Electric cars? Not so much.
General Motors couldn't tout sales of its Chevy Volt in its monthly sales announcement Friday. For all its gas-pump savings, the electrically powered Volt is off to a slow start in sales, with just 608 units shipped in March and 1,210 so far this year.
Many consumer apparently see cars like the Volt or the all-electric Nissan Leaf as a novelty, with unproven performance and reliability
Still, the industry has seen a distinct shift in consumer preference toward greener autos.
March sales numbers showed an 11 percent sales gain for GM (compared with March 2010) and a 19 percent jump for Ford. Both companies' totals were boosted by sales of fuel-efficient vehicles.
"Those vehicles, mostly powered by 4-cylinder engines, all had there best months ever," said Ford sales official George Pipas in announcing the results. He said the shift is not surprising, "given the increase in gas prices that we saw during the course of the first quarter."
Gasoline now averages $3.62 per gallon of regular, according to the AAA Daily Fuel Gauge Report. Prices have jumped more than 40 cents per gallon since late last year.
Mr. Pipas said the industry has seen a "significant" shift toward small cars, making up about one-fourth of March sales versus less than a fifth in December.
GM, similarly, said sales of cars grew faster than pickup trucks or large SUVs. Its new Cruze, a high-mileage sedan, has sold 50,000 units just in the year's first three months.
“March sales demonstrated our newest models continue to win over customers,” said Don Johnson, GM's sales vice president, in a statement. “Vehicles like the Chevrolet Cruze and Equinox put us in great position to benefit from consumers' increasing desire for fuel-efficient vehicles.”
At the same time, pump prices are just one of the factors that affect consumer choices. Sales of trucks and SUVs that guzzle more gas also rose in March, a trend buoyed by declining unemployment and the appeal of new or redesigned models like GMC's Sierra and Terrain, and Ford's F-Series pickups.
The volatility in gas prices may have pushed some potential buyers to the sidelines, or to rival Asian nameplates. GM's overall March sales were lower than many analysts had predicted.
Edmunds.com, a provider of automotive information, says that beyond electric models or hybrid cars like Toyota's Prius, consumers now have the option of buying six models that deliver 40 miles per gallon or better on the highway.
Three of them are from US brands: the 2011 Chevy Cruze Eco, the 2011 Ford Fiesta SE with a “super fuel economy” (SFE) package, and the 2012 Ford Focus SFE. The others on the list are the 2012 Honda Civic "HF," for “high fuel economy,” the 2011 Hyundai Elantra, and the Smart Fortwo (2010 and newer).
Toyota's Prius, long the top-selling gas-electric hybrid car, posted March sales of 18,605 units. That's up 52 percent compared with the same month a year ago.