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More people snagged new cars in 2023

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Just a couple of years ago, early in the pandemic, it was hard to find a new car to buy. Dealer lots were just empty. But now cars are back on lots, and they are selling. According to new numbers out this week, a lot more people drove new cars home last year. NPR's Camila Domonoske joins us to talk about the year in auto sales. And, Camila, I've been watching the new car market, and it has just been straight-up weird for several years now. What is it like right now?

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: It's a lot less weird than it was. I mean, prices - they were skyrocketing. They've finally leveled off. Like you mentioned at the top, dealer lots - there are vehicles there now. You can take something for a test drive, and you no longer have to pay thousands of dollars over sticker price to take a vehicle home. There are discounts and incentives again. You can actually pay less than the sticker. There is still some bad news on the budget front. I mean, cheap cars remain really hard to find. Companies are just making fewer smaller, no-frills vehicles to focus on more profitable models instead. So that's rough. And interest rates are pretty high, which is a challenge. But despite all that, people are snapping up new cars.

SUMMERS: OK, give us some numbers. How many cars are we talking here?

DOMONOSKE: About 15.5 million last year here in the U.S. That is still smaller than it was before the pandemic, but it's bigger than any year since COVID began. And, you know, that's despite a very significant strike by the UAW last year and despite the fact that Americans are actually driving fewer miles than we did pre-pandemic, according to federal data.

SUMMERS: OK, so what kinds of new cars are people buying?

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. SUVs remain wildly popular. Looking at the numbers that we got this week about 2023 sales, people are buying a lot of Korean cars. Hyundai and Kia just set records. They both had their best year ever. Those vehicles from those sister companies, especially their SUVs - they've been really well-reviewed. They're very popular. A lot of brands interestingly reported really strong sales of hybrids - so particularly fuel-efficient vehicles. The Prius is the classic example. But now we're seeing a lot of bigger vehicles, SUVs and pickup trucks that are hybrids, and they're selling like hotcakes.

SUMMERS: OK, I've had my eye on an electric vehicle. How about those?

DOMONOSKE: Oh, let's talk about it, Juana. So overall, EV sales are up. They are - we - the country sold more than a million electric vehicles last year, which was a big milestone. There are a ton of incentives to promote them. It's an important part of the fight against climate change, as you know. EV prices are dropping, so that's lucky news for you, Juana. And Tesla just had another record quarter, so that's all in the EV-sales-are-booming bucket. At the same time, while sales are growing, they haven't been growing as quickly as a lot of people had expected. And over those same three months that Tesla set a record, Tesla was not the world's top EV maker.

SUMMERS: So wait. Who was?

DOMONOSKE: BYD.

SUMMERS: I'm sorry. Who?

DOMONOSKE: The Chinese automaker BYD, Build Your Dreams. Their vehicles aren't available here in the U.S., thanks in part to a really big tariff, but it's a reminder that this is a global market. The EV transition is happening globally, and it's happening at different speeds, so far a lot faster in China and Europe than here in the U.S.

SUMMERS: NPR's Camila Domonoske. Thank you.

DOMONOSKE: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF L.A.B. SONG, "TAKE IT AWAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.