will be the socialist-parasite-loved bicycle!

    • 0 avatar

      Big=rich doesn’t necessarily follow.

      People buying the cars that actually fit their needs and budget isn’t getting poorer, it’s correcting the spending binge the country has been on for a long time, and its a necessary correction to get the economy going forward on a solid foundation again, not the sand we’ve been building on for the last decade. So yeah, good news.

    • 0 avatar
      John Horner

      Hmmm, I don’t think you read the article carefully. While the market is shifting towards smaller vehicles, the average purchase price is actually going up. That doesn’t support the idea that buyers are getting poorer, just that they no longer are as likely to feel the need to wrap themselves inside a monster truck.

  • avatar
    Dr Lemming

    An era of gluttony has come to an end. However, worry not — these things go in cycles. The only question is what’s the next “mine’s bigger” fad?

    • 0 avatar

      Sadly, the current “mine’s bigger” fads may be: 1) amount underwater on a mortgage/foreclosure notice and 2) credit card debt.

    • 0 avatar
      John Horner

      Actually, total US credit card debt outstanding is declining. This is remarkable given the number of people unemployed and underemployed. Those who can are paying down their debts.

  • avatar

    I think the poor economy, and the desire not to be too flashy in the face of same for those still buying, explains some of the downsizing. I also think that combines with a few other factors to explain the trend.

    1) As alluded to in the article – small cars are getting better. They no longer feel like, or perceived as, the penalty boxes they once were.

    2) Energy prices are lower than they were in 2007 and 2008. However, I think most Americans actually understand that energy resources are becoming more scarce (all they need to do is look to the situation in the Gulf of Mexico to see that) at the same time the developing world’s appetite for energy is growing. So we know in the back of our minds that the future probably holds higher fuel prices and don’t want to get caught out with unnecessarily big trucks and SUVs again when that happens.

    3) The tail end of the baby boomer generation are joining the ranks of the empty nesters. They no longer need the large cars and are taking the opportunity to downsize to cars that better fit their needs and garages.

    4) A corrollary to number 3 – Americans, young and old, are slowly but surely moving back to urban centers where parking space is at a premium. Smaller cars make more sense in the urban environment.

    • 0 avatar

      talkstoanimals –

      To point #4: I have yet to see good data to back this up. There’s been lots of speculation and lots of talk about people moving back to urban centers from the suburbs, but not a lot of fact on the issue. I don’t have my numbers with me, but a recent study I reviewed stated that there is no evidence to show anything other than anecdotal evidence of people leaving the suburbs and heading back to cities.

      That said, there is definite trend of people avoiding the “Exurbs” in favor of closer-situated suburbs, and there’s also the trend of companies moving out of urban areas into suburbs, negating the need for exurban commuters to travel so far.

      There are some 150 million Americans in suburbs and climbing. They’re there because in general it’s cleaner, safer, quieter, more spacious and has better schools. I see little evidence pointing to a reversal in that trend right now. This isn’t to say that can’t or won’t change, but I think this “trend” that some commentators would like to see is just not taking root just yet.

    • 0 avatar

      Data doesn’t support people moving en masse back to urban cores, but the data wasn’t specific enough to know if people were preferentially choosing more walkable areas. These can be suburbs too. We live in a suburb and the “Walkscore” of our house exceeds 80, but we have a larger lot and more space than the cheek to jowl layouts of many exurbs. So do we live in an urban core? No, but we consume automobiles as if we do.

      So the real data of interest is whether people choosing “walkable” areas has increased, not whether they live in an “urban core”. Our auto consumption is probably 1/2 the average American family’s auto consumption, which means despite the average age of our three car fleet being 12 years, we aren’t planning to buy a replacement for any of the three vehicles in the next, say, 3 years.

  • avatar

    Crossovers drive better, get better fuel economy, use space more efficiently inside, and comes with FWD (a plus in a family vehicle).

    They just plain make more sense than a full-size SUV. Unless you’re doing heavy duty towing, a Traverse makes tons more sense than a Suburban, and a Flex more than an Expedition. The SUV craze will be seen in 60 years the way we see the tailfin craze now–tacky and overdone.

    Now, the minivan is the best family vehicle all around, but years of marketing makes many too insecure to buy anything with sliding doors.

