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.
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
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 7.7%, 6.0% and 24.2%, 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%. 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
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.
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 448,068 sales in 2019, a 162% jump from 2010, while 384,168 Honda CR-Vs were sold in 2019, an increase of 88% 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.
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.
Higher drive height, better passenger comfort, versatility, and an increased sense of safety clearly all count for a lot. IHSMarkit’s Stephanie Brinley is in no doubt about the features of the SUV that have won Americans over and has observed how auto manufacturers’ have adapted to making cars that have them: “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.” Observing that the pandemic has not dissuaded buyers from buying from wanting these types of cars, she reckons consumers will “continue to opt for new vehicles with SUV attributes.”
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.
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 774,341 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 $18,870 and the Hyundai Venue at $17,350.
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. 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. The table below compares the monthly costs of renting a non-climate-controlled 10’x20′ storage unit with those of paying for a parking space in the US’s largest cities.
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 the Chevrolet Impala, first released in 1957, and the Jeep Cherokee SUV are the vehicles with the oldest nameplates still consistently selling, so we would expect to see prized examples of these in a few storage units.
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 the folk who really know about cars have to say?
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!”
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.
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.