Asians Overtake Detroit; F-Series Falls to Civic

June 4, 2008
If all the plant closings, production shifts, and job losses haven’t gotten out the word that there’s a massive sea change reshaping the U.S. auto industry, then the sales numbers for May should certainly complete the picture. For the first time, Asian automakers outsold the U.S. Big Three last month.

Perhaps more significant was the fact that Ford’s big F-Series pickup, for decades the nation’s best-selling vehicle, was toppled from its spot as king of the hill by the fuel-efficient compact, the Honda Civic. Indeed, the true paradigm shift is occurring in the American truck market. After long dominating the sales charts, pickups, SUVs, and other light trucks accounted for a relatively meager 43 percent of May sales.

Overall, truck sales plunged 23.6 percent for the month. Cars gained a modest but significant 2.4 percent. The F-Series, which has led the charts since 1981, was outsold by not only the Civic, but the Toyota Camry and Corolla and the Honda Accord, as well.

“May was a watershed month,” proclaimed Jim Farley, the former Toyota executive who know heads marketing and communications at Ford. “We, as an industry, are catching up with breathtaking choices customers are making.”

Those choices are tending to favor the Japanese, with their fuel-efficient lineups weighted toward passenger cars. Honda, for example, saw a 15.6 percent sales gain in May. Toyota reported a decline of 4.3 percent, however, reflecting the fact that it’s paying a price for its own foray into light trucks. In recent months, sales of the Japanese giant’s big Tundra pickup has slid notably, despite hefty new incentives. With the overall market falling faster than its own sales, Toyota saw its share of May sales jump to 18.4 percent from 17.2 percent a year ago.

Even on a sales basis, Toyota still fared markedly better than Detroit’s makers. General Motors led the slide, with a loss of 27.5 percent. The company reported its May sales data just hours after announcing plans to close four for of its truck plants – and expand production at several passenger car facilities. GM also announced it is conducting a review of the Hummer brand and could sell or even scrap the division, known for its big, gas-guzzling SUVs.

Ford, which is making new cuts of its own, saw a decline of 15.6 percent.

Chrysler, normally dependent on light trucks for about two-thirds of its sales, reported a 25.4 percent sales drop for May. The automaker had hoped to shore up its market position with a new incentive program providing buyers with fixed gas prices. That did little for models like the Ram pickup. But some of its most fuel-efficient models, including the Dodge Caliber, did post gains.

“It’s a sign of the times,” declared Farley--one dependent on the record prices being posted on gas station signs across the country.

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