Are Domestic Automakers Making the Cars Americans Want to Buy?


A common criticism lobbed at domestic automakers recently is that they don’t build the cars Americans want to drive. This seemingly unanimous opinion was routinely raised during the GM and Chrysler bankruptcy filings by every pundit shoved in front of a television camera.

Presumably, this means Chrysler, Ford and GM focus too much on building “gas-guzzling” SUVs and full-size pickups and too little on the well-made, fuel-efficient subcompacts (e.g. Mini Cooper and Honda Fit) and hybrids (Prius) that Americans now want in their driveways.

There’s one little problem: Those small, fuel-efficient cars aren’t what Americans want. At least, they’re not what Americans buy when gas prices are below $3.

The biggest-selling segments in the U.S. market this year, through May, are: midsize sedans (24.4%), crossovers (19%), pickups (13.8%) and compact cars (13.25%).

These car segments comprise more than 70% of the new-car market and are the vehicle types that routinely make the most money for automakers.

For 2009, subcompact cars like the Fit and Toyota Yaris make up just 4.47% of the market. That said, subcompacts are the fastest-growing car segment in America. Still, they’re about as popular as full-size sedans and minivans, which means they’re not popular enough to have caused the demise of the domestics.

Hybrids make up 2.5% of the U.S. market, making them one of the smallest vehicle segments.

Compared with full-size pickups — a vehicle segment in which the domestics still dominate — the subcompact segment is crowded. There are 13 subcompact nameplates, versus six, traditional full-size pickups.

Full-size pickups still make up 10.8% of the car market. The most popular vehicle sold in the U.S. remains the Ford F-Series, which has held that title for more than 32 years, followed by the Chevrolet Silverado in second place. When gas hit $4 a gallon last summer, the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla became the best-selling cars in the country … for two months.

Still, American vehicle preferences are changing. 2008 was the first year in which cars outsold trucks and SUVs in eight years, and that trend is continuing for 2009. If gas tops $3 again this summer, some expect small cars to again see a spike in sales.

If the Detroit Three are to succeed in the coming decades, they’ll have to focus on the car segment, particularly midsize sedans and car-based crossovers. That is, if they want to build the cars most Americans are actually buying.

GM and Ford seem to be on the right track, with models such as the Ford Fusion, Chevy Malibu, Ford Escape and Chevy Traverse selling well and receiving critical acclaim. Those two companies also have new compact and subcompact cars slated to go on sale in the next two years. As the sales lists below show, however, Honda, Toyota and other import brands still rule most of these ever-important segments.

Midsize sedans:

  1. Toyota Camry
  2. Honda Accord
  3. Nissan Altima
  4. Ford Fusion
  5. Chevrolet Malibu
  6. Hyundai Elantra
  7. Pontiac G6
  8. Subaru Legacy
  9. Nissan Maxima
  10. BMW 5 Series


  1. Honda CR-V
  2. Ford Escape
  3. Toyota RAV4
  4. Honda Pilot
  5. Ford Edge
  6. Chevrolet Traverse
  7. Lexus RX
  8. Nissan Rogue
  9. Subaru Forester
  10. Toyota Highlander


  1. Ford F-Series
  2. Chevrolet Silverado
  3. Dodge Ram
  4. Toyota Tacoma
  5. GMC Sierra
  6. Toyota Tundra
  7. Ford Ranger
  8. Chevrolet Colorado
  9. Nissan Frontier
  10. Nissan Titan

Compact cars:

  1. Toyota Corolla/Matrix
  2. Honda Civic
  3. Ford Focus
  4. Chevrolet Cobalt
  5. Toyota Prius
  6. Mazda3
  7. Volkswagen Jetta
  8. BMW 3 Series
  9. Kia Spectra
  10. Nissan Sentra
By Colin Bird | June 16, 2009 | Comments (34)
Tags: Car Buying



this article makes sense -- when i think of "Toyota" and "Honda" i think of "Camry" and "Accord." those models did wonders for each maker. like i said earlier, improved GM/Ford models like the Malibu, Fusion are clearly not good enough and a little too late.

the 80's saw Toyota and Honda rise from crappy little cars to reputable brands; the 2000's saw Hyundai rise. each took many years of solid effort. if GM, Chrysler and Ford are restructured right, they can become competitive again in a few years.

subcompacts are a waste of time for American brands at this time because (1) we Americans are getting very fat and (2) they occupy too small a market share and are the antithesis of "sexy" image cars that allow the likes of the R8 to really push the brand image.


