Americans shift to smaller, more fuel-efficient cars

(July 2010) A report by Automotive News reveals that a major shift in American automobile purchases to smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles has taken place since 2007, the last of the boom years and starting with a spike in fuel prices early in 2008.

According to the trade publication, compared with consumers in the first half of 2007, Americans now are buying: more cars, fewer trucks and smaller vehicles in general; smaller and less expensive cars within segments; ordinary rides that replace bigger or more luxurious vehicles.

Cars are outselling light trucks, taking 53.4 percent of the market in the first half of this year. That compares with 49.2 percent in the first half of 2007. But a close look at the numbers reveals an even more dramatic shift.

When car-based crossovers and minivans are lumped in with cars rather than with trucks, the swing away from body-on-frame pickups, SUVs and full-sized vans is striking, Automotive News reported. The big trucks plunged from 31.1 percent of the U.S. market in the first half of 2007 to 22.8 percent in this year's first half. Car-based vehicles grew to 77.2 percent, from 68.9 percent.

SUVs have fallen more than any other segment during the three year-span: to 7.9 percent, from 12.8 percent. The car-based crossovers that look like SUVs but handle better and get better mileage have grown by 5.2 share points - 19.6 percent this year, from 14.4 percent in 2007.

"When gas prices spiked [in 2008] and manufacturers dropped big incentives on high-end trucks, consumers felt burned and SUVs got hit real hard," George Magliano, a forecaster for IHS Automotive, told Automotive News.

The growth in car sales is all at the lower end. The small-car category that includes the Toyota Corolla and Ford Focus commanded 13.8 percent of the U.S. market in the first half of this year, up from 12 percent in the first half of 2007. Mid-sized cars, led by the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry and Ford Fusion, held 30.3 percent of the market, compared with 27.9 percent in 2007.

By Scott Doggett,