It's now official: With 24,896 sales, the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze was the best-selling compact in the nation in June—marking the second consecutive month it achieved that distinction. Yes, I know that this spring's disasters in Japan held down Honda Civic sales, and that there isn't enough production capacity for the new Hyundai Elantra to sell much beyond 22,000 units a month, and as a result, the Cruze is facing weaker-than-normal competition.
But that can't take away from the fact the Cruze has become a bona fide hit, with June representing its third straight month of +20,000 sales, as well as a 153 percent improvement in retail purchases over the old Chevy Cobalt. And more importantly, the Cruze has been helping drive the Bow-tie brand's overall car sales to levels that haven't been seen in decades: Per Chevrolet, its car lineup outsold its trucks and crossovers for every month of the second quarter and accounted for 47 percent of total Chevy sales through the first half of the year. The last time the division was achieving those kinds of numbers was in 1991.
Needless to say, the Cruze's extra volume over last year's Cobalt performance has been the difference-maker; of course, mathematically speaking, the weaker first-half sales of bigger, less fuel-efficient SUVs and crossovers like the Chevy Traverse (down 4.3 percent), Chevrolet Tahoe (down 7.3 percent) and Chevrolet Suburban (down 16 percent) also have helped matters.
The point is, the Cruze came along at just the right time for Chevy and GM. Consumers are now putting a historically high focus on fuel efficiency, with a recent Ford/Maritz study noting that 42 percent of the people it surveyed consider fuel economy to be an "extremely important" part of the consideration process when shopping for 2011 model-year vehicles. Obviously, the Cruze offers a rather impressive fuel-efficiency story for Chevrolet, and it's one that's proven very effective in attracting customers.
There's a lot of carping in the auto community about transmissions and "special" models and which vehicles REALLY provide drivers with the best real-world fuel efficiency, but in the Cruze, Chevrolet can make a very powerful marketing claim. The Cruze Eco (specifically tailored for high fuel economy) delivers the highest EPA number of any kind for any gas-only vehicle in the U.S. at 42 mpg highway (with a standard six-speed manual transmission). I know that's only 1 more mpg than a Honda Civic HF, and just 2 more than the Hyundai Elantra and Ford Focus (SFE!), and that all four have the exact same EPA combined rating of 33 mpg. But there is something—maybe not a lot, but definitely something—about being No. 1 with that highway rating.
For example, let's compare the Cruze's sales in June to those of another brand-new "American" compact, the Ford Focus. The Focus has been on the market long enough that it should be running at full strength by now, but it trailed the Cruze by 3,511 units last month, finishing with 21,385 sales. That still represented a healthy 41.2 percent jump, but Ford didn't break out retail numbers for the Focus and if we go apple-to-apples and compare absolute volumes between the Focus and Cruze, we find the latter rang up a 145 percent improvement on last year's June Cobalt sales.
I'd say it's "advantage: Cruze," and that it's at least partially because of the perception that the Cruze is more fuel efficient than the focus—and the fact that it beats the Ford by 2 mpg in highway fuel efficiency.
When I said that the Cruze's performance has made the difference in Chevrolet's sales results so far in 2011, that wasn't just hyperbole (or an excuse for me to use the word "hyperbole"). Outside of the Cruze's 58.9 jump in sales over the Cobalt, none of the other Chevy cars have shown much in the way of sales growth; on the other hand, every single one of them is in the black through the first six months of the year, including such perhaps unexpected entries as the Chevy Aveo (up 3.9 percent) and Chevrolet Corvette (up 8.5 percent). And in case you decide to check my figures, I'll point out in advance that the Chevy HHR is down 6.8 percent on the year; but since the brand considers it a crossover, I will, too.
Now, in contrast, at the Blue Oval, the Ford Taurus has seen sales slip 7.4 percent through June and the Ford Mustang seems to be on the losing end of the modern-day muscle-car wars these days, with sales dropping 2.5 percent last month.
I'm thinking this is where the Cruze's "halo effect" shows its power, leveraging a high-efficiency positioning to attract people not just to the Cruze itself, but also to the rest of the Chevy lineup. It likely even extends to Chevy's trucks, but there's clearly some kind of inverse-square law at work here, so its effect isn't as noticeable.
With the Civic still ramping up, the Elantra still under capacity constraints and the Focus getting MyFord Touched by quality issues, the Cruze—and the Chevy car lineup—look like they have plenty of momentum for the second half of 2011.