Right now GM and Chrysler don't have anything that makes me say "wow, I gotta go to the dealer and check that car out". When new models come out I will ususally take one for a test drive. I have recently taken a look at the cube and soul. Not because I want to buy one but because their style got me interested. The same is true for the Insight, Fit, xb, xD, Yaris, Smart, etc. Cars that don't look like every car on the road. Ford is the only US automaker that I would probably buy right now, from a styling standpoint. I can't wait to see the Fiesta and Focus up close. GM and Chrysler just don't have anything that grabs me.


The American companies have to be able to make a profit on these cars. I assume that's why Ford put the Fusion plant in Mexico and will build the Fiesta there. Does Ford make a profit on the Focus? Does GM make a profit on Cobalt? I don't know, but have the feeling that Toyota and Honda do on their compacts.


Car companies make profits off of all cars. The cost of materials and labor are far less than the price the car gets sold to dealers at (people generally assume the dealer makes the most money). Ford and GM practically ignored thier cars to focus on their cash cows called SUV's and trucks. GM was making something like 40 or 50k in profit per Escalade that was produced/sold. So when Toyota, Honda, insert other foreign car brand here, started a huge push on making their cars even better than the last model... it made the domestic equivalent look like, well, a domestic car. That is a textbook example of the competition working to improve things when others aren't.

Not everyone wants to drive a truck. I'd rather have a car with the far superior handling and safety characteristics. If I need a truck, I go to Enterprise and rent one for $100 a weekend and get all my work done then.

So Ford got a new boss a few years ago and had a major house cleaning. They got their plan together and are now producing some excellent products. A friend of mine bought a new Fusion and he likes it better than his newer Accord. These companies CAN change the perceptions that have lingered for decades. It just won't happen overnight and unfortunately we, as a society, have led ourselves to become impatient.


Well made points on the article.
However, the domestic automakers are still lagging behind in making good mid-size sedans also.


the Chevrolet Cruz is a great example of a car that could kill the Corolla, and one that GM needs to bring over here RIGHT NOW, not in 2011 or whenever outrageous date they plan on bringing it over. the Cruz is better finished, more efficient, and will accelerate quicker than the Corolla, thanks to many new technologies that GM is finally putting into its vehicle lineup.


How did full-size sedans do? I was thinking along the lines of Impalas, G8's, Chargers, Tauruses, Accords, Avalons and the Crown Vic trio.

Dave Wuss

If you removed the heavy incentives that GM and Ford use to sell their vehicles they would not be competitive at all. They still have the highest incentives in the industry so they must address this issue. I have hope for Ford but don't see GM surviving. There is no excuse that the old platform generation Camry outsells the Malibu and Fusion even though they have the advantage of higher incentives. That's the proof in the pudding that these cars are not very successful. I think the new updated Fusion can overcome this but both Ford and GM need category winners bad.


Kill the Corolla? What are you smoking? Tens of millions of Corollas have been built, all with an excellent reputation spanning 40 years. The Cruze may be a nice car, but there's no need to make stupid boasts about what it will do to an iconic nameplate like the Corolla. Please spare us any more of your useless speculation.


To me the most frustrating thing about "people don't want American cars" is that it's simply not true.

Again, in May, BOTH GM and Ford outsold Toyota.

GM 190,930
Ford 159,174
Toyota 152,583
Honda 98,344


In short, no. I like station wagons and I own 2, a VW Passat and Subaru Outback. The big three gave that segment up for high profit SUV's so the could avoid the CAFE standards.

Unless and until the American companies start building wagons again, they've lost my business forever.

