America loves trucks. California? The Prius hybrid.
Toyota's Prius was the best-selling vehicle in the state for the second consecutive year in 2013, highlighting California's radically different taste in automobiles. Nationally, Ford's F-Series truck has been the bestselling vehicle for more than three decades.
The Prius ranked 16th in sales nationally.
For drivers in such places as Texas, Montana and much of the Midwest, trucks are practical — but also a lifestyle statement. That's why Ford slathers on the leather and chrome in the Limited F-150 pickup with a sticker price that creeps into the mid-$50,000 range.
"The nation of California is very different," said Jake Fisher, the automotive test director for Consumer Reports.
California looks more like a cross between what people drive in Europe — with its pollution and fuel price concerns — and the rest of the United States, he said.
"California also has been much more open to imports historically," Fisher said, in part because the major Asian brands — Toyota, Honda, Mazda, Hyundai and Kia — all have their U.S. headquarters in the state.
Drivers in the state don't share the "buy American" outlook of the nation's heartland, he said, because California is so far from the industrial Midwest, the cradle of the U.S. auto industry.
Japanese brands made up eight of the top 10 cars sold in California last year. The only domestic vehicle was the Ford truck, and it ranked sixth.
Californians purchased 69,728 Prius hybrids last year. The Honda Civic compact sedan was a close second, with sales of 66,982. Passenger cars, including the Honda Accord and Toyota's Camry and Corolla rounded out the top five, according to the California New Car Dealers Assn.
Trucks, by comparison, dominated three of the top five sales spots nationally last year. Ford sold an eye-popping 763,402 F-Series pickups last year. That was nearly 280,000 more than the second bestselling vehicle — the Chevrolet Silverado pickup. (For comparison, that huge gap was about equal to all the vehicles Mazda sells in the U.S. annually.)
The Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Ram pickup rounded out the top five nationally. All of the top five sellers in California are comfortable, fuel-efficient commuter cars, a reflection of the traffic Californians put up with daily.
The little Prius is the "statement" car in California, said Karl Brauer, an analyst with auto information company Kelley Blue Book.
It says "green" because of its impressive fuel economy, and it says "prudent" because the car is practical — the liftback and wagon versions have ample cargo space and are inexpensive to operate.
The Prius sells in a variety of models and price levels. The tiny C starts at $19,080 while the plug-in version of the Prius liftback with the fanciest trim and options can approach $40,000.
The average transaction price of the Prius is higher than what the other passenger cars at the top of California's list cost, Brauer said.
"People are buying the most expensive, the most political and the car with the most identifiable image," he said. "It makes a stronger statement than the other four even though functionally they are all similar."
The typical Prius sells for $26,000 to $28,000 depending on whether it is the hatchback model or the station wagon, while the average Camry goes for about $24,000 and the typical Accord for about $25,400, according to Kelley Blue Book.
Prius owners also have a hankering for the expensive Tesla Model S electric sports sedan, according to registration data from IHS automotive. The Prius is the car most often traded in for a Tesla, the automotive research firm said.
So it's no surprise that California plays a vital role in the success of the Palo Alto electric car company. Californians purchased 8,347 Teslas last year — accounting for 37% of Tesla's global sales.
"The Tesla is the rich man's Prius," Brauer said. "It is the newer, cooler, sleeker and hipper way to make the same statement the Prius has made for the last 12 years."
Those sales also have generated thousands of special California environmental credits that Tesla was able to sell to other automakers for at least $129 million through just part of last year. It could turn out to be more when Tesla reports its financial results for the entire year next week.
Seven models make both lists of the top 10 selling cars nationally and in California, though the order of the vehicles is scrambled.
Two vehicles are on the California list but don't come close to cracking a roster of top sellers nationally: Toyota's mid-size Tacoma pickup truck and the BMW 3-Series sports sedan.
The Tacoma, which scored eighth on the California list, is popular with landscapers, construction workers and others in service industries, especially among Latino small business owners, said Jesse Toprak, an analyst with car shopping website Cars.com.
"They are durable and cheap to maintain, so it is probably a monetary decision compounded by word of mouth," Toprak said.
It also is one of just two mid-size pickup trucks for sale by automakers. Its standing could change this year or next because General Motors is about to launch two competitors, the Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon.
BMW just edges on to the California list as the 10th most popular car, primarily because it is an image play.
"We are also a bit shallow, and we like to buy image," said Toprak, who works from an office in Santa Monica. "That's why you see little old ladies in the suburbs driving a fancy Mercedes-Benz S-Class, even though they don't know what 90% of the buttons in the car do."
This group of image-oriented California buyers tends to turn up their noses at domestic brands, especially when it comes to luxury cars.
"That's a big obstacle for Cadillac and Lincoln here in California," Toprak said.
BMW plays into that by offering aggressive lease deals on its 3-Series models and recently launched the BMW 320, a stripped-down, less powerful model that sells for about 10% less than where the 3-Series previously started.
"You see twenty- and thirtysomethings here in California looking at a Camry lease and deciding to move into a BMW for a payment of maybe $50 or $60 more," Toprak said.
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