It's beginning to look as if the worst is over for U.S. auto sales. The year that just closed was, in the immortal words of Queen Elizabeth II, an annus horribilis, with only 10.4 million vehicles sold, down 21 percent on 2008 and the lowest total since 1982.
But some light seems to be appearing on the horizon. According to Autotrader's Brian Gluckman, the end of 2009 "saw shoppers returning to showrooms to finally begin releasing the pent-up demand for new vehicles that has been predicted all year long."
Fleet declines by 4 million
That's a good thing for carmakers, since U.S. car owners scrapped 14 million vehicles in 2009 while buying only 10 million new ones. The country's fleet of cars and light trucks thus fell from 250 million to 246 million, according to data analyzed by the Earth Policy Institute.
While the industry looks forward to better days, it's worth a glance backwards to look over the winners and losers in the loosely defined "green car" category.
Cash for Clunkers banner with Mercury Sable, Albany, New YorkEnlarge Photo
2010 Toyota PriusEnlarge Photo
2010 Toyota Camry HybridEnlarge Photo
2010 Lexus RX 450hEnlarge Photo
Front Exterior View - 2009 Honda Civic Hybrid 4-door SedanEnlarge Photo
Hybrids hold, diesels rise
Almost every carmaker lost sales, but not only did hybrids maintain their market share, new clean diesel sales rose. U.S. sales of 10.4 million cars included a total of 290,280 hybrids and roughly 59,850 clean diesels.
That's the highest market share ever for hybrids, at 2.8 percent. Hybrid sales declined only 7.5 percent versus 20 percent for the market as a whole.
The diesel share of passenger vehicles rose considerably, reflecting two factors: the return of diesels for the full in their first full year on offer from four German carmakers, and the addition of Audi and BMW to longstanding diesel vendors Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz.
5 hybrids for every clean diesel
But in 2009, diesel sales remained just one-fifth those of hybrids. That total should increase slowly in years to come, but hybrids seem likely to outsell diesels in the U.S. for some time to come.
Both totals, however, are merely a fraction of the roughly 3 million four-cylinder cars sold in the U.S., or more 60 percent of all car sales. That only goes to show that the most popular way to go green when you drive remains to buy the smallest, most fuel-efficient gasoline car that meets your needs.
Clunkers cash goes green
This summer's popular "Cash for Clunkers" rebate program for owners who traded in older, low-efficiency vehicles for new, higher-mileage ones had its critics--many of them--but it undeniably boosted sales of smaller cars with better fuel economy.
In July, for instance, hybrids peaked at 3.6 percent of the market--the all-new, 50-mpg 2010 Toyota Prius was essentially sold out globally--but that number ended the year at 2.9 percent, higher than in any other car market on earth.
Compact cars started the year at 16.1 percent and ended at 14.4 percent, but soared to almost 23 percent at the August height of the Clunkers program, according to data from Edmunds.
Winners & losers
The biggest overall losers among volume car-makers were Mitsubishi (down 44 percent), Chrysler (down 36 percent), and GM (down 30 percent)--the latter two, of course, having filed for bankruptcy and been restructured by the Federal government this year.
Only Hyundai Group (which includes Kia), Subaru, and luxury maker Jaguar-Land Rover gained sales. The Korean makers of small and medium sized cars was up 9 percent. Subaru rose 15 percent on the strength of its redesigned all-wheel-drive Forester small and Outback station wagon. And JLR rose 65 percent, though its 2009 total was still less than 25,000.