Toyota's Prius has toppled the Honda Civic from its two-year reign as the bestselling vehicle in California.
It was a thin margin. Toyota sold 60,688 of the hybrid last year, almost 26% of the Prius cars sold by Toyota in the U.S. last year. Honda sold 57,124 Civics.
The Toyota Camry was third with sales of 50,250. The sales data are from the California New Car Dealers Assn. and tracked retail auto registrations, which do not include sales to rental car companies, government and other fleet customers.
A hybrid capturing the sales crown in the state and passenger cars making up the bulk of the top 10 places demonstrate just how different the California car market is from the rest of the nation, analysts said.
Ford's F-Series pick-up truck, perennially the bestselling nationally, placed seventh in California with sales of 25,434. The Chevrolet Silverado truck, the second bestseller nationally last year, didn't come close to even cracking the top 10 in California. It had sales of 17,804, below such disparate vehicles as the Hyundai Elantra compact car and the BMW 3-series sports sedan.
California's disinterest in trucks "speaks to the high percentage of drivers that commute long distances. The need to travel 30-40 miles to and from work per day makes the prospect of owning a Ford F-Series or Chevrolet Silverado an expensive one," said Alec Gutierrez, an analyst at auto price information company Kelley Blue Book.
Join us for a live video chat at 3 p.m.
The state's gasoline prices are consistently among the highest in the nation.
Yet while fuel efficiency is one major reason why cars rather than trucks dominate the market -- California's favorite truck or sport utility vehicle was the comparatively small Honda CR-V with sales of 29,055 –- but there also are cultural factors that influence which vehicles sell best in the state, said Peter Welch, chief executive of the California New Car Dealers Assn.
"Environmental consciousness and changing trends are large contributors," Welch said, "eight years ago everyone was driving sport utilities and trucks, now it's almost trendy to drive a fuel-efficient hybrid or plug-in."
Hybrids, plug-in hybrids – which like the Chevrolet Volt can travel some distance only on electricity before a gas engine kicks in and extends the range – and electric-only vehicles now make up 7.4% of the California market, more than double the national average.
Financial incentives such as state rebates for plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles and other perks, such as car pool lane permits, help increase the California numbers.
The Prius got its jump in the California market through state policy that once allowed solo drivers of the vehicle in car pool lanes, said Rebecca Lindland, an analyst with IHS Automotive. Now only the plug-in version qualifies for the permit.
Ironically, a wide-open car pool lane isn't the place to show off a hybrid's gas-sipping skills.
"You get better mileage in stop and go traffic, which the HOV lane is supposed to alleviate so it's an interesting juxtaposition," Lindland said.
Toyota sells four different versions of the hybrid. The hatchback is the biggest seller. Other versions include a plug-in hatchback, a Prius C mini-car and the Prius V station wagon.
Overall, auto sales – including fleet sales - rose 25% in California, almost double the national growth rate of 13.4%, according to the state dealer group.
Japanese brands, rebounding from inventory and production problems caused by the Japanese earthquake in 2011, had the fastest growth. They now control 46.3% of the California auto market, up from 44.5% in 2011.
Most of that growth came at the expense of the domestic brands, which saw their combined market share slide to 29.7% from 31.6%. Chrysler was the only U.S. brand to show any market share growth in California, rising to 1.4% from 1%.
The domestic car companies do much better nationally, where they control almost 45% of auto sales.
Toyota and its brands are the biggest sellers in California, owning 21.1% of the market. Honda follows with 12.5% and Ford is third at 11.3%. General Motors with 11.2% and Nissan with 8.3% round out the top five. Fast-growing Volkswagen, with 5.5% of the market, has almost caught Chrysler's 6.5% share.
Join us for a live video chat at 3 p.m. on the Prius. Consumer columnist David Lazarus will talk with Times autos editor Brian Thevenot, Alec Gutierrez of Kelly Blue Book, and Jessica Caldwell of edmunds.com about why the Prius is the top-selling car in California.