A Decade After the Recession (and the Car's Last Hurrah), Light Trucks Continue Gaining Ground

Steph Willems
by Steph Willems

Ten years of lost time has a way of diminishing past events, even one so extreme as the global financial meltdown of 2008-09. It also pushes aside memories of a lot of vehicles that still lingered on the market a decade ago.

At the time, the U.S. economy found itself in freefall. Unemployment rose like a Saturn 5 rocket bound for lunar orbit, gas prices spiked as oil suddenly gained the value of a icy cold canteen on a desert island, and auto sales tanked like Lindsay Lohan’s career. Trucks and SUVs, which were gaining ground throughout the 2000s, ceded territory to passenger cars as the overall industry shed 3 million sales in 2008. The following year brought the worst of it, followed by a steady climb out of the depths. Happier days, just not for traditional passenger cars.

What a difference a decade makes.

With 2018 neatly wrapped up, we can step back and gaze in wonder at an industry that bucked expectations. Last year saw a 0.3 percent gain in U.S. auto sales. Americans bought roughly 17.27 million new vehicles in 2018, up from 17.2 million in 2017, but still down from the 17.6 million seen in 2016 and the 17.5 million the year before.

Of that annual total, just 31.77 percent were coupes, sedans, station wagons, or convertibles — which means 68.23 percent were trucks, crossovers, vans, and SUVs. Year over year, passenger car sales shrunk 13.1 percent, with higher-margin light trucks plowing ahead with an 8 percent gain.

December’s figures skewed things even more in favor of our high-riding overlords. Last month, cars made up just 28.4 percent of all new vehicles sold in the United States.

Rewinding the calendar to 2008, buyers in that eventful year had no shortage of choice when it came to SUVs. Whether you’d want to own one of them is another story. Across the country, lots still contained varying numbers of Chrysler Aspens, Dodge Nitros, Kia Borregos, Hummer H3s, Mercury Mountaineers, Subaru Tribecas, Hyundai Veracruzes, Suzuki Grand Vitaras, Honda Elements, Pontiac Torrents, Mazda Tributes, Jeep Commanders, Saturn Outlooks, GMC Envoys, Mitsubishi Endeavors, and all manner of other options.

Ford Taurus X or Saab 9-7x, anyone?

2008 was also the year you could still buy a Chevrolet Uplander or Mitsubishi Raider. A Lincoln Mark LT or Suzuki Equator. A Hyundai Entourage or Volkswagen Routan. Maybe an Isuzu Ascender caught your eye amid the financial rubble, or perhaps a Mercedes-Benz R-Class.

In that year, as buyers fled both the market and pricier, gas-guzzling vehicles, car sales took 53.4 percent of the market, and didn’t relinquish their majority until 2012 turned into 2013. That year saw an economy on a continued upswing and interest rates in the basement, so buyers continued their car-buying tear. While passenger cars still recorded year-over-year gains in 2013, light trucks gained ground faster. By the end of the year, cars sunk to 49.9 percent of the sales mix.

In five years, the traditional passenger car saw its slice of the market shrink from just a hair under half to 31.77 percent, and it’s still dropping. It’s no wonder major automakers like Ford, General Motors, and Fiat Chrysler have little time for low-priced, trunk-bearing offerings anymore.

[Image: General Motors]

Steph Willems
Steph Willems

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  • Hummer Hummer on Jan 04, 2019

    In 2008 you could still buy cars with normal engines, the only 2.0T on the market was in Saab and that had personality that couldn't be found in anything else. Today we have a Malibu with a 1.5L engine that can be outran by an iron duke, is it really any mystery why no one wants cars? Today Traditional passenger cars are in a Malaise that makes the 80s crop of turds look rather exciting.

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    • Art Vandelay Art Vandelay on Jan 05, 2019

      Just out of curiosity I looked back at the 1969 Chevelle Malibu. If you want to keep up with the 1.5 at the strip, you had better opt for the 350. Of course you are going to need a little more fuel to get there. Better hope the new 'Bu doesn't have the 2.0 T though...then you are going to need an SS with a 396 just to keep it close.

  • JD-Shifty JD-Shifty on Jan 05, 2019

    "Today we have a Malibu with a 1.5L engine that can be outran by an iron duke,". If you don't know what you're talking about, don't post.

  • Wjtinfwb I'd like to see a Ford/Mazda relationship restarted. Both companies have some car guys keeping the flame alive and could develop a sports car slightly bigger than a Miata and pick and choose from each other's parts bin to put together some attractive powertrain combo's. Even a Mazda 3 AWD with the 300HP EcoBoost 2.3L, manual and AWD from the Focus RS would be welcome. Even better, a factory Miata V8 with the 480 HP Coyote (i know it wont fit...) and a manual gearbox. And how about a CX-5 with a 2.7L EcoBoost V6 with AWD and an chassis tuned for sport. Lots of possibilities.
  • Blueice Patient 28, sorry, but it is Oktoberfest. Bring a kegof Kraut beer and we will 50% you.
  • Bd2 Probably Toyota, Hyundai is killing them these days.
  • Bd2 Japan is evil, stop buying their vehicles. I hope TTAC has a holiday for PEARL HARBOR.
  • Wolfwagen If Isuzu could update this truck and keep the cost between $25K - $30K they would sell like ice pops on dollar day in a heat wave.