Half a year later, GM’s gamble on the Sonic — part of the company’s push to develop smaller, more fuel-efficient cars — appears to be paying off. Sales of the Sonic have risen steadily in every month, reaching 8,251 units last month. And on Tuesday, the automaker announced a whopping 12 percent rise in overall vehicle sales for March over the previous year. Nearly half of that increase, the company said, was driven by demand for smaller cars and crossover vehicles that get better than 30 miles per gallon.
The rest of the Big Three are following suit. By introducing new lineups of small and mid-size cars and by cutting costs since teetering on the brink of collapse three years ago, GM, Ford and Chrysler are slowly reclaiming market share from once-unsinkable foreign competitors such as Toyota.
In March, both Ford and Chrysler posted their best sales months in four years. Chrysler, which filed for bankruptcy in April 2009, has recorded 24 straight months of year-over-year sales gains. GM has seen bumps for every model in its Chevrolet lineup — even the electric Volt, with sales doubling in March.
“The economic recovery and a deep bench of fuel-efficient cars and crossovers have been driving our sales for more than a year, but the combined impact has never been stronger than it was in March,” Don Johnson, vice president of GM’s U.S. sales operations, said in a statement. “Since the last time fuel prices spiked, both the economy and GM’s product portfolio are undeniably stronger.”
American automakers are faring well, in part, because the entire industry is recovering. U.S. vehicle sales for March reached an estimated 1.42 million, the best month since August 2007. That’s largely due to an improving economy and the fact that many Americans delayed car purchases during the recession. The average vehicle is a record 10.8 years old, according to automotive research firm R.L. Polk & Co. And credit is much more readily available this year.
But there’s a more subtle reason that the Big Three are succeeding. With gasoline prices topping $4 per gallon in many parts of the country, Detroit needed to offer reliable, fuel-efficient vehicles that Americans would actually buy. And, unlike when they faced this situation in 2008, the Big Three are well prepared this time around.
“The Big Three are in a far better place than they were in 2008,” said Michelle Krebs, a senior analyst at Edmunds.com. “They’re all producing really good mid-sized cars, compact cars, subcompact cars. Back then, they often didn’t even have a player in some of those categories. There wasn’t a Ford Fiesta [in the United States]. There wasn’t the type of Ford Focus we have now. There wasn’t a Chevy Cruze, a Chevy Sonic.”