Cars Increasingly Outsell Trucks In U.S.

Auto sales are up and Americans are heading back to dealerships to replace the SUVs many people bought 10 or more years ago. Increasingly, they're replacing them with cars. With gas prices rising and so many older vehicles on the road, it's a fine time to be an automaker selling fuel efficient cars. Sonari Glinton discusses the shift with Robert Siegel.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Now the return of the car. March was a good month for the auto industry. Almost all the major companies - foreign and domestic - saw their sales go up. And it was an especially good month for the car - the regular old sedan or coupe. In the U.S., cars outsold trucks by 54 to 46 percent. That's a trend that keeps going up, and it's very different from the middle of the last decade, when trucks outsold cars. To find out what's behind this trend, we turn to NPR's Sonari Glinton. Hi, Sonari.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: Hi, Robert.

SIEGEL: And first, as best we can tell, why are people buying more cars than trucks? Is it just high gas prices?

GLINTON: Well, it's partially gas prices. In March, demand for fuel-efficient cars went up by about 12 percent, and people are looking for fuel efficiency even when they're buying trucks. Even the trucks are more fuel efficient. But over the weekend I was watching "Back to the Future," where the lead character, Marty McFly, desperately wants a truck. Now, he's a high school student and he usually rides a skateboard. And you wonder, why does he need a truck? That kid, that person right now, when gas prices are $4 a gallon, they're not going to be looking for that truck. So the Marty McFly of 2012 isn't looking for a truck and that's part of where you see the falloff.

SIEGEL: So how are the car companies responding to the 2012 version of Marty McFly?

GLINTON: Well, in a word, they're building more cars. If you use Ford as an example, which is kind of an outlier, it sells a lot - a lot - of trucks. Ford sells 85,000 cars, 79,000 trucks and 60,000 SUVs. Now, to look into these numbers, SUVs are categorized as light trucks, but if you look at the SUVs, most of those SUVs, even though we count them as trucks, are actually built on car platforms, so they look more like cars and they drive more like cars, but they're counting them as trucks.

SIEGEL: So, even the current numbers for trucks, as they decline with respect to car purchases, conceal a lot of crossover vehicles that we would really call a car?

GLINTON: Exactly.

SIEGEL: With the bailout of GM and Chrysler, is there a government role in the new sales and the rise of car sales?

GLINTON: Well, we're looking for much higher fuel economy standards by 2025. The government wants us to get to 54 miles a gallon and that is a part of what's leaning it and, in the bailout, the government asked that the car companies make more fuel efficient cars.

Last night, Bob Lutz, who is a former Chrysler, BMW, Ford and, more recently, GM executive, was on "The Colbert Report" and he explains the government's role in the car industry.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE COLBERT REPORT")

BOB LUTZ: The government didn't call the shots. The government provided money, wanted us to meet the law, so General Motors, like every other company, has to meet fuel economy regulations, but we'll still do Corvettes. We'll still do, you know, 500 horsepower, 560 horsepower Camaros. On the other end, we do Chevrolet Volts...

STEPHEN COLBERT: OK. Let's talk about the Volt.

LUTZ: ...because we do have to meet the fuel economy laws.

GLINTON: By the way, Lutz, who's 80 years old, beat Stephen Colbert in a push-up contest.

SIEGEL: Quite a guy. Listen, Sonari, what about people who actually need a pickup truck and not just as an automotive fashion statement? Are they buying trucks?

GLINTON: Not like they used to. I mean, if we realize that what brought us in the economic downturn was construction and housing, that still hasn't completely recovered, and so if you saw a tremendous return of the housing sector, you'd also see a return of more people buying trucks to go out to the worksite.

SIEGEL: More people faced with a choice are buying cars and a lot of the people who are buying SUVs, which are classified as light trucks, are actually buying something that's a lot more like a car these days. Does all this add up to profits for the American car companies?

GLINTON: Well, with the bailouts, each of the car companies got thinner, got smaller. The cars that are down the pipeline are more profitable for them, so they're making more of them.

To use Chrysler as an example, which its mix of cars and trucks is 70 percent of its fleet is trucks, they're betting really big on the car. The new Dodge Dart is coming out and they are betting really hard on that car. Five years ago, they had no cars that got more than 30 miles a gallon. Now, they have seven. So it's funny to say, but it seems like the future of the car industry is the car.

SIEGEL: The Dodge Dart, by the way, is my idea of "Back to the Future." Sonari, thanks a lot.

GLINTON: Thank you so much, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Sonari Glinton speaking to us from Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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