Original sheth


GM never made $40k in profit on large SUVs. That is totally inaccurate. IN addition, small cars made in the US are not very profitable. Never have been. The most fuel efficient Asian cars sold in the US are imported. Why is that? Honda and Toyota produce many of their largest, most expensive and least efficient vehicles in the US. Why is that? For the same reasons that GM and Ford make many of their high margin vehicles here.

Also, your claim that GM ignored cars to focus on trucks is often repeated and never proven. A correct statement would be to say that many of GM's revamped cars were not nearly as successful as their trucks and SUVs. MAny GM cars released over the last 10 years have gotten decent reviews but many have not sold. GM never stopped introducing new cars. Ford is a different story because their new car intros slowed to a trickle in the late 90s through mid 2000s. Ford actually didn't have a retail midsize offering in the years between the Countour and Fusion.

Original sheth

Dave Wuss:

Not only are you biased, you are wrong. All automakers use incentives these days. The Fusion is NEW and has FEW incentives right now. It has outsold the Altma for the last two months. Outselling the Camry is not easy because the car has a strong brand name that has been around for 25+ years. It will take years for the Malibu and Fusion to get close to Camry sales, but they are making progress.

Comparing AVERAGE incentives across brands is stupid. Why? Because lower end brands have lower incentives due to lower MSRPs. The reason the domestics have the highest AVERAGE incentives is because they sell a lot of TRUCKS. Trucks cost more than cars and thus the dollar value of their incentives are higher. Hyundai is going to have lower incentives (based on absolute dollars) than GM because Hyundai doesn't offer many products that sticker for more than $30k. Meanwhile almost every pickup or large SUV on a GM dealer lot costs over $35k. IS there any wonder GM's incentives are higher? Its more important to consider the discounts as a % of MSRP- which few people are smart enough to consider.

Malibu has about $2250 cash back vs $1500 for the Camry. You call that a huge advantage?

In addition, your claims that the Malibu and Fusion are not successful because they dont outsell Camry are shortsighted. According to your flawed logic the Altima is a failure because it has NEVER come close to matching Camry sales. You might as well include the Accord as well. And the Passat, and the 6, etc.

Original sheth


The MAlibu and Fusion are amongst the best midsize sedans on the market. Both are generally seen as superior to the Camry and Altima. Some consider them better than Accord as well. Most in the auto media feel that the Mazda 6, Accord or Fusion is the best in class right now.



unless you have been totally out of it since the new Corolla's inception, you should know that it is now just an "also ran." with the 2009 redesign, Toyota pulled a GM and merely made the Corolla a little bit more competitive when compared to the four-year-old Civic and even older Mazda3. once both vehicles are redesigned, as the Mazda3 has, they will easily out compete the Corolla. also, the Cruz is a much higher quality vehicle than the Corolla. again, you'd have to be totally out of it not to realize that.

Original sheth


You are right and the funny thing is the Corolla was delayed to bring it up to par. Once it debuted no one could figure out what Toyota added to the car. It sells based on reputation and mileage, nothing else. I sat in the 2009 car and the automotive press was more than generous regarding the interior. It is as cheap as anything in the segment. Apparently the automotive press can only acknowledge hard plastics when sitting in a Cobalt.

Al G.

OS you are right about the Interior of the new Corolla and the Matrix for that matter. I saw and sat in them both at an Auto show a few months ago. I was surprised by the cheapness of the interiors. When I got in the Matrix the seat belt housing was coming apart from the door. Obviously because of so many people in and out of the car. However there is no excuse for such cheapness in a brand known for its quality. I was especially surprised being that I am a fan of Toyota. I had to ask myself if I brought one is this what will happen to me in a few years. I shutter to think. The quality of recent interiors of many of the new Toyota's is a step down. I hope Toyota will address these issues especially given the fact that many other brands have picked it up a bit.

Al G.

BTW the Matrix the seat belt housing was coming apart from the side not the actual door.


