By on November 15, 2011

Since ruling Americas roads in the heyday of the US auto industry, sales of large sedans (as a percentage of the overall market) have been in a decades-long slump. More recently, as SUVs have merged with large cars to form the modern crossover, the decline in large car sales has picked up speed. And there’s reason to expect that trend to continue, as a closer look at the data shows that market support for large sedans has eroded farther than even these numbers might suggest. One of TTAC’s well-placed sources reveals that the “large car” segment (admittedly, a notoriously difficult segment to accurately capture) is running at 50% fleet sales, year-to-date through October. That’s right, every second large sedan sold in this country end up as a fleet vehicle, many of them daily rentals.

How bad is that? For comparison, the midsized segment is running at 22%, the hot compact segment is only 16% fleet and most crossovers sell around 14% fleet. In short, as the market either downsizes to one of the ever-larger midsized or compact cars or upsizes to a CUV, large cars are becoming something of a consumer no-go zone. Welcome to the world captured brilliantly in Jack Baruth’s fictional work “The CAFE Continuum.”

And I know what you’re thinking: some of the older, more obviously fleet-oriented offerings are wrecking the curve for the entire segment. Well, yes and no. For example the Chevy Impala, which Bob Lutz brags was voted “best fleet car”  in his new book, was sold at a 73% fleet mix this year. That means that, of the 150k Impalas sold so far this year, only only about 40,500 went to retail customers who were won over by its charms. But it’s not a universal problem for the whole segment. In contrast, Toyota’s Avalon (which sold a much lower 23,507 units this year) had a mere 3% fleet mix. And unsurprisingly, Detroit leads the way: Taurus about met the segment average at 49% fleet, Dodge’s new Charger was 54% and Chrysler’s 300 sold at 25% fleet mix.

These numbers, which TTAC trusts but was unable to independently verify, tell a troubling story. I asked our source if these numbers had to do with the products, or an appeal towards fleet sales inherent to the large-sedan segment. The answer:

You can bet that Ford didn’t plan for its Taurus to be running at 50% fleet at this point.

I assume the same can be said for Dodge’s even-newer Charger. Chrysler has so little new product that it had better have planned to convince more than 25k buyers that the new Charger is worth a buy (by my calculation, only about 24,900 Chargers have been sold retail this year). But again, is the problem something fundamental with these models, or has the market simply turned its back on the big sedan? Our source wouldn’t delve any further into this conundrum with us, but it’s clear that the segment is in trouble. Without some kind of step-up in competition, America’s favorite segment could be doomed to fleet fodder status.

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53 Comments on “Were You Aware?: Half Of All Large Car Sales Go To Fleets...”


  • avatar
    Conslaw

    Actually, I think this is a sign that people are buying what they need. Who needs a large sedan? Typically a businessperson with a trunk full of equipment/samples that need to be hidden from wrongdoers. It helps when said car has room for clients. It also helps if the car can cover long highway trips comfortably and with reasonable fuel economy. The large sedan is better at these tasks than smaller cars or SUVs. On the other hand, a large car is overkill for the typical solo commute and daily errands, and for hauling people a minivan or crossover gives you more flexibility.

    • 0 avatar
      86er

      Who needs a large sedan?

      Extended vacations by car also favour the large sedan for some of the same reasons the travelling businessperson favours.

      That said, like cdotson points out, a lot of “large” cars are pretenders to the market. I would single out the Maxima as an egregious offender.

      To me, a large car should have a cavernous trunk.

    • 0 avatar
      tuffjuff

      Somebody who wants to be comfortable.

      The new 2012 Chrysler 300 comes to mind.

  • avatar
    getacargetacheck

    The chart doesn’t bode well for midsized sedans either — looks like there’s been a gentle decline since 2000. Seems like large sedans and minivans have given way to the more versatile (in the case of large sedans) and cooler (in the case of minivans) CUV. Also, large sedans don’t have that much more real-world room compared to midsizers nor as much “prestige” compared to similarly-priced midsized-based entry-level luxury sedans (Taurus vs MKZ, Avalon vs ES, etc).

