Small and mid-sized cars, minivans, hybrids are among 2012 winners
Big SUVs, some sports cars out of favor
Sales of mid-sized cars have climbed 21 percent through June, helped by new models such as the Buick Verano.
Photo credit: BLOOMBERG
Small, budget-friendly cars with miserly engines and mid-sized sedans are hot. So are hybrids, minivans and traditional mid-sized SUVs.
But big SUVs -- luxurious or not -- aren't so must-have these days when gasoline prices seem volatile.
And sporty luxury roadsters such as the BMW Z4 and Porsche Boxster seem to be falling out of favor with U.S. consumers, with sales in the segment down 3 percent this year, despite strong demand for the restyled Mercedes-Benz SLK.
A U.S. light-vehicle market that climbed 15 percent in the first six months of this year -- defying a string of mostly disappointing economic reports -- is producing winners and losers among key product segments.
Market segments that have outpaced or matched the industry's sales growth this year include alternative-powered vehicles, minivans, small crossovers and traditional SUVs such as the Jeep Grand Cherokee, Ford Explorer and Nissan Pathfinder.
Small pickups, mid-sized crossovers and large, traditional SUVs have lagged the industry's growth this year.
Cars outpace trucks
Overall, cars have gained ground this year, with sales up 17 percent, while light trucks have lost share with a sales gain of 13 percent.
The mid-sized car market has grown 21 percent this year, Automotive News Data Center figures show, helped by revamped models such as the Toyota Camry, Chrysler 200 and Volkswagen Passat.
The small, value-priced car segment -- including the Toyota Yaris, Kia Rio and Chevrolet Sonic -- has surged nearly 80 percent, helped by the spring rise in gasoline prices.
Despite indications that the U.S. economy is slowing, the healthy increase in sales of full-sized vans and full-sized pickup trucks shows the economy is indeed slowly recovering, analysts say.
Sales of full-sized vans increased 15 percent through the first half of the year, while demand for full-sized pickup trucks rose 13 percent.
Full-sized vans aren't "sexy," said Ed Kim, an industry analyst at AutoPacific in Tustin, Calif., but traditionally, he said, sales of full-sized vans "go in lockstep with economic health."
"When the economy is not doing good, fleets don't buy vans; but when things start getting better, they start buying more of those types of vehicles," he said.
Similarly, full-sized pickup truck demand, which is often tied to the housing market, is another indicator of the state of the economy, Kim said.
Dodge Ram deliveries have climbed 24 percent this year, and Nissan Titan volume has jumped 20 percent.
Through June, sales of Ford's F-series pickups, for instance, were up 14 percent Ellen Hughes-Cromwick, Ford's chief economist, says the housing market and the pickup segment are "joined at the hip."
In May, new-home sales rose to their highest rate since April 2010. Sales of single-family homes were up 7.6 percent from April and rose 20 percent from May 2011, the Commerce Department said last month.
Sales of vehicles featuring alternative power sources also jumped during the first six months of the year as gasoline prices rose.
The segment, which includes traditional hybrids, plug-in hybrids and fully electric vehicles, posted sales growth of 71 percent through June.
The Toyota Prius led the segment with 126,654 unit sales, a 90 percent increase over last year. Toyota's recovery from last year's Japan earthquake and the addition of several new models under the Prius nameplate contributed to the sharp rise.
With 37 hybrids for sale in the United States, Toyota Division General Manager Bob Carter said, the segment is heating up.
"Prius is the market," Carter said. "Prius is doing exceptionally well and is ahead of track. We're enjoying that positioning, and more competition helps expand the market."
The Chevrolet Volt also sold well, with a 221 percent increase in sales through June. With 8,817 units sold during the first half of the year, GM has sold more than it did all of last year.
While the spring run-up in gasoline prices helped fuel sales of the Prius and Volt, the large SUV segment has lagged the overall market with volume up just 2 percent.
The overall SUV segment saw sales rise 10 percent led by the lower-midrange segment featuring stalwarts such as the Grand Cherokee and Explorer.
Through June, Grand Cherokee sales climbed 38 percent. Explorer sales rose 18 percent.
The minivan segment -- abandoned by some automakers in recent years -- may be beginning to benefit from a shift in drivers' perception of the historically unhip vehicle.
Minivan demand has climbed 16 percent this year. The Nissan Quest led the way with a 107 percent jump in sales, followed by the two Chrysler Group minivans -- the Chrysler Town & Country, with a 25 percent sales gain, and the Dodge Grand Caravan, with a 21 percent sales gain.
Kim, the AutoPacific analyst, said the increase in volume may signal the start of a shift in the decline of the minivan's share of the market. The oldest members of the millennial generation are now starting to have families, he said, and they're looking to purchase the most practical vehicle possible, and that's the minivan.
While the minivan thrived among baby boomers, Gen X drivers rejected the vehicle when they started raising families because "that's what their parents drove," Kim said.
But the oldest of the Gen Yer's have begun to rear children, he said, and they care more about utility than image.
"Gen Y doesn't really care about vehicles in general; they're far more excited about other things like technology, smartphones and all that other stuff," Kim said. "What that means is that they're not really as concerned as Gen X was about the image of the vehicle they drive. So, the car is a tool to many of these drivers."
Mark Rechtin contributed to this report
You can reach Joseph Lichterman at email@example.com.