In the end, the cars that matter most to consumers are the cars they just want to buy.
The folks at auto consulting firm IHS Automotive estimate that the auto industry will sell 16.4 million cars in the United States this year. That's the highest total since 2007 and the first time the industry will have sold more than 16 million cars since then. But that doesn't necessarily mean Americans have rekindled their love affair with the automobile after the recession.
The Department of Transportation notes that U.S. drivers, who had been racking up a steadily increasing number of miles since the 1970s, started cutting back in 2008 and never returned to the peak. Meanwhile, traffic information service Inrix notes that as average gas prices started spiking in 2010, average commute times during peak hours dropped from more than four hours to less than two.
A study this spring by the Frontier Group and U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund found that the average U.S. driver actually started cutting back well before the recession, peaking around 2004 but dropping 6% by 2011. While the total miles driven in the U.S. rose 3.8% from 1948 to 2004, they've been flat since.
Americans may be buying cars again, but it's more out of need than out of a sense of excitement or frivolity. The average car on U.S. roads is more than 11 years old, IHS Automotive says. The average price of a used car, already propped up by a brief halt in domestic auto leases, has spiked as lightly used supply has dwindled. Today's car buyer is looking for something affordable. Failing that, they're seeking something reliable that will give them more value for their dollar.
To drive home that point, only two cars among the Top 10 sold in the U.S. will set buyers back $25,000 or more. We took a look at the sales numbers heading into the last months of the year as compiled by MotorIntelligence and found the 10 frontrunners most coveted by the U.S. car buyer. They're practical and predictable, but they're exactly what their buyers are looking for:
This is what a "sporty" car looks like in 2014 - an American midsize. The Fusion's sleek new body and tough-looking grill caught a lot of eyes last year, but the additions inside are the ones making buyers even happier.
With a sporty new exterior, keyless entry keypad, its own app, Microsoft's (MSFT - Get Report) SYNC entertainment and communications system (that also doubles as a Wi-Fi hotspot), a blind-spot alert system, adaptive cruise control and Hill Start Assist that holds the brake when starting on an incline, there are a ton of extraordinary features in what's supposed to be Ford's most ordinary car.
Its combined 28 miles per gallon and capless fuel tank are also lovely, but its availability as a 43 miles per gallon hybrid and as a plug-in electric vehicle is worth noting.
For all of you just catching up, the five-passenger SUV is this generation's station wagon/minivan/super-sized SUV that it's going to drive to college with, throw kegs in back of and basically sully all fairly G-rated memories of its childhood with. That's cool; it rarely looked up from the screen of its iDistraction long enough to get too attached anyway.
To today's parents, however, it's almost as big a step toward parenthood as actually having a child. It represents the end of freewheeling youth and light packing and ushers in an era of school, soccer practice, summer vacation and snow days. After the popular crossover's 2012 overhaul, it's only made that transition easier by adding a leather interior, heated seats and rearview windows and navigation system with controls mounted on the steering wheel. It's also trimmed fuel efficiency to a combined 27 miles per gallon while leaving all 70 cubic feet of cargo space untouched.
8. Honda Civic
It's a bit snug for more than two, but the Civic's combined 33 miles per gallon and nearly 40 miles per gallon on the highway make it a great car to grow into. It seats five with a surprising amount of space left over, is coated in airbags and has a new display that shows fuel efficiency, music info and photos. The utilitarian small sedan also tends to hold up well over the years, making it a gem for used car buyers who aren't just waiting for a larger, far less efficient vehicle to get less expensive.
7. Nissan Altima
The Altima is steady, reliable and at its best when it's reminding you it's not there. That last part has proven a bit tougher since its sporty facelift for 2013, but its looks are just about the only thing that's changed dramatically.
The Altima's combined 33 miles per gallon are still enviable for a midsize, even if its 15.4 cubic feet of cargo lags behind the pack. The cabin is quiet, the new tech features include satellite radio, Pandora, Bluetooth and hands-free texting, and safety options include blind-spot monitoring, a lane-departure warning system and a moving-object detector. Even the Altima's add-ons only serve to make it a more practical purchase.
