In the car business, all vehicle types are not created equal. For reasons of price, practicality, and purpose, sales volume generated by cars in the fast-growing compact crossover segment (Honda CR-V) will always trump mid-range sport niche players (Chevrolet Corvette). That is a law of the universe that nobody expects will be broken.
But size matters a lot when comparing sales within segments. Every manufacturer wants a top seller that helps spread costs over higher production volume. Besides, there is a marketing advantage that comes with selling the most popular vehicle of a certain type. Look at the games Mercedes-Benz and BMW play at the end of the year to determine who is the luxury car leader.
With that in mind, here are the top performers in 11 important segments in 2014 so far. Some are familiar names, and some will surprise you.
Model classifications and sales data were provided by Edmunds.com.
1. Sub-compact car: Kia Soul
Kia is the upstart brand among auto retailers, having only entered the U.S. market in 1994. It is usually overshadowed by its controlling partner, Hyundai, but not in this category, where the boxy Soul, redesigned for 2014, easily outsells Hyundai’s Accent and Chevy’s Sonic. Those singing hamsters undoubtedly deserve some of the credit.
2. Compact crossover SUV: Honda CR-V
In this wildly popular segment with vehicles that combine functionality with fuel economy, CR-V, the traditional leader, is getting pressed by Ford’s Escape. The fourth-generation CR-V (Compact Recreational Vehicle) was launched in late 2011 and is due for an update in 2016. Although plagued by recalls, the third-generation Escape has been selling strongly since it was introduced in 2012. Toyota’s RAV4, which lost its sporty character in its latest redesign, is a distant third.
3. Entry sport car: Chevrolet Camaro
In a classic struggle for Detroit bragging rights (and buff-book cover space), the fresher Camaro enjoys a comfortable lead over Mustang, though the halo effect seems to be equal for both brands. The balance will likely tilt in Ford’s (F) direction when the lower, wider (and some say heavier) 2015 Mustang starts arriving in dealer showrooms this fall. I’d like mine in red.
4. Midsize car: Toyota Camry
Nobody can lay a hand on Camry, the long-time leader (since 1997) of this, America’s highest-volume passenger-care segment. The middle-of-the-road sedan may bore enthusiasts as fashion-conscious buyers complain about stodgy styling, but Toyota does listen. After complaints about the 2012 redesign, which was about as distinctive as a used bar of soap, the company ordered a speeded up “big minor change” for 2015 to keep ahead of Honda’s Accord and Nissan’s Altima.
5. Large car: Chevrolet Impala
What’s been called General Motors’ (GM) best passenger car in years, the Chevy Impala smokes the competition in this declining segment, leaving Dodge Charger and Ford Taurus in the dust. Just as it did in the 1950s, when the Impala name was fresh, the four-door 2014 version delivers an upscale experience at a popular price, though without the bench front seats and three-on-the-tree gear shifters.
6. Midrange traditional SUV: Ford Explorer
This a bit confusing. Ford’s Explorer, the segment leader, actually abandoned its traditional truck-like under-pinning in 2011 to convert to a more 21st-century unibody construction. While sales are running at half their peak during the SUV boom of the 1990s, their resilience attests to the durability of the Explorer brand. Runner-up is the Jeep Grand Cherokee, also classified as a traditional SUV even though it has been built with unibody construction all along. Trailing in third place is the only true traditional SUV in the bunch: the Jeep Wrangler.
7. Large Crossover SUV: Chevrolet Traverse
With an unusual trifecta, GM holds the top three spots in this segment with badge-engineered versions of the same vehicle: Chevy Traverse (above), GMC Acadia, and Buick Enclave. The numbers aren’t huge, but the three vehicles sell well enough to fill an assembly plant. Not forever, however. Introduced nearly six years ago, these crossovers have only been face-lifted since then and are beginning to show their age.
8. Premium Luxury SUV: Cadillac Escalade
Oddly, the high-profile Escalade runs only slightly ahead of Infiniti’s largely invisible QX80 (formerly known as the QX56 when it was introduced in 2011). The redesigned 2015 ‘Sclade is just reaching dealers and getting wall-to-wall media coverage, so expect it to lengthen its lead over the anonymous Japanese entry. Range Rover, built in England but owned by India’s Tata, is a close third. Range Rover could sell more vehicles, but the global popularity of its new model has strained capacity.
9. Midrange luxury car: Mercedes E-Class Sedan
In this battle of alphanumerics, Mercedes’ E-class significantly outsells BMW’s 5-series. BMW has been tied up with carbon-fiber electric cars and Mercedes has been preoccupied by its new line of more affordable models, so both these stalwarts are due for some freshening. The current E-class arrived in 2009 and got a major facelift in 2013; the 5-series went on sale in 2010.
10. Midrange sport car: Corvette Stingray
The new Stingray has been a flat-out sensation, thanks to its design, performance, and quality fittings, and it outsells the runner-up in this segment, the Audi A5, four to one. The availability of the convertible this summer, along with announcements about ever-more-powerful models should keep the pot stirred (and magazine editors fighting for exclusives).
11. Large truck: Ford F-150 Truck
Like Godzilla (in its many incarnations), Ford’s F-150 dominates the sales charts like no other model in history, including the Model T. And unlike Henry’s flivver, today’s Ford Motor makes sure to update the truck every few years. The changes coming for 2015 are big: The automaker is swapping out the steel cab and box for aluminum ones. Ford won’t find it easy to sell down its old 2014 trucks and ramp up production of the new ones, but unless a giant lizard tramples Dearborn, the F-150 will remain America’s most popular vehicle, car or truck, for some time to come.