Business First of Buffalo - April 24, 2006 by Dale English
While so-called crossover utility vehicles - those with SUV bodies and automobile chassis - continue to command increasing market share, sales of new full-size cars surged upward last year, spurred by the success of several new models and introduction of others.
While some full-size cars are classified as "family cars" because of their size and price - Buick's LaCrosse and the Dodge Charger are examples, much of the growth has come in the luxury, large, and upscale brackets. That's where the big Cadillacs and BMWs roam, along with Lexus and Infiniti, Lincoln's Town Car and Chrysler 300, plus the ever-present Mercedes.
"Purchases of new full-size sedans, up 31 percent in 2005, resulted from a strong consumer demand for new sedan designs and the appeal of the relatively high mileage that these new full-size sedans provide," said Paul Taylor, chief economist for the National Automobile Dealers Association at its recent annual convention.
(Cadillac's Escalade SUV, for example, has a city/highway EPA rating of 17-18 miles per gallon, but it's 23-27 m.p.g. for the STS sedan.)
According to figures from Automotive News Data Center statistics, car sales of all types increased by 223,331 in 2005, to 7,961,509, while truck sales declined for the first time in recent memory.
Of those 223,331, 149,509 can be attributed to luxury, large, and upscale cars, who accounted for 1,756,774 sales, even though upscale cars dipped by 20,363. That was more than offset by an increase of 114,665 for large cars and 55,207 for luxury autos.
The groupings are a loose functioning of interior size, power, creature comforts and price, with the latter being the big determiner. However, models within models and various options such as a bigger V8 or navigation system add hundreds to the sticker.
Luxury cars are generally the largest and costliest. Pricing starts around $43,000 for the least expensive BMW 5-Series and Cadillac DTS and runs to about $121,295 for the BMW 7-Series line-topper to about $170,000 for a Mercedes-Benz S-Class sedan.
Detroit long ago abandoned this low-volume field to first, the Europeans and, later, the Japanese; Cadillac's DTS, STS and out-going DeVille models are the only American entries. Most are rear-wheel drive.
Large cars are somewhat smaller and are American turf with 12 of the 14 models carrying U.S. badges; the only interlopers are Toyota's highly-regarded Avalon and Kia's Amanti, which recently completed its sophomore season on a losing note.
Pricing for large cars starts in the lower $20s for the Ford 500 and extends into the lower $50s for the Lincoln Town Car. They are a mix of front-, rear-, and all-wheel drive.
Foreign nameplates also dominate the upscale car field. Only three of the 20 are American models, Lincoln's aging LS and rookie Zephyr models, plus the Cadillac CTS.
Pricing starts around $27,900 for a basic Acura TSX and runs through the $30s and $40s to reach luxury car stickers in some cases. The BMW 3-Series has a range from $31,595 to over $56,000 and Mercedes-Benz new CLS sedan runs to $86,600. Typically, they come with front-wheel-drive, but some offer all-wheel drive as an option.
While many have strong sales numbers, none breaks into the Top 25; Chrysler's burly 300 comes the closest, but it falls nearly 18,000 short of the 25th-place Toyota Sienna minivan.
There were 53 models of luxury, large, and upscale models for 2005, up four from '04 and nine from 2003.
The luxury car lineup remained stable at 19 for '05, but two models were on curtain call only; Volkswagen stopped importing its Phaeton sedan an Cadillac has retired the Seville.
Perennial leader Cadillac surrendered the top slot when it replaced the DeVille with the DTS, allowing both the BMW 5-Series and Mercedes-Benz E-Class to slip by.
BMW took over first with 52,722, up from 45,584 the previous year, while the Mercedes-Benz E-Class was second at 50,383, down from 58,954.
The outgoing DeVille still sold 38,661 in 2005, down nearly 30,000 from '04, but it was still good enough for third place. Its replacement, the DTS, sold 23,322 units, to capture eighth place in its rookie year. Together the two sold 61,983 vehicles, good enough for first place had they been combined.
