We Know Crossovers Are Killing Midsize Sedans, but Now Compact Cars Are Beating Midsize Cars

Timothy Cain
by Timothy Cain
we know crossovers are killing midsize sedans but now compact cars are beating

Through the first-half of 2017, midsize car sales plunged 18 percent as nearly every nameplate in the category suffered from declining sales.

Year-over-year, sales of the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, Ford Fusion, Chevrolet Malibu, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima, Subaru Legacy, Mazda 6, and Chrysler 200 collectively fell by nearly 200,000 units.

We know where the buyers are going. Compact crossovers such as the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, and Nissan Rogue — each of which now sell more often than even the top-selling midsize cars — are 2017’s soup du jour: more space for Buster the Bernese, better sightlines for the driver, all-wheel drive for those weekly Rubicon excursions, and a superior image to boot.

But if the trend we’ve seen through the first-half of 2017 holds, midsize cars won’t merely lose the U.S. sales race to compact crossovers. 2017 appears primed to be the first year in history in which compact cars also outsell midsize cars.

Automotive News calls it a “midsize meltdown.” The consistency with which America’s midsize sedan market is shrinking, together with the gradual disappearance of midsize nameplates — most recently the Chrysler 200 — brought about TTAC’s Midsize Sedan Death Watch. The segment isn’t dying — but as the segment contracts, nameplates vanish.

America’s midsize segment is down 18 percent this year, a subject explored earlier this month after June’s 16-percent drop.

But the midsize segment is by no means the only car category suffering. Subcompact cars, led by a Nissan Versa in which even Nissan is losing interest, is down 19 percent in 2017. Full-size volume brand cars, like their midsize counterparts, are down 18 percent, a decline which led to the formal expiration of the Hyundai Azera.

But compact car sales are different.

Oh, they’re falling.

But not by much.

Midsize car sales topped compact cars by only around 24,000 units in the U.S. in 2016. But through the first-half of 2017, compact car volume are nearly 115,000-sales stronger than midsize car volume. That’s not necessarily because of massive compact car demand, but rather the compact car segment’s relative fortitude in a rapidly evolving market.

While comparable categories plunged between 18 and 19 percent, compact car volume is down less than 5 percent in 2017, a drop which can almost be confused with growth given the 12-percent downturn in overall U.S. passenger car sales this year.

A Chevrolet Cruze rebound after 2016’s debacle certainly helps. So too does the Hyundai Elantra’s 4-percent uptick after Elantra sales fell to a four-year low in 2016. Also on the rise is the aging Kia Forte, the SportWagen/Alltrack-elevated Volkswagen Golf, and the all-new Subaru Impreza.

Those five nameplates — Cruze, Elantra, Forte, Golf, Impreza — combined for a 12-percent year-over-year sales increase in 2017’s first six months. And that increase cancelled out much, though not all, of the declines reported by the Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, Nissan Sentra, Ford Focus, Volkswagen Jetta, and Mazda 3, as well as the discontinued Dodge Dart, Mitsubishi Lancer, and Buick Verano.

As a result, compact cars earned nearly 1.03 million U.S. sales in 2017’s first half. Midsize car volume tumbled to nearly 900,000 units.

There are obvious reasons car buyers — and there are still car buyers — may be willing to stick with compacts while fleeing bookend segments.

Affordability is foremost among such reasons. Kelley Blue Book says the average transaction price for a compact car in June 2017 was $20,465, an 18-percent savings compared with the average transaction price of a midsize car.

Compact car refinement has also improved by leaps and bounds in the latest generations of small car redesigns, with the Honda Civic and Chevrolet Cruze and Hyundai Elantra not remotely feeling like econoboxes.

Moreover, rear seat space — hiproom for three notwithstanding — is more than adequate in many compact cars. Throw in fuel economy, with a 2.4-liter-powered Accord rated at 30 miles per gallon and a 1.5T Civic at 36, and there’s plenty of compact car justification.

Increasingly, a greater percentage of compact car buyers are coming from the midsize segment. In the first-half of 2017, according to J.D. Power PIN data obtained by TTAC, 16.5 percent of compact car acquisitions occurred as a result of conquests from the midsize category, up from 15.9 percent at this stage a year ago.

Yet it’s the compact SUV/crossover segment that continues to earn an increasingly large share of midsize car conquests. Among new vehicle buyers who traded in a midsize car in the first-half of 2017, 18.5 percent chose a small utility vehicle, way up 15.9 percent just one year ago.

Midsize car loyalty, meanwhile, is taking a dive. Only 30.9 percent of midsize trade-ins stuck with a midsize car, down from an already-low 33.7 percent in the first-half of 2016.

[Images: General Motors, Honda]

Timothy Cain is a contributing analyst at The Truth About Cars and Autofocus.ca and the founder and former editor of GoodCarBadCar.net. Follow on Twitter @timcaincars.

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4 of 62 comments
  • TonyJZX TonyJZX on Jul 13, 2017

    I personally think mid sized sedans have bloat... they are now up to 4,000lb and are bigger than most people need. I drove a Mazda 3 SP25 sedan. Its all one needs for say 4 people, maybe 5.

    • See 1 previous
    • Ponchoman49 Ponchoman49 on Jul 13, 2017

      @gtem The 2008-2012 and 2013-2016 style Malibu did not weight 3800 LBS. The LS/LS versions of the 2013 on up are listed at 3393-3439 LBS. The LTZ trim is listed at 3547. SPecs right from Media.gm.com/media/us/en/chevrolet/vehicles/malibu/2014.tab1.html. I spent considerable time in both a new style Malibu and Cruze. The Malibu was superior in most ways and felt and drove like a nicer, larger car. The fact that there was only $1500 difference in actual transaction price between both LT trim examples solidified it for me. Unless mileage is your top priority, which is strange in a world of cheap gas the past 2 years, the mid size car makes far more sense to me.

  • Tjh8402 Tjh8402 on Jul 13, 2017

    100% agree with everything you say, but I would add another point - the fact that there's not a single liftback model of a midsize sedan available. Yea we say American's don't like hatchbacks, but the reality is that virtually every compact car has a hatchback model available, and those have cargo space than their midsize sedan cousins, not to mention with mail slot trunk openings becoming the norm with sedans, the available space is much easier to access. Indeed, all the compact hatchbacks offer at least 20 cubic ft of cargo space, beating not only the midsize sedan competition, but in today's post Panther world, the full size ones as well. With the driving experience and options and features in compacts no longer being that of a penalty box and rear seat room now being adequate, the compacts are actually the more practical cars. Performance also probably plays into it. In the past, compact car with upgraded engines were typically still slower than their midsize brethren's with base engines. That's no longer always the case. Acceleration is similar between top of the line compacts and base model midsize cars, and in some cases such as the Golf/Passat, Civic/Accord, and Mazda 3/6, the smaller car shares its engine with the midsizer and is actually quicker. this is all before their greater efficiency and cheaper prices are considered.

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