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The Cars of Summer: 10 Winners and Losers
The cars of summer: 10 winners and losers
As the model year winds down, U.S. and Korean automakers are trouncing the Japanese.
With the beginning of August, car dealers are winding down their inventories of 2011 models and getting ready for the 2012 model year, which begins officially on October. So taking the temperature of a nameplate's health in July at the end of the summer selling season provides a good indication of its overall strength -- or weakness.
If you only read the buff books, you would conclude that Americans only want cars that are fast, sleek, and status-laden. Those may be their wants, but the cars they actually buy often fall into one of three popular segments: compact and midsize car, compact SUV, or crossover. For Toyota, being able to sell 400,000 Camrys trumps a few thousand Land Cruisers.
Here are July's leaders and laggards in those three most popular segments, using data compiled by Edmunds.com:
Winner: Chevrolet Cruze
July 2011 sales: 24,648
Change from July 2010: Infinite
"The best-selling small car in America is a Chevrolet." When was the last time you were able to say that? Consumers are now putting a historically high focus on fuel efficiency, and that plays to the strengths of the Cruze, which has been on the market for less than a year. With a 1.4-liter turbocharged inline-four, the Cruze Eco is good for up to 42 miles per gallon on the highway. Coming in 2013: an even more fuel-efficient Cruze powered by a diesel engine.
Winner: Ford Escape
July 2011 sales: 23,759
Change from July 2010: 75%
Here's a model line that succeeds on the basis of familiarity. With its strong family resemblance to the old Explorer, the Escape has been among the most popular compact SUVs on the market. That resemblance ended this year when the Explorer got a redesign, but a new look hasn't slowed the aging Escape, which is due to move to its own global platform for a full makeover in 2013.
Winner: Kia Sorento
July 2011 sales: 13,262
Change from July 2010: 47%
If Kia was an ice-cream stand, it would be selling two scoops for the price of one, and the Sorento continues that tradition of giving more for less. Its three-row model crossovers compete head to head with other manufacturers' two-row designs. Buyers are convinced: They've made Sorento the second most-popular model in Kia's lineup, and it outsold Toyota's better-known RAV4 and the Subaru Forester in July.
Winner: Hyundai Sonata
July 2011 sales: 20,884
Change from July 2010: 17%
Lack of production capacity was the only thing holding back the Sonata in July. It has a winning formula: Customers lured by the innovative marketing are captivated by the up-to-the-minute styling and then sold on the appealing MSRP. Hyundai is having its moment in the sun, but it should be wary -- not so long ago, Honda's star was shining just as brightly.
Loser: Ford Focus
July 2011 sales: 14,889
Change from July 2010: -3%
The highly touted Focus had a mixed outing in July. Ford blamed lack of availability due to high demand and production restraints. In-house competition from Fiesta and Fusion may be hurting too. A fuller picture will be available over time. Competitors will be watching closely to see how buyers respond to a richly priced small car carrying the brand of a volume manufacturer.
Loser: Toyota Camry
July 2011 sales: 27,016
Change from July 2010: -23%
Camry took a dive in July, but don't be fooled: A redesigned model is on the way this fall, and Toyota is determined to retain Camry's status as the best-selling car in America. Knowing Toyota, the 2012 version will be better in every way than the outgoing model and cost the same or less. One big challenge: lowering the average age of Camry drivers. When they are 60 years old, it doesn't leave much time for repeat purchases.
Loser: Toyota RAV4
July 2011 sales: 8,814
Change from July 2010: -26%
With a redesigned version coming later this year, old age is catching up with the RAV4 in this ultra-competitive segment. Production interruptions in Japan didn't help. Environmentalists are awaiting the launch in 2012 of a battery-electric model developed in cooperation with Tesla.
Loser: Honda Civic
July 2011 sales: 14,006
Change from July 2010: -40%
Sometimes new isn't enough. Honda got hammered by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and it looks like the pain is only beginning. The redesigned 2012 Civic has been widely panned; Consumer Reports complained about everything from ride and handling to fit and finish and yanked its recommended rating. Honda may be forced to do something very un-Honda-like: ladle out incentives to win customers back.
Loser: Honda CR-V
July 2011 sales: 13,943
Change from July 2010: -30%
A redesigned CR-V is also on its way later this fall and Honda is hoping it gets a better reception. The automaker promises "enhanced features and improved fuel economy" for the new car but little more, for fear of hurting sales of the outgoing model. The CR-V has been a standout in its segment, but competition is getting tougher. (see Ford Escape, Kia Sorrento, et al.)
Loser: Honda Accord
July 2011 sales: 18,308
Change from July 2010: -28%
The current Accord has been on the market since mid-2008, making it pretty old in car years. A freshening for 2011 along with a boost in fuel economy to 23 mpg city and 34 highway stirred little interest. The Accord was once known as the default choice among midsize cars, but it appears to have no near-term chance to knock off the Camry.
The Fords are surprising, the Hondas less so. If the Cruze were offered here in a 5-door, I'd have one in my driveway today.
Prediction: Honda is in for some very dark days (relatively speaking, of course) if they can't rediscover their engineering mojo.