Handful of New Cars Have Sustained Auto Industry During Economic Downturn

Although levels remain well below their 2005 peak, a recent study by CSM Worldwide concludes that new car sales in the U.S. have finally stabilized. Furthermore, the firm, which provides market intelligence to original equipment manufacturers in the automotive industry, predicts that sales numbers will continue to improve through the remainder of 2009 and into 2010.

According to J.D. Power & Associates, the models that have performed well during the recent down market have been those with good reputations for value and quality that offer generous standard features. The data indicates that smaller, more fuel-efficient models continue to outsell larger models and that the luxury and sports car sectors are alive and well.

A recent U.S. News and World Report listed 15 cars that have performed well during the current economic downturn. The list includes foreign and domestic models along with a few surprises.

The Hyundai Accent may be uninspiring, but in today’s tight economic climate, it’s priced right. Hyundai offers a bare-bones version for about $10,000. The epitome of “basic transportation”, it comes without a radio or air conditioning. Better equipped versions start at about $13,000 and all trim packages offer safety features including side-curtain air bags. The Accent offers the reliability of a new car for a used car price and sales for 2009 are up 29% year-to-year making it the best-selling small “B car” on the market.

With a base sticker price of around $14,000, Kia’s Forte is another modestly priced car that has sold well. Despite the somewhat bland exterior, the Forte offers a generous set of standard features like steering wheel audio controls, auto-off headlights, auxiliary audio input jacks and side-curtain air bags. Kia has sold about 17,000 units since introducing the model this past spring.

Honda’s latest gas-electric hybrid model, the Insight, has proven very popular with U.S. consumers. The Insight is priced about $2,500 below Toyota’s Prius, but with an estimated 40 mpg in city driving, it falls short of Prius’ 51 mpg rating. Honda has sold approximately 18,000 Insights since introducing the model last spring, which has helped Japan’s No. 2 automaker perform better than the industry as a whole.

Kia’s new Soul crossover has received mixed reviews among American car buyers. The Korean automaker has obviously targeted a niche market of younger buyers and equipped the Soul with some “love it or hate it” features like pulsating light audio speakers. Other more utilitarian standard features like stability control, side-curtain air bags and a tire pressure monitoring system have scored well with more traditional buyers and helped the Soul outsell other boxy rivals like the Nissan Cube and Scion xB.

Ford’s Fusion mid-size sedan remained a strong seller in 2009. The Fusion has been a consistent performer since its introduction five years ago, and Ford has made continuous improvements including interior upgrades and the addition of features like the Sync multimedia entertainment system. Ford also introduced a hybrid version of the Fusion this year. The hybrid Fusion offers improved fuel efficiency with a base sticker price of about $28,000. Sales of the Fusion line rose by 15% this year.

Nissan’s Maxima is a roomy sedan that offers sporty performance and a peppy V-6 engine. Maxima sales have increased by 5% in 2009; making it one of only three large sedans on the market to realize a year-to-year increase in sales.

Subaru is one of only two automakers to actually increase its sales this year. The Subaru Legacy is a practical sedan that offers style and functionality combined with impressive safety features and all-wheel-drive. The model underwent a facelift in 2009 that helped boost sales by 15%.

Although sales of Toyota’s Prius have slumped in recent months, sales of its new Venzu hatchback have remained strong since its introduction in 2009. The crossover offers five passenger seating and innovative cargo solutions with a base sticker price of about $27,000. With sales of about 45,000, the Venzu has outsold competitors in the sector including the MazdaCX-7 and Ford Edge.

Three luxury cars made the list. They are the Lexus RX 350, Mercedes GLK and Volkswagen CC.

The Volkswagen CC has received precious little press compared with the German automaker’s upscale Passat but sales have been impressive. Since its introduction in late 2008, Volkswagen has sold 18,000 units in a market that has seen sales of premium mid-size sedans shrink by about 24%.

Although the luxury crossover field has become somewhat crowded, the Lexus RX 350 remains the top contender; outselling the Acura MDX, BMW X5 and Mercedes M Class. The RX 350 is so popular with U.S. consumers that Lexus kept model-year improvements to a few, nearly imperceptible changes. Among them were an increase in cabin space and a slight increase in engine performance. The RX 350 is also the only luxury crossover to offer a hybrid variant. Sales of the line have increased by 8% in 2009.

Another luxury crossover to have performed well amid the recent turmoil is the Mercedes GLK. The GLK is one of Mercedes’ lowest-priced vehicles in any sector with a base sticker price of about $37,000. Since introducing the GLK earlier this year, Mercedes has sold about 18,000 units.

Hyundai introduced its first-ever luxury model in 2009. With a base sticker price of around $33,000, the Genesis is priced well below BMW, Lexus and Audi, yet the Genesis ranked second only to the BMW 3 series in a recent U.S. News and World Report survey of upscale midsize sedans. Hyundai has sold approximately 18,000 units in 2009.

Despite the focus on smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, GM and Chrysler both bucked the trend by reviving the muscle car, and for each, the gamble paid off.

GM’s Chevy Camaro has been a huge hit with consumers who have purchased nearly 50,000 units since the model was introduced this past summer. With a base sticker price of around $23,000, the new Camaro is available with two powerful engines and has obviously struck a chord with consumers who hunger for a fun, sporty car.

Another GM product to make the list is the Pontiac G8. The G8 outperformed other pure muscle cars like the Camaro and Mustang in head-to-head comparisons conducted by U.S. News and World Report and other sources based on its roomier interior and equally impressive performance. Ironically, GM has chosen to shed its Pontiac division.

Chrysler has had little to be optimistic about in 2009 but its introduction of the new Dodge Challenger provided a ray of hope to the beleaguered automaker. The Challenger harkens back to the glory days of the muscle car with two optional V-8 engines and retro styling that puts it on an equal footing with Chevy’s Camaro and Ford’s Mustang. Chrysler has sold approximately 21,000 Challengers so far this year.

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