Explaining Southern California's economy

When headlines deceive: Toyota Prius is top-selling car in California, but...

MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

Toyota Prius hybrid model cars wait for customers at a Toyota dealer in Hollywood. The iconic hybrid is the best-selling vehicle in California so far this year.

Experian and the California New Car Dealers Association report that the Toyota Prius is the best-selling vehicle in California through the first nine months of 2012. 

Amazing, right? If you went with the headline, you'd think that Prii are thick on the roads of the Golden State.

But if you take a closer look at the numbers, you get a different story. 

Take nothing away from Toyota and the Prius: the success of the iconic hybrid is a great story and, with gas prices spiking of late, fuel economy matters today more than ever.

But here's the thing. Toyota has sold 46,830 Priuses (I called then "Prii" once and that's all you're going to get) in California this year. That's a quarter of all Priuses sold nationwide.

A different story emerges when you compare that with the total number of new vehicles sold in California this year. So far, Californians have bought 1.25 million cars. The Prius is 3.7 percent of that. Another 96.3 percent of the California market is still up for grabs.

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September auto sales: A 15-million sales year?

Ford And GM Report Large Drops In Monthly Sales

Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

September U.S. auto sales were solid for most carmakers. The market is now on pace to see its best year since before the financial crisis.

Most of the major automakers reported positive U.S. sales for September — and even laggards Ford and Nissan contained their fairly modest losses. The big winners were Chrysler, Toyota, and Honda.

In the case of the Japanese Big Two, this is particularly important, as both were hit hard by the earthquake and tsunami that crushed their sales in 2011.

The U.S. auto market is the most competitive in the world. It essentially collapsed during the financial crisis, but it has rebounded substantially. The U.S. is now on track to see nearly 15 million in new vehicles sold in 2012, after a lot of analysts expected something closer to 14.5 million. During the dark days of 2009, that number was slightly more than 10 million - not enough sales to support the number of carmakers who sell cars in the U.S. market.

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August auto sales: A very good month for pickup trucks and Detroit

2013 Ford F-150

Ford

Ford saw double-digit sales increases from last August for its pickup trucks. Chrysler also sold a lot of pickups, as did GM.

A good month for pickup trucks means a good month for Detroit's Big Three — General Motors, Chrysler, and Ford. Although ironically, it was Ford and Chrysler reporting big gains in pickup sales from August of last year, while GM did well with its lineup of smaller, more fuel-efficient cars.

Longtime GM watchers are still scratching their heads at how a company that, pre-bailout and bankruptcy, had abandoned the small-car market to imports so it could concentrate on the fat profits that trucks and SUVs bring in. GM did okay with its main pickup, the aging Silverado. Just not as well as its Motown rivals.

Pickup truck profits are a good thing, for two reasons. Ford and Chrysler saw double-digit increases, while GM had to settle for the mid-single digits. That's money in the bank for Detroit 's carmakers. Meanwhile, pickups being sold means that contractors are trading in their aging wheels for new sheet metal — and that's a clear signal that the new-home market is regaining some strength. You can't haul stuff to the building site in a pickup that falling apart.

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Is Elon Musk the new Steve Jobs? Not according to Musk

Tesla Worldwide Debut of Model X

Jordan Strauss/Getty Images for Tesla

SpaceX and Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk speaks onstage during the debut of the Model X electric vehicle in Los Angeles. Steve Jobs had the black turtleneck. Musk has the black velvet dinner jacket.

SpaceX and its CEO, Elon Musk, hit a home run last week by launching the first commercial mission to service the International Space Station. This has led some to ask if Musk might be the "next Steve Jobs" — a technological and cultural visionary who unites people across a wide range of experiences and backgrounds. 

It's a tempting question to ask. I've seen it pop up on Quora, the startup question-and-answer site where I've been spending a lot of time lately hanging out and...well, answering questions (just not yet ones about whether Musk is the new Jobs). It's cropped up since Jobs' death last year and has been discussed more recently in the context of what the two men have in common. 

A few months back, in connection with an article I wrote for Pasadena magazine about Musk's other company, Tesla Motors, I asked him what he thought. He was gracious, praising Jobs, but also careful to make a distinction about what he does (sorry, no link):

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GM posts record 2011 profit, with most coming from toughest auto market

Matthew DeBord

Don't think cool cars can some in small packages? No so. The new Chevy Sonic is proof that General Motors can finally do a tiny ride that commands attention.

Good news today for General Motors: it generated its highest annual profit ever in 2011. That's $7.6 billion. And yes, you read that first sentence right: highest annual profit ever. Higher than when GM owned half the U.S. market. Higher than when it was the largest industrial concern on the planet.

This is remarkable for two reasons, one obvious, one not. First the obvious: three years ago, GM had to be bailed out by the taxpayer before entering bankruptcy. It was under fierce attack in North America from Toyota and others. The future looked, if not completely dim, then not exactly luminous.

Now the not-obvious. Most of GM's 2011 profit came from North America. Some analysts have pointed to this as a problem and highlighted GM's struggles with its main European division, Opel, which it decided to hold on to rather than sell, post-Chapter 11. (Other observers, notably Slate's Matt Yglesias, have complained that all the rah-rah around GM suggests that America is still too close to the auto-industrial business model that built the country in the 20th century.)

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