The U.S. new light vehicle market shows surprising resolve in 2018 with a 0.6% uptick to 17.343.708 deliveries, marking the 4th largest annual volume in U.S. history below 2016 (17.550.351), 2015 (17.470.659) and 2000 (17.402.486), the 5th year ever above 17 million annual sales (add 2001) and the 8th year of growth in the past 9, since the 27-year low of 10.4 million in 2009. A pretty shiny scoreboard for a market some experts say is plateauing. Light trucks continue to be the sole engine of growth with sales accelerating their upwards trajectory from +4.3% in 2017 to +7.7% this year, hitting a record 11.975 million units, the third consecutive time – and ever – above 10 million annual sales and reaching an all-time high 69.1% market share. In total contrast, cars accelerate their freefall from -8.1% in 2016 to -10.9% in 2017 and -13% this year at 5.36 million units, the lowest annual U.S. car sales volume since 1958 (4.6 million) and marking a 5th consecutive year of decline. Some good news: the average transaction price for new light vehicles in 2018 is up 3% to over $36,000 according to Kelley Blue Book. Fleet sales are fully responsible for the market uptick this year as retail sales go down and the market is being sustained by aggressive promotion levels, albeit relatively stable on 2017. U.S. light vehicle sales end 2018 with a lot of momentum: the Seasonally Adjusted, Annualised sales Rate (SAAR) hadn’t managed to climb above 17.33 million as at end-August, even falling to 16.73m in July and 16.69m in August, but then remained above 17.5m (equivalent to an annual record level) over the last 4 months of the year at 17.54m in September, 17.59m in October, 17.55m in November and a year-high of 17.72m in December. Despite this, most early forecasts see 2019 volumes coming in between 16.7m and 17m units. A fall below 17m would be the first one since 2014. Negative forces are rising interest rates and growing used-vehicle supplies, but the U.S market has been supported by unprecedented light truck demand, employment gains, healthy economic growth and low gasoline prices.
The Top 3 manufacturers in the country all post a third consecutive year of decline signalling a fragmentation of the U.S. light vehicle market in 2018. General Motors (-1.6%) remains in the lead with 17% share but slips below the 3m mark for the first time since 2014. GM car sales implode -21% but pickups gain 2.6% to 973.469 (more than any other manufacturer for the 4th year in a row and crossovers/SUVs leap up 6.8% to 1.034.808 as fleet sales gain 9%, accounting for 21% of its sales mix. Even though their are down 16% year-on-year, GM still had to rely on hefty $4,652 average incentives per car as of December to reach this volume. Ford Motor (-3.5%) is #2 again at 14.3% with fleet sales up marginally at 29.3% of its 2018 sales mix, light trucks up 1.4% to 1.139.079, SUVs up 0.5% to 872.215 but cars down 18.4% to 486.024. Ford is slightly less reliant on incentives than GM at a $4,405 average in December (-0.6%), but still above the market average of $3,746. Toyota Motor (-0.3%) is catching up, now 59.000 units below vs. 140.000 in 2017. Car sales drop 12% and light trucks gain 7.9% for the Japanese manufacturer which has stayed very frugal on incentives at $2,558 per car in December (-7.9%), well below the market average. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (+8.4%) is by far the best performing of the 12 biggest automotive groups in the U.S. in 2018 with retail sales (1.760.488) at their highest since 2001 (1.833.186) and fleet sales contained at 21% of FCA’s sales mix, but high and increasing incentives at $4,386 per car. Nissan Motor (-5%) is in difficulty as it moves to lower discounts and fleet business – and still requires higher-than-average incentives to sell its stock at $4,573, howling onto the 5th spot overall for just 7.000 sales above American Honda (-2.2%) whose cars drop 9% but light trucks gain 4.2% and average incentives encouragingly remain at a very low $2,103 (+0.8%). Hyundai-Kia (-0.6%) drastically reduces its decline (-10.4% in 2017) into a very healthy performance thanks to an expanding crossover lineup and decreasing incentives at $2,548 for Hyundai in December (-18%) and $3,329 for Kia (-3.4%). The VW Group (+2%) is up but so are its above-average incentives at $4,121 per car (+9.2%) and the BMW Group (+0.6%) with stable but very high incentives ($5,438 per car) edges past Daimler AG (-5.3%) for just 365 units, the latter recording the highest incentives per car in market at $6,231 in December (+20%). Jaguar-Land Rover (+7.3%) is also very dynamic. All groups composed of just one brand (Subaru, Tesla, Volvo…) are covered in the brand section below.
Despite a year-on-year drop (-3.3%), Ford is the best-selling brand in the U.S. for the 9th consecutive year at 13.7% share vs. 14.3% a year ago. In 2nd place overall, Toyota (down 0.0% or 823 units) is the best-selling retail brand in the U.S for the 7th straight year, meaning it is most popular with private buyers. The Japanese brand posts its best-ever light truck sales, exactly compensating for sliding car deliveries. Chevrolet (-1.4%) is the third brand to sell over 2m annual units in the U.S, distancing Honda (-2.8%) and Nissan (-6.6%) despite light trucks at a record high 784.807 (+3%). At #6, Jeep (+17.5%) is by far the fastest-growing Top 10 brand, posting an all-time annual volume record at 973.227 units, eclipsing its previous best of 926.376 established in 2016. Jeep posted its two largest ever monthly volumes this year: 98.382 in March (new record) and 97.287 in May, and recorded double-digit year-on-year gain during 10 of the 12 months of the year. Gaining one spot to overtake Hyundai (+0.4%), Subaru (+5%) signs an incredible 10th consecutive annual sales record at 680.135, a streak that started in 2009 when the company sold just 216.652 units, a record at the time. It’s also the brand’s 11th straight year-on-year gain, continuing a streak of 85 consecutive months of year-on-year gains capped by a monthly record broken twice: in August (64.088) and December (64.541). All of these outstanding results have been achieved with the smallest average incentives in market at just $1,102 per car in December (-12%) or just 29% of the industry average. Ram (+7.3%) is the other hero in the Top 10, lifting its annual volume to a record 597.368 but most impressively signing its 5 largest ever monthly volumes during the last 5 months of the year and breaking its all-time volume record 4 times: in August (54.808), September (56.447), November (57.970) and December (68.195), with its previous best being 51.866 in September 2016.
