Why are Green Cars Losing Their Mojo in California?

If you were to ask me, "What is the quintessential California car?" I would say the Toyota Prius. They are popular among among the environmentally conscious Hollywood set, in addition to your average buyer. However, yesterday the LA Times reported that the Prius's two year sales dominance has now been overtaken by the Honda Accord. Not only did the Prius take a hit, but Tesla sales are down 36%. Does that mean California car-buyers not as environmentally conscious as they used to be? Why are these green cars losing market share? Here are a few theories-

"Cheap gas," better motors, more space-

The average cost for a gallon of regular in the Golden State is about $4. This isn't cheap, but it also isn't so expensive that it is severely impacting purchasing decisions. More importantly, gas motors have gotten really efficient. When the Prius first came out, its ability to get 50mpg was vastly superior to most of the gas motors in similarly sized vehicles. Now compacts like the Mazda3 SkyActiv and Toyota Corolla are capable of 40mpg or more on the highway. The Honda Accord can manage 38 mpg, and seat 5 comfortably. Despite the introduction of the more practical Prius V, the hybrid still isn't as spacious as many of the mid-size sedans.

Other choices-

Maybe green cars are still popular, but sales are spread out. There was a time when if you wanted a hybrid the default choice was the Prius. Honda did strike first with the Insight but few noticed, and that model is now discontinued. Now if buyers want a gas-electric combo vehicle, there is a huge variety to choose from. Practically everything from BMW luxury sedans, to Nissan mid-size crossovers offer some type of hybrid variant. Ford has even fielded a legit Prius figther with the C-max. Also a factor is the increase in popularity of diesel vehicles from VW and Audi.

Not cool anymore-

The Prius used to be a car that made a statement. Now I don't mean to paint with broad strokes, but in certain areas California people seem to be very conscious about the image they are projecting. Now that Toyota's hybrid is ubiquitous among the many cars on California roads, they are no longer noticed. Hence they no longer project the image they once did. Also, if you look at "hipster logic," what is popular is not cool, the Prius is popular, therefore not cool. Tesla is still cool, but too expensive for hipsters.

Turnover (in regards to Tesla)-

The lease market is huge in California, wealthy car-owners want to use the tax loophole to write-off their lease payments. While Tesla has started a Model S lease program for small business owners, they are still missing out on the millions of luxury lessees who are flipping S-classes every 3 years. The situation with Tesla is that the California buyers who wanted them, already bought them. They are still finding buyers, but not to the same extent as before. Perhaps some folks are holding out for the Model X, West Coasters love crossovers.

Not as "green" as many thought-

This last one is a stretch, but when the Prius first hit the marketplace many car-buyers saw it as "the car that will save the world." O.k. not quite, but Toyota's marketing was very good and millions of people purchased the hybrid thinking that they were "doing something" for the environment. Now more folks are aware that the manufacturing of hybrid vehicles is not that much better for the environment than their gas powered counterparts. With some folks looking into alternatives to car-ownership, I suspect that a very small percentage no longer see the Prius (and Telsa) as a solution, but rather part of the problem.

What do you think? Could it be that people don't want a soulless appliance anymore?

(photo credit CarGurus.com)

@AutomatchTom is a professional car buying consultant, lover of all things automotive and a bit wagon obsessed. You can find more ramblings and plenty of carporn here.