By every available measure, 2009 was a bloodbath for the auto industry.
Thousands of car dealerships closed their doors. Several auto brands closed forever, and some remain in limbo. Two of the Big Three declared bankruptcy, surviving only with taxpayer help. Americans bought just over 10.2 million cars – the lowest total since the early 1970’s. Put another way, that’s 33 new cars sold for every 1,000 Americans. According to the car pricing experts at TrueCar.com, that's the lowest adjusted total since 1951.
Most models sold far worse in 2009 than they did just one year earlier. In fact, when TrueCar.com looked at the 169 top-selling models, they found just 15 that saw their sales increase in 2009 and 154 that suffered a drop. That's ten losers for every winner.
Still, there were success stories.
What separated the successes from the failures? It’s hard to tell. The two lists look surprisingly similar. There were seven imports on the list of biggest winners, but eight on the loser list. Four SUVs were sales winners, but three were sales losers.
If there’s any trend automakers can learn from, it’s that most of the models that saw their sales increase were redesigned for the 2009 model year – or redesigned for 2010, but introduced so early that 2010 sales counted toward the 2009 sales figures. Not a single car listed among the ten worst sales drops, meanwhile, was refreshed this year. Even in a recession, it seems not many people are interested in stale design.
We also aren’t interested in overpaying. The cars on the winners list sold for an average of 11.27 percent under MSRP. The biggest losers, on the other hand, sold for an average of just 4.87 percent under MSRP.
Top Ten Sales Winners:
1. Audi A5
Apparently, sex appeal sells even when nothing else does. Audi’s sleek coupe is one of the most expensive cars on the success list, and wasn’t offered with heavy discounts. Yet Audi sold 50 percent more A5s in 2009 than it did the year before.
Subaru’s compact SUV was redesigned for 2009, and critics were blown away by the result. It was named the 2009 Motor Trend SUV of the Year, thanks to sharp handling, impressive hauling capacity and Subaru’s sure-footed symmetrical All-Wheel Drive system.
3. Nissan 370Z
Nissan designers went back to fundamentals with the latest version of the long-running Z-car. The redesigned 2009 edition was lighter than the model it replaced, and more nimble as well. Buyers loved its compact-but-muscular new design. In a year when we bought few new cars, we still bought 35 percent more Zs than the year before.
4. Lexus RX
Lexus designed an all-new RX for the 2010 model year, but brought it out in time for a sales boost in 2009. The RX has dominated sales in the Luxury Midsize SUV category for several years, and increased fuel economy combined with Lexus’ reputation made it even more attractive to buyers last year.
5. Ford Fusion
The 2010 Ford Fusion was on dealership lots by July of 2009, making it one of the first cars of the new model year to reach buyers. It wasn’t redesigned from the ground up for 2010, but was refreshed so significantly that many auto critics treated it as a brand new car. Athletic handling, a stylish new interior and a well-reviewed hybrid model brought in buyers even during the economic downturn.
The VW Jetta offers a lot of near-luxury equipment and comfort for a relatively affordable price, and is spacious for a small car. It may have snagged buyers looking to move down into a more fuel-efficient car without sacrificing comfort and high-tech touches.
Nissan’s largest sedan was redesigned for 2009. With a more sculpted body, a more powerful V6 and a spacious rear seat, the new version was a definite improvement over the old Maxima – and drastic discounts helped talk many Americans into buying it.
The Dodge Journey makes TrueCar.com’s list on a technicality. It was introduced in mid-2008, and showed sales growth in 2009 because it finally got a full year’s sales behind it. Big discounts helped move it off dealership lots as well, but the SUV has been a critical failure.
9. Ford Escape
The Ford Escape was a Cash-for-Clunkers success story. As a relatively fuel-efficient small SUV with a low MSRP and respectable fuel economy, it was the best-selling SUV under the government’s gas guzzler trade-in program.
The classic big Benz has its loyalists even in a bad economy. Mercedes had more repeat buyers in 2009 than any other automaker, with is full-size sedan leading the way. An all-new E-Class for the 2010 model year should help the car repeat its success. The new Benz is both better and less expensive than the 2009 edition.
Top Ten Sales Losers:
The Eclipse is questionable as a sports car, given that critics say it doesn't have the power it needs to haul around its chubby weight. Mitsubishi’s low profile in the U.S. probably didn’t help sales, either.
2. BMW X3
BMW had a solid 2009, nearly overtaking Lexus as the top luxury automaker in the U.S. But the X3, the most expensive car in its class, wasn’t part of the success story.
A critical failure, the Sebring is known for lackluster performance, cheap interior materials and poor reliability record.
While most SUVs have moved to a more car-like, crossover platform, the 4Runner has stayed true to its truck roots. A 2010 redesign may give sales a boost – but Americans may have simply lost interest in this kind of SUV.
Chrysler announced plans to end PT Cruiser production last year, then changed its mind. The aging design will soldier on for another year, but even deep discounts couldn’t help sell the PT wagon last year.
Few know what to make of this almost-minivan, almost-SUV with a $50,000 price tag. Few buy one, either.
VW has all but killed its midsize car, building only one trim level and offering a competing midsize, the CC, on its own lots. The Passat remains a sporty, upscale alternative in the affordable midsize car class…but buyers weren’t interested last year.
Mitsubishi hasn’t substantially improved the Galant since 2004, and it shows. A planned 2011 redesign can’t come soon enough.
There was once a market for a retro-themed SUV that was more style than substance, with a small back seat and visibility problems. But, as Americans cut back to basics in 2009, that market vanished.
10. Audi TT
The TT has a lush interior, road-gripping Quattro All-Wheel Drive system and a contemporary, minimalist design. But luxury sports cars didn’t sell in 2009, and as one of the least-discounted of the bunch, the TT was stuck at the back of the pack.