Not Every Entry-level Car Is Searching for Missing Buyers
The first quarter of 2019 reflected a long-predicted cooling off of U.S. auto sales, with volume falling 2 percent. A few automakers bucked the trend, but the news was generally unpleasant. Of course, rising average transaction prices and a bevy of high-margin trucks, SUVs, and crossovers softened the blow for those who got their lineups in order ahead of time.
One segment that gets very little attention — for many reasons — is the lowest rung of all: subcompact cars, which traditionally provide a stepping stone for buyers just entering the market. Many journos bemoan the loss of low-priced cars, claiming relatively cash-strapped Millennials stand to be priced out of the new vehicle market by rising MSRPs and interest rates. It’s true — the herd is thinning, with the last quarter bringing about the death of the Chevrolet Cruze. (This writer actually bought one; the jury’s out if anyone else out there did.)
Still, despite the industry flux, some nameplates continue to earn the love of buyers who choose to spend as little as possible on a new car.
One vehicle we’ve watched with bemused interest for years is arguably the lowliest “normal” car (read: non-Smart Fortwo) on the market: Mitsubishi’s three-cylinder Mirage hatch and G4 sedan, which carries a pre-destination starting price of $13,795. Cheap wheels indeed.
Mirage sales have climbed every year since its late-2013 U.S. return, topping 24,000 units in 2018. In the first quarter of 2019, Mirage sales climbed 12.9 percent.
It helps that Mitsu is adding new dealerships all the time — a factor that lurks behind the brand’s steady overall sales climb. March was Mitsubishi’s best U.S. sales month since March 2004.
A car that meets its end next month (U.S.-bound production ceases in May) is Ford’s little Fiesta, a subcompact sedan and hatch that once offered a three-cylinder of its own. Starting at $14,240 before destination, the Fiesta doesn’t carry the stigma of being a Mitsubishi Mirage. It also saw sales rise 29.6 percent in the first quarter of this year, no doubt helped along by an automaker eager to avoid having discontinued, low-margin cars loitering on dealer lots.
March was the Fiesta’s sixth consecutive month of year-over-year sales gains. The model also holds the distinction of being the only Ford-badged passenger car to end 2018 with a year-to-date sales gain (up 11.8 percent). Still, its looming death means the time is short to add one to your driveway.
Toyota’s sales sank 5 percent last quarter, but the brand gained buyers for its Yaris sedan, a Mazda-based subcompact soon to be joined by a new hatch sibling. As the old Yaris hatch bled from lots, the straightforward sedan (you won’t lose track of trims and option packages, that’s for sure) saw Q1 sales rise 2.7 percent. Starting price for a Yaris is $15,450 before destination. Guppy face aside, Mazda engineering and a six-speed manual awaits the penny pinching buyer who considers this car. It’s easy to imagine the new hatch model bumping up volume considerably.
Elsewhere in the low-cost field, Kia’s revamped-for-2018 Rio ($15,390 to start) recorded a 16.3 percent sales climb, which is something its cousin, the Hyundai Accent, can’t claim. Accent sales fell 8.6 percent in Q1 2019. Chevrolet’s Spark ($14,095 after destination) saw a similar volume loss, dropping 7.5 percent over the first three months of 2019. Nissan’s Versa, which gains a full makeover later this year (coinciding with the already-announced discontinuation of the hatchback Note model), posted a Q1 sales loss of just 1.5 percent. The Versa sedan starts at $12,360 before destination.
Honda’s Fit ($16,190 to start) took a dive in the first three months of 2019, sinking 43.4 percent, year over year. Redesigned for the 2015 model year, the dustbuster-shaped subcompact saw a mild styling refresh for 2018.
Yes, options still exist for the buyer who holds realistic expectations for a bargain-basement new vehicle. Depending on model, they may even walk away pleasantly surprised.
[Images: Toyota, Mitsubishi, Kia Motors]
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