Are Domestic Automakers Making the Cars Americans Want to Buy?

A common criticism lobbed at domestic automakers recently is that they don’t build the cars Americans want to drive. This seemingly unanimous opinion was routinely raised during the GM and Chrysler bankruptcy filings by every pundit shoved in front of a television camera.

Presumably, this means Chrysler, Ford and GM focus too much on building “gas-guzzling” SUVs and full-size pickups and too little on the well-made, fuel-efficient subcompacts (e.g. Mini Cooper and Honda Fit) and hybrids (Prius) that Americans now want in their driveways.

There’s one little problem: Those small, fuel-efficient cars aren’t what Americans want. At least, they’re not what Americans buy when gas prices are below $3.

The biggest-selling segments in the U.S. market this year, through May, are: midsize sedans (24.4%), crossovers (19%), pickups (13.8%) and compact cars (13.25%).

These car segments comprise more than 70% of the new-car market and are the vehicle types that routinely make the most money for automakers.

For 2009, subcompact cars like the Fit and Toyota Yaris make up just 4.47% of the market. That said, subcompacts are the fastest-growing car segment in America. Still, they’re about as popular as full-size sedans and minivans, which means they’re not popular enough to have caused the demise of the domestics.

Hybrids make up 2.5% of the U.S. market, making them one of the smallest vehicle segments.

Compared with full-size pickups — a vehicle segment in which the domestics still dominate — the subcompact segment is crowded. There are 13 subcompact nameplates, versus six, traditional full-size pickups.

Full-size pickups still make up 10.8% of the car market. The most popular vehicle sold in the U.S. remains the Ford F-Series, which has held that title for more than 32 years, followed by the Chevrolet Silverado in second place. When gas hit $4 a gallon last summer, the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla became the best-selling cars in the country … for two months.

Still, American vehicle preferences are changing. 2008 was the first year in which cars outsold trucks and SUVs in eight years, and that trend is continuing for 2009. If gas tops $3 again this summer, some expect small cars to again see a spike in sales.

If the Detroit Three are to succeed in the coming decades, they’ll have to focus on the car segment, particularly midsize sedans and car-based crossovers. That is, if they want to build the cars most Americans are actually buying.

GM and Ford seem to be on the right track, with models such as the Ford Fusion, Chevy Malibu, Ford Escape and Chevy Traverse selling well and receiving critical acclaim. Those two companies also have new compact and subcompact cars slated to go on sale in the next two years. As the sales lists below show, however, Honda, Toyota and other import brands still rule most of these ever-important segments.

Midsize sedans:

  1. Toyota Camry
  2. Honda Accord
  3. Nissan Altima
  4. Ford Fusion
  5. Chevrolet Malibu
  6. Hyundai Elantra
  7. Pontiac G6
  8. Subaru Legacy
  9. Nissan Maxima
  10. BMW 5 Series


  1. Honda CR-V
  2. Ford Escape
  3. Toyota RAV4
  4. Honda Pilot
  5. Ford Edge
  6. Chevrolet Traverse
  7. Lexus RX
  8. Nissan Rogue
  9. Subaru Forester
  10. Toyota Highlander


  1. Ford F-Series
  2. Chevrolet Silverado
  3. Dodge Ram
  4. Toyota Tacoma
  5. GMC Sierra
  6. Toyota Tundra
  7. Ford Ranger
  8. Chevrolet Colorado
  9. Nissan Frontier
  10. Nissan Titan

Compact cars:

  1. Toyota Corolla/Matrix
  2. Honda Civic
  3. Ford Focus
  4. Chevrolet Cobalt
  5. Toyota Prius
  6. Mazda3
  7. Volkswagen Jetta
  8. BMW 3 Series
  9. Kia Spectra
  10. Nissan Sentra

Car Buying