40 MPG Cars Surged in 2011

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If given a choice, the vast majority of car buyers will excitedly opt for terrific fuel economy rather than simply tolerating decent fuel economy. In the past year, a handful of new non-hybrid cars hit dealer lots capable of getting 40 mpg. Sometimes only a certain trim level can actually achieve that mileage number — usually only in highway mileage — but the models overall stand head and shoulders above cars that narrowly miss that important 40 mpg barrier.

The slightest difference in highway efficiency earns one nameplate a huge advantage over its rivals when it comes to sales volume. 2011s numbers seem to prove it.

As individual models, these affordable, highly efficient small cars are attracting buyers at a furious rate. Ford Focus sales were up 12% in December. The Chevrolet Cruze reported a 53% improvement in December. A smaller Chevy, the Sonic, was up 42% compared with the Aveo's — the model it replaced — December 2010 performance. December sales of the Hyundai Accent shot up 91%. Though Elantra sales basically remained level in December, Hyundai's compact was up 41% overall in 2011.

The intentionally niche Hyundai Veloster hasn't turned out to be terribly niche, finding 2,188 buyers in December. That's more, incidentally, than the more traditional Kia Rio, a car which still posted a 128% December sales boost. Finally, Volkswagen's Jetta sedan was up 18% last month and finished 2011 55% better than 2010. The Jetta's diesel is rated at 42 mpg on the highway.

These recently re-engineered or all-new small cars, along with the similarly new and 40-mpg-capable yet not as hot-selling Ford Fiesta and Honda Civic — combined for a 24.3% year-over-year increase in 2011.

Contrast that with the 7.9% increase from 2010 levels achieved by the Nissan Versa, Toyota Yaris, Volkswagen Beetle, Fiat 500, Scion tC, Subaru Impreza and Mazda2 last year. All are small cars in similar price ranges but with less stellar mileage. The overall new-car market grew at a 10% clip this year.

There are mitigating factors. Not all these cars were launched on the same day with the same marketing ploy at the same price point. There's more at play here than the EPA's ratings. But there's no denying that a group of cars that boast 40 mpg numbers — and they do boast, even if that potential can only be found on the right tires with the right transmission — are selling much more often than they did last year.

Not all buyers care about fuel efficiency first and foremost. In December, Jeep had its best Grand Cherokee sales month in six years. It gets 23 mpg highway. Infiniti stuck with its jumbo luxury SUV plans over the past few years despite gas price spikes, so it recently invested in a new QX56 (20 mpg highway). Sales improved 13% in 2011.

There may be a million other reasons prospective buyers are choosing a Hyundai Veloster over a Fiat 500, but the numbers seem too high to be merely coincidence. Hyundai sold more Velosters in the last third of 2011 than Fiat sold 500s in 10 months.

This new wave of 40 mpg cars could be the first wave that changes car shoppers' thinking about what kind of mileage a new car should have, and that number is quite high.

By Timothy Cain | January 11, 2012 | Comments (4)

Comments 

The Sonic is evidence against, rather than supporting, your theory that 40 mpg stats are driving sales growth. Nearly every Sonic sold is the 1.8-liter with mileage that lags most other subcompacts.

There are also unrelated explanations for sales growth rates for the various individual models, such as the already high-volume Versa.

Very odd post.

Amuro Ray

The other possible factor is fleet sales. The % quoted is based on Dec., and if I remember correctly - and I definitely can be wrong on this one - there was a news article back close to 10 years ago, saying that car rental companies conduct fleet purchases right around this time. The article was about how lean operation on car rental companies on fleet purchases due to huge shrinkage of airline travels due to 9/11.

The vehicles that have huge growth rate are fleet common vehicles, esp in the car rental industry. Versa's also a common car rental, but I've yet to see the new version for rent (mostly 2011, which I actually have received one from ERAC yesterday). I've seen quite a number of Cruze lately in my residential area, and I did look into the ones that are parked...something like 7-8 of them. Only 1 is not a car rental from my non-scientific research, because the rest have those rental bar codes on the windshield/rear windows.

The other thing is that, the comparison really shouldn't be between 2012 (new model/generation) vs 2011 (old model/generation), because, as you probably know, car sales decreases gradually in general when the model/generation ages.

Just saying...maybe the analysis should be based on per quarter AND per year, instead of just a month. Better yet, per quarter/year comparison between the 1st generation, i.e. 1st year Cruze sales vs 1s year Cobalt sales, or 1st year Focus sales in 2011 vs 1st year Focus sales in 1999...if that data is still available (which it should, in some underground dungeons).

"If given a choice, the vast majority of car buyers will excitedly opt for terrific fuel economy rather than simply tolerating decent fuel economy."

Indeed!
Sadly, we are not always given a choice. Most automakers offer engines with better mileage outside the US than inside, responding to government pressure. Now that the price of gas in the US is declining again, we'll have to rely on the CAFE2025 standard to broaden the choice to US consumers to include all those gas sippers that our friends all over the rest of the planet have been driving already!

Back in October, I reported that while the Honda Accord is available in the US with a 3.5L and a 2.4L engine, in the Netherlands the options are 2.0L and 2.2L, with the 2.4L for sale only with an impossibly expensive trim.
Of course, the 2.0L is cheaper by thousands, and gets 31mpg (vs 24mpg for the 3.5L). For a place where gas tops $9/gal, the choice is clear - AND available.

Ziggy

Comparing December 2011 numbers to December 2010? Kinda odd really. The percentages are rather meaningless when you look at all the factors...limited dealer stock in 2010...some brand new models in Dec 2010 so there was practically no stock...some have been decent selling for the last 4 years or so and refreshed or redesigns were not out...

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