A permanent U.S. shift to small cars? Not so fast

Remember back when the U.S. pump price of gasoline was skyrocketing toward $4 a gallon and car buyers were dumping big gas-guzzlers for fuel-sipping small sedans? Many called it a “permanent shift in consumer preferences,” inevitable in a world of limited resources.

So, Americans went green, right?

Whoa, not so fast. It didn’t happen.

That’s what the November sales data suggest. The fuel-efficient small and mid-range sedans so hot-hot-hot in May have turned stone cold.

In May, the Honda Civic led a charge of the light brigade that ousted the Ford F-Series and Chevy Silverado big pickups as America’s best-sellers. Honda sold 53,299 Civics in May. Small cars outsold large pickups 2-1. Environmentalists cheered. Wave of a greener future.

But last month: 17,690 Civics sold, down 67 percent from May. Toyota Corolla? Down 59 percent. Ford Focus, down 75 percent. Honda Accord, off 60 percent. Chevy Cobalt, 76 percent lower. Nissan Altima, off 69 percent.

What did Americans buy in November? Silverado and F-Series pickups. Big pickups outsold small cars, 101,109 to 89,306.

So when fuel falls below $2 a gallon, Americans go back to their honking big gas-guzzlers like drug addicts to heroin, right?

Again, not so fast.

The raw data don’t tell the full story. The sales numbers are correct but don’t include everyone in the car-buying pool, just those who bought vehicles that month. So May had many downsizers dumping gas-guzzlers before the oil companies beat them to death. In $2-a-gallon November, more people who wanted or needed bigger vehicles bought, including folks who had waited since May.

But lots stayed out of the market both months. Sales are lousy this year, down 16.3 percent to date. One of every six regular buyers is sitting on his hands. Hey, this rational buyer says, before I buy something expensive I’m stuck with for years, what will gas cost and is my job safe?

So I don’t believe either May or November, even ignoring this year’s volatile fuel prices, credit crunch and economic meltdown.

How much of the small-car drought is cheap gas and how much is the natural small-car buyer not qualifying for a loan or worrying about job security? How much of the pickup swoon in June was folks waiting to see the new F-Series or Dodge Ram this fall before buying? How much of November’s modest rebound comes from huge wads of cash on the hoods of big pickups?

Americans are not as green as they looked in May. Or as gas-thirsty as they looked in November.

For all the summertime rapture about changed American behavior, small-car sales are flat so far this year (which beats all other segments). And pickup volume is down a quarter, but all pickups still outsold all small cars.

So what do we deduce from all this?

Maybe any shift is subtle rather than profound. Americans will keep buying vehicles that fit their needs and those vehicles will get greener over time.

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