Automakers Feel Pinch as Shoppers Wait for Newer Models
Dead may be too strong a word. The Ford Escape, Nissan Altima and Chevrolet Impala, among others, are far from dead. In fact, before long they'll be breathing crisp mountain air. But in April 2012, these and other cars saw sales suffer at the hands of a market that knew that something better is coming down the line.
The glitz and glamour of revealing cars at an auto show grabs headlines, but it also informs shoppers that something better is on the way, and they may hold off on a purchase until it arrives.
It's happened before.
The BMW 3 Series, a nameplate that routinely secures the title of America's best-selling luxury car, saw it happen last year. In 2011, as the U.S. new-vehicle market grew at a 10% clip, sales of the 3 Series slid 6.5%. True, the 3 Series stayed on as America's top-selling premium vehicle, but shoppers were all too aware of two factors.
First, there were more recently redesigned and more stylish luxury cars available. Second, shoppers knew a new 3 Series was coming. Toward the end of the calendar year, they knew exactly what it would look like, how much power it would generate and what its fuel economy benefits would be.
That dip before the new model arrived likely pained dealers, but there's a corollary effect. Through the first quarter of this year, the new BMW sedan helped 3 Series sales climb 27%, which helps offset that 6.5% drop, especially considering that coupe and convertible models hadn't been updated. Mercedes-Benz's slightly altered C-Class saw sales up 20%, mainly fueled by a new entry engine like the 3 Series. But this is a swing that BMW would gladly go through to launch such an important model. A 6.5% drop isn't that bad, after all.
This is the peril of letting consumers know early on what an automaker is going to deliver. Apple releases an iPhone, and shortly thereafter it goes on sale. Indeed, we think there will be a new Honda Accord soon, but Honda is keeping with its tradition of holding its cards close to the vest. Accord sales jumped 26% in April. Incidentally, we don't know for sure what the next Accord will look like, though we have a few hints. But they are just that, hints.
We do know what the next Nissan Altima, due in July, will look like. The midsize Nissan was America's second-best-selling car in January, February and March, but it fell to 12th after sales slid 6% last month compared with April 2011. The 2013 Altima was revealed at the New York auto show in April.
The Chevrolet Impala is currently a value-conscious, high-volume large car in a full-size market that has shrunk significantly over the last several years. It's been in dire need of a redesign for years, but it kept selling despite its age. Through the first quarter, Impala sales had risen 2% year over year. In April, sales of the current Impala plunged 29%, the worst year-over-year decline reported by any of America's 20 best-selling cars. The 2014 Impala was revealed at the New York auto show at the beginning of April, but shoppers will need to wait much longer for that car. It won't go on sale until early 2013. That's a long time for GM to be staring at percentage drops nearly five times larger than the BMW 3 Series.
Other factors were at play last month, besides the fact that potential buyers may be turned on by a newer, flashier car while outgoing 4- or 5-year-old designs sit on dealer lots with discounts. April 2011 had three more selling days than April 2012, so year-over-year percentage volume changes are skewed. GM fleet sales were especially strong a year ago. U.S. auto sales had also been unexpectedly buoyant in the first few months of 2012, and dealer inventory was limited in certain instances.
All those factors may have had some impact but don't totally explain the Ford Escape's slide, the one model that may best illustrate shoppers holding off. Ford showed the 2013 Escape at the L.A. auto show last fall, with reviews like this one singing its praise hitting the internet a few weeks ago. The current version of the Escape has been with us for more than a decade with far fewer changes than most models mentioned above. Is it any wonder Escape sales were down 20% in April when the new version was just weeks away from dealers?
New-car buyers may just be a patient bunch, or at least a bunch that's willing to consider the new car that is actually available. Honda introduced the new CR-V at the L.A. auto show in November, and the vehicle that has now taken over from the Escape as America's best-selling SUV was being stocked less than two months later.
Tim Cain is a contributing writer for Cars.com and the editor-in-chief of Good Car Bad Car, a site that analyzes both U.S. and Canadian car sales.