Looking closely at luxury
The question: Is it possible for a make to be crowned king of the luxury class even though fewer than 30 percent of its sales are luxury vehicles?
The answer: Indeed it is. In fact, it happened last year. Lexus sold 206,037 new cars and sport-utilities last year to top Mercedes-Benz by 423 sales.
But only 59,313 of Lexus' sales - 28.8 percent - are considered luxury vehicles. So what is a luxury car or truck?
The federal government currently defines a luxury vehicle as one with a transaction price of $38,000 or more. The 6 percent luxury tax is assessed on the amount in excess of $38,000. Automotive News does not have access to the transaction prices of the 17.4 million new cars and light trucks sold in the United States last year, so we use the sticker price as the determinant.
It used to be cut and dried. Through 1996, the sales leader among the luxury brands also sold the most bona fide luxury vehicles.
The pattern was broken in 1997. Cadillac was the class leader, but 25,000 of its sales were less-than-luxury Cateras. Second-place Lincoln, thanks to its new Navigator sport-utility, sold the most 'true' luxury vehicles. The threshold then was $34,000.
Lincoln was tops on both counts in 1998, but Mercedes-Benz led the class in 1999, although Cadillac sold the most vehicles over the then-$36,000 base for luxury.
And last year, as I said, Lexus sold 206,037 cars and light trucks, the most of any 'luxury-class' brand, but only 59,313 were in the real luxury category.
Cadillac dropped to fifth place in the segment, but it sold 171,864 vehicles over $38,000, nearly three times as many as Lexus.
The Lexus luxury total was pulled down by the RX 300, its best-selling vehicle, and ES 300, its best-selling car, neither of which meets the $38,000 standard.
So in the auto business, there's luxury and there's luxury.
Which is the real segment leader? As with beauty, it's in the eye of the beholder.
It was a car month
Cars boosted their market share for the third month in a row in February as they took 53.1 percent of U.S. sales. It was their best showing since last August, when cars had 53.2 percent.
In the past two years, the best month for cars was August 1999, with 54.1 percent.
Last November, cars fell below one-half of the market. The breakdown: cars, 49.8 percent; trucks 50.2 percent. Cars moved up to 50.5 percent in December and to 52.2 percent in January.
Accord is on top
After two months, the Honda Accord holds a huge lead in the car-sales derby. The count: Accord, 68,665; Ford Taurus, 53,512; Toyota Camry, 53,297. Last year at this time, the Camry was nearly 21,000 ahead of the Accord and 23,000 ahead of the Taurus.
For the full year, the Camry led the pack in 1997-2000.
Big 3 lose share
General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and the Chrysler group have lost market share this year, but they're doing well on the Top 10 lists.
Big 3 market penetration slipped to 65.7 percent for the first two months of this year from 68.6 in the same period of 2000.
Each of the three lost ground, with Japanese and Korean marques picking up the slack.
Twelve of the 14 domestic makes suffered sales declines for the two months. The only gainers were Chrysler, which has inherited much of what used to be Plymouth, and Saturn.
A touch of irony: Among the decliners, Oldsmobile was off the least.
But U.S.-badged vehicles occupy seven of the Top 10 sales spots. They also hold six of the Top 10 places in car sales and all of the Top 10 spots in light trucks.