Warburton said the big winners combined high prices, huge volume and long periods of production that spread development costs over a long period. He found three categories of cash cows: German luxury cars; Japanese mid-sized sedans; and, most lucrative of all, American full-sized pickups. Meanwhile, high-priced Ferraris and Aston Martins provide a huge margins but no volume and big sellers such as the Volkswagen Golf don't offer a big enough margin despite a massive volume.
"The sweet spot for the industry is high prices and decent volumes (BMW 5 series, Mercedes E Class) and medium-sized price points and massive volumes (Ford F-series pickups, SUVs)," Warburton said.
The Japanese sedans had the toughest road to fat profits because of their modest price points. Only the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry generated enough volume to make Bernstein's list of the top 12.
The German vehicles on the list were the BMW 5 and 3 series, Mercedes-Benz S class and E class and Porsche 911.
But the really big-buck vehicles were American full-sized pickups with their huge volume. The Ford F series, Chevrolet Silverado/GMC Sierra and Dodge Ram swept the top three spots and generated $108 billion in pre-tax earnings since 1990 -- about the same profit as the next nine models combined.
Warburton thinks we are probably already past the peak when it comes to profits from an individual product: "Average volumes per product and body style are falling because the market is fractured into smaller and smaller sub-segments."
The big-buck dozen
Bernstein Research's 12 most profitable vehicles since 1990.