I don't see where the mazda3 or cruze will make a big impact on corolla sales. If anything the new civic will likey surpass it in sales. Heck the outdated corolla still sold 23,000 units in May. I don't think Mazda has ever sold that many 3's in a month and the cruze is rumored to be priced higher than the civic and corolla. I figure if my 15 year old son wants a corolla then it must not be that outdated.


I look for the Kia Forte to have a big impact over the next year especially with a price under 14K.


Ziggy, thanks for bringing real information into the discussion. The Corolla won't be killed by the Cruze and still sells extremely well, despite the kind of loose talk posted here. Money talks and B.S. walks.


Just shut your mouth already.
Best in class?
The features are simply not up to par.
How many times do you have to be reminded that the Malibu does not have a rear armrest? The Accord has it since when?


OS -
In one sentence you said that the Malibu and Fusion are among the best sedans on the market. Then in another sentence you say that "Most in the auto media feel that the Mazda 6, Accord or Fusion is the best in class right now". Are you saying that the Malibu being among the best is your opinion and not that of the auto media?

Original sheth


The Fusion and 6 are newer than the Malibu and are somewhat better. When the Malibu was new it was near the top of class. I would likely get the Malibu over the Fusion because it looks better inside and out. If you want AWD or a hybrid model the Fusion is the better car. This does not mean the Malibu is a bad car. Honestly, I have to wonder where you've been for the last 2 years if you are shocked that the Malibu is one of the better cars in this class. I don't hold the Accord in high regard at all- some of the media cannot accept that its an also ran.


Very mature response. Let me know when the Accord gets LED tailights, 6 speed auto, 33mpg on the highway, auto start, paddle shifters, standard XM, Onstar, trunk struts, etc. The accord does have a rear armrest, but thats about where the advantages end. You believe that the presense of a rear armrest makes or breaks a car? Interesting.

Original sheth


It takes years for perception to catch up to reality. In the 1980s the top selling cars were Oldmobiles, Chevys and Fords. By your logic they were the best cars on sale during that time. I disagree. Toyota sells many mediocre products, the Corolla is just one of them. Sit in one yourself if you have doubts. If the Corolla was a Chevy the media (including this site which never misses a chance to knock the cobalt) would have a field day. The mileage is the only thing worth noting in regards to the Corolla. It lacks the latest features, has forgettable styling and a cheap interior. The Matrix is even worse. After sitting in that I couldn't imagine how anyone would buy one.

Detroit followed the "its good enough to sell based on our reputation" mantra for decades. It didnt work out so well. Toyota is so arrogant that they don't believe they have to do any better- and considering how fanatically their mediocre products are defended they may be right.

Original sheth


Mazda is a small automaker that lacks Toyota's manufacturing capacity. the 3 cannot be built in Corolla type quantities and will never outsell the Corolla.

The Cruze will be more expensive than the Cobalt, that doesn't mean it will be much mor than the Corolla. Unlike Mazda, the Cruze will be a high volume compact and I would assume GM is hoping to be in the top 3 in terms of compact sales. Don't forget a new Focus is coming in 2010 as well. The market is about to get a whole lot tougher for Corolla.


So the Malibu does not crack the top 3 because it's 2 years old? Didn't the Accord come out about the same time but yet the auto media still puts it in the top 3. It's like saying it can't hold it's own with the competition after 2 years. I have driven one when it first came out and even then I wouldn't have put it in my top 5.

You're right OS. The Cruze should get it's share of fleet sales to make it a top seller. BTW many compacts have come and gone over the years but the Corolla continues to sell well.


to all that love to point out fleet's a tired disingenuous argument. i have rented plenty of toyotas on business trips.

the constant negative press regarding gm's financial situation probably hasn't helped malibu sells either...i think it actually says something about the quality of gm products to see them still selling so well. the only chrysler product on the list is the ram, which is a very nice truck (in need of a better base v6).

why aren't cobalt and hhr sales calculated together? if the corolla and matrix are going to be combined, then so should the cobalt and hhr. also, if you combined the silverado and sierra, would the total outsell the f150???

Dave Wuss

Original Sheth,
I know you are stupid so there's no need to prove it to me. Now get back to hogging the board as clearly you have a lot of time on your hands.