Cadillac also captured fourth place with the STS, replacement for the Seville. It sold 33,497 in its first full year.
"The DTS has been selling very well. It caters to our traditional Cadillac buyers," said Chris Braun of Braun Cadillac Saab in Depew.
The DTS is a 2006 freshening of the DeVille, carefully blending styling cues from newer-looking models such as the CTS with the basic look of traditional Caddys, such as the egg-crate grille. The idea has been to attract newer, younger, buyers while preserving Cadillac's traditional customers.
Meanwhile, Tim Connelly, general manager of Towne BMW in Amherst, pointed out that BMW's 5-Series, fresh for the '04 season, "never offered an AWD model until late in '05," to better go against Audi's A6 and Mercedes' E-Class.
BMW has also added the 530xit touring wagon to the lineup. "The market is very hot for these cars now and it's the fastest growing section of the luxury car market. People buying them are getting out of the big SUV's. They want the size but not the gas costs," Connelly related.
Only 40 sales allowed the Cadillac STS to finish ahead of the fifth place Lexus GS300/GS340, 33,497 to 33,457.
The rear-drive vehicles were redesigned for '05 and in their first full model year, allowing the GS300/GS430 to crack the Top 10.
"They have been doing very well and are more performance-driven than other Lexus cars," said Dan Cartier, an associate at Northtown Lexus in Amherst. He pointed out they come with a long list of baubles including Bluetooth technology that automatically mutes the audio volume when the telephone rings.
Rounding out the Top Ten luxury cars are the Lexus LS430 in sixth position with 26,043, down about 6,000 from '04; BMW's top-line 7-Series, 18,165 and Audi's A6/Allroad, 18,074.
Leading the also-rans was Acura's RL sedan with 17,572. Operating on the strength of its first full redesign in nine years, the RL more than doubled '04's total of 8,753 vehicles. Rounding out the field, in order, were the Mercedes-Benz S Class, Jaguar S-Type and XJ8, Audi A8 and Allroad Quattro, Infiniti Q45, Volkswagen Phaeton, and Cadillac Seville.
The large car category had long been ruled by Buick's LeSabre but when GM began phasing them out in favor of the LaCrosse and Lucerne, sales slumped, sending LeSabre to fourth, with 75,369, down from 114,157 in 2004.
That enabled Chrysler's distinctive 300 to surge into first place in only its sophomore season, with 144,068, up from 112,930 in its freshman year. Chrysler easily topped the Ford 500, in its first full sales year, and Toyota's Avalon, which introduced a redesigned '05 model in February.
The 500 sold 107,932, up substantially from the 14,106 in its break-in year, while Avalon tallied 95,318, easily doubling it's 36,460 previous-year sales. In 2004 the 500 was in 10th place and the Avalon in sixth.
"The 300 appeals to a varied group of buyers from young professional persons to middle-aged family leaders. With its unique looks and styling, nothing else really approaches it," said Tony Helta, general manager of the West Herr Automotive Group, whose franchises include Chrysler.
The 500 is doing well, but not in the volume we'd like. It's not as flashy as some might wish but you don't see it back for service very much, either," said Jim Doyle of Jim Doyle Ford in Kenmore. "They appeal to the middle-aged business person who maybe had an Explorer. They like a nice looking sedan that fits a family of five and is somewhat less expensive than a BMW," Doyle continued.
Fourth place went to the LeSabre, while the Lucerne, one of its replacements, finished in 12th, with 8,621, all earlybird '06's.
Consumer Reports, which delineated the categories, now classifies Buick's LaCrosse as a family car and moved Lincoln's Town Car from the luxury to large car category.
"The Lucerne has been a big hit. I was optimistic about its introduction last fall and I'm still very encouraged," said Paul Batt of Paul Batt Buick in Cheektowaga. "Detroit originally projected sales of 80,000 to 90,000 but they're now projecting sales in the 120,000 to 150,000 range," he added.
