Crossover SUV Boom, Enthusiast Car Bust
If the automotive market catered solely to enthusiasts, every vehicle would be sporty, affordable, and potentially not all that practical. That's not the way it works, and consumers expressed that fact in 2014 by shying away from established performance cars in favor of small and midsize crossover SUVs.
Last year, U.S. sales of the sporty Scion FR-S and Subaru BRZ twins sunk 23.3 and 12.6 percent, respectively. The Mini Coupe and Roadster fell 62.4 and 48.8 percent, and will subsequently bow out, while the Fiat 500 and Hyundai Veloster dipped a respective 5.9 and 10.1 percent. While not all sporty models felt the pressure - sales of the Subaru WRX/STI rose 41.8 percent and the Volkswagen GTI outsold the standard Golf - the market is shrinking on some of the more niche vehicles.
"I think there just isn't as much of a hunger for these models anymore," notes Karl Brauer, KBB senior director of insights. "People are more interested in the practicality that comes from SUVs, and I think that very few people drive an SUV and afterwards want to go back to something else."
Growth big by going small
According to KBB data, all SUV segments grew for 2014 with the bulk occurring in the compact and luxury compact segments, surging a sizable 14.5 and 18.6 percent. Popular compact options include the segment-leading Honda CR-V, Ford Escape, and Toyota Rav4, while subcompacts such as the Buick Encore (up 53 percent with 48,892 sold) and the Subaru XV Crosstrek (up 32 percent with 70,956 sold) continue to show high demand for the segment's smallest offerings.
"If you're in almost any demographic, the SUV appeals to you," mentions Brauer. "They land in the sweet zone of having a relatively large interior space, relatively high seating position, relatively good gas mileage, and a relatively low price."
'Just good enough', if you will. Generally, the enthusiast car buyer looks for a mix of sporty powertrains, visual appeal, and driving performance - three things not universal in the CUV/SUV world. Further growth in the crossover segments will hinge upon increasingly sportier models, geared towards the enthusiast car buyer. Happily, they're on the way.
Sporty SUVs on tap
The class of 2015 introduces the Mazda CX-3, Fiat 500X, Honda HR-V, and Jeep Renegade, which combine five-door practicality, smaller proportions, and sporty engine and transmission options. This new fleet ought to cut into the enthusiast car-buying base further, though the sheer number of entries will likely test the limits of consumer demand in this evolving segment.
The Mini Countryman and Nissan Juke effectively carved out the sporty compact crossover niche, and until now, have had little opposition. Last year, the Countryman, which debuted in 2010, achieved its highest sales moving 22,645 vehicles (up 6.2 percent), and became the marque's second-best seller.
"Typically you wouldn't see a lifecycle curve that would show the fourth year of the model being a peak year," notes David Duncan, vice president at MINI of the Americas. "But it was so far. I think it shows the strength of the segment and the strength of that car in the segment."
If you build it, they will come
For automakers, crossover SUV segments are surely the place to be, but none have answered the call quite as successfully as Jeep. In 2014, the division saw a massive 41 percent jump in sales to 692,348 units, and while analysts peg the upcoming Renegade to be an instant success, the high demand for its aging Compass and Patriot entries speak to the importance of simply remaining in a segment. Sales of the 8-year-old Compass and Patriot surged 16 and 23 percent during 2014 (61,264 and 93,462 units), respectively, their best annual results ever.
"In the long term I think there's going to be a reaction against the SUV," notes Brauer. "I don't know if that will be six months or six years, but right now it's a very large non-exclusive club that everyone is part of, or seems to want to be part of." Even car enthusiasts.