The recession and high gas prices have been major deciding factors in car purchases in the past several years. This can be seen on the list of the ten cars and light trucks models with the greatest unit sales growth in the last five years, as per data from Edmunds.

Interestingly enough, the list does not have a single major Japanese car company model on it. Instead, it is dominated by cars from U.S. companies, second tier Japanese manufacturer Subaru, and upstarts from South Korea, all of which grew sales by at least 60 percent.

Decades ago, Honda, Toyota, and Nissan had tremendous growth and kept gaining market share in the U.S. By July 2006, Toyota’s U.S. share matched that of Ford. Within two years, GM and Chrysler were bankrupt.

Not many analysts expected a Detroit comeback. Probably none predicted that South Korean companies would become the most successful car companies in America in terms of growth. Nevertheless, Kia and Hyundai have taken the U.S. market by storm. They have done so by following the Japanese business example of high quality, fuel efficiency, and low prices.

Most of the cars and light trucks on this list share several commonalities. First, most of them sell for less than $25,000. This threshold has become more important as the economy began to slip into recession in 2007, making low-priced cars attractive. Second, the price of crude oil rose above $140 in the summer of 2008. Consequently, gas prices shot up, and combined with the economic downturn, fuel efficiency became an important consideration. Most of the cars on this list get 30 MPG on the highway (or come close to doing so).

Without meaning to do so, Toyota and Honda helped their competitors as the quality of their models has slipped. Toyota recalled over 8 million cars worldwide in 2008. At the same time, Detroit finally realized that lighter and more fuel-efficient vehicles would be a profitable investment.

Hyundai, one of the largest industrial companies in the world, decided its balance sheet and manufacturing capacity could give it the push to match the success of Japanese exports. And, Subaru’s success was based on the simple principle that more people would want inexpensive, durable, all-wheel drive cars.

While they all took a different road to get here, Detroit, South Korea, and Subaru all made it onto list of cars with the highest sales growth.

Edmunds provided data for sales for cars that were available five years ago and in the most recent 12 months. Only models that sold at least 15,000 units were considered.

Here are the cars with the highest sales growth as researched and compiled by 24/7 Wall St.:

These are the Ten Cars with Booming Sales since the Recession Began10. Jeep Wrangler
Pct. change: +60.3 percent
# of units sold in the last year: 116,599
Miles per gallon: 17 city/21 hwy
Base price: $22,045
JD Powers Quality Score: 2.5/5
JD Powers Reliability Score: 2.5/5

The Wrangler is as close to the iconic WWII Jeep as Chrysler gets. The car has survived a long list of owners that dates back to America Motors in the 1970s through Daimler Chrysler all the way to the “new” Chrysler, which went through a pre-packaged bankruptcy.

Unlike the top-of-the-line Grand Cherokee, the Wrangler is relatively inexpensive. Chrysler added a number of features to the base model, including special sound and electronics packages.

These are the Ten Cars with Booming Sales since the Recession Began9. Hyundai Elantra
Pct. change: +60.4 percent
# of units sold in the last year: 162,153
Miles per gallon: 29 city/40 hwy
Base price: $16,446
JD Powers Quality Score: 3/5
JD Powers Reliability Score: 3/5

The Elantra is one of the vehicles at the heart of the Hyundai/Kia invasion of the U.S. Both nameplates are part of Hyundai, one of South Korea’s largest companies. Its targets are the popular Honda Civic and the Toyota Corolla, which are among the best selling cars in America. Based on the Elantra’s sales record over the last five years, it has been successful in making inroads against the segment’s leaders.

These are the Ten Cars with Booming Sales since the Recession Began8. Subaru Legacy
Pct. change: +63.8 percent
# of units sold in the last year: 16,325
Miles per gallon: 19 city/27 hwy
Base price: $19,995
JD Powers Quality Score: 4.5/5
JD Powers Reliability Score: 3.5/5

When considering the multi-decade growth of Japanese car companies such as Toyota, Honda, and Nissan, Subaru’s place among them is often lost. Nevertheless, Subaru has held a special place in the American market since it was introduced in 1968.

It is the only Japanese manufacturer where the models are exclusively all-wheel drive. The Legacy is Subaru’s mid-priced car—more expensive than the Impreza base model and less expensive than the company’s SUVs and wagons. The model has seven versions, with the highest priced 36R Limited at almost $29,000.

These are the Ten Cars with Booming Sales since the Recession Began7. Ford Escape
Pct. change: +68.8 percent
# of units sold in the last year: 94,120
Miles per gallon: 20 city/27 hwy
Base price: $21,440
JD Powers Quality Score: 2/5
JD Powers Reliability Score: 3.5/5

The Escape is Ford’s entry level SUV. It is aimed at fuel-price conscious drivers and has a hybrid model priced at just over $30,000. The light truck runs on the 2.5L Duratec I-4 engine, a four cylinder version of one of Ford’s base engine designs. The Escape competes with the Toyota RAV4 and Chevrolet Equinox.

