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What's hot and what's not?

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The Cadillac XR — with a base price of $76,650 — was the carmaker's lowest-selling vehicle in 2004.Fets GM / Wieck
/ Source: Forbes

This story has a slightly misleading title.

January is the month in which automakers release their sales results for the previous year; to be a manufacturer's lowest-selling vehicle in some cases has nothing to do with the superlative “worst.”

In the slide show that follows, we report most manufacturers' highest- and lowest-selling vehicles in the U.S., but with a special set of ground rules that make the list more than just something one could find by reading individual automakers' sales reports.

The purpose in surveying the automotive playing field in this way is to give readers an idea of what has so far worked for the carmakers, and, in some cases, what has not worked. For example, if a particular midprice coupe or sedan is languishing on the showroom floor, is it a car worth buying?

Conversely, some potential buyers may see such laggards as being ripe for discounts because they know the dealerships want to get rid of them. Knowing what the successes are is equally helpful because they usually indicate what the company does best — or at least knows how to sell best.

It is important to emphasize that there is no dishonor for many of the cars that rank as the lowest seller, because these are often low-volume by intention. Take the $440,000 Porsche Carrera GT supercar, of which the company sold only 200 models in the U.S. and Canada last year. Exotic, one-of-a-kind flagships are about exclusivity, not high sales.

For the most part, sports cars, such as the Audi TT and the Nissan 350Z, are fairly low-volume, as are most ultra-luxury cars such as Ferrari, Bentley and Rolls-Royce. Is the Corvette Chevrolet's biggest seller? Not at all. Does parent General Motors consider it a failure? Emphatically not.

Not all car lines are meant to be monster sellers — and not all cars need to be high-volume in order to make handsome profits. (See our recent feature on Luxury Hot Rods to learn how, for example, Mercedes-Benz is making a lot with a little at its AMG subsidiary.)

Not all manufacturers are included in the slide show. Some brands, such as Ford Motor's Aston Martin subsidiary, do not disclose sales by model line. Also, if a car has several different body styles under the same nameplate, e.g., BMW's 3 Series, we considered the nameplate to be one aggregate entry encompassing all of its body styles. We did not count cars that were discontinued last year or are in the process of being killed, such as the Toyota MR2 Spyder convertible. Other companies left off the list were those that sell only one nameplate, such as Lotus and BMW's Mini subsidiary.

Excluding dead or dying model lines led to some interesting results. Another reason for exclusion was if a model line was about to undergo a substantial overhaul. At Buick, for example, we cite the Rendezvous sport utility vehicle as last year's best-selling model, when in fact more LeSabre sedans were sold than any other (114,157). We did not include the LeSabre because Buick is about to replace the nameplate with a different one.

We also only considered cars that were on the U.S. market for each month of 2004, mainly because calling a vehicle that just came out “low-selling” hardly seems to afford the new model a chance. Moreover, some new cars, such as the Chrysler 300 or the Dodge Magnum, are considered major successes. Even if they may never sell as well as the Chrysler Town & Country or Dodge Ram, the luster they bring to their respective brands helps attract customers.

Wherever possible, the sources for sales figures were the manufacturers. Automotive News was our backup source.

Please follow the link below to see automakers' bread-and-butter vehicles — and the cars that are either acquired tastes, rare treats or ones for which the public has little apparent appetite.

Click here for the slide show of best- and worst-selling cars.