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8 Car Brands Falling Behind

Rick Newman

August was a gangbuster month at auto dealerships, with car sales hitting the highest level since late 2007 before the recession that led to the bankruptcies of General Motors (GM) and Chrysler. Vehicle sales this year could top 16 million, which would mark a full recovery for an industry that saw sales sink to less than 10 million in 2009.

Japanese automakers surged the most in August, with sales from last year’s levels up 27% at Honda (HMC), 23% at Toyota (TM) and 22% at Nissan. GM, Ford (F) and Chrysler each posted double-digit gains, thanks largely to rising sales of pickup trucks, a happy trend tied to the housing recovery. Overall, August sales rose 17% compared with the same month last year, and year-to-date sales are 10% above 2012 levels, according to sales data compiled by Automotive News. There are even shortages of a few hot models, such as the Ford Fusion and Nissan Sentra.

But the rising pavement isn’t lifting all brands. Several nameplates are missing out on this year’s auto recovery, with sales far below average. Here are the major brands with the most disappointing sales so far this year, ranked according to their year-to-date numbers:

Volvo. Year-to-date sales: down 6% from 2012; August sales: down 13% from August 2012. Ford sold this Swedish automaker to Chinese car company Geely in 2010, and the transition to new ownership seems to have slowed the introduction of new models, which is crucial to maintaining buyer interest. Redesigned vehicles will start appearing in 2014, which should help sales recover.

Lincoln. YTD down 6%; August up 1%. Ford has executed an impressive turnaround, except for one thing: Its luxury division still has a geezerly reputation. New models such as the MKZ should help revive the brand, but Lincoln needs more of them.

Scion. YTD down 2%; August up 0%. Toyota’s youth division has been a flop, with chipper little runabouts that just haven’t caught on with the kids (who don’t have much money to buy cars these days, anyway). The brawny FR-S sports car was meant to give the brand some street cred this year, but so far it’s not showing up in sales.

Chrysler division of Chrysler Group. YTD down 2%; August up 2%. The eponymous parent company is on the rebound, thanks to sales of the Ram pickup and Jeeps such as the Grand Cherokee. The Chrysler division, however, hasn’t had a new product since the 300 sedan was redesigned in 2011. A lot is riding on the new 200 sedan, which arrives next year.

Kia. YTD down 2%; August up 4%. This Korean automaker has pushed into luxury terrain with the upscale Cadenza sedan, but other models aren’t maintaining the brisk sales pace of the past few years, which is why sales are weak compared with last year.

Volkswagen: YTD down 1%; August down 2%. This German automaker went downmarket recently in its bid to build more market share from sales of cheaper, high-volume cars. What it needs now are some irresistible new models to draw buyers, beyond the turbodiesels that only appeal to a narrow set of gearheads.

Mini. YTD up 2%; August up 5%. Sales are still growing at this precocious import brand, but car shoppers seem to be tiring of the infinite variations on one basic styling concept.

Fiat. YTD up 4%; August up 1%. The cutesy Cinqucento (500, in English) may turn heads, but it doesn’t seem to be turning enough lookers into buyers. Fiat has survived its launch into the U.S. market, but it now needs a lineup that consists of more than five variants of one car. Company execs have hinted at bigger models on the way, but details have been as scarce as tail fins in Rome.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.