ANALYSIS: US segments shift as Honda CR-V outsells all cars
2015MY CR-V is built in US (East Liberty), Canada (Alliston 2) and Mexico (El Salto Jalisco)
With 32,369 units sold, American Honda's CR-V was the market's best selling SUV in December. Another upset: the Toyota Camry was toppled as the No. 1 car. And, the BMW 3/4 Series made it into the top ten best selling cars list, outselling two Hyundais and the Chevy Cruze. It's looking like being an unusual 2015 in the US.
For decades, the CR-V has been popular with Americans, but this year it really took off, aided by the arrival of a facelifted model which was in showrooms from September. By the end of the following month, it had even begun showing signs of catching the Civic. This was the proof we had needed to see of a suspected shift in buyer preference. With gasoline prices falling, light trucks became even more popular and car sales continued to dip.
By year end, the CR-V had not only overtaken the Civic for the first time, but it had also beaten all comers in the light truck classes, with the exception of the big pick-ups, of course. The F-Series stayed at number one, despite the F-150's main production plant having been down for a refit, with the model series chalking up a stunning 74,355 registrations, bringing its total for the year to 753,851. Then came GM's rivals, with a combined 741,588 (Chevy Silverado; 529,755; GMC Sierra: 211,833). In any other year, that small a gap would have been a deep concern for Ford Motor Company but the early signs are that its new aluminium-bodied pick-up is looking like being the success story of this year. Americans do love novelty, let's not forget, and the new, lighter F-150 is already the must-have pick-up of 2015.
Ford's own data reveal that Dearborn Truck built just 13,625 units of the new P552 series F-150 in December, compared to last year's high point of 35,829 made there in June. With new manufacturing methods being tested at hitherto unseen volumes, the company is wise to be taking the ramp-up relatively slowly. The plant was off-line for many weeks commencing in August and even in October, production was just 2,688 units of this vital new model, before rising to 9,067 in November.
Aluminium is used for the new truck's body-in-white, pick-up bed and most exterior panels, though the frame is steel. Ford claims 27kg has been saved in the frame and an average 320kg in the vehicle overall, compared to the outgoing P131 series F-150. The new T3 platform will also be used for P558, the next Super Duty F-Series (F-250, F-350 etc...). There will however be one major difference compared to P552: the beds will be steel, not aluminium. Kentucky Truck in Louisville is expected to undergo a refit within the next twelve months in preparation for P558. Alcoa, which is said to have contracts to supply Ford with major components for the P552 and P558 programmes, spent US$300m to expand an aluminium sheet and plate plant in Davenport, Indiana.
Kansas City Truck, the other manufacturing facility which makes the F-150, kept building the previous generation model while Dearborn was down. It made 22,449 in December, some 4,000 fewer than were built there during the previous month, so Ford has hedged its bets with this new vehicle. The Missouri factory will begin to manufacture the 2015MY F-150 later in Q1. Should there be no production problems of note, this might well serve as a future study of how best to switch big volume plants over to a new technology. Some reading this might suggest JLR's Solihull facility got there way before Ford, but compared to Dearborn Truck and Kansas City Truck, its output of aluminium-based vehicles is modest.
The fall in the price of Brent Crude is of course the reason for surging registrations of light trucks, so Ford's marketing message of aluminium body panels equaling great fuel economy might need a rethink. It also means that both GM and FCA can breathe a sigh of relief as their own trucks won't look quite as out of date as they might have otherwise done. The Ram series, like the Silverado and Sierra, gained greatly from Ford's limited stocks of the new F-150, with 44,222 Rams sold in December and 439,789 for all of 2014. Even considering the inevitable juicy incentives for customers, that should translate into tasty Q4 profits for these firms' US operations.
The success of the F Series and Honda's CR-V means that Ford's other big sellers have been overlooked, so it's worth noting that the Escape also starts 2015 in great shape. Last year, 306,212 were sold, while in passenger cars, the Focus has faded but look at the sales total for the Fusion: 306,860 makes it the brand's second best selling model series. Not so many years back, Ford was leagues behind its Japanese and US brand rivals in the mid-sized sedan class. No longer.
One of the biggest surprises in December was the arrival of the combined BMW 3 Series/4 Series in position seven on the car sales charts. With a tally of 19,464, these two were also fifteenth overall, behind the Chevy Equinox (21,298) and ahead of the Hyundai Elantra (18,860). The 3 Series' performance is especially admirable given that the market knows there is a facelifted car due out for the 2016 model year. We know that San Luis Potosí, BMW Group's future Mexican plant, will have an annual initial capacity of 150,000 vehicles once it's up and running in 2019 but still the company won't say which model(s) will be built there. I think we can guess.
