2011 was a fascinating year to follow auto sales. With the overall market up over 10%, and hot new products hitting showrooms, there was definitely room to grow… and yet everyone seems to have an excuse for why growth wasn’t stronger. Japanese automakers, the biggest losers of 2011, had a strong of natural disasters to blame the bad year on. Detroit showed strong volume gains in terms of percentage growth, and earned respect in growing segments where they were previously weak, but couldn’t match the expectations of its perennially over-optimistic boosters. The Korean manufacturers showed strong market share growth but lack of capacity prevented them from bounding into the top tier of the US sales game. In fact, only the European luxury manufacturers could point to 2011′s sales performance with unalloyed satisfaction, as they grew some 29.5% as a group, from an already-strong volume position. So, given these mixed results, what was the lesson of 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.
If human beings were truly rational animals, trends would be easy to predict. Given that we’re fickle, self-aware and subject to the influence of less predictable forces than pure reason, figuring out what is going to appeal to people is never easy. And few automotive examples prove the inconstancy of market trends like the minivan. On paper they just plain make sense, creating a huge amount of flexible interior room out of high-volume sedan platforms, making them relatively cheap, capable and efficient. But if consumer decisions were made based on such rational considerations, turtlenecks would be long overdue for a huge comeback. In short, the “image thing” killed minivans, with more than a little help from the marketing efforts of the very companies that profited off their (relatively) brief time in the sun. And really, the future of the minivan will be determined by the staying power of its modern replacement, the Crossover. Are CUVs an evolutionary step from the SUV dead-end of the 90s back towards minivans and station wagons, or will the needs of multiple-passenger consumers forever be doomed to be served by the in-between-mobiles? My totally unjustified belief in the basic sanity of consumers makes me believe that minivans make too much sense to not make a comeback, and concepts like VW’s Microbus show the way. What say you?