DETROIT -- Automakers can count on robust vehicle sales in 2016, but will be challenged to produce the right mix of cars and trucks as consumers gravitate to larger and roomier vehicles, Toyota executives said today.
No so long ago, trucks and SUVs made up less than half of the U.S. market. But low gas prices and the emergence of crossovers has sparked a dramatic shift, and last month 60 percent of the new vehicles Americans purchased were classified as light trucks.
Automakers will have to adjust their production plans and manufacturing capacity in order to prosper amid the rapid swing to trucks, said Bob Carter, senior vice president of Toyota's U.S. auto operations.
"Now it's who can meet consumer needs the quickest," Carter told Automotive News in an interview today. "The [manufacturer] who can fill that needs is probably going to win."
November provided a snapshot of what manufacturers are facing. Overall sales rose 1.2 percent to 1.32 million vehicles.
But car sales actually declined 9 percent, and many strong-selling nameplates suffered setbacks. Sales of the Chevrolet Cruze fell 30 percent while the Ford Focus was down 25 percent and the Ford Mustang dropped 17 percent.
At the same time, sales of trucks, ranging from small crossovers to SUVs to full-size pick ups, rose 9.4 percent. In the emerging segment for subcompact crossovers -- that includes the Buick Encore and Subaru XV Crosstrek, both classified as light trucks -- volume surged 137 percent. Sales of mid-size pick up trucks climbed 17 percent.
"We are selling all the trucks we can build," said Bill Fay, head of sales for the Toyota brand. "The swing to trucks has made everybody look at their production plans to line up production to what customers want."
Industrywide sales this year are poised to overtake the current annual record of 17.4 million, set in 2000.
RAV4 vs. Camry
Meanwhile, Carter predicted that the RAV4 will outsell the Camry sedan within the next five years as millennials, the children of the baby boomers, embrace small SUVs as the new family car.
“I’ll bet you lunch that will happen,” Carter told journalists at a luncheon today. “Many of these under-35-year-old buyers, who are entering the market in a big way right now, grew up in SUVs.”
To meet growing demand for RAV4, Toyota has begun importing some from Japan to supplement those it builds in Canada, Carter said. Toyota is adding a second plant of RAV4 capacity in Canada, which will give it the ability to produce more than 400,000 a year in North America, he said.
Toyota redesigned the RAV4 for 2016, adding hybrid and sport versions and offering more all-wheel-drive options.
RAV4 sales soared 30 percent last month and are up 16 percent this year to 283,546 models through November. Camry sales rose 7.3 percent last month, but are down 1.2 percent for the year to 392,056 models.
Bloomberg contributed to this report.