  • avatar
    Conslaw

    There are a few “large” sedans that we would think of as “midsized” the Hyundai Sonata is one of them. I suspect the Sonata sells well less than 50% to fleets now, maybe not so much in the old days.

  • avatar
    cdotson

    I agree with Conslaw; as far as the EPA classifications go midsizers are encroaching on the “Large” category.

    From the actual market however, “Large” cars no longer exist. Those that can genuinely be called large (not just EPA-large) aren’t much larger than the overgrown midsize sedans, at least not in highly meaningful ways. Even getacargetacheck’s post points out this confusion by calling out the Taurus and Avalon as midsizers upon which entry-lux cars are built but in fact both Taurus and Avalon are positioned as “large” cars.

    So for not much real additional room you can either have a base-model large car for the MPG and price of a top-model midsize sedan with fewer options, or you can spend $2k-$7k more for a couple extra spec-book inches and at least a couple fewer real-world MPGs compared to the entry midsizer.

    Ultimately it seems the midsize sedan class’ competitiveness is what’s killing the large car for the retail market.

  • avatar
    srogers

    I think that people are buying CUVs instead of large and mid-size sedans. That’s the case where I live.

  • avatar
    ajla

    I assume the same can be said for Dodge’s even-newer Charger.

    I’m not sure what exact fleet percentage they expected, but rental and police (a segment Dodge is really trying to take charge in lately) buyers were given the first look at the refreshed Charger.

    So, I’m thinking they knew a lot of sales wouldn’t be retail.

  • avatar
    gslippy

    I don’t care if they all go to fleets; they eventually end up in the hands of consumers who are won over by their charms.

    To me, the selection of a car for fleet service is a testament to its alleged durability.

  • avatar
    86er

    So, what we can glean from these numbers is that the Impala still has more retail sales than the Avalon. That’s interesting.

    It doesn’t help that with CAFE standards, large cars were legislated out of existence while crossovers and SUVs escaped into the safe ground of the “light truck” category. It was the easy way out and all automakers availed themselves of it, to varying degrees. Of course, when the market is offered new segments to sample, they will.

    Many CUVs and SUVs, while being equipped with AWD/4WD and more versatile, on average suffer poorer fuel economy than the aforementioned Impalas and Avalons, even when equipped with the latest four cylinder engines.

    My understanding is that the latest round of CAFE negotiations aims to close this loophole.

    • 0 avatar
      srogers

      Here’s the MSRP in Canada. This might indicate how the Impala outsold the Avalon in retail:
      Impala: $27325
      Avalon: $41100

      • 0 avatar
        86er

        I’m from Canada. How about that.

        Yes, but, shouldn’t discerning consumers be purchasing the superior product, in this case the Toyota? Like how the Sienna costs considerably more than the Caravan, yet outsells it in the retail channel?

        Sorry, just had to play a little Devil’s Advocate.

      • 0 avatar
        Advo

        Playing Devil’s Advocate to the Devil’s Advocate, I’d think the American market is different from the US one – where Minivans are uncool, unlike Canada – and that they favor value over a markedly higher price when it comes to large cars.

        Since we buy a lot more compact and smaller vehicles than the Americans do, per capita, I don’t even know if the large car sales here even approach the percentage of total car sales that they do in the States.

      • 0 avatar
        toxicroach

        At 300/mo difference in the monthly payment, there’s a pretty solid argument that the Impala is the superior product for most people.

        Not to mention you can probably get the Chevy dealer to put cash on the hood easier than you can for a Toyota.

  • avatar
    geeber

    Regarding the Taurus, I sat in both the Taurus and the Fusion at auto shows this year, and Fusion felt more comfortable and roomier, thanks to a lower beltline and a more reasonably sized center console. I couldn’t see the point in buying a car that only LOOKS bigger on the outside, but doesn’t feel bigger or roomier on the inside. Ford just needs to offer a Fusion SHO version…

    • 0 avatar
      86er

      It’s atrocious what they’ve done to the interior of the Taurus. What’s more risible is that this is purported to be the replacement for the Crown Victoria.

