Best-selling doesn’t always mean better, and that’s especially true with cars. However, the average American buyer is not a car enthusiast and doesn’t value similar qualities as petrolheads. Besides, who are we to argue about the taste of car buyers?
This brings us to our in-detail article on the best-selling cars the year you graduated high school. The following vehicles won’t make your heart race, but they are still essential for American mobility as we know it today. There will be some surprises, but everybody knows most of the cars listed. Also, some of them occur repeatedly (wink, wink, Camry). Let’s dig in!
1978: Oldsmobile Cutlass – 520,279 units
The first entry might surprise you since, well, Oldsmobile doesn’t exist anymore. The brand went defunct in 2004, not long after it had the best-selling car in the US with the Cutlass. Intriguingly, Oldsmobile was a sort-of premium brand, and it doesn’t often happen that luxury cars take the best-selling crown.
However, the Cutlass was the entry-level model for the brand, which partially explains the outstanding sales numbers. Despite the increasing competition from Japan and Europe, Oldsmobile sold 520,279 models in 1978, which positioned it well ahead of the rivals. This was also the first year the fifth generation launched, making it a good start for the company.
1979: Oldsmobile Cutlass – 518,160 units
The Cutlass continued with the crown on its head the next year. Oldsmobile’s compact car was smaller than the predecessor, but buyers obviously didn’t mind. Customers also didn’t mind the fastback design of the best-selling saloon version, which wasn’t particularly popular at that time in the US.
Still, customers loved the choice of engines, good performance, and fuel efficiency. The fifth-gen Cutlass weighed only 3,300 pounds, helping with both. Oldsmobile also offered a choice of V6 and V8 gas engines, ranging from 3.8-liter to 5.0-liter capacity, and even two V8 diesel engines for those concerned about fuel efficiency.
1980: Oldsmobile Cutlass – 469,573 units
Despite the 10% fall in sales in 1980, the Oldsmobile Cutlass managed to keep the “best-selling-car in the US” title. For this year, Oldsmobile made more significant upgrades, refreshing the front fascia with four headlights. As a result, the Cutlass looked more upmarket than before.
Moreover, the company also dropped the smaller 4.3-liter V8 diesel, which was painfully slow and provided similar mpg to the larger 5.7-liter V8 diesel. Oldsmobile also offered a 4-4-2 sporty package on some models, which provided the driver with more agile handling, bringing many enthusiasts into the brand.
1981: Oldsmobile Cutlass – 454,188 units
The Cutlass remained a strong seller in 1981, despite sales falling slightly compared to the previous year. This year, the notchback (sedan) variant got a new front grille and headlights, improving the overall look. It was also the best-seller among the plethora of body options.
However, Oldsmobile dropped the 4-4-2 sporty model in 1981, perhaps due to slow sales. The brand did introduce more luxurious models to the mix, all under the “Supreme” brand. The Cutlass Supreme’s looked much more upmarket, with two-color body options and higher-quality interiors.
1982: Ford Escort – 337,667 units
Ford launched the Escort in 1981 as a response to the onslaught of fuel-efficient and reliable compact cars from Japan. The model wasn’t particularly new – it already ran in Europe and Australia for almost 15 years, spanning across two generations.
The Escort launched in North America was actually a third-gen model. However, Ford kept the model visually different from the overseas counterpart, making it look more “American.” The compact Ford Escort was an immediate success – only in the second year after its introduction, it managed to capture the crown of the best-selling car in the US from the Oldsmobile Cutlass.
1983: Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme – 331,179 units
Despite a significant decline in sales, the Cutlass Supreme managed to capture the best-selling title once again. However, this was the last time an Oldsmobile vehicle sat on the top spot, and only two decades before the brand went extinct.
Even in car years, the fall happened very fast, which brings the question – could’ve General Motors done better for the oldest American car brand? Meanwhile, the fifth-gen Cutlass went missing from the market from 1991 to 1997, when GM introduced a new model, essentially a rebadged Chevy Malibu. However, Oldsmobile stopped selling the last Cutlass only after two years on the market, announcing its downfall as a brand.
