Ever since the mid-1990s, when the SUV hype reached its peak and gasoline started to become expensive again, there has been a brewing feeling that eventually things would have to change. It's certainly been a long time coming, but car sales have overtaken truck and SUV sales in the U.S., with compacts and subcompacts leading the charge.
In April, sales figures show a huge increase in the popularity of small cars, with a similarly large decrease in the popularity of trucks and SUVs. For the first time, vehicles with 4-cylinder engines outnumbered 6-cylinders in sales. Compared with last year, Toyota Yaris sales are up 46% and Honda Fit sales are up 52%.
These increases are being seen in a decidedly down market, where even Toyota and Honda have seen their domestic sales shrinking. However, the American automakers aren't seeing any benefits from the shift towards small cars, as their focus has been (and still is) on trucks and SUVs, which have larger profit margins and are seen as iconic of American vehicles.
What does this shift mean for the U.S. and for the environment? For one, the new 35 MPG by 2020 CAFE standards are going to be much more attainable with the economy driving fuel-efficient vehicles sales. Not only will fuel efficiency standards be easier to implement, but with automakers trying to capitalize on high-MPG subcompacts, they are likely to cut back on some of the fervent opposition they have shown to fuel economy regulation.
Already the affects of gas prices and market-based fleet changes have been felt in places like California, whose fuel consumption is down 4% compared to last year. Four percent might not seem like a huge drop, but for a segment that is traditionally increasing from year to year, and consumes billions of gallons of gasoline, 4% is a huge dent.
All this leaves us, the consumer, in an extremely important position. The auto market is on the brink of fully embracing green, efficient technology across the board, and demand is starting to merit it. As gas prices continue to increase, we can support the environment by driving less, making more fuel efficient choices, and pressuring the American manufacturers to give us the same kinds of cars the Japanese are currently offering. For commuters, and the auto industry, we have reached a choice between adaptation and death. On the one hand, we have sustainability, and on the other, a quickly faltering status quo.
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