2015’s top sellers in the post-crash era

2015’s top sellers in the post-crash era

Leftlane’s quest to provide more in-depth analysis of automotive sales trends takes a new form this month. Our “How They Did” series will remain sidelined for the time being, but hopefully you’ll find this information compelling while we work on new ways to explore industry trends. As always, we welcome your feedback.

Six months in to 2015, the U.S. automotive industry landscape is taking shape. Now that we have a bit of a grasp on customers’ recent buying habits, we’d like to see how we can break that information down a little bit to get a better look at what buyers are doing.

Some notes

For starters, we’re using the YTD relative volume changes vs. 2014 for our 2015 year-end extrapolations. In other words, we’re assuming all of the top ten models will continue their existing sales pace through the end of the year to arrive at these numbers. It’s not perfect, but it’s simple. Given the volumes we’re talking about here, it would take some serious game-changing influences to drastically alter any vehicle’s year-end prospects.

Second, for simplicity’s sake, we elected to stick to the individual cars that made up the 2015 YTD top 10. Unless otherwise noted we’re not comparing the top 10 of 2015 to the top 10 of 2014 or 2012 or any other year, but rather tracking these individual models to get a better idea of how we got here and where we’re headed. Please keep that in mind as we make comparisons to prior years and talk about trends.

And finally, a thank-you to the folks at goodcarbadcar.net. Their consolidated sales data made this substantially easier to research.

Let’s dig in.

As mentioned in our slideshow feature earlier this week, the first-half best-sellers actually represented a slightly smaller total volume in 2015 than they did in 2014. Since we’re dealing with an arbitrary cut-off, there’s not much weight to put on that particular piece of information, but there are some other trends here that are worth exploring.

If we begin with the commonly-accepted premise that trucks and crossovers are sales gold and your garden-variety sedan is straggling, we can take a look at the top 10 vehicles for the past few years and see if that’s the case. Fortunately for us, the 10 best-selling vehicles in the U.S. are a relatively reliable bunch. If we go back through 2013, we can look at the same ten vehicles with only one exception. In 2013, the Escape nudged out the Fusion by fewer than 1,000 units, so we’re swapping the finishing order of the Fusion and Escape in order to give you the apples-to-apples look at just the vehicles we’re focused on here. Sorry for the early curveball.

2013 year-end

As we just mentioned, 2013 was the odd year out in terms of consistent finishing order. With the Fusion and Escape finishing neck-and neck (as they often do), we’re fairly comfortable sticking to our core ten here and disregarding that anomaly. With such a small sample size to look at, it’s less confusing to do it this way. Our edited order is as follows:

  1. F-Series
  2. Silverado
  3. Camry
  4. Accord
  5. Ram Pickup
  6. Civic
  7. Altima
  8. CR-V
  9. Corolla
  10. Fusion

Six cars, four trucks. The Ram lineup was still trying to bounce back to its “normal” levels after the dark, dark days of Cerberus and the Fiat bailout and was posting remarkable month-over-month increases, but wouldn’t quite hit its full stride until a year later. Note the Camry and Accord filling out 3rd and 4th places and the Civic/Altima pair completing the four-door bookend of the ascendant pickup. The CR-V sits pretty in 8th, the Corolla in 9th and Fusion/Escape pair sit in 10th, where they can be found just about every year.

If you look at the big picture (gallery image #1), you’ll note that 2013 is the first year that really matters in terms of tracking trends. 2012 was the first truly healthy post-recovery year for the industry, when the U.S. branches of manufacturers such as Mazda and Mitsubishi were just starting to breathe again. 2013 gives us our first look at what the post-recovery industry will actually become.

2014 year-end

2014 is our first look at the “new normal” in terms of our top 10. It has only been a few months, so these should look familiar:

  1. F-Series
  2. Silverado
  3. Ram Pickup
  4. Camry
  5. Accord
  6. Corolla
  7. Altima
  8. CR-V
  9. Civic
  10. Fusion


Pickups finish 1-2-3, though the Ram’s margin over the Camry wasn’t much to write home about. Those who’ve followed the industry for a while may note that this pattern is not entirely new. The Ram’s improvement to #3 wasn’t necessarily at the expense of either of the sedans it leapfrogged, and both improved slightly over the year before. Still, given the outcome of the first six months of 2015, it’s hard to ignore some of 2014’s emerging trends.

For starters, Ford’s F-Series has yet to regain the pace it lost last year, and in fact its sliding even further back. There’s no risk of it losing its first-place slot short of a crippling supply or labor issue, mind you, but it’s not exactly setting the sales charts on fire anymore either. Meanwhile, the Silverado and Ram are both riding out the momentum they’ve been building up since the recovery. Trucks are strong. It has been the refrain for twelve months now. The industry is also strong; the passenger vehicle market improved 5.7% in 2014 vs. the prior year.

But while trucks and CUVs outpaced the industry in 2014, cars by and large did not. The Corolla fared best in this group, improving by more than 12%. The Accord was essentially flat at 5.9%. Next behind the Accord was the Camry at 4.9%, followed by the Altima at 4.7% and the Fusion at 3.9%. The poor Civic? Down 3%. Not good for a model that should be chasing the Corolla’s volumes.

2015 year-end (extrapolated)

With the Escape, Equinox, RAV4 and Rogue all knocking on the top ten, it’s not at all inconceivable that the Civic will not grace this list come December. But that would only be part of Honda‘s worries. The Accord is also sliding right now, down nearly 16% vs. a year ago and putting it at risk of slipping all the way to 9th or 10th. For Honda, it will come down to July and August–typically very strong months for its midsize sedan.

Elsewhere, we don’t expect many significant upsets. Silverado will likely finish closer to the F-Series than it has since the recovery started and it’s highly unlikely that anything will cause Camry to slip out of fourth place. If these simple projections hold, these cars should finish in the following order:

  1. F-Series
  2. Silverado
  3. Ram
  4. Camry
  5. Corolla
  6. CR-V
  7. Altima
  8. Accord
  9. Civic
  10. Fusion


There’s a catch, though. If the Fusion finishes in the low-mid 280,000 range as it’s on pace to right now, there’s no way it’ll best the Escape or Equinox, both of which look good to clear 290,000 units. Toyota’s RAV4 isn’t far behind either. It’s worth noting here that you have to go all the way back to the 15th position in the 2015 YTD rankings to find something that isn’t a crossover. There’s only one of those in the top 10 right now, but the odds are that will change, and probably soon.

The bigger picture

The trend back toward light trucks is subtle, even here (see gallery image #2), but when we’re talking about these kinds of volumes, just a percentage point or two is a significant shift. The F-Series isn’t even down 3% vs. a year ago, but that’s nearly 20,000 trucks by the end of the year if it doesn’t recover. Plenty of smaller-share automakers don’t move that many vehicles in a month. What could be a year-end accounting error for Ford could be a full month’s revenue stream for a company like, say, Buick.

If we look at these same ten vehicles in January, we suspect the volume balance will tilt toward trucks for the first time in the last several years. That should come as no surprise, given all the talk of cheap gas. Trucks and CUVs are already leading the charge up and down the rankings when it comes to volume models on the way up. Unless something big happens, expect that to be the case until we reach a new equilibrium point.

On the whole, the industry is strong. Growth in larger vehicles is good for margin, and most of the volume brands feature full lineups and can shift production to accommodate demand. But are we headed for another big-car bubble like the one that burst just before the economic collapse? It’s only a matter of time before gas prices climb again. Will CAFE be enough to keep the bottom from falling out again? Only time will tell.

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