1984: Chevrolet Cavalier – 383,752 units
Compact cars continued to dominate the US market in 1984, although this time it was Chevrolet that seized the prize. Only two years after it launched the Cavalier, Chevy saw it becoming the most popular car in its lineup and across the nation.
The Cavalier was available in multiple body styles, including a 2-door convertible, coupe, and hatchback, and 4-door sedan and wagon. Moreover, Chevrolet opted for fuel-efficient four-cylinder engines this time and only one V6 option. The move was a response to buyers increasingly valuing fuel efficiency over performance, as an aftermath of the 1979 oil crisis.
1985: Chevrolet Cavalier – 422,927 units
The Cavalier continued to dominate the market in 1985, this time with even better sales numbers. The excellent results were perhaps due to upgrades Chevrolet introduced, particularly on the front end, featuring four headlights and a larger grille. The facelifted model also introduced the 2.8-liter V6 engine, providing more oomph to customers.
This year was the last time the Cavalier was at the top of the sales charts. Nonetheless, the platform continued to be a cash cow for General Motors since it was also the basis for the Buick Skyhawk, Cadillac Cimarron, Oldsmobile Firenza, Pontiac Sunbird, and Opel Ascona.
1986: Chevrolet Celebrity – 408,946 units
Chevrolet continued to dominate the US market in 1986, but this time with a larger mid-size sedan. The celebrity was a front-wheel-drive vehicle available as a two-door coupe, four-door sedan, and four-door station wagon. Customers had multiple engine options to choose from, including four-cylinder and V6 gas engines and a V6 diesel.
The Celebrity also outsold the Cavalier in 1987, but it wasn’t the best-selling car in the US. In fact, this was the last time a Chevy was positioned in the first place as of 2019. Two years later, Chevrolet replaced the Celebrity with the Lumina, which wasn’t as successful.
1987: Ford Escort – 392,360 units
As the market became more saturated, the best-selling car in the US could hold its place without even reaching 400,000 units. With 392,360 units sold, the Ford Escort recaptured the title from 1982. Ford refreshed the model in 1985 with an upgraded front fascia, also adding a 1.9-liter engine to the mix.
The Escort was available as a three- or -five-door hatchback and a five-door station wagon. It was also very fuel-efficient, primarily thanks to the low weight and small four-cylinder engines. Meanwhile, Ford also offered a more luxurious variant under the Mercury badge, named Lynx.
1988: Ford Escort – 381,330 units
Ford continued to improve the Escort in 1988 when it facelifted the compact car again halfway through the year. The “88.5” Escort looked even more streamlined on the outside and gained larger 14-inch wheels, helping it look more upmarket. The move helped attract customers, but sales were still down compared to the previous year.
This was also the last time the Ford Escort was the best-seller in the US, although not for the brand. It continued to sell well through the next years, but couldn’t beat the onslaught of Japanese cars. Strangely enough, the successor utilized the Japanese Mazda B platform.
1989: Honda Accord – 362,707 units
1989 was the first year that a Japanese model was the best-selling car in the US. The Honda Accord was first a compact car, and sales were fine, but as soon as Honda transformed it into a mid-size sedan, sales soared. Honda sold 362,707 units, enough to hold the crown in the saturated US market.
Available as a two-door coupe, four-door sedan, and a five-door station wagon, the Accord was revered for excellent fuel efficiency, good handling and stability, and reasonably spacious interior. Honda only offered four-cylinder gas engines, but the performance was almost on-par with the V6 competition from the US.
1990: Honda Accord – 417,179 units
Honda saw even more success with the Accord at the turn of the decade. The Japanese mid-size car managed to sell 417,179 units, well ahead of the competition – the second best-selling Ford Taurus was 100,000 units behind.
It seems that the sporty low-slung design attracted buyers of all age groups, including enthusiasts of the era. However, Honda also made significant engineering improvements to reduce noise and vibration, making the Accord an excellent long-distance hauler. To keep up with accelerating US sales, Honda manufactured the Accord in Ohio, at its Marysville Auto and East Liberty Auto Plants.
