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As recession ends, bigger vehicles make sales comeback

If U.S. consumers are in the midst of a green revolution, the news hasn't reached car buyers.

With the end of the recession, bigger vehicles have made a comeback, sales figures show, and that comeback has come at the expense of smaller, more efficient cars.

Leading the growth were sales of midsize sport utility vehicles, which jumped 41 percent through the first 11 months of 2010, led by vehicles such as the Jeep Grand Cherokee and the Honda Pilot, each of which gets about 18 miles per gallon.

Sales of small cars, by contrast, remained flat. Sales of the Toyota Corolla and the Honda Civic declined, and even the fuel-sipping Toyota Prius, the hybrid darling of the eco-conscious, saw its sales drop 1.7 percent.

"You have about 5 percent of the market that is green and committed to fuel efficiency," said Mike Jackson, the chief executive of AutoNation, the largest auto retailer in the country, which operates in the Tampa Bay area as AutoWay. "But the other 95 percent will give up an extra 5 mpg in fuel economy for a better cup holder."

Overall, car and light-truck purchases climbed 12 percent from January through November, led by the consumer tilt toward SUVs and pickups, according to recent numbers from Autodata.

The rise in SUV sales comes as the auto industry, government officials and advertisers have been agog with environmental sentiment and boasts about the fuel efficiency of new battery plug-in cars, such as the Chevrolet Volt and the Nissan Leaf, which recently went on sale.

General Motors ads have touted the Volt, which runs on a battery for the first 40 miles, as "something we can all be proud of."

Nissan has pitched the all-electric Leaf with an ad about a polar bear displaced by global warming. It calls the car "innovation for the planet."

And President Barack Obama has predicted a "new beginning" for a domestic industry that would manufacture "the fuel-efficient cars and trucks that will carry us towards an energy-independent future."

But building more-efficient cars and getting consumers to buy them are different issues. Consumers' tastes are a critical factor in determining the extent to which the nation can reduce its gasoline consumption and, in turn, greenhouse gas emissions and dependency on foreign oil.

"We have the technology, but what consumers choose is another matter," said Gloria Bergquist, a vice president with the industry trade group Auto Alliance. "We need to get the technology out on the road."

Brendan Bell, vehicles lobbyist for the Union of Concerned Scientists, notes that consumers have scaled back their enthusiasm for the very largest SUVs and that forthcoming changes in federal fuel economy standards will force cars in all classes to be more efficient.

"It's not like we are going back to where we were in 2007," he said.

But corralling U.S. drivers into more fuel-efficient cars can be difficult, particularly because gasoline has remained off its peak prices of 2007. When fuel prices are low, it takes longer for consumers to get a return on their investment in fuel-saving technologies, such as hybrids and plug-in vehicles.

This is true even when the government offers as much as $7,500 in incentives, as it is doing for the Leaf and the Volt.

As recession ends, bigger vehicles make sales comeback 01/02/11 [Last modified: Sunday, January 2, 2011 6:09pm]
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