The Lucerne sedan comes in three trim lines, CX, CXL and CKS, with the CX "most closely equated with our traditional LeSabre base" Batt explained. "But, the CXL, a dressed-up version, is the sweet spot and has generated a lot of conquest sales. The buyers are a little younger than traditional Buick customers - they're aged 40-55, with a lot of professional people - teachers, doctors, GM employees - it has appeal across the board," he noted.
In fifth and sixth place, respectively, are the near-twin Mercury Grand Marquis and Ford Crown Victoria, with sales of 64,716 and 63,939. Both of these very-long-in-the-tooth traditional rear-drive cars were down slightly, again.
"The Grand Marquis is as old as the hills but we sell all we get. People just love this traditional car. It has a good track record and it requires hardly any maintenance. Ford doesn't discount it and yet it rises to the top every year," said Bob Colby, sales manager at Steve Baldo Lincoln-Mercury in Amherst.
Rounding out the Top Ten were the Dodge Magnum wagon, in seventh place with 52,487 in its first full year; Lincoln Town Car, 47,122 in eighth; Mercury Montego, alter-ego of the Ford 500, 27,007 and Kia Amanti, 18,668.
Build-outs were Pontiac Bonneville, Buick Park Avenue and Chrysler Concorde.
BMW's 3-Series easily topped the upscale car field with 101,696 sales, up from 98,615 in 2004.
"It received a new body style in mid-2005 and is our bread-and-butter car. It's bigger and is now almost the size of the 5-Series, but customers wanted a bigger 3-Series," Connelly said at Towne BMW. They now make a straight six (cylinder) with up to 215 horsepower, while the 330 model has a 255-horsepower engine. We needed a bigger engine and they now have all-wheel drive," he added.
The Top Ten rankings are virtually the same as last year except for the Infiniti G35 and Lexus ES330 swapping places, and the Cadillac CTS narrowly passing the Mercedes-Benz C-Class.
"They've improved the power and styling of the C-Class, and the C230 sport model has been appealing to our younger buyers. We're selling all we can get," said Robert La Mastra, president of Mercedes-Benz of Buffalo, in Williamsville.
Second behind BMW was the Acura TL, 78,218, followed by Infiniti's G35 at 68,728, the Lexus ES330that slipped to fourth at 67,577, and Cadillac CTS, 61,512.
The Mercedes-Benz C-Class was sixth at 60,658, followed by Audi A4, 48,922; Acura TSX, 34,856, Volvo S60, 24,695, and Saab 9-3, 24,108.
"Saab continues to make headway. They've expanded production and there's a\ new 'SportCombi' five-door version of the 9-3," Braun advised.
Trailing were the Lincoln LS, Lexus IS300, Mercedes-Benz CLS, Jaguar X-Type, Volvo S80, Saab 9-5, Audi A3 and Lincoln Zephyr, Infiniti I30 and 35, and Mitsubishi Diamante.
The M-B CLS, Audi A3 and Lincoln Zephyr were rookie '06s, while the Infiniti and Mitsubishi models were end-of-run buildouts.
The Zephyr is the upscale sibling of the Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan and Ford expects it to do great things to revitalize Lincoln.
"I haven't seen such a positive reaction to a Lincoln since the '68 Mark III. I can't keep them in stock," said Colby.
BMW's 3-Series easily topped the upscale car field...
Second was the Acura TL...
followed by Infiniti's G35...
the Lexus ES330 slipped to fourth...
Cadillac CTS, The Mercedes-Benz C-Class, followed by Audi A4, Acura TSX, Volvo S60, and Saab 9-3.
I wonder how this will all change by next year with all the new Lexus sedans...
TLN # CDXLVIII, Supreme Chief Justice "99 percent of people would soil themselves on it in 1st gear. Thatís why most people drive cars." -- HFL