1991: Honda Accord – 399,297 units
Honda managed to resist the increasing competition from Ford and Toyota in 1991. Despite a small dip in sales, the Accord was still by far the best-selling car in the US, with 399,297 units sold. However, Honda’s mid-size car couldn’t continue its dominance throughout the decade, despite strong sales.
This year, Honda also brought the car upmarket, introducing the SE trim with 140 HP fuel-injected engine, four-speed automatic, leather-trimmed steering wheel, leather seats and door panels, and high-end 4x20W audio system. As a result, Honda’s mid-size car was popular among budget-conscious buyers and those seeking a more upmarket vehicle.
1992: Ford Taurus – 409,751 units
Although it was almost 100,000 behind the Accord in 1991, the Ford Taurus managed to capture the crown the next year. This was probably due to fleet sales on Ford’s part, but also because it was the first year of the second-gen model.
Ford made significant styling improvements in 1992, accepting the low-slung sporty design that made the Accord popular but pairing it with powerful 3.0-liter and 3.8-liter V6 engines. However, mechanically it was similar to the previous generation. The Taurus was only available as a four-door sedan and five-door station wagon since Ford offered the Probe as a coupe alternative.
1993: Ford Taurus – 360,448 units
Despite a significant drop in sales in 1993, Ford managed to keep the crown of the best-selling car in the US, in front of the Accord. There were several reasons why customers loved the Taurus, but it was mainly the well-designed interior.
Ford designed the dashboard to be driver-oriented and employed padded armrests into the door panels, thus significantly improving the driver’s comfort. Furthermore, the controls were closer to the right hand, but also, the new design allowed for a passenger-side airbag, the first of its kind. The Taurus was also reasonably spacious and had a large cargo area.
1994: Ford Taurus – 397,037 units
Sales of the Ford Taurus accelerated again in 1994, despite strong competition from Toyota and Honda. Interestingly, Ford tried itself on the Japanese market with the Taurus, but sales weren’t very strong, since taxes for large V6 engines in Japan were very high.
Ford offered three trims on the mid-size car – L, GL, and LX. Meanwhile, enthusiasts could opt for the SHO high-performance model with more aggressive looks and more power. Furthermore, Ford provided two transmission choices – a four-speed automatic and a five-speed manual, available with both engines.
1995: Ford Taurus – 366,266 units
Despite an 8% drop in sales, the Taurus continued to be the best-selling car in the US. Interestingly, this was the last year for the current generation, and it didn’t include significant upgrades to the previous year. However, the combination of powerful engines, good stability, excellent driver and passenger comfort, and modern looks still managed to attract customers.
Thanks to the excellent performance of the mid-size, Ford even offered a police version, which came exclusively with a tuned 3.8-liter V6 engine (+15 HP). Nonetheless, the Crown Victoria continued to be a more popular choice among police officers.
1996: Ford Taurus – 401,049 units
Ford completely redesigned the Taurus for 1996. The car now featured a more elegant design with oval lines, in line with the Japanese cars of the era. Customers loved the idea at first – Ford sold over 400,000 1996 Taurus units.
Ford didn’t follow the Japanese lead in engine design and continued to offer only V6 engines, this time including a modern Duratec unit. However, the Blue Oval listened to a lot of customer input and extensively tested the Accord and Camry to see what made them popular. Still, that wasn’t enough to keep the Taurus on top – this was the last year for Ford on the top spot.
1997: Toyota Camry – 397,156 units
Toyota battled with Honda and Ford in the 90s’ in the mid-size segment with the Camry. It was a very popular car among buyers, primarily thanks to its outstanding durability and reliability. The Camry, along with the Corolla, were the cars that cemented Toyota’s place as the most successful overseas manufacturer in the US to this day.
The XV20 model, launched in 1996, came in four-door sedan and five-door station wagon versions. It also featured a sportier low-slung design, in contrast to the oval look of the predecessor. Sales quickly soared – Toyota sold 397,156 units in 1997.
1998: Toyota Camry – 429,575 units
The word of the indestructible Camry got out in the US, catching even more attention among buyers. Toyota quickly got synonymous with low cost of ownership and long-lasting mechanics, and the Camry was at the forefront of all that.
