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Nervous about the Detroit Three

 The March 2013 sales numbers came out recently, and they are solidly good.

 The March 2013 sales numbers came out recently, and they are solidly good. Consumers were in the market for new sheet metal, despite a winter that didn’t give up in many parts of the country long after it should have been a memory, despite the fact that there was a federal sequestration, a word that only politicians could say with a straight face. If sales continue along at this pace, a 15.5-million unit year is not out of the question. (Peter DeLorenzo of Autoextremist.com predicted in January that 2013 would be a 15.8-million year—maybe that ought to be Autoextremelyoptimistic.com).

Strong car sales are beneficial right across the board, whether you’re looking for a job or trying to sell new machinery and equipment. What’s encouraging about industry sales is that they have been fairly incremental and consistent, not Powerball one month and soup kitchen the next.
 
Here’s something to think about: What type of vehicle is essentially indigenous to the U.S. market, a type that is rarely, if ever, spotted anywhere else in the world?
 
It’s the full-size pickup.
 
While midsize trucks are common in other parts of the world (when GM launched the Colorado midsize last year, it did so in . . . Thailand), you’re hard-pressed to find one available on the market in the U.S. (e.g., last year GM sold 36,840 Colorados and 8,735 GMC Canyons; Ford sold 19,366 Rangers; Chrysler’s Ram Brand sold . . . 490 Dakotas, all according to Autodata (motorintelligence.com). While those numbers in and of themselves may not seem to mean much, look at it this way: all in, that’s 65,431 units. Subaru sold 68,175 Imprezas. Yes, I know there is a vast difference between the midsize pickups and a compact car, but try to picture a model year 2012/13 Impreza. That’s what those numbers mean.)
 
Now while the argument could be made that the reason the midsize truck sales are so slight and so these vehicles are being phased to oblivion, last year Nissan sold 55,435 Frontiers and Toyota sold 141,365 Tacomas, so it is not like the market doesn’t exist. (And to get an idea of that Tacoma number: last year Dodge sold 141,168 Caravans—yes, it is that big.)
 
Perhaps one of the real reasons why there is the emphasis on the full-size pickup (and yes, the midsize in terms of dimensions and price came too close to the full-size models, so that a dealer could wisely point out that one’s monthly payment would be but a few dollars more to go big) is that the companies do so well with the full-size trucks. There is little incentive to promote smaller trucks.
 
Let’s be clear. There are plenty of people for whom anything other than a full-size truck is not helpful, useful or even a consideration. Farmers, ranchers, contractors, builders, and a wide range of others need a bona-fide pickup. Yet there are probably a number of people for whom something smaller would fit the bill.
 
When Ford released its ’13 March sales figures, it estimated that the overall full-size pickup segment was up 15% compared with March ’12, and noted that F-Series, the Cal Ripken, Jr., of month-after-month performance, was up 16%. That was its 20th straight month of sales increases. Over at Ram, the brand’s truck sales were its best March since 2007, and the Ram pickup recorded a record 25% year-over-year sales gain. Things weren’t quite as good at GM, with Silverado sales up 8.4% compared with March ’12 but GMC Sierra sales down 0.2%.
 
The Ram is the 2013 North American Truck of the Year. This year there will be a new Silverado and Sierra. F-150 partisans are on nails and grappling hooks awaiting the 2015 truck. So here’s the question: Is there a possibility that the attention of the Detroit Three will swing too much in the direction of the full-size pickup truck at the expense of small and even midsize cars?
 
On the one hand, they cannot afford to ignore smaller vehicles because otherwise meeting CAFE standards is an impossibility. On the other hand, there is that evident desire for bigger vehicles (e.g., Ford Focus sales were down 11.9%; Chevy Sonic sales were off 16.3%; and while Dart has no March ’12 comparison, its total March 2013 sales were 8,091 units—and 12,439 Avengers were sold the same month).
 
Meanwhile, the other main-market competitors—Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Volkswagen, Hyundai—keep plugging away at, primarily, building better, more appealing cars. Should there be a disruption in the oil supply . . . 
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