Special Report

logo2006 Year in Review

The median age of cars and trucks on U.S. roads rose again in 2006 as scrappage rates continued to lag the rate at which new vehicles entered the registration rolls – despite a slowdown in vehicles population growth.

According to R.L. Polk & Co. surveys, the median age of cars in the U.S. on July 1, 2006, increased to a record high of 9.2 years, besting the prior high of 9.0 years in 2005. That marked the fifth consecutive annual increase in the age of the car fleet.

At the same time, the median age of trucks rose to 6.9 years in 2006 from 6.8 years in 2005, while that of light trucks jumped to a 6.8 years, its highest level since 6.9 years in 1999.

Starting in the late 1990s, the median age of the car fleet began steadily increasing as buyers gravitated in ever-larger numbers to light trucks and older cars remained serviceable for increasingly longer periods of time.

More Old Trucks Crushed

On the other hand, the truck fleet – especially light trucks – remained relatively youthful as the number of new pickups, SUVs, cross/utility vehicles and vans added to the registration rolls each year more than offset the number being taken off the road.

But in 2005, that trend changed as new light-truck sales dipped and a larger number of older models met up with the crusher.

Indeed, the scrappage rate for U.S. cars in Polk’s July 1, 2006, count edged up to 4.9% after dipping to 4.5% in 2005 from 4.8% in 2004, but remained well below the 9.5% rate posted back in 1970 when cars generally wore out at a younger age.

Truck scrappage in the year-ended June 30, 2006, rose to a 3-year high of 5.1% from 4.0% in 2005, while the number of light trucks scrapped equaled 5.2% of the light-truck population in 2006, up from 4.1% in 2004.

Still, there were more vehicles on the road at the end of 2005 than ever before, although the rate of increase slowed a bit from that of the prior year.

A U.S. Federal Highway Admin. compilation of state registrations figures showed the number of cars, trucks, and buses plying the country’s highways and byways at the end of 2005 rose to 244,838,802 on Dec. 31, 2005, from 240,133,777 the prior year.

Toss in motorcycles and year-end 2005 registrations tallied 251,194,959 units, an increase of 5,056,485 vehicles, or 2.1%, from the 246,138,464 units registered a year earlier, a somewhat slower grow rate than 2004’s 6,442,886-unit, or 2.7%, increase from the 2003 tally of 239,695,578.

Not surprisingly, given another round of gasoline price spikes, motorcycle registrations rose 5.9% in 2005, to 6,356,147, following a 7.7% increase in 2004 to 6,004,687.

Car and truck registrations alone increased 2% in 2005 over 2004, down from the 2.6% growth posted the prior year, but still ahead of 2003’s 1.4% gain.

Yet trucks continued to gain share at the expense of cars in the FHWA’s 2005 year-end compilation, accounting for 43.4% of combined car and truck registrations. That compared with 42.5% in 2004, 41.2% in 2003 and 40.9% in 2002.

Larger SUVs Seen Slipping

What’s more, in spite of higher gas prices, trucks were expected to continue to account for an increasingly larger share of registrations in the future, according to Polk.

The rise in popularity of hybrid vehicles and more fuel-efficient cross/utility vehicles was expected to continue to attract buyers even as sales of larger fuel-inefficient SUVs began to dip.

The car and truck count fell in three regions of the country in 2005 compared with two the prior year.

The number of units registered in the New England region fell 0.2% to 12,061,671 in 2005, a loss of 27,979 cars and trucks, following increases of 1%, to 12,044,649 in 2004 and 2.2% (11,930,352) in 2003.

Dropping for the second consecutive year the East North Central region registered 38,302,274 cars and trucks in 2005, down 62,236 units, or 0.2%, from the 38,364,510 vehicles counted in 2004. That region lost 218,597 units, or 0.6%, in 2004 compared with 2003’s 38,583,107 units.

West North Central was the third region to register fewer cars and trucks in 2005. There were 99,073 fewer vehicles on the roads there in 2005 than there were in 2004 as registrations dipped 0.5% to 18,200,848 from the 18,299,921 units.

On the opposite side of the coin, the West South Central region was again the fastest growing area. Registrations there increased 4.7% to 26,816,409 units in 2005 from 25,607,737 in 2004 when they rose 9.3% from 2003.

The WSC count included Texas, the second-largest state in terms of vehicle population, where registrations rose 560,029 units, or 3.3% to 17,379,990 from 16,819,961 in 2004.

However, the South Atlantic still was the largest single region in terms of vehicle population, with 45,203,374 cars and trucks registered in 2005, up 1,273,064 units, or 20.9%, from 43,930,310 the prior year.

In second place was the Pacific region, with 42,514,507 vehicles registered in 2005, a gain of 2.5% – 1,057,037 units – from 41,457,470 in 2004.

That included California, the single largest concentration of cars and trucks in the U.S., totaling 32,432,454 vehicles in 2005, up 1,086,501 units from 31,345,963 the prior year, a gain of 3.5%.

California alone accounted for 13.4% of total U.S. car and truck registrations in 2005, nearly twice Texas’ 7.1% share.

abinder@wardsauto.com