So far this year, cars account for 47.4% of U.S. sales, according to data from WardsAuto. Analyst Haig Stoddard forecasts light trucks will outsell cars for the foreseeable future.
"Going forward, if cars can stay below 50%, it's a good economic barometer," Stoddard said.
Pickup sales continue to rebound with the housing industry.
"As long as the economy keeps growing, pickups will be strong," Stoddard said.
And a seemingly insatiable appetite for crossovers is a sign that consumers have disposable income and are upgrading their purchase. Conversely cars tend to be the most affordable body style and get the best gas mileage, so their sales reflect a weaker economy or high gas prices.
The fallen status of cars represents a structural shift in the industry but perhaps not an ominous one.
Analysts say car sales are not declining because the offerings are poor. The consensus is today's cars — including the lineups from General Motors, Ford and Chrysler which are heavily weighted on trucks and utility vehicles — are the strongest and most competitive in years. Gone are the days when small cars from the Detroit Three were loss leaders to lure buyers to the brand in the hopes they would replace them with profitable models. And once Chrysler introduces a new 200, the domestics will all have credible midsize cars on the market.
"We're always one gas shock away from people moving back to cars," said Erich Merkle, U.S. sales analyst for Ford.
When gas prices were high, small-car sales seemed unstoppable and accounted for almost 20% of the market in 2012. They fell to 19% last year and will dip another tenth of a percentage point this year, Stoddard forecasts. The shine has come off the segment because of lower gas prices.
The other upside to the current sales tr! end is that light trucks deliver the most profit, and Detroit's automakers are best poised to reap the benefits if they remain disciplined about keeping stocks in line so incentives don't undercut the bottom line.
Cars have historically outsold trucks. They accounted for 80% of the market in 1980. Then in 2001, the world tilted and light trucks (pickups and SUVs) broke the 50% barrier, capturing 51.2% of sales as urban cowboys bought pickups with no intention of putting them to work.
When the recession hit in 2008, affordability tilted the scale back in favor of cars. With signs of economic improvement in 2010, trucks were back on top. A spike in gas prices in 2011 gave cars a temporary edge before trucks once again regained dominance.
Automakers have worked to diversify their portfolios. Japanese automakers have added pickups, Detroit automakers have improved their cars. Everyone added crossovers of all sizes.
Further smoothing things out is the global nature of the auto industry. Ford, for example, is not as concerned when sales of the Focus dip in the U.S. because it is the top nameplate globally and enjoying savings from the huge economies of scale. And automakers have invested heavily in plants that make multiple vehicle types to quickly change the mix to meet changes in demand.
Even still, in the billion-dollar guessing game of forecasting buyers' auto tastes, automakers pore over data to understand what consumers are buying and why so they can better allocate limited resources to develop future products that will be a sales hit.
Weather has played havoc with U.S. auto sales so far this year, but buyers' preference for pickups, SUVs and crossovers over cars seems to be more than seasonal.
The F-Series pickups continue to be the best-selling vehicles in the U.S., but Jim Farley, Ford's head of global sales, said annual sales of about 700,000 pickups pales beside the 1.2 million utility vehicles that Ford sold globally last year.
All automakers continu! e to intr! oduce new crossovers, especially small ones. The number of nameplates has grown from 180 in 2000 to 370 today, Farley said. One in five vehicles sold around the world in 2018 will be an SUV or crossover, accounting for 14 million in global sales, forecasts IHS Automotive.
In the U.S., crossovers are at record market share of 25.5% and forecast to end the year with 27% of total light-duty vehicle sales, Stoddard said. Add traditional SUVs and these functional vehicles account for more than a third of U.S. sales.
Conversely, pickup sales have been on the decline this year and the segment represents less than 12% of the industry, down from about 12.3% at this time last year, said Merkle.
Midsize cars are taking an even bigger hit, with so many midsize crossovers to choose from. Midsize cars peaked at 21.6% of the market in 2012 but fell to 20% last year and are forecast to end the year at 19.5%, according to WardsAuto. Ford's Merkle said it appears sales are leveling off after several months of decline.
Large cars have remained steady at only 2% of the market, Stoddard said.
"I don't think cars are losing their luster," said Michael Robinet, managing director of IHS Automotive Consulting.
Smaller cars tend to be cyclical and influenced by economic factors, fuel prices, even housing starts, which creates more commuters. They are also seasonal. "Dodging potholes and getting through snow is not conducive to small car sales," Robinet said.
Top selling vehicles in the U.S. in February and their year-to-date increase/decrease
Detroit Free Press
1. Ford F-Series pickup, up 1% from a year ago.
2. Chevrolet Silverado pickup, down 15%.
3. Nissan Altima midsize car, up 9%.
4. Ram pickups, up 24%.
5. Toyota Camry midsize car, down 17%.
6. Toyota Corolla compact car/Matrix compact hatchback, up 1%.
7. Honda Accord midsize car, down 13%.
8. Ford Fusion midsize car, down 11%.
9. Ford Escape co! mpact cro! ssover, down 3%.
10. Chevrolet Cruze compact car, up 19%.
Five crossovers, four cars and one pickup round out the top 20.