2018 is the Tesla – painfully – went mainstream, and even though this year’s headlines were mostly about delivery delays, flying cars, vehicles produced in tents, fires at the factory, multiple resignations and Elon Musk smoking pot on TV as well as misleadingly tweeting about taking the company private, in the background sales have been powering up, at +282.2% exactly. The brand broke its all-time volume record no less than 6 times this year, coinciding with the gearing up of the Model 3. When 2018 started Tesla’s highest-ever monthly U.S. sales score was 7.980 in September 2017, and this successively was lifted to 10.020 (March), 11.362 (June), 16.775 (July), 23.175 (August), 29.975 (September) and 32.600 (December), a spectacular trajectory indeed. Tesla ends 2018 in 20th place among all brands sold in the U.S., peaking at #15 in September and December, a very manageable 22.000 units below fellow premium fare Audi. Tesla will be fighting with the big guys to try and snatch the premium crown in 2019, a title held for the third consecutive year but by the skin of its teeth by Mercedes. In a U.S. luxury market down 0.3% to 2.027.312, Mercedes (-6.3%) remains king with 315.959 sales once commercial vans have been excluded from its total, barely edging past BMW (+1.7%) at 311.014. Audi (-1.4%) follows, then Tesla, Acura (+2.8%) outselling Cadillac (-1.1%) for the third time since 2012, Infiniti (-2.7%), Lincoln (-6.8%) and Volvo (+20.6%). Land Rover (+23.3%), Porsche (+3.2%) and Alfa Romeo (+97.8%) all break their U.S. annual volume records. Among other small brands, McLaren (+41.1%) and Mitsubishi (+13.9%) also shine whereas Smart (-58.5%), Genesis (-49.9%), Fiat (-41.4%), Jaguar (-23%), Maserati (-17.8%) and Chrysler (-12%) implode.
The Ford F-Series (+1.4%) celebrates 42 years in a row as the best-selling pickup truck (no interruption since 1977) and 37 straight years as the best-selling vehicle in the country (no interruption since 1982). At over 909.000 deliveries, this is the F-Series third highest volume in history below 2004 (939.511) and 2001 (911.597). It would need a +3.5% uptick in 2019 to beat its all-time record. The Chevrolet Silverado (-283 sales or 0.0%) is almost immobile in 2nd place but the Ram Pickup (+7.2%) soars to a record 537.000 sales, including 377.286 sales of 1500 base model, a new record also. The Ram Pickup broke its monthly volume record 4 times in the last 5 months of the year to lift it above 60.000 units in December. 2018 marks the 5th straight year the U.S. podium is 100% full-size pickups and only the 6th time in the past two decades along with 2003, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017.
For the first time in American history, there are no cars in the annual Top 6 with the next 3 spots being held by crossovers. In fact there are 4 crossovers in the Top 10 this year, more than ever before, vs. 3 pickups and 3 cars. Tellingly, these 4 crossovers all break their annual volume record in 2018. The Toyota RAV4 (+4.8%) is the most popular SUV in the U.S. for the second consecutive year, posting a 6th record year in a row, the Nissan Rogue (+2.1%) nabs an incredible 12th consecutive record year (every year since its 2007 launch), the Honda CR-V (+0.3%) has a 5th straight record year and the Chevrolet Equinox (+14.5%) breaks into the Top 10 at #8, managing a 2nd record year in a row.
The Toyota Camry (-11.3%) takes a hit – like most cars this year – but celebrates 17 consecutive years as the best-selling car in the U.S., recording 21 wins in the past 22 years (only interruption by the Honda Accord in 2001). This means 2018 marks the 23rd straight year a Japanese model is the best-selling car in the U.S., the last American sedan to be crowned #1 is the Ford Taurus in 1996. The Honda Civic (-13.7%) and Toyota Corolla (-7.7%) close up the Top 10, with the Honda Accord (-9.8%) kicked out of it.
Other record-breakers just below include the Toyota Tacoma (+24%), Highlander (+13.3%), Jeep Wrangler (+40.9%), Cherokee (+40.9%), Compass (+105.6%), Chevrolet Traverse (+18.6%), Subaru Crosstrek (+31.1%), Tesla Model 3 (+7824.1%), Toyota 4Runner (+8.9%), GMC Terrain (+33.8%) and VW Tiguan (+119.3%), becoming Volkswagen’s best-seller in the US and the first time since 1985 the Jetta isn’t. The most popular 2018 launch is the Ford Ecosport (#87), distancing the Hyundai Kona (#97), Subaru Ascent (#114), Nissan Kicks (#148) and BMW X2 (#174). If there was any need to convince yourself crossovers are the hot thing in town this year, let’s just note that all nameplates mentioned in this paragraph are crossovers, bar two (the Tacoma and Model 3). That puts in perspective Tesla’s performance, delivered with an expensive electric sedan in a world of light trucks. Will 2018 be remembered as the first sign of things to come: passenger cars being almost exclusively electrified in a not so distant future? We may have the start of an answer by 2020.
Full Year 2018 Top 15 groups, Top 10 groups with incentives and average transaction prices, Top 40 brands and Top 310 models vs. Full Year 2017 figures below.