Space and comfort have always been part of our living standards and this applies to our cars as well — and for good reason. Modern life can involve a lot of transportation and moving around, and large vehicles are simply more versatile — pickup trucks still sell very well, shifting both people and cargo. But as of late, economics started to count a great deal, and environmental awareness has also grown significantly in many people’s minds these days. You’d think, therefore, that smaller passenger cars would be storming the sales rankings right now. But there are other categories of vehicles that show how good we are at adapting and yet still meeting our needs, and the biggest success among these is currently the crossover SUV. Led by the crossover, SUVs have been outselling passenger cars for a few years now.

We analyzed the state of vehicle sales in the US over the last decade to see how the auto market is doing, considering the models that were among the country’s top 40 best-sellers in any given year. We also surveyed auto enthusiasts and experts to see exactly where America is right now regarding its love of the automobile.

How sales of crossovers overtook sales of SUVs

Sales of top SUVs triple while regular car sales slump

Sales of new light vehicles — in other words passenger cars, SUVs, minivans and light trucks — have leveled off since 2015. The new vehicle price index, which represents what new cars across the board cost in the US, has also leveled off and even slightly decreased in the years from 2016 to 2019. Stephanie Brinley of IHS Markit, thinks the auto market will see a slowdown this year: “Light-vehicle sales will decline in 2020 and begin improving in 2021, though not to the level that we saw from 2015 to 2019.”

Much of this leveling off has to do with sales of regular passenger cars which have slumped substantially in recent years, in spite of showing a healthy recovery after the recession that began in 2007. But this is hardly the whole story. There is one category of vehicles that is going against the trend and outperforming the rest — that’s SUVs. In fact, SUV sales in the top 40 best-sellers’ list have tripled from 2010 to 2019.

Life can be complicated. Some days you need to drive your family on a much-needed excursion, on others you are transporting furniture into self storage so you can start a home improvement project, and then there are the trips to stock up on bulky supplies. And all these may have taken on greater significance during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially as public transit poses some concerns for at-risk people. But how can they all be done well when a family can’t afford different vehicles for different jobs? The SUV combines the handling of a regular car with a minivan’s extra passenger comfort, plus some of the power and capacity of a pickup truck and the ruggedness of military off-roaders. Compared with some of these types, it also tends to be easier on the pocket and the environment — and the driver. In recent times, Americans have shown their willingness to adapt further by the way we’ve embraced the more compact and economical ‘crossover’ SUV.

Pickups have also been holding their own, confirming that American designs and traditions are not going out of fashion any time soon.

Most popular cars of the last decade: Ford F-Series unmovable from top position

2021 Ford F-150: Image courtesy of Ford Motor Company
2021 Ford F-150: Image courtesy of Ford Motor Company

Pickup truck drivers — whether they are rolling down the streets of downtown Dallas or hauling a cargo of logs in Idaho — should know that their favorite models unquestionably spearhead US vehicle sales. The beloved Ford F-Series easily tops the charts, with over 7.5 million sold between 2010-2019. In fact, the F-series has been bossing sales for much of the last half-century: 2019 was the 43rd year when the F-series was America’s best-selling pickup and the 38th straight year it emerged as America’s bestselling vehicle. It was first introduced back in 1948 but has gone through many editions since then.

The Ford F-series is joined on the podium by more recent arrivals, the Chevrolet Silverado and the (Dodge) Ram Pickup, and all three have been available as full-size pickups or chassis cab trucks. The F-Series, Silverado and Ram enjoyed healthy sales increases from 2010-2019 with averages of 6.2%, 5.2% and 14.0%, respectively, per year. All these pickups feature big engines, having capacities of around three to over six liters, with the smaller units often featuring turbocharging. This means they can haul all manner of trailers, and carry anything that gets chucked in the back, but fuel economy may not be great over long journeys.

Toyota Camry’s 10-year 2.8% increase can’t hide regular car sales slump

The next three positions on the table are filled by passenger cars, in sedan, station wagon or other configurations. The Toyota Camry has been the best-selling passenger car for many years — from 2010 to 2019 sales increased by 2.8%, with 3.7M units sold — and Honda’s Accord and Civic are not far behind in terms of total sales. But the last few years have witnessed a decline, with sales of the Camry dropping from 429,355 in 2015 to 336,978 in 2019, a decrease of 21.5%.

