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Hybrids Sell Like Hotcakes and Other Myths of 2009 Auto Sales

Part of the conventional wisdom about U.S. auto sales is wrong.

For instance, sales of hybrid cars like the Toyota (TM) Prius and trucks like the Ford (F) Escape Hybrid are actually down this year, even though nearly every automaker is rushing more and more hybrids to market. Hybrids can run on battery power, conventional engine power, or both.

At the same time, sales of most small cars, like the Honda (HMC) Civic and the Chevrolet Cobalt - which boomed for a while last year when gas prices passed an average of $4 per gallon - are also down this year.

It seems people have already suppressed the memory of $4 gas. (I hate to say I told you so, but ... ) In the long run, analysts expect hybrids and small cars to come back when gas prices and gas-price volatility take off again. The car companies better hope they come back, because their future product plans assume much greater demand for fuel efficiency. But for now, consumers have quit the all-out stampede.

On the other hand, some aspects of the conventional wisdom have it right. It really was a dismal year for U.S. auto sales in 2009, despite more recent signs of recovery. After all, Chrysler and General Motors both went bankrupt earlier this year and received big government bailouts.

The conventional wisdom is also correct in assuming that most categories of trucks, including pickups, most SUVs, and minivans are all out of favor.

With one month's worth of 2009 sales still to come, here are some of the details, based on U.S. auto sales numbers provided by AutoData Corp.

Total light vehicles were down 24 percent to about 9.4 million after 11 months. That means sales will fall for all of 2009 by more than 3 million units, versus what was already considered a disastrous year in 2008. According to General Motors, adjusted for population U.S. auto sales are the worst in the post-World War II era.

Even though it seems like you see more and more hybrids on the road, sales of all hybrid cars actually fell 11 percent through November, to 212,172, or a market share of only 1.9 percent. Sales of hybrid trucks fell 19 percent to only 48,582, or about 0.5 percent of the whole market. You could argue hybrids fell less than the entire market, but with many new models in the category, hybrids should be doing much better than they are.

The No. 1 hybrid, the Toyota Prius, was down 15 percent from the year-ago period to 127,907.

Some trucks are holding their own considering how the entire market has fallen. The Ford F-series pickup is still the No. 1 seller, car or truck, with sales of 365,416 through 11 months, even though its sales were down 23 percent. Toyota Camry sales are down almost exactly the same, down 22 percent to 321,878.

The Camry overtook the Chevrolet Silverado pickup this year. A year ago, the Chevy Silverado was outselling the Camry by more than 20,000 units. Year to date in 2009, the Camry was ahead of the Silverado by about 40,000 units. The GMC Sierra, the fraternal twin to the Chevy Silverado, was down 36 percent to 99,698.

The drop in fullsize pickups for GM was only partly offset by an increase in sales for the Chevrolet Equinox crossover, up 19 percent through November to 73,437.

At the same time, sales are down for several of the biggest-selling small cars. Sales of the Honda Civic fell 26 percent to 237,403 year to date. Ford Focus sales were down 21 percent to 146,228.

There were no fullsize SUVs among AutoData's Top 20 sellers through November. However, sales were up for a couple of small SUVs. The Ford Escape was up 6 percent to 153,888. The Toyota RAV4 increased 3 percent to 132,346.

AutoData doesn't even consider the Toyota RAV4 or the Ford Escape to be SUVs, since they're built on a car-like "unibody" that's welded all in one piece, as opposed to a traditional SUV, which is a body attached to a ladder-like frame, like a pickup.

That distinction is lost on consumers, but it's a money-saver for the car companies, because a crossover can be developed and built off the same basic platform as a car. That reduces unit costs by spreading costs over a bigger production volume.

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