Original sheth


Those who cannot back up what they post are the first to turn to insults. You didnt counter ONE thing that I said in my response. That speaks for itself. You are making inaccurate claims and yet you call me "stupid". Interesting.


The midsize sedan segment is very competitive. I am not aware of any tests that have included the Malibu and 6. MT rated the Malibu above the Accord and Altima but has not compared it to the new Fusion or 6. Edmunds rated the Malibu below Accord and Altima but better than Camry. C&D rated it behind accord but above Camry. Everyone agrees the Malibu is one of the best midsize cars and an acceptable option. Because the 6 and Fusion have more features I would say they are better cars if you are looking for a loaded model. There is really no consensus in the press about which model is the hands down winner. C&D always thinks Hondas are the best and until recently MT contended the current camry is the best. In their latest test MT rated the Passat and Sonata above the Accord.


It really doesn't matter what you or I or anyone on this site thinks. For that matter the opinions of the magazines don't seem to matter too much either. To the automaker the proof is in the sales and profits. Do american automakers make cars that americans want to buy is the question. They do to some degree however the accord, camry, civic and corolla will always be in the top ten regardless of all of the reviews and opinions out there.

Original sheth

Actually opinions of the media and the informed do matter. Accord and Camry sell largely because people don't compare them to other models. High sales don't make a car superior. The best selling minivans are made by Chrysler but the media says they are 2nd or 3rd best in the industry. They sell well because of Chryslers reputation for minivans and their feature count. I really dont care how many Corollas Toyota sells- its still a mediocre car by all accounts. How many Corolla owners do you think actally compared the car to the Focus, Sentra or 3? I guarantee you most compared it to Civic or nothing at all.

Also, instead of looking only at sales you have to look at sales trends. The Malibu has outperformed Camry and Accord in terms of sales performance relative to last year for all of 2009. Last month Malibu sales were only off 10% while Accord and Camry sales were down 20%-30%. Fusion sales were up. It takes years to close the gap but it can be done. Crossovers are one example. Three years ago Ford and GM had no midsize crossovers. In 2008 the Edge outsold the Pilot and Highlander. Several months this year the Traverse has outsold Pilot and Highlander and its currenrly outselling the Pilot for the year. Keep in mind that back in 2006-2007 GM wasn't even competiting in this segment. Also, the Escape was best selling compact SUV last month and that is another category that was dominated by the imports until recently.


The accord, camry, civic and corolla sell well because people don't comare them to other models - my point exactly. Buyers are not swayed by the opinions of others that say other vehicles are better than those. If they were influenced by the opinions of others then they would compare them to other vehicles. This keeps them in the top ten, month after month, year after year. The same hold's true for the F series and Silverado. Those 6 vehicles will always be in the top 10 because those buyers are not going to be swayed.

Chrysler has the best selling minivan over a 30 year period because honda and toyota didn't sell them for half that time. Honda outsold chrylser in 2008.

Midsize crossovers is a fairly new segment and there isn't a long enough time period to say that any one vehicle has dominated or is dominating that class. One month or a handful of months is not a trend.

Escape and Edge have sold well to loyal ford buyers at the expense of the Explorer.

Now OS - get the last word in - as you do in most of these posts.

Original sheth


No need to get the last word in if you stuck to logical arguments. The crossover segment has been dominated by imports since it was established in the mid 90s with the RAV4 and later the CR-V. Sorry, that more than enough time for a segment and strong brands to be established. The imports were on top when there was a lack of domestic competition. Now that strong competitors have been fielded they are capable of taking the sales lead. Its that simple. I'm glad you have a BS excuse for Edge and Escape sales. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the merits of the vehicles. As usual, you disregard facts you don't like by qualifying them. Your entire theory that domestics cannot compete for best in class sales is faulty and easily disproven. Accept it.

Also, are you suggesting that the Egde overtaking the Pilot and Highlander for the year constitutes "a couple of months" and not a trend? Interesting. I would say best in class sales for the year are more than an anomaly. Same goes for the Traverse beating the Pilot after 5 months in 2009.

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