If Charles Dickens were to write a summary of 2020, he might borrow a line from one of his classic novels, suggesting “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” At least, that would apply to the U.S. auto industry which came out of the pandemic-plagued year in much better shape than many observers had anticipated.
“You never want to let a good crisis go to waste,” said Steve Hill, general manager of the Chevrolet division, during a media call that highlighted how the bowtie brand was able to turn last year’s lemons into lemonade and better position itself for the this one.
On the whole, parent General Motors ended 2020 in reasonably solid shape, both sales and earnings rebounding after last spring’s pandemic lockdowns that included a two-month closure of North American automotive manufacturing. Chevy provided much of the muscle as GM plowed through the troubled year, the bowtie brand not only gaining market share but watching its average transaction prices surge to record levels.
At the dealer level, Chevrolet’s retail partners “are going to have the highest profitability in Chevy history” when the books are closed on 2021, Hill told reporters.
The key to the brand’s success can be found in its increasingly truck-centric line-up. Chevrolet gained 0.6 points of market share in the full-size pickup segment, and 1.1 points in the midsize SUV segment last year. Its market share surged a substantial 2.7 points in the small SUV market thanks to its Trax and Trail Blazer models.
Like other Detroit brands, Chevy has been slashing its passenger car line-up, notably eliminating the compact Cruze in 2019. It hasn’t abandoned the market entirely, and the eighth-generation Corvette has delivered solid numbers for the brand, Chevy picking up a full 5 points of market share last year in the luxury sports segment.
GM’s largest brand also scored a sharp increase in sales of electrified vehicles last year. Despite flat demand for battery-electric vehicles on the whole, sales of the Chevrolet Bolt EV were up 25% year-over-year, positioning Chevy as the second-largest seller of all-electric products in the U.S. market.
And the automaker is betting that the numbers will continue to surge. “A big part of that was product availability,” said Steve Majoros, the brand’s marketing chief, noting that Chevy directed more Bolts to dealers outside of California – the largest U.S. market for BEVs – last year. It also took steps to win support from retailers who have traditionally been skeptical
of battery-powered cars.
This year, meanwhile, will see Chevy add its second long-range electric model, the stretched Bolt EUV.
Next week, GM CEO Mary Barra will offer details on the all-electric pickup Chevrolet is developing, while she may expand on other new BEVs in the brand’s future portfolio. It has so far confirmed four models to be based on the new GM Ultium battery-car portfolio – including the pickup, a new CUV and two other products.
What also helped Chevy last year was a surge in pricing. Average transaction prices jumped a full 6% year-over-year, to reach record levels.
That does pose a potential problem – and not just for Chevrolet. Industry analysts have begun warning that automakers risk pricing a large segment of traditional new car buyers out of the market. Only a handful of products now start below $15,000. One is the Chevy Spark and there have been questions about how much longer it will remain in the brand’s portfolio.
“We are not abandoning affordability and attainability,” Hill said during the media webinar. But he added that it is an issue “we are looking at.”
There are a number of things Chevy has been looking at, in fact, as it continues to adapt to pandemic realities. That includes the rapid shift to online buying. The automaker was one of the first to encourage web buying with its Shop.Click.Drive program, and Hill said the goal is to “supercharge” it going forward.
To make the process even easier, Chevy has launched several efforts, including a virtual showroom that even allows potential customers to connect with the brand’s product specialists for a virtual online “walkaround.”
Hill and Majoros said the goal is to let potential customers interact with the brand however they want, though they also emphasized their belief that car shopping won’t go entirely online. The majority of buyers still prefer to see the vehicles that interest them in person, at least at some point during the shopping process.
As a result, once the pandemic winds down, Chevy hopes to return to more traditional marketing methods, as well, including in-person media events and car shows. But that won’t mean a return to the old normal.
“I do not see us, or our dealers, going back to the old way of doing business,” stressed Hill.