Toyota Takes Over the World…But is it a Good Thing?

by Benjamin Jones on January 26, 2009

2008 Toyota Highlander

Just recently Toyota took over as the top seller of vehicles in the world. The company, which has been around for about as long as GM had been the #1 car seller in the world, finally edged out GM by selling 8.972 million vehicles compared to GM’s puny 8.356. This handover was predicted last year and solidified by a sales drop of 10.8% at GM, so no one is surprised, but a lot of people are happy.

But why are they happy? I’m sure there are lots of reasons, including Toyota’s quality, hip-factor, and the Prius effect. There’s no questioning that Toyota led the push for hybrid cars around the world with the Prius, but let’s be real, that cars makes up a very small percentage of total sales, and it’s likely Toyota sells at least one of the above Highlander tanks for every Prius that rolls off the lot.

To illustrate the gap between the perception of Toyota as a fuel efficient automaker (at least in the US) and the truth, let’s take a look at CNN’s list of the top 10 manufacturers by fuel economy:

1. MINI — 27.66 average mpg, 12 cars
2. Honda — 23.81 average mpg, 27 cars
3. Chevrolet — 23.36 average mpg, 88 cars
4. Lotus — 22.33 average mpg, 3 cars
5. VW — 22.21 average mpg, 28 cars
6. Pontiac — 22.20 average mpg, 24 cars
7. Saturn — 22.14 average mpg, 21 cars
8. Kia — 21.80 average mpg, 20 cars
9. Suzuki — 21.77 average mpg, 18 cars
10. Toyota — 21.60 average mpg, 55 cars

Notice anything surprising? Not only is Toyota #10, but it’s beaten handily by Chevrolet. This is rather surprising, and you’ve got to wonder how GM slipped so much during the gas crisis if it was actually beating Toyota in terms of fuel economy.

However, this paints an incomplete portrait. Because GM’s vehicles are split up over so many brands, it can be a little deceptive to see Chevrolet so close to the top of the fuel economy list. The truth of the matter is that the Chevy brand has most of the automaker’s small, fuel efficient cars, while two other brands, GMC and Hummer, sit on CNN’s top 10 list for worst fuel economy by make.

So, should we be happy? Sure. Toyota makes a good product and the market forces at play are promoting it. But let’s not forget that the Americans are not the only one peddling bloated SUVs to hockey moms and people trying to hunt moose with their front bumper. What we really need are less cars and some automakers over 30 mpg average.

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1 John Gartner January 26, 2009 at 8:29 am

I agree that the CNN list is flawed because of the way it separates out GM’s brands to the benefit of Chevrolet. Also, the data averages the MPG across all models, but does not reflect the number of each type of vehicle sold, which would be a much more accurate reflection of fleet-wide efficiency.
One correction: Toyota does sell more cars than trucks (68,000 to 46,000, per November sales data). If you focus on its “best” and “worst” vehicles, the split is even more dramatic: 15,379 very fuel efficient cars (Yaris, plus the Prius and Camry hybrids) versus just 8,853 of the gas guzzlers (Sequoia and non-hybrid Highlanders). Toyota isn’t all green for sure, so it is right to point out how they profit from the large SUVs.

2 Benjamin Jones January 26, 2009 at 12:42 pm

Hey John –

That’s a good point, I checked the numbers and they do sell more cars. Still, they’re no Honda, 🙂

3 Nick Richards January 27, 2009 at 1:04 pm

John –

No, their list is not flawed. It is a list by brand, not by manufacturer. If it were by OEM, then MINI would be under BMW; Acura under Honda; Lexus and Scion under Toyota; etc.

Additionally, you only cite two of Toyota’s truck models in your monthly sales figures. You’re forgetting the FJ Cruiser, Land Cruiser, Tundra and Tacoma, which get worse fuel economy than the Highlander.

4 RH77 January 27, 2009 at 2:01 pm

Are these highway figures only, or combined? Chevy’s highway MPG numbers seem to be a bit inflated vs. some personal tests.

Still, I will have to agree that Honda has it figured out (or at least more than most).

5 Andrew Rickart January 29, 2009 at 8:34 am

We don’t need fewer cars or trucks. We need electric cars and trucks powered by electric chargers at night with Nuclear plants producing the electricity and the waste stored at Yucca Mountain safely for 1 million years. This is all obvious and doable stuff but only if we start thinking clearly out of our washed brains.

6 Tango Charlie January 29, 2009 at 9:04 am

Hockey mom? What’s a hockey mom? 🙂

7 Benjamin Jones January 29, 2009 at 9:08 am

Hey Andrew –

While I appreciate your sentiment, I think if you’ve been to LA you might agree that fewer cars and more public transportation could do this country a world of good. Even if we have cleaner cars they still require massive infrastructure and create lots of traffic problems.

