2012 tally: The big stars and stumblers
Kia Soul: The top-selling subcompact in America in 2012.
Lots of vehicles overachieved like crazy in what was a big, booming sales year for the industry, but many failed to live up to expectations in 2012.
Winners benefited from fresh designs with fuel efficiency and appealing technology -- such as the redesigned Toyota Camry, which helped rev up the high-volume mid-sized car segment. But generous incentives helped turn aging or lackluster models into sales stars, such as the Dodge Avenger and Honda Civic.
Yes, the Civic was a critical bomb, so much so that Honda turned itself inside out to replace the car 17 months early. Yet it was a smash at the box office, outselling the Toyota Corolla for the first time in a decade.
Losers were either cannibalized by siblings (see Ford Fiesta, Buick Regal), did not offer sufficient fuel economy (note Jaguar XJ) or possibly were ahead of their time (see Nissan Leaf, Mitsubishi i-MiEV).
Here's our list of overachievers and underachievers in 2012.
Chevrolet Sonic: Chevy launched the subcompact in August 2011 to replace the lackluster Aveo. An all-digital marketing campaign that featured the car being hurled from a bungee jump platform and launched from an airplane gave the Sonic a cool factor that helped sales soar to 81,247 -- nearly double the Aveo's last full sales year -- and finish as the No. 3 subcompact behind the Kia Soul and the Nissan Versa.
Dodge Avenger: Thanks to generous rebates, the Avenger became Dodge's top-selling sedan. During the summer it was selling so fast at one point that inventory fell to just a 14-day supply.
Ford Focus: The redesigned Focus got off to a slow start in 2011 but found its footing in 2012 in a huge way. Sales skyrocketed 40 percent in 2012 to make the Focus Ford's third-biggest seller behind the F series and the Escape. Ken Czubay, Ford vice president of U.S. marketing, sales and service, said the Focus' strength in California helped drive sales higher.
Honda Civic: For all the media fuss about what a lousy car it was, Honda dealers, backed by big incentives but without resorting to fleet sales, made the Civic the No. 1 compact car in the United States. That's brand strength.
Infiniti QX56: Infiniti had its fingers crossed last year that its new, less expensive JX crossover wouldn't siphon off sales from the brand's bigger QX56 SUV. Despite attracting a different demographic to the showroom in search of hot-selling JXs, Infiniti chalked up a 14 percent gain in QX56 sales.
Kia Soul: The car is crude in many respects, yet it outsells the entire Scion lineup that it imitates. It's the top-selling subcompact in America. Is it the hamster ads?
Nissan Pathfinder: A year ago the Pathfinder was a fading also-ran in the mid-sized SUV/crossover segment. Reintroduced in October as a fuel-efficient crossover, it is now one of Nissan's top sellers.
Subaru Impreza: With sales up 99 percent last year, the redesigned Impreza was a smash. The 2012 Impreza sedan and hatch were the last of Subaru's four core models to be redesigned. They shed their quirky styling and got more back-seat legroom and better fuel economy. Subaru boasts that the 27 mpg city/36 highway ratings are the best for an all-wheel-drive car sold in the United States.
Toyota Camry: Winning the best-selling car in America title for the 11th straight year is no surprise, but the Camry added nearly 100,000 more sales in 2012 and reversed the graying of the brand by shaving seven years off its buyers' median age.
Toyota Tacoma: Everyone talks about how compact pickups are dead. That's fine with Toyota, whose Tacoma has a 54 percent share of the segment. Those gardeners and small-time contractors will start to buy small trucks sometime, and Toyota will be ready.
Volkswagen Passat: With the sedan now designed for the United States and built in a U.S. factory, sales grew 413 percent last year to 117,023, shattering the vehicle's previous record of 96,142 in 2002. VW made the Passat sedan bigger than the model sold in Europe and priced it aggressively, lowering the base price by about $7,000 to compete with the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Ford Fusion.
Acura ILX: The underequipped entry-luxury sedan has finally started outselling the aged, more expensive TSX it was designed to replace. But buyers still see it as just a Civic with leather seats.
Acura ZDX: When the overpriced, headroom-challenged crossover was launched in 2009, our reporter said, "I'll eat a brake pad on rye if Acura can hit 5,000 units." Never came close. Killed this year.
Buick Regal: Buick dealers were concerned about size and price overlap between the mid-sized Regal sedan and the compact Verano, which was launched in November 2011. But few could have predicted just how much Verano sales would erode those of the Regal, which cratered 39 percent last year.
Dodge Durango: The Durango was Dodge's only continuing vehicle with lower sales in 2012. Chrysler didn't seem to mind, though, given that every Durango that wasn't ordered left room on a crowded assembly line for a Jeep Grand Cherokee.
Jaguar XJ: Sales of the flagship luxury sedan fell 7 percent to 4,852, compared with 11,098 sales for the BMW 7 series and 11,794 for the Mercedes S class. The big problem was lack of all-wheel drive, which accounts for 40 percent of all sales in the large luxury class. And for most of the year, the XJ had nothing smaller than a V-8 engine in a market that increasingly demanded better fuel economy. Jaguar began offering awd and a V-6 on the 2013 model.
Ford Fiesta: The subcompact is the flip side of the hot-selling Focus story. Though Fiesta sales bounced back in December, they were off 17 percent for the year. Ford doesn't like to admit it, but the Focus has been cannibalizing Fiesta sales. That's why Ford is introducing a revamped version of the Fiesta that will feature a 1.0-liter, three-cylinder EcoBoost engine in the second half of this year.
Mitsubishi i-MiEV: The egg-shaped electric vehicle has been an unmitigated flop since its November 2011 debut. Mitsubishi sold just 588 last year in the i-MiEV's first full year of U.S. sales.
Nissan Leaf: It was supposed to be the breakout year for Nissan's daring electric family car. Didn't happen. Even with a fourth-quarter spurt, the Leaf came in at less than half of Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn's forecast.
Toyota RAV4: The company that invented the compact crossover seems to have missed the volume boom. Even though sales surged 30 percent, Toyota has miscalculated the market greatly, building far too few for consumer demand. Now it's in fourth place in the segment.
Jesse Snyder, Mark Rechtin, Mike Colias, Bradford Wernle, Lindsay Chappell, Ryan Beene, Diana T. Kurylko and Larry P. Vellequette contributed to this report