Large car sales struggle as Toyota debuts 2016 Avalon

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Chicago — Cars — especially larger sedans like the Avalon, Impala and Chrysler 300 — are struggling in the face of lower gas prices and a shift by consumers to crossovers and SUVs.

At the Chicago Auto Show, Toyota Motor Corp. unveiled a new 2016 Avalon. In 2014, Avalon sales were down 5.4 percent, while Toyota’s U.S. car sales were up 2.3 percent — fueled by a 14 percent increase in Lexus car sales last year. Toyota also unveiled special edition models of the Corolla and Camry.

Hyundai Motor Co. on Friday unveiled a refreshed 2016 Elantra GT that goes on sale in March and a special rally edition 2016 Veloster. The automaker is offering a revised hood appearance without vent accents, a dark gray grille surround, 10mm-wider tires fitted to all 18-inch wheels, and new audio/navigation system functions for all 2016 Velosters. Elantra sales fell 10.4 percent last year and were down 20 percent in January.

In January, light trucks — pickups, SUVs and other utility vehicles accounted for 54 percent of the market, while cars accounted for 46 percent. Cars were up 8 percent, but light trucks were up 19 percent. Many automakers have reduced some production of cars, especially smaller cars.

The new Avalon has a fresh new front end with fancier optional LED headlights and daytime running lights, and new LED taillights that Toyota’s Bill Fay says “give it a high-performance look.” The Avalon will get fancier wheels — and three hybrid models. Fay says Toyota’s expected U.S. growth in 2015 will be in SUVs and pickups rather than cars.

Despite all of the new offerings, automakers are hoping larger car sales stay flat this year — even as the rest of industry grows, rather than the decline they have been experiencing. A new Nissan Maxima is due out by the end of the year.

Jack Hollis, vice president of Toyota Marketing at Toyota Motor Sales, said lower gas prices may prompt some car buyers to buy larger cars this year.

Chrysler brand president Al Gardner said large car sales were down about 9 percent but he thinks they will be flat this year. FCA US LLC car sales fell 11 percent in 2014, while sales of the Chrysler 300 were down 8 percent. But sales of light trucks for Fiat Chrysler were up 28 percent last year.

At the same time, Chrysler cars had a much stronger January, up 17 percent compared with a 13 percent boost for light trucks — with the 200 up 30 percent.

While Gardner said some consumers are moving from cars to crossover vehicles, other car buyers are shifting to fancier, more expensive cars. The mix of more expensive versions of the 200 is higher than forecast by Chrysler and similar to the 300 as the new version launch.

“Consumers with a little more money in their pocket are either switching to something bigger but more likely they are putting more options on the car,” Gardner said.

Chevrolet marketing chief Brian Sweeney said some markets — on the east and west coasts remain strong for car sales — but others like Texas skew more toward larger vehicles. Automakers are focusing their efforts on electric vehicles — as opposed to larger SUVs or crossovers — and GM said at the show it will build a new EV Bolt car that will be able to go 200 miles on a single charge.