As a result, the Japanese automotive giant sold 429,575 units, well ahead of Honda Accord and Ford Taurus in the second and third place, respectively. Interestingly, the Camry was just getting started – apart from a one-year hiatus in 2001, it continued to dominate the US market to this day.
1999: Toyota Camry – 448,162 units
Toyota saw even more success in 1999, selling astonishing 448,162 units of its mid-size car. And that was despite the fact that in this generation, coupe and convertible versions had a different nameplate – Camry Solara.
Toyota also offered only two engines with the Camry – a 2.2-liter four-cylinder with 133 HP and a 3.0-liter V6 with 192 HP, both very reliable. To attract enthusiasts, Toyota even offered a TRD (Toyota Racing Development) version of the car. The Camry TRD featured a supercharger kit for the V6, resulting in a healthy 247 HP on the front axle.
2000: Toyota Camry – 422,961 units
The Toyota Camry saw a small dip at the turn of the century, but 422,961 units were still enough for the top spot. The sales were falling largely because Honda introduced an all-new Accord in 1998, making the Camry an older model. Nonetheless, Toyota continued to win customers over with reliability and low cost of ownership.
This was also the last year that Toyota offered the TRD supercharger add-on due to slow sales. Nonetheless, the Japanese brand continued to offer three trims – the CE, LE, and XLE, although it refreshed the Camry with a new fascia at the turn of the previous year.
2001: Honda Accord – 414,718 units
Honda recaptured the top spot in the US for one last time before Toyota dominated the market. The sixth-gen Accord was already four years on the market, but that didn’t stop the Japanese mid-size car to find its way to 414,718 owners.
The sixth-gen model was only available in sedan and coupe form. It was also larger on the outside and inside, sharing the platform with the upmarket Acura TL. Honda now also offered a 3.0-liter V6 engine with 200 HP. However, the transmission wasn’t particularly reliable and even got Honda a class action lawsuit due to frequent failures.
2002: Toyota Camry – 434,135 units
Toyota launched an all-new Camry in 2001, codenamed XV30, and the vehicle was an immediate success. For the first full year the mid-size car spent on the market, it immediately found its way to 434,135 owners and the top spot in the US, which it still holds today.
While reliability was still the primary reason behind the excellent sales, the seventh-gen Camry also won customers with its roomy interior. Notably, Toyota designed its mid-size sedan as a compact car, with a shorter front end and higher roofline, which created much more legroom and headroom for passengers in both rows.
2003: Toyota Camry – 413,296 units
Despite a small dip in sales, the Toyota Camry continued to dominate the mid-size segment in the US with 413,296 sold. It was no surprise that Toyota could sell that many Camry’s since it offered buyers a lot of choices.
For instance, the mid-size car was available as a four-door sedan, but Toyota also offered a Camry Solara coupe. Then, the Japanese brand offered 2.0-liter and 2.4-liter four-cylinder engines and 3.0-liter V6 with 210 HP. There were also four-speed and five-speed automatics on offer and a five-speed manual. Toyota even offered a front-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive versions of the sedan.
2004: Toyota Camry – 426,990 units
Toyota introduced a new engine in 2004, a larger 3.3-liter V6 producing 225 HP, making the family sedan a tad sportier. However, that wasn’t enough for the Camry to avoid the “boring” moniker, primarily from automotive journalists and the media, who didn’t like the soft suspension and lifeless steering.
The general public didn’t seem to care, though. Toyota sold 426,990 units, enough to handily beat the competition in the segment and capture the top spot. Comfort and reliability always seem to win customers over, not the performance and agile handling, a recipe that Toyota largely follows to this day.
2005: Toyota Camry – 431,703 units
The first big refresh of the Camry came in 2005 when Toyota redesigned the exterior to look a tad more aggressive. It was still the good old Camry, but with a bit more flair. The interior saw bigger upgrades. Toyota added an Optitron gauge cluster, which only illuminated after you started the car, just like in a Lexus.
