DETROIT — Among the many shiny models vying for attention at Detroit’s North American International Auto Show are the revamped Volkswagen Jetta, Hyundai Veloster and Kia Forte.

But cars – particularly small ones – are having a tough time getting buyers to look their way as SUVs grow in popularity.

Car sales are expected to fall to a record low this year after steadily declining for several years. SUVs surpassed cars for the first time in 2016, and the gap is expected to widen: Auto shopping site Edmunds.com predicts SUVs will make up 43.5 percent of new vehicle sales this year, as car sales fall to 34.5 percent. (Edmunds regularly provides content, including automotive tips and reviews, for distribution by the Associated Press.)

The reasons are plenty, including relatively low gas prices, growing millennial families and small, attractive SUV models that are becoming more fuel efficient and affordable.

The small-car slump and SUV boom have spurred industry changes: Ford is converting a Michigan plant that currently makes the Focus to Bronco SUV production. The automaker plans to move Focus production to China.

So why the big push to make – and market – cars as the demand dwindles? There are economies of scale, since many cars are sold globally, including in overseas markets where small cars are more popular. Then there’s the “gateway” effect, said Michelle Krebs, an executive analyst for the car-buying site Autotrader.com.

“A small car is likely the first new vehicle a young person buys,” she said in an email. “So it is particularly important to make a good impression so that person sticks with a brand and moves up the size and price ladder.”

Despite the sales drops, the U.S. small-car category is still “huge,” Krebs said, representing 2.1 million last year.

Still, there’s no question that several car-dependent manufacturers have been hurt by the shift to SUVs, including VW, Hyundai and Kia. The models being showcased in Detroit are examples of “what they have to work with while they develop more sport-utilities,” Krebs said.

Hyundai isn’t giving up on small cars, as evidenced by the new Veloster. It also recently revealed the updated Accent subcompact, which has some surprising optional features like remote start, which lets the driver start the car with a smartphone, and a hands-free trunk that opens when the driver waves a foot under it.

“We still believe there’s big demand for basic transportation that offers more,” said Michael O’Brien, who leads U.S. product planning for Kia, Hyundai’s smaller affiliate.

Underscoring the point, Kia said the Forte had its best sales year in 2017 – the last year before the redesigned model debuted at the Detroit show.

Even though small cars have fallen out of favor in the U.S. now, automakers still need to invest in them because of demand in other parts of the world, said Mark Reuss, General Motors’ global product development chief. Also, Reuss said he’s seen events that have rapidly shifted what consumers want, and he wants to be ready if that happens.

“Some of the big shocks … I’ve seen in my career flip things pretty quick, faster than we can change capital investments,” he said.

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.