2020 Toyota Camry
2020 Toyota Camry: Image courtesy of Toyota Motor Corporation

Other models have shown similar trends, and this wasn’t limited to Japanese manufacturers, with sales of the Ford Fusion almost cut in half during the five years up to 2019. One interesting addition to the car showroom – though not old enough to rank among the best selling vehicles of the last decade just yet — is the electric Tesla Model 3, introduced three years ago, which bucked the trend and increased its sales by 14.8% from 2018 to 2019. The table below shows the slowdown of the US new car sales market, largely as a result of the decrease in sales of regular passenger cars, and the fact that Americans are now hanging on to their old cars for longer.

Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 crossovers keep SUV sales surging

2020 Honda CR-V
2020 Honda CR-V: Image courtesy of Honda Motor Company

The big news from the US car sales market in recent years has been the success of a category of vehicle that combines most things drivers want. The vehicle type with the fastest increasing sales is the SUV, and among these the ‘crossover’ is leading the way.

2020 Toyota RAV4
2020 Toyota RAV4: Image courtesy of Toyota Motor Corporation

Honda and Toyota also top the SUV charts, with their CR-V and RAV4 crossover models. Both were introduced in the mid-90s, and both had sales of around three million between 2010-2019. But while the former started much stronger, the latter appears to be taking over, clocking up 448,071 sales in 2019, a 162% jump from 2010, while 384,168 Honda CR-Vs were sold in 2019, an increase of 89% from 2010. American manufacturers are hot on their heels in the shape of the more recently introduced Ford Escape and Chevrolet Equinox, and the Nissan Rogue is not far behind. All these are ‘crossovers’ — sometimes referred to as ‘small-sized’ or ‘compact’ SUVs, and as can be seen they are often competitively priced at around $25,000.

The Sport Utility Vehicle (SUV) combines aspects of all-terrain vehicles, such as high ground clearance, rugged looks and four-wheel drive, with many of the comforts of a regular car. The Jeep Cherokee, a series which began in 1974, is sometimes considered the first modern sport utility vehicle, but then there were also the Ford Bronco and the International Harvester Scout from the 1960s. ‘Proper’ SUVs have usually been built ‘body-on-frame’ on a light truck chassis, which is better for off-road driving and hauling. But this results in a heavy car, and therefore poor fuel economy and a more sluggish driving experience. These days, therefore, many SUVs’ bodies are built as one piece like a regular car. Also, four-wheel drive is not always considered essential, and it is now we begin to realize that the SUV is not all about off-roading but about a host of other advantages too. The pleasures of urban motoring in a spacious, comfortable vehicle with a slightly higher driving position really caught on in the late 1990s, leading to the SUV becoming the world’s best-selling type of car. There’s a great feeling of security — although this may be debatable — that goes with driving a large vehicle which started its journey handling rough terrain.

Crossovers offer SUV experience for less than it costs to run a medium-sized sedan

Crossover SUVs are a further stage in the evolution process, featuring unibody construction and often designed on an existing passenger car platform. The capacity of their engines varies between 1.5-2.5 liters in the Japanese models and often a bit larger in their American counterparts. The 1979 AMC Eagle is sometimes considered to have been the first in this category. They have less towing and off-road abilities than regular SUVs and put the emphasis on comfort instead. And because their fuel economy tends to be better than the heavier cars, their reduced impact on the environment pleases many buyers. The modern SUV gets it winning qualities from other types of vehicles and the crossover might be considered a more domestic version of the SUV, usually a bit smaller and easier on the wallet.

Where SUVs and Crossovers Get Their Features From

Such is the great success of the crossover that new editions of formerly mid-size or full-size SUVs, for example the Jeep Grand Cherokee and the Ford Explorer, are now designed to fit into this category. The table below demonstrates that a small SUV is cheaper to run than almost anything around, except a small sedan — but you’d often get more car for your money with a crossover.

Top rides you can buy for less than $200K in 2020, and the least expensive too

If you haven’t yet found what you’re looking for, the table below lists some excellent automobiles for anyone who has some money to spend, with German brands such as Audi, Mercedes, BMW and Porsche all putting in appearances. The Mercedes-Benz G-Class, Range Rover, Lexus LX, Toyota Landcruiser, Mercedes-Benz GL/GLS and the home-grown Lincoln Navigator are all large, luxury SUVs, costing up to $130,000.

2020 BMW 8 Series Coupe
2020 BMW 8 Series Coupe: Image courtesy of BMW

The table below lists some of the cheaper cars for sale in the US right now. They may not have been selling in the same volumes as the Toyotas and Hondas we’ve seen, but their time may come if they build up good reputations. For instance, since its 2008 debut, Americans have bought 1,191,526 examples of the Kia Soul, which currently retails at $17,490, and although this is often classed as a passenger car it can also be considered a ‘subcompact’ crossover SUV. Several other models also fit the subcompact crossover category, for example the Nissan Kicks at $19,070 and the Hyundai Venue at $18,750.

