The SUV is officially king.
Three full-size pickups were still the best-selling vehicles in the United States last year. But the fourth-place spot was claimed for the first time by an SUV, not a sedan.
In 2017 the Toyota RAV4 sport ute outsold the Toyota Camry sedan, reigning car-sales champ for the last 15 years.
The compact, five-door RAV4 crossover sold 407,594 units last year — a gain of 15.7 percent — eclipsing Camry by 20,513 in sales. The midsize sedan saw an annual sales decline of 0.4 percent. Camry wasn’t even runner-up as another SUV, the Nissan Rogue, gained 22.3 percent to 403,465 units sold.
The best-selling vehicle in America for the 36th year in a row is Ford’s F-Series pickup, followed by two other full-size pickups, the Chevy Silverado and Ram 1500.
“With the strength of the SUV market, it’s no surprise that RAV4 was not only our best-selling model, but the best-selling non-pickup truck in the industry,” said Jack Hollis, group vice president and general manager, Toyota Division.
The RAV4’s accomplishment crowns the meteoric rise of SUVs from their humble beginnings as truck-based light trucks in the early 1990s to the dominant form of transportation today. Less regulated for fuel efficiency than cars following the introduction of federal gas-mileage laws in the mid-1970s, SUVs gradually gained favor as automakers eliminated gas-gulping station wagons while customers still craved five-door utility.
Midsize sedans have long ruled the sales charts going back to the mid-1960s when the Chevy Impala sold over 1 million copies. Chevy and Ford traded the crown until 1991 when Japanese-maker Honda Accord briefly broke the duopoly.
The Camry asserted itself in 1997 over the Ford Taurus, and has held the pole position ever since (save 2001 — Accord again).
The RAV4 was first introduced in 1994 following the success of SUV trailblazers like the unibody Jeep Cherokee and truck-based Ford Explorer. By 2007, the so-called light truck segment has passed cars in popularity with 53 percent of the market. But the Great Recession briefly turned the tables as cash-strapped customers turned back to cheaper, sippier sedans.
Since 2010, however, SUVs have returned to the fore as nearly every manufacturer — even performance makers like Porsche and Maserati — has rushed to build higher-riding, five-door SUVs with unibody construction that are both more car-like in handling and in fuel efficient. Light truck sales in 2017 nearly crested 60 percent of the market while sedan sales plummeted.
Honda also saw its once perennial best-seller, the Accord sedan, eclipsed by its CR-V ute for the second year in a row. Chevy and Ford small crossovers healthily outsold their passenger cars stablemates, though the RAV4, Rogue, and CR-V have been able to translate their sales leadership in midsize sedans to compact SUVs.
The decline of sedan sales has brought a reassessment of the market from Detroit automakers. Japanese manufacturers are still bullish on cars, however, with both Toyota and Honda introducing an all-new Camry and Accord, respectively, for 2018.
“Our cars are doing very well,” says Honda America PR chief James Jenkins. “Civic continues to dominate the compact segment and we are thrilled with the launch of the new Accord. We are fully committed to passenger cars and will continue to push that segment moving forward.”
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at email@example.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-1 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.