Every month it’s more obvious that U.S. consumers want to sit up high in their next ride. Everything with a high seating position -- pickups, SUVs, vans, crossovers -- is jumping off the lot. And with rare exceptions, those low-slung sedans are getting dusty before they move.
Light trucks accounted for 61 percent of U.S. new light-vehicle sales last month, up from 57 percent in July 2015. And through seven months, trucks represent 59 percent of all light-vehicle sales in the U.S., up from 55 percent during the same period in 2015.
And most major automakers posted big truck gains in their July numbers, such as Nissan North America: truck sales up 17 percent, cars down 10 percent.
The Detroit 3 are always truck heavy, but July was especially trucky. At Ford Motor, trucks were 72 percent of the mix, up two full points from a year earlier. Even more so at Fiat Chrysler: trucks 87, cars 13 percent, compared to an 82/18 split last July.
But look who’s also selling trucks these days. A majority of Toyota Motor Sales’ volume, both July and year-to-date, is non-car. In July, the RAV4 outsold the Corolla.
And Nissan North America isn’t far behind, with a July truck mix of 49 percent.
While continued low fuel prices are allowing the U.S. industry to flirt with a 60 percent truck mix this year, the Center for Automotive Research’s Chief Economist Sean McAlinden believes the mix could hit 70 percent within 24 months.
“If it doesn’t have a bed or a hatch, it’s not selling,” he said Tuesday at CAR’s Management Briefing Seminars in Traverse City, Mich.
What’s driving such lust for trucks?
“Low fuel prices are 80 percent of it,” said TrueCar chief analyst Eric Lyman. With average regular gasoline hovering close to $2 a gallon nationally and prospects for meaningful short- and mid-range price hikes fairly benign, consumers fret less about fuel costs when selecting a bigger vehicle.
The greater space and utility of trucks and crossovers is appealing.
And the extra jingle in their pockets from lower pump prices helps people justify higher monthly payments for a larger new ride, Lyman adds.
I think cheap gasoline opens the conversation for consumers to consider a truck over a car. But the clincher is more likely sitting in one.
Sedans are sit-lows. All else are sit-highs. Your bottom is higher and, more importantly, so are your eyeballs.
My wife says she sees the road ahead better and feels more secure in her sit-high. I like the high mileage and low center of gravity of my sit-low, but not so much trying to see around whatever sit-high is ahead of me.
That’s “driving in the canyon of traffic,” as Mark Wakefield, head of the Americas automotive practice for AlixPartners, puts it in describing why taller vehicles are gaining popularity. He also notes that seniors like the easier ingress and egress, and though I’m sure he didn’t mean me personally, he’s right.
Cheap gasoline and greatly improved fuel economy and driving dynamics of sit-highs, especially unibody crossovers and SUVs, have sedans on the run. Toyota is killing the entire Scion sub-brand of cars. Buick is dropping the Verano. FCA US will stop producing the Chrysler 200 and Dodge Dart and hasn’t found a partner to produce a replacement for the small cars.
Sedans won’t disappear. But if fuel prices stay low long enough, most passenger cars could evolve into a low-cost alternative to taller, more spacious models.