Note – It's the beginning of a new month and that means last month's sales figures are coming out. Rather than give you a straight news story, we'll offer some interpretation on what we see.

When it comes to rising fuel prices and their provocation of reactionary buying behavior in the U.S. market, it is clear that nothing is clear.

These are times of uncertainty and an entire way of life born in an era of cheap fuel is in the throes of adapting, and people are reluctantly contending with forced changes.

In short, many new car buyers are faced with fundamentally shifting how they drive and think about cars as gasoline hovers around a national average of $4 per gallon while cresting toward $5 in other areas besides.


A market for fuel efficient cars is here, and while GM is updating its production plant as we speak, the Volt's main production is otherwise still waiting in the wings.

Our read on this is the real threat is not the $4-5 per gallon now – as painful as that is compared to significantly lower prices even only months ago. The real bogey man is the fear of where prices could go from here – that is, when, if ever do rising prices stop rising?

Since this is a big unknown facing the American way of life, car buying behavior is changing faster than a congregation of pigeons flitters in the opposite direction from a firecracker.

A look at May sales at least partially illustrates this contention. To keep things simple, we'll look mainly at domestic manufacturers' sales, although similar trends are happening for imports.

Last month heavier vehicle sales declined sharply, while light vehicle sales continued to set new highs.

Although Chrysler reported a slight gain, GM and Ford recorded steep dips in light truck sales.

General Motors reported its U.S. dealers made 221,192 total sales in May, including a 9 percent increase in retail sales compared to May 2010. Automotive News however reported GM’s overall sales dropped 1 percent as did Ford's by 3 percent.

GM's large pickup truck sales declined 14 percent in May and crossover sales fell 1 percent. In contrast, its car sales increased 13 percent based on a 32-percent spike in retail deliveries of smaller, more fuel-efficient models.

While the Volt is considered a “halo car” Chevrolet’s other shining star, the Cruze, saw sales jump by 150 percent. In all, 22,711 Cruzes were sold, which included 18,996 retail sales. Similarly, Ford’s sales of the Focus, including the redesigned 2012 Focus, jumped 32 percent in May for a total of 22,303 units.


The Volt's cousin (Cruze LTZ shown) sold 47 in May for every one Volt. Yes this low Volt number was planned, but we look forward to the day when plans allow for greater parity.

Regarding the overall U.S. market, tight inventories – particularly for some Japanese models – plus fewer incentives and discounts, along with increased prices here and there were cited as additional reasons for declining May auto sales.

Overall, automakers' sales continued to shift to small vehicles which helped bolster their bottom line. Just the same, in contrast to U.S. light vehicle sales in April which were up 20 percent for the year, Automotive News said May sales fell by 4 percent, the first decline since August.

As for the Volt, sales of 481 units in May was a modest drop in the bucket as its internal combustion-powered, lower-priced cousin continues to sell in record fashion.

GM says the Volt’s sales are on track, and it is selling every one it makes.

Readers on this site mostly believe the Volt and Voltec-based cars have a strong future, and if not for a deliberately low-volume roll out, some of us might wonder why we’re not hearing of thousands of Volt sales – and we at least expect it will not be long before this is the case. Indeed, GM is preparing to build 60,000 of them next year – four times the number it will build this, its inaugural year.

Reflecting further on the big picture – and while this is certainly not a new topic – it bears repeating that fuel prices are cited as the single most influential provoker of buying behavior.

And this makes us wonder: As a people, are Americans being metaphorically dragged kicking and screaming away from their preference for larger vehicles? Are they at least in some ways only reluctantly buying fuel-efficient cars the way a heart patient develops a preference for non-fatty foods for his own good?

The unspoken message behind so many headlines commenting on buying behavior in response to fuel prices is this is the case. The implications are that if fuel prices look like they will start going down, or even remain steady, Americans will go back to buying gas guzzlers.

This was what happened in 2008 when fuel prices spiked resulting in hybrid and fuel sipper sales rising, then declining as fuel prices leveled off.

Evidently, many have learned nothing since, and we are experiencing the same old merry-go-round in 2011.

In our view, this is a big part of why hybrids and electric cars are still such a minority. Aside from the fact that they tend to cost more up front, their appeal is to forward-thinking people who see the long-term cost savings, as well as environmental and political benefits of weaning away from heavy fuel dependence.


The world will be more than ready for the next Voltec car. (MPV concept sketch shown)

It is rather sad when you think about it. What must we do for real lasting progress? Wish for more financial pain for others to accept the inevitable fact that fuel prices will continue to rise, and America is already on an unsustainable track?

We know that many advanced-tech transportation enthusiasts do just that – some subtly, some overtly – but we otherwise sit on the sidelines watching fuel prices increase and wait for others to catch on to what is patently obvious to us.

In another sense, it could be seen as mildly humorous. It’s a case of reactive behavior contending with reactive behavior.

One group (the majority) reacts to high fuel prices and begins buying fuel-efficient cars as though struck with a revelation. The other (alternative transportation enthusiasts) sees this and reacts by hoping (or passively predicting) fuel will get even more expensive so even more people will wake up and “get it.”

Aren’t human beings curious creatures?

As it is, our view is the advanced-tech advocates are the ones who do see more clearly. And the only way they will be proven temporarily wrong is if some new oil reserve no one has yet found is miraculously discovered, or a way to synthetically create an alternative fuel is perfected.

In the mean time, we’ll keep documenting the ups and downs – the monthly and quarterly sales, new developments, all of it – as a lifestyle that climaxed just a few short decades ago when gasoline was around $1 per gallon reluctantly heads toward its end, but not without a fight.

Source: GM , Automotive News

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Tell us your story!

We read your comments every day and some of you who own the Volt are reporting remarkable mpg figures and low cost of ownership.

Chevrolet says OnStar data proves average mileage between full-ups is 1,000 miles. How about you? Are you experiencing the same, or more distance between dropping by your friendly local gasoline station?

If you would like to share your story, and have it featured on GM-Volt, contact us .

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