DETROIT - We all know by now that it's a devastating year for automakers, whether General Motors, Ford Motor, Chrysler or Toyota. The seasonably adjusted annual rate, or SAAR, currently is 14.7 million units, off from 17- to 18-million units in the economically healthier early years of the new millennium. Nobody is buying big trucks or SUVs. Only Nissan and Honda are showing signs of life, and that's because these relatively small automakers have better big-truck to small-car ratios. There's another disturbing trend gleaned from this week's May sales results: crossovers have hit a wall.
Each automaker issues a press release at the beginning of each month touting models that sold well. Ford, to pick on one clear example, spent the first three months of the year announcing "record Focus sales, big gains for Fusion, Milan, Edge and MKX," or something similar. Last Tuesday, the spin was, "May brings record sales for Ford Focus, Fusion."
Ford Edge sales fell 2.6 percent from May '07 to May '08, to 12,367. It's up 26.8 percent year-to-date, but it wasn't at full-production as a new model in '07. Lincoln MKX sales were down 15.5 percent, to 2,950 and the smaller Ford Escape and Mercury Mariner also were off substantially. Over at GM, Chevy Equinox sales fell 11.3 percent, to 5,850. Saturn Vue? Off 15.5 percent, to 8,330. Pontiac Torrent lost 43.8 percent, to 1,626.
I can't count the new Lambda crossovers in this analysis, because Buick Enclave was up 58.6 percent, to 2,939, while GMC Acadia fell 27.6 percent to 6,566 and Saturn Outlook was off 38.1 percent, to 2,506. Clearly, there are shortage issues in the Enclave's/Acadia's/Outlook's young lives, and GM veep Mark LaNeve says a "local" UAW strike at their Delta Township, Michigan plant indeed affected supply. We'll have to look at a couple more months to see whether they've peaked out.
Take a look at Toyota. Its small, relatively efficient RAV4 fell 13.2-percent, to 14,917. Highlander was down 12.9 percent, to 10,841 and Lexus RX sales (which includes the hybrid RX 400h) fell 20.6-percent, to 8,082.
Honda reported CR-V sales off 1.5-percent, although the actual number was up by 446 units, to 19,959. This statistical anomaly is the result of counting change by daily selling rate - there were fewer such days last May versus this May. The Pilot is in the midst of a model changeover, but it, too is down, 19.7-percent, to 8,449.
My point is not that automakers should get out of the crossover segment. My argument is they shouldn't spend all their development money on every sub-niche only to discover in five years that drivers are tiring of tall, unibody V-6 station wagons the way they tired of tall, body-on-frame V-8 station wagons a couple of years ago.
Ford division alone has Escape, Edge and Taurus X, and will soon add Flex (a kind of perfect blend of minivan and CUV), plus probably Explorer America and some version of the Kuga concept. It's only certain to get rid of Taurus X while adding three SUVs. It can cover the market with Kuga, Edge and Flex.
Beside Ford's Flex, we'll see the Chevy Traverse, Toyota Venza, Mercedes-Benz GLK-Class and Audi Q5 before the end of this year.
Most crossovers get better fuel mileage than most truck-based SUVs. In May, however, the few Americans who shopped dealerships chose mostly C- and D-segment sedans. That may be enough exposure for the average American family with 2.3 kids to find they can fit in a Fusion or even a Focus, just like the average Western European family with 2.3 kids. As a car guy who always has more fun driving cars, I understand that the U.S. market will always need vehicles like three-row crossovers. But the market doesn't need many more than what we already have.