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Drive by Numbers - LA (un)Confidential

Edmunds' Senior Analyst discusses the numbers behind Los Angeles' biggest auto related stereotypes

 Jessica Caldwell, Senior Analyst I love LA. I was foolish enough to move away twice but I'd never do it again. My English husband threatens me with a move every time we visit his motherland, but in the end we both know his threats are empty. For people who like warm weather, seaside England is no match for seaside Los Angeles - especially come January.

LA is polarizing though. For every person like me who loves it, there's another person who hates the place. It's a city plagued (and perhaps occasionally enhanced) by misconceptions and stereotypes. I'm sure you've heard a few. In fact, California misconceptions are the main theme of our own tourism commercial. And while I'm not interested in promoting tourism (traffic is a problem here, in case you haven't heard), I am curious if some of the auto-related stereotypes are true.

Stereotype #1: Everyone drives a Prius

Driving in certain LA neighborhoods, you'd think this is true. But, it's not. Sort of. In any event, there is no denying that Toyota Prius does do well for itself. It is the fourth most registered vehicle for retail buyers in 2012 behind iconic nameplates Civic, Camry, and Accord. Looking at total vehicles on LA roads, it ranks #20 — not bad for a vehicle that's only been around since the millennium. And the Prius' market share in LA is 113% higher than the nation at large.

There is certain amount confusion here as 'Prius' is the accepted term for any sort of environmentally friendly vehicle. It's like Xerox or Kleenex. Honda's hybrid, the Insight, doesn't make the splash the Prius does in terms of total sales and influence on pop culture, but its LA market share is still over 90% higher than its national average.

LA (un)Confidential

Stereotype #2: Everyone that doesn't drive a hybrid drives a luxury vehicle

The luxury car is popular here. No one can deny that. The 405 Freeway at rush hour looks like a high end car dealership. But, just how popular was quite a shock. Looking at 2011 data, Mercedes Benz is the fifth most purchased brand here in LA outpacing Chevrolet when you look at retail registrations. It's no surprise; the C-Class does well here (as noted in our Top 20 list above). The 'entry luxury car' is the third most popular segment in LA while it places seventh in the nation after more sensible segments like midsize crossovers and subcompacts.

In every luxury segment, LA outpaces the nation in terms of market share significantly.

LA (un)Confidential

But, it's not all champagne wishes and caviar dreams here - our biggest segment in LA is 'compact car.' Not only is it big here, but we outpace the nation by 35% in terms of total registrations. So, while luxury skews high, it's not everything. Luckily, some people are sensible.

Stereotype #3: People buy more car than they can afford

Mercedes "MJ" Javid from Bravo TV's Shahs of Sunset summed up LA well when she said "...I might spend more money on my handbag than I do on my rent because more people are going to see my purse than they will my crib." Cars can be interchanged with bags in this particular example, since the sentiment is the same. If you look at the lease rate in Los Angeles, it is significantly higher than the rest of the country. While the national lease penetration is typically in the neighborhood of 20% of all new purchases, Los Angeles leases at a rate of about 31%. If you drill down further and look at specific brands like Mercedes-Benz, the lease rate is significantly higher than that. YTD, 74% of Mercedes Benz registered in LA are leased - that's nearly 3 out of every 4 Mercs on our congested roads. The car with the highest leasing rate? The BMW 6-Series. 90% of people who drove one off the lot this year leased. Its stable mate, the 7-Series is right on its heels. I will say that not every leasee falls in this category of "overspender" as there are a lot of great lease deals out there. In fact, I'm thinking of one myself, but it would most likely be a vehicle I could afford to purchase as well.

Here are the brands with the highest lease rates in LA:

LA (un)Confidential

Stereotype #4: Truck and large SUV drivers are shunned

I know for sure that HUMMER drivers definitely get dirty looks, but mostly because they take up too much space in a city where there are too many cars. But visitors from other parts of the country would probably pick up pretty fast that you don't see trucks in Los Angeles at the same rate as other parts of the county. YTD, large truck (Ford F-150, Chevy Silverado, etc.) retail market share is 11.3% nationwide, but in Los Angeles, it's a paltry 4.4%. F-Series has historically been the nation's bestselling vehicle, but it's pretty low down the totem pole in the LA sales hierarchy. However, if you go down a size and look at compact trucks, they do better in LA than the rest of the nation. This can singlehandedly be attributed to the popularity of the Toyota Tacoma which is the 9th most popular vehicle in operation in LA.

LA (un)Confidential

Before running the numbers for this column, I had a glimmer of hope that the data would portray Los Angelenos to be more sensible than our stereotypes suggest. I hoped to feel some civic pride. After all, I grew up here and none of my classmates became an actor, director, or model. Most of my childhood friends have sensible jobs titles like "teacher," "brand manager," or "attorney." I thought that the stereotypes represented small pockets of the community, but not necessarily the city at large. I guess I'm wrong. I usually love numbers, but today, I'm sort of mad at them.

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Jessica Caldwell is the Senior Director of Pricing & Industry Analysis for Follow @jessrcaldwell on Twitter.