Hindsight is 2020: A Tough Year for Car Sales

Matthew Guy
by Matthew Guy
hindsight is 2020 a tough year for car sales

To say the American auto industry faced challenges in 2020 is on par with saying the Pontiac Aztek was only a little bit ahead of its time. Or that Carlos Ghosn is only slightly irritated at some of his former Nissan colleagues.

Predictions of how each company (and the market as a whole) would fare in the face of everything 2020 had to offer came and went and were revised and them were revised again. Finally, after what can only be described as a ‘tactical delay’ by a couple of big-name manufacturers in releasing their data, we have a full and complete picture.

Perhaps surprisingly, it isn’t as dire as some of us feared.

Oh, don’t get us wrong – the year was a disaster compared to healthier times. The entire market was down about 14.5 percent, a number that would have terrified even the most wizened of dealer principals in past years. However, things could have been a lot worse (that seems to be a running theme lately) had sales continued to fall off a cliff like they did at the beginning of 2020.

For those of you looking for the headline numbers, know that the entire industry shifted 14.65M units in 2020 compared to 17.1M units a year prior. The last time we saw numbers like that were in the years spent climbing out of the bad-old-days when everything bottomed out in 2009. For perspective, that annum saw 10.35M new vehicles sold.

Talking heads suggest that if things stayed the way they were back in April, the whole of 2020 would have been even below that number. America has been consistently above 17M since 2015, by the way.

Using the -15 percent number as a high-water mark, the Detroit Three all fell by about this amount, which is both an indicator of how well they weathered the storm and the impact that trio’s volume has on overall numbers during a cataclysmic event. Individually, Dodge and Buick fared worst of all the Detroit-based brands, which is either a damning indictment on product or simply an aberration. It also didn’t help that manufacturing plants were shuttered early in the pandemic, leaving many dealer lots devoid of variety to sell.

What is absolutely a damning indictment on product is the 33.2 percent freefall at Nissan. Older models like the Frontier and Pathfinder were off sharply, 49.1 percent and 26 percent, respectively, while the volume-selling Rogue fell 35 percent amidst a model changeover that possibly left dealers short on product.

One can look to Mazda for a bright spot. The brand was roughly flat for the year, selling just over a quarter million vehicles in 2020. Helping matters was a much steadier stream of vehicles from factory floor to showroom floor compared to other makes who had to close their assembly facilities for long stretches of time. After all, it’s hard to sell cars when the managers Big Board ‘o Keys is mostly empty.

Here’s hoping for a better year ahead. Stay safe, folks.

[Image: Syda Production/Shutterstock. Chart by Matthew Guy, with data compiled from Automotive News]

Join the conversation
2 of 20 comments
  • TheMrFreeze Wife and I bought just bought new (to us) daily drivers...both have manual transmissions and neither has any kind of "new" safety nanny technology in it. By choice. That's how we roll.
  • IanGTCS Where I live safety inspections are only required when transferring ownership except between spouses. The ministry or police can in theory pull unsafe vehicles off the road but I haven't heard of that happening. Commercial vehicles over a certain weight required annual inspections and I've seen unsafe ones removed from the road a few times. I'm honestly fine with no regular inspections. A ball joint or bearing can go from fine to goodbye wheel in less time than a year anyways. Can't say I see too many total wrecks driving around so it would be kind of pointless.
  • IH_Fever No. I'd rather that money be spent to enforce vehicle laws on an as needed basis. The 10 year old car with a check engine light on for some sensor is a danger to no one. The crapbox with 5 different color body panels, paper tags and saran wrapped windows is more of a concern.
  • Xidex I will have to say, I do not like Camaro's especially the latest ones, but that is one sweet looking car !
  • SCE to AUX Say, when's that goofy rotary range extender coming to the US for the lame MX-30 EV?Not gonna happen, but at least I can get a pricey paint job on a CX-5.