    • 0 avatar
      NulloModo

      I like the size of the center console in the Taurus. A large console makes for a nice armrest and a sporty feeling. The more I drive them though the more I start to dislike the thickness of the B-pillar inside the car.

      Moving the seat back to where I am comfortable my left shoulder pushes against the interior B-pillar. I’m also not in love with the dead pedal and cut in around the left side of the driver’s footwell. That’s one area the Grand Marquis, Crown Vic, and Town Car all did very well in – there was plenty of room to rest your left foot on the floorboard.

      • 0 avatar
        th009

        Sporty? Sporty? What sportscar (or even sporty car) do you know of that has a two-foot-wide cushion between the front seats?

        Sporty cars may have centre consoles but not massive ones like the one in the Taurus, simply because there isn’t enough space for one.

      • 0 avatar
        NulloModo

        Perhaps sporty is the wrong word. It does help create a ‘driver’s cockpit’ feel. I personally like the feeling of having a car that wraps around me and creates a nice isolated driver’s compartment, I just with I had more left shoulder and left foot room.

        The Taurus is far from alone when it comes to shoulder and foot space constraints, and the things that bug me probably don’t bug most other drivers. The variety of body sizes out there is one of the big reasons everyone should test drive a car before they buy it, it’s important to see how well everything falls to hand and how everything rubs up against you as you shift in the seat driving around.

      • 0 avatar
        th009

        All right, I won’t argue with that — it does provide that isolated cockpit feel. Some will like that, others will not.

      • 0 avatar
        mikey

        Put me down as guy that loves the center console. I like the feel,and I like the looks.

      • 0 avatar
        Loser

        NulloModo,

        This is one very rare time that I don’t agree with you. I sat in a new Taurus about a year ago and the console would be a deal breaker for me. I like and prefer a console, just not the one in the Taurus. I didn’t have enough room for my right leg, kept bumping it into the console. IMHO the console is too tall/big, gave the car a confined feeling. I agree about the console giving a car a sporty feel. Only time I like a steering column mounted auto is in a pick-up truck.
        I’m with geeber on the Fusion vs Taurus.

      • 0 avatar
        gslippy

        I agree with “loser”. I feel very claustrophobic in the new Taurus, thanks mostly to that enormous console.

        While I like the exterior looks, that console breaks the deal for me.

    • 0 avatar
      baggins

      so true. I thought the new taurus looked kind of cool. I had it on my list. I sat in it, and got right back out. A nissan sentra has more room for the driver. The taurus was claustrophobic. I bought an 2011 Accord, which is one of the more open and airy cars, even if its less so than it was 15 years ago.

    • 0 avatar
      dtremit

      You weren’t imagining it. I rented a Fusion and a Taurus back to back recently, and the Fusion had significantly more hip and shoulder room. Most of that seems to be due to the Taurus’ console, which is wider than some small airstrips.

  • avatar
    86er

    Large cars are wonderful rentals.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      Yeah it’s like we usually try to tell people who don’t “need” a pickup truck cept those few times a year, rent one. Though just as with the pickup truck freedom of choice comes the freedom of buying a large car if you want it as well.

  • avatar
    Wagen

    I think the decline in retail of large cars is due to three things: midsize cars have become large “enough” for most people that buy them (see Accord classified as EPA large), space alone is no longer considered a “luxury” enough to justify a larger price tag (see the rise of “premium” small cars), and large cars don’t make use of space as efficiently as their smaller siblings.

    Large cars just aren’t sufficiently “larger” than midsizes in terms of passenger and cargo room to justify their additional cost and exterior size. If the interiors or cargo compartments grew by as much as the exterior size grew when moving up segments, perhaps the large cars would have a stronger value proposition. For some figures, consider the Avalon vs. Camry. According to Edmunds’ data, the front and rear headroom figures are within an inch of each other, the front legroom is identical, and the rear legroom is 2″ greater in the Avalon. The Camry has an additional ft3 of cargo capacity vs. Avalon. All while the Avalon is 8″ longer than the Camry. So it takes an additional 8″ of length outside to get 2″ additional inside? The story is similar when one compares Impala vs. Malibu, except those two inches of rear legroom are traded for an additional 3.5 ft3 of cargo space. Try fitting three “American-sized” people across in the back of an Impala and let me know how well that works.

