The Year’s Best- And Worst-Selling Cars

 2009 Ford Focus

2009 Ford Focus

Big trucks and small cars see strong sales, but SUVs have been left in the dust.

By Jacqueline Mitchell

In a year when gas prices topped $4 a gallon and automakers ran to Congress seeking a $25 billion bailout, one would assume that low-margin, fuel-sipping small cars are far outselling big gas-guzzlers. Indeed, seven of the 10 best-selling vehicles so far this year are small cars or sedans that get high gas mileage.

But when gas prices go up and the economy heads south, “buyers shift … from what they want to what they need,” says Jeff Bartlett, deputy online editor of autos for Consumer Reports. And what many buyers still need are big pickup trucks, such as the Ford F-150 and Chevrolet Silverado–the two best-selling vehicles in America so far this year.

The F-150 attracted 473,933 buyers this year, making it the No. 1-selling vehicle for 2008–it’s been the best-selling vehicle in America for 27 years running. Another 431,725 buyers drove off Chevrolet lots in a Silverado.

“The pickups are a solution to a need,” says Bartlett, as those who buy the vehicles use them for their towing, off-road and cargo-hauling capabilities.

What Americans don’t need, however, are gas-guzzlers that don’t serve a purpose. Such is the case for the Nissan Armada, which rolls in at No. 5 among the worst-selling vehicles so far this year. Armada sales are off 49.1% this year compared to last year, with only 14,753 buyers purchasing the big and brawny SUV. It gets a combined 14 mpg.

The pickups don’t do much better on fuel economy, but their utility equates to their enduring, strong sales. Buyers who have a choice between an SUV and a smaller car, however, want good fuel economy, according to a survey Consumer Reports conducted in the summer. That’s why the Armada, Bartlett says, “is losing consumer appeal.”

Behind the Numbers

To generate our lists of the best- and worst-selling cars so far this year, we used automaker-provided sales numbers from January to November. The vehicles with the highest unit sales made the list of best-sellers.

To find the worst-selling cars we looked at the lowest sales figures for the same time period, as well as the percentage decrease in sales from 2007 to exclude high-end luxury and performance cars that are produced only in small numbers each year. The vehicles with the lowest sales made the list.

 2009 GMC Envoy

2009 GMC Envoy

As bad of a year as it’s been for sales of the aforementioned Armada, it’s not the worst-selling vehicle in 2008. That title goes to Hyundai Entourage minivan, with only 5,405 sold this year. Not far behind, at No. 4, is the Chrysler Pacifica, a cross between an SUV and a minivan that sold only 6,671 units so far this year, a drop of 87% from the same period a year ago. No turnaround is in the works, either–Chrysler announced at the beginning of the year that production has ceased on the Pacifica, Chrysler Crossfire and Dodge Magnum.

The problem with the Pacifica and other crossover vehicles like it is that consumers have not embraced them as the new family car, says David Thomas, senior editor at “Buyers just aren’t buying them. None of them have done well.”

Joining the Armada, Entourage and Pacifica in the top five worst-selling vehicles are the Mitsubishi Endeavor, with only 5,687 units sold through November, and the Hummer H2, with only 5,721 sold.

No SUV brand is immune from the sales slump. In the second half of the list of the worst-selling cars, all five–the Toyota FJ Cruiser, Jeep Commander, GMC Envoy, Dodge Durango and Hummer H3–are SUVs. Furthermore, all five have seen a staggering percentage drop in sales of around 50% from the same 11-month period in 2007.

The Bright Spots

While consumer interest in most SUVs has waned, many fuel-efficient small cars have seen very strong sales in 2008.

Buyers purchased 352,248 Honda Civics and 184,152 Ford Focus cars this year, ranking sixth and 10th on our list, respectively. The gas-powered Civic gets 29 mpg, but the sales numbers also include the even more efficient hybrid version, which gets a combined fuel economy of 42 mpg.

Joining the two trucks and the Civic in the top five best-selling vehicles so far this year are the Toyota Camry (411,342 sold) and Honda Accord (350,638 sold).

But while gas prices had an impact on the sales of some small cars and hybrid vehicles, they haven’t had as big of an effect as the economic crisis and credit crunch, experts say. In other words, their sales should be much higher.

“We have seen the best deals in terms of rebates and incentives in the last four months, but we are not seeing auto sales go up,” says Thomas. “The economic crisis is stopping people from buying cars.”

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