During a nine-year stretch between 2003 and 2011, the Toyota Corolla was consistently America’s best-selling small car.
For eight of those years, consecutively between 2003 and 2010, the Honda Civic was America’s second-best-selling small car.
Designs, architectures, and rivals changed, but the Corolla stayed on top.
Yet while sales of the Corolla jumped 21% in calendar year 2012 and sales of 2011’s second-ranked small car, the Chevrolet Cruze, increased 3%, sales of the Honda Civic shot up 44%. After this 2012 performance in which Civic sales rose above 300,000 units, Honda reported a further 6% increase in Civic volume in 2013. Even as the aging Corolla was replaced by a far less conservative car, the Corolla’s 4% increase to 302,180 units wasn’t nearly enough to catch the Civic.
After a two-year hiatus, however, Toyota USA appears poised to take back the small car sales crown. Through seven months, the Corolla has outsold the Civic by 7987 units. On a monthly basis, the Corolla has outsold the Civic in six of the last seven months, losing out only in June. Moreover, Corolla volume is increasing at a much sharper rate of late, climbing 24% over the last four months, a period in which Civic sales have grown only 6%, year-over-year.
Toyota won’t celebrate this victory too early. (The Camry’s consistent position atop the overall car category is of greater consequence, regardless.) The Corolla was 2013’s early small car sales leader, as well. At the halfway mark last year, the Corolla was a few hundred sales ahead of the Honda. One month later, the Civic was nearly 7700 units ahead of the Corolla.
Taken together, the Civic and Corolla, with steady assistance from the Nissan Sentra, have been the force powering the otherwise stagnant compact sector forward this year. Year-to-date sales of the Dodge Dart, Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra, Mazda 3, Mitsubishi Lancer, Volkswagen Golf, and Volkswagen Jetta have declined. Chevrolet Cruze sales, though healthy at the beginning of the year, have tumbled in each of the last two months. Kia Forte sales are up 5% in 2014, but that equals fewer than 2000 extra sales for the segment, and the Forte’s gains are more than offset by the loss of 15,492 sales by its Hyundai Elantra partner. WRX/STi aside, sales of the regular Subaru Impreza are up by only 1300 units.
Compact sales are up just 1% overall this year, yet Corolla/Civic/Sentra sales have risen 14%. Excluding the trio from the equation results in a decline of 6% for the compact class.
Mazda, meanwhile, sells but one 3 for every 3.3 Corollas. No, Mazda doesn’t have the same capacity for massive U.S. success, nor do Mazda dealers possess the kinds of inventory to challenge the dominant players. But if that isn’t a sign of what the market wants, what is? (The ratio was 2.4-to-1 just two years ago.)
Improvements aside, the latest Corolla is still far from the enthusiast’s favourite. Becoming more like the Corolla (and less appealing to enthusiast drivers) hasn’t hurt the Civic and Sentra, either. Nissan has already sold more Sentras in 2014 than in all of 2012. Unless the trend reverses itself, 2014 could end as the Civic’s first ever year above 340,000 units.