By on January 8, 2021

 

Syda Productions/Shutterstock

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]

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20 Comments on “Hindsight is 2020: A Tough Year for Car Sales...”


  • avatar
    Dan

    Two big market winds this year. How badly did your supply get interrupted by the lockdowns. And how badly did your customers get crushed by those lockdowns.

    Nissan’s basket of domestically laid eggs for the working poor got absolutely clobbered by both of them.

    • 0 avatar
      quaquaqua

      The “lockdowns” were laughably short. Car sales got hammered cuz people didn’t have to drive to work. And Nissan couldn’t sell to rental agencies so of course they got hit by this extra hard.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    Tough year but still the car companies and dealers did better than most of us thought in spite of COVID-19.

  • avatar
    RHD

    Considering how much unemployment there was in 2020, along with a lack of need to drive around, a total drop of 14.4% isn’t that bad at all.
    Motor home sales were way up, but I would imagine they’re included in Ford and GM’s numbers.
    Once the pandemic abates, car/truck sales and the economy in general will most likely enjoy a healthy and robust recovery.

    • 0 avatar
      CKNSLS Sierra SLT

      RHD-
      It will be interesting to see for sure. Some-won’t need replacement vehicles since they are tele-commuting. Others-who do have to “go in to the office” may not want to take public transportation anymore, needing a car. There have already been reports about some New Yorkers buying their first cars-not wanting to deal with the “sardine subway”. If one has ever visited New York, and rode the subways you know where they are coming from.

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      I suspect unemployment mostly struck people who don’t/can’t buy brand new cars.

      This – plus the widening affordability gap – means that employed people with good incomes are the only ones buying cars. Hence, the unrelenting upward trend in horsepower, costly options, special editions, and general bling. Retro vehicles appeal to the older buying crowd who still remember the Bronco – for example – from the 60s to 90s.

      Not only does a $20k econocar have slim margins, it also has a shrinking market. The Hyundai dealer would rather stock Palisades than Elantras.

      At one point here I had predicted 2020 sales of ~10 million. Glad I was wrong, but I’ve also come to realize that it’s a shockingly small fraction of the population that is propping up the car market.

      Some stats on the used car market would be interesting.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Cars.com still shows ZERO 2021 Fiats in the US market. This could/should be the end of the road for that brand here.

    • 0 avatar
      Lorenzo

      Well, if Fiat could sell some of the models they sell in Europe and Brazil, instead of flogging the various versions of the 500, they’d have more sales.

      The Bravo, Brava, and even the funky Doblo would sell here at the right price. If they had an AWD option on their Idea (plural of idiot) subcompact MPV, they could sell that here too.

      They just have to get it in their heads that they need automatics for us shiftless American drivers. We talk on our iphones with one hand and steer with the other – there are no hands left for shifting.

  • avatar
    eggsalad

    Mazda. Sure, it’s up a statistically insignificant amount, but it’s the only make on the list that generally sells below the ATP.

    And Mazda has made itself into a discretionary brand. Model for model, all their vehicles have similar models at Hyundai, Kia, Nissan, and even Toyota, for less money.

    People have discretionary income, apparently.

  • avatar
    SaulTigh

    I’ve got the money to buy a new car if I wanted, but I have no desire at all. First of all, we’re working from home so we’re not driving that much, and 2nd of all who knows what regulatory BS is going to come out of the next administration. I’ll happily keep driving my 20 year old car.

    In the last few years I have found that driving an older car is quite liberating. I don’t care if someone dings it, so I park anywhere I want. I don’t care if it’s dirty sometimes, because I’d rather do something with my time other than cleaning it. No payments of course, so my budget is nice and easy. I do keep it mechanically sound, but do some of the work myself when fluids aren’t involved and the repair looks easy enough on Youtube. I’m no mechanic, but doing a little wrenching can be quite rewarding.

    • 0 avatar
      Tele Vision

      @SaulTigh

      I agree about the older cars. They also inadvertently make you an environmentalist, whether you already were one, or not: keeping an older car in good running order uses far less energy than designing/building/shipping a new car. Fact.

      We have 18.6L of older displacement chéz Tele ( not including the old speedboat ), with the newest car being a 2013. They all get wrenched on in either the driveway or garage, or on a lift at my work. A decent socket set – and a few other tools – will get you through nearly all part replacements and repairs and regular maintenance.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    I haven’t been driving as much either and I have no desire for a new vehicle. Liberating is also not having car payments.

  • avatar

    Bright spot is Tesla (+20%) not Mazda (%0.28). And Tesla was not even mentioned as if it is not a automaker. Meanwhile it is valued higher than even Toyota.

    • 0 avatar
      Scoutdude

      Not really a bright spot for Tesla. They were production restrained in 2019 as they didn’t have the plant in China up and running, so sales were limited in the US to meet demand in other parts of the world, leaving less for sale in the US. They also introduced the Y their most anticipated and overdue model.

  • avatar
    ToolGuy

    I used to work for a Very Large Automaker. Here’s how you read the table above if you work for such an enterprise:

    a) Scan down the 2020 column and find the largest number [not the total]. Does it belong to your company? Good.

    b) Now calculate your Market Share [your number divided by the total] for 2019 and for 2020. Is it higher in 2020 than it was in 2019? Good.

    If a) is Yes, you are The Biggest. If b) is Yes, you Are Winning. If you are The Biggest, congratulate yourself and gloat a little. If you Are Winning, be sure to Change Nothing in your Approach To Business. [You *certainly* wouldn’t change your corporate logo, for example.]

  • avatar
    quaquaqua

    Mazda being flat is impressive, so is Kia only falling -4.8% as they sell WAY more cars. Clearly not relying on fleet sales, unlike Nissan and Dodge.

  • avatar
    DenverMike

    It’s been great for the auto aftermarket. When this is all over, the aftermarket’s growth will continue embarrassing new vehicle sales.

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    Corey & Adam – If you see this please contact me: [email protected]

  • avatar
    Morea

    Alfa Romeo up 1.6%.

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