    • 0 avatar

      For reasons that make no rational sense, to many people, your humble poster included, minivans just seem like the automotive equivalent of sweatpants – a sign that you’ve given up on the fun aspects of life. It’s silly because many minivans are actually perfectly decent cars and are, as you note, ideally suited for many people’s needs. Yet the undesirable perception remains and I don’t necessarily think it’s all down to marketing. It’s the Timex principle. Digital watches keep great time, and are functional and useful. Yet for many, they just don’t hit the “gotta have it” button in the same way a Swiss automatic does. (Ugh, unintentionally agreeing with a Car and Driver car assessment category…) The aesthetics just don’t quite get it done.

    • 0 avatar

      It’s mostly marketing. I can chalk on the switch from wagons to minivans to rational reasons (minivans really are better packaged than a wagon) but the switch to SUVs was pure marketing.

      Go to YouTube and look up ads for the first-gen Chrysler minivans. They talk about how great the packaging is, that it is FWD, that it gets the same fuel economy as a wagon with more space inside.

      Now go see one for the Ford Explorer. They don’t talk about the packaging at all, it’s all stuff like, “You’re not a boring middle aged mom driving a minivan! No, you’re in a go-anywhere Ford Explorer living an ‘active lifestyle’ ” and so on.

      Now with crossovers people can have their ‘active lifestyle’ fantasy with packaging and utility that’s only a LITTLE worse than minivans for the typical suburban family.

    • 0 avatar

      I agree it’s part marketing. But on a certain level it’s also aesthetics. It operates on the same principle as the way a techniquely fine painting by a local artist sells for $500 while something with a technique that can be argued over, Jackson Pollack for instance, sells for $1.5 million.

      FWIW, I agree that many people would be better off with a minivan on a purely rational basis. But there’s no accounting for taste. But we digress from the topic at hand, so I’ll shut up now!

    • 0 avatar
      John Horner

      Yeah, those Grand Cherokees, Explorers and Tahoes which fueled the SUV craze sure where lookers. Not.

    • 0 avatar

      John Horner – Compared to the dustbuster GMs or the Caravan or the early Odyssey? I’d say yes. Again, taste.

    • 0 avatar

      Yeah, those Grand Cherokees, Explorers and Tahoes which fueled the SUV craze sure where lookers. Not.

      It’s the difference between comfortable track-pants and a pair of orthopedic runners and designer track-pants and oversized white basketball shoes.

      To the wearer of the latter, there’s a difference. To everyone else, you’re still wearing track-pants and runners, only you’ve overpaid and look like a chav.

  • avatar
    SVX pearlie

    I find it very interesting that domestics drive up the transaction prices, with GM having the highest average transaction price overall.

  • avatar

    Too bad Americans are not downsizing their big fat a$$es too.

  • avatar

    I think we’re having a semantics issue here:

    “With more and more technology and options available in the compact segment, Americans can buy less car with more features… and they are.”

    It’s not really less car, especially when loaded to the gills, no?

    But I think you get it right later on..

    “Do they think they’re getting more car by buying less space and more features?”

    Yes and no. There are those folks who will always buy their car by the pound. And there are others who are getting back to just what they need. I think we’re seeing more of that right now.

    But, like another person posted, these things go in cycles…

  • avatar

    money talks and cash is King.
    make a full size Roadmaster
    and the register will ring.

    • 0 avatar

      Im with you Buickman.  I drive a 96 Impala SS and I wouldn’t have it any other way.  No minivans for me.  Before vans everyone drove full size cars for family cars and I can tell you it is much better and safer than these small cars and vans.  My next car is a 75 Impala unless they make the 2012 rear wheel drive again.  Either way im keeping the 96.

  • avatar

    Edward Niedermeyer: That’s because the uptick in compact car sales is largely driven by consumers who are willing to downsize, but refuse to give up the features and options they once enjoyed.

    The late George Mason, father of the Nash Rambler, and Lee Iacocca figured this out years ago. Americans don’t necessarily hate smaller cars (as long as the cars in question aren’t too small).

    They just don’t want smaller cars that are trimmed like beer cans and basically scream that the buyer couldn’t afford anything better.

