Midsize Sedan Deathwatch #7: America Lost More Than 250,000 Midsize Car Sales In 2016

midsize sedan deathwatch 7 america lost more than 250 000 midsize car sales in 2016

As recently as 2014, U.S. sales of midsize cars were on the rise, albeit marginally. As recently as 2015, U.S. sales of midsize cars were shrinking only modestly, falling less than 2 percent compared with 2014.

In 2016, however, U.S. sales of midsize cars decreased by more than 250,000 units — an 11-percent drop that exceeded the rate of decline witnessed elsewhere in the car market.

This is the seventh edition of TTAC’s Midsize Sedan Deathwatch. The midsize sedan as we know it — “midsizedus sedanicus” in the original latin — isn’t going anywhere any time soon, but the ongoing sales contraction will result in a reduction of mainstream intermediate sedans in the U.S. market.

How do we know? It already has.

The midsize sedan segment continues to be a hugely consequential part of the car market and the overall new vehicle market, but the segment has greatly contracted over the last few years — including the demise of yet another nameplate in 2016.

That makes 2017 the best time to replace the 15-time best-seller with an all-new model.

Midsize cars account for nearly one-third of all new car sales and more than one-in-ten new vehicle sales. While TTAC’s deathwatch looks ahead to the continued disappearance of poor performers, by no means do we anticipate the death of the segment. Just as America’s minivan segment gradually gave way to the success of SUVs and crossovers — losing sales and then losing competitors and then stabilizing — the midsize sedan segment is undergoing a similar sea change.

It’s a change wrought in part by the rise of compact utility vehicles. In December 2016, as Jack Baruth mentioned last week, the Nissan Rogue, Honda CR-V, and Toyota RAV4 all outsold America’s best-selling cars.

There are other factors, but regardless of the reasoning, there’s no denying the results. Among America’s 11 mainstream midsize cars in 2016 – of which only 10 remain in production – only two sold more often in 2016 than in 2015.

One, the Chevrolet Malibu, was an all-new model for 2016. Sales jumped 17 percent to 227,881 units, fifth in the segment. The Malibu’s share of the market rose by three points, year-over-year, to 11 percent in 2016.

The other, Subaru’s Legacy, benefits from standard all-wheel drive, the market’s remarkably pro-Subaru tendencies, and improved availability. Legacy sales increased 8 percent — a modest gain of 4,859 units — to 65,306 total sales in 2016. That was good enough to rank ninth in its class, ahead of the discontinued Chrysler 200 and the forgotten Mazda 6.

But at the top of the heap, the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, and Ford Fusion — a quartet that owns more than 62 percent of the segment — combined to lose 111,417 sales. Sales of the top-ranked Camry, America’s overall best-selling car in 15 consecutive years, fell to a five-year low. Accord, Altima, and Fusion sales slid to a four-year low.

However, not a one of these cars is particularly new. Who killed the Camry, Mr. Baruth asked last week? In addition to the factors he mentioned, consider also old age.

The current Camry — and the Volkswagen Passat — went into production more than five years ago. The current iterations of the Accord, Altima, and Fusion all went into production in 2012. So did the Mazda 6.

Can new product breathe new life into a struggling category?

Probably.

Maybe.

The 2018 Toyota Camry revealed yesterday at the North American International Auto Show places greater emphasis on style while also emphasizing its carness. Making its not-an-SUV character all the more obvious is lower height.

Toyota even says that the new car’s dynamic improvements will be felt, “within the first few seconds of driving.”

Want a RAV4’s commanding view of the road? Don’t expect it here: Toyota has lowered the Camry’s hip point.

Not unwisely, Toyota is sticking with an engine formula that, for the most part, distinguishes the Camry from similarly priced compact crossovers. While many other midsize cars have given up their optional V6 engines, the three best-selling midsize cars in America still offer a V6 upgrade. That will continue in the 2018 Camry, which is expected to be a remarkably quick car when the upgraded V6 is paired with an eight-speed automatic.

But can we be so certain that an improved Camry, along with forthcoming new editions of the Accord and Altima, will turn TTAC’s midsize deathwatch into an examination of abundant life? Or will revitalized top sellers be even more likely to kill off the low-volume contenders, cars such as the Mazda 6 that are biting into progressively smaller slices of progressively smaller pies?

Consider Canada as an example, where the far more dominant compact sector was imbued with new life in 2016. The Honda Civic, now Canada’s best-selling car in 19 consecutive years, was all-new for 2016, going so far as to add a hatchback bodystyle at the end of the year. Yet Canadian sales of compact cars fell 7 percent in 2016 and the Civic actually sold less often in 2016 than it did in 2015, at the end of the previous generation’s lifecycle.

Canada, of course, isn’t wholly analogous. Canadians buy even more SUVs, crossovers, and pickup trucks (and far more minivans), per capita. The fact that the natural comparison for America’s midsize market is Canada’s compact market makes that all the more clear.

But concerns are justified. If a new Camry doesn’t succeed with big numbers, how can we expect its ankle-biting alternatives to do so? And if they don’t succeed, choices becomes limited. And when choice is limited, we all suffer.

Timothy Cain is the founder of GoodCarBadCar.net, which obsesses over the free and frequent publication of U.S. and Canadian auto sales figures. Follow on Twitter @goodcarbadcar and on Facebook.

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  • SCE to AUX SCE to AUX on Jan 10, 2017

    Someday, eventually, by and by, the Tesla Model 3 will add to the mid-size sales numbers. Unless they're not counted because of how Tesla reports its figures.

    • Epsilonkore Epsilonkore on Jan 13, 2017

      When I first read this article I did a find for someone mentioning the 3. The price point starts where many of these reside. Its pre order sales could single handedly recover the segment for a year or so until pre order sales slide off.

  • OldManPants OldManPants on Jan 10, 2017

    "Someday, eventually, by and by.." You're one of my paragons of smarts and virtue here and I hate to see you Linus in public.

    • See 1 previous
    • Epsilonkore Epsilonkore on Jan 13, 2017

      @SCE to AUX Same here :/ I wonder, if I should back out before I am fully locked in. Doubt they will tell what date that will be?

  • ToolGuy 16.9 gallon fuel tank (~15 usable in the real world) combined with abysmal fuel economy means the range of your girlfriend's EV will look pretty good by comparison. 😉
  • ToolGuy Cadillac should make a list of everyone who gets excited by this announcement, and never listen to those people again.
  • Jkross22 My use case is perfect for an EV. I drive about 10 miles/day tops, have a home so I can recharge at night, love how much more efficient an EV is over its ICE counterpart and love the instant torque, quietness, lack of moving parts/reliability/cost of maintenance. I'm the poster child for EV ownership.But I don't have one and don't see buying one anytime soon. As intriguing as they are, there is no way in Haiti I'm dropping 50 large minimum to buy one. Not gonna happen. The Bolt looks like a toe, I really don't like Tesla interiors, I love the Lucid and Polestar 2, the H/K electrics are interesting but look at the price of all of these.
  • ToolGuy The only good thing about this car is the wheelbase.
  • MaintenanceCosts So someone really did build that car I drew while not paying attention in second grade. Too bad they screwed it up so badly.
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