Auto Outlook: Is California the trend-setter: Prius No. 1

By AL SWANSON, UPI Auto Writer  |  Oct. 28, 2012 at 5:30 AM
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CHICAGO, Oct. 28 (UPI) -- The times they are a-changin', again.

Auto Data Corp. which keeps track of automotive statistics from sales to promotions, said the Toyota Prius has become the bestselling vehicle in California, the nation's single largest vehicle market.

That includes all other passenger cars, light trucks and SUVs purchased in the Golden State from January through September. Toyota sold an estimated 46,380 hybrids in California -- a quarter of all Prius sales in the United States -- in nine months, AutoCount, a division of Experian Co. said.

Sales of the Prius family of vehicles, the standard gas-electric hybrid, the v wagon, the less expensive subcompact c and the all-electric, rose 26.3 percent in California, compared to a 14.5 percent sales gain nationwide. Prius was 12th on the list of top-selling vehicles in the United States through September.

"It's one of the only non-luxury cars, that if you're a wealthy person, it's acceptable to own," analyst Jesse Toprak told CNN.

California, which requires automakers to sell zero-emission vehicles, allows properly stickered plug-in electric and natural gas-powered cars to use high-occupancy vehicle lanes on freeways, even if the driver is the only one in the vehicle. Hybrids no longer qualify for the stickers. State officials expect half 1 million zero-emission vehicles to be on California roads by 2025.

But the buying habits of Californians may be unique to a state where regular gasoline averaged $4.399 a gallon in mid-October, the second highest pump price after Hawaii, compared to $3.648 nationwide. The fuel prices are from the AAA Fuel Gauge Survey.

Hybrids became a common sight in California long before they were more than an oddity in the rest of the nation. Initially, West Coast motorists were more willing to take a chance on new battery technology in a warm weather environment than were drivers in the Midwest rust belt and Northeast where winters are long and harsh.

The 1.1 million Priuses sold in the United States in the last 15 years represent more than half of all hybrids sold. Toyota hopes to sell 220,000 Prius brand vehicles in the United States in 2012.

Newly released data tracking the habits of hybrid and all-electric car owners found many plug-in hybrid owners worry about running low on battery power. A survey by ECOtality, a startup installing 13,000 charging stations in 21 U.S. metro areas with Energy Department backing, found Chevrolet Volt owners plugged in about 1.5 times a day while drivers of the all-electric Nissan Leaf recharged an average one to 1.1 times a day.

Nissan sold only 5,212 Leafs through September, 27.8 percent fewer than the first nine months of 2011. Chevy sold 16,348 Volts through September but had to offer big incentives.

Generally, ECOtality indicated, plug-in hybrids stay plugged in much longer than required to recharge their batteries for the mileage an average driver expects to go.

The behavior is called "range anxiety," The New York Times said. But for Volt drivers it's "gas anxiety" because they typically don't want to run the gasoline engine that powers a generator to move the car and recharge the batteries.

"We never anticipated that a 40-mile-electric range plug-in hybrid would charge more than a 100 percent electric car," ECOtality vice president for corporate development Colin Read told the Times. "You have that gas engine that you're paying an extra premium for for a reason."

General Motors last week upgraded software on about 4,000 2013 plug-in hybrid Volt sedans to fix a computer glitch that could shut down the electric motor without warning while driving. A Volt owner's website indicated the problem affects Volts that were set up to use the delayed charging function and the car could be restarted after turning it off and waiting 2- to 5 minutes before powering up again.

"We're asking owners to bring their vehicles into their local Chevy dealer for a re-flash of the vehicle's control system, which should take less than an hour. Until then, we're recommending that customers switch to immediate instead of delayed time charging to avoid this inconvenience," a GM spokeswoman told The Detroit News.

The Honda Accord was the best-selling sedan in California while nationally consumers kept the Toyota Camry No. 1. Both companies have their U.S. headquarters in southern California.

Californians also prefer German luxury vehicles -- large and small. U.S. upscale brands Cadillac and Lincoln had less than 1 percent of California auto sales, the Los Angeles Times said.

However, California motorists made the Chevrolet Camaro and Ford Mustang the best selling performance cars, and the Ford F-Series truck the state's top-selling pickup followed by the Chevrolet Silverado.

By brand, top sellers in California were Toyota, Lexus and Scion, Honda, General Motors, Ford, Nissan, Hyundai and Kia and Chrysler.

H-P employees joining GM

In this brave new world where some cars have as much computer software as a personal computer, it's no surprise automakers are beefing up their ranks of information technology specialists.

General Motors last week said in the next six months it would hire about 3,000 mostly U.S.-based Hewlett-Packard Co. IT specialists currently working on GM projects.

For some joining GM will be a sort of homecoming. GM bought Electronic Data Systems Corp. from Ross Perot in 1984 and spun it off in 1996. H-P bought EDS in 2008. GM remained a big customer all that time.

GM plans to open four IT technology innovation centers employing about 2,000 employees as it moves 90 percent of its information technology work in-house from outside contractors, the Detroit Free Press said.

"General Motors is undergoing one of the most profound transformations in our corporate history, and ... IT is an important part of that transformation," GM Chief Information Officer Randy Mott told The Detroit News during a conference call. Mott was chief information officer at H-P when he joined GM in February.

Chevy to show off 2014 Corvette

Chevrolet unveiled a new crossed-flags logo for its rollout of the seventh-generation Corvette at the North American International Auto Show in January.

The Kentucky-built C7 Corvette will wear new crossed-flags on its nose, trunk lid and inside the cabin when the sports car debuts for the media in Detroit.

The logo can be viewed on the promotional website,

"The flags are much more modern, more technical and more detailed than before -- underscoring the comprehensive redesign of the entire car," GM vice president of design Ed Welburn said in a statement.

The current C6 Corvette has been around since 2005. The next generation 2014 Vette goes into production in the third quarter of 2013.

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