    • 0 avatar
      Wagen

      An even more egregious example: the Taurus is a foot longer, 4″ wider, nearly 4″ taller, and 750 lb heavier than the Fusion, yet has less front legroom, only 1″ more rear legroom, and 0.3″ more front headroom (rear is equal). Though, cargo space is up by 3.6 ft3.

  • avatar
    Conslaw

    Until the most recent restyling the Taurus was only a little too heavy and was spacious. To make it swoopy, they lowered the roof, taking away interior room and saddled it with 400 extra lbs. Epic fail.

  • avatar
    Pch101

    MY 2010 fleet numbers were similar, so none of this is a surprise:

    Impala – 68%
    300 – 61%
    Charger – 78%
    Crown Vic – 94%
    Taurus – 42%
    Grand Marquis – 78%

    The full-size car and station wagon markets began to decline 30+ years ago. The OPEC crisis moved many of those buyers into smaller cars and compact pickup trucks. The small cars provided the basis for a market of mid-sized buyers that we see today. while the compact trucks helped to support the creation of new high-volume markets for large pickups, SUVs, minivans and, eventually, CUVs.

    I would no sooner expect that market to recover than I would anticipate a return of the rumble seat. The buyers who stayed loyal to that space are aging and their kids have largely not inherited their tastes.

    There is a market for some premium large sedans, but it is small and well above the traditional price points of the land yachts of yesteryear. Reviving the mainstream models doesn’t make much sense, since they can’t generate enough volume to make up for the low margins.

  • avatar
    mikey

    I guess I fit the demographic perfectly. Late fifties empty nest retiree. The initial cost,and the gas consumption keeps us away from an SUV. I just don’t like a CUV. I’ve driven an Acadia, and an Equinox, my daughter has a Honda CRV. I find them all very nice, but I/we plain don’t like them.

    For an afternoon cruise,or a weekend up north, our Mustang convert does a great job fo us.

    But for day to day,all weather use, and the odd 2000 mile cross country trip, the big Impala does the job for us. Oh yeah..you don’t put two adults in the back seat for too far. But two suit cases,two sets of golf clubs, and a big cooler fit into the trunk with room to spare. Fleet sales have destroyed our resale value. Resale value,doesn’t mean squat to the guy planning to drive his car to the ground.

    Yeah I know…big cars are past thier “best before” date. Yeah,and so are a lot of thier drivers.

    • 0 avatar
      krhodes1

      But Mikey, the problem is folks like you are literally dying off.

      I’m approaching mid-40s, and I have absolutely no desire at all for any of the cars mentioned in this article. Nor does anyone I know in my age group drive one or aspire to drive one. You get more space and more usefulness in a same-size SUV/CUV or a lot more space in a van (can’t really call them minivans anymore). If you don’t need the very few extra inches of space, the mid-sizers are either cheaper or better equipped for the same price.

      I will admit, I have specifically rented Avalons and Lucernes (and a Flex, which was WAY better) when I needed to shuffle clients around, but for my own use anyone who feels there is not enough space in the back of my 3-series can just drive thier own damned car.

      And it isn’t the rentals that have killed the resale on your Impala, it is the fact that it is an ancient, rather bland beige-mobile that causes no one to want one. Too many nicer more interesting choices of used cars.

      • 0 avatar
        th009

        I’m sadly past the mid-40s now, and like krhodes1, I’m much happier in the driver’s seat of something like a 3-series, A4/S4 or C-class. The land barges simply hold no appeal to me …

      • 0 avatar
        Educator(of teachers)Dan

        @krhodes & th009, thank you for being part of destroying those resale values (by your non-desire) so that guys like me who are only 35 but refuse to buy an SUV/CUV/VAN can aford a gently used grampa sedan.

