NEW YORK CITY — Although rumors of the electric car’s early death have been political fodder for months, and the Chevrolet Volt all but buried as “Obama’s Car,” the March sales figures had journalists searching for the apt phrase — was it a “rebound” or a “re-Volt”? The fact is that GM sold 2,289 Volts that month, its best results ever and double February's numbers. Europeans have also ordered more than 7,000 of Volt’s sister car, the Opel Ampera.
With $4-a-gallon gas, the case for electrics and plug-in hybrids hasn’t gone away. Even buyers who aren’t ready for cars like the Volt or Nissan Leaf are moving down a class. SUVs are being abandoned for crossovers, big luxury cars for mid-sized offerings, and compacts for subcompacts.
Automakers continue to introduce green cars at a blistering pace, and the results were on display here at the New York International Auto Show. Fisker kicked things off earlier in the week when it finally unveiled its Project Nina car. The Atlantic is a more compact, four-door sedan “aimed at young families,” presumably those able to spend about $45,000 to $50,000. Its timetable is very iffy, in part because the Department of Energy froze payments intended to help build the car until it renegotiates the remainder of its $529 million loan to Fisker.
I watched Chevrolet unveil its full-sized 2014 Impala on Wednesday, first rolling out 1965 and 1966 models for contrast. But that ‘65, though gorgeous and selling a record 1 million units, averaged around 13 miles per gallon on a good day. The new car, on sale next year, will be offered in not one but two fuel-efficient models, including with a 2.5-liter Ecotec four that’s good for 30 mpg on the highway, and a 2.4-liter version with the eAssist mild hybrid system, yielding 35. There’s no V8 offered, and that itself is a sign of our times.
Another sign is that the full-sized segment is not what it once was. “It’s been deteriorating, but now has a new lease on life,” Chris Perry, Chevrolet’s global marketing vice president, told me. In a good year, Americans bought 1.4 million full-sized cars, but last year they took home only 600,000.
In contrast, GM is seeing plenty of health in the subcompact segment, where it has only recently become a player. "In March, the Sonic had its best month since the launch,” Perry said. “We beat the Honda Fit, the Ford Fiesta and the Hyundai Accent.” He added that half of GM’s cars now carry four-cylinder engines. The company has 12 models that get more than 30 mph on the highway, and in March sold 100,000 of them (nearly half of the total cars it moved).
Chrysler said it had squeezed 40 mpg combined out of the Dodge Dart (right), though that was an unadjusted figure. It's still pretty remarkable, coming from a company that's never paid much attention to fuel economy.
“Last month, consumers’ thirst for small and fuel-efficient cars was a prime factor in driving light car and truck sales nearly 13 percent higher than a year ago,” reported the Wall Street Journal. All I heard at the show was fuel economy numbers, on model after model. The new Nissan Altima, introduced by CEO Carlos Ghosn, will get 38 mpg on the highway.
I enjoyed Ghosn saying, in the same speech, that the Nissan Leaf (left) “is the top-selling zero-emission vehicle in the history of our industry.” OK, but that’s not saying a whole lot. The company has sold 11,000 of them in the U.S. so far, and 579 last month. In a breakfast talk, Ghosn said sales will pick up when the car is produced in the U.S., beginning late this year. Natural disasters in Asia and the strong yen have affected the Leaf, Ghosn said. He still sees electric cars having 10 percent of the market by 2020, at least in the markets where they’re available.
I’ve been to shows with more green car introductions. The most noticeable thing about this one was the buoyant mood. Unlike Europe, where sales are in the toilet, Americans are buying cars like there’s no tomorrow. The $4 price at the pumps isn’t deterring them, but it is persuading them to look for 30 mpg — or better — on that window sticker.