The states that count the most cars

The table below shows that the states with the most registered automobiles have a fairly similar ownership per capita ratio. Delaware has enough automobiles registered for almost half of its population to have one — 45% of residents of any age, to be precise, and Alabama is just behind at 44%. At the other end of the spectrum, the number of New York State car registrations is about a quarter of the number of people there, that’s one each for 24% of residents. New York State is perhaps unsurprisingly the state with the lowest ratio, given the difficulty of owning a garage and the accessibility of public transportation in its huge namesake metropolis.

To park or not to park? Self storage can be a more cost-efficient solution

For many people, owning a good quality vehicle is a source of pride, and they will want to look after it. A garage can of course be the ideal place, but not all people live in properties with enough space for their precious cars. This is where self storage comes in. If you need a good car but you live in a crowded city like New York — or perhaps you’ve had to downsize to an apartment recently — you can keep it in storage. A 10’x20’ unit is suitable for most vehicles. These can be found all over the US, at a range of prices, and there is likely to be one near where you live. In fact, in some cities, car storage is cheaper than off-street parking: in New York, Chicago and Philadelphia, for example, the former costs less than the latter by 31%, 19% and 14%, respectively. Another reason for renting a self storage unit is to preserve vehicles in seasons when they are not being used. This is particularly suitable for RVs and other vehicles used mainly for vacationing.

One interesting phenomenon in the self storage industry is the way it is used for romantic and nostalgic reasons. For car owners this can mean storing their beloved first car, perhaps with the intention of renovating it some day and driving it to a school reunion. Then there are the owners who keep their favorite vehicles a secret, even from their spouses, and self storage is certainly the place for those!

Our research reveals that apart from the Ford F-Series, originally launched in 1948, Chevrolet’s Impala and Malibu, first released in 1957 and 1964 respectively, are the vehicles with the oldest nameplates in our top 40, so we would expect to see prized examples of these in a few storage units. Another Chevrolet, the Suburban, which was introduced in 1935, is in fact the world’s oldest nameplate still in production, though it doesn’t sell in quite the same numbers.

Fun movie car facts: from heroic pickups and SUVs to police supercars and love bugs

America’s love affair with the automobile is very well represented in the movies. It’s not surprising the all-American pickup truck has featured in many box-office hits — Clint Eastwood, for example, put them to good use in several films. Regular passenger cars tend to fair less well, often getting trashed, for example in film series such as The Blues Brothers and Fast & Furious. Any SUV buyers who are worried their purchase may make them look boring need look no further than the Jurassic Park film franchise, assuming they can see the cars under the jungle camouflage and the dents from T-rex attacks! Here are some fun film facts:

The original 1993 Jurassic Park featured the newly released Ford Explorer, making it an iconic vehicle and promoting an SUV sales trend.
The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997) continued the tradition, using pre-production Mercedes Benz ML 320s and encouraging sales of luxury SUVs.
James Bond drove an Aston Martin DB5 in no fewer than seven films, and the Range Rover luxury SUV also regularly appears, often in chase scenes.
In the Fast and Furious series (2001-2019), a total of more than 1,000 cars have been destroyed so far — that’s more than one a minute!
The converted police car used by the Blues Brothers in 1980 was a Dodge Monaco — 60 other law enforcement vehicles were also used (and wrecked).
The Batmobile from the 1989 film was built on a Chevrolet Impala chassis while the back was styled after the 1954 Fiat Turbina jet-powered car.
The car featured in the Back to the Future films was a DMC DeLorean, with gull-wing doors and specially equipped, of course, for time travel.
The Ford F-Series legend peaked with Bigfoot, a supercharged F-250 with 48-inch tires, which appeared in Take This Job and Shove It (1981).
A Mustang called ‘Eleanor’ featured in both the original Gone in 60 Seconds (1974) and the remake (2000), and the name has now been copyrighted.
Ever loved a car and wished it could love you back? Well, Herbie, the thinking VW Beetle featured in a series of films from 1968 to 2005, probably could have!

What do enthusiasts have to say about their favorite cars?

