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Subaru Forester, Crosstrek move niche brand closer to mainstream

The 2014 Subaru Forester has a starting price

The 2014 Subaru Forester has a starting price of $21,995 and received top ratings in all safety categories. Credit: Subaru

Subaru, the auto unit of Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd., added the most U.S. market share of any foreign carmaker last year as the brand long known for quirky all-wheel-drive vehicles continued to win more mass-market fans.

A revamped Forester crossover and new XV Crosstrek wagon helped boost annual U.S. sales for the unit of Tokyo-based Fuji 26 percent, matching 2012’s gain and ending 2013 with a record 424,683 deliveries. Subaru’s market share rose 0.4 percentage point to 2.7 percent, an improvement topped only by Ford Motor Co.’s 0.45 point increase, according to Autodata Corp.

“Subaru is still somewhat out of the mainstream, but they’re at that crossroad where they have to decide which direction they want to go,” said Alec Gutierrez, an analyst at Kelley Blue Book in Irvine, Calif. “Do they keep a kind of cult status or go further into the mainstream?”

Subaru benefited as U.S. auto sales grew 7.6 percent last year to 15.6 million cars and light trucks, the most since 2007. A strengthening U.S. economy and improving job market have led automakers and analysts to forecast further growth in auto deliveries to at least 16 million new vehicles this year.

The automaker’s sales gained 9.6 percent to 40,172 in December. Combined U.S. sales of Japanese and Korean autos grew 1.2 percent in December and 6.6 percent for the year.

Toyota Motor Corp., the world’s largest automaker, reported a 1.7 percent decline in December deliveries, less than the average estimate of a 3.1 percent increase from seven analysts surveyed by Bloomberg. Honda Motor Co.’s sales rose 1.9 percent, short of the average estimate of a 4.1 percent gain. For the year, Toyota reported a 7.4 percent increase and Tokyo-based Honda said sales rose 7.2 percent.

Revamped Pathfinder

December sales for Nissan Motor Co. climbed 11 percent, the most among the six biggest automakers in the U.S., while trailing the 13 percent average estimate. The Yokohama, Japan-based company’s deliveries rose 9.4 percent last year, aided by its Altima sedan and revamped Pathfinder sport-utility vehicle.

“Nissan was probably a company that didn’t get as much attention as it deserved,” Gutierrez said. “They had their best ever volume last year, their best year ever for Altima, Rogue Versa and Pathfinder -- 2013 turned into a great year for Nissan.”

Subaru won’t have a third consecutive 26 percent volume gain in 2014, Tom Doll, president of the company’s U.S. sales unit, said in an interview yesterday.

“Things will settle down a little,” he said. “We’re going to grow, of course, somewhere around the 8 to 10 percent range. Our goal, honestly, is to hold share.”

Rapid Growth

Gains this year will continue to come from the Forester and Crosstrek, Doll said. Annual volume may grow to as many as 460,000 vehicles, he said.

Supply constraints, with the capacity to build only about 800,000 vehicles globally, limit the company’s ability for further rapid growth, Doll said.

Subaru’s goal is to maintain a reputation for durable cars that have a different character from competing Japanese and U.S. vehicles, said Michael McHale, a company spokesman.

Fuji Heavy Chief Executive Officer Yasuyuki Yoshinaga “has made it clear that he does not want us to become a Toyota or a Honda,” McHale said.

Toyota is Fuji Heavy’s biggest investor, with a 16.6 percent stake, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Camry Again

Toyota’s sales of 2.24 million Toyota, Lexus and Scion models were the most since its 2007 record year in the U.S. The Camry sedan was the top-selling U.S. car for the 12th year in a row, with sales up 0.9 percent to 408,484. The Toyota City, Japan-based company’s stalwart family car is under pressure from Honda’s Accord, Nissan’s Altima and Ford’s Fusion sedan.

“Toyota is coming to terms with a more competitive landscape,” said Eric Lyman, vice president at ALG, the data company that helps determine vehicle residual values. “They didn’t have to worry about the U.S. domestics or the Koreans for many years, and now they do. That’s particularly true for models like Camry and Corolla.”

Lexus, Toyota’s luxury line, posted a 12 percent gain last year to 273,847 cars and SUVs. Yet Lexus still ended up behind Bayerische Motoren Werke AG’s BMW and Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz in U.S. luxury sales.

Toyota’s Prius, the world’s best-selling gasoline-electric auto, also missed the company’s full-year goal of sales of more than 240,000 units. Prius deliveries fell 1 percent to 234,228, hurt by a 22 percent plunge in December.

‘Solid Number’

“We missed it by maybe a day of sales or maybe a half day of sales,” Bill Fay, group vice president of Toyota’s U.S. sales unit, said on a conference call yesterday. “We look at it as a good solid number.”

Toyota’s 2013 U.S. market share fell 0.1 point to 14.3 percent, according to Woodcliff Lake, N.J.-based Autodata.

Honda had its second-best year in the U.S., delivering 1.53 million Honda and Acura vehicles. Gains for the Accord, Civic small car and CR-V crossover weren’t enough to overcome a 10 percent drop in sales of Acura’s premium sedans.

“The RLX and ILX are not quite delivering on expectations and TL is long in the tooth and not doing much,” Lyman said. The company’s MDX and RDX sport-utility vehicles “have been very well received, but the new MDX arrived a little too late in the year to make up for the car side.”

Tetsuo Iwamura, Honda’s executive vice president, said in an interview in December that fixing Acura’s sedan lineup has become a top priority. The company plans to show the new TLX sedan, a replacement for the TL, at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit this month.

Retail Customers

The Accord, Civic and CR-V each sold more than 300,000 units in the U.S. last year. Honda also has said at least 98 percent of its U.S. sales are to individual retail customers, rather than corporate or rental fleets.

“There’s a case that they are more fundamentally sound than even Toyota,” said Kevin Tynan, a Bloomberg Industries auto analyst. “It’s all retail for them. And they’ve got these three models that combined deliver about 1 million units.”

Honda’s market share was unchanged at 9.8 percent in 2013, according to Autodata.

Combined sales for Hyundai Motor Co. and affiliate Kia Motors Corp. fell 2 percent in December, missing the average estimate of a 7.2 percent increase. Deliveries rose 6 percent for Hyundai and fell 14 percent for Kia, the companies said in separate statements.

Hyundai’s full-year sales rose 2.5 percent to 720,783 vehicles, a record for South Korea’s largest automaker. The results were announced a week after Seoul-based Hyundai said John Krafcik was being replaced as CEO of its U.S. sales unit by Dave Zuchowski. The carmaker hasn’t provided details on Krafcik’s departure.

Kia, which shares vehicle platforms, engines and a chairman with Hyundai, posted 2013 deliveries of 535,179, down 4 percent.

Mazda Motor Corp. said its sales fell 16 percent to 22,964 last month, while rising 2.5 percent to 283,947 for the year.

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