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?
Automotive News Europe [sub] spotted a new trend in Tokyo: Daredevil CEOs:
“On Nov. 27, Toyota boss Akio Toyoda wowed a crowd of spectators in Japan by racing through a lineup of Lexus LFA supercars in the new Toyota 86 sporty coupe. One day later, Honda CEO Takanobu Ito hopped on a Honda MotoGP racing motorcycle and blasted around the company’s Twin Ring Motegi racetrack.” (Read More…)
The US car market contracted by 23 percent between the 2006 and 2010 model-years according to WardsAuto data [via the Detroit News], but over the same period the total number of hatchbacks sold per year has increased some 63%, from 291,853 to 475,048. That’s right hatchback fans, after decades of underachievement in the US market, your favorite bodystyle is back in a big way.
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.
We live to serve here at TTAC, so when our faithful commentators requested a comparative graph of Chevy Suburban and Tahoe Sales from the heart of the SUV boom, who were we to say no? And sure enough, there are some interest lessons to be learned from the exercise. In 1999, as the SUV boom headed for the stratosphere, the ‘burban actually passed the Tahoe in terms of volume for one year. But the fad wouldn’t last: Suburban sales peaked in 2001, a year before the Tahoe topped out at nearly 209k units. The Suburban also fell further, suffering big year-over-year losses until a pre-gas-shock uptick in 2007, a year after the Tahoe recorded its first post-peak upswing. Counter-intuitively, the 2008 gas shock actually hurt Tahoe volumes even worse than Suburban, shedding over 50k units (or about 60 percent) compared to 2007 levels. Over the same period, the Suburban “only” lost 30k units of volume (about 55 percent).
Considering the Suburban so essentially captures the tenuous line between myth and reality in American life, it’s a pity we don’t have 75 years of sales data to put some hard numbers behind the nameplate’s 75 years of history. Luckily, our data does go back to 1995, when America’s whirlwind romance with the SUV was just beginning to get serious. Given that, as Paul points out in today’s history, Suburbans didn’t become popular as family haulers until sometime in the early eighties, it’s safe to assume that 1996-2004 represents the absolute high-water mark for the nameplate’s volume. And ye gods has that volume dropped off ever since.
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?