Subcompacts Lag Behind Compacts in Sales

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Written by Tim Cain

Small cars are popular. Yet in spite of rising fuel costs and small cars’ affordable prices, subcompacts remain mostly low-volume accessories in their respective model ranges.

Subcompacts like the Ford Fiesta and Honda Fit can’t be considered unpopular. True popularity and profit, however, result from more expensive, larger compact cars like the Ford Focus and Honda Civic.

Most popular among subcompacts in April was the Fiesta with 9,147 sales, which is little more than half the Focus’ 17,265 sales total. The Fiesta wasn’t on sale in April 2010, but the Focus landed a 22.4% year-over-year jump. Five out of every hundred Fords sold in April were Fiestas; in April, 9.5% of Ford’s 182,542 sales came from the Focus. The Fiesta was Ford’s 11th best-selling model. The Focus was fourth among Blue Oval vehicles.

Honda’s Fit hatchback posted a record-breaking 8,116 units April, up 73% year-over-year. Civic sales rose 7% to 26,777, which is more than triple the Fit’s total. The Fit, responsible for 7% of Honda sales, was the brand’s sixth-ranked model. The Civic trailed only the Accord among Hondas and formed slightly less than a quarter of Honda’s April tally.

In all of this, old-fashioned trends hold fast. Last week, editor Kelsey Mays asked in a KickingTires story, why compacts and subcompacts get such similar mileage. The answer to that question causes one to wonder if this is because subcompacts are barely more efficient than compacts. Perhaps pricing overlap is to blame: A basic Civic coupe costs only $505 more than a basic Fit.

There were atypical factors at play in the U.S. auto market in April, though how strong those factors were is difficult to determine. Japan’s recent disasters have affected the launch of the 2012 Civic and are beginning to impact the Fit as well. Meanwhile, sales of the all-new 2012 Focus are supplemented with sales of the heavily discounted 2011 model.

Selling subcompacts to consumers accustomed to 108-inch wheelbases is a difficult task, even as these cars become mature, comfortable antitheses of their ancestors. Though the Fiesta is Britain’s best-selling car, American sensibilities are not so indelibly aligned with small Fords. In Japan, where Honda has given up on the Civic sedan, the Fit is the company’s top seller.

Given the right conditions, which appear more likely now than at any time since post-Katrina gas-price spikes, perhaps similar results could appear stateside. Hype alone won’t turn the Fiesta, Fit, 2012 Hyundai Accent or 2012 Chevrolet Sonic into Ford F-Series or Toyota Camry rivals. In 2011, subcompacts persist as junior-varsity players who appear bound for the varsity squad. In a while.

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Tim Cain is a contributing writer for and the editor-in-chief of Good Car Bad Car, a site that analyzes both U.S. and Canadian car sales.”

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