With regular-grade gasoline creeping steadily toward $4 a gallon, ($3.86 at my corner filling station this morning), how are small cars doing in the marketplace?
The answer: The itty-bitty cars aren’t doing well at all. But the economy models — the next step up — are making their presence felt.
In Automotive News parlance, the itty-bitty cars are called budget models. Among them are the Chevrolet Aveo, Kia Rio, Hyundai Accent, Toyota Scion and Smart ForTwo. I guess they’re too small and too Spartan to cause much of a ripple regardless of the fuel price.
In March, the Accent was the only one to surpass its year-ago sales, and even the Accent was down for the first quarter.
It’s a different story among the economy models, such as the Chevy Cruze, Dodge Caliber, Ford Fiesta and Focus, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Soul, Nissan Cube and Sentra and Toyota Corolla/Matrix.
A gain of 46,621
Sixteen of the 22 economy nameplates were on the market a year ago, and 13 of them posted sales increases in March. Ten of them were up for the first quarter.
As a group, the economy cars reported sales hikes of 36 percent for March and 30 percent for the first quarter. The March total for the economy cars was 176,605 units, which was 46,621 more than last year.
March’s best-seller was the Corolla/Matrix at 30,234. The Cruze was the most impressive newcomer with 18,018 deliveries for the month.
When gasoline last sold for $4 a gallon (in the summer of 2008), sales of big pickups and SUVs were hit hard. March brought some evidence of a repeat performance. Sales of big pickups rose 14 percent, but they were up 35 percent for January-February. SUV sales rose 24 percent in March, but they were up 27 percent for the first two months of 2011.
True luxury: 2010 edition
Ask 100 of your friends and neighbors to define a luxury car, and you’re likely to get 97 different replies. For sure, luxury is in the eye of the beholder or owner.
Some may consider a Chevy Malibu tricked out with every imaginable gadget and goody to be a luxury car. Others may vote for a Buick LaCrosse or a Dodge Challenger with wire wheels and a sliding Plexiglas top and every other bit of optional equipment. Be sure to include the very best sound system.
For this report, a true luxury car is defined as one with a manufacturer’s suggested retail price of $45,000 or more.
Some carmakers are not at all pleased with the $45,000 bar. And with good reason: It pushes some of their most popular vehicles down to near-luxury status. Examples: much of the Cadillac CTS line and many of the Lexus 350 crossovers. They are the best sellers for Lexus and Cadillac.
Hats off to Mercedes
For 2010, Mercedes-Benz reclaimed the title of best-selling true-luxury vehicle. Mercedes was the leader in 2006, 2007 and 2008 but was edged out by archrival BMW in 2009. Automotive News figures show that Mercedes sold 146,783 vehicles in the over-$45,000 class last year. BMW slipped to second place with 130,265. Cadillac was a distant third with 83,222.
Lexus was the sales leader among the so-called luxury brands last year, but nearly three-quarters of its 229,329 sales failed to meet the $45,000 criterion. The ES and IS series are in that group, and so is the hugely popular RX crossover.
Lexus is among the makes that are placing more and more models in the near-luxury class — about $33,000 to $45,000. Many shoppers call them just the right size, and their equipment content matches that of their higher-priced brothers.
Last year’s sales made 11 brands eligible for the true-luxury list. In addition to the price restriction, the makes must sell at least 10,000 vehicles a year in the United States. In the price standard, factory rebates and dealer promotions are not considered. The sticker price is the determinant.