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Data Point

10 Takeaways from U.S. Auto Sales: 2020


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We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: “It could have been worse.” With a solid second half and great effort by U.S. auto dealers, 2020 finished with sales of 14.5 million. Fleet took a beating, but retail sales stayed strong. In fact, we left 2020 with momentum. Auto sales in the final month of the year ended up 6.4% year over year thanks in part to extra selling days, and the seasonally adjusted annual rate of sales in December was better than November. December SAAR was 16.3 million. That was down from 16.8 million in 2019, but anything over 16 million is pretty solid. Particularly when a pandemic is raging.

Now that it’s mid-January and the numbers have settled, our Kelley Blue Book team offers this snapshot report of 2020 U.S. auto sales. In it, you’ll find sales results by segment, maker and brand in Q4 and year to date. We dug through these numbers (and went a little deeper) and came up with these 10 Takeaways from 2020, the Year of the Pandemic.

  1. In the auto industry’s battle royale – pickup trucks – many makers claim victory. Ford brand will claim the best-selling title with their F-Series trucks. General Motors will claim pickup leadership in 2020, with sales across their Chevrolet and GMC brands. Toyota will claim a trophy for best-selling midsize truck with their Tacoma. One thing we do know, 2.9 million pickups were sold last year, making up roughly 20% of the entire auto market.
  2. 2020 was a lot of things, including a roller coaster. We hit bottom in April, when the industry sold only 702,862 units. As the year ended, we hit 1,590,720, more than double April’s volume and among the best single month of sales in the past decade, coming in at #10 on that list.
  3. As American car shoppers, we certainly have a full menu of choices. In all, there were roughly 300 different models to choose from in December, from the Audi A3 to the BMW Z4, but American buyers mostly picked from a handful of models: According to our analysis, 15 models accounted for nearly a third of total sales.
  4. Thanks to the new Model Y, Tesla sales grew notably in 2020. In fact, of all brands, Tesla’s sales growth of an estimated 7% was the industry’s best performance. A lot of EVs did well in 2020. Chevrolet pushed Bolt sales up past 20,000, a 26% increase from 2019, making the Chevrolet Bolt America’s best-selling pure EV that’s not a Tesla.
  5. There was no shortage of awful in 2020, led perhaps by Fiat, which saw sales plunge 53.3%. Fiat’s product line is really suffering, and there’s expectation for further paring in 2021. But don’t think Americans dislike Italian accents. Alfa Romeo posted a 1.6% sales GAIN in 2020, one of only three brands to post a year-over-year increase in 2020.
  6. Thanks to favorable tax laws, the fleet business rocked for two years. Fleet sales grew 8% year over year in 2018 and followed in 2019 with an additional 3% growth, reaching a share of 19.4%. But what the market giveth, the market taketh, and then someth. Fleet sales plunged 36% in 2020.
  7. In the U.S., three vehicle segments matter. The Big 3: mid-size SUVs (2,461,965), compact SUVs (2,413,172) and full-size pickup trucks (2,326,431). Combined, the Big 3 accounted for 7.2 million sales in 2020, fully half the auto market. How big are these segments? The 4th largest segment in the U.S. market last year was the mid-size car segment: Total sales, just over 1 million vehicles.
  8. Comebacks were made in 2020. Chevrolet Silverado outsold Ram Pickup in 2020, after falling behind in 2019. Hyundai jumped back in front of Subaru. In luxury, there was no comeback needed. BMW retained the title of best-selling luxury brand in the U.S. (Note: Kelley Blue Book includes Sprinter/Metris van sales in Mercedes-Benz’s total. In the fight for the luxury crown, those sales (approximately 40,000) are not counted.)
  9. Vehicle prices were a big story in 2020. The average transaction price for a new vehicle last year was bumping up against the $40K barrier. And no wonder, vehicles priced under $30,000 accounted for only 23% of total sales last year, down from 48% in 2015. On the other end, vehicles priced over $50,000 accounted for 28% of total sales.   
  10. The Year of the Pandemic was not bad to everyone, as the K-shaped recovery benefitted the wealthiest Americans. And what did they do? They bought high-performance sports cars. The segment, while relatively small, was up in 2020, although the gain was driven entirely by the new mid-engine Chevrolet Corvette, truly one of the few good things that came along in 2020. Corvette sales were up 58% year over year last year.  

Find more details in the Kelley Blue Book Quarterly Light Vehicles Sales Report.

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