Imports Take 09 Sales Title From Domestics After Long Uphill Battle

January 23, 2010
An interesting thing happened during 2009, Asian carmakers outsold the domestic automakers in the United States for the first time. The gap wasn't huge, about 3.5 percent, but it was significant because it represents a reversal of fortunes for the countries surviving domestic manufacturers, General Motors, Ford and Chrysler.

As recently as 1983, Asian imports were at about 25 percent of sales here with the domestic manufacturers controlling the other 75 percent and even then the changing nature of the market was causing many in Detroit to grind their teeth and worry. The worriers foresaw a swifter shift in the market some believing that Asian imports could control the market as early as 1990, but it didn't happen.

The reason is that Detroit, shaken by two gas crises in the 1970s, was downsizing its fleet. Congress had enacted the Corporate Average Fleet Economy (CAFE) law which set mileage goals that the auto industry had to meet by certain dates. The early ones were the easy ones to hit because they didn't require much more than a retuning and some other tweaks to achieve. As the mileages climbed into the 20s, there was only one way for the auto industry to meet the CAFE standards and that was downsizing the fleet. This was in the 1980 to 1983 timeframe where the huge cars that were the norm of the 1960s and 1970s were phased out and the full-sized car was what had been known as a mid-sized.

Everything seemed to shift down one size notch as compacts became subcompacts and the former mid-sized cars became compacts. (This information was observed by the author as part of a rather long career as an automotive writer that began in the late 1960s when the author was still in his late teens and early 20s, so it has been verified by direct observation.)

The drive to meet CAFE helped to blunt the advancement of the imported industry for some time as the American industry actually came out with some innovative vehicles such as the Ford Taurus and Chrysler's minivan started a revolution in size that allowed automakers to build vehicles that were smaller on the outside and yet could carry large loads. They were also powered by four-cylinder engines.

Still, though, the imports continued their slow chipping at the domestic lead so that by the end of the 1980s, the Asian segment of the imported market was approaching 28 percent market penetration. It still meant that the domestics owned more than 70 percent of the market, but there was definite shrinkage.

By the end of the 1980s, people were beginning to forget the gas crises that had flags up on alternate Tuesdays when some stations had gas and others didn't and when overnight the price of gas doubled and seemed to double again. Of course, it was much cheaper than it is today and our own contribution to the oil flow from American oil fields was still in the 5 or 6 million barrel-a-day range which meant that the we still controlled a lot of our own energy destiny, but that control has been erased by time and a growing dependence on imported oil for more of our own energy needs.

The automakers found that by the end of the 1980s people were not only tired of all of the howling about oil prices and the constant harping by a segment of the economy that we needed ever-more fuel-efficient cars. Buyers felt that the industry had reached the mandated 27.5 mpg CAFE and so it was time for the industry to let its hair down a bit.

That the global economy was still in somewhat shaky condition so there was a glut of oil on the market for several years, artificially keeping prices down, wasn't even on the radar of your average 1990s car buyer. Gas was plentiful and relatively inexpensive, compared to the rest of the world and the country had met its congressional mandate, so it was time for a change. The change occurred in the form of the Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV).

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