Sales of fuel-efficient cars rise, tracking with pump prices

Source: Jason Plautz, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, April 4, 2012

With gasoline prices soaring, automakers are seeing sales of fuel-efficient vehicles rise and hybrid and alternative cars getting more attention from customers.

General Motors Co. announced today that it had sold around 100,000 cars that get more than 30 mpg across 12 models. Notably, that included a record 2,289 units of the extended-range electric Chevy Volt, a 50 percent increase over the previous record.

Toyota Motor Corp., meanwhile, sold a record 25,000 Prius models, according to reports. Chrysler Group LLC attributed some of its high sales — a 34 percent increase over March 2011 — to its fuel-efficient cars and Ford Motor Co. boasted record sales of 28,293 units for its Focus line, which can achieve up to 40 mpg.

The sales all came as automakers saw massive March sales, with monthly sales rising to levels rarely seen since the economic recession.

The high sales are not surprising during a time of high gas prices, which have traditionally been associated with better sales of fuel-efficient cars and lower sales of SUVs and trucks. Gas-price spikes in previous years — including last year’s springtime peak — saw small-car sales rise and have been linked to higher hybrid sales.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, gas prices are averaging $3.94 per gallon nationally, up 26 cents from this week last year.

But GM executives said that while the gas-price sales trend is continuing this year, they haven’t seen consumers “panic” in the face of higher pump prices and ditch SUVs for sedans. Instead, they said, the broader suite of fuel-efficient options, such as crossover SUVs, has allowed more consumers to opt for a cleaner car.

“The economic recovery and a deep bench of fuel-efficient cars and crossovers have been driving our sales for more than a year, but the combined impact has never been stronger than it was in March,” said Don Johnson, GM’s vice president of U.S. sales operations. “Since the last time fuel prices spiked, both the economy and GM’s product portfolio are undeniably stronger. We’re now strong across the board in cars, crossovers and trucks.”

Of GM’s total vehicle fleet, 40 percent get 30 mpg or more. That’s up from just 16 percent in 2009.

The sales figures are good news for clean-car advocates, who have said that higher gas prices would create a natural market for clean cars. But they also reflect the changing auto industry, which has been promoting fuel efficiency in the face of federal standards that will require automakers to meet a fleetwide fuel economy standard of 54.5 mpg by 2025.