Furthermore, all trims got steering wheel-mounted controls for the audio system, which was both a safety and comfort feature. Engines carried over from the previous generation, albeit this time the V6 option only came with a five-speed automatic transmission. This was also the last year for the current generation, which showed to be the most popular for Toyota. Nonetheless, the media continued to call the Camry boring, forcing Toyota to add more panache and sportiness into the next generation
2006: Toyota Camry – 448,445 units
Toyota introduced an all-new generation of the Camry at the start of 2006, which helped the model reach unprecedented heights in sales. The new Camry looked much more upmarket, with a more muscular design on the outside, and an improved interior with Lexus-like features.
To silence the critics (the media) and attract enthusiasts, the Japanese brand also introduced a larger 3.5-liter V6, producing a healthy 268 HP. Moreover, for the first time, the Camry was offered with a hybrid powertrain, which proved to be very popular among efficiency-conscious buyers. The Camry Hybrid wasn’t a slouch, either – it combined a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine with electric motors.
2007: Toyota Camry – 473,108 units
Despite the significant changes Toyota introduced to the current generation, the media still placed it at the bottom in comparison tests. Not that buyers cared – Toyota sold staggering 473,108 units in 2007, which was way ahead of the competition.
Many people were baffled by the success of the Camry, but from this point, there is nothing strange about its success. Toyota’s mid-size sedan was roomy and comfortable, had efficient and reliable engines, and the dealer network was the best around. Besides, the availability of a hybrid powertrain was a plus for the environment-conscious buyers.
2008: Toyota Camry – 436,617 units
Toyota saw a significant decline in Camry sales in 2008. However, that didn’t happen because the competition was stiffer. Instead, this was the first year of the economic recession in the US, which steered customers away from car dealerships.
Nonetheless, Toyota still managed to sell 436,617 units, placing it well ahead of the competition. Buyers continued to prefer the more efficient four-cylinder engines to the larger V6. Hybrid sales also hold firm, especially since fuel-efficient vehicles were again becoming popular. Still, Toyota couldn’t hold the sales number for long, since the next year would hit the model even harder.
2009: Toyota Camry – 356,824 units
The Toyota Camry saw a massive decline in 2009. However, it wasn’t alone – the car market failed significantly since this was the first year that the recession took a full swing. Buyers simply didn’t think about buying new vehicles, which would continue in the next few years.
Still, Toyota was way more successful than its competition in the mid-size category. The Japanese auto giant even introduced a facelifted version, with minimal changes to the regular models. However, the hybrid gained a completely new fascia to better differentiate itself from other models. It was a good move from Toyota since hybrids started gaining significant traction during the recession.
2010: Toyota Camry – 327,804 units
Another year of recession, and another drop for the Camry. This time, Toyota sold 327,804 units, almost 150,000 less than three years ago. This time, the Japanese brand also had unintended acceleration problems in most of its models, warranting a large recall. However, it later turned out to be an issue with the floor mats, which Toyota quickly fixed.
Although sales dropped, Toyota’s mid-size sedan continued to dominate the segment, because the competition also saw reduced sales. Customers also didn’t seem to care about the “unintended acceleration” recall. Still, after five years on the market, the Camry did start to show its age.
2011: Toyota Camry – 308,510 units
Toyota continued to sell the same Camry without significant changes through 2011, which inevitably lowered the sales even more. Still, Toyota’s reliability and brand awareness were enough for the mid-size sedan to keep the top spot for a tenth consecutive year.
This year, though, it was the Nissan Altima that closely followed the Camry with 268,981 units sold. Meanwhile, the Ford Escape announced the definitive arrival of crossovers with 254,293 units sold, with the Honda Accord following next with 253,599 units. The competition was closer than ever, meaning Toyota had to do something if it wanted to keep the top spot in the coming years.
2012: Toyota Camry – 404,886 units
Toyota finally refreshed the Camry in 2012 as an all-new model. The mid-size sedan kept similar dimensions outside, but it was a much more appealing package. Toyota decided to use a sportier design this time, with more aggressive front fascia and overall sharper lines.
