For automakers, California is the Promised Land. As a state, it generally makes up more than 11% of the retail auto market and is the first to embrace and adopt new trends. Within California's 163,696 square miles of land lie eight of the nation's 50 most populated cities. And they are diverse with different needs. Among them you have the desire for vanity in Los Angeles, the green in San Francisco, the tech in Silicon Valley, and the active lifestyles in San Diego. And this doesn't include the Central Valley cities whose rural needs are completely different. In short, there is a buyer for everything in one state.
The import brands have long dominated in California, with Toyota and Honda ranking #1 and #2 in terms of total sales in the state compared to their #3 and #4 national ranks. Recently with an influx of smaller, stylish and more fuel-efficient vehicles, the domestic automakers have had their sights set on growing sales in the Golden State. In fact, discussing retail market share in California has been a recurring theme in many automakers' investment and analyst calls. And it's no wonder. Who wouldn't want a bigger piece of the most populous state? It is, however, one thing to want to grow sales and it's a completely separate matter to actually do it. So, the question I ask is which domestic automaker is winning the small car sales race in the Golden State? And who is lagging behind?
Fiat 500 / Dodge Dart
The Fiat 500 rolled onto the scene in March 2011 selling a symbolic 500 units in its first month. Many thought the subcompact too small for the U.S. market, but it has done relatively well, celebrating its best month ever last month with 4,176 sold. However, it's not all rainbows and roses for the subcompact, as along with the highest sales month ever, it also had its highest ever incentives spend at $1,675 per vehicle.
From the start, the 500's quirky styling commanded attention, but the car really stepped into the spotlight in February 2012 when its racy ad featuring model Catrinel Menghia ran during the Super Bowl. The result? People were interested in learning more.
Of the domestic small cars, this one has done the best conquering the California's retail market. Year to date, 23% of the 500's retail sales have been in the state, besting last year's 19.4% number. Contrast that with parent company Chrysler LLC, whose sales made up 5.8% of California's retail market in 2012. That may sound low, but it's actually a single percentage point increase over its 2011 performance.
With its Italian name badge, it is hard to know the 500 has ties with a domestic company, so one can argue that has affected its performance. The trade-ins for this vehicle are also import-heavy, with only two domestic vehicles landing in the top 20 for sales transacting in California. Consider that great news for the 500, as import owners are obviously who it needs to conquest to grow sales in the state.
Chrysler's other small car, the Dodge Dart has also been doing well. Since it just went on sale, we have a limited sample but it looks as if the car is doing about 7.5% of its retail in California, which is a healthy increase from its predecessor, the Dodge Caliber.
Ford Motor Company
Fiesta / Focus
Among the domestic players, Ford is the strongest in the state and is the only one to be in the Top 5 in terms of retail sales. That said, that's not good enough for the automaker, as Ford has perhaps been the most vocal about targeting California for its new vehicles - both small and large.
The Ford Fiesta hit the market in 2010 with a big social media campaign. I admit, I didn't even have a Twitter account in 2010 so it all seemed new and fresh to me. It definitely was a vehicle set out to change the face of the traditional Ford buyer. It launched with a rainbow of colors that looked more like a Skittles bag than a traditional auto color palette. Whatever Ford did, it worked, as Fiesta sales have been strong in California. The state has made up 14.4% of Fiesta's retail volume in 2012 thus far.
Fiesta's big brother, the Focus also has an improvement of sales in California, but to a lesser degree.
Chevrolet has been on the small car warpath, introducing three new models in the span of two years. In terms of total sales, Cruze has seen the most success, selling 436K units in the 25 months it's been on sale in the U.S. Compared to domestic rivals Dart and Focus, the Cruze sells a lower percentage in California but has shown a drastic improvement over its predecessor, the Chevy Cobalt.
Its smaller compatriots, Sonic and Spark are newer and are seeing a higher percentage of sales transacting in California. The Spark has only been on sale since July so our sample is limited, but the Golden State has seen 14.6% of its retail market thus far. Not bad for a rookie. Only time will tell if Chevrolet can keep those numbers up, but it's a successful start. Chevy's other subcompact, the Sonic, is not seeing quite the success of its smaller sibling in the Golden State, selling only 6.4% to Californians.
So, if we were keeping score here, Fiat 500 is the winner of the domestic small car showdown in California. The new Chevy Spark takes silver (even though Mckayla Maroney is not impressed, and the Ford Fiesta rounds out the medal podium, taking third.
Not to throw one more thing out there, but I feel like I can't end this article without crowing the true "Most Improved" in California. That honor goes to South Korean automakers Hyundai and Kia. In 2008, they combined to make up 2.6% of the state sales. In 2012, they make up 9% thus far. I'm looking at more than small cars here, but it's hard to ignore a brand with a 238% growth rate!
Do you like numbers too? If so, check out our Industry Data Center
Jessica Caldwell is the Senior Director of Pricing & Industry Analysis for Edmunds.com. Follow @jessrcaldwell on Twitter.