Driving Directions: Getting There Green

2010 Was a Mixed Bag for Green Cars

Despite the mild recovery in global auto sales, eco friendly car sales were uneven. What does that mean for 2011?
Also see new electric cars and the most fuel-efficient cars.

toyota prius in front of golden gate bridge

What to make of the fact that, in 2010, the bestselling vehicles in America were two pickup trucks, the Ford F-150 and the Chevrolet Silverado? The Ford (a sales leader for more than 20 years) racked up sales of well over half a million, and made a 28 percent jump from 2009. The Silverado and its sister model, the GMC Sierra, together did 499,929. That's a million trucks!

For the year, U.S. auto sales reached 11.6 million, which looks relatively good (certainly compared to 2009), but then you are forced to realize that something like 18 million cars were sold in China last year. And it was still the second-worst sales year in almost 30 years.

If you're looking for a green trend in American car buying, it's hard to spot it in these results. Sales of crossovers have largely supplanted that of big, less efficient SUVs, but there's no huge swing to hybrids and economy cars. The best-selling car in 2010 was the Toyota Camry (327,804 sales), trailed by the Honda Accord (311,381). The best seller in Japan is the Prius -- the company sold 315,000 of them on the domestic market last year.

The Prius is Japan's biggest sales success in two decades. We "get" the Prius, too (and that's why they're expanding the lineup with a minivan), but the Japanese pay twice as much for gas.

The common wisdom is that the return of $4 a gallon gas will cause another swing to fuel sippers (as it did in 2008), but it's $3.25 at the corner filling station now without raising too much excitement. It will be interesting to see if the Detroit Auto Show, which I will be attending next week, is as green as the last two years--or will those F-150 sales loom large? My guess is that the electric vehicles (EVs) are here to stay.

It's interesting that the SUV owner in this video says she's heading for a divorce. The next car will be smaller, and she won't drive as much:

I will be watching closely to see how sales of the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf play out over 2011. The first cars are going to happy early adopters, but what will happen when things settle down and it's up to regular folks in the showrooms? Some surveys show that people expect their EVs to have 300-mile range without a price premium, and that just isn't possible.

Getting back to those sales results. Except for Toyota, which was plagued by those reports of sudden acceleration, every automaker saw an upturn in December, with the brightest performance turned in by Hyundai/Kia (which is going green in a big way with a 50-mpg fleet goal) and Nissan.

I said it was hard to see a green lesson in the sales results, but Japanese and Korean automakers with mpg in the forefront continue to turn in strong performances, and the greenest overall American carmaker, Ford, is making the fastest recovery from the recession. In fact, Ford regained the number two slot in the U.S. from recall-happy Toyota, and group sales reached nearly two million. Those weren't all hybrids, of course (a lot of F-150s in that mix) but the automaker is doing a very credible job of greening its fleet. How about a 50 mpg goal from Ford, matching Hyundai's?

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli is a senior writer at E/The Environmental Magazine, a regular contributor to the New York Times and author most recently of Naked in the Woods: Joseph Knowles and the Legacy of Frontier Fakery.
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