We asked car enthusiasts about their sweetheart automobiles. For Ralph Paglia it was a very rapid 1968 Plymouth Road Runner with a 383 Magnum V8 engine and Torqueflite automatic transmission, which is just the sort of classic car owners cannot let go of. Nathan Stretch of Auto Tempest told us about the 2006 Honda S2000 he bought and modified for various forms of racing. “I bought it as a track and autocross car. Did one season with it stock, then modified it for STR class—basically suspension mods and bolt-ons, plus safety: roll bar, racing seats, harnesses. The S2000 has got to be one of the best fun/dollar cars you can buy. I can’t imagine ever selling it.” Nathan said he wouldn’t part with this fine machine for anything and would have to consider storing it if it was no longer usable. “Even if I were to buy another track car in the future, I think I’d have to hang on to this one. Which might indeed mean storing it, since I don’t have a ton of parking available!”

Honda S2000
Image of Honda S2000 courtesy of Nathan Stretch

When we asked our expert gearheads what their dream cars would be, Ralph went for the new 2020 Bentley Continental GT Convertible, which costs over $200,000. Nathan toyed with the Koenigsegg Jesko, costing over $3M, but settled for what he describes as the coolest car ever built, the McLaren F1, which can cost several times more.

What the experts say

Somebody who is closely involved in the automotive industry can give authoritative opinions that may confirm or challenge the perceptions and trends we have discussed. We therefore asked three experts to comment of the success of the SUV and the crossover.

Frank L. DuBois PhD, Department of Information Technology and Analytics, Kogod School of Business, American University, Washington, DC

Frank L. DuBois PhD, Department of Information Technology and Analytics, Kogod School of Business, American University, Washington, DC
Dr Frank L. DuBois

What do you believe are the reasons for the still increasing popularity of SUVs?

I’ve been driving SUVs since the 70s (a Toyota Landcruiser was my first).  In my opinion, SUVs are the station wagons of the past…..they get away from the perceived stigma of the mini-van for some folks and provide enough room for families as well as a bit of perceived invincibility on the highway. Especially in the northern climes when inclement weather might get in the way of safe driving conditions.  In addition, starting in the 80s, SUVs became less “truck-like” and much more comfortable to drive by offering more and more features and options that were typically found in high-end sedans.  Another issue relates to the supply side, SUVs are more profitable to the automakers compared to sedans and so marketing efforts likely contributed to the increase in demand. Ford for example has basically pulled sedans out of their product line up.

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What do you think about the popularity of crossover SUVs during the past 10 years?

Similar to above CUVs are replacing the traditional 4-door sedan thanks to better perceived safety, better comfort, improved (less rough) suspension systems and more attractive styling.  You would have to speak to the marketing experts but there seems to be an image factor that is important to buyers.

Are there any other recent trends in car sales you’d like to comment on?

New Energy vehicle (NEV) sales are on an upward trajectory and OEMs are rushing to establish alliances and standards with the various players in the industry.  I expect there to be gradual increases in market share of these vehicles as the technology improves and range anxiety is minimized.  This would likely mean a return of the sedan because of weight issues with NEVs.  In addition, infrastructure and environmental mandates will contribute to more incentives for consumers to move away from the traditional ICE (internal combustion engine) powered vehicles. In the present era of low gas prices though this may take longer than expected in the absence of any supply shocks.  In terms of imports, I expect to see more imports from China over the next ten years as well as increasing levels of Chinese investment in the US in the supplier sector.  I would not be surprised to see a Chinese OEM building cars here in the US (or Mexico) within the next five years (I don’t count Chinese owned Volvo in SC).

David S. Bunch, Professor of Management, Graduate School of Management, University of California, Davis, CA

David S. Bunch, Professor of Management, Graduate School of Management, University of California, Davis, CA
Professor David S. Bunch

What do you believe are the reasons for the still increasing popularity of SUVs?

Some (but perhaps not all) is a bit of a mirage due to the continually shifting definition of what constitutes an SUV.  Some smaller vehicle classes that used to be exclusively “sedans” are now being transitioned into slightly different body style designs (crossover/SUV) which in some cases are not that different from what we used to call “station wagons.”  But, again, why is that?  People really do like additional space (both for additional comfort, and for additional flexibility), all else equal.  An SUV/crossover body configuration allows more space for the same vehicle footprint.

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What do you think about the popularity of crossover SUVs during the past 10 years?

The first part of the answer to this question is the same as the previous question.  The significance of the 10 year time period is that gasoline prices have been unexpected low during this period.  Near the beginning of this period, this lowered the operating cost of the vehicle significantly, spurring an increase in sales of larger (more spacious) SUVs.  (Note that sales of hybrid electric sedans spiked in 2008, when gas prices were high.)  Since that time gas prices of generally stayed low, and also there are the trends described previously.

Are there any other recent trends in car sales you’d like to comment on?

