As buying power increases, drivers are more willing to invest in new vehicles. The rising tide lifts all ships, and each of Alabama’s automakers boast in-demand models. Trends have emerged in the rebound economy, and although the interest in luxury and tech-loaded vehicles has returned, fuel economy remains a must-have feature.
Honda Manufacturing of Alabama saw an increase in car sales last year, with the Acura MDX leading the way. “We’ve seen car buyers looking to match their desire for functionality, fuel economy and technology with a need for safety, ” says HMA Vice President Mike Oatridge. “Of course, we can’t predict the future, but we expect this trend to continue going forward, and in turn, will continue to develop cars and light trucks to meet these needs.”
The award-winning Odyssey has received a number of upgrades, including the addition of a six-speed automatic transmission that earned a class-leading EPA fuel-economy rating. Honda’s Acura MDX also took a number of top honors last year, including highest praise by Autoguide.com and U.S. News & World Report. Loaded with smart technology and safety features, the MDX saw a domestic sales increase of approximately 26.5 percent.
As the domestic economy continues to recover, HMA’s products excel overseas. “As the exclusive global source of the Odyssey, Pilot, Ridgeline and MDX, a number of Alabama-built products are also built for export markets, ” says Oatridge. “In 2013, the Alabama plant produced more than 20, 000 vehicles for export to 49 countries, including areas in the Middle East, Russia and South America.”
Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama has invested in the development of crossover utility vehicles and sedans. “The biggest trend we’re seeing now is the move to small CUVs in favor of sedans, ” says Jim Trainor, product public relations senior group manager.
This has led to Hyundai’s concentrated efforts in the mid-size sedan market. From last January to November, the popular Sonata and Elantra models sold 199, 012 and 203, 163 in the U.S. respectively.
“Vehicles like our Tucson and Santa Fe Sport are increasingly in-demand, and we can use every one we build, ” says Trainor. “We expect this trend towards the compact CUVs to continue in the near future.”
At Mercedes-Benz U.S. International Inc., SUVs have returned from a recession-era lull and are now in high demand. “SUVs in general have made a good recovery recently, ” says MBUSI President Jason Hoff.
In addition, “The C-Class has been very well received.”
The C-Class began production at the Vance plant last June. In 2014, the plant produced 185, 000 crossover vehicles, including the GL- and R-Class. This year, the plant will begin production of an M-Class Coupe.
“Clearly customers have had a strong and renewed interest in luxury cars, ” says Hoff. “We want to offer drivers what they’re looking for and fulfill that increasing interest.” The Alabama plant is expected to reach a production capacity of 300, 000 vehicles by the end of the year.
Toyota’s Camry, RAV4 and Highlander are all high-sellers loaded with Alabama-made engines. “We’re seeing them do very well in the marketplace, ” says Toyota Motor Manufacturing Alabama President Jim Bolte. “Truck sales are up seven percent from last year, so the Tundra and Tacoma are doing well, too.”
The manufacturer’s lineup has been tailored to stay ahead of well-informed market demands. “Buyers are much more prepared now when they enter the dealership, ” says Bolte. “They’re looking for high quality, reliability and value. We aim to offer better performance that is efficient and environmentally friendly.”
The Alabama plant builds engines for multiple Toyota models, many of which are exported overseas. “Alabama-made engines are in cars all over the world, ” says Bolte. The Camry is now available as a popular hybrid option, and Toyota is continuing to develop hybrid and alternative fuel technologies.
Thomas Little is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He lives in Birmingham.
Text by Thomas M. Little