It was a December and a fourth-quarter to forget, not remember, for most of the top 20 best-selling cars and trucks of 2021. The U.S. auto industry ran critically short of new-vehicle inventory at the end of the year, while consumer demand, and prices, remained high.
On the supply side, an ongoing shortage of computer chips is to blame, along with other supply-chain problems in 2021 that are typically also related to the Covid-19 pandemic, like factory shutdowns in some foreign markets, labor shortages and raw material shortages.
All those factors added up to lower car and truck production in 2021. In a Dec. 21 report, AutoForecast Solutions estimated that North American auto factories lost production of more than 2.3 million cars and trucks to the shortage of semiconductor chips. That shortfall is not at all likely to be made up, the report said.
The makeup of the 2021 top 20 best-sellers is in line with the longstanding, pre-Covid trend in U.S. sales towards trucks (pickups, SUVs, minivans) and away from cars. Only four of the Top 20 for 2021 are passenger cars: the Toyota Camry, the Toyota Corolla, the Honda Accord and the Honda Civic.
The consumer trend towards battery-powered electric vehicles is also strongly represented. The Tesla Model Y battery-powered crossover made the Top 20 list. That’s almost certainly the first time in modern times an electric vehicle has made the Top 20. Tesla’s sales are based on estimated U.S. sales numbers from Motor Intelligence, since Tesla reports only its global sales numbers.
The rest of the Top 20 is light trucks, including car-like crossovers. That’s evidence of the overwhelming consumer rush to pickups, SUVs, and crossovers, which together with minivans accounted for 77.3% of U.S. auto sales in 2021, vs. a record-low 22.7% passenger cars.
Motor Intelligence provided all sales numbers cited in this story. Here are the Top 20 Best-Selling Cars, SUVs, Pickups and Crossovers, for 2021 (entire year).
1. Ford F-Series, 726,004 Sold, Down 7.8%
The Ford F-Series was redesigned in 2020 for the 2021 model year. It’s still No. 1, despite Ford being short of product in 2021, because of the computer chip shortage. However, the Ford F-Series lead over the Ram Pickup shrank in 2021, and the Ram Pickup overtook the Chevrolet Silverado as the No. 2 seller. At year-end, the F-Series lead over the Ram Pickup shrank by 30% vs. 2020, to 156,616.
2. Ram Pickup, 569,388 Sold, Up 1.0%
By a swing of 72,613 units vs. 2020, the Ram Pickup outsold the Chevy Silverado for 2021, to become the No. 2 best-seller for the year. It also closed some of the distance between itself and No. 1, the Ford F-Series. The Ram Pickup was last redesigned in 2018 for the 2019 model year. Nevertheless, it briefly outsold the more recently redesigned Ford F-Series, in the second quarter of 2021. Ford being short of product was a factor.
3. Chevrolet Silverado, 519,774 Sold, Down 11.4%
Sales for the Chevy Silverado fell 36.3% in the fourth quarter, which dragged its sales for the full year below 2020. Year to date through the third quarter, Chevy Silverado sales were virtually even with 2020. Under the skin, the Chevrolet Silverado and the GMC Sierra share the same GM platform. GM counts both together, and claims bragging rights for the Silverado and Sierra combined, as “full-size pickup sales leader” over the Ford F-Series.
4. Toyota RAV4, 407,739 Sold, Down 5.3%
Jack Hollis, senior vice president of automotive operations for Toyota Motor North America, called the Toyota RAV4 the “best-selling vehicle that’s not a pickup.” Which it is, since this is the No. 4 seller and the top three have been Ford-Ram-Chevy pickups for years and years. Sales for the Toyota RAV4 were down 26.2% in the fourth quarter vs. a year ago, probably because of the computer chip shortage. The latest generation Toyota RAV4 debuted in December 2018, for gasoline models. Gasoline-electric hybrid models followed, and in 2020, Toyota added a plug-in hybrid, the Toyota RAV4 Prime (with 40-plus miles of battery range). Those additions have helped sustain interest in the RAV4 lineup, Hollis said in a phone interview.
5. Honda CR-V, 361,271, Up 8.3%
Honda rode out the early part of the computer chip shortage better than most brands, but eventually, the shortage caught up with Honda, too. For example, Honda CR-V sales were down 26% in the fourth quarter vs. a year ago. The Honda brand added a hybrid Honda CR-V in 2020, and that helped generate demand, said Michael Kistemaker, assistant vice president of Honda National Sales. “CR-V was the main reason,” Honda had record light-truck sales in 2021, Kistemaker said in a phone interview.
