Bigger vehicles coming back as recession fades

If U.S. consumers are in the midst of a green revolution, the news hasn't reached car buyers.

With the end of the recession, bigger vehicles have made a comeback, sales figures show, and it has come at the expense of smaller, more efficient cars.

Leading the growth were sales of midsize SUVs, which jumped 41 percent through the first 11 months of 2010, led by vehicles such as the Jeep Grand Cherokee and the Honda Pilot. Both get about 18 miles per gallon.

Sales of small cars, by contrast, remained flat. Sales of the Toyota Corolla and the Honda Civic declined, and even the fuel-sipping Toyota Prius, the hybrid darling of the eco-conscious, dropped 1.7 percent.

"You have about 5 percent of the market that is green and committed to fuel efficiency," said Mike Jackson, the chief executive of AutoNation, the largest auto retailer in the country. "But the other 95 percent will give up an extra 5 mpg in fuel economy for a better cup holder."

Overall, car and light-truck purchases climbed 12 percent from January to November, led by the consumer tilt toward SUVs and pickups, according to recent numbers from Autodata.

The rise in SUV sales comes as the auto industry, government officials and advertisers have been agog this year with environmental sentiment and boasts about the fuel efficiency of new battery plug-in cars, such as the Chevrolet Volt and the Nissan Leaf, which recently went on sale.

General Motors ads have touted the Volt, which runs on a battery for the first 40 miles, as "something we can all be proud of."

Nissan has called the all-electric Leaf "innovation for the planet."

And President Obama, following the government rescue of GM in 2009 and investment in battery plants around the country, has predicted a "new beginning" for a domestic industry.

But building more-efficient cars and getting consumers to buy them are different issues. Consumers' tastes are a critical factor in determining the extent to which the nation can reduce its gasoline consumption and, in turn, greenhouse gas emissions and dependency on foreign oil.

In one sense, automakers have been improving fuel efficiency for years, selling cars with ever-more-efficient engines. In fact, a car purchased today is able to extract nearly twice as much power from a gallon of gas as its counterpart did 25 years ago.

But those gains in efficiency have been used to build bigger cars with more power, not to save gas. The average mileage of the cars and light trucks on the road has barely budged since 1985.

The most recent round of fuel economy standards, which were announced in 2010, will push carmakers to achieve an average of 34 mpg by 2016 through annual improvements of about 4 percent.

Coming up for debate early this year are the rules that would set standards through 2025.