It's been a bad year to be a car salesman. Four-dollar gas and a lousy economy have driven sales down 8 percent so far this year, with SUVs and pickup sales off far more. Overall, 2008 could end up being the worst year in the car biz in more than a decade. But a few models are thriving, mainly because they offer the higher gas mileage that buyers crave, with a bit of pizazz in the bargain. Some of the winners that are defying a down market:
Honda Civic. For the first time ever in May, the Civic was the bestselling car in the United States. The top seller is almost always a pickup truck—either the Ford F Series or the Chevy Silverado—but with pickup sales tanking, the Civic edged them out. Honda in general is on a roll, with sales up about 5 percent in 2008. That's on account of small and midsize hits like the Civic, Accord, and CR-V crossover—and a lack of big vehicles in the lineup to weigh down results.
Mini. Could any car be more fitting for the era of the $50 fill-up? This Eurodarter gets about 30 mpg, and a new stretched version—the Clubman—has a few inches of extra space that almost makes the Mini practical. Sales of the whole lineup have risen 36 percent so far this year, the best showing by any single brand. Toyota's Scion line of small, sporty, affordable cars is doing well too, with sales up 11 percent.
Toyota Yaris. Stylish little "B cars" like the Yaris, Nissan Versa, and Honda Fit started as overseas models, popular where consumers have less disposable income or gas is even more costly than in the United States. They migrated to the American market back when gas was approaching $3 per gallon—and Americans are sure glad they arrived: Yaris sales are up 50 percent this year. The Fit is up 64 percent, and the Versa 22 percent.
Mazda5. This quirky minivan-lite is a bit smaller than the typical van, and it carries only six, not the usual seven. But it also gets better mileage than most haulers—about 25 mpg, on average. The space-mileage trade-off is one buyers now seem quite willing to make. Sales are up 46 percent.
Ford Edge. This crossover isn't especially thrifty, with average mileage of about 20 mpg. But that's a few ticks better than the Explorer and other bigger SUVs that drivers are abandoning. The Edge represents a change in car buyers' mentality: Instead of splurging on space, buyers these days are getting only the amount of car they need. That's one reason Edge sales are up 27 percent this year. The Honda CR-V and Ford Escape are other midsize SUVs cashing in on the New Modesty.
Toyota Prius. You'd think sales of this popular, groundbreaking hybrid—city mileage: 48 mpg—would be up by triple digits. Except a shortage of battery components and other production issues are limiting supply. So sales are up just 4 percent so far this year. But dealers can barely keep the Prius in stock, and other models with a hybrid version—such as the Civic, Nissan Altima, Saturn Aura, and Chevy Malibu—are also doing well. And more hybrids are on the way, which means buyers sitting on the sidelines might get an even better deal down the road.