2011 Sales Trends: What Lies Ahead?

April reveals three solid months of domestic automotive sales data and gives us a quick snapshot of who is enjoying a sales revival — and who is still stuck in the dumps of the recession. Let’s take a look at what is going on nationally.

With fuel prices continuing to spike — up over $1 compared to this time last year — new car buyers are starting to seek small cars with more fervor. That’s not bad, as several new compact cars are actually very good and buyers will be impressed.


Ford is making a larger dent in the compact segment with the new Fiesta, over 20,000 sold in three months, plus a more modern version of the venerable Focus is going on sale right now. The Focus is winning acclaim in every road test and from every critic, while both of these small cars have EPA fuel economy estimates near 40 mpg for the highway.

Chevrolet’s return to the compact segment has been bolstered by an extensive advertising campaign for the new Cruze. Chevy dealers have to be thrilled; the Cruze is outselling the Focus, the hot-new Hyundai Elantra, as well as Nissan’s Sentra. Only the top-selling Toyota Corolla and the second place Honda Civic are beating the Cruze out of compact car showrooms right now.

In the midsize sedan segment — probably the largest class here in the States — Toyota’s Camry has enjoyed a slight sales uptick that defies the steady drumbeat of a negative media. On the other hand, Honda has not suffered any such offensive attention yet the Accord’s sales are slower than a year ago. This can’t be good for the atmosphere at Honda, as the overall domestic auto-market continues to show signs of a strong year despite the threat of severe parts shortages and production woes due to the devastating earthquake in Japan. If your best-selling model is back-sliding, clearly some new marketing is needed — i.e. discounts.

Most surprising here is that Nissan’s Altima, a five-year-old design, is just a tick behind the Accord with a sales increase of 15 percent. Ford’s Fusion continues to defy the critics too, with another healthy 22 percent sales increase so far this year — right on the heels of a record 2010.

The other major player in the midsize class is Chevy’s Malibu, a model that is down a modest 2 percent; sales that are probably lost to a strong uptick in Impala sales to fleet customers. Indeed, Impala sales are slightly ahead of the Malibu year-to-date — a reversal of last year’s data.

Another interesting segment is the minivan class. Regularly disparaged by the mainstream media’s talking heads, minivan sales are way ahead of a year ago. New models from Honda, the Odyssey leads all van sales, followed by the strong showing of the new Toyota Sienna, sales up 44 percent, plus the resurgence of the Dodge Grand Caravan and the latest Nissan Quest, point to life in this do-it-all category.

In the full-size pickup truck category, Ford has a large edge over Chevrolet so far, but when GMC sales are tabulated with Chevy, Ford’s lead shrinks to a meager 200 units over GM. Dodge Ram pickup sales are starting to gel, finally, with a 27 percent gain over last year. Toyota’s Tundra and Nissan’s Titan still lack the high volumes of their domestically branded counterparts.

In the small pickup class (medium trucks, too, like the Honda Ridgeline), Toyota kicks sand in everyone’s face as the Tacoma dominates this segment.

Toyota pummels its rivals in the alternative power segment too, as the Prius is once again racking up big sales in the face of $4 a gallon gas. Prius sales are over 42,000 units year to date, a 33 percent gain. By comparison, no other midsize hybrid sedan is ever close, while the Nissan Leaf electric car has tabled only 450 units sold and Chevy’s more versatile Volt has attracted 1,200 buyers in the first three months of the year. Lexus’s new CT200 hybrid hatchback has sold 2,200 cars — a great start for this ‘premium’ hybrid.

Other notables…Volkswagen’s revised Jetta is outselling the previous model by 37 percent…Nissan’s Juke small crossover is off to a good start with over 10,000 sold…Hyundai, Kia, and Subaru continue to burn up the sales charts with continued growth; Subaru is up 15 percent, Kia is up 27 percent here, while Hyundai has moved 22 percent more cars this year. Ford’s all-new Explorer is outselling the new Jeep Grand Cherokee; Chevy Equinox sales continue to be strong, yet Ford’s 12-year old Escape continues to stay just ahead. Chevy gets revenge in the full-size SUV class, where Tahoe sales are actually 18 percent better than 2010. GMC Yukon sales are up 35 percent, plus the sales of Ford’s Expedition are moving up. These are amazing results given the double-whammy of gas prices and economic consternation.

Not everyone is celebrating. Ford’s luxury division, Lincoln, is looking for much better results, as is Chrysler. Volvo has to be hurting — sales are down 31 percent — while Saab is selling 23 cars a day — across the whole country. To put that in context, Toyota sold 35 Camrys every hour during the first 90 days of the year.

What will the next nine months hold? My predictions: gas prices are going to stall the pickup truck revival and these sales will barely edge above last year’s levels; Ford’s three best-selling, fuel efficient ‘F’ cars, Fusion, Focus, Fiesta, are going to reshape that company’s sales chart and move cars much closer to Ford truck sales; Buick will outsell Cadillac at GM and Chevrolet cars will outsell the brand’s trucks; Volkswagen will overtake Subaru in U.S. sales; and Toyota’s luster will be partially regained with the expanding Prius family as well as the attractive CT200. By the end of the year, buyers should also be demanding more diesel engine offerings for small crossovers, large crossovers, full-size sedans and all pickups; and not just the import offerings, but all such products. We love power and the latest turbo-diesels deliver power in spades, as well as provide 30 percent better fuel economy over their gasoline-fueled counterparts.

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