These are the Ten Cars with Booming Sales since the Recession Began6. Chevrolet Equinox
Pct. change: +74.2 percent
# of units sold in the last year: 84,495
Miles per gallon: 17 city/24 hwy
Base price: $23,450
JD Powers Quality Score: 3/5
JD Powers Reliability Score: 3/5

The presence of both the Equinox and Escape on this list is a testament to the change in America’s taste in SUVs. The oversized Mountaineers and Suburbans are not nearly as popular as they were a decade ago. A lack of growth in real household income and high gas prices has probably caused the change. The base Equinox engine is a four-cylinder similar to the Escape’s.

These are the Ten Cars with Booming Sales since the Recession Began5. Ford Fusion
pct. Change: +75.1 percent
# of units sold in the last year: 100,621
Miles per gallon: 17 city/25 hwy
Base price: $20,200
JD Powers Quality Score: 3.5/5
JD Powers Reliability Score: 4/5

The Fusion is Ford’s mid-priced four-door sedan. It is part of the engineering renaissance that begun at the company in 2006 by new CEO Alan Mulally. The model was the first Ford to carry the company’s “new face” of three vertical bars on the grille. The car has been received well by the public and the automotive press.

The Fusion was named Motor Trend Car of the Year in 2010. The hybrid version received the North American Car of the Year Award. The Fusions is now one of the top 10 selling cars in the U.S.

These are the Ten Cars with Booming Sales since the Recession Began4. Subaru Outback
pct. Change: +77.9 percent
# of units sold in the last year: 44,559
Miles per gallon: 19 city/27 hwy
Base price: $23,295
JD Powers Quality Score: 4.5/5
JD Powers Reliability Score: 2.5/5

Remarkably, Subaru has another vehicle on the list while Toyota and Honda have none. The Outback is the company’s flagship SUV. It is another example of the demand for light trucks with substantial seating and cargo capacity combined with low sticker prices and small engines.

The base boxer engine has four cylinders. Subaru offers six models of the Outback with increasing options. The highest-priced versions sell for almost $32,000, still a relatively low price compared to many similar U.S. SUVs.

These are the Ten Cars with Booming Sales since the Recession Began3. Kia Optima
pct. Change: +93.8 percent
# of units sold in the last year: 33,336
Miles per gallon: 22 city/34 hwy
Base price: $19,500
JD Powers Quality Score: 3.5/5
JD Powers Reliability Score: 2.5/5

The South Korean nameplates Hyundai and Kia had virtually no market share in the U.S. five years ago. In October, Kia’s share had risen to 3.7 percent and Hyundai’s to 5.1 percent. The Optima is Kia’s mid-sized, low-priced four-door vehicle, which puts it in one of the most competitive segments of the market.

The Optima’s success is another example of how new models created by U.S. manufacturers GM, Ford, and Chrysler, along with cars imported from Korea, have been able to effectively compete in a segment controlled for 20 years by Japanese manufacturers. The Optima runs a four-cylinder engine for fuel efficiency.

These are the Ten Cars with Booming Sales since the Recession Began2. Cadillac SRX
pct. Change: +150.7 percent
# of units sold in the last year: 32,936
Miles per gallon: 17 city/24 hwy
Base price: $35,185
JD Powers Quality Score: 2.5/5
JD Powers Reliability Score: 3.5/5

The SRX is the only luxury car on this list. It is an indication of how far Cadillac has come as a viable competitor to automakers that dominated this segment of market such as Lexus, Mercedes, BMW, and Acura. The model is part of the “re-launch” of Cadillac. The re-launch includes Cadillac’s CTS mid-sized performance sedan, Escalade Hybrid, and STS full-sized sedan. The SUV is an example of how GM has been able to produce six-cylinder engines that have high horsepower but reasonable fuel economy. The SRX base engine produces 265 HP. It is combined with an all-wheel drive transmission.

These are the Ten Cars with Booming Sales since the Recession Began1. Kia Sorento:
pct. Change: +160.4 percent
# of units sold in the last year: 79,659
Miles per gallon: 22 city/32 hwy
Base price: $23,150
JD Powers Quality Score: 3/5
JD Powers Reliability Score: 2.5/5

The vehicle with the largest improvement in sales over the last five years is another South Korean product. The Sorento is a small, inexpensive SUV. The base model has a four-cylinder engine, although a six cylinder is available as well. Like many other successful small SUVs, the Sorento can seat five and has a modest towing capacity of 1,650 pounds. It is a nearly perfect car for the current market. Made by a new generation of companies that have invaded the U.S. market, it is inexpensive, underpowered, and carries people and cargo equally well.

(Douglas A. McIntyre/Becket Adams—24/7 Wall St./The Blaze)

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