    The Nash Rambler, original Mustang and first-generation Honda Accord all proved that Americans will buy smaller vehicles if they are nicely trimmed and don’t make the buyer look like a poverty case or a complete tightwad.

    • 0 avatar

      [Edit] Whoops, this was supposed to go with Buckshot’s post. Oh well.

      Big butts are in! Or something.

  • avatar

    It´s not “cool” anymore to have the biggest possible size of your car.

    It´s like having the biggest ass.

  • avatar

    The bulk of the compact market technology that is being crammed into the models currently on market today was being slide across the table as ideas in early to mid 2007.

    I imagine some of the readers of TTAC who are also in the automotive OEM/T1/T2 industry may concur.

    The company I am with was forced to pull to market our technology slightly sooner but not by much, in the same segment (compact). Our electronics are on a 2-3 year design cycle to have full completion of concept, test, manufacture and time it for model introduction. These are the vehicles being sold since last fall through today.

    It was our company’s plan the technology would indeed move downstream as it always has in this industry but the cycle was pulled ahead 6-9 months.

    Just a view from the inside…

  • avatar

    Are you sure you’re not looking at a mesa and asking “why did this rise up out of the ground?” when really it was always there and the surrounding landscape just eroded away?

    Take that data set from the “good old days.” Take away the wide base of low-end buyers stretching to buy the stripper Vibe in the Sunday circular. Then pull off the narrower band of top-end buyers of much more expensive cars crawling under a 72-month loan to keep up with the Jonses’ Tahoe. You’re left with the middle – a middle of smaller (than the Tahoe) but more expensive (than the Vive) cars. Your average transaction price stays about the same. It’s just an average of a much smaller set of data with a much narrower range of prices.

    Maybe there was always a core of buyers that could afford the features, and had no desire to drive a subcompact to save the world, but also had no need to impress anyone or spend every available cent. They buy the car that provides the desired comfort/features/cargo capacity/passenger volume for the most reasonable cost – a well-equipped mid-level model of the “volume” brand. That core was always there, always buying mid/high content Camrys and Caravans and Equinoxes, they’re just more visible now that the rest of the market has fallen away around them.

    This being the internet, I have no scientific basis for this theory. Just a possible alternate interpretation to consider.

  • avatar

    Couple of conflicting factoids here.

    People may be moving away from trucks / SUVs into cars but most high-volume cars (camcords, fusions, etc) are growing in physical size. It’s hard to charge more for a new model unless that new model is ‘better’ in some way (bigger, flashier, more gizmos). This is even more true of the luxury / near-luxury car market – 3 series, A4, g35

    Take a look at Audi and the A2. It was a luxury subcompact that failed spectacularly in Europe

    • 0 avatar

      … but at the moment Audi can’t keep up with the demand for the new A1.

    • 0 avatar

      This is absolutely true — today’s sedans are larger than they were 20 years ago. A 2010 BMW 328 is a big as a 1990 525i. A 2010 Accord is 25% larger than its 1990 edition. Today’s Taurus is a big as a 1990 Crown Victoria. The same is true for Civics and Corollas.

      With Americans downsizing from their SUVs, learning the painful lesson of $100+ fill-ups in late 2008 with $4 a gallon gasoline, they realize that the amount of space in a “mid-size” sedan isn’t all that different from the behemoth that they came from.

    • 0 avatar

      @Lee, absolutely. I was thinking when the new Taurus was released, my god that’s expensive! But I stood back for a moment and realized that I was still in the mode of my youth (child of the 80s, got license in the 90s.) If I wanted a car the size of what I remember a Taurus being, I really wanted a Fusion.

  • avatar

    A lot of these smaller cars have MORE space. The famous example is the Nissan Versa, which is either a “subcompact” or a “midsize”, depending on how you define it (exterior or interior size).

    I see a few trends: fewer families, so less need for family haulers, more volatile and higher gas prices, and general economic uncertainty. A small car makes sense under these conditions. Aside from that, the SUV fad was emotional in character in the first place – rationally speaking, they were always a bad idea. Now the emotional markers have flipped. Having a huge SUV used to be hip, now it’s seen as proof that you’re a jerk. When there is expensive oil and a massive oil spill, only the most callous people drive around vehicles that proclaim their love of consumption.

