October 2009 Market Report: No Clear Trends Yet, But Some Interesting Results

November 15, 2009

Here's an interesting riddle: how can a leader be a follower, and a follower be the leader?

Here are a couple of hints:

  • Percentages

  • Sales

We'll help you find the answer to the riddle in a moment or two, but for now, let's talk about market reporting in the car business. Every month, one or more automakers will tout how much their sales have increased or whether they have remained the same.

The auto manufacturers whose months have been real stinkers will usually just issue a very brief press release, usually about dinnertime on Friday night or a little afterward, when they hope too many people will be tied up doing other things to notice that the rosy sales predictions they may have made at the beginning of the month have tanked big time.

It's really a normal business response to an issue. Those firms whose sales have increased, you will generally find, will make their announcements sometime earlier in the news cycle (although with the internet who knows when they "news cycle" actually starts or stops; when networks ruled the roost, it was the 6 or 11 news or the mid-afternoon market close; now, it's any time) to add excitement to their announcements.

Also, they will usually schedule conference calls with major analysts and investment houses to discuss their sales strategy and to show how it is working and just how the public is accepting the new model Thunderbolt 5 (no such animal exists, but it's used to make a point).

Those companies with poor or poorer reporting will usually schedule early morning conference calls (Tibet time, probably) so that one or two analysts and a rooster are the only ones really listening.

All of this is in an attempt to paint the best picture possible on their sales.

So, now we come to the riddle, and rather than keep you in suspense, the answer is that the Hyundai Elantra was the market leader last month in terms of percentage sales increase, while the Toyota Camry still maintains its hold on the top sales spot, despite a slight drop in overall percentage. Look at the following list for confirmation:

AOL Autos did the hard part, putting together the list of top 12 selling cars in October. Their results were:

  • Hyundai Elantra: sales: 8,673 sales increase: 224.4 percent sales position: 12

  • Subaru Legacy: sales: 9,705 sales increase: 148.7 percent sales position: 11

  • Ford Focus: sales: 10,119 sales decrease: 4.3 percent sales position: 10

  • Chevy Malibu: sales: 12,085 sales increase: 11.1 percent sales position: 9

  • Chevy Impala: sales: 12,721 sales decrease: 42.4 percent sales position: 8

  • Ford Fusion: sales: 13,445 sales increase: 24 percent sales position: 7

  • Toyota Prius: sales: 13,496 sales increase: 14.3 percent sales position: 6

  • Nissan Altima: sales: 14,733 sales decrease: 16.7 percent sales position: 5

  • Honda Civic: sales: 15,868 sales decrease: 14.6 percent sales position: 4

  • Honda Accord: sales: 23.210 sales increase: 19.2 percent sales position: 3

  • Toyota Corolla: sales: 25,717 sales decrease: 6 percent sales position: 2

  • Toyota Camry: sales: 30,136 sales decrease: 1.3 percent sales position: 1

Notice something interesting about the results, they are split evenly. Of the top 12 sellers in this country last month, the percentage sales increased for six and decreased for six. The interesting piece is that even though six automakers saw decreased percentages, their actual sales were enough to keep them in the top 12.

Even more surprising were the autos that had sales decreases. Who would have expected percentage decreases for:

  • Camry

  • Corolla

  • Civic

  • Altima

  • Focus

To date their sales have been pretty strong and though their percentages may have slipped their raw numbers kept them in the magic dozen. The Chevy Impala is explainable only in so far as it is likely that the facelift of the lineup that began with the Malibu last year hasn't reached the Impala yet and it is possible many buyers are waiting to see what the new Impala will look like. If it's anything like the Malibu, they will have a winner on their hands.

How much of a winner will that be? If you look at the magic dozen the Chevy Malibu appears in the number eight spot. It has been some time since the Malibu -- whose look and position in the lineup over the last five years has been about as stable as a ping-pong ball -- made a strong showing versus 2008. The older Malibu was little more than a reworked Cavalier frame and the new Malibu, some observers have noted, will turn out to challenge some surprising vehicles.

Those vehicles could include the:

  • Honda Accord

  • Toyota Camry

  • Toyota Avalon

  • Nissan Altima

Designed by GMDAT, General Motors Daewoo Design Studio subsidiary in South Korea, the lines are up to date and seem more like an import than a domestic.

Surprisingly, Hyundai's Elantra, which has made huge strides in quality over the last few years, emerged as the percentage leader with a more than 200 percent increase over the same month last year. It is also nowhere near as expensive as some of the others in its segment (Civic, for example) and they could be one of the reasons that Honda's Civic actually lost sales percentage, although it held sales numbers to keep it in the magic dozen.

The same is true of the Subaru Legacy, whose styling has been freshened, and which scored a percentage increase of better than 140 percent to get into the dozen.

Honda's management must be be banging its collective head against a wall wondering how it can overcome Toyota's lead in the market. As noted, the Civic lost percentage wise, but the Accord put up numbers of an almost 20 percent sales increase and sales of over 20,000 for October, yet the Camry, whose sales dipped modestly -- 1.4 percent -- is still king of the hill with more than 30,000 units sold for the month.

So, what does this all mean? There's not clearcut trend except although there are some generalities:

  • Incentives, if used, do help bring people into the showroom

  • Low pricing will also bring people into the showroom

  • Name recognition will still bring people into the showroom

That's about all that we can say for now. When next month's numbers come out, we'll have a better idea of where the idea is going and if the business has bottomed and is heading up. Right now, the jury is out on that one.

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