The auto industry is in dire straits — no surprise there. But a few vehicles seem to be flourishing in this hellish economy.
In the desperate-for-good-news department, the auto industry ranks right up there these days with Custer’s troops, Madoff’s fleece-ees and Jim Cramer at CNBC. With industry sales still diving and automakers unsure of when they’ll scrape bottom, it’s perhaps surprising that any cars can withstand what some analysts are calling an automotive depression.
However, sales of some cars and trucks have actually increased, or at least held their own, since the recession officially kicked off in December 2007. Models from the Buick Enclave to the Honda Fit have hung in there like the musicians on the deck of the Titanic as it sank into the North Atlantic — that is, if you believe Hollywood’s version of that tragic event.
Affordable subcompacts, such as the Fit and Hyundai Accent, are the cars attracting the most buyers these days. The reason is obvious: They best fulfill the needs of people who want the lowest possible cost of ownership (i.e., reasonable monthly payments, fuel bills that are easy to swallow and maintenance costs that won’t break the bank). Gold-standard cars — trusted models such as Honda’s Civic and Accord, and Toyota’s Corolla and Camry — did see single-digit sales drops in 2008. Yet that counts as a victory in this market, especially when their competitors’ sales are sinking like the Dow Jones in comparison.
Toyota spokesman Wade Hoyt said the company has historically grown its market share during bad economic times because of its reputation for quality and reliability. “That’s an important consideration when people are being careful with their money,” says Hoyt.
A handful of models also have benefited from well-received redesigns — not just cosmetic enhancements — and have reaped sales rewards as a result. Those include the compact Mercedes C-Class sedan, Subaru Forester and even the full-size Toyota Sequoia SUV.
“Strong new products, even in this environment, can still win with consumers,” says Jeff Schuster, head of forecasting for J.D. Power and Associates. These kinds of models get another sales boost from pent-up demand, as savvy consumers hold off on buying the outgoing model until the new one arrives.
If there’s a lesson for automakers here, it’s that their best chance to ride out the sales storm is not to hunker down, but to come out fighting with cars and trucks that will get buyers excited or shake up the status quo. In one example, conventional wisdom would suggest that luxury cars or SUVs wouldn’t stand a prayer in the current climate. The redesigned Mercedes C-Class, Cadillac CTS and Infiniti G37 sport sedans can all top $40,000, while the Toyota Sequoia SUV can crest $55,000 — yet they’ve all managed to increase sales.
Schuster adds that consumers are chasing the best deal, while automakers are ramping up discounts to keep sales from collapsing completely. That partly explains the big sales numbers for the Ford Focus. It’s a model whose 2008 redesign garnered lukewarm reviews, but whose low prices and high fuel economy have kept sales humming. Ford dealers are selling 2009 Focus models for as little as $10,000, a significant discount off the list price.
For this analysis, we avoided the trap of drawing conclusions from sales since January, which have plummeted 40 percent across the industry. When even popular models from the likes of Lexus fall 50 to 60 percent, the numbers are too extreme to allow useful comparison. Consider the Chrysler Sebring sedan, which saw January sales fall 90 percent compared with the same month in 2007. Chrysler dealers sold 927 Sebrings during that month, nationwide, compared to nearly 9,000 the previous January.
To get a more meaningful snapshot, we focused on each model’s sales over the 12 months of 2008, compared with 2007 sales — the last full year before the recession began in earnest. All of the figures used during this analysis were supplied by Autodata, a top online auto industry analyst. In addition to a dozen Recession Busters that posted the most impressive gains, other models that boosted sales or held steady include the Ford Fusion, Scion xB, Pontiac Vibe, Cadillac CTS, Toyota Corolla, Volkswagen Rabbit and Volvo C30.
Here are the big winners:
2008 sales jump: 52.7 percent
GM might give Buick the heave-ho, but the Enclave crossover is one model keeping GM afloat. Like its near-twins, the Chevy Traverse, GMC Acadia and Saturn Outlook, the eye-catching Enclave is among the best big crossovers from any manufacturer. It combines three rows of adult-sized seats with excellent road manners and solid 24-mpg highway fuel economy.
2008 sales jump: 41.4 percent
Volatile gas prices aren’t the only reason for the Fit’s stunning success. While the Honda costs more than subcompact rivals, it’s the state-of-the-art small car, with sporty handling, a surprisingly vast interior and thoughtful touches such as rear seats that fold in a one-touch operation.
2008 sales jump: 31.9 percent
Think mammoth SUVs are extinct? Buyers gave new life to the redesigned Sequoia, a family friendly beast that’s built in Indiana and designed specifically for North Americans. With a powerful V8 engine, slick 6-speed transmission and more than 10,000 pounds of towing capacity, it’s the biggest and roomiest Toyota ever offered here.
2008 sales jump: 51.5 percent
The new Chevy has almost nothing in common with the rental-counter version many associate with the Malibu name. From build quality to performance, the Chevy is a straight-up contender against the Honda Accord or Toyota Camry. It still sold fewer than half the numbers of the Honda or Toyota, but Chevy’s not complaining about a quantum leap in sales.
2008 sales jump: 39.9 percent
Like Hyundai’s larger Elantra, the Accent won buyers by giving them more for less, including standard side-and head-curtain airbags. The Accent won’t win many stoplight races, but it’s quiet, well-constructed and affordable, with both sedan and two-door hatch models available for less than $15,000.