After an absolutely dismal 2009, where two of America’s three domestic automakers declared bankruptcy, and someone finally pulled the plug on sales, 2010 could only get better right? Well, that was true for some automakers, classes, and particular vehicles; for others, 2010 was another year of struggling.
Here’s our roundup of this year’s biggest automotive winners and losers.
Biggest Winners - Automakers and Brands
Ford. Not going bankrupt turned out to be the best marketing Ford’s PR department could’ve ever dreamed of, and they didn’t have to do anything. While Ford hasn’t made a huge deal about its good fortune, its dealers sure have, with its status as lone domestic automaker not to head to Chapter 11 helping the brand rake in sales. As of December 1, Ford brand sales are up 23 percent from 2010 and the company is now poised to take over the number two sales spot in the U.S. market from Toyota. Oh, and turning out some of the best cars and trucks in the company’s history certainly hasn’t hurt.
Hyundai. The haters may still have trouble giving credit where it’s due, but consumers are finding no such hindrance. By the end of November, Hyundai had already broken its all-time annual sales record, so December is just icing on the cake. The same company that just launched a new top-tier luxury car in (Equus) is also on a mission to meet the 35 mpg CAFE goal before it’s even official, and has a string of new cars lined up for the 2011 auto shows to help build on its success. Make no mistake -- every automaker in the U.S. market is watching Hyundai very, very closely.
Kia. See Hyundai’s entry. While perhaps not quite the Cinderella story its Korean counterpart has become, Kia was still a big winner this year. A string of hot new products and seriously competitive pricing have helped Kia, like Hyundai, post all-time record sales in 2010.
Subaru. Sticking to your guns never felt so good. Subaru’s been making capable AWD cars and crossovers since before the crossover was a figment of a marketer’s imaginations, and in 2010, it paid off big time. The crossover trend helped propel the company to an all-time annual sales record in 2010.
Audi. When it comes to German luxury, BMW and Mercedes-Benz have long been the feuding kings. After a steady climb, Audi has finally muscled in on the luxury action with drool-inducing styling and serious performance. Customers have taken notice, and if they keep up their buying, Audi will set an all-time sales record by the end of December.
Chrysler. A late charge has helped the perennial struggler become a contender again, but it’s too late for 2010. What little money has shaken loose from the Fiat tree has been spent wisely on the products that needed it most and offer the best returns. Its updated vehicles that have gone on-sale since the beginning of December (all two of them) are posting huge sales gains, and the new products we’ve sampled are likely to continue that trend. Everything else, however, is still a work in progress and the sales reflect that, although the embattled automaker has posted some sales gains this year. It’s been a long, slow climb, but Chrysler is looking at a bright 2011.
Smart. It may have seemed like a good idea back in ’08 when gas prices were shooting toward the sky, but the panic’s long since passed. Even in the worst months of the recession when a small, efficient car made the most sense, Smart couldn’t move product after the initial early adopters got theirs. When every other company was posting even modest monthly sales improvements, Smart was posting double-digit losses. Does everyone who wanted a Smart car have one now? Sure looks like it.
Suzuki. If any company deserves to catch a break, it’s Suzuki. Canceling the underwhelming Reno and Forenza was a good thing, but it wrecked havoc on its sales charts. The Kizashi is one of the best midsize sedans on the market, but no one knows it exists. While 2011 is looking like a better year, it’s a very long road Suzuki must travel.
Toyota. Once the automaker that could do no wrong, Toyota has been plagued by recalls and scandals in 2010 and it’s dragged the company down more than a few pegs. Sales of its most popular models are dropping about as fast as the unintended acceleration jokes and the fines and lawsuits just keep coming. There is no doubt 2011 will be a very interesting year for the world’s largest automaker. Oh, and Scion’s circling the drain as well.
Volvo. After years of loyal marriage, Ford took the platforms and the big screen and bailed, leaving struggling Volvo to fall into the waiting arms of Chinese automaker Geely. An emotional wreck, Volvo has taken the drastic measure of swearing off wagons, once their pride and joy. Will they pull out of it and come back blazing like a Hollywood romantic comedy? The answer is coming next year.
Biggest Winners - Genre
Crossovers. Take a look at the brands posting the biggest gains in 2010 and you’ll see crossovers carrying the flag. Subaru has the Forester and Outback. Kia, the Sorento and Sportage. Audi, the A5, Hyundai the Tucson and Ford the Edge. GM’s Equinox and Terrain twins are setting the segment on fire. Crossovers are so hot automakers are pumping up the ride heights and adding AWD to anything they can find, creating oddballs like the Honda Accord Crosstour and the Toyota Venza. Americans want a car-like ride with SUV-like capability, and automakers are falling all over themselves to answer the call.
Electrification. Pin it on the green movement, a government conspiracy, groupthink or whatever else you can come up with. It doesn’t matter, the batteries are coming. This year saw the launch of new hybrids from Honda, Lexus, Kia, Lincoln, Volkswagen and Buick. It saw the launch of new electric cars from Nissan and Chevrolet and more electric and hybrid concept cars than you can shake a battery at. The hybrid/electric Chevrolet Volt even won our 2011 Car of the Year honor. Get ready for the Kilowatt Wars (I’m trademarking that).