      • 0 avatar
        Advo

        Toyota is the large car of the automobile world, then. Who is next in line to take over their sales leadership, when in ten years time a lot of their clientele will have no need for a car anymore? GM?

      • 0 avatar
        mikey

        @Krhodes1….I don’t disagree with you at all. However there is a certain group of us that like the simplicty of an “ancient,rather bland beige-mobile”. Remember we were the generation that were brought up and cut our teeth on such cars.

        Then there is the economic factor. The big domestics new, or used are cheap to buy,and cheaper to maintain.

        I do a little detailing,and car jockey work for several low end, used car dealers. The big domestics are snapped, up regardless of miles, or condition. Its all about price.

      • 0 avatar
        mcs

        I think part of what is responsible for the differences in tastes here is related to local driving conditions. I’m familiar with driving conditions in both Southern Ontario and New England. They’re very different and, in my opinion, each favors a very different type of vehicle.

  • avatar
    Rick T.

    No, I was not aware as this is NOT an area of my expertise!

  • avatar
    ciddyguy

    I think the confusion stems largely in how the EPA uses interior volume to determine size so length/width aren’t as consistent as they are with the Euro classification of A,B,C etc segments.

    By that I mean, an A segment fits a fairly concise size constraint, same for the B segment so one knows that a car that’s say, 140″ in overall length is going to be an A segment car, ditto for one that’s 150″ in overall length, except it’s a B segment and so on.

    But as some have said, moving up to a larger car in the US does not always translate into more interior room and in some cases, it feels like there is less room even if the numbers say otherwise.

    In the past, a lot of that extra room often meant better back seat space but not always and today, that’s even less the case all to often even if the cars today are front wheel drive instead of the traditional RWD configuration.

    I think that as people find the car one rung down from full size or midsize having as good or better interior room for people and luggage, they buy that instead and then discover it’s other benefits.

    But many are not doing that in so much as choosing either a CUV or an SUV instead.

  • avatar
    baggins

    Interesting post and discussion. Exactly what I love about TTAC.

    I have a 4cyl 2011 accord (technically a large car, but really a large mid sizer) and a Sienna. While people might call the accord a “family sedan”, its really not. Its my commuter. I am alone in it 95% of teh time and it NEVER had the entire family in it, unless the van is in the shop (which it never is). I think the vast majority of people in our situation who can afford a SUV/CUV/Minivan use one of those as teh family hauler.

    While I personally wish I had gone larger for my commuter (Genesis – for comfort and quiet – accord is damn noisy), most people probably see a Camry or Accord as a very practical commuter. Not sure what additional utility there is to a larger sedan.

    I agree – the large sedan is dead.

    • 0 avatar
      krhodes1

      Not quite. The large “non-premium” sedan is dead. There is certainly plenty of market for large PREMIUM luxury cars. And plenty of money to be made with such. And I even consider the Genesis to be such, even though it is from a non-premium brand. S-class, A8, 7-series, Lexus LS all make plenty of money for thier makers. But you can buy 3-4 Impalas for the price of entry of any of the above (2 for the bargain Genesis).

      It is interesting that as the mid-sizers have gotten bigger and bigger, the “large” cars have stayed the same (Impala, other GM big FWD cars), gotten smaller inside (Taurus), or been killed off (Panthers, Town Car, big GM rear-drivers). The big Chryslers are not that big to start with, and RWD makes them smaller inside to some extent. I think the Avalon did get bigger, but it is such a tiny niche player that it doesn’t really count. Best Buick ever made though!

  • avatar
    krhodes1

    As the fleet sales boogie-man comes up quite often here, I would like to ask if anyone has any information as to how much do fleets actually pay for say a mid-trim Impala? What does that mean for profit to GM on the car?