Electric vehicles are now reaching a tipping point, and sales will accelerate for a number of reasons.  Even during the pandemic, sales of EVs have actually been reasonably good while sales of gasoline vehicles have decreased dramatically.  The dynamic effects identified by researchers are beginning to take hold.  Battery and other costs are dropping dramatically, EV ranges are increasing, many more makes and models covering additional vehicle classes and sizes are being offered and in increasing numbers, and worldwide trends in government policies to demand a switch away from fossil fuels will have an impact on all vehicle markets (including the US).

Stephanie Brinley, Principal Analyst, IHS Markit

Stephanie Brinley, Principal Analyst, IHS Markit
Stephanie Brinley

What do you believe are the reasons for the still increasing popularity of SUVs?

Utility vehicles remain popular for their utility for carrying people and their things, the higher ride height compared with a sedan and the feeling that you can take them proverbially anywhere. The higher seating position results in a broader view of the road ahead, and also makes it easier to get in and out of the vehicle for older Americans.

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What do you think about the popularity of crossover SUVs during the past 10 years?   

Utility vehicles were making inroads prior to the recession of 2008-2009; that period put most new-car buying on hold, including utility vehicles. At the time, there was concern over fuel prices but also household income overall, and demand was put on hold. Over time, it has proven out that it was really just a hold. A majority of consumers want utility vehicles, and automakers have responded with more varieties and more choice. These vehicles are relatively efficient and more comfortable than their counterparts of 15 years ago. They come with as much (or more) technology and creature comforts as a traditional sedan or passenger car.

The choice is important here, too. You can get a utility vehicle that holds eight and tows boats and trailers. Or you can get a small utility with an electric powertrain, or just about anything in between. There are more rugged alternatives for going deep into the outdoors, and those designed for the urban jungle.

Are there any other recent trends in car sales you’d like to comment on?

Light-vehicle sales were impacted severely by our efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. Light-vehicle sales will decline in 2020 and begin improving in 2021, though not to the level that we saw from 2015 to 2019. We may see some changes in car buying behavior if the shift to working from home becomes more permanent, but as the situation is ongoing and dynamic, I think it’s too soon to tell how drastic the change in car-buying habits will be. Trends that were occurring prior to the pandemic seem to be continuing. Sales of passenger cars continue to decline—exacerbated by automakers dropping several sedans from their lineups—and consumers continue to opt for new vehicles with SUV attributes.

SUV with bicyles on the back on a coastal road

Americans are clearly enjoying combining the best of many worlds in the vehicles they drive these days. And the current times may now dictate that economizing is even more of a priority for many. The crossover SUV has been called a ‘mutt,’ a ‘mongrel,’ not one thing or the other and not the best at anything. But now it is a best seller, enabling buyers to fulfill almost of their transportation needs, enjoy a great ride, and pay their bills as well. Many have found that thanks to its smaller frame and lower center of gravity, a crossover is simply easier to park and turn around corners than a regular SUV. And US motoring looks like continuing in this direction: many new SUV and crossover models are planned for release in the near future, and even traditional sports car manufacturers are entering these markets. Americans have adapted and yet not renounced the love for the automobile they have enjoyed for generations.

Methodology

Sales data of vehicles was obtained from the manufacturers themselves: Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Ford, GMC, Hyundai, Fiat Chrysler, Suburu, Mazda, Kia, Volkswagen, BMW, Land Rover, Mitsubishi, Mercedes Benz. Supplementary data (not seasonally adjusted) was also taken from the Bureau of Economic Analysis and prnewswire.com. Data is correct to the best of our knowledge but changes may occur.

Manufacturer Suggested Retail Prices are obtained from the auto manufacturers and may vary by trim and model year. The actual retail prices are set by each dealer and also may vary.

New vehicle price index figures were taken from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Data about the average ages of light vehicles in operation in the US was taken from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Vehicle running costs were obtained from the American Automobile Association.

For the purpose of comparing parking and vehicle storage costs, the off-street parking rates were taken from Parkopedia and the storage rates for a 10×20 non-climate controlled unit were taken from Yardi Matrix.

The numbers of vehicle registrations by state was obtained from the Federal Highway Administration.

Fair Use and Distribution:

This study serves as a resource for the general public on issues of common interest and should not be regarded as investment advice. The data is true to the best of our knowledge but may change if amendments to it are made. We agree to the distribution of this content but we do require a mention in return for attribution purposes.

Author

Francis writes and edits articles for the STORAGECafé portal. His education includes a master’s degree in artificial intelligence from Edinburgh University and he gained his doctorate studying linguistic ambiguity. In addition, his work compiling corpora and writing technical manuals have proved to be a great background for his current work. Francis can be reached at [email protected]

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