It doesn't have a whole lot of passenger space and its 12.3 cubic feet of trunk storage may accommodate just a holiday grocery run, but it's just about the most reliable vehicle you're going to find for the price. Those combined 33 miles per gallon should hold similar appeal for frugal customer. Even with a complete overhaul of its exterior features and interior technology last year - including Toyota's Entune audio, navigation and app suite - the Corolla offers a lot of value for its price.
There isn't a whole lot you can do to make the broad, inoffensive midsize sexier. For 2013, Honda's goal was to make the Accord less utilitarian by adding a standard 8-inch LCD display for its information, communication and app-based entertainment system; a single angle backup camera; dual zone climate control; a lane-drift detector; a power moon roof and alloy wheels. Other new options include a three-angle backup cam, enhanced safety sensors, LED running lights and adaptive cruise control.
The one element that remained intact was the Accord's combined 32 miles per gallon. Though the Detroit makeovers haven't helped the Accord, either, it's still one of only two cars among the Top 5 vehicles sold in the U.S.
4. Ram trucks
What's driving Ram's massive comeback? Maybe the fact that it's a whole lot of fun.
There's nothing going on in the space between your pickup's cargo bed and its rear wheel fenders, which is why Ram fitted them with RamBox locking compartments with drain plugs that are advertised as mini trunks or toolboxes, but are clearly meant to be coolers.
Don't believe us? Ask Ram, which not only made RamBoxes waterproof and drainable, but says "both sides fit up to 240 cans of your favorite beverage in a 5'7 bed or 280 cans in a 6'4 bed configuration." Combine that with 74.7 cubic feet cargo capacity and 1,300 to 1,600 pounds of payload capacity and you've got yourself a party machine.
Oh, and the Ram 1500's available Uconnect Wi-Fi — $10 for single-day access — allows your tailgate buddies to set their fantasy football lineups through a private Internet network accessible within 150 radius of the truck.
Georgetown, Ky., has been cranking out Toyotas since 1988 and uses the same platform to produce the Camry and its slightly more spacious and swank Avalon sibling. The Camry has put some serious mileage between itself and its troubled, recall-plagued past and remains the most popular car in the U.S. and the only car to put up pickup-truck sales numbers.
For yet another year, it's going to be the best-selling non-pickup vehicle in the U.S. Is it the combined 30 miles per gallon? The pindrop-quiet interior? The Bluetooth connection or the Entune App Suite entertainment and information center? Or is it just the fact that it's reliable enough to buy and forget about? Camry owners take a whole lot of trips in their vehicles, but few of them are to the repair shop.
Oh, and it's the most American-made midsize sold in the U.S.. A full 75% of its parts are made in the U.S. and the car is assembled right on that Kentucky line.
2. 2013 Chevrolet Silverado
Even with no overhauls since 2007 and a year until its 2014 update, the Silverado is General Motors' (GM - Get Report) top-selling automobile. The 2014 base-model Silverado has 262-horsepower, 4.3-liter V-6 with increased towing capacity. There's also a 325-horsepower, 5.3-liter V-8 with the improved fuel efficiency of GM's muscly Camaro and Cadillac models that far outpaces the current generation's gluttonous 22 miles per gallon on the highway. A 6.2-liter V-8 engine with 376 horsepower rounds out the new lineup and gives its the muscle it needs to lift its truck sales numbers, which went nearly flat in 2013 as Ford's and Ram's soared. That makeover made a huge difference, however, as Silverado's sales have increased 6% year-to-date.
1. Ford F series
Forget the more than three decades of dominance in both the truck and overall automobile markets. Ford's F series is dusting Chevrolet's Silverado and GMC's Sierra combined largely because it can. The F-150 may get 25% of its parts from elsewhere, but that's still better than the 34% of Silverado parts that come from Mexico. Its reputation for reliability is only bolstered by the fact that it's the most U.S.-produced truck Detroit produces and that its maker is the only Detroit automaker that didn't take a bailout. That means a whole lot in the F series' segment of the market, and it will continue to pay dividends until GM or Ram can overcome that little public-relations obstacle. In fact, it'll probably only help after a massive upgrade for 2015 makes the F-150 more fuel-efficient and tech-savvy.
— By Jason Notte for MainStreet
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