    Someone recently posted that the rental companies are essentially leasing them with buy-back garantees, which makes plenty of sense to me. Considering the dealer middle-men are likely cut out of the picture, seems to me that GM may actually make MORE money selling an Impala to Hertz than selling one to a dealer to sell retail.

    Amusingly, if I reserve an Impala at Hertz these days, more likely than not I will be “upgraded” to an Altima… Four times in the last two weeks. Another city, another differently colored Altima. Sigh…

  • avatar
    pdieten

    What I say, I say as the owner of a 2009 Taurus, a car I love very much.

    Large sedans are not optimal for families. Those of you who lament the demise of the large sedan, you’re only doing it because that’s the kind of car you’re used to.

    People do not want to sit three across in a car. A car can’t be made wide enough for “no touching!” when the kids become teenagers. If your family is larger than four, they want to sit 2x2x2 in three rows of seats. People like personal space. If you never transport more than four, there’s no reason to have a big car. A midsize is great plenty big.

    My car is 200 inches long. Why would you want to drag a car any longer than that around corners and into parking spaces, especially in urban areas? Most CUVs / SUVs / whatever aren’t any longer than that.

    Why do you want to sit so low to the ground? Part of what I like about my Taurus is that it sits at chair height. Easy ingress and egress and it’s easy to see out.

    Trunks are not always that practical. The roof-height back end in CUVs is much more practical for carrying certain kinds of cargo. I like the big trunk in my car, but to put anything in the far end near the front of the car I practically have to climb in to reach, and that’s saying something for a 6-footer. Anything in the front of the cargo area in a CUV is either close enough to reach, or can be reached by opening the side door.

    So why did I buy it? It is a genuinely nice, comfortable car with a high reliability rating. I like a spacious car, as I am tall and wide and prefer a scosche more room. My back doesn’t always allow me to get into a car with seats lower than chair height. My kids appreciate the extra leg room in the back seat when I drop them off at school. It was insanely cheap (being such a nerdy vehicle; this is why I got the Taurus instead of the very expensive Taurus X). It has the first generation of Sync, which simply rocks. And I also have the wife’s Durango for cargo- or extra-people-carrying duty. I wouldn’t replace the ’09 with the current iteration of the Taurus, as I found it severely lacking in driver’s space (the ’09s cockpit fits me like a Corvette’s fits average-sized men.)

    Many people don’t have needs like mine. Not a single person I know has a large sedan. The vehicles of all the families I know are: (1) a midsize or compact commuter, and (2) a minivan, CUV or SUV for family duty. In the same way that station wagons were more practical than sedans in the ’60s and ’70s, a crossover is more practical now.

    /Yeah, I know. Too long; didn’t read. Sorry.

  • avatar
    Coley

    I totally agree with you, and with the appropriately qualified statement above that the non-premium large sedan is dead. I made a similar comment on the Cadillac thread a few days ago. Retail customers who are spending more than $25k and want a larger vehicle are going to buy something that sits them up high.

    I’m trying to think of the rare exceptions I know personally. A friend’s Dad (in his mid-60′s) drives an Avalon. My wife’s widowed great-aunt has one of the newer Buicks.

    As for 50- or 60-something empty nesters: my parents-in-law, my aunt and uncle, and my brother’s parents-in-law ALL drive minivans, and they’re all on their FIRST minivan, which they bought after the kids left the nest (“well, you know, it’s good for when we’ve got the grandkids…”) The last couple mentioned above also own a 7-series. Guess which car they prefer on long trips?

  • avatar
    dolorean

    Why is this shocking? I remember ford retaining its #1 Selling Car in America badge for its last year with the ’96 Taurus. After an extensive redesign to make the Taurus more upscale. Ford found that customers were not into the new oval shape and stayed away in droves, prefering the Camry and Accord. According to the Encyclopedia of American Cars, the Taurus managed to “retain its title as the bestselling car in the United States because of heavy sales to rental fleets; 51% of all Taurus sales for 1996 went to rental fleets, in contrast to the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, of which most sales were to private customers through retail outlets.”

    This is an old trick to pump up marketing numbers. There’s nothing new under the sun.


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