As U.S. auto sales continued their slow creep back toward recovery last month, yet another glimmer of hope emerged from the industry’s long period of carnage: hints of revival of hot products and torrid vehicle brands in a very old-fashioned display of pure consumer passion, as well as modern-day practicality.
Remember a couple of years ago, when new vehicles like the completely overhauled Chevrolet Malibu and the Honda Fit routinely created brand excitement among American consumers? The industry’s epochal collapse and the nation’s long-running recession quenched such fires for a while.
But in the details of the November sales results reported yesterday – with industry-wide results about flat with a year earlier – it was possible to find some encouraging returns about individual new vehicles that honestly have little to do with stratospheric fuel-economy numbers or low monthly payments.
Take the Lexus RX, for instance. Earlier versions of this rakish SUV established a design template for the segment that competitors are still imitating. And yet a recently introduced new version of the classic model is leading a renaissance at Toyota’s luxury division, which had been suffering for many months along with the rest of the high end of the American automotive market.
The new RX was “one of the main reasons” for Lexus’s 24% sales increase over November 2008 , according to Mark Templin, head of the Lexus division. “Enthusiasm hasn’t slowed. It’s consistently been our sales leader.” For the month, in fact, RX sales were up more than 47% over the year-ago November.
But homegrown brands also are participating. A spate of new products from Ford and GM are being almost universally embraced by American consumers. They include all of GM’s six recent launches, such as the Chevrolet Camaro sporty car and GMC Terrain SUVs, and the Ford Flex launched last year.
“It’s easy to take for granted that these products would do well and are selling,” said Jessica Caldwell, director of pricing and industry analysis for Edmunds, the automotive dot-com based in Santa Monica, Calif. “ They easily could not be doing well. They’ve been promising us better products for some time, made for the U.S. market, more evolutionary – and it looks like they’re doing that.”
And while American consumers continue to value affordable pricing and desirable fuel economy as they creep back into the market, clearly many of them just want the car that they want. The new Buick LaCrosse, for instance, already is off to a hot start in its six- and eight-cylinder versions. GM won’t even sell a four-cylinder LaCrosse until January.