6. Toyota Camry, 313,795, Up 6.6%
Toyota Camry sales were up for the full year, even though Toyota Camry sales were down 36.2% in the fourth quarter vs. a year ago, largely due to the computer chip shortage. Jack Hollis, senior vice president of automotive operations for Toyota Motor North America, says Toyota is sticking with passenger cars, even though the domestic brands have largely quit offering cars except for specialty sports cars. “We remain committed to passenger cars and passenger-car customers, and we believe there’s room to grow in this segment,” he said in a phone interview.
7. Nissan Rogue, 285,602 Sold, Up 25.3%
The Nissan Rogue is Nissan’s best-selling model in the U.S. market. It has been a big seller since its redesign in 2020, for the 2021 model year. Its sales fell 15.8% in the fourth quarter vs. a year ago, probably in part because of the computer chip shortage. But before that, its sales were up more than 40% year to date through three first three quarters of 2021. Nissan Rogue sales numbers also include the Nissan Rogue Sport, a smaller variant with different front-end exterior styling. (Ford does the same thing with the F-Series, which includes F-150, F-250 and F-350.)
8. Jeep Grand Cherokee, 264,444 Sold, Up 26.1%
Jeep recently introduced an all-new, redesigned Jeep Grand Cherokee L, which helped generate demand for the nameplate. The 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L has third-row seating for the first time, offering seats for six or seven. The 2021 model year also includes the two-row Jeep Grand Cherokee, based on an older platform. The 2022 Jeep Grand Cherokee also includes a plug-in hybrid version Jeep calls “4xe.”
9. Toyota Highlander, 264,128 Sold, Up 24.4%
For the full year, Toyota Highlander sales were up 24.4%. That’s all the more remarkable, considering its volume was down 34.4% in Q4, due to the chip shortage. Through the first three quarters of 2021, Toyota Highlander sales were up 48.2%. The Toyota Highlander was redesigned in December 2019 for the 2020 model year.
10. Honda Civic, 263,787 Sold, Up 1%
The Honda Civic is in very short supply, said Michael Kistemaker, assistant vice president of Honda National Sales. The Honda Civic includes a wide range of variants. “It’s almost like a brand of its own,” Kistemaker said in a phone interview, ranging from entry-level models to the highest-performance variant, the redesigned Honda Civic Type R. The latter reaches U.S. showrooms in “the next few months” of 2022, Kistemaker said. The Honda Civic benefits from less competition from the domestic brands, since they have all but stopped selling small cars, in favor of trucks. The Civic is the Forbes Wheels Sedan of the Year for 2022.
11.Toyota Tacoma, 252,520 Sold, Up 5.7%
Sales for the Toyota Tacoma were up 5.7% for the full year, despite a slow Q4, in which sales were down 31% vs. a year ago, likely due to the computer chip shortage. In 2021, the Toyota Tacoma outsold its three biggest-selling midsize competitors combined, the Chevrolet Colorado, the Nissan Frontier, and the Ford Ranger.
12. GMC Sierra, 248,924 Sold, Down 1.6%
In relative terms, sales of the GMC Sierra outperformed its sibling, the Chevrolet Silverado. Sales fell in Q4 for both big pickups, but for the full year, the GMC Sierra finished the year only slightly behind 2020, while the Chevy Silverado was down 11.4%. Parent GM has made a point of saying that in light of the computer chip shortage it has been steering scarce chips to its most profitable models. No doubt both models are highly profitable, but between the two, that’s more likely the GMC Sierra.
13.Toyota Corolla, 229,785 Sold, Up 5.5%
Like most of the Top 20 biggest sellers for 2021, sales fell sharply for the Toyota Corolla in the fourth quarter — down 55.2% vs. a year ago — because Toyota nearly ran out of new cars to sell at the end of the year, due to short supplies and high demand. The Toyota Corolla sales total shown here doesn’t include the Toyota Corolla Cross, a crossover which debuted in June 2021. Toyota and auto industry analysts define the Toyota Corolla Cross as a light truck, even though it’s based on the sedan.
