Just How Bad Are Car Sales Going to Get?

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

As the industry stresses about the new vehicle market taking it easy for the foreseeable future, there’s one aspect of it that’s of particular concern: car sales. After dominating the field for so long, passenger car sales fell below half of the market just a few years ago. That gap continued to widen through 2018.

Automakers responded by shifting output towards utility vehicles and crossovers. Ford ultimately decided to abandon the majority of its passenger cars in the United States as other manufacturers scramble to adjust their lineup to account for consumer tastes. However, these changes are also helping to push shoppers further away from cars. Bank of America Merrill Lynch estimates that 71 percent of vehicle introductions for the 2019 through 2022 model years will be light trucks.

Some automakers still believe cars hold an importance that’s not to be ignored. True, some models still sell incredibly well. But the general assumption is that they’ll continue losing relevance in the coming years. It’s likely to take another energy crisis or major shift in consumer preference to turn back the tide of crossover vehicles.

According to Automotive News, manufacturers are on pace to sell about 5.3 million cars this year, which would be the fewest since 1958. “With so many consumers taking advantage of low fuel costs to test out larger SUVs and trucks — which benefit from significantly better fuel economy than their predecessors — it will be harder and harder to convince anyone who has made a recent truck or SUV purchase that reverting back to a car would make any sense,” explained Ivan Drury, Edmunds senior manager of industry analysis.

Trade-in data from Edmunds shows shoppers are opting to replace cars with another car less and less every year. Just 53 percent of consumers replaced one car with another in the first five months of this year, while roughy 68 percent did so in 2014.

“There’s definitely further growth ahead,” said Jeff Schuster, president of LMC Automotive. He estimates SUVs, crossovers, and pickups will account for 75 to 80 percent of U.S. light-vehicle sales by 2025.

If that sounds hard to believe, trucks and crossovers have already outsell cars by a ratio of more than 2-to-1 in 2018. There’s no reason to think the trend won’t continue for the foreseeable future. “Exactly where the floor is, we’re still sorting it out,” said Stephanie Brinley, senior analyst with IHS Markit.

[Image: Honda]

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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  • Whatnext Whatnext on Jul 03, 2018

    Look at that Accord. I parked next to one yesterday and it's rear roofline was as fast as my VW CC's, with the attendant tiny trunk opening and challenging rear seat access. How practical is that for a family vehicle?

  • Lou_BC Lou_BC on Jul 03, 2018

    No cars? As long as I can buy motorcycles and pickups, I'm not loosing sleep.

  • Varezhka I have still yet to see a Malibu on the road that didn't have a rental sticker. So yeah, GM probably lost money on every one they sold but kept it to boost their CAFE numbers.I'm personally happy that I no longer have to dread being "upgraded" to a Maxima or a Malibu anymore. And thankfully Altima is also on its way out.
  • Tassos Under incompetent, affirmative action hire Mary Barra, GM has been shooting itself in the foot on a daily basis.Whether the Malibu cancellation has been one of these shootings is NOT obvious at all.GM should be run as a PROFITABLE BUSINESS and NOT as an outfit that satisfies everybody and his mother in law's pet preferences.IF the Malibu was UNPROFITABLE, it SHOULD be canceled.More generally, if its SEGMENT is Unprofitable, and HALF the makers cancel their midsize sedans, not only will it lead to the SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST ones, but the survivors will obviously be more profitable if the LOSERS were kept being produced and the SMALL PIE of midsize sedans would yield slim pickings for every participant.SO NO, I APPROVE of the demise of the unprofitable Malibu, and hope Nissan does the same to the Altima, Hyundai with the SOnata, Mazda with the Mazda 6, and as many others as it takes to make the REMAINING players, like the Excellent, sporty Accord and the Bulletproof Reliable, cheap to maintain CAMRY, more profitable and affordable.
  • GregLocock Car companies can only really sell cars that people who are new car buyers will pay a profitable price for. As it turns out fewer and fewer new car buyers want sedans. Large sedans can be nice to drive, certainly, but the number of new car buyers (the only ones that matter in this discussion) are prepared to sacrifice steering and handling for more obvious things like passenger and cargo space, or even some attempt at off roading. We know US new car buyers don't really care about handling because they fell for FWD in large cars.
  • Slavuta Why is everybody sweating? Like sedans? - go buy one. Better - 2. Let CRV/RAV rust on the dealer lot. I have 3 sedans on the driveway. My neighbor - 2. Neighbors on each of our other side - 8 SUVs.
  • Theflyersfan With sedans, especially, I wonder how many of those sales are to rental fleets. With the exception of the Civic and Accord, there are still rows of sedans mixed in with the RAV4s at every airport rental lot. I doubt the breakdown in sales is publicly published, so who knows... GM isn't out of the sedan business - Cadillac exists and I can't believe I'm typing this but they are actually decent - and I think they are making a huge mistake, especially if there's an extended oil price hike (cough...Iran...cough) and people want smaller and hybrids. But if one is only tied to the quarterly shareholder reports and not trends and the big picture, bad decisions like this get made.
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