Government Failing at Fuel-Efficiency Message With 'Cash for Clunkers'?

Program Customers Still Researching, Buying Pickups, SUVs

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- The government's "Cash for Clunkers" campaign may have been designed to get consumers to trade in gas guzzlers for small, fuel-efficient cars, but many car shoppers are showing interest in trucks despite the feds' promotion. And according to some analysis of the numbers, they're buying them as well.

Ford's F-150 pickup was among the top 10 selling vehicles, according to Jumpstart's research.
Ford's F-150 pickup was among the top 10 selling vehicles, according to Jumpstart's research. Credit: Ford Motor Co.
Based on data collected from more than 12 million shoppers across Jumpstart Automotive Media's websites -- which include J.D. Power, Road & Track and Car Soup -- the Ford F-Series and General Motors' Chevrolet Silverado pickup trucks were among the brands consumers searched for most in June and July. Not only were the two truck brands among the top 10 vehicles researched during the week the government program was launched, they both showed significant growth compared with the same week in June (29% and 24%, respectively) as well as compared with the average traffic over the previous four weeks (16% and 13%, respectively).

SUVs such as the Honda CRV and Ford Escape were also standouts amid the Clunkers promotion, with a 47% increased variance in unique users compared with the last week of June.

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Jumpstart's research is in line with an analysis done by auto site Edmunds.com last week, which also found the Chevy Silverado and the Ford F-150 among the 10 top-selling vehicles and ranked the Ford Escape SUV as the best-selling model.

Uncle Sam's top sellers
Interestingly, the government's list of top-10 vehicles sold showed that consumers bought mostly compact cars during the promotion, with the Toyota Corolla in the No. 1 slot. The discrepancy arises because Uncle Sam considers each of the six versions of the Escape (as well as different versions of the trucks) to be a separate model, while Edmunds tallied all Escape-model sales.

Jumpstart's site data show that sedans were highly searched during the week, especially the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima, Ford Taurus, and Chevy Malibu and Impala.

So what's all this mean? For one thing, that Uncle Sam's hard sell so far hasn't been working on everyone.

"The government is trying to push consumers towards smaller, fuel-efficient vehicles, but some consumers still want trucks and SUVs," said Joe Kyriakoza, VP-strategic insights at Jumpstart, which is owned by Hachette Filipacchi Media. "I think consumers have become accustomed to having the size of vehicle that suits them and not getting forced into something smaller."

It may also indicate that the government did a poor job explaining the aims of the federal program. "[The Jumpstart analysis] leads me to believe that ... consumers were unclear about the Cash for Clunkers program and the point of it being a fuel-efficiency program," Mr. Kyriakoza said.

Then again, the government included trucks and SUVs in the program.

Brands on both lists
Only four brands made both the top Cash for Clunkers sellers list and Jumpstart's list of most-researched vehicles: the Toyota Corolla (No. 1 seller, No. 9 researched); the Honda Civic (No. 3 seller, No. 3 researched), the Toyota Camry (No. 5 seller, No. 6 researched); and the Ford Escape (No. 6 seller, No. 4 researched).

While the biggest states -- California, Texas, New York -- were responsible for the highest proportion of consumers researching cars during the week the promotion launched, it was Illinois and Rhode Island that saw the most significant lift in online traffic the week the Clunkers program began vs. the average over the previous four weeks (29.2% and 29.0%, respectively).

Mr. Kyriakoza, like other experts in the auto sector, said he wonders whether the upticks in car sales and interest in buying cars are merely temporary. "The biggest question is how much is this going to sustain a trend the rest of the year. ... My guess is this is probably just a blip, and not a long-lasting one."

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