Trucks. Big ones. Ram kicked things off, getting its redesigned Heavy Duty out the door months before Ford or Chevrolet, and they’ve got a modest seven-percent year-on-year sales gain to show for it. Ford and Chevy have answered back with heavy duty trucks of their own, pushing 800 pound-feet of torque and mind-blowing capability. And while Chevy may have taken home the 2011 Truck of the Year honors, Ford’s been busy stuffing new engines into their trucks including a surprisingly capable twin-turbo V-6. If you thought gas prices killed the pickup, think again.
Small trucks. There was a time when only serious laborers bought big trucks and the rest of us happily made due with compact trucks, but that time is long since passed. After all, with full-size trucks starting around the same price as their compact brethren, why bother? The segment’s been horribly neglected for years and 2010 was no different.
Small cars. Automakers are betting that as gas prices rise and a sour economy strains wallets, consumers will gravitate to smaller, less expensive cars. It may still happen, but it got off to a slow start in 2010. Ford’s impressive Fiesta is selling about the same as Chevrolet’s terrible Aveo. Chevrolet Cruze sales aren’t exactly turning the market on its ear either. Like small trucks, consumers seem to be finding it hard to pay more for a well-equipped small car when they can have a reasonably-equipped midsize for the same price.
Ladder Frames. There was a time when everything was built on a ladder frame. Over the past 30 years, though, we’ve transitioned to unibodies and we took a big step in finishing the job in 2010. Ford’s Panther cars are dead, replaced in police and livery duty by unibody Tauruses and MKTs. The Dodge Durango and Ford Explorer, once kings of the truck-based SUV segment, are both unibodies now, the next Dodge Dakota and Ford Ranger are rumored to be unibodies and the Kia Borrego is dead.
Biggest Winners - Cars, Trucks, SUVs, Crossovers, Whatever
Chevrolet Camaro. This year will go down as the first year in 25 years that the Camaro has outsold the Ford Mustang. More impressive is that the Camaro did it with just a one model, the coupe, while Ford had the Mustang coupe, convertible and high-performance GT500 are all on offer. With a new convertible and Z/28 on the way, Mustang’s got a serious fight on its hands.
Porsche Panamera. Porsche-philes love to hate it, but modern Porsche buyers just plain love it. With less than a full year of sales under its belt, it’s already blown past the Boxster/Cayman and the 911 and caught up with Porsche’s other much-hated best-seller, the Cayenne. The engine may be on the wrong end of the car and improperly cooled, but that isn’t keeping it on the showroom floor.
GM Theta Platform. That would be the Chevrolet Equinox, GMC Terrain and Cadillac SRX. The terrific trio has been tearing up the sales charts for months on end and garnered many a Biggest Winner nod. Each has been huge for its respective brand and none is showing any sign of losing momentum.
Jeep Grand Cherokee. With an iconic status nearly matching that of the Wrangler, the new Jeep Grand Cherokee had to be done right. And it was. So right, in fact, that its sales have exploded since its introduction a few months ago. Triple-digit month-on-month gains have been the norm and it’s already sold half again as many copies as last year’s model.
Hyundai Sonata. Once barely a contender in the midsize sedan race, the Hyundai Sonata has almost caught up to the Ford Fusion. By year’s end, the Sonata will nearly double its previous year’s sales. Even if it loses momentum in 2011, Ford and Nissan could still be in trouble, and Hyundai no doubt has Accord and Camry in its sights.
Subaru Outback. Many lamented its growth from an Impreza variant to full-blown crossover, but it has done wonders for the company. The Outback is on-track to double its annual sales by the end of December and is the biggest factor in Subaru’s record year.
Buick LaCrosse. Sales have nearly tripled and it’s helped the average buyer age at Buick come down. It may be an old person’s brand, but old people sure do love it.
Ford Flex. It just ain’t working. It’s never come anywhere close to the 100,000 units per year Ford so brashly predicted, trending instead around 35,000 per year. This year, it’s down six percent. Maybe it’s just a lull, but it doesn’t bode well for the Flex.
Lincoln MKS. The dead-and-buried Town Car is up 12 percent and nearly caught up to the MKS in sales. The MKS is down 14 percent. Something is not right here. Lincoln’s flagship just isn’t catching on and it’s only going to make life harder as the brand tries to rebuild itself.
Subaru Tribeca. While the Forester and Outback are running away with the sales lead, the Tribeca is mostly taking up space. Sales are off 60 percent from 2009 and not looking to get any better. Subaru needs to make a call on this one, and we doubt it’ll be good.
Volvo V70. Why is Volvo killing its wagons? Because sales are in the tank.V70 sales are off 46 percent and V50 sales aren’t far behind, down 22 percent. The XC crossovers? Sales are up, naturally. When even Volvo can’t sell a wagon, you have to wonder how long the Acura and Cadillac wagons will be around.
Acura ZDX. So far this year, Acura has sold about 3000 ZDXs. In November alone, it sold nearly 4200 MDXs. That should tell you about all you need to know about how well this little experiment is working out. Even the pointless CR-Z sold nearly 4300 copies. Maybe it has something to do with a recent report stating that half of those who chose not to buy an Acura cited exterior styling as their primary complaint.
Mini Clubman. Is Mini sure people want big Minis? Clubman sales are down 24 percent in 2010, but that’s apparently not stopping the company from launching the Countryman and the new Paceman concept. Product diversity for diversity’s sake doesn’t seem to be working.