    • 0 avatar

      Its certainly not Versas that drove Nissan’s average transaction price to almost $27K. It was never the hipsters that bought large numbers of SUV’s. It was average families that are not buying at all right now due to the economy and tight credit. The buyers left in this downsized market are for the most part wealthier, and they have always bought optioned-up cars, but havent gone for giant sized ones since the 1970’s.

      I must be one reason Honda is lagging here. We just got a 2010 Fit with a transaction price of only $15k, why, because thats all the car we need, dont want all the latest gizmos and pay cash.

    • 0 avatar

      I think you are right: we are replacing my wife’s VW with a Kia Soul that will do 90% of the things our SUV does at half the purchase price. The SUV will sit in the driveway while the Kia hauls the dogs, groceries, and everything else. Hell, the Kia is even better optioned than the “Limited” SUV.

      We could spend more money on her next car, but why? Debt is no fun, and the people who looked down their noses at the frugal are now too busy trying to keep their goodies away from the repo man to worry about what we drive.

  • avatar

    “Good News! Americans are getting poorer! Becoming like Europe! Next “popular” vehicle will be the socialist-parasite-loved bicycle!”

    Sheesh. I don’t see anyone using this sort of language to describe the shrinkage of cars from the excess of the mid-70’s in North America. The size and weight of cars is a function of cheap plentiful oil, and the sun is setting on that era. People are gradually realizing that getting around does not require operating a mobile living room.

  • avatar
    Carlson Fan

    “Having a huge SUV used to be hip, now it’s seen as proof that you’re a jerk.”

    Let’s see last weekend when we left town our huge SUV Chevy Tahoe was filled with 2 adults, 3 kids in car seats, two dogs, a cooler, couple of suitcases and I’m not sure what else. But I can tell you every square inch of the floor was covered with something. Damn good I thing I had a boat in tow as it helped carry all the gear that woudln’t fit safely in the Tahoe…LOL

    With US companies shipping all the manufacturing overseas so that the upper level execs can make even more money the middles class is disappearing and we are becoming a country of the “haves” and the “have nots”. Less people who can afford the larger SUV’s(especially with the days of easy money gone) which let’s face it, aren’t exactly cheap.

  • avatar

    If the trend continues I for one will find it extremely interesting. I remember in the mid 1990s Car and Driver ran a chart that showed although cars had shrunk during the 80s and 90s and MPG had risen in cars(after the gas crisis’ of the 1970s) the actual weight and size of the best selling vehicles in America had remained the same or even increased. Example early 70s Chevrolet Impala was best selling sedan, in the 90s the Suburban/Tahoe/Yukon was GMs best seller and was actually heavier with nearly the same fuel economy.

    If Americans actually buy smaller more fuel efficient vehicles eh masse, that will truly be a change, for the first time since the days of the Tin Lizzie practically.

    • 0 avatar
      John Horner

      Throughout the 80s the average size of new vehicles sold in the US went down and the average fuel economy went up. Then Detroit convinced the gov’t to freeze CAFE standards and keep a massive loophole for trucks and SUVs. Surprise, surprise, the development and marketing guns all went behind the trucks and SUVs while domestic cars largely languished.

      GM bragged at the time about how it’s new truck centric emphasis was going to once again make it a money printing machine. That is why C&D was able to make the observations they did in the 90s. These things didn’t happen by accident or because that is what buyers demanded.

    • 0 avatar

      Big car sales began rebounding in the early 1980s. The Caprice, LeSabre/Electra, Delta 88/Ninety-Eight and DeVille/Fleetwood were on the rise in sales by 1982. A 1982 issue of Car and Driver noted that the Caprice was selling at full sticker, while the new-wave Celebrity, which was supposed to represent the future, was only being moved with big discountr.

      This was entirely driven by CUSTOMERS, not the companies, as they were in the midst of downsizing their fleets and expected the big cars to disappear by 1985.

      GM did kill most of its big cars by 1986, and suffered greatly for it. Ford, which kept the Panther-based cars, and Chrysler, which kept the old M-body Fifth Avenue, reaped the rewards of greatly increased sales for those cars.

      SUV and pickup sales really began increasing when most of the big cars were phased out by the manufacturers in response to CAFE.

