In a memorable scene in the 1996 film Swingers, protagonist Mike approaches a woman at a party. She greets him with, "What do you drive?" He responds, "A Cavalier." And she pointedly turns her back on him.
Who could respect the Cavalier after that?
The vehicle was once GM's best-selling passenger car. But by mid-2004, it was off the list of America's top 10 selling vehicles. (In 2003, we put the Cavalier on our annual list of Automotive Turkeys because of its abysmal crash-test scores).
In November 2004, General Motors replaced Chevy's 23-year-old Cavalier line with the new Cobalt compact car. The Cavalier had not died with dignity.
But these days, Chevrolet's Cobalt is on that best-seller list, ranked ninth — and the car is a big improvement over the Cavalier. The Cobalt has the best-possible frontal and rear crash-test scores from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, and Consumer Reports gives the Cobalt's accident-avoidance technology its highest possible score. But the most telling statistic in explaining the Cobalt's rise (sales are up 10 percent this year) is its gas mileage: 34 highway miles per gallon on entry-level models with manual transmissions.
Mileage figures go hand-in-hand with understanding car sales these days. Just look at Toyota Motor's U.S. performance this year. The company's Toyota, Lexus and Scion brands have 23 models that were on the market last year and are still on sale this year. Of the 10 that have seen sales go up this year, 70 percent are small or midsize passenger cars. Of the 13 that have seen sales decline, 70 percent are full-size models, SUVs or other light trucks. The smaller, more fuel-efficient cars are the winners, and the heavier, thirstier cars are the losers.
When we did this list in mid-2004, Ford Motor's midsize Explorer SUV ranked sixth. No SUVs or vans grace the best-seller list today. Since 2004, an aging design and increasing gas prices have forced the Explorer off the list, and its sales have declined 31 percent this year — even though the vehicle is more upscale and refined than ever.
Heavy bodies and gas-guzzling engines have not kept the top three pickups off the list. Ford's F-Series, Chevy's Silverado and DaimlerChrysler's Dodge Ram are on the list, as usual. Consumers may be choosing passenger cars over SUVs with greater frequency, but demand for pickups is still high, demonstrating their utility as work vehicles and the unparalleled variety of configurations in which they are available.
But pickup sales have taken a hit. In the first eight months of 2004, the top three pickups combined for 1.3 million U.S. sales; in the first eight months of 2006, the sales were 1.2 million — a decline of 8 percent and a loss of over 110,000 units. In our 2004 edition of this list, Dodge's Ram was ranked third. This year, it is sixth, as three passenger cars —Toyota's Camry and Corolla and Honda Motor's Accord — have passed it.
Three passenger cars that weren't on the list in 2004 are on it now: the Corolla, Cobalt and Nissan Altima. An SUV and a van (Dodge's Caravan) are off.
Get the idea? Gas prices used to be a consideration in car purchasing. Then they became a decisive factor. Now they are the decisive factor. Given that gas guzzlers have become passé, and that the newsmakers these days are the smallest cars, a potential new girlfriend or boyfriend will probably not blow you off for driving an entry-level Chevy. Probably.
Note: Sales figures we evaluated came from manufacturers' media Web sites and from Automotive News. By publication time, General Motors, DaimlerChrysler and Subaru had not responded to requests for confirmation of the figures we had.