Although it seemed that Toyota’s customers preferred more laid-back designs, sales of the sportier 2012 Camry skyrocketed. The Japanese giant again opened a significant gap to its peers in the mid-size segment, with the Honda Accord a distant second. Toyota again had a winner on its hands – buyers loved the all-new Camry.
2013: Toyota Camry – 408,484 units
Sales continued to grow in 2013, although Toyota didn’t introduce anything new to the model. Not that the Camry needed that. From the get-go, it came with three engine options: a 2.5-liter four-cylinder with 178 HP, a 2.5-liter hybrid with 202 HP, and a 3.5-liter V6 with 268 HP.
Buyers even had a sporty option in the SE trim, which came with larger 17-inch alloy wheels (18-inch on the V6), and a sport-tuned suspension. The media didn’t buy that – it still preferred the Honda Accord, but it was enough to lure buyers inside Toyota’s dealerships, which is the thing that really matters.
2014: Toyota Camry – 428,606 units
Although the Honda Accord had a strong year with 388,374 units sold, it wasn’t enough to dethrone the Camry. Toyota also saw an increase in sales of 4.9%, enough to keep the top spot intact. The company also sold more Corolla’s and RAV4’s than before, having one of the best years as a company.
However, the Camry really started feeling pressure from SUVs and crossovers this year, which started attracting even more buyers. The sales were strong, but the market clearly shifted toward vehicles with higher ground clearance and more practical interiors.
2015: Toyota Camry – 429,355 units
Toyota’s answer to the changing landscape in the automotive industry was a completely redesigned Camry. Although the 2015 model is the same XV50 generation as the previous, it came with a much more elegant design. Gone were the pre-facelift model’s angled lines, replaced with a much softer and fluid overall appearance.
Toyota changed all body panels, except for the roof, but inside, it was the same Camry as before. There were no mechanical changes. Still, the new design helped the Camry stay relevant in a market that continued to shift towards SUVs and crossovers.
2016: Toyota Camry – 388,618 units
The Camry saw a slight dip in sales in 2016 with 388,618 units. However, Toyota couldn’t care less, since the second best-selling car was its compact model, the Corolla, with 378,210 units. The brand also sold 352,154 RAV4s, finishing the year very strong.
Despite having a good year, the Camry was not particularly popular with the media, which still called it boring. Akio Toyoda, Toyota’s CEO, had enough of that and pushed his engineering team to make the mid-size sedan a good driver’s car finally. A racing driver himself, Akio made a promise that no Toyota will be boring anymore.
2017: Toyota Camry – 387,081 units
The result of Akio’s push for more interesting vehicles was the 2017 Camry. It was a completely new model that utilized Toyota’s TNGA platform, promising a lower center of gravity and stiffer body shell. As a result, the all-new Camry was a big step forward in performance, agility, and stability.
Despite the focus on delivering a better driving feel, Toyota’s mid-size sedan continued to offer owners a comfortable and quiet driving experience, along with stellar reliability. It also didn’t hurt that it looked way more interesting than before, with a low-slung look, aggressive front fascia, and muscular rear end.
2018: Toyota Camry – 343,439 units
Although Toyota finally introduced a Camry that’s worth a drive, sales dipped in 2018. It had nothing to do with the vehicle itself, but with the complete change in the automotive landscape.
This year, SUVs and crossovers overtook mid-size sedans and compact cars in sales. It was actually the all-new Toyota RAV4 that has thrown the Camry down the pecking order, with staggering 427,170 units sold compared to the sedan’s 343,439. Therefore, Toyota was still more than fine, but now the Camry wasn’t its biggest cash cow. Fortunately, Camry sales were still strong compared to other mid-size sedans – Honda sold only 291,071 Accords.
2019: Toyota Camry – 336,978 units
In 2019, sales of SUVs and crossovers continued to have an upturn, expectedly at the cost of car sales. And the trend only seems to accelerate, which doesn’t bode well for regular cars. Despite falling sales, the Camry still managed to keep the crown with 336,978 units.
This time, though, there was an even greater gulf between the Camry and the RAV4, with the latter finding its way to 448,071 owners. As a result, some manufacturers even announced they would shut production of their mid-size sedans, but Toyota promised it would continue to invest in the category.