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The best-selling vehicles of 2004

If Ford's F-Series pickup were to lose its position as America's best-selling vehicle, the effect would be similar to that of a World Series victory by the Boston Red Sox: the end of an era.
The Ford F-150 has been the best-selling vehicle for the past 22 years.Ford Motor Co. / AP file
/ Source: Forbes

If Ford's F-Series pickup were to lose its position as America's best-selling vehicle, the effect would be similar to that of a World Series victory by the Boston Red Sox: the end of an era.

But Ford Motor doesn't have to worry about that any time soon. Headed into 2004, the F-Series had been America's top-selling automobile for 22 consecutive years — and there's no reason to believe it won't finish on top again this year. In the first six months of 2004, the F-Series outsold the second best-selling vehicle, General Motors' Chevrolet Silverado pickup, by more than 100,000 models.

America's three best-selling vehicles are pickups, which may be due to the fact that American automakers best understand their country's love of size and cargo utility. When Toyota Motor drove engineers around the parking lot at a Dallas Cowboys football game in order to study the vehicular preferences of average Americans, the Japanese — who live in a country where things are small, especially the roads — were stunned at how large the pickups in the lot were, and how many of them they saw.

"These are for private use?" they asked in awe.

Toyota — which has the best-selling passenger car in America with its Camry — is preparing to assault the American pickup market with larger, overhauled versions of its Tacoma (due out this fall) and full-size Tundra.

Pickups occupy the top of the best-seller list among American autos for several reasons. First, they do double duty as private and work vehicles. As a result, many drivers can buy them, slap commercial plates on them and claim them a business expense. Try doing that with a BMW.

Second, pickups have a much wider variety of configurations that meet a wider variety of needs. You can get them with short or long beds, two or four doors, short or long cabs, rear- or all-wheel drive, gas or diesel engines and power plants that range in size from four cylinders to ten.

Third, until recently, most pickup trucks could be bought stripped down for relatively little money. These days prices are higher, but trucks are still seen as a relatively good deal. Last, the pickup truck is the modern-day equivalent of a cowboy's horse. In an age of sprawling shopping malls and housing developments, pickups still provide a tenuous connection to our rugged, pioneering past.

After the pickups on the best-seller list come two midsize sedans, the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. People shopping for family sedans like these want the best value — end of story — and find that Camry and Accord, thanks to their durability and reliability, will be the best use of their money. Also, the styling of those cars errs on the conservative side, unlike the styling of the Ford Taurus or Chevrolet Impala.

The Taurus and the Impala still make the top ten, even though they lag way behind Camry and Accord in terms of build quality, reliability and the level of features in the cars. One reason the Taurus and Impala sell so well is that a large percentage of them are sold with deep discounts to fleets such as rental car agencies. According to a recent report from Merrill Lynch, in the second quarter of 2004, the American automakers' fleet sales as a percentage of total sales was 27.8 percent. The Japanese cars have a much higher percentage of cars sold for private use, meaning that the imports generate better per-car profits.

Another reason for the popularity of the American cars is the fact that they come with thousands of dollars in rebates and cut-rate financing, and the Japanese dealerships aren't nearly as generous. The same is true for the Dodge Caravan; it is nowhere near as nice as the Toyota Sienna and Honda Odyssey minivans, but it often comes with hefty incentives. Siennas, on the other hand, can sell for close to $40,000 without much in the way of incentives, if anything.

Toyota and Honda have gradually eroded American market share with well-built cars. Now, by examining the pickup market, Toyota is paying even closer attention to what works in terms of automotive offerings to the American public.

But what's just as interesting to study is what doesn't work. Among the lowest-selling cars in America are those in the process of being killed (such as all Oldsmobiles) and those super-luxury cars that are intended to be low volume, such as those made by brands like Ford's Aston Martin; Volkswagen's Bentley and Lamborghini; Fiat's Ferrari and Maserati; DaimlerChrysler's Maybach; Panoz; Saleen; and BMW's Rolls-Royce.

It should come as no surprise that, for example, Porsche's $440,000 Carrera GT supercar, with 54 sales in the first half, is the lowest seller after models that are on their way out, were on their way in or are made by the blueblood brands. But there's a difference between cars that are low volume by design and low volume by default.

In its category, the Carrera GT is actually one of the greatest and most successful cars in the world, as are a couple of others on the list of the ten slowest-selling cars in the first half. All the GTs that are made are sold — the surest sign of success any car manufacturer could hope for.

But some cars are on the list of lowest sellers because they have problems. The second slowest-selling car in the first half — discounting those of blueblood brands and those being killed — was Honda's once-impressive Acura NSX coupe (125 sales), which is in dire need of an overhaul — and a V-8 engine instead of its V-6. Number six on the list, with 849 first-half 2004 sales, is Volkswagen's poorly received Phaeton luxury sedan, which is a fine, if overpriced, car that can't find an audience.

Perhaps the most interesting cars on the list are the two most expensive sedans from Infiniti, Nissan Motor's premium brand: the $43,000 M45 (1,023 first-half sales, number nine on the list) and the $52,000 Q45 (969 first-half sales, number seven on the list). The Q45 finds itself overwhelmed in the premium sedan market, where many buyers want a European car and have several excellent options from which to choose (BMW 7 Series, Mercedes-Benz S-Class, Jaguar XJ, Audi A8L). Those buyers who want a premium Japanese sedan ordinarily find that the Lexus LS 430 is all they need. Acura's sedan flagship, the RL, does not do well for the same reasons.

Infiniti's M45 sedan, which is on the next rung down on the company's price ladder, suffers from bland looks. It tries to compete in a segment in which the cars must play to pride, prestige and other emotional qualities — but it does this with proportions that make the M45 look like a Ford Crown Victoria.

Of course, the Toyota Camry is as bland looking as any car and sells hundreds of thousands of copies each year. But that's because it plays to a crowd that wants bland looks in exchange for the promise that their cars will be easy to operate, hassle-free and unencumbered by excessive technology, electronic wizardry or exciting driving dynamics. So many people, in fact, treat their cars as appliances that the Camry is the fourth best-selling vehicle in the U.S.

For a look at the Camry and the other top sellers so far this year, follow the link below.