      While gas mileage increased in the early 1980s, people forget that the cars were tinny and noisy and slow. They were powered for the (stupid) 55 mph speed limit. They were largely inferior to their late 1960s counterparts in virtually every way except for braking and safety features.

      Fortunately, we dumped that dumb law, and now even in Pennsylvania you can drive at least 75 mph without being harrassed by the police. Power is up to cope with the new reality. Noise, vibration and harshness are also much improved (which requires more weight in the form of addtional structure for greater stiffness, and more sound insulation). Safety features also add weight.

      I’ll take the greater safety, speed, comfort and convenience of 2010 cars versus any greater economy from their 1981 counterparts.

  • avatar

    I wonder to what extent that a smaller portion of the national wealth flowing to the USA’s blue-collar workers may have to do with declining pick-up and work/cargo van sales?

  • avatar

    It was late summer in 1976, and we were shocked when the first “down sized” 77 Caprice came down the line. A few days later,we saw our first Bonneville. “The Americans will never buy these things” we all whined.

    The line never stopped for six years.

    • 0 avatar

      @mikey: you have a good point.

      If the smaller car is well designed and speaks to people’s wants and needs, it will sell.

      The downsized B-bodies from that time are a testament to that idea.

      They are still well regarded 30+ years later!

    • 0 avatar

      Mikey: At that time, was that really the first glimpse of the new metal as it came gliding down the line? No training or intro cars first?

    • 0 avatar

      @Robert Walter I was still an assembly line worker in the “pit” in 1976. We might have seen one Chevy Bel air and they called them “mock ups’ not pilots. It was all scratched and dented with no window glass,or trim.

      Pilot, or pre production cars if you will were kept secret from the low lifes on the floor.

      One thing I do remember, though,was that the body nuts and bolts,were metric,while the chassis/drive train was standard. Working on both the body and the chassis,from a pit perspective was a nightmare.

  • avatar

    I don’t really know that I agree with the idea that smaller=less flashy.

    Is a Lancer really more subdued than a Galant? Was the Envoy really that ostentatious compared to the Terrain?

    Most car companies keep a similar design language across their entire model line so the “flashy” factor between small, medium, and large isn’t that big.

    Also, while I like this trend in theory, I’m not really looking forward to a future with Focus-sized Lincolns, Delta platform Cadillacs, and a sub A-class Mercedes.

  • avatar

    Global laming IS real! I knew it! I wonder if all this ‘downsizing’ will make larger, more powerful vehicles cheaper? If smaller vehicles are becoming so popular why can’t I find a higher end Hummer on autotrader for less than 25 grand?

    Couldn’t help but notice a poster make a comment about ‘American’s fat a$$es’. Guess TTAC’s no flaming policy doesn’t apply to bashing people’s home countries, huh? So how about those parasitic Mexicans, limp-wristed Canadiens, or commie Europeans? Granted, none of those are completely true, but neither are the comments commonly made here about Americans.

    Long rant short, don’t badmouth my country.

  • avatar

    I’m looking forward to all the cheap lease-turn-in Grand Cherokees that I’ll be able to buy when my current Jeep gets too old. :)

  • avatar

    The speculation on people returning to “urban cores” is all off in my opinion. What drives the decline in commuting is telecommuting or working from home. That is the trend for the 2010’s and beyond. I work at a Fortune 200 company that has been among the most hostile to this trend, until this year. Now they can’t get people out of the buildings fast enough. Others are way ahead of us, shutting facilities, saving $ and making employees happier in the process.

    As for smaller cars, I just see the Europification of our cars. In America, size was king, and small cars were almost always low-end, no-frills machines. Now every car has ABS, a CD changer, airbags galore, traction control, climate control etc. So Americans find that they can move down in size, without losing creature comforts. They may also find that a Civic is bigger than an Accord was and so they are shifting back to where they were in many ways. Heard from someone that the next gen Accord is slated to be smaller…and will match the Euro Accord/TSX.

  • avatar

    GM was so far ahead of this game, but decades too early for American tastes. My uncle had a 1961 Buick Skylark as his commuter. 215ci all aluminum V-8, power everything and lots of chrome, a “premium” truly compact car, not the bloated Skylark that followed. Mom has a ’72 and its huge.

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