The automotive market is vast and generalizing about it is challenging. Nevertheless, we see frequent sales reports—monthly, if not weekly—and pinpointed—country-by-country or even state-by-state or province-by-province—and by brand, model, and price category.
Reminders, however, of the cyclical nature of the market may be helpful. Eight years ago, the US and Canadian governments were bailing out some automotive manufacturers. Today, vehicle sales are brisk and record-breaking to the upside in many parts of the world. And stretching back three decades, oil prices were high and ‘peak oil’ was said to be imminent spawning fuel-efficient compact vehicles.
Today, the oil market resembles nothing like the old forecasts, and trucks, SUVs, and crossovers—with much-improved fuel efficiency—again rank as bestsellers. When, in the mid-2000s, pollution concerns became the fixation, alternative fuels, hybrids, and the electric car were expected to be the imminent solutions.
Today, alternative ‘fuels’ like ethanol, natural gas, and compressed hydrogen still cannot compete price-wise or convenience-wise. Despite significant advancements in battery design and power output and the likes of Tesla and BMW’s i8, for example—skyrocketing electricity prices and the stalled-out development of plug-in infrastructure are contributing to the slow uptake of e-cars. In fact, some automotive journalists now say that subsidized renewables have driven and will continue to drive electricity prices so high that they have effectively ‘killed’ the e-car. (Who would have guessed it?)
But for all the economic ups and downs and the buffeting by ‘macro-trends’ and ‘futuristic forecasting’, certain constants are discernable in car buying. Take any ‘top ten’ list at almost any given moment and you will see consumer choices that reflect wide-spread preferences…and here come the generalities: light trucks are the most popular vehicle type on the road because of their functionality and their reliability. They give value for money.
In 2015, Ford F-series trucks were the best-selling truck in the world and the third best-selling vehicle on the planet. Crossover SUVs are everywhere now: Toyota’s RAV4 and Honda’s CR-V are bestsellers: functional, reliable, fuel-efficient because light and small-ish but also good to excellent in safety ratings.
In the sedan category: the Hyundai Elantra, the Honda Civic, Toyota’s Camry and Corolla, and Ford’s Focus —albeit with some fluctuation, for many years now these vehicles have hung in on best-seller lists because they are reliable, fuel-efficient, safe, comfortable, well-designed and functional. They give value for money.
In the luxury car market, there is a long consistent history of total sales numbers reflecting the smaller size of this market. Branding issues are critically important in this segment. Regulation has ensured that innovative safety features must be incorporated in all vehicles regardless of their particular market segment and fuel efficiency requirements mean that fuel and engine technologies are more uniform. Vehicle quality is an expectation for even the most humble offering, so expensive vehicles must justify their price in the main by cosmetic and styling details more than anything else.