A new year is always a nice opportunity to reflect on the past year and in our case, that means looking at which cars have sold surprisingly well in 2015 and which do we expect to surprise in 2016. We’ll also look at which cars or brands have disappointed from a sales volume point of view in a separate article. We’ve already covered the surprises and disappointments in Europe and in China, now let’s take a look at the US car market
Which cars sold surprisingly well in 2015:
For decades, the US commercial van market has been dominated by three old-fashioned and inefficient models: the Ford E-Series, the Chevrolet Express (and its clone GMC Savana) and Dodge Ram Van. In 2001 the Sprinter was added as a kind-of replacement to the Ram Van, which stood out because of its unibody layout. Although the Sprinter, first as Freightliner, later also as Dodge, then RAM and now as Mercedes-Benz, has enjoyed continued growth, it took Ford until the second half of 2014 to see the benefits and replace its ageing E-Series with the Transit, also based on a European design. And with the Sprinter now under the Mercedes-Benz brand since the demerger of DaimlerChrysler, FCA launched the RAM ProMaster in 2014 as well, which is a rebadged Fiat Ducato.
And the result has been a sales success for the “Euro-vans”, helped undoubtedly by a recovering economy, as businesses are starting to replace their aging vans after postponing that investment during the crisis years. But also because of their better fuel economy, more cabin space, better ride and greater choice of size configurations.
In the first 11 months of 2015, these three models accounted for 53% of total large commercial van sales in the US, up from 18,5% in the same period of 2014. To put it in numbers: the Ford Transit, Mercedes-Benz Sprinter and RAM ProMaster sold a combined 155.000 units, a tripling of their volume of 47.878 units a year earlier and they helped boost the segment as a whole increase 13,3% to 292.271 sales. That means the “traditional” body-on-frame vans lost 34,6% of their volume, or if we don’t include the Ford E-Series which is being replaced by the Transit, the Chevrolet Express and GMC Savana were down 23,7% and the Nissan NV was up 12,7% but with the smallest volume of all competitors.
This compact crossover hit its all-time sales record in its 9th year of sales without a significant redesign of the exterior, and it’s done it by the end of October already. Its sibling Jeep Compass is also set to break its annual sales record this year, but by a much smaller margin than the Patriot, which is up 27,6% and has broken though the 100.000 sales for the first time ever. And at least the Compass has had a mid-cycle refresh of its design. Mind you, these models were mediocre to begin with, and although their interiors have improved quite a lot since their launch, it’s still hard to imagine why so many buyers would prefer a Patriot over a Mazda CX-5. I guess it’s the Jeep brand image.
I had expected the new Jeep Cherokee, which is a bit larger than the Patriot, and the all-new Jeep Renegade, which is a bit smaller, to cannibalize sales from their older sibling, but either the additional showroom traffic and high discounts have boosted the Patriot, or Jeep has simply dumped a boatload of them at Hertz and Enterprise as rental cars, but although Jeep has boosted its fleet volume in 2015, I don’t think that’s what has caused the sudden surge in popularity of the Patriot.
Both the Patriot and the Compass will be replaced by a single, all-new model in 2016 so their final full year of sales will also have been their best ever.
The Japanese automaker can’t seem to keep up with demand for its crossover, even after increasing capacity by importing an additional 80.000 annual units from the otherwise underused Renault-Samsung factory in South-Korea. But that’s not enough, so Nissan has added a third production source in Japan to increase capacity by another 100.000 annual units to 330.000, which is more than double the initial US capacity of 150.000 units which Nissan had estimated to suffice. And sure enough, they sold 142.000 of the previous generation in 2012, but they’re likely to almost double that figure in 2015.
As a result, the Rogue has already outsold the Chevrolet Equinox in that model’s “home market” and is closing in on the Ford Escape quickly. And even then there’s room to grow, as the Toyota RAV4 and especially the US Compact SUV segment leader Honda CR-V are still some way ahead.
Special mention: Dodge Challenger
The Dodge Challenger has added a third to its volume to reach record sales in 2015, its 8th year on the market without a significant redesign. It is undoubtedly helped by an image boost from the 707 hp Hellcat version, even though this version only makes up an estimated 10% of sales due to limited supply of the 6,2 liter supercharged Hemi V8 engine. This has helped the Challenger close the gap to the Chevrolet Camaro to just 10.500 units through November, whereas the Dodge has always been a distant third to the Ford Mustang and the Camaro since its rebirth in 2007.
Which cars may sell surprisingly well in 2016:
The three-year long product drought at Buick with no new product or redesigned models will end in 2016 as the brand will roll out two all-new models and renew the LaCrosse large sedan. The Cascada convertible imported from Europe where it was launched in 2013 won’t be a high-volume model, but could act as a halo-model, giving the Buick brand some desperately needed cachet from having a convertible model in the line-up and even give it some European flavor together with the Regal midsized sedan, which is a European Insignia.
The big news in 2016 will be the Envision mid-sized crossover to slot nicely in the huge gap between the smaller Encore (Opel/Vauxhall Mokka) and the large Enclave. A salient detail to the Envision is that it will be the first-ever General Motors product to be imported to the US from China. Volvo already does a similar strategy with the S60 Inscription (see below), but still GM has been criticized by labor unions about the move, as they are afraid of the loss of American jobs. However, I don’t see many buyers shy away from its Chinese roots, especially considering the Envision is a great looking car and offers Buick an entry to a still very popular segment.