Record new vehicle sales volume in 2015 was powered largely by growth in the SUV/crossover category and further strengthening by pickup trucks. Flat car sales and declining minivan volume served to impede U.S. auto sales growth.
Prior to 2015, consumers, businesses, and government agencies had not combined to purchase and lease more than 17 million new vehicles since 2001. With 17.47 million sales in 2015, year-over-year volume jumped 6 percent and total new vehicle sales soared 67 percent compared with 2009, when auto sales plunged to their lowest depths during the recession.
The rise of the utility vehicle in 2015 wasn’t sudden or surprising. A year ago, SUV/crossover volume jumped 12 percent in a market which grew half that fast, and the segment’s share of the industry rose to 32 percent. In 2015, however, as total new vehicle volume grew 6 percent, utility vehicle sales shot up 16 percent, increasing the segment’s share of the market to 35 percent as car volume fell from 47 percent to 43 percent.
While the SUV/CUV sector was undeniably strengthened by the addition of new nameplates, many of which wouldn’t have merited “SUV” status in the public consciousness when auto sales last climbed this high, numerous top sellers increased their level of dominance. The Toyota RAV4, Nissan Rogue, Ford Explorer, Jeep Cherokee, and Honda Pilot – all listed among America’s 15 most popular utility vehicles – grew faster than the SUV/CUV market average in 2015. The best-selling Honda CR-V, meanwhile, posted a 3-percent gain and broke its own annual sales record by 10,628 units.
That said, the newbies — Chevrolet Trax, Jeep Renegade, Honda HR-V, Fiat 500X, and Mazda CX-3, none of which generated any U.S. sales activity in 2014 — added 182,000 sales to the ledger in calendar year 2015. Their subcompact SUV/CUV class posted a collective 96 percent, year-over-year sales increase built in part due to their additional sales; in part due to growth of established models.
On the flip side, subcompact cars, never a supremely high-volume category in the United States, tumbled 6 percent in 2015. America’s most popular car in 2015 continued to be the midsize Toyota Camry, a nameplate which has now topped the passenger car leaderboard in 14 consecutive years. (The CR-V’s SUV leadership dates back to 2012.)
The Ford F-Series was America’s pickup truck sales leader in 2015. However, for the first time since 2009, the F-Series was outsold by General Motors’ full-size twins: the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra. F-Series volume increased rapidly in the final quarter of 2015, but the GM twins saw their full-size truck market share rise to 38 percent from 36 percent in 2014. For the F-Series, sales in 2015 rose to the highest level since 2006. Chevrolet Silverado sales hit an eight-year peak while GMC Sierra sales climbed to the greatest total since 2005. The Ram truck line, meanwhile, achieved record high sales of 451,116 units, outperforming the previous record of 449,371 units from 2003.
Pickup truck sales were further bolstered in 2015 by greater availability of the new Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon, midsize pickups which arrived late last year. The Toyota Tacoma is still America’s best-selling non-full-size truck, but even the Tacoma sales increased as the competition for midsize truck buyers increased in 2015. The sub-category’s total volume jumped 41 percent and the Tacoma, Colorado, Nissan Frontier, Canyon, and Honda Ridgeline combined for 14-percent market share, up from 11 percent in 2014.
Truck-centric even without the addition of 114,507 Colorado and Canyon sales to the company’s U.S. sales tally, GM was even more so in 2015. The best-selling automaker in America reported a 5-percent overall sales increase in 2015 as the company’s four pickup truck lines contributed 30 percent of the volume thanks to the foursome’s 25-percent volume increase in 2015. GM’s other products combined for a 2-percent decrease. Obviously, GM is nothing like the force it was in the pre-recession era — GM owned 24 percent of the U.S. market as recently as 2007 — but the company’s market share in 2015 was just south of stable, slightly below 18 percent.
The maker of America’s best-selling vehicle line is also America’s best-selling new vehicle brand. Ford has led all brands for six consecutive years. In 2015, Blue Oval car sales slipped marginally, but utilities, trucks, and commercial vans propelled the Ford brand to a 5-percent increase.
GM leading all manufacturers, Ford topping all brands, the F-Series and Camry and CR-V on top — these are all entirely conventional elements of the U.S. auto industry. Hints of autonomous driving were more prevalent over the last year, from increasingly common lane keeping assist systems to more frequent installation of pre-collision systems. Though autonomy captures much of the public’s attention, the biggest technological advancement story evidenced by U.S. auto sales figures in 2015 may not have been an advancement at all. Volkswagen’s so called TDI Clean Diesels weren’t so clean after all. Following the eruption of the scandal in mid-September, Volkswagen couldn’t sell any of the vehicles that typically accounted for one-fifth of the brand’s volume in America. Already struggling before news of dirty TDIs broke, Volkswagen volume fell flat in an incentive-laden October; plunged 25 percent, a loss of nearly 8,000 sales, in November; and fell 5 percent in December.
Incidentally, the Volkswagen TDI’s chief rivals in the fuel economy race — hybrids — faced their own set of challenges in 2015. With fuel prices consistently low, typically more costly hybrids lack a crucial part of their appeal in comparison with their conventionally powered siblings. As a result, through the first 11 months of 2015, hybrid sales plunged 16 percent.
Americans registered more new vehicles in 2015 than at any point in history. This certainly doesn’t mean the list of losers isn’t a long one. Smart, Bentley, Dodge, Maserati, Jaguar, Fiat, Scion, and Buick all joined Volkswagen on the list of brands which sold less often in 2015 than in 2014.