14. Ford Explorer, 219,871 Sold, Down 2.8%
The Ford Explorer is a perennial top-selling SUV, but the Jeep Grand Cherokee overtook Explorer in 2021, thanks in part to Jeep’s better availability in the second half. Ford Explorer sales were down 29% in Q3 vs. a year earlier, and down 9.6% in Q4, while Jeep Grand Cherokee sales improved. The Ford Explorer was redesigned in 2019 for the 2020 model year, but availability got off to a slow start due to problems launching the new model, and then the pandemic overtook the whole industry.
15. Jeep Wrangler, 204,609 Sold, Up 1.6%
Jeep Wrangler sales fell in Q4, and that dragged down sales results for the full year to just a small improvement over 2020. After three quarters, sales had been up more than 10%. Not counting fleet sales, parent company Stellantis said that in 2021, the Jeep Wrangler had its best retail sales since 2018. Additions to the lineup in 2021 included the Jeep Wrangler 4xe, a plug-in hybrid. Stellantis says the Jeep brand will lead its charge into electrification, including battery-electric vehicles, hybrids, and plug-in hybrids.
16.Honda Accord, 202,676 Sold, Up 1.6%
The Honda Accord lineup got some significant upgrades in the fall of 2020 for the 2021 model year, including the Accord Sport SE version, and upgrades to the 2021 Accord Hybrid that improved acceleration and increased electric-only range. The Accord Sport SE package accounts for around two-thirds of Accord sales, said Michael Kistemaker, assistant vice president of Honda National Sales. “People don’t want stripped-down vehicles,” he said in a phone interview.
17. Tesla Model Y, 190,395 Sold, Up 191.1%
The Tesla Model Y crossover is far and away the brand’s biggest seller, followed by the Model 3 passenger car, which shares the same platform. The Tesla Model Y by itself accounted for 54% of Tesla’s total U.S. sales in 2021, according to estimated U.S. sales numbers from Motor Intelligence. Tesla surprised auto industry analysts by outperforming expectations for the fourth quarter, in terms of production and sales, according to Joseph Spak, analyst for RBC Capital Markets.
18. Mazda CX-5, 168,448 Sold, Up 15%
The Mazda CX-5 is the brand’s best-seller by far in the U.S. market. By itself, it accounted for 51% of total U.S. volume for Mazda in 2021. Sales of the Mazda CX-5 were off late in the year, though, including a drop of 26.2% in Q4, vs. a year ago. Through the third quarter, year-to-date sales of the Mazda CX-5 were up around 33%.
19. Chevrolet Equinox, 165,323 Sold, Down 39%
The Chevy Equinox crossover SUV got a facelift in 2021 for the 2022 model year, including new front and rear exterior styling, a new grille, and new LED headlights and LED fog lights. However, sales for the Chevy Equinox were down 39% for the full year, and down more than 80% in the fourth quarter. That suggests it wasn’t a priority for GM’s scarce computer chips at the end of the year. Wednesday, GM CEO Mary Barra announced the Equinox EV with a base price around $30,000, but it’s a 2023 model.
20. Subaru Forester, 154,723 Sold, Down 12.6%
The Subaru Forester is Subaru’s compact crossover SUV. Because inventories were so low, its Q4 sales were down 47.6% vs. a year ago. The Subaru brand had a bulletproof reputation after its sales increased 12 years in a row, including straight through the Great Recession, but the streak ended in 2020, due to the pandemic, and now the computer chip shortage. Jeff Walters, senior vice president of sales, said in a phone interview he expects sales to rebound in 2022, assuming availability increases.
2021 U.S. Auto Sales By Brand: Toyota/Lexus Outsell GM
U.S. automobile sales in 2021 were up a bit (3.4%) over 2020 but down about 2.5 million vehicles compared to the best year ever in the U.S., 2017, when 17.5 million vehicles were sold.
For the first time ever, an international automaker, Toyota Motor (Toyota and Lexus) outsold General Motors (Chevrolet, Buick, GMC, Cadillac), which has been No. 1 since 1931 (before that, Ford). In the 1950s, GM alone sold about half the vehicles in the U.S. Last year GM’s brands accounted for 14.6% of the market vs. 15.5% for Toyota Motor.
Below are 2021 and 2020 U.S. sales by brand. Forty-four brands had sales last year and five were newcomers, all selling EVs: Polestar (sedans; a Volvo offshoot), Rivian (pickups and SUVs), Lucid (sedans), Karma (sports cars) and BrightDrop (GM delivery vans). A year from now, there will be more, and likely more than one EV model in the top 20.