Let's face it: When more than four million car sales disappear, it's unlikely any carmaker will have a banner year, and the three companies identified by Kelley Blue Book did experience downturns. The overall market for 2005-2008 used cars was down 8.5 percent in 2009, Subaru actually showed a 1.3 percent increase. Audi was down only 1.9 percent, and Mercedes-Benz down 3.3 percent (both much better than market average).
In the fourth quarter of 2009, vehicle depreciation as measured by KBB.com accelerated, down 5.6 overall in the last four weeks. But, again, the three foreign automakers did better than average: Subaru was down just 0.4 percent, Mercedes 2.7 percent and Audi 3.6 percent.
Brand image seems to be improving, too. When shoppers look for non-luxury SUV or crossover models at Kelley Blue Book, Subaru is up five points since the first quarter of 2009 (22 percent look at Subarus now, and 17 percent then). Audi is up four points in the period, (14 to 18 percent). And Mercedes up two points (15 to 17 percent).
Audi, Mercedes and Subaru have varied appeal, of course. The first two have reputations for advanced, top-quality engineering. Subaru is still getting a lift from the very lucrative Outback models and the overall popularity of the Forester, which offer off-roading cues and all-wheel-drive without going all the way to the SUV. The Legacy Outback could be said to have launched the crossover phenomenon.
The three brands are bucking the trends for various reasons, says KBB.com Executive Market Analyst James Bell. "Subaru, though still a minor player, is on a growth spurt and has been able to grow market share in a down market," said Bell. "It has captured sales from buyers who once bought Chevy Tahoes and Ford Expeditions but wanted something that was more fuel efficient and responsible--without losing durability and functionality."
Mercedes and Audi, Bell said, "are both brands that have recaptured their sense of style. They've been very bold in their design statements and built new faces for the brand, which has resonated with people searching online. The two companies are also seen as car-centric--not dependent on SUVs, though they do produce them--and that has helped them retain value. The cars are capturing people's imagination--they're dreaming of owning one, which is a good sign."
And good signs are important as the new decade begins.