Presuming the sixth generation 3 Series sedan has the model's usual seven-year lifecycle, G20, its replacement, should reach the US in 2020. That's a long wait, especially if what's currently happening with the US$/euro reverses in the coming years. But BMW is playing the long game, even if it's risking potential currency pain in the medium term: G20 will have the 35up architecture - it debuts later in 2015 with the next 7 Series - as will all future RWD/AWD vehicles. I can well imagine San Luis Potosí being quickly expanded for build of G30, the next 5 Series sedan, due out in Germany in 2017. If there's an engine plant too, and BMW hasn't got one of these at Spartanburg, remember, then there's the decades-old vexation of the US dollar's volatility versus Germany's currency more or less neutralised.
Back to 2015. Curious as to how far 5 Series sales lag those of the 3er/4er? It seems odd until you remember just how mad for SUVs and crossovers Americans are. December numbers show that just 5,517 units of the 5er were sold, a 32% YoY decline. That placed this model in 79th position, which was 20 behind the top-selling premium brand sedan, the now made-in-the-USA Mercedes-Benz C-Class. A total of 8,224 were registered in December, compared to 13,625 units of the about to be replaced Lexus RX. No wonder BMW no longer bothers with imports of the 5 Series Touring and why the GT has failed to find favour with US customers. People would rather have an X5, as its 6,098 sales in December underline.
Still doing good business in the big minivan segment (the Mazda5 is pretty much alone in the smaller category if you classify the Dodge Journey as a crossover) are the Toyota Sienna (11,688 sales in December), Dodge Grand Caravan (11,253), Chrysler Town & Country (10,709) and Honda Odyssey (10,368), each of which made it into the top 50. When will GM and Ford decide to return to this class? Next year would be an ideal time, with FCA having decided to risk over 100,000 units of annual volume by turning the T&C replacement into a crossover.
The other segment to watch in 2015 is pick-ups smaller than the full-size ones. Ford once ruled this class. Then it decided that Americans would rather buy the biggest truck they could, given similar pricing between the Ranger and the lower trim level versions of the F-150. So the aged Ranger eventually died and the rest of the world's latest model hasn't made it to North America. Meanwhile, Toyota kept on updating and refining the Tacoma, and found itself as class leader. GM has woken up to the potential of vehicles sized and priced below the Silverado and Sierra, so the new for 2015 Chevy Colorado might give the soon to be revealed 2016MY Tacoma a worthy challenge in this year's sales race.
Nissan does relatively well with its Tacoma competitor, having sold 74,323 units of the Frontier in 2014, and Honda is the obvious missing brand here. There's a new Ridgeline due out by year-end but its popularity is likely to be comprised by a monocoque construction, which also held back the now discontinued old-shape model. Buyers prefer the towing abilities of a body-on-frame construction but that would go against Honda's insistence on developing all of its vehicles with low weight and high fuel efficiency as key requirements.
With Honda looking like being a minor player, the battle in the smaller pick-up segment seems likely to be between Chevy and Toyota, with Nissan there too. And FCA, but only if you count the hugely successful Jeep Wrangler Unlimited as another rival (175,328 combined Wrangler and Unlimited sales in 2014). Volkswagen must be kicking itself that it has no quick way of getting an Amarok-based model into production at its US or Mexican plants. Argentina's constant currency and inflation woes make it a less than ideal place to be exporting pick-ups to the US from and of course there is the issue of import tax for such vehicles from outside the NAFTA region.
For obvious reasons, OEMs whose product portfolios are weighted towards SUVs, crossovers, pick-ups and mid-sized sedans look to be in good shape for the year ahead. Witness how poorly Volkswagen has been doing compared to say, Subaru, which blasted through the half-million mark for the first time in calendar 2014. For the same reason, FCA seems well placed, especially with the Ram pick-up series and all of its Jeep model lines doing so well right now. Just imagine what the 183,786 Grand Cherokees sold in the US last year alone contributed to the group's bottom line.
There is just so much risk in this business and a ridiculous amount of luck is needed. Who would have thought, for example, that over 93,000 units of the long-lived Jeep Patriot would be bought by Americans in 2014, and when EVs and hybrids are supposedly the must-have, Prius sales dipped by double digits in December, while just 118 Cadillac ELRs and 12 Mitsubishi i-MiEVs left dealer lots? Consider too, the investments which NNA will have made in its new generation Titan full-sized pick-up, while sales of the current model have withered to fewer than 1,000 a month. Nissan sees the opportunity if the market likes its next Titan, as does Toyota, which has a new Tundra under development, due out in 2016.
Electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids, hybrids, diesels, lighter models - manufacturers have learned that they must be ready for any sustained and steep rise in gasoline prices, so their product portfolios are now packed with all manner of enticing options. But in this new era of cheap fuel and easy-ish credit, 2015 looks like being another Year of the Truck. Even if it's a four-cylinder Honda CR-V.