8 Doug January 29, 2009 at 9:55 am


Enjoyed the article. One thing I have noticed is that fleet mileage stats can be twisted in many ways. I work for a company called Greenopia who published its own green auto guide this year and our results are very different than what this article suggests. Granted, we look at more than just mileage (although it is very important), but companies like Lotus do not deserve to be called efficient. They only make a few cars and none of them are capable of getting even 30 mpg (not to mention poor emissions). While I certainly concede that companies like Toyota and Chevy make trucks, SUVs, and vans, at the end of the day they have some of the greenest vehicles available. Also Toyota and Honda publish some of the best sustainability reports and are very transparent where companies like Lotus don’t publish anything. I think it’s great to alert people to inconsistencies with mileage, but at the end of the day statistics like this can be a little misleading.

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9 GOZR January 29, 2009 at 9:59 am

Well that it ‘s sad that the news doesn’t even included french or Italian cars which are much more fuel efficient than this Mini , look at for example Citroen, Renault and Peugeot etc…

It seems that this review is to boost only some car for sale inside the US sadly they are blinded.

10 Debra February 7, 2009 at 2:08 pm

Toyota may not be the best at being fuel efficient, then again, none of these companies are the best at it either!! Toyota is the best, however, in overall efficency! They have way less problems, recalls, breakdown, etc., then most of these other idiot companies! I think so anyway! That’s why the have the most sales, because they have they are of the best quality! I would rather have a little bit of a less fuel efficient car or truck, then have a car or truck that is being recalled, braking down, anything like that, I have to buy fuel, all the time, no matter what, electric cars, don’t do anything for me! I don’t see them helping out the Earth at all, anyway! All of that charging, oh, electricity and all of the stuff that comes along with it, that doesn’t effect global warming, at all, right?! Uh, no! Like I was saying, I have to buy fuel anyway, so I would rather be more concerned with, interested, grateful and happy when nothing goes wrong, EVER(w/ my Toyota!), when I don’t have anything to worry about happening or going wrong with my vehicle, ever!! That is the way it is supposed to be, they way Toyota is! Now, keep in mind, everyone that is going to read this post of mine, I am, as you can tell by my name, a girl. So, I really do not understand all of this car stuff, auto maker stuff, fuel efficiency, the technical stuff, I’m not into! I don’t pay too much attention to the deep stuff, I just know the basic facts, the stuff that I see first hand, that’s the only stuff I can have an opinion on anyway! So, in my woman, non-car/truck enthusiast, I believe, and love, that Toyota has not ever given me or anyone that I know that has one, any problems, whatsoever!! To me, that is what counts, after all, isn’t that the biggest, maybe the only reason why we buy whichever make that we do, quality! Well, TOYOTA = QUALITY!!!

11 hugh owens April 9, 2009 at 7:18 am

Toyota’s trucks and suvs are no winners on economy but they are sound quality vehicles. The big chevys get good economy but the terrible poor quality pistonslap engines negate any economy. Our first toyota, a “97 camry easily gets 35 mpg and the build quality is first rate. What people seem to miss on this site is the automobile culture in the US is coming to a close. Oil and asphalt highways will be a memory this century and it’s time to think about transportation using systems thinking. Electric powered trains and some cars will be the future.

12 theunchosen June 8, 2009 at 5:28 pm

Honda FTW.

-in a chazzmichaelsmichaels voice- Honda boom!

Honda’s are more reliable than Toyota’s in my experience(2 corrollas one manual one auto vs 2 Honda Del Sols(manual) 1 Honda civic(auto)). The Corrolla auto is having trans problems at 130K miles(doesn’t shift properly jerky), the steering assembly has problems(both) and they both wear tires in patterns that makes the steering additionally jerky. Neither Del Sol has any problems, both have more than 200K miles have owned both for a combined mileage of 120K miles, civic has 145K miles no issues whatsoever. None have had any replacements other than fluids. Corrolla is going to have to have a new trans and the manual is going to have to have a new clutch.

Also. . .Honda brought us the Insight with EPA highway of 70 mpg. . . Also one of the first mass market hybrids to speak of. Also Honda was the only manufcaturer for a long time that mass produced a lean burn car.

Final arguement if we include other brands by the same manufacturer Honda’s counterpart(Acura) is about on par with scion for FE, but lexus is likely to stall Toyota up some more.

Honda has more than less joined other manufacturers lately, but for old time’s sake Honda parts were virtually completely interchangeable with other models and years and even some cross-pollination with Acura. Toyota. . .not so much.

13 dadi February 16, 2011 at 6:01 am

it’s the best… I like that

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