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A story from Detroit scribe Mark Phelan caught my eye the other day, as the noted auto journalist outlined Detroit’s efforts to attract more sales on the West Coast, along with some of this year’s positive results. The news was good, as should have been expected; the Chrysler Group, GM and Ford have combined to raise their market share in California by 4.8 percent in the third quarter of this year—bringing their total share in that state to 27.8 percent. To put that into context, the threesome increased their overall market share by about 6 percent for the same period, and owned 47.5 percent of the U.S. market at the end of September (according to numbers from Experian Automotive).
And while that looks like the domestics still have a long, long way to go before achieving parity in what’s generally accepted to be the top market in the auto industry, a closer look at what’s going on in California provides some surprising insights.
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Six of One, Half Dozen of Another
Looking at the top 20 vehicles by market share in the U.S. and California, there are 14 that make both lists. Unsurprisingly, of the six vehicles on the U.S. roster that are missing from the California results, all are from domestic automakers: Ford Escape and Ford Focus; Chevrolet Malibu, Chevrolet Impala and Chevrolet Equinox; and the Ram pickup. But for the most part, it’s not as if those products were replaced by competitors from import brands on anything like a one-to-one basis.
The Mazda3 is No. 20 on the Cali list, and you could say that represents a shift among compact buyers away from the rival Focus. But two of the California vehicles clearly represent a trend based more on economic trends. The West Coast sales success of the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C Class, 7th and 17th in Golden State market share (respectively), is undoubtedly a reflection of the relatively high incomes found in a few key cities in that state.
The Nissan Versa also joins the California top 20, yet this doesn’t say too much about differences between West Coast buyers and those from the rest of the country either, since the car has been hovering around the national top 20—and in some months entering it—for much of the year, including September of 2011, the last month used in tallying the figures under discussion.
That leaves a pair of Toyota products, the Toyota Tacoma—in the 12th spot for West Coast market share—and the Toyota Sienna, in the 15th spot. Taking this pair in reverse order, the Sienna situation fits in well with the state’s lack of interest in big U.S. trucks. Both GM and Ford, remember, use large crossovers to fill the minivan-sized holes in their lineups, and the Sienna’s fairly high volume in California isn’t going to change that.
The Tacoma, though, should be of particular interest. That a Japanese pickup does well on the West Coast is no shock, but that it’s the smaller Tacoma instead of the full-size Toyota Tundra (or Nissan Titan) helps make GM’s decision to reboot the Chevy Colorado look pretty good.
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Tracking the Changes
Another important factoid gleaned from comparing U.S. and California market share is that not only is the latter falling significantly for many imports, but in some notable cases, it’s falling at a faster rate than in the rest of the country. Consider: the vehicle with the highest California market share after the first three quarters of 2011 was the Toyota Camry, and looking at the overall U.S. statistics, we see that it shed about 1.14 percentage points as compared to the same time in 2009. But in California, the Camry’s slice of the pie had dropped by more than half a point further than that, falling by 1.66 points.
The car with the second highest market share in the Golden State in 2009, the Honda Civic, dropped 1.69 points of U.S. share in the period under discussion and 2.39 in California. The Toyota Prius? Down .83 points overall and 1.48 points in California.
On the other hand, it’s not just the U.S. makers who are benefiting from the changing circumstances. After all, while the Hyundai Elantra and Hyundai Sonata actually lost share overall between 2009 and 2011—caused by relatively higher volume increases in the industry as a whole—both were up substantially in California. The Sonata gained a full .5 points of share out west, with the Elantra besting that performance and grabbing an extra .67 points of the California market.
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Staying the course by continuing to support the new generation of high-quality vehicles in the core of the market—i.e., the subcompact/compact/mid-size car segments and entry crossovers—should continue to help the Detroiters boost their sales and reputations in California, but (at least) two obstacles remain. The first is that Hyundai seems to be picking up a lot of the slack in the California market from the Japanese, and that automaker, along with Kia and Volkswagen, would appear to be in line to scoop up a fair chunk of the anti-American shoppers who are leaving Toyota and Honda.
But beyond this, the truck problem still remains. While the industry always points to California as a chief setter of automotive trends, many companies give short shrift to one of the biggest changes to come out of the state: the move away from large trucks and crossovers. Of course, when you see that big pickups like the Ford F-150 and Chevy Silverado are growing their California